I read a really interesting paper today by Abraham Graber entitled, "Creating Truths By Winning Arguments: The Problem of Methodological Artifacts in Philosophy" (forthcoming in Synthese). The paper sort of crystalizes a worry that I've had about philosophical practice dating back at least to graduate school, and which I explored previously here and here: namely, that a whole lot of philosophy--just about anything having to do with conceptual analysis (including analytic metaphysics and meta-ethics)--is little more than philosophers (1) taking themselves to discovering objective philosophical facts (i.e. what material objects are, what morality is, etc.), where what they're really doing is (2) making more-or-less arbitrary semantic decisions to settle the semantics of fundamentally vague concepts that (3) objectively have no determinate satisfaction-conditions before those arbitrary semantic decisions are made.
There's another, simpler way to put this worry: namely, that philosophers engaged in conceptual analysis, far from discovering philosophical facts, are making them up arbitrarily out of whole cloth--in which case a lot of what appears to be "philosophical progress" or "good arguments" at any given point in time are more-or-less-arbitrary semantic decisions that have "won out" rhetorically in the literature and seminar room. This is more or less the worry Graber is pushing as well. So let me briefly explain why I've had the worry for so long, and then briefly comment on Graber's paper.
When I was in graduate school, I found that I often didn't share the intuitions I was "supposed" to. When doing philosophy of language, metaphysics, and mind, I found I didn't share Kripke's Godel/Schmidt intuitions, I didn't share Putnam's Water/XYZ intuitions, I didn't share Davidon's Swampman intuitions, and indeed, I didn't share any externalist intuitions about pretty much anything. But there I was, encountering a veritable tsunami of externalists trumpeting the arguments! But of course not everyone was an externalist. There were still some internalists like me. We just seemed to be getting crowded out by those with externalist intuitions.
And so I worried:was what was going on a kind of band-wagon, Hawthorne effect where once some influential people (Kripke, Putnam, Davidson, etc.) affirm an intuition, other people simply tend to follow suit--in which case it's not actual arguments that are winning the day so much as a sociological phenomenon of certain intuitions becoming popular (in turn rather arbitrarily redefining what counts as a "good argument" in that literature--namely, those that begin with the popular intuition!).;
I ended up taking my "messed up" intuitions home, as it were, leaving philosophy of language for other areas of philosophy where my intuitions weren't considered so "off": namely moral and political philosophy (my AOS now). And yet...the worry has crept up yet again! Indeed, Graber focuses on another case that has troubled me even more lately: the case of moral realism.
Anyone who does meta-ethics knows that there has been a moral realism tsunami, with realist after realist contending that, "only a realist account of moral semantics can account for the face value of moral language [see, for e.g., Shafer-Landau (2003) and Brink (1989)]." (Graber, p. 5) Except here's the problem: many people--people like me, any expressivist on the planet; my students, if my class discussions are any indication, etc.--just don't think the face value of moral language is anything like moral realists claim it to be. Most of my students, for instance, explicitly say that they think moral statements (e.g. "Murder is wrong") merely state matters of emotion, opinion, or otherwise mind-dependent phenomena (such as desires)--all of which flies in the face of moral realists' claims.
And so I have worried: how has moral realism achieved such a preeminent place in philosophical discussion? Is it the arguments that have done it, or is it more of a sociological phenomenon where the philosophers with realist intuitions have the upper-hand not in terms of arguments but rather mere number and prominence of people with their intuitions?
Now, of course, as I have expressed them, these are just worries--nothing more! However, in his paper, Graber argues that on any plausible theory of meaning (internalist, externalist, whatever), philosophical inquiry changes the meaning of words and concepts, altering their satisfaction-conditions so that (A) at one point in time, and for one set of speaker, one answer to philosophical questions (e.g. moral realism) is correct, whereas (B) at another point in time, and for other speaking, a different answer is correct (e.g. moral antirealism).
Graber's final point then is that if he is right, then philosophical projects that depend on "meaning analysis" (i.e. analytic metaphysics, meta-ethics, etc.) all have to lapse into incoherence. Why? Because, very roughly, if we take ourselves to be (1) discovering answers to philosophical questions, but (2) our inquiries change semantic meaning of contested terms, it follows that (3) we're not discovering answers to philosophical questions. We're making up "answers" on the fly...which is to say, we're not discovering answers at all--we're playing rhetorical philosophical games.
Anyway, I don't know if the worries are good ones, or if Graber is right. These are just some issues that have bounced around in the back of my head for a while--and, while I've never thought about them very carefully, Graber seems to have: and his analysis of them seems to me worth taking seriously. But what do I know? I'll be curious to hear what you all think.