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Marcus Arvan

The criticism strikes me as just bizarre. Shouldn't we follow the arguments where they lead? If I've defended a view for X number of years and someone comes up with a great argument against it that I can't refute, then I'm just being stubborn for holding onto my view. Or perhaps the criticism is something different? Is it that Putnam changes his mind too willingly? Even there I don't quite know what to say. I'm constantly going back and forth on all kinds of things, and I regard that to be a good thing. Anyway, for my part, I do think the attitude is pretty backward, though I really have no idea how to change it. We philosophers are a stubborn bunch. Perhaps the key is to just take the reigns as much as we can. If at the end of my career I have published a haphazard bunch of interesting papers that contradict one another, I will be pleased. Why? Because it will suggest to me that I wasn't just a stubborn son-of-gun looking to have his name attached to a particular theory, but rather someone who kept looking for the truth, no matter how many blind-alleys or backtracks it takes.

Tuomas Tahko

There are certain aspects in which changing ones mind can seem strange (and stranger in philosophy than in other disciplines): you might have argued that something is metaphysically, or even logically necessary. You may even think that this can be known a priori. If you then go on to change your mind about it, you might look like a fool.

Kant about Euclidean geometry comes to mind, although that's a rather more complicated story. Putnam himself has made some dubious moves regarding water and H20, when he asserted in 1990 that the possible variation of the laws of physics with regard to water ‘makes no sense’. Of course, he said that he never meant, in 1975, that this could happen, but it certainly looked like he did...

Kyle Whyte

Isn't it the case though, that a lot of us will advance certain arguments for the sake of seeing how far those arguments can be taken? I agree with the above points that if one is confronted with a complete and absolute knock down of one's position, it would be simply stubborn not to concede that. However, it appears that in the realm of the more typical arguments that get batted around in philosophy circles, that it is also acceptable to hold onto an argument for the sake of seeing where it might go. Moreover, when one does this, one can be transparent about one's doing this.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comments, everyone.


Could you please explain why it makes one look like a fool to admit that one was wrong?

As you put it, one has *argued* that p is metaphysically necessary. But it turns out that one’s argument is flawed. Why does that make one look like a fool?

Similarly, one *thought* that p can be known a priori. But it turns out that one thought wrong. Why does that make one look like a fool?

Surely, philosophers are human beings, after all, and they can make mistakes. Does making mistakes mean that one is a fool?


Phillippa Foot changed her mind on ethics several times. Sadly, the latest version is the weakest view, but I find it refreshing when people can admit what they view as flawed arguments they have made in the past.

Kyle Whyte

Regarding "looking like a fool." There have been job market and other situations where if one doesn't concede to a good criticism - then one looks like a fool.

Marcus Arvan

Tuomas: I'm not sure it makes the person look like a fool. By my lights, it looks far more foolish for someone to defend a doomed theory to the death. I won't name names, but I think there are some figures out there who've done just that, and their legacies have suffered as a result. But, even supposing it did make someone look like a fool to change their mind like Putnam? Doesn't intellectual integrity demand looking like a fool for the sake of truth?

Kyle: totally agree it can be good to keep pressing arguments as far as one can, but I also agree that one should be forthright about it, and be prepared to give up (or at least hedge) on one's position the more likely it looks like your arguments are on the losing side.

Moti Mizrahi


Your point about the job market is very interesting. I wonder why “changing one’s mind” is generally viewed as a vice in the professional context of conferences and publications (hence Putnam’s comment quoted above), whereas in the context of the job market, it can be viewed as a virtue? Any thoughts?

Kyle Whyte

My points are obviously entirely anecdotal and please share differing experiences. I've experienced some instances where someone on a hiring committee complimented a candidate for conceding when confronted with the right sort of point. So say a candidate is defending one's dissertation and getting tougher and tougher challenges from the committee members, then finally concedes that one of the comments is a pretty big critique of the dissertation. So the candidate has both demonstrated an ability to defend an argument but also a willingness to entertain "correct" counterpoints. I've always been convinced that the sole goal of a good job market run is to show the hiring committees that you will be a good "colleague." This means both that you're philosophically sharp but that you're also the sort of person who it would be great work with, in all facets, from the drudgery of some committee assignments to more high stakes questions about budget allocations, etc. So perhaps someone who concedes in an interview is reflecting, not just a philosophical trait, but a general trait of being a good colleague, that is, willing to concede when it is right to concede. Does anything I'm saying resonate with your experiences on the market? Or am I imagining things?

Kyle Whyte

Whereas, in a conference setting, "academic ego" seems to be more of an issue, and the idea of being a good colleague is not in the air. Take the example of what happens in some cases where it is good to be deliberately provocative. That strategy can be pulled off in conference settings, in some cases. But would anyone suggest trying to be deliberately provocative in a job interview?

Tuomas Tahko

My point about looking like a fool was not so much about changing one's mind as such, but about defending something that was wrong in the first place! That is, if you make a case that, say, you know a priori that something is metaphysically necessary, perhaps even 'self-evident', and it turns out that you must change your mind in the face of some devastating criticism, then it might be rather embarrassing to have made that case in the first place. There are mistakes, of course, but claiming to know something 'clearly and distinctly', for instance, does not seem to leave room for typical argumentative errors.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks, Kyle.

I agree that not being deliberately provocative and stubborn makes professional sense when one is interviewing for jobs.

I also think that not being deliberately provocative and stubborn makes philosophical (or, more precisely, epistemic) sense. This is so because (1) on average, provocative claims—as opposed to modest claims—tend to be incorrect more often than not; and (2) one usually has no reason to think that one is more likely to be right than one’s peers. By being stubborn in the face of mounting criticism, one seems to be assuming that one is somehow better equipped and/or better informed than one’s peers about the issue at hand. Both assumptions seem unwarranted to me.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the clarification, Tuomas.

It seems to me that your criterion for “looking like a fool” is too lax. If changing one’s mind about p, where p was thought to be a self-evident proposition, makes one looks like a fool, then it seems that we would have to say that almost every philosopher has looked like a fool at one point or another throughout his/her career.

I don’t want to be provocative, as Kyle advised, so I won’t give contemporary examples. But think of early modern philosophers of a rationalist persuasion; almost all of them appealed to the “self-evident” proposition that existence is a perfection, which they then used in their ontological arguments for God’s existence (Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, of course, are prominent examples). Do we want to say that Kant showed that they were fools for thinking that ‘existence is a perfection’ is self-evident? Or do we want to say that Kant showed that they were just wrong about that?

David Morrow

I think Tuomas is right about why people cluck their tongues about philosophers who change their mind: If you changed your mind, then you were wrong (or are now wrong -- or both!). And a published mistake is to philosophers what blood in the water is to sharks.

But I agree with your general sentiment, Moti. It's a mistake to criticize people for changing their mind.

When I teach 100-level classes, and especially critical thinking courses, I raise a similar issue with my students. Being proven wrong can feel like a personal attack. Growing up, intellectually, means learning to get over that feeling and appreciate what someone else does for you when they prove you wrong: They've stopped you from saying something false in the future. It's like having someone point out a piece of food that's stuck in your teeth. Sure, it's embarrassing at the time, but isn't it better for one person to see it and say so then for *everyone* to see it?

With that in mind, let me float two speculative reasons that you won't see Dawkins' tale reenacted at a philosophy conference:

1. In general, philosophers are emotional cretins. It's *hard* to get over the feeling of being personally attacked, and we're not very good at it. So we raise our hackles and fight back rather than admit that we've learned something new.

2. Unlike scientists, who can more easily think of themselves as devoted to *discovering the correct answer to some question,* I think we philosophers tend to see ourselves as devoted to *defending a particular answer* to some question. In our case, the question is often vague or ill-formed. It's hard to see ourselves as engaged in a communal search for the truth about X when see myself as chiefly engaged in defending view Y and you see yourself as chiefly engaged in defending view Y*.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the insightful comments, David.

I love the foot-stuck-in-your-teeth analogy. That’s why I never eat before I give a talk :)

I am not sure about (1). As far as (2) is concerned, however, I think you may be on to something. As philosophy students, we are taught to defend views. And our philosophical language is rich in army-like imagery: defending a position, attacking a position, marshaling objections, etc., which doesn't seem conducive to promoting a sense of cooperative enterprise.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: by the way, congrats on once again getting such a great conversation going on this blog. You're sort of the rock star around here when it comes to attracting good discussion! ;)

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks, Marcus.

And thank you for spinning the cocoon. Glad to be in it.

BTW, I'm curious to know what you think of David's (1) and (2) above.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: I suspect Dawkins' story hardly occurs more often in other fields than in philosophy. A quick perusal of the history of physics, for example, shows person after person going to their grave defending ideas that were clearly past their time. Einstein, for example, went into the night forever believing quantum mechanics couldn't possibly be right. I suspect it had more to do with the human condition than something specific to philosophers. There will always be exceptions -- those who, like Dawkins' example, are able to set aside their egos and reputations in favor of the truth. I will only say that I think we should try to promote the practice, and that I hope in my own case to admit when I'm wrong. :)

Kyle Whyte

All interesting comments.

Tuomas Tahko

I should say that despite my comments, I'm also in general agreement with Moti. But one more thing: the early moderns which Moti mentioned. The way I was thought about Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and others was by learning to identify their mistakes. There are some notorious examples regarding Descartes in particular. I dare say that the early moderns were made to look like fools, *regarding certain arguments*, when I first learned about them. That's not necessarily to say that they were bad philosophers, just that they made some obvious mistakes (as all of us do, no doubt).

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