Our books

Become a Fan

« Should we discourage undergraduates from going into philosophy? | Main | February issue of The Reasoner is out »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: I have to confess that I have no idea what Hacker is on about when he claims that philosophical questions are (1) "conceptual" but (2) "not questions about concepts", and (3) are "to be answered, resolved, or dissolved by careful scrutiny of...concepts."

Claims (1) and (3) seem to me to entail that (2) is false.

Conversely, claim (2) seems to me to entail that (1) and (3) are false.

If philosophical questions are conceptual, and are to be settled by analyzing concepts, then sorry...philosophical questions are questions about concepts.

Am I missing something?

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comment, Marcus. Like you, I have no idea how one can assert (1), (2), and (3) with consistency. Unless by (2) Hacker means something that I cannot discern. Can anyone shed any light on this?

Perhaps what he says right after "[philosophical questions] are not questions about concepts," namely, "philosophy is not a science of concepts," is a clue.

Dan Dennis

Here is my understanding:
Hacker glosses ‘They are not questions about concepts’ with ‘philosophy is not a science of concepts’. I think he means something like philosophy is not concerned with defining looking at concepts from the outside, perhaps giving a scientific type description of what sort of thing a concept is. Rather, being a Wittgensteinian, he is interested in concept *use*. He says ‘The only way to scrutinize concepts is to examine the use of the words that express them’.

Some ways of using and combining words/concepts make sense and others do not. Philosophy (being therapeutic) is concerned with exposing uses which don’t make sense and exhibiting uses which do make sense. He says ‘Philosophy patrols the borders between sense and nonsense’

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comment, Dan.

That's what I suspected Hacker means by conceptual investigation, which is why I raise question 4 in the post. For, if philosophical investigation is examination of concept use through word use, then how can philosophical investigation ever show that a concept is nonsense? If people are already using a concept and the word that expresses it, doesn't that mean that it makes (at least some) sense to them? If it does, then it's not nonsense, right?

Marcus Arvan

Dan: Just to push (what I take to be) Moti's point a bit further, I am among those -- and I think there are increasing number of us -- who think that philosophy's traditional concern with manipulating concepts from the *inside* is precisely what gets us in so much trouble (where by trouble I mean, roughly: interminable debates, entrenched positions, absence of discernible progress, etc.).

For let's think about how we *use* concepts (and how Wittengenstein thought about meaning as use). As Wittgenstein pointed out, we seem to *use* concepts in a family-resemblance manner. But family resemblances have no "essence." If the way we use concepts like "justice" and "morality" involve nothing more than family resemblances, then there *is* no essence to justice or morality. They are simply different resemblances.

And isn't this the source of (many of) the problems we face? Philosophers are trying to figure out what justice *is*; what causation *is*; etc. -- but we end up in interminable debates. Why? Because, after all of our concept-manipulating, some of us find certain elements of family resemblance attractive (e.g. "justice is getting what one deserves!") whereas others of us find other resemblances attractive (e.g. "justice is equality before the law").

If the history and contemporary practice of philosophy are any indication, debate about these concepts -- about the family resemblances -- never really resolves itself. And again, for obvious reasons: there is nothing beyond the resemblances, and so people arbitrarily focus on the elements of the resemblances they personally find attractive or "intuitive". And we keep going in circles!

For what it's worth, I think David Chalmers has an important new paper on this, "Verbal Disputes" (in Phil Review). I think Chalmers is really onto something. Very roughly, he means to say that many "debates" in philosophy really are nothing more than verbal disputes about concepts. What he then argues is that to move beyond such disputes, we need to adopt a new philosophical method: one that does precisely what Hacker is denying -- namely, evaluating the usefulness/fruitfulness of concepts from the *outside*. An example: causation. Suggestion: stop arguing about what a "cause" is. Instead, ask *which* functional definition of a cause is (A) relevant to physical science, (B) ordinary people in daily life, etc. On further inspection, it may turn out that *one* construal of the concept is useful in one domain, another useful in another domain, and still other construals not useful at all -- in which case we should stop talking about that (useless) construal of the concept.

I hope I'm not getting Chalmers wrong on any of this (as I've only read the paper once and am saying all of this from memory) -- but, in any case, the proposal seems to me absolutely the right way to go about reforming philosophy. It would move us beyond fruitless discussions of our "intuitions" about concepts (which often cannot be resolved) and potentially make philosophy more relevant (to scientists -- who certainly want to understand causation in their domain; to ordinary people -- who certainly want to know what a "cause" is in ordinary life; etc.).

Dan Dennis

Moti, I wonder whether Hacker would say that it is not about concepts in isolation, but how they combine – so some combinations fit together (ie make sense) and others do not. Someone may at first think something makes sense but (through therapy) come to see that it does not make sense. There is a good example of this on the Leiter discussion where John Dupre and ‘Anon ExAdjunct’ expose how ‘my brain thinks’ and ‘my legs kick’ despite appearing to many at first sight to make sense, in fact do not. How that works, what is going on there (Ie the meta-analysis of it) I don’t know.

I agree that there are certainly limits to this approach. As Marcus says, it does not seem to get far with questions of Morality and Justice. Whilst it may help protect against certain sorts of errors, it is difficult to see how it can enable us to make progress, to come up with a new and improved understanding of morality, justice etc. I’ll add the Chalmers paper to my list of things to read….

I have not read Wittgensteinian stuff for a long time, but I should just give a plug to Peter Winch whose two main books, ‘Essays on Ethics and Action’ and ‘Trying to make sense’ I found very interesting and definitely worth reading.


From what I read about what Hacker thinks philosophy is the only thing that seems reasonable to agree with him on is that philosophy is about nonsense. At least, the way Hacker describes and uses "philosophy".

If you see philosophy as a priory reasoning then of course you end up in a soup of nonsense. E.g. "The free will exists as long as you can't disprove it to exist", or "God exists as long as you can't disprove Gods existence". This kind of reasoning is no philosophy.

Science is the empirical branch of philosophy. Science is the thinking and reasoning, based on what is known already, and then an experiment is constructed to see whether that way of thinking could be right or wrong.

Pure mental philosophy is about things that can't be tested by experiment(and the outcome or conclusion must not contradict observation), but it still must be based on some kind of observation without a priory assuming something to be a particular way, because then you enter the realm of fantasy where any idea can be assumed to be true and can therefor be used as a sound premises to develop your ideas on. An example of that is theology.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Job ads crowdsourcing thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory