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03/27/2013

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Kate Manne

Good question, but I can't help but feel that even "truth" and "understanding" are rather individualistic goals. I think the thought that we are getting to be privy to, and participate in, a good conversation, can provide some additional solace. And that view of things also makes it possible to conceive of oneself as playing very different roles in that conversation over time (and at different stages in one's career).

AE-CP

I went to grad school in philosophy because I thought philosophy was both fun and meaningful. I still think so. If it stopped being those things, I would stop doing it. Both the fun and the meaningfulness of it, for me, come about 98% from teaching. I also have fun doing research, and I think my research is marginally meaningful. But compared to teaching, I care about it comparatively little. I feel bad for colleagues in philosophy who care so much about their research. I know it's not their fault, but I always think things must be dreadfully tough for them.

AE-CP

Sorry, you know, I should have said something more uplifting. I share your experience of finding the more time I spend doing philosophy, the more things puzzle me. But I say embrace it! I'm always surprised when I encounter a philosopher who has "a view" on every single topic. I think some kind of Socratic aporia is a more appropriate conclusion if you're really doing philosophy in a charitable way. And I think that's OK! This ties in with my previous comment on teaching. I like teaching not because I'm dropping knowledge on students, but because I'm helping them ask tough questions and challenge their unexamined assumptions. If that ultimately just leaves them with more questions, cool: it ultimately leaves me with more questions too! And that in itself is a kind of understanding: the understanding that things might not be as settled as you thought.

Keep fighting the good fight, Marcus!

Marcus Arvan

AE-CP: I don't think you should feel bad for those of us who care so much about research (at least not all of us!). My wife would tell you that I rarely "come alive" like I do when I'm excited about a new idea/paper I'm working on. I find it exhilarating a lot of the time. The issue is that I also find it drives me half-mad. In this respect, I suppose it's a bit like a marriage or having children. I wouldn't trade my marriage to my wife for anything in the world -- and yet marriage can be very difficult, "dreadfully tough" even! The fact that something is dreadfully though is not necessarily a reason not to do it, or a reason to feel bad for people who do. I should note that teaching also does a lot for me, but it also drives me mad in a similar way as research. Some days I feel like a great teacher, other days I feel like fraud. And then of course there is the grading. If anything is "dreadfully tough" to do (for me, at least), that is!

Kate: great point! The more I go along in my career, the more your idea -- the idea that the point of it all is to be a member of a philosophical *community* involved in "good conversation" -- resonates with me. The further I go along, the more I just look forward to the process of it all, in particular the social aspect of the discipline (great conversation, debate, etc.).

But in that case I come back again to the issue I was debating with Lewis Powell in an earlier post: namely, that kind of conversation is the best one to have/be involved in? Is it one that insists upon pristine clarity and rigor in all that we do (which seems to be the mark of modern analytic philosophy)? Is that the only way to do good philosophy -- the only way that makes a person worthy of being included in the conversation? Or, should our discipline widen it's view of what counts as "legitimate" or "good"?

But perhaps I should stop beating a dead horse... ;)

Ambrose

Even apart from the hard question of why any of this is worth doing all things considered, I also struggle with the question of how to pursue the philosophical ideals of truth and understanding while at the same time being part of the institutionally sanctioned "conversation". It's pretty obvious to anyone who approaches the matter honestly that the conversation is not directed to those aims. Much of the time it seems to actively work against them.

David Morrow

When I was an undergrad trying to decide whether to go to grad school in philosophy, I had a long talk with a prominent senior philosopher in my department. "Do you ever get answers to the big questions of philosophy," I asked, feeling sure that if *he* hadn't managed it in the course of his career, then I certainly wouldn't. He paused for a while and said slowly, "It's very important that somebody teaches young people to think."

Rob Gressis

A couple of things:

(1) I'm very curious about Ambrose's remark that "It's pretty obvious to anyone who approaches the matter honestly that the [dominant philosophical] conversation is not directed to those aims [of pursuing the ideals of truth and understanding]." That isn't obvious to me, though I admit to a possibility of self-deception about much of my life. So, could you be more specific?

(2) People seem to me -- and I haven't read these comments super closely, so maybe my impression is wrong -- to be reasoning something like, "philosophy has never solved the big questions in philosophy, therefore you can't use philosophy to solve them", but I wonder why they think philosophy hasn't solved those problems. Is it because there's so much disagreement among smart philosophers about these issues? If so, then do you all, when you (seem to) hold philosophical positions, not really believe them? Or you simply don't think they're true? Or you do think they're true, but with very little confidence?
In other words: just because there's disagreement, why not think that philosophy has solved most of its problems? Sure, in most cases, no majority of philosophers is *convinced* by particular answers, but what does that have to do with philosophy not being a truth-seeking or truth-attaining method?

Kate Manne

"He paused for a while and said slowly, 'It's very important that somebody teaches young people to think.'" I love this. I would maybe add that some people also need to be empowered to do what they already know how to do, as well as taught to do it better. Something about the pedagogical project of helping people to crystallize their thoughts and arguments seems especially attractive to me.

Marcus, I also think that the conversational model might help with the rigor versus creativity contrast. My own view is that there's a huge role for both kinds of philosophy, and it's not always easy to combine them (I suppose everyone would agree that that would be ideal). Sometimes sparks are needed to get a discussion going or reorient/blow up an existing one; sometimes the collective project can be understood as refining and clarifying a good or intriguing idea that's been thrown out there already. Anyway, that's a pluralist's way of looking at it. There are still questions about whether the balance is off, but that's a hard question to answer outside of specific subfields.

Marcus Arvan

AE-CP: Thanks!

David: I think your professor gave a very, very wise response. Thanks for sharing it.

Rob: I agree it's not obvious that the dominant philosophical conversation isn't directed toward truth and understanding. But I do think there are some things to be said for it. Here are just a couple of interesting experiences/anecdotes I'd like to share.

1. I find it interesting that probably the most common honorific I hear in the profession is, "He/she is really smart." Notice what's not being claimed: that the person in question has great philosophical insight, or is very creative, etc. No, the claim is merely that they're *smart*. But being smart is one thing; seeking the truth or understanding is another.

2. In his biography published on-line, Robert Paul Wolff relates his experience that many of the people at Harvard during his time there seemed to treat philosophy as more of a "game" than a genuine inquiry into the truth. Now, I don't think everyone treats philosophy this way -- but sometimes it does seem like people are involved more in a "pissing match" to prove who's smarter than whom than seeking the truth.

3. I was at a conference a couple of years ago where one of the most famous people in our profession was defending a particular theory in epistemology. In response to what I thought were some very good questions from the audience, the philosopher engaged in what appeared to me (and to others I spoke to afterwards) to be mostly wordplay. It was all very, very clever, and the epistemological view in question broadly supports the use of that kind of wordplay to counter objections -- and yet it seemed to me (and again, others I spoke to afterwards) to be the kind of sophistry that Socrates (rightly) questioned over 2,000 years ago ("turning the weaker argument into the stronger").

4. It's very common today to defend "unbelievable theories" today -- ones that just about everyone agrees *can't* be true (viz. the Lewisean "incredulous stare"). Why? Maybe sometimes it is in the interest of understanding. But sometimes one (or at least I) can't help but feel that people find it "cool" to defend unbelievable things.

So, while I don't mean to say that the entire discipline is afflicted by "smartness over truth and understanding", I can't help but feel a significant element of it is.

As to your (very good) questions in (2), I really go back and forth on all of them. Sometimes I feel like I believe in particular theories -- then (in what I take to be my more honest moments) I'm so much less sure. I guess I fancy myself in the kind of position that we see Socrates in within the Platonic dialogues: he *offers* the best arguments he can, and there's a sense in which he thinks they're the best arguments on offer -- yet he claims not to know anything. I guess I would say I feel similarly about most, if not all, of the philosophical ideas/theories I defend.

Anyway, thanks everyone for the comments!

Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus,

Re: 1, that's true, I think, but I have a theory about that. I think the majority of philosophers agree about fundamental things. So, for instance, most philosophers are secular atheists in religion, materialists in the philosophy of mind, determinists (hard or soft) about free will, disbelievers in an afterlife, direct realists about perception, non-skeptics about the external world, and political liberals. Things are less clear when it comes to ethics -- a lot of philosophers are moral realists and a lot are subjectivists, but they seem to have most of the same views about the culturally pressing political and ethical questions du jour, so the meta-ethical foundation of their particular views isn't all that concerning. Indeed, I get the sense when it comes to really important questions about what's real and how to live your life, philosophers have a fairly high degree of agreement.
If I'm right about this, then this helps to explain why creativity and truth aren't really particularly high up on the virtues list: because most philosophers think that the truth about the most fundamental questions is pretty obvious, and, well, settled, with minor deviations here and there about this or that small issue. And creativity can, if anything, be just as dangerous as it is interesting, because it can lead you away from what is obviously true, which is, I guess, supposed to be naturalism and its consequences. That just leaves rigor and precision as the way to distinguish yourself, and to be good at that, you have to be smart.

This also relates to 2: there is certainly a game-like attitude to philosophy, rather than a pursuit of truth, but that's because I gather that most philosophers think the truth about most important things is pretty obvious. Besides, given that science discovers the truth about what exists, then why would you use philosopher to inquire into truth? It's a much blunter instrument than science.

If you're right about 4, then that's sort of at odds with what I wrote in my response to 1. I do see people people defending "unbelievable" views, but with the exception of Lewis's modal realism, aren't the most popular "unbelievable" views deflationary and skeptical ones rather than inflationary and rationalist/dogmatic ones? E.g., you have van Inwagen denying the existence of composite objects, the Churchlands denying the existence of consciousness, Parfit denying the existence of a self (at least as I read him), etc. In ethics, things are somewhat different -- there, I see trends like more and more people defending the sometimes-permissibility of infanticide, asserting very strong animal rights, and arguing for very demanding obligations to the poor. I don't know whether those views are deflationary (of traditional moral views) or inflationary (of obligations), but one of the things I see those views having in common is that they're reliant on clear, simple principles that are easy to apply and suspicious of our moral intuitions.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Rob: Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I sort of had a (good-natured) chuckle at your comment on how obvious you think people take most philosophical truths to be.

Let's see. For my part, I'm:
(1) Not an atheist
(2) Not a materialist
(3) Not a determinist
(4) A believer in an afterlife
(5) Not a direct realist about perception
(6) A modal realist

So, I, at any rate, don't think most of the things you mentioned are obvious (I think they're false!).

I think you're probably right, though, about most people. A quick glance over at the philpapers survey results of professional philosophers' views suggests that you're right: most people do seem to have their minds made up over many of the "big questions."

I guess, if your hypothesis is right, I find it rather disappointing. It wasn't long ago that I *was* :

(1) an atheist
(2) a materialist
(3) a determinist
(4) not a believer in an afterlife, and
(5) a direct realist, and
(6) not a modal realist

Philosophy led me *away* from these conclusions.

Indeed, maybe this really is why I've gotten so frustrated over our discipline's focus on rigor and how "smart" people are. I don't think the answers to big philosophical questions are obvious, and that merely being very, very clever -- merely being able to provide a rigorous defense of position X -- is an indication of a good philosopher.

I think most of the views that people give very clever defenses of are *false*, and it is the fact that the defenses are clever but wrong that bugs me to no end.

But, I realize full well, I am a lone voice in the wilderness. :)

Rob Gressis

FWIW, Marcus, I'm with you on (1)-(5). But the trend-setters don't seem to be. And until there's a big shift in what the most important people think, I bet philosophy will stay with the rigor/smart model rather than the creativity/truth model.

Anon

Wow, Marcus, I would love to sometime hear the story about how philosophy led you to that belief set, given your previous one. I think it's likely pretty atypical, so would no doubt be very interesting!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Anon: Your comment has me debating back-and-forth whether to write a series of posts telling it. I'm going to have to debate it some more, though, as I'd like to publish some of the ideas, and I worry about "letting the cat out of the bag"!

Anon

No rush, dude. I can read it in print. Good luck!

Ambrose

Rob,
I admit my claim about the character of philosophy is unobvious. Here are some examples that illustrate what I have in mind:

1. It's quite clear from the stuff that gets published on any seriously politically volatile topic that most philosophers do not approach these topics in a truly philosophical spirit. See Nevan Sesardic's paper "Philosophy of Science that Ignores Science", for instance, which compares the actual arguments and theories of politically taboo scientists like Rushton and Jensen (who work on race) with the straw men found in the writings of prominent philosophers. Really all he needs to do is to line up the quotations; any honest person will have to admit that the real views of these people bear no resemblance to the idiotic views ascribed to them by almost all philosophers writing on the topic. Similar things can be said for philosophical work on other topics that are genuinely dangerous: philosophers may pretend that they want truth or understanding, but most of us simply want a job, or a promotion, or a publication, or whatever. We're willing to say what we know is expected of us in order to get those nice things. The vast majority of *professional* philosophers are appartchiks or court intellectuals on this stuff. They may make a big deal out of their opposition to racism or homophobia, say, but these are not radical or dangerous positions to take. (Although they might once have been.)

2. On topics that are not politically dangerous but just philosophically very deep or possibly intractable, it seems to be very common for philosophers to just put forward all kinds of positions in order to reach some conclusion -- a conclusion needed to finish a paper, to have something to say, etc. This kind of thing is common: "Of course, some may object that my argument presupposes non-reductive physicalism, a controversial position. However, I have elsewhere argued that non-reductive physicalism is the best of the available options in this vicinity..." Or maybe it will be something like "But there is a devastating argument against any non-physicalist position... If such a position were true, Crazy Consequence C would follow..." These ways of pressing an argument seem to me very dishonest. Any philosopher with a bit of perspective and humility knows that there are "crazy" or "implausible" consequences of pretty much every philosophical position, for example. That alone can't be a serious reason for rejecting some theory or preferring some other. It's also a bit dishonest to pretend to really be convinced by any particular view of this kind. If you've spent some time in philosophy, surely you're not *really* that confident that, say, dualism is true rather than materialism. These issues are just way, way too hard for any of us to really be as confident as we pretend to be in order to set forth some tidy little argument -- in order to get it published, in order to...

3. It often seems to me that philosophers don't really *understand* the positions they claim to argue for, accept, reject... I remember in grad school it was trendy to talk about "reductive" this and that, but how many of us really understood what "reduction" might mean? Looking back on it, I think we were often caught up in a very superficial way with some superficially interesting slogans and jargon. But that also seems true of much of what gets published. (I'd say the same of the very mediocre stuff I myself have published, I should add.)

panpsychist

there is not much more 'dissensus' in philosophy than in say economics - many major economic problems are still unsettled after 200 years - of course economcis has the excuse that it is politically significant - panpsychist

panpsychist

ambrose, i agree with you that sesardic is very much worth reading - but i do not think reductio arguments are that problematic, in fact they are indispensable - and, yes, i am entirely convinced that physicalism is false - finally it is not just philosophy where a sadly high proportion of people care more about career advancement than anything else - that is also the case in science - panpsychist

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