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Moti Mizrahi

Hi Marcus,

To your list of diagnoses, I’d like to add the following: In philosophy, it is easy to ignore results that are at odds with one’s favorite position. I suppose you could count that as a “sociological factor,” broadly speaking. In any case, here is an example from philosophy of science. Since Laudan (1981) put forth the pessimistic induction as an argument against scientific realism, many authors have argued that the argument is fallacious (e.g., Cummiskey 1992; Lewis 2001; Lange 2002; Park 2011). But others continue to write and publish papers on the pessimistic induction as if it is a good argument. As Blackburn would put it, it looks like some are just too “in love” with the argument to see that it is fallacious. If consensus is an indicator of convergence, as Chalmers seems to think, then there can be no consensus, and hence no convergence, if philosophers can easily ignore results that are at odds with their pet theories.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: I entirely agree, and think it also falls under Diagnosis 1 (weak method). After all, unlike the sciences, which arrive at theories and conclusions through controlled experiments, philosophy presently and throughout history has never had a method for reliably distinguishing (A) philosophical truths from (B) philosophical falsehoods that people would like to *think* are true. This is, I take it, what underlies your work on intuition mongering. How could philosophy possibly be truth-tracking as long as the move, "it seems intuitive that p; therefore p" is permitted? But of course the rub is, how can philosophy even get off the groud without intuitions? Which brings us back to Diagnosis 1. Does philosophy necessarily have a weak method (viz. either we depend on intuitions and don't track truth, or we don't use intuitions, in which case we can't even get off the ground, as in the case of Cartesian skepticism)?


Why not just go with Bertrand Russell's diagnosis? Philosophy is really hard, and when it gets easy enough for progress to be made, we stop calling it philosophy. See psychology, economics, international relations etc.



aye, that is the obvious conclusion. in a sense, one could say philosophy is self-destructive, or, rather, once a proper method for study of something has been found, it is no longer philosophy, but becomes a science proper. so lack of clear method is not just a temporary problem, but it seems to be a fundamental part of philosophy.

the real question, then, is, how is sophisticated philosophy possible without losing its object to the method it itself develops. there seem to be some limitations for what methods can make proper science, historical or theoretical or otherwise. some of the stuff philosophy talks about hasn't become science proper despite thousands of years of investigative history, e.g., ethics. and the question is why.

Gary M Washburn

Does philosophy necessarily have a weak method?

I am not a professional, I have never taught philosophy and cannot imagine how anyone can have the Hutzpah to assign a grade to the ideas of others. But I suspect I am fairly grizzled, personally and philosophically, as compared to most of the contributors to this site.

A preliminary remark:

Intuition is imprecisely used as a subjective assessment or hunch. It is more accurately (as Husserl used the term) a congress of reason and sense. There is no logical truth, there is only valid inference. And though only empirical fact can be true, no valid inference can be derived from it without violating the terms of experience. Similarly, there is no valid inference experience can attribute as fact not in violation of the terms of reason. But if there is to be experience at all that violation must somehow redeem for itself. That redemption, real or imagined, is what we call intuition. It is the resolution, real or imagined, of rational inference to empirical fact which auspices experience.

The problem raised in this thread is at its crux the fallow ground of the enigmatic counter-dependence between the quantifier and the qualifier. The world is become so enamored of the determinacy of the qualifier that it is become oblivious to the antics gotten up to by the pesky qualifier. The quantification in the proposition always seems constant, but difference generated through subtle alterations to the qualifier from inference to inference ultimately only becomes recognizable where only the universe as a whole is capable of containing it. Sense and reason plods along convicted in the error that only all things being equal is progression. Nonsense on the face of it, but which of us is not guilty of it? It would be more progressive to make incursions upon how it is we create or instantiate universal difference in the very process of slicing off difference to its least term. Ultimately that least term is the most universal change. The rest is dogma.

Does philosophy have a weak method? I hate to quote others like this, when done to me it feels like my words being thrown in my face. But in this case I hope I can be excused with the response that a more forthright recognition of our weakness might be our greatest strength.

Marcus Arvan

Patrick & Argo: here's the problem I have with Russell's diagnosis. How many problems has philosophy really solved such that we've stopped calling those areas "philosophy"? My answer: not many. Patrick, you mention psychology, economics, and international relations. Here's my reply. Psychology, before the scientific method was applied to it, was basically a bunch of BS. Philosophers and psychologists (like Freud) basically speculated wildly -- and now we know, often quite wrongly. It was only when the *scientific* method was applied that psychology became respectable. Same goes for economics. And I still don't think international relations is a respectable discipline (what truths are *known* about international relations? Almost none). So, it seems to me, even in these areas it's not *philosophy* that ever accomplished all that much. It's the scientific method.


Ah, the good ol' "scientific method did it" trick. Pardon me for asking, but what exactly is this scientific method you speak of, how did it emerge? Did psychology gain solidity immediately after newton's treatise on optics, or was it perhaps after Linnaeus' infamously semi-fabricated empirical results, fitting his theory, that true science of whatever could emerge?

invocation of a magic "scientific method" is a non-explanation. all you do by that is disregard the path many of the psychologists walked from being able to only speculate on whatever tickles their fancy to sort of solid biological ground of nowadays. there is no simple "scientific method" that turns whatever you want into "science proper", it's a long process, often quite specific historically for various disciplines, and, if you want to take out the significance of philosophers (perhaps in the most ancient sense as the pursuers of wisdom) and attribute all that to "scientific method", go ahead, but you're shooting yourself in the leg big time, imo.

excuse me for the smug tone, it's just that "scientific method" has grown to annoy me over many discussions. this place was the last I expected it to rear its ugly mythological head.

Rob Gressis

Argo, your comment intrigues me. I'm not sure I fully understand it, though. Are you saying, "there's no such thing as *the* scientific method; rather, different kinds of sciences have different methods. Consequently, you can't say that disciplines became respectable when they start adopting THE scientific method, because there's no such thing". If that's what you're saying, would you be willing to elaborate on (say) the differences between the physics method and the biology method, or point me to an article that makes the point you're making, but at greater length?

Marcus Arvan

Argo: I don't quite see what you mean by calling the move a "trick." First, surely there *is* such a thing as the scientific method. There are differences between different sciences, but we learn the basics of the method in grammar school: one formulates a hypothesis and then tests it in a controlled manner against the world. All of the sciences do this, and we have quite a lot to thank for it: computers, modern medicine, etc.

I simply fail to see how the method -- formulating hypotheses and then testing them in a controlled manner against the natural world -- is a "non-explanation." It *explains* all of the progress we have made in science: progress that has enabled us to manipulate reality in countless ways. Do you really think science is "no explanation" of why we have computers, or GPS satellite communication, etc.?

Your only arguments against the "scientific method trick" are (A) there is no such method (which is false), and (B) some people have abused the method by fabricating results (which is completely irrelevant).

Look, at the end of the day: science has produced useful stuff, stuff that enables us to make *accurate predictions* about countless things in our world. That's pretty darn good. Can philosophy plausibly claim anything remotely similar? Hard to see how, given how little consensus the field has generated on the big questions over the last 2,000 + years.


hah, this is exactly what I'm talking about, Marcus. you invoke the "scientific method" we all have been told about in "school", and then proceed to attribute all kinds of scientific goods to this method. but look at the method itself - don't you see that it is utterly simple and very formal? everyone who has seriously thought about science certainly will tell you that no science proper has emerged from just this "method". it is all the other stuff - preconceived notions, theories (even if speculative), "hunches" etc - that is responsible for any actual content of the science.

In this light, the work many of the speculative thinkers have done on the matter is simply the most important thing of all for science proper, for this work, all the ideas etc., is what gives any content to the purely formal rule of “let's write stuff down accurately and test it empirically” (which is *the* scientific method, according to you). I don't disagree that accuracy and empirical tests and experiments is what gives rise to good science, but I do disagree with any statements of the kind that makes science look like it's only employing this. History of science is full of theoretical battles and hunches (Linnaeus example showed exactly this – his idea was very bright and right, he just wasn't rigorous in the empirical part, like your method would absolutely have – science was born out of something that was not fully committed to the said method, thus). Attributing all of the good it has produced via these battles to the “scientific method” is an oversimplification of science so gross that it actually makes people reach mistaken conclusions, such as: science only finds out stuff by testing it empirically, or, speculative theories of the past had no significance in emerging of science proper. I really don't want to start recounting the (countless) examples of how science historically has progressed without sticking strictly to the said “scientific” method, but I can try and do this, if it's really required.


I hope it is also clear how philosophers come into this by now – the first shape of theories that form the basis of a scientific discipline is often the work of philosophers or at least the result of a philosophical mode of investigation (be it speculative or whatever). Only after there's a theory which allows for rigorous investigation, there appears any meaning to the “scientific method” at all.

It's also interesting how you, Marcus, can be satisfied with your version of philosophy then. You yourself state that speculative BS can only become respectable, after the scientific method has been applied to it, and you also say, that philosophy can't claim anything remotely similar to the successes of the science. But, then, what is the point of philosophy as a research discipline? If we want answers, then shouldn't we abandon this field as one that has been proven to be utterly barren, devoid of fruit, in terms of knowledge produced? Yet philosophy persists in this investigative form as well.

I personally do think that philosophy used to play a big role in emergence of sciences, so it also played a big role in emergence of answers. Whether this role has been lost or completely fulfilled by other, specific disciplines, is a different question, though.


regarding articles about this: I don't have anything specific in mind here, at best I can point to some philosophers of science that have long ago identified all the non-"scientific-method"-y stuff that plays a big role in how humans do science. best example would, I think, be T.Kuhn's "structure of scientific revolutions", but these ideas appear in many other works, too, produced both by philosophers and scientists reflecting on what they do.

key point was that science can not be reduced to a single scientific method, and, without lots of all the other stuff involved, no science is possible.

Marcus Arvan

Argo: your response misses the point of my comment. Of *course* all kinds of things -- hunches, even bullying, etc. -- play a role in science. The point is (an you yourself implicitly recognize this in your comment) that underneath all of this there is *one* powerful idea that lends science all of its real power: formulating hypothesis and then testing them for confirmation and disconfirmation. It is this feature of science that distinguishes it from pseudoscience and mere speculation. We har rocketships, microwaves, X-rays, nuclear power, etc. today because people didn't *merely* have hunches: they actually developed those hunches into theories that make predictions, and those that make *true* predictions survive, increasing our knowledge of and ability to manipulate the physical world.

You note yourself that this is a single, very abstract idea -- but it is also the very idea that makes science so powerful. So, you're just not right. The scientific method is *one* fundamental method at its core (beneath all the other stuff): it's rigorously making predictive theories about the world and seeing whether the world confirms or disconfirms the prediction. And this is why philosophy is so problematic: all we have in our case are intuitions of how things "seem", whereas observations of the physical world push back against how things seem (the sun seems to move across the sky, but it doesn't).

Marcus Arvan

Argo: as to your point about whether I can be satisfied with my view of philosophy, perhaps I should explain what my view is. I said I think philosophy has historically had a *weak* method. This doesn't mean that I think it is total BS like astrology. It just means I think its method is much weaker than science's. For the record, I think philosophy as it had long been done has been useful for disproving a lot of ideas that many ordinary people widely accept, not to mention raise important questions about whether science can account for everything. So I don't think philosophy is impotent. Far from it. Some real progress has been made...just relatively little compared to science. And yes, this is because the questions we are asking are hard. Philosophy has, I think, gotten at some truths: specifically, truths about the way the world *could* be. I also think philosophy can develop *understanding* (or arguments, etc.). What I'm not convinced of is that philosophy has a good all around method for tracking philosophical truth. But that's okay. Understanding and perhaps a *little* bit of hard won truth are enough for me. I just don't think we should deceive ourselves in thinking that philosophy as a whole is a good route to truth. If it were, there would be more agreement than there is, like the sciences.

Rob Gressis

Marcus, you seem to think that if method M is a good route to truth, then if lots of people use it, it will produce lots of agreement about what the truth is. Couldn't it be that M is a good route to truth in the sense that: if you use M properly, you'll get the truth, but lots of people don't use M properly?

I'm not saying that philosophy is like this, but it seems that the notion that a good method will produce consensus is underlying a lot of what people believe about philosophical progress.

I guess this is a roundabout way of saying, 'hey, let's give 4 more credit.'

Grad Student

I'll repeat what I said at Leiter's blog, since this back-and-forth about science seems to necessitate it.

I think we should be sensitive to the possibility that our idea of "progress in philosophy" has been substantially warped by too many comparisons with the natural sciences. Philosophy, if it is at all scientific, is much more like the social-interpretive sciences (you know, the Geisteswissenschaften), and the more relevant comparison is with progress in *those* disciplines. So, what does it mean to make progress in history or cultural anthropology? It means to understand the relevant social/psychological/historical forms better than we used to. By this sort of standard, I would actually argue that we are living in a philosophical golden age.

Think of the incredibly nuanced picture we now have of scientific inquiry, or of the extraordinary insights into ethical concepts and moral psychology made in the last 150 years. Compare what we say now to what was said 400 years ago: the difference is extraordinary. However, you will only notice this difference when you drop the idea that "progress" is univocal, that it names the same phenomenon in all disciplines.

Marcus Arvan

Rob: I'm on board with you in one sense. I wouldn't be doing philosophy if I didn't think doing it well can lead to some real knowledge. But this is perfectly consistent with the idea I am suggesting: that the *manner* in which philosophy has traditionally/often been done is weak and in need of some shoring up (an example: not letting people hang their arguments on high level claims about how things "seem" to them).

Grad student: I take your point very well. But I don't think the analogy between philosophy and the social sciences is that apt. For at least in the social sciences there is some generally agreed method(s) for testing claims against the world. Think, for example, how historians work. They need to provide empirical evidence (e.g. letters, past historical documents, etc) to substantiate their claims. The same is true of social anthropologists. But in philosophy we don't even have *that*. There isn't even agreement on what *counts* as good evidence for a philosophical proposition.

Rob Gressis

I haven't read the article, but since this thread is the one this article seems most relevant to, I thought I'd post a link to the abstract here:


Wild stuff!

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