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Brad Cokelet

Hi Marcus,

One of their driving concerns seems to be that as practiced in the academy, there is no deep connection between philosophic study and the good life. Now you may think there is nothing bad about philosophic study being unrelated to the good life or even detracting from our chances of becoming good and living well. Or perhaps you think that that decoupling is bad but more than made up for by the boons of specialization and the adoption of the scientific method? I think this is an interesting issue, and it might touch on things that generate a lot of disappointment with philosophy among non-academics.

Here is a way to push the worry while granting your assumption that philosophy should aim to produce knowledge. Many people lack the disposition to know the evaluative facts or the disposition to embody evaluative knowledge in their lives. These people want or at least need a method that will help them achieve knowledge. Why think that your strategy will help philosophers, or those who learn from them, achieve the relevant sorts of knowledge? Or why think this sort of knowledge should be less of a priority than the sort you prefer?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Brad: Thanks for your comment, and questions!

Here's my answer: I agree with them that there should be a greater connection between philosophical inquiry and the good life. However, I think one of the main reasons this connection has been severed (or drastically downgraded) is that traditional philosophical methods (i.e. "reflective inquiry") do not comprise a reliable method for answering questions about the good life. Indeed, philosophical reflection about the good life seems to me roughly on a par with ancient Greek cosmology. Some people (e.g. Socrates) think an unreflective life isn't worth living. Others (e.g. Kant) think a reflective life leads to misology, or the hatred of reason (viz. "How many happy philosopers are there? Not many!"). Some advocate stoicism, others moderation, others hedonism, etc. Some advocate the simple life, others (e.g. Mill) the life of complexity, of developing the "higher human capacities."

If philosophical thinking about the good life is to be at all *reliable*, it is going to have to be based on sound science. Does reflection improve human well-being, or not? Does a stoic attitude? Does moderation? These are all (in my view) empirical questions, not philosophical ones. Philosophers can map out *possible* routes to the good life, but those routes need to be tested carefully, and rigorously, against reality--which is what science is for.

Similarly, I think--and argue in my forthcoming book--that for moral philosophy to be epistemically reliable (getting at the *truth* about morality, rather than some philosopher(s)' preconceptions about what we would like morality to be, or how it "seems"), it too must be based on sound science: on the actual nuts and bolts of human moral cognition (a point that I thought Anscombe put very well over a half century ago).

In short: I'm very much for philosophy pursuing questions about the good life--but I think one of the main reasons that philosophy's current speculations about the good life don't get much love from ordinary-everyday people, scientists, or our fellow academics in the academy more broadly, and so on, is simply that: it's empirically-untested speculation. My message is that philosophy can, and should, do better. We should not settle for rampant speculation about the good life. We should base philosophical arguments about morality and the good life on sound empirical foundations.

Richard Yetter Chappell

Marcus - Since the questions I find philosophically interesting are not empirical questions, I have trouble seeing how science can help answer them. I'm more interested, e.g., in *what things are intrinsically good* than in *how, instrumentally, to promote them* -- a distinction you elide in your talk of "testing" what routes "lead to the good life".

Marcus Arvan

Hi Richard: Thanks for your comment. I'm inclined to think that intrinsic goodness is akin to élan vital (life force)--a concept that a properly naturalistic philosophy will teach us we should do without. I doubt you will find this persuasive on its face, but I at least think if you read my forthcoming book ;) you'll see why I think it is the right way to go. We can get something very similar to "intrinsic goodness" in a naturalistically respectable way, and, or so I think, if our investigations are to be epistemically reliable (as opposed to mere speculation about intrinsic goodness, akin to Ancient Greek speculation about natural elements), we should stop there. But again, I don't expect you to believe me! My hope is merely that these are conversations (natural philosophy vs. a priori speculation) will increasingly play out over the coming decades, and my present inclination to believe that the naturalistic side will win out, as it has in other domains of inquiry (physics, biology, psychology, etc.). Why? Because naturalistic investigation involves rigorously testable (verifiable/falsifiable) hypotheses, whereas a priori reflection tends to lead to a morass/quicksand of opposing intuitions. Physics, biology, and psychology made little progress--and were largely driven by unreliable intuitions--until they adopted proper scientific methods. My belief is that the same is likely to be true of philosophy.

Brad Cokelet


My recent work with psychologists has me wondering how your proposal is supposed to work. I am sympathetic to Richard's comment and suspect the philosophic questions that matter to him are important for empirical investigation too.

I am designing and running experiments with psychologists to measure fairness and kindness and I found that there was a lot of work to be done improving the scales/measures that psychologists use. Roughly put the scales/measures in use are problematic because they presuppose implausible conceptions of fairness and kindness. As a philosopher I can help by suggesting more plausible conceptions and then working with empirically minded psychologists to figure out how to build usable scales that fit those conceptions. Again roughly speaking I would say I help most with some conceptual analysis and then I pitch in a bit as the empirical psychologists build and test the scales that operationalize plausibly analyzed concepts. This seems to show that there is important conceptual "non-empirical" work to be done as a part of the investigations you gesture towards.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Brad: thanks for your reply! Your project is actually precisely the kind of thing I think philosophers should be doing. In my view, interaction between philosophy and science should increase *bidirectionally*, with philosophers helping scientists, and sound science in turn informing philosophy. As someone who is married to a natural scientist (empirical psychology) and also follows physics, I can attest to the kinds of conceptual/philosophical confusions the natural sciences can fall into. But this is precisely my point! Instead of science and philosophy being largely autonomous enterprises, as they currently are, philosophy and science would both benefit from greater interdependence. Science can only benefit from philosophical clarity (as you note, just visit a psychology department or read what passes as philosophy among some physicists--e.g. Lawrence Krauss on how "the universe came from nothing"), and conversely, philosophy can only benefit from real, testable data. Hence, my suggestion: if philosophy has lost its way, it did it by walking itself off from the sciences and becoming a largely a priori enterprise/morales of conflicting intuitions. Returning to the tradition of natural philosophy would make for better science, and better philosophy. Or so I believe.

Marcus Arvan

Hi again, Brad: I suppose I should also add, for clarity, that I don't just think philosophy and science should inform each other "bidirectionally"--as this still makes them sound autonomous (with philosophy being one thing and science another).

Rather, I believe that philosophy and science should be thought of as continuous and intertwined. For instance, even when it comes the kinds of traditional philosophical projects you mention--clarifying fairness, etc.--my own view is that such clarity is best achieved by science and philosophy working together. For instance, in my own work, I try to argue that in order to properly understand what fairness is, we need to derive it from an empirically grounded understanding of moral cognition. In other words, at least on my view, clarifying things like "kindness" and "fairness" requires a rather thorough mix of philosophy and science (i.e. natural philosophy!).

Of course, this is only my own view, and I could well be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time. ;)

Derek Bowman

Although I'm not an expert in the cosmology of the pre-Socratics (or Arisotle), your characterization of them has all the telltale signs of the same sort of strawman that we all too often construct of earlier eras.

If it's really true that all of what they said "was mere speculation, unconstrained by any method for reliably distinguishing what is true from what 'seems true'" how was human knowledge about the natural world able to progress from the time of Thales to the time of Copernicus in such a way to allow the development of the scientific methods you rightly celebrate?

For that matter, were Thales's reported successes (e.g. eclipse prediction; success in olive futures) mere lucky happenstance? Why do we even know the names of people like Thales at all?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: Why does my characterization have the telltale signs of a strawman?

First, human knowledge of the natural world has *clearly* increased far more--indeed, exponentially--since the development of the scientific method, as compared to before. Second, this is especially evident in individual fields--chemistry, biology, physics, psychology, etc. Just look at psychology. In the early 20th Century, psychology was a morass of contradictory, untested, speculative claims (Instinct Theory, Psychoanalytic Theory, Behaviorism, Humanism, etc.). Then psychology adopted the scientific method, and genuine knowledge of psychology exploded.

None of this is to say that pre-scientific speculation is entire worthless. Thales was doing the best he could with the crude methods he had. So was Freud. And indeed, some speculations by such methods turned out to not be far from the truth (experimental psychology *has* found, for instance, that a great deal of human psychology occurs at unconscious levels).

All I am suggesting is that it is a mistake to stick with a priori speculation when better, more scientific methods are available. It would be a shame, for instance, if psychology were still proceeding on the basis of speculation. And it would be an even greater shame if physics were (we would have few, if any, of the modern amenities we have today). Speculation is *a* method of inquiry, and it even has some virtues (in particular, it can open up new avenues of inquiry). But it is far from the best method inquiry. History shows that, before becoming scientific, fields were roughly in the state that philosophy is today: comprised largely of untested, contradictory speculations. In my view, it is time for philosophy to join the party. If we want to know what morality is, we need to know facts about moral psychology and cognition. If we want to know what proper names refer to (clearly an empirical question), we need to rigorously study how human subjects treat proper names, not speculate about it. If we want to know what utilitarianism requires (more free speech?, less free speech?), we need longitudinal analyses. Etc. Science can help us see which philosophical speculations are well-founded, and which are ill-founded. That is all I am suggesting--and I do not think it is a straw man!

Derek Bowman

Marucs: In the original post you group all ancient Greek cosmology together, you characterize the divergent views only by their conclusions, but you use that to justify a claim about their methods. Moreover, you don't simply claim the superiority of modern scientific techniques over their methods. You make each of the following, rather strong claims (or versions of the same claim).

1. "[T]his was pure B.S.-ing."
2. "It was mere speculation..."
3. It lacked "any method for reliably distinguishing what is true from what "seems true."

This is much stronger - and much less plausible - than the more nuanced comparative claims that you make in your reply. Though even there I fail to see how *mere* speculation could count as a useful method of inquiry, unless it was joined to some minimally reliable way of distinguishing successful vs unsuccessful attempts at speculation. If they truly lacked any such method, how could there have been *any progress whatsoever* in human knowledge. And, absent such progress, how can we explain the origins of what we recognize as modern science - why couldn't those same methods have been invented two millennia earlier?

What this suggests is that you're not very familiar with what methods they had, so not very familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of those methods.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: Perhaps I put things too strongly in the OP. However, I have read Anaximander, Heraclitus, etc., and I do think, for the most part, that their arguments were speculative and ill-founded. Do you think Thales gave good, reliable evidence that everything is made of water, or that Heraclitus gave good, reliable evidence that everything is made of fire? I also studied psychology as an undergraduate--at a time when experimental psychology was beginning to rigorously test the speculations of behaviorists, instinct theorists, Freudians, etc. So, while I might have spoken a bit too strongly, I don't think it's true that I'm not very familiar with the methods I am critiquing. I don't think it's at all controversial that science has proven to be more reliable than other methods of inquiry. That's all I really meant to say--that, and that philosophy would be well-served (like physics, psychology, etc.) by getting on board, as *all* of those disciplines shared philosophy's problems (conflicting intuitions, lack of clear progress, etc.) before their conversion. It is my sincere belief that philosophy would similarly benefit from such a conversion, and that we have good inductive grounds--from other disciplines--for thinking so.

Derek Bowman

Marcus - from my brief encounters with pre-Socratic fragments, I don't think I have any very strong sense of what their methods are. In any case, I don't disagree that if philosophical ethics can avail itself of the benefits of modern scientific methods this would be much preferable to relying on whatever a priori (or less systematic a posterori) philosophical methods we might use instead. (I'm genuinely uncertain about the truth of that antecedent, though I share many of Richard's doubts).

My main objection really was just to your phrasing in the OP. As you say, your position doesn't really depend on that.

Marcus Arvan

Cool, I do apologize for the phrasing.

P. George Stewart

It's undoubtedly the case that philosophy is currently falling between two stools.

For some reason, in the early 20th century, philosophers got cold feet about the role of being big picture people (in Sellars' sense). At the same time, there was a crisis of confidence about the security of knowledge in general, and doubts about system (perhaps because system was in the early 20th century associate with Idealism and many people wanted to get away from that).

Perhaps it's also a general, public sense of "who are we to know/judge?" that arose from WWI/WWII, something that was in the air that philosophers also were influenced by.

But if not philosophers, who? They're the only people even remotely attempting the job of thinking about the big picture, and while it's a dirty job, surely somebody's got to do it? We needn't fall for the idea of the philosopher as a wise, white-haired sage, but surely time spent by reasonably clever people on a subject counts for something the ordinary person might find useful? Some doxastic guidance?

Is it really possible for human beings to live without some beliefs about the over-arching contexts of their lives, and how things, in the general sense, hang together, in the general sense? The resurgence of religion and the prevalence of quasi-religious spiritual and political secular ideologies, seems to say no.

But if philosophers leave the "big picture" field to religion, then they're leaving it reason-free, criticism-free, test-free, falsifiability-free. Is that really wise?

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