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Louis Chartrand

For me Dennett's position makes a lot of sense for me, and I'm somewhat surprised with my colleagues' defensive reactions. But I think he was talking about the relevance, rather than the reliability. The Daily Noûs quoted a passage from his works where he notes how pointless it would be to develop a science of a particular variation of chess. The issue isn't that the theorems in this variant aren't true, it's just that noone plays this game.

I agree with this relevance criticism. Philosophers' focus is not at all in line with, say, what other disciplines need. Take the emphasis on necessary and sufficient conditions: psychology abandoned this in the 80s, it's been moribund in computer science for 30 years, it isn't subtle enough for most social science (law is arguably an exception)... isn't it time that philosophers pick up the cue?

It isn't that we should stop experimenting with sophisticated formal metaphysics, it's rather that we should also recognize the importance of answering questions from outside. As things stand now, I don't think I can go to philosophy conferences and address philosophical problems and questions that come from computer science, but that are unknown to philosophers. (On the other hand, I have been addressing issues that are of interest to philosophers in computational linguistics, and I get great reactions.)


True or justifiable or otherwise, the point Dennett's making here is beyond tired. It's a criticism of philosophy I hear from a dozen undergrads every semester, and not always the sharpest or most interested ones. Anyone who has studied philosophy in a semi-serious way for a few years will undoubtedly have come across this criticism. It's what many people first say on first coming to understand a philosophical debate for the first time. ("This is philosophy? Isn't this all just playing with words? How can we ever prove anything this way?" Etc., etc., etc.) And we all know this.

So why does anyone care that Dennett is saying this old, utterly obvious, utterly exhausted talking point? Did he add anything of any interest to the basic idea? I guess there's his 'Chmess' analogy. Kind of cute, I guess. Does that cute little analogy really count as some kind of interesting and important intellectual contribution? We can be sure that thousands of bright undergrads have independently come up with similar analogies on this issue (and some of them are no doubt just as good or better).

Do we care because we're so shocked that a philosopher holds this view? But we all know lots of colleagues who hold similar views. (Most fans of Wittgenstein or Ryle, for example.) So there's nothing interesting or worth discussing in that fact either. Do we care because a famous influential philosopher holds this view? But that's also a familiar thing. (Wittgenstein and Ryle, for example.)

It seems we care _only_ because he has a lot of social and institutional status and clout. At least I can't think of any other explanation. A grad student makes a comment in a seminar which is then dismissed (often with a bit of smugness) and then some tenured fool makes the exact same point which is received with great seriousness and becomes a focal point for discussion. How pathetic our discipline is. If only we _tried_ to do what we tell our students to do.

Henry Lara

Prof. Arvan, quick question, if I may: Regarding philosophical methodology, your comments above, as well as other posts in this blog and elsewhere, seem to indicate that you see a chance for philosophers to make a turn for the better, so to speak; to finally make progress or even solve core questions by using "better" or more effective philosophical methodology. My concern is that such a view, if indeed it is what you are suggesting, implies that the purpose of philosophy is to answer questions, to get to the truth of the matter, such as it is purportedly done in some science fields. That's fine, but isn't that itself a philosophical view, subject to discussion and criticism? As someone interested in metaphysics and the history of analytical philosophy, I find it hard to outright dismiss work done in whole fields of inquiry simply because it doesn't meet criteria such as empirical (as opposed to "armchair") methodology, giving definite answers, being more amenable to the general public, etc. I think that it's fine to heed and engage with skeptical claims about philosophy, whether from the public or other philosophers; to me that's just part of what philosophers do. But I object to the view that the question of the value of, say, analytical metaphysics or anything Prof. Dennet would label an "intuition pump" has been settled. Instead, I ask, couldn't it be that there's as much value, or even more (in all senses of the word) in a conversation that is ongoing as opposed to one that merely settled on a definite answer? If so, then perhaps dismissing philosophical work on the grounds that it has failed to give a definite answer may well be the wrong move.

Louis Chartrand

I think you're getting the wrong point. It's not whether philosophy is relevant; it obviously is. It is whether some subfields should try to make their research more relevant.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Louis: Fair enough, but it could well be that in order to make some lines of inquiry more relevant, part of what's needed are better answers to certain meta-philosophical questions. I myself think this is true in moral philosophy, for one.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Henry: I think you are absolutely right! That's precisely why I think meta-philosophy is where a lot of really important action is at, and why I am happy to see the current rise of meta-philosophy. Given how many persistent concerns there are about prevailing philosophical methodologies, my suggestion is simply that these are the questions we need to carefully work through more *before* we either dismiss entire fields (qua Dennett), or alternatively, have (perhaps misplaced) confidence in current methods. I myself have argued that there are epistemological and practical advantages to adopting a more naturalistically-inclined methodology, at least in moral philosophy. But of course I may be wrong, and the grounds I give for this metaphilosophical approach in moral philosophy also might not extend to other areas of philosophy (indeed, I think the approach I defend probably wouldn't apply to every area, as some areas of inquiry are resistant to naturalizing).

Marcus Arvan

Ambrose: Dennett's dismissals may indeed be beyond tired. However, I for one at not at all convinced that the kinds of metaphilosophical concerns many of us have when we come to philosophy (the ones you mention students having) are tired. I think it is always worth reflecting on our methods, precisely because certain worries crop up again and again--not only among ordinary people, but also among philosophers who have been thinking about these issues carefully for a very long time.

And indeed, the final part of your comment is itself one of the many reasons I worry about philosophical methodologies. You write, "A grad student makes a comment in a seminar which is then dismissed (often with a bit of smugness) and then some tenured fool makes the exact same point which is received with great seriousness and becomes a focal point for discussion." I think we should indeed be wary of any method of inquiry that does not have rigorous, strict controls on bias and purely sociological factors driving the field. This is, among other things, what is so nice about the scientific method. It does not eliminate bias or sociological things, but it does a great deal to mitigate them. This is why I think that, at least in some domains (such a moral philosophy), there are strong metaphilosophical advantages with basing inquiry on the science of moral and practical cognition--at is precisely there that stubborn *facts* present themselves (facts which, or so I argue, may well point moral philosophy in one direction rather than another). Of course, I may be wrong about that, and that's another issue. The relevant point from now is simply that the very sociological concerns you raise about the discipline are among the (many) reasons why I think, far from being tired, these metaphilosophical issues are of such importance.

Marcus Arvan

Louis: A quick response to your initial comment. Although I cannot speak for Dennett, my sense--having been his student many years ago and having read much of his work--is that his concerns appear to be two-fold, relating to both relevance and reliability. It seems to me he prefers naturalistic to armchair philosophy because he thinks the former is both more relevant (to other fields, ordinary life, etc.) and reliable (conforming to the scientific method). I may be wrong, but that's always been my sense.


Marcus I think I agree with you. The issues you mention are important and, unlike Dennett, you're going beyond the kinds of criticisms that I hear from dozens of beginning students every term. I didn't mean to say that metaphilosophical issues in general are tired or unworthy of discussion. Just the opposite! And you may be right that one corrective is to pay more attention to science.

I was just bemoaning the fact that Dennett's comments attract so much attention--more generally, the fact that very bad or boring philosophical (and metaphilosophical) ideas are treated as if they were interesting just because they're coming from a high status person. I don't mean to criticize Dennett either. He's entitled to have some commonplace ideas, as we all do. But this kind of thing does raise doubts about the entire discipline, the standards or methods we rely on, as you're saying. I no longer think it's possible to reform institutional philosophy at the institutional level. If we were to try to adopt some of your (good) ideas the effort would itself be inevitably warped by the exact same sociological forces we're complaining about. That's inevitable given that the whole thing would be taking place within a larger system that selects for these behaviors and biases and selects against more rational or open-minded forms of discourse. Still, each one of us can try to reform ourselves as individuals and within our personal intellectual lives, and that's probably what matters most.

Marcus Arvan

Ambrose: Very well said. Although I think you are probably right that many of the same sociological factor would remain--as academia is more or less permanently a certain kind of human ecosystem, so to speak--I am a bit more optimistic about the possibilities of positive change. Academic psychology underwent vast disciplinary changes during the 20th century, and while it not without its problems even today, it is in many important respects a much better discipline that it once was.

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