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Will Fleisher

I don't think there is any reason to connect philosophical realism with thinking that any specific theory we advocate is true. That is, we need not think of philosophical inquiry as merely concerning fantasy or fiction, while also doubting the theories to which we are committed advocates. Instead, we might treat philosophy as aiming at truth, understanding, or wisdom, while recognizing that we have not achieved those things regarding the questions philosophy is currently concerned with. In fact, one might think that what makes many questions of current philosophical interest is precisely that we haven't discovered their answers yet. On this view, our goal is to discover true answers to philosophical questions (to know them and understand them). But we are in the middle of this inquiry (at least with many such questions), not at its end.

To go along with this view of the goals and state of philosophy, we might characterize our commitments to philosophical positions differently. Rather than explaining (honest) commitment in terms of belief, we could do so in terms of another kind of attitude. There are a few options people have proposed for this. I like to call the attitude "endorsement". But Sanford Goldberg and Zach Barnett (and a few other folks) offer competing accounts.

Here are some links, for those who are interested (and I hope you will forgive the self-promotion):

My view:

Barnett's view:

Goldberg's view:

Will Fleisher

Related to my previous post, here are some more relevant work links.

Transitional vs. settled attitudes (Julia Staffel)

Another view about the attitude of philosophical commitment (Michele Palmira)

Billy Lauinger

I mostly write about well-being. It seems obvious to me that it is a real thing. If I slam the car door on my fingers by accident, then I can assure you that my well-being has gone backward. Or again, if I recover from a cold, I can assure you that my well-being has gone forward. Now, explaining details here will be difficult and will inevitably give rise to disagreement. For some will give hedonistic explanations of well-being in these cases, while others will give other explanations (e.g., desire-based explanations or objective-list-based explanations). But theoretical disagreement about well-being's nature does not suggest that well-being is unreal; all it suggests is that we are having trouble coming up with a theory of its nature that is convincing enough to generate widespread acceptance. And, in general, though there is a great deal of disagreement over what theory of the nature of well-being is correct, there is not much doubt that well-being is real. I know G. E. Moore denied that goodness for is real, while accepting that goodness simpliciter is real. But the case of G. E. Moore is an outlier. And, in everyday life, I am sure that G. E. Moore accepted that well-being is real: if someone were to have stomped on his toe so hard as to break it, I really doubt that he would have thought, "That is bad, but not bad for me, because badness for me is unreal." On the contrary, I am sure he immediately would have thought this event was bad for him.

I believe morality is real too, though I admit that its reality is not nearly as obvious as the reality of well-being. I also believe I am real and that everyone reading right now is real. Note, too, that I can know that I am real and that everyone reading right now is real without knowing whether physicalism or substance dualism (or some third view) about the nature of humans is true. I am wondering if the OP is moving from (a) there is so much theoretical disagreement over the things being studied to (b) the things being studied are unreal. At least in many cases, that move should not be made.

Real Human

The philosophers I continue to admire most are those who work on topics they clearly believe are real, and topics that are real outside of academic philosophy, or at least can be fairly easily connected to applied work.

I think of people like Elizabeth Barnes, Elizabeth Brake, Elizabeth Anderson (what is it about that name??), Myisha Cherry, and Jennifer Morton, and I see people who I would think believe in what they are doing and believe they are pursuing real things. And if that is the case, I would certainly agree with them! I see a lot of their work as relevant, important, and with real-life consequence. I think philosophy would be a much more "real" field if more people were like them!

Now, all of these folks might agree that the fields they work in (mostly ethics and social/political phil.) may be on the whole NOT pursuing real things. This is a claim I would most likely agree with. Our social practices of academia often (perhaps most often) do not encourage what I would consider "real work,"and often do encourage the flights of fancy approach where you just try and find your niche and stick with it regardless of its relevancy and if you even think it's worth spending time on.

I think accepting where we are now is a good first step, but I certainly do not think we should endorse the flights of fancy approach. Rather, I think we ought to work towards a more "real" field. I think your suggestions are excellent ones, Marcus, and that these are a good place to start.

So in a sense I agree with Overseas Tenure in that people ought to be much more self-aware and aware of the "unrealness" of the field at large. However, I don't think such awareness should lead to us giving up and simply accepting everything is arbitrary and moving on. I think we have a lot of work to do, but it's real work that is worth doing. And I really do believe that. For real.

Prof L

This is a contemporary malaise. Imagine asking this question of any ancient or medieval philosopher. Of course they were serious, as were most modern philosophers, too (and not because they all worked on "applied" issues——far from it!). Maybe this particular folly is something that takes off in the 20th century.

We should be serious, too, but most of us are not.


I agree with Prof L above. Put in my own words, philosophy is a way of life, and the point of philosophy is both to understand the world and to change it.

If pursuing philosophy has led one to false belief, then one has done it incorrectly. And anyone who is developing philosophical views that they believe to be "little more than flight of fancy" is peddling in sophistry.


I agree with Marcus insofar as I have a lot of skepticism over standard armchair philosophical methods. That's why my own work leans heavily into empirical data and is thoroughly interdisciplinary. As I said in my original comment, I also see and acknowledge that there is a lot of bs out there, for various sociological reasons. "Applied" work is a nice place to start, but I think even work deep into abstract M&E can be important. As someone else mentioned, the last time there was a big revolt against "nonsense" philosophy (positivism), the revolters just quickly found themselves doing ... what they would have called nonsense philosophy.

I think part of this is also your own personal attitude. You can choose to be cynical about it, or even try to get (what you take to be) your own grift going of getting paid to do nonsense. Or, you can recognize both the good and the bad, do work you find meaningful and important, and try to improve the discipline.


I don't argue for positions I don't believe in. Whether I'm actually right, how confident I am that I'm right, or whether anyone else cares, is another matter. I think it's bad form to argue for a controversial position simply because it's controversial, without actually subscribing to it.

My impression of my colleagues is that they, too, believe what they're saying to be right. But maybe there are some subfields where that's not generally the case?

(I do, however, think there's some value to outlining a position that's been insufficiently considered but which one either doesn't subscribe to, or isn't sure about.)


For any meaningful proposition p, given the principle of excluded middle, either p or its negation is true. For this reason,since there is so much disagreement in our field, if some philosophical claims are meaningful, some of us should believe them.

Yes - serious

If a life well-lived is one where your work is (a) meaningful and (b) something you can stand behind/you really believe in. If, further, seriousness (of some sort) is required for (a) and (b), as it plausibly is, then, YES, philosophers should be serious, and obviously so.

There can be epistemic value in people arguing just for odd positions. But this arguably isn't value for them as representers of a view, if lying that we believe P isn't something we should do, but arguing for P implies (perhaps) that one believes that P.

Overseas Tenured

You can be serious about philosophy without believing your philosophical positions. I'm pretty serious about philosophy - I think it can help us discover logical space, understand the complex web of connections among views about various different issues, and so on. So, I think philosophy can give us a kind of understanding - just not knowledge.

Marcus Arvan

Overseas: I’m sympathetic with that line, at least if philosophy is envisioned as primarily an a priori endeavor. But that’s precisely why I’m inclined to that we shouldn’t envision philosophy that way. I’m fine with investigating a priori questions, provided we admit (as you seem to recognize) that those investigations at most help us understand logical space. But I’m also inclined to think that most of us want philosophy to do more than this: namely, tell us what’s true. And it’s precisely here where I think mixing philosophy with empirical science (viz. natural philosophy) comes into play. When we root philosophical inquiry in empirical findings, we are doing more than mapping logical space: we are tying the inquiry in question to empirical facts (i.e. knowledge). So, I think philosophy *can* lead to knowledge—at least if we expand what we take philosophy to include. Of course, I know some aren’t willing to do this, holding that “naturalistic philosophy” is not philosophy; it’s science. But I demur. I think that philosophers who draw on scientific findings are doing something different than what scientists do: namely, something intermediate between a priori and a posteriori inquiry—blending them in ways (qua Quine’s denial of the analytic-synthetic distinction) that can inform science and philosophy in fruitful, bi-directional ways that at least promise to make philosophy more akin to knowledge (especially since I follow Sarah Moss in thinking that knowledge can come in degrees of probability).

Overseas Tenured

I have nothing against empirically informed philosophy and I definitely don't think that all philosophy is a priori (though I find Quine's attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction unconvincing). I just don't see how all that makes it easier for us get philosophical knowledge. Do you think the epistemic conditions are any better in empirically oriented areas? Debates about free will and justification, for example, got a lot of input from X-phi. (And I have nothing against X-phi, either.) Are we somehow in a better position to close debates over free will than those concerning mathematical ontology? I just don't see it. If nothing else, rampant disagreement (dramatically more widespread and deeper than in the natural sciences) seems to me to jeopardize most philosophical knowledge. I think Bryan Frances pretty much gets this right:


Prof L

Philosophy deals with issues of human concerns, of what kind of life we ought to live, our relation to ultimate things, what we can know (having typed this out, I realize this corresponds roughly to Kant’s three questions...) These things matter. They matter for our self-conception, for how we see ourselves in the grand scheme of things, they matter for how we treat our fellow human beings/other sentient creatures. Anyone who holds a position for the sake of argument does not really hold the position, and anyone for whom these things don’t matter is not living a properly reflective life. They might be good at chopping logic, or have read the complete works of a Very Important Philosopher, but I would say such a person is not serious. And it’s a bummer that this description applies to most professional philosophers today.


"Of course, I know some aren’t willing to do this, holding that “naturalistic philosophy” is not philosophy; it’s science. But I demur. I think that philosophers who draw on scientific findings are doing something different than what scientists do: namely, something intermediate between a priori and a posteriori inquiry—blending them in ways (qua Quine’s denial of the analytic-synthetic distinction) that can inform science and philosophy in fruitful, bi-directional ways that at least promise to make philosophy more akin to knowledge (...)."

Resistance to this attitude perplexes me. If you've spent any serious time reading science papers, you quickly realize that many scientists are very bad are mapping logical space and often frame their work in concepts that are confused or tendentious. It seems pretty clear that scientific progress needs the kind of clear conceptual thinking that philosophers bring. Armchair philosophy has its own obvious limitations. It seems clear that the two complement each other well, if you can figure out how to cooperate and divide the work. Historically, many of the best people did both, e.g. Aristotle, Descartes, Einstein.

With all that said, I do agree that XPhi, at least as I vaguely recall it from the paper or two I read in grad school, isn't a good model of this combination. I have in mind stuff like scientifically surveying people on their intuitions on free will or reference.

Marcus Arvan

Overseas Tenured: I agree that rampant disagreement jeopardizes most claims to philosophical knowledge. I also agree with you (and Mike) that X-phi, while valuable (particularly in philosophy of language and understanding concepts), is nevertheless limited in what it can do to resolve such disagreement. But I think that naturalistic philosophy has more resources than that. For example, in my 2013 paper "A New Theory of Free Will", I outline some of the empirical predictions that my account makes--predictions which, if verified, would lend support to the account, and if falsified, would disconfirm it. Similarly, my 2020 book makes predictions about moral cognition--predictions which again may be confirmed or disconfirmed.

This is what I would like to see philosophy do more of. When we do empirically engaged philosophy in a way that makes actual predictions, then we can test those features of our theories (even if not *every* claim in the theories is empirical, which would just make what we are doing science).


The research on letters of recommendation is an example of scientists taking concepts and definitions for granted. They all presupposed the same idea of letters of recommendation.

Thus, I fail to see how their research on the letter of recommendation is conclusive if they haven’t explored different definitions of its nature, functions, aims, usages, and/or consequences yet.

If we ask various people about these categories, we’d have different answers for each one. The philosopher’s job is to provide clarity of these research agendas. Wittgenstein understood that the philosophers job by his very profession has the right to provide such clarity when scientists are being unclear. Philosophy is also a conceptual check and balance to science.

OP PhD student

OP here (several weeks late to posting).

Does anyone want to take up the counter position just for the sake of argument? That is: does anyone see how philosophy could be an intellectual flight of fancy and nothing more? Is the faith in rationality and clarity anything more than a story philosophers tell themselves to justify their activities? Has clarifying concepts done anything good for anyone besides getting some people tenure?

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