Friday, March 8, 2013

Political philosophers

Elsewhere, I have been questioning the viability of philosophy as a discipline, emphasizing its curious dependence on a basically religious – or at least pre-modern – view of the world.

But I have also noted another side of the issue, the way some academics may use their professional status as a means of promoting a favored ideology.

This may be done, as the linguist Noam Chomsky does it, in such a way as to keep separate the scholarship and the ideology; or, more questionably, as many humanities academics do it, injecting partisan politics into their teaching and research. It is not hard to find evidence that many philosophers follow the latter course.

Not only do these players have a vested personal interest in protecting and promoting 'the profession', they also have an ideological interest in doing so. Not surprisingly, skeptics about philosophy, from Wittgenstein to present-day critics, are very unpopular in professional philosophical circles.

Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that – at least for those who reject a religious perspective – academic philosophy as an area of research is very problematic, and not many people apart from academic philosophers (and by no means all of those) take it seriously anymore.

Paul Horwich, writing at The Stone (the New York Times philosophy blog) has recently defended a scaled-down, Wittgensteinian vision of philosophy as purely descriptive and clarificatory. Whether such a limited and unambitious style of philosophy could form the basis of a viable academic discipline or profession I very much doubt, but I am sympathetic to Horwich's general – deflationary – approach.

He notes the propensity of academic philosophers to build rather dubious theoretical constructs: theories of meaning or theories of truth, for example, when there is simply no need for such things.

Take the words 'true' and 'truth'. They do not add anything substantial to a direct assertion which does not use these words. They do allow us, however, to make certain general statements in concise and convenient ways. But to ask, "What is truth?" is to ask an effectively meaningless – and certainly futile – question.

As Horwich puts it, "Truth emerges as exceptionally unprofound and as exceptionally unmysterious."

Interestingly, the inevitable reply defending the philosophical status quo published by The Stone a few days later was more concerned about the non-political – or politically quietistic – nature of Horwich's view of philosophy than anything else.

Michael P. Lynch unequivocally rejects a merely descriptive philosophy which leaves the world as it is.

"I think philosophy can play a more radical role," he writes. For example, his normative version of philosophy would seek to attack the idea of authority "which has been used over the centuries to stifle dissent and change."

And, sounding rather authoritarian himself, he insists that the philosopher must also take "conceptual leaps".

"She [note the irritating choice of pronoun as a badge of the author's progressive credentials] must aim at revision as much as description, and sketch new metaphysical theories, replacing old explanations with new."

On one level (the level of literal content) such empty rhetoric says very little. On another level, however, it provides yet another indication of the politicization and decline of the humanities.

Sadly, Lynch's reply to Horwich only serves to underscore the fact that a great many academics working in the humanities, philosophers amongst them, see their role not so much in terms of contributing to the stock of human knowledge, as of promoting progressive causes and social change.


  1. I'm just waiting for the day when the New York Times asks me to explain the true nature of philosophy! I'll straighten them out. (For a fee.)

  2. Alan, what's your fee? If it's not too high, maybe I'd pay you to straighten meout!
    Mark has often questioned whether philosophy is a "viable discipline." As an academic discipline, it's gotten less and less respect as the day wears on, that's so. But as an activity -- something people do -- it's practically unavoidable. Even criticizing (or denigrating) philosophy is, itself, a philosophical exercise. I put this in a nutshell thus: "Philosophy is dead. Long live philosophy." And it has been my long-standing position, entirely empirical, that "philosophy matters because philosophy is what is done."
    As for what it is ... the answer to that is the crux of the issue of "viability." (I need a serious definition of "viability" from Mark, though. Eg: it's a viable discipline if you can make a living doing it, even if it's totally useless ... if viability means something like "marketability" -- if you get my drift.)

    I am suspicious of discussions about philosophy that emphasize "explanation" of anything. I don't think philosophy is about explanation at all. Does it explain how the universe works, or what it's made of? No. Does it explain how "arguably mysterian" consciousness arises from entirely physical brain cells? No. Does it explain animal behavior, human behavior, or anything physical at all? Not that I can see.

    But to interpret these things after all (or enough) facts are in? That is philosophy always. No one can say interpretation of facts is a useless enterprise. But it is always a philosophical exercise. Ergo: philosophy is dead; long live philosophy.

  3. My experience of "ordinary people" doing philosophy (I have run philosophy cafes) is that they don't do it very well. They don't have much sense of what makes a good argument. Unfortunately that is a skill that requires prolonged deliberate practice. So if philosophy were left to the general public it would wither quite quickly. (The same is true of any serious discipline.)

    I agree with your second point, philosophy is not about explanation, even though explanations can enter into philosophy.

    I don't see a sharp distinction between explanation and interpretation, so I think your second point undermines your third.

    Philosophy as I see it is the rational discussion of normative questions, focused on the interpretation of the concepts that guide us in normative matters. Taken that way, it is an interpretive discipline.

    GC, that took five minutes. At $100 per hour, that would be $8.33. But I'll waive my fee just this once.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I am expressing a distinction between explanation and interpretation which I would like more people to recognize. I'm not speaking here of interpretation as "interpretation of data" in science. I'm speaking of what we do with our facts after they're all in. (As you say for instance in your definition.)

    The general public might philosophize but I'm more concerned about intellectuals.

    And that's my two cents.

    ;;correcting a typo;;

  6. GC

    You want to know what I mean by viability. As you suggest, it could be seen from an economic/institutional perspective or from a more 'internal' perspective.

    In general terms, I am just extrapolating on long-term trends. You yourself concede that, as an academic discipline, philosophy has "gotten less and less respect as the day wears on," and decreased prestige inevitably translates into decreased support from (cash-strapped, as it happens) governments and other funding bodies.

    I would try to explain this relative loss of respect for philosophy and philosophers partly by reference to the rise of the various scientific disciplines (and most recently the social and cognitive sciences), and, more generally, by the rise of secularism.

    Philosophy is ostensibly secular but arguably its roots lie in religion, and I am claiming that it flourishes only in societies where more or less religious views of the world are prevalent.

    I like Horwich's approach, but I fear that it's only the academic-philosophical status quo (all those metaphysical theories, etc.) which keeps him and his kind in business.

    The general educated public has moved on and would find most of his conclusions (about the unmysteriousness of 'truth', for example) obvious.

  7. Alan

    "... the rational discussion of normative questions..."

    I don't dismiss this out of hand, but am less optimistic than you are that this process can be kept, in any meaningful sense, objective.

    I take it that your "normative questions" are logical as well as moral and aesthetic.

  8. Yes, normative issues arise across a wide range of matters.

    GC has a point if he is saying that philosophy once grew out of general intellectual concerns, and today it has shrunk to a mere academic pursuit. That is broadly true, I think. Much of it has become incredibly narrow.

  9. Without much of an academic background in philosophy, I was under the impression that philosophy already been relegated to a "descriptive and clarificatory" role, i.e., analyzing the methods of inquiry and the cogency of the arguments/conclusions of the sciences. It seems traditional philosophy endures only in religion, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.

    As you note, Mark, this has resulted from the explanatory power of modern science. Some of this must be attributed to the philosophers themselves.

    I hope that philosophy can still be a viable discipline regarding ethics and politics. I have enjoyed reading the thoughtful disputes between American political philosophers Rawls, Nozick, and Sandel.

    After reading Lynch's piece, however, it appears he and other metaphysically minded academics like him will lay waste to political philosophy as well.

    1. Many of the sorts of things that used to be discussed by social and political philosophers are now being dealt with by economists, political scientists, social psychologists etc., but, clearly, we must make value choices in these areas, and this involves going beyond the science and perhaps beyond philosophical thinking as well.

      You could see philosophical thinking in these areas as being concerned with the analysis of politically-relevant value-laden concepts, and with questions of how real and possible political structures and arrangements may express, enhance, negate, undermine, etc. particular values or ideals.

      But the choice (and defense) of particular values and ideals takes us beyond the academic. Some people think that specifically philosophical thinking can and should encompass the choice and defense of values. I don't think I do.

      The fact that general principles of logic and reasoning and appeals to evidence, etc. can (and should, in my opinion) be applied to polemics does not turn polemics into philosophy.

      There is nothing wrong with polemics. What I object to is polemics masquerading as philosophy.

  10. I should have read Lynch's article earlier. Having now done so, I can't see what Mark or Lee object to in it. It seems to me very sensible.

    His short discussion of truth is a good reply to Horwich, who does seem guilty of a false dichotomy. "He assumes that there is either a single nature of truth (and we can reductively define it) or that truth has no nature at all. But why think these are the only two choices?" Fair point, I think.

    And I can't see where he is guilty of "promoting progressive causes and social change". Where does he accuse Horwich of being "non-political – or politically quietistic"? He says nothing at all about Horwich's supposed politics. Nor can I see any thing suggesting that he will lay waste to political philosophy.

    1. Hi Alan.

      Lynch in an understated way takes issue with Horwich's suggestion that philosophers "leave the world as it is," instead of continuing to speculate about "the structure of any just society."

      In contrast, Lynch suggests philosophers should engage in the business of "liberation from the familiar," and promoting "dissent and change" and taking "conceptual leaps" and attempting "sketch new metaphysical theories"

      Although these expressions are somewhat empty, they have a progressive ring to them. Maybe we are just being querulous (Mark can answer for himself) because, after all, "the world as it is" and the "familiar" resonate more with conservatives. And as Mark noted, the flouting of literary convention with the use of the feminine pronoun tips his hand--(is this supposed to be the sting of the gadfly?).

      As to ruining political philosophy, I am suspicious of Lynch's call for "metaphysical leaps" and "new conceptual theories." Politics seems to be the most "down to earth" of all philosophical topics. Maybe I do not understand him, but Lynch's suggestion to take "metaphysical leaps" and to construct "new conceptual theories" threatens to make political philosophy as abstract and mysterious (at least to us novices) as the rest of philosophy.

    2. I thought Lynch misrepresented Horwich's view of truth, actually, and I certainly don't like Lynch's suggestion that truth has more than one nature. This is unnecessarily metaphysical language.

      The word 'truth' is used in different ways, sure. Horwich himself (following Wittgenstein) says that "the commitments defining individual concepts are rarely simple or determinate..."

      On the political question, I think Lee has dealt with it nicely.

      It is quite clear, I think, from the linked article and from a few other sources I have checked that Lynch is actively promoting a specific anti-conservative agenda and – this is what I particularly object to – is mixing his polemics with philosophy.

      If philosophy is being used as a cover to promote a particular ideological agenda then its standing as an objective academic discipline is undermined.

      (See also my reply to Lee's first comment.)

    3. Mark, your paragraph on truth is a good example of "metaphysical" thinking -- except that it is reductive metaphysics. You say:

      "Take the words 'true' and 'truth'. They do not add anything substantial to a direct assertion which does not use these words. They do allow us, however, to make certain general statements in concise and convenient ways. But to ask, "What is truth?" is to ask an effectively meaningless – and certainly futile – question."

      To me all this is obviously wrong. Truth is not reducible to assertion. Assertion is a speech act, which truth is not. Assertion is not the only speech action that employs the notion of truth -- denial also employs it, and so too does reasoning and refuting. Belief is distinct from assertion and from any other speech acts, but belief relies on the idea of truth. To believe X is to believe that X is true. So there's a whole story needed about how truth and falsity relate to belief and assertion.

      And Lynch is right that there are both empirical and conceptual truths. This duality is one feature of truth that needs to be understood -- it shows why radical empiricism can't get to first base. In my semi-humble opinion, these points are neither "meaningless" nor "futile".

    4. I like the "semi-humble".

      That paragraph of mine you focus on, Alan, is meant merely to give the gist of Horwich's argument about truth for those who didn't want to read his post. It's my summary, but it's Horwich's views I am reporting on and interested in here.

      Your main point seems to be that you can't criticize the metaphysical enterprise without participating in it. This may well be so. But it doesn't follow from this that the metaphysical enterprise is necessary or important or productive or worthwhile.

      Our brains work in curious ways, and sometimes, as in the case of certain kinds of worry or irrational guilt feelings, the problem cannot be resolved by thinking directly about it (because thinking about it only makes it worse, makes it loom larger), but only by resisting it, blocking it in a sense (which is very difficult because it feels like a cop out, but it's actually the only solution to a mental aberration).

      This is just an analogy: I'm not saying metaphysics is a neurosis or harmful, but it may be like a neurosis in the way I suggest. And so, in the end, just walking away from it may be the only way to defeat it.

      That being said, I will, despite my reservations, try to engage with your argument – in a separate comment, which non- or anti-metaphysical readers can safely ignore!

    5. Alan, as I indicated previously, that paragraph on truth was simply meant to convey as concisely as possible the gist of Horwich's view as expressed in the linked article.

      So I really think any discussion would be better based around Horwich's summary of his own view rather than my summary of his summary.

      I did not say or imply that truth is assertion (and so a speech act). I was just agreeing with Horwich that to assert that a formula or sentence is true is not doing anything more than asserting the formula or sentence.

      You have introduced the concept of belief. I am aware that belief is distinct from assertion, and is relevant to the concept of truth. You say "there's a whole story needed about how truth and falsity relate to belief and assertion."

      I'm not so sure. You can certainly tell very complicated stories about this – philosophers do. But do they get anywhere in the end? Do their views converge in some way and produce real knowledge?

      Or could it be that Wittgenstein and Horwich are right, and the whole enterprise is ill-conceived?

      It's clear to me and I suspect it's clear to you that there are some underlying beliefs and assumptions (about the nature of reason, for example) in operation here which lead different people to have different views on these matters.

      One thing that I do agree with Lynch about is that our ordinary concepts have a history and are often shaped by metaphysical assumptions. But this view – which he appeals to to support his progressive agenda – is quite compatible with a Nietzschean or Wittgensteinian approach to metaphysics, I would say.

      On the question of conceptual (non-empirical) truths, I don't think Lynch's suggestion that they show that truth has more than one nature is very helpful.

      Mathematics I am increasingly coming to see as quasi-empirical.

      With regard to logic, tautologies and all that sort of thing – well we could talk about that if you like, but I don't see that any of it requires a metaphysical theory of truth. Wittgenstein invented truth tables for propositional logic, didn't he? And he didn't see the need for a theory of truth.

      And there is scope for argument about whether prescriptive moral statements can be assigned a truth-value.

    6. In another NYT article, Gary Gutting has a reasonable answer to your position.

      "The perennial objection to any appeal to philosophy is that philosophers themselves disagree among themselves about everything, so that there is no body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can rely. It’s true that philosophers do not agree on answers to the “big questions” like God’s existence, free will, the nature of moral obligation and so on. But they do agree about many logical interconnections and conceptual distinctions that are essential for thinking clearly about the big questions. Some examples: thinking about God and evil requires the key distinction between evil that is gratuitous (not necessary for some greater good) and evil that is not gratuitous; thinking about free will requires the distinction between a choice’s being caused and its being compelled; and thinking about morality requires the distinction between an action that is intrinsically wrong (regardless of its consequences) and one that is wrong simply because of its consequences. Such distinctions arise from philosophical thinking, and philosophers know a great deal about how to understand and employ them. In this important sense, there is body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can and should rely."

    7. My better self says, let it drop. But my contrarian, argumentative self has gone and drafted a reply which it seems a pity to waste...

      Gutting's examples of the big questions reveal his religious interests, and seem to have as much to do with theology as philosophy.

      Furthermore, the first distinction he refers to (relating to the problem of evil) derives simply from an understanding of the meaning of the word 'gratuitous'. Nothing specifically philosophical about it.

      In the second example (on free will), the distinction he mentions is between a choice being caused and being compelled. These sorts of distinctions are more complex and have been discussed and developed by theologians, jurists, psychologists and neuroscientists as well as by philosophers.

      The third distinction is a bit like the first, in that it flows directly from an understanding of the word 'intrinsic'.

      Gutting claims that such distinctions arise from philosophical thinking. In a sense, this is true. But the phrase 'philosophical thinking' is ambiguous.

      It could simply refer to a type of reflective and analytical thinking which occurs in many disciplinary and general environments. Or it could refer specifically to thinking by philosophers and their students (i.e. within the context of a discipline called philosophy).

      Gutting's conclusion seems to trade on this ambiguity.

      If he is saying that the distinctions he is talking about arise or arose (solely or even predominantly) in the context of 'philosophical thinking' in the second (narrower) sense, I would say he is wrong.

      They arise from thinking in various fields, and just from using and understanding particular words, don't they?

  11. There is a third possibility. These distinctions arise and get thrashed out in ordinary life, in academic thought, and in the specialised domain of philosophy. Philosophers have no exclusive subject matter, nor any distinctive method, but they do have a tradition of thought that is worth preserving and promoting ... in my opinion.

    1. My phrase "various fields" was not intended to exclude philosophy, actually. And I certainly accept that there is much in the philosophical tradition which is of value.

    2. So I'm a bit perplexed. I had thought you were making a case -- in this and other posts --for the elimination of philosophy from the university (and school) curriculum. Did I get that wrong?

    3. My main concerns are, I suppose, on the teaching front, that philosophy is too often being used as a vehicle to promote (left-wing, as it happens) ideologies; and I personally have doubts about philosophy as a stand-alone research discipline.

      I don't think I'm being inconsistent in saying that there is much in the philosophical tradition which I value. I see it in historical terms. As a tradition which is probably in the process of petering out.

      If I had a religious view of the world, I may well see things differently. Much depends, in my opinion, on whether or what kinds of religion survive(s).

      Chinese students I have encountered have little or no interest in philosophy, by the way. (Maybe there is some research out there on this.) I suspect a Christian or Jewish background is more conducive to having some interest in philosophy.

      I am admittedly going with my intuitions here and not gathering data. I am also working with my particular historical understanding of philosophy as a discipline which grew out of a religious environment and had metaphysics at its core.

      Some bits (of the tradition) are still good, but (subjective judgement!) these good bits no longer cohere with one another and perhaps should find other homes.

  12. Mark--

    Here is a link to an editorial regarding "progressive orthodoxy" in the social sciences and the consequences when someone publishes studies which reach heretical conclusions.

  13. Mark--

    Here is a link to an editorial regarding "progressive orthodoxy" in the social sciences and the consequences when someone publishes studies which reach heretical conclusions.

    1. Lee, thanks for the link. Pretty depressing, isn't it? It makes one despair of academia.