Philosophers, commit!

Darwin

Disclaimer: I am not committing to any of the claims in this blog post. All I’m saying is that if I were to commit, this is what I would commit to saying. 

Philosophy has changed a lot since Plato. One change that I particularly disagree with is the way philosophy is often practiced in writing and conference papers: with a great deal of caution and qualifications. While I prefer big ideas that challenge the way we normally think, this type of philosophy is not encouraged in the profession.

Instead, a good philosophy paper is supposedly one that presents an airtight argument from a set of premises to a conclusion. If no one can find a flaw in the argument, it doesn’t seem to matter if everything else is absurd. All one has to do is to explicitly state that one is not committing to the premises, and not to the conclusion either. Is this really the best way to do philosophy?

Imagine a contemporary version of Plato, starting one of the dialogues by saying: “I am not saying that the Forms are real. All I am arguing is that if they were, this is what they would be like.” How much fun would that be? And what are the philosophical virtues?

Personally, I am far more interested in an argument for ‘A’ or ‘B’ than in an argument for ‘B follows logically from A’. Of course, one might use such an argument to argue against a position, for instance by showing that something absurd follows from it. But then we should at least be willing to commit to exactly that: “Yes, the conclusion is absurd, and yes, this is a good reason to deny the premise.”

Big philosophical ideas needn’t come in the form of airtight arguments. They needn’t even be true. Plato’s Forms, Descartes’ dualism, Hume’s analysis of causation – the reason why this is great philosophy is because they change the way we think about the world. We might not agree with them, but it takes a lot of philosophical work to offer a good alternative. And that seems to me more philosophically valuable than logical consistency or validity.

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10 thoughts on “Philosophers, commit!

  1. I think there are two issues in play here and it’s easier to agree with you about one of them than the other. One issue is that philosophers these days are more engaged in producing and critiquing arguments than in coming up with novel ideas the way Plato, Leibniz and the like did. The other is that philosophers aren’t committing to exciting theses anymore.

    These may both be real trends, but they don’t have to go together. For example, in Elizabeth Barnes’ recent paper ‘Ways of Truthmaking’ she presents a novel property ontology, according to which to have a property is just to exist in a certain way. She explores the view and says what’s good about it (within the context of holding a type of truthmaker principle), but she doesn’t adopt it. Longer ago, maybe Cartesian or Humean scepticism could be seen as ideas they’re throwing out there but don’t really believe. You haven’t got the commitment, but you’ve still got the exciting new ideas. I think it’s easier to lament the lack of interesting new ideas than philosophers’ reluctance to commit unconditionally to the conclusions of the arguments they discuss.

    I do wonder whether philosophers really do have commitment issues, though. I guess there are some philosophers who are very confident about things and others who think it’s all very difficult, and while you can tell which of Ryle and Wittgenstein is which from their writing, nowadays we’re all encouraged to be a bit cautious. But in conversation you can still tell the committed from the uncommitted. I’m told I come over as the former.

    (I also heard somewhere that some scholars, and the people at the Sceptical Academy, don’t think Plato really committed to anything much, and that’s why he wrote dialogues and often had them end in an impasse. But then perhaps so much the worse for Plato.)

    • Thank you for this, I think you are perfectly right. About whether philosophers have commitment issues, it seems that attempts to commit is often discouraged. It’s easier to get a paper published if all one is willing to commit to is an airtight argument. And one can avoid a whole lot of critical discussion after a conference presentation if one starts it with a long disclaimer. When I present talks, I never know what I will have to defend. In Norway, for instance, no one seems willing to “wear their dispositional hat” for a day or two if they are not convinced that it is the right ontology.

      John Heil was recently visiting my university for a CauSci conference, and he started his talk by presenting the new APA journal, the Journal of the American Philosophical Association. One of the things he said was that philosophers should be more daring. The APA journal wants to publish papers “that break new ground, papers that go out on a limb, papers that start trends rather than merely adding epicycles to going trends”. Further, the editors say that “the world needs a philosophy journal that serves philosophers by providing a venue for fresh, innovative, accessible scholarship”. http://www.apaonline.org/?page=journal

      I am very pleased to see that the philosophical profession is also unhappy with the way things are moving, and the hope is that we will soon see a different trend.

  2. Oh you good man! You’ve just given me the push I needed to get that BIG idea I’ve been working on written up. What the pop does it matter if I’m wrong?
    Thanks!

    • If you are wrong, then hopefully someone will tell you what exactly is wrong, and then you can develop your thinking from that. This is what I love about the Mumford Method of Academic Writing. Any criticism becomes helpful feedback, and if everyone is happy with the paper after a presentation, then one didn’t learn anything new. By presenting a strong and clear position, one is more vulnerable to criticism and discussion. If everyone understands why it is important and what is at stake, they get engaged in the ideas. Of course, this makes it more work to defend the idea, but it also gives you more interesting discussions and feedback.

  3. Having failed to comment in 140 characters, I may as well commit to a longer comment. I agree! Conditionalising one’s claims is a poor strategy. If the underlying intention is to ‘avoid criticism’, then I’d call it dishonest. One is just as responsible for one’s premises as for the ratiocinative moves leading from them to the conclusion. At the same time, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with entertaining philosophical ideas as hypotheses. One can commit to (tentatively) defending some idea, without actually committing to the idea. I suppose you agree with this.
    (I’d better stop here – so much agreement makes me wish I’d be called names and threatened with legal action by some senior, rankings-wielding, member of the profession!)

    • I do agree that philosophers should entertain hypotheses. But I also think that it is our duty to also communicate why those hypotheses are important, what is at stake, and generally why I should care whether the argument is valid or not. One of the reasons I like Frege and Aristotle, is that they did want a logical argument to be both valid and true.

  4. While there are plenty of ideas and concepts one simply cannot commit to (yet), I think Rani has a point in that if we do not commit to ideas and concepts ostensibly more commit-worthy (given the evidence, for example), we create an undesirable homogeneity of ideas where most ideas are wishy-washy and strong ideas unjustly so. Ideally, our commitments should reflect the extent to which we presume to know matters. In this case, a welcome presumption that reflects a theoretical state of affairs.

    • Agree! Wishy-washy is the worst type of philosophy. Also, I don’t mind that one still cannot commit to an idea. But one can at least say if one finds something to be convincing, promising or even absurd.

  5. Although I quite agree, maybe sometimes it’s not excessive carefulness, but also something useful. When everyone has come up with different ideas on a specific issue, it can be useful to say “ok we have conflicting intuitions on this, let’s try to formalise the problem in order to draw the landscape of possible solutions”. This is certainly an important thing to do: it allows others to think more clearly on the issue. And it requires being as much neutral as possible, and charitable to everyone, i.e. being able to entertain a position without commitment, which is also a great skill.
    Maybe it produces the impression that the issue cannot really be decided until further development, that it’s metely a matter of intuitions pulling in different directions, but it’s a good way to see what is at stake exactly.

    • Agree. To clarify details in the position is important work, and I don’t think one should just cling on to any intuition and defend it. But even when one is doing clarifying work, I think it is useful if one is also clear about what one’s own stakes are in the debate. Many philosophers have something that they are not willing to reject, and any debate will be clearer if we put all our cards on the table. When reading referee reports, I often see that the referee disagree with a project because they have a different view, but this disagreement is not flagged. All I want is more honesty and commitment in the philosophical discussion.

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