Following Chris’s post about topics in philosophy that provoke worries about angels and pinheads, I was going to pitch in with a comment setting out my own pet hates, but realised I was veering off-topic when I began to whine not about the problems themselves but about the values of the discipline itself.
Some declarations up front:
- I left academic philosophy in 1998 and, though I remain an interested amateur, there are of course several CT contributors, not to mention regular visitors to the comments section, who have more recent experience of the ethos of the profession;
- I left in some part because philosophy seemed to be, like mathematics, a subject in which there is pretty much no substitute for raw brainpower. Recognising that my own IQ doesn’t break the bank, I decided that regularly getting beaten up in seminars by smarter people was unlikely to prove a recipe for a fun career, and thought it best to cut my losses fairly early post-DPhil.
- Having to take eliminativism about the mental seriously as a candidate for truth. If Patricia Churchland had offered her position merely as a possible occupant of logical space, it might have been harmless fun to join in the game of figuring out where exactly the argument went off the rails (since it clearly had, right?). Instead, she seemed actually to believe it, and it was deemed poor form to point out that her position was just nuts and start from there.
(The thing that seemed really unacceptable in this area was admitting to a liking for the views of Thomas Nagel or Colin McGinn. Eventually I got tired of holding up a placard inscribed with the slogan ‘You’ve left out subjectivity (again)’, so quit doing phil of mind and slouched off to join the moral/political kids behind the bikesheds).
- The endless hashing over of the whole Putnam-inspired thing of dismissing of scepticism by appealing to the theory of meaning, which struck me as being both incredibly clever and incredibly silly. A massive scholarly industry by now, but still as it seems to me, obviously cheating.
- Realising with a shock that David Gauthier’s ‘Morals By Agreement’ wasn’t intended as a reductio ad absurdum of his premisses, but spending weeks discussing the innards of that silly, brilliant book anyway.
Here’s the substance of my kvetch: I found philosophical problems puzzling and worrying and inescapable when I was a kid, and I still do, and that’s why I spent a good few years studying the subject. I hoped I’d find that some people smarter than I would have had some things to say that might begin to look like answers, and of course they had, and that’s why I don’t regret the investment of time that I made.
But what I also found, at graduate level anyway, were tremendous numbers of people, admittedly much cleverer than I, discussing what looked much more like shmanswers than answers, and being prepared to face down obvious objections by appealing to other shmanswers.
The book that made the most impression on me in my graduate education was Thomas Nagel’s ‘The View from Nowhere’, a key distinction of which was between sceptical, reductionist and heroic views:
It should also be said that Nagel has a wonderful footnote:
Skeptical theories take the contents of our ordinary or scientific beliefs about the world to go beyond their grounds in ways that make them impossible to defend against doubt. There are ways we might be wrong that we can’t rule out. Once we notice this unclosable gap we cannot, except with conscious irrationality, maintain our confidence in those beliefs.
Reductive theories grow out of skeptical arguments. Assuming that we do know certain things, and acknowledging that we could not know them if the gap between content and grounds were as great as the skeptic thinks it is, the reductionist reinterprets the content of our beliefs about the world so that they claim less. He may interpret them as claims about possible experience or the possible ultimate convergence of experience among rational beings, or as efforts to reduce tension and surprise or to increase order in the system of mental states of the knower, or he may even take some of them, in a Kantian vein, to describe the limits of all possible experience: an inside view of the bars of our mental cage. In any case on a reductive view our beliefs are not about the world as it is in itself – if indeed that means anything. They are about the world as it appears to us…
Heroic theories acknowledge the great gap between the grounds of our beliefs about the world and the contents of those beliefs under a realist interpretation, and they try to leap across the gap without narrowing it. The chasm below is littered with epistemological corpses.
A fourth reaction is to turn one’s back on the abyss and announce that one is now on the other side. This was done by G.E.Moore.I found a lot of reductionism, in Nagel’s sense, about the place and I didn’t like it much. It felt as if those tempted by it didn’t really feel the force of the problems at all, and had stumbled upon philosophy as an alternative outlet for their cleverness to solving the Times Crossword over breakfast. Much worse, though, there seemed to be stacks of writing that seemed to be inspired by Moore’s attitude concerning the necessity of leaping.
In the terms of the Philosophical Lexicon, too much Outsmarting went on in the subject. It also seemed to me that it ought not to be regarded as a good dialectical move, in response to an objection to a theory, to reply ‘but what’s your alternative?’. Not having a position, because all the extant views really obviously won’t do, should be way more acceptable than it seemed to be back when I did this stuff.
Of course, a discipline can’t have too many supersmart people, and philosophy may well be just too damn hard for the likes of me. Still, I worried, and worry, that there are too many professional philosophers who appear to be more interested in showing how superlatively clever they are than in addressing the permanent problems of the subject.
Ring any bells for anyone?