Science and the “aim of philosophy”

by Chris Bertram on December 28, 2011

There’s a very interesting interview with Brian Leiter over at 3:AM Magazine. Read the whole thing, as they say. Interesting and entertaining though Brian’s thoughts are, I reacted somewhat negatively to his promotion of “realism” over “moralism” and to the somewhat dismissive (though sugar-coated) remarks he makes about Jerry Cohen. Jerry actually did have some “realist” things to say about society and politics, most notably in parts of Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality and in chapter 11 of Karl Marx’s Theory of History, but his work can speak for itself. More worrying, I think, is Brian’s apparent desire to abolish large parts of philosophy altogether when he write approvingly of:

those who think the aim of philosophy should be to get as clear as possible about the way things really are, that is, about the actual causal structure of the natural and human world, how societies and economies work, what motivates politicians and ordinary people to do what they do ….

My question here is: why’s that an aim of philosophy ? The people investigating the actual causal structure of the natural world are natural scientists, not philosophers; the people investigating the actual causal structure of the human world are social scientists, not philosophers.

Update: Brian assures me that he has no desire that the moralists be “purged” (my work was “abolished”). I’m happy to hear that, but it remains that he thinks that we moralists are pursuing an agenda that is other than he believes the aim of philosophy ought to be.

{ 44 comments }

1

Mr Art 12.28.11 at 2:50 pm

Didn’t philosophers used to do those things, though? Hence ‘natural philosophy’. Is it a bit like religion, where over the years, the sphere of [claimed] relevance has been gradually diminished by advances in science?

2

Jacob T. Levy 12.28.11 at 2:54 pm

None of the views quoted come as a surprise coming from BL, do they?

In any case, I can see why that passage strikes you as a desire to abolish large parts of philosophy, but what strikes me about it is the implied desire to abolish the other disciplines that mistakenly thought this kind of thing was their purview, e.g. the social sciences.

3

Watson Ladd 12.28.11 at 3:24 pm

Wittgenstein had a similar idea about philosophy: it was the clarification of the fact that there is nothing in philosophy, resolving the confusions of language that philosophy is. (Think Tarski Truth Theorem putting the kibosh on ontology)What BL is tossing out that I think is important is ethics and metaethics, as well as the desiccated remains of metaphysics that we care about. If a philosopher can explain why the amplitude squared is probability, we would all be grateful. But we certainly don’t need yet another generation of ontological arguments for the existence of God.

4

JM 12.28.11 at 3:26 pm

Semantics

5

The Raven 12.28.11 at 3:36 pm

What is Zen?

6

William Timberman 12.28.11 at 3:41 pm

What I like about Leiter is that when he bangs Nietzsche and Marx together, he hears the tolling of a great bell. For the record, so do I. His toss-offs regarding Sartre also ring true, which tickles me, because Sartre was for me, as apparently for him, an early infatuation, one I’ll never entirely renounce. I also think, as he does, that Foucault rises above the mire that has collected about him, and finally, I approve of his indictment of piety, which seems to me more meaningful than the rhetorical bugle calls of Dawkins or Hitchens.

7

Matt 12.28.11 at 4:08 pm

What BL is tossing out that I think is important is ethics and metaethics

I think that metaethics is fine on his account, and even required- it’s a part of finding out “the way things really are”, and Leiter has written a fair amount on it. He has, of course, particular views as to what the answers are, and they are controversial, but his reasons for not liking much of first-order moral theory follow (I think he thinks) from what he takes the right meta-ethical views to be. (Those interested might look at his edited volume _Objectivity in Law and Morality_ for some of his views, as well as his book on Nietzsche. )

Anyone interested in Leiter’s take on Cohen might look at “Marxism and the Continuing Irrelevance of Normative Theory.” Review of If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? by G. A. Cohen. 54 Stanford Law Review 1127 (2002). (I think Leiter has changed his position a bit since then, but I’m not sure, and it would be the place to start.)

As for the general issue, I assume Leiter means that he thinks a lot of things philosophers do is a waste of time, and that they’d be better served doing something else. I think that pretty much every philosopher thinks that about some other philosophers, though of course the targets vary. I didn’t read him as saying anything much stronger than that.

8

Chris Bertram 12.28.11 at 4:15 pm

Brian tells me that I’ve over-reached in the post, since what he does is to map out the distinction between the realists and the moralists and express sympathy with the realists. So it might be better if discussion proceeds not on the basis of the attribution of views to Brian, but, rather from the starting point of the aim of philosophy, as imputed by him to realists. So the question is then, if we were to accept the realist claim that the

bq. aim of philosophy should be to get as clear as possible about the way things really are, that is, about the actual causal structure of the natural and human world (etc.)

would there be anything left for philosophy to do? (Possible answer: a bit of methodological underlabouring.)

9

bob mcmanus 12.28.11 at 4:18 pm

I loved that interview a week ago, thanks for linking to it.

(That’s where I read about “reaction formation”)

10

tomslee 12.28.11 at 4:36 pm

I always thought that philosophers dealt with whatever is left over when the other specialities were exhausted.

11

Kenny Easwaran 12.28.11 at 4:40 pm

Do you really want to describe all of philosophy of language and mind as a bit of “methodological underlabouring”? It seems to me that questions about the nature of consciousness, the relation of the mental to the physical, the origin of semantics, and the ways we do things with words are all an important part of finding out the “actual causal structure of the natural and human world”, in ways that aren’t (yet?) able to be delegated to psychologists and linguists, though of course what they say is of great relevance for it.

The questions of ethics and epistemology, about practical, moral, and theoretical normativity seem to be even more clearly just in the domain of philosophy, though I suppose one might question whether they are part of the “natural and human world”. I would say that they are, but I can see that this would depend on one’s substantive views about normativity.

12

Chad Satterlee 12.28.11 at 4:54 pm

These sorts of debates can end up becoming too vague and tautological. We need to set some clear boundaries. The boundaries are as follows. Societies make collective decisions by definition. Political economy studies the ways this happens: namely the many forms of states and markets. This sphere is about telling us the way the world is. Formal modelling is the main weapon here, which Marx firmly favoured in Capital. On the other hand, (political) philosophy’s role is to systematically argue the way the world ought to be. That is, the moral reasons behind the collective decisions society decides on. It was Rawls who told us these issues could be dealt with in a systematic way. As John Roemer shows, it is possible to combine both spheres with sometimes counterintuitive results (only revealed to us through the systematic methodology of the modelling approach).

13

Antonio Conselheiro 12.28.11 at 6:05 pm

“The way things really are”: people who talk this way often assume that since things are only one way, they can only develop one way. But any actual state has many successor states, some more likely that others. “Realists” tend to marry themselves to the most likely outcomes, whereas political success amounts to realizing a favorable but less likely outcome. The Democratic party is saturated with this kind of thinking.

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

This doesn’t necessarily apply to what Leiter says, but it does apply to a lot of so-called common sense. Democratic defeatist realism is a reasonable but too passive response to four decades of defeat, and it pretty much precludes a turn around.

There should be some discipline investigating the multiple possibilities of present reality and how it is possible to bring about a less likely, more favored, non-entropic, non-equilibrium outcome. Since it would be a way of choosing and making, it would necessarily be ethical in part and include forms of ethical discussion.

14

LFC 12.28.11 at 6:06 pm

Brian tells me that I’ve over-reached in the post, since what he does is to map out the distinction between the realists and the moralists and express sympathy with the realists.

Leiter doesn’t only “map out the distinction”. In that paragraph of the interview he also explicitly sorts writers into one or the other category. Weber, for example, is a ‘realist’ not a ‘moralist,’ according to Leiter, i.e. Weber is an analyst of reality not a purveyor of prescriptions. Wasn’t Weber both? What the **** are the vocation essays, after all? (That reminds me I have to re-read them one of these days.)

More broadly, how can you prescribe intelligently if you don’t have some view of the reality you want to change?

15

andrew 12.28.11 at 6:07 pm

Has anyone noticed that Brian Leiter has a very strong resemblance to the comedian Jonah Hill? I say this in all seriousness, by the way…

16

LFC 12.28.11 at 6:11 pm

P.s.
Don’t Leiter’s pronouncements about plutocracy etc contain implicit prescriptions?

17

Antonio Conselheiro 12.28.11 at 6:14 pm

Preferring realism to moralism isn’t exactly a bold stroke in the American political-intellectual world. It sort of like advocating that shoes be made out of leather and houses of wood.

18

engels 12.28.11 at 6:49 pm

Quite possibly ‘get as clear as possible about’ != ‘investigate’. To quote the title of talk by PMS Hacker, ‘Philosophy: A Contribution to Human Understanding, Not to Human knowledge’. From the little I know of Brian Leiter’s opinions I’m pretty sure this is not what he meant but it provides one answer to Chris’ question, I think.

19

William Eric Uspal 12.28.11 at 7:21 pm

Perhaps, for a realist, fruitful consideration of How things ought to be can only follow analysis of The way things are, because in the latter we see what possibilities are both raised and frustrated by determinate social practice. For instance, a society of abundance is a possibility immanent to capitalism, and partially realised by it in a distorted fashion.

Abstract moral theory may purport to start from an a priori, “objective” position, but often naturalizes what is historically specific (and, hopefully, transitory.)

20

William Eric Uspal 12.28.11 at 7:41 pm

FYI, Raymond Geuss has a little book on realism. Tom Hurka reviews it here:

http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/23887/?id=15086

21

tomslee 12.28.11 at 8:14 pm

Has anyone noticed that Brian Leiter has a very strong resemblance to the comedian Jonah Hill?

My first thought was “he looks just like Griff Rhys Jones“.

22

LFC 12.28.11 at 9:03 pm

@20
Thanks for that link. I was going to mention Geuss’s Politics and the Imagination (2010), the parts of which I’ve looked at I’ve been, in general, underwhelmed by. (I’m not a philosopher but Hurka, who is, appears underwhelmed by the Geuss book he reviewed.)

23

nnyhav 12.28.11 at 11:01 pm

Seems a shame not to mention that within days of this the interviewer also reviewed An Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions by Alex Rosenberg, with nods to both Leiter and Williamson (the latter of which is relevant to the question as posed or reposed).

24

novakant 12.28.11 at 11:17 pm

What Kenny said – and I would add Philosophy of Art, Aesthetics and Literary Theory (in the wider sense).

25

Yan 12.29.11 at 12:10 am

I think Leiter’s remarks lend themselves to what’s likely a misinterpretation: that in opposing realism to moralism he is opposing descriptive to normative aims or forms of philosophy. But I suspect that his use of “moralism” is, like Nietzsche’s, aimed at a narrow form of normative philosophy that focuses on appeals (“moralistic lectures” as Leiter says) to individuals to freely change their behavior. The objection then, is not to prescriptive claims but to free will as a false form of causality, and so the rejection of philosophical moral*ism* needn’t be a rejection of moral philosophy.

Moralism would be distinguished, then, from other still normative philosophers like Marx and Foucault (two of his “realist” examples), who examine the causes and conditions of our moral and political motivations, in order to clarify which normative ends are compatible with reality and how they can be achieved, a realistic form of prescription.

26

LFC 12.29.11 at 2:39 am

I suspect that his use of “moralism” is, like Nietzsche’s, aimed at a narrow form of normative philosophy that focuses on appeals (“moralistic lectures” as Leiter says) to individuals to freely change their behavior.

The problem is that in the interview he puts into the ‘moralism’ category writers who don’t do this.

27

Tom Hurka 12.29.11 at 5:53 am

Early in the interview Brian seems to suggest that most people who believe homosexuality is immoral (his phrase is “the typical” such person) do so in reaction to deep homosexual urges they themselves feel. This is a sweeping claim, and I wonder what his evidence for it is. I don’t mean evidence that this “reaction formation” can sometimes happen or that it explains the beliefs of some who condemn homosexuality, but evidence that it explains the beliefs of most of them. I would be surprised if there were any such evidence.

I obviously don’t say this in order to defend the view that homosexuality is immoral, which I reject. But it illustrates my suspicion of the “hermeneutics of suspicion”: that too often it can be an invitation to dismiss beliefs you disagree with on the basis of speculations about their causal origin that are pleasing to you but essentially ungrounded.

And it leads to a question about Nietzsche. How many of his claims about our real motivations or about e.g. the origin of Christian/benevolent morality were based on hard empirical research and how many were the result of armchair speculation that, however striking its conclusions, ought to be condemned as unscientific by any serious philosophical naturalist? I would put a large number in the second category.

28

js. 12.29.11 at 6:32 am

“The way things are” is ridiculously vague. So, suppose e.g. that we humans are in fact “rational beings” in the traditional sense. Then there are going to be certain very general facts about the rational faculty—necessary constraints on practical reasoning, e.g. And, certain substantive rational requirements might then follow from these necessary constraints, which themselves are nothing more than consequences of the nature of our rational faculty. But the substantive rational requirements here could well be first-order moral requirements. Kant, e.g., argues in a manner not unlike this.

I’m not necessarily endorsing this line of argument, but the realism vs. moralism seems to smuggle in a quite specific and possibly contentious conception of what’s “real”, i.e. what “things” covers in “the way things really are”.

29

js. 12.29.11 at 6:38 am

And to answer the original question: I think an investigation of “the way things really are” (using various empirical and non-empirical methodologies, and without making arbitrary prior assumptions about the scope of “things” or “facts” is) is in fact a pretty good description of what philosophy should be.

30

Rob 12.29.11 at 1:07 pm

I think it’s rather revealing the way that Leiter stacks the deck against his philosophical opponents in describing the division between naturalists and anti-naturalists he thinks characterizes philosophy. Both are taken to be about investigating what human beings are like, it’s just that anti-naturalists think the division between humans and other animals is one of kind and not degree. I very much doubt that any anti-naturalist would see what they’re doing as investigating what human beings are like, and particularly human beings in comparison to other animals. Instead, they presumably see themselves as investigating the nature of various more and less abstract concepts, like knowledge, existence and so on. What they say about what it is to know things is supposed, I think, to be true of anything that might know things.

There’s also a strange step in the description of naturalism when the claim that humans are like other animals is supposed to legitimate the further claim that the methods of empirical investigation we use to understand other animals should be used to understand humans. We don’t tend to ask philosophical questions about other animals though, about the concepts and categories they use to understand the world. We’re not particularly interested in the details of their understanding, or whether they’re getting it right. Nor is it obvious that the tools of biology would be well-suited to answering those questions, any more than the tools of assessing cause and effect in historical change are to understanding particle physics. Why then does accepting that humans are animals like any other mean adopting tools standardly used and developed for quite different sorts of questions in philosophy?

31

Yan 12.29.11 at 3:26 pm

@ Tom Hurka

“And it leads to a question about Nietzsche. How many of his claims about our real motivations or about e.g. the origin of Christian/benevolent morality were based on hard empirical research and how many were the result of armchair speculation that, however striking its conclusions, ought to be condemned as unscientific by any serious philosophical naturalist?”

I’m inclined to think none of Nietzsche’s claims about motivation are based on “hard empirical research,” but it may not be necessary to condemn them on those grounds alone.

First, we can reject Nietzsche’s stronger claims about such motives and instead see them as alternative possible explanations that should be assessed only in their ability to undermine our certainty in the dominant explanations (particularly when the dominant ones are themselves untested prejudices), rather than as establishing the alternatives. (Perhaps this is what Leiter means by “hermeneutics of suspicion”? I’m not sure.)

For example, we needn’t be decisively prove that Christian morality is entirely grounded in the motivation of revenge to reasonably worry that it isn’t entirely grounded in love. And the possible role played by motives such as resentment and revenge helps establish that worry’s reasonableness, even though it certainly does not prove Nietzsche’s alternative explanation.

Second–and this is the more difficult case to make, but worth consideration–we might try to defend Nietzsche’s unscientific movitational claims in the same way Nagel and others have tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to defend Freud’s: as extensions of commonsense psychological claims rather than failed scientific ones. (Of course there are many problems with this type of defense, but it at least suggests that a dismissal on the *sole* grounds that a motivational claim lacks “hard” empirical evidence is perhaps too quick.)

32

Yan 12.29.11 at 5:17 pm

@LFC
“The problem is that in the interview he puts into the ‘moralism’ category writers who don’t do this.”

Note that even if this is the case, it would suggest–against many responses to this post–that Leiter’s primary mistake is not his drawing of the categories of realism and moralism, but in how he has applied them.

I think most of his examples are arguably, if not obviously, “moralists” in the narrower sense I suggested. Which of his mentioned examples do you think are misapplied?

33

LFC 12.29.11 at 6:07 pm

@ Yan
Which of his mentioned examples do you think are misapplied?

First, I understand this is an interview, not an article, and in an interview one can’t go into all the details and nuances one would discuss in an article. So I don’t want to come across as too harsh and picky on this realism/moralism thing. (And the SSRN site is down for system upgrading at the moment, so I can’t access BL’s linked article on realism and moralism right now even if I had the time and inclination.)

That said, you wrote that BL’s moralism category is “aimed at a narrow form of normative philosophy that focuses on appeals…to individuals to freely change their behavior.” And BL puts Plato, Kant, Rawls, Dworkin, Nussbaum, “among many others,” in this moralism category.

I don’t think Rawls can be characterized that way; he’s interested more in outlining a just “basic structure” of society than in appealing to individuals to change their behavior, ISTM. As for Plato, a good argument probably can be made that he doesn’t fit into the realism/moralism divide, or else straddles it. The theory of Forms is Plato’s idea of “how things really are,” so to that extent he is in the realist category (it’s not based on empirical scientific investigation but, as mentioned upthread, Nietzsche’s ideas weren’t either). I’m also not willing to concede that Dworkin, Nussbaum or Kant are correctly placed here, but I’ll let other people argue about them.

34

ragweed 12.30.11 at 7:49 pm

There’s also a strange step in the description of naturalism when the claim that humans are like other animals is supposed to legitimate the further claim that the methods of empirical investigation we use to understand other animals should be used to understand humans. We don’t tend to ask philosophical questions about other animals though, about the concepts and categories they use to understand the world. We’re not particularly interested in the details of their understanding, or whether they’re getting it right. Nor is it obvious that the tools of biology would be well-suited to answering those questions, any more than the tools of assessing cause and effect in historical change are to understanding particle physics.

This is slightly tangential but I have been thinking a lot about this specific phenomena as well. Unfortunately, “humans are like other animals” tends to equate to a reductive view of animals themselves, in which animals are mechanicly uniform. And yet the trend in animal behavior studies is to recognize that animal behavior can only be understood on a species by species level. The simplistic “it’s all instinct” world of E.O. Wilson has given way to one that looks at animals as each posessing a unique set of cognitive tools that need to be understood on their own terms. The question is no longer whether a dog “thinks” or not, but to understand how a dog thinks as a dog. As such, questions about the nature of consciousness, empathy, self-awareness, abstraction, and language are significant questions in investigating animal behavior.

As is deep and intense fieldwork. One zoologist I know said in a discussion many years ago “you can’t really understand a species until you have watched them in the field for a couple of decades. Think of how much we would have never learned if Jane Goodall had spent a year in Gombe and called it a day.” And yet, much of the “humans are like any animal” discourse is about denying the role for culture and reason in human behavior, reducing it all to some sort of common animal instinct, as if culture formation and cognitive abstraction are not aspects of our species.

If we are to truly view humans like any animal, then we must broaden the definition of animal behavior to include human culture, reason, abstraction, art, et al. In that sense, the social sciences and philosophy are part of the essential fieldwork needed to understand Homo sapiens, just like any other animal.

John

[even more OT - I particularly run into this in environmentalist circles, in discussions about population and carrying capacity - "We are no better than bacteria in a petri dish." It goes along with the argument that, because our behavior is instinctive, just like any other animal, "reason cannot save us." Which seems sort of like saying that bats shouldn't be able to fly, because no other mammal can.]

35

roy belmont 12.30.11 at 8:45 pm

Expediency is not a moral code.
Pre-microscopic worldviews were accurate to the limits of the known.
As are the sub-Planck expeditions.
But the microscopic world was there the whole time, and not down in there at the bottom of the lensed tube, but everywhere. Here. Another world we didn’t know anything about.
That is this. World.
The moral difference between Toxoplasmosis and self-delusion is pretty indistinct; humane insistence on something like the moral compass of the “heart” is caught between rationalist pragmatism and institutional metaphysic. But until very recently it was we all we had to get us through, and abandoning it for the navigation of logic alone seems rash.
Unless of course the human heart is getting in the way of expediency.
Then it makes sense, to abandon its guidance.
From the p.o.v. of a colony of something or other, in the nutrient medium, in the dish.

36

Mike Otsuka 12.31.11 at 12:35 pm

Here’s what Brian Leiter says about Cohen:

Within academic philosophy, however, far more harm, in my view, has been done to Marx by moralists like G.A. Cohen than by any of the post-modernists. Cohen – a truly smart man and delightful human being to boot – did two unfortunate things to academic Anglophone Marxism: first, by offering a philosophical reconstruction of historical materialism in its least interesting form (namely, as functional explanation, rather than in terms of class conflict); and second, in his later work, by calling for a moralistic change in the consciousness of individuals, regardless of historical circumstances. This latter, Christian turn in Cohen’s thought represents as profound a betrayal of Marxism as Habermas’ attempt to supply it a Kantian foundation – in this respect, both Anglophone and “Continental” Marxism betray Marx’s original realism.

To be sure, Cohen on historical materialism is preferable to Althusser, but that hardly matters, except for academic debates. What does matter is that class conflict is both the actual causal mechanism of historical change and intelligible to the people who are the agents of that change. Functional explanations are, by contrast, an interesting but irrelevant theoretical overlay. And the idea that Marxism should be reduced to moralistic sermons is, well, depressing, an admission of intellectual defeat.

I’ll address these two criticisms in two separate posts below.

37

Mike Otsuka 12.31.11 at 12:36 pm

Regarding Cohen’s first alleged sin against Marx: Brian writes that Cohen offered a “philosophical reconstruction of historical materialism … as functional explanation, rather than in terms of class conflict.” I would dispute “rather than”. Cohen did not dispute Brian’s claim that “class conflict is … the actual causal mechanism of historical change”. He writes, e.g., that “I do not wish to deny that class struggle is always essential for social transformation” (History, Labour, and Freedom, p. 16), and that his interpretation of Marx’s historical materialism is consistent with the claim that “major historical changes are brought about by class struggle.” (ibid., p. 14).

Cohen also maintained, consistently with the above, that, according to Marx’s historical materialism, “if we want to know why class struggle effects this change rather than that, we must turn to the dialectic of forces and relations of production which governs class behaviour and is not explicable in terms of it, and which determines what the long-term outcome of class struggle will be” (ibid.). For this reason, he did not regard functional explanation as an “irrelevant theoretical overlay” in Marx.

Cohen became skeptical of the truth of the claim I’ve just quoted. But he regarded it as issuing from the best interpretation of Marx’s writings on historical materialism. There may be a more interesting, and more truth-tracking, version of historical materialism which jettisons functional explanation and focuses more exclusively on class conflict. But that’s not a criticism of Cohen’s writings on Marx’s historical materialism, the point of which was to interpret Marx rather than to change him.

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Mike Otsuka 12.31.11 at 12:38 pm

Regarding Cohen’s second alleged sin against Marx: (1) I don’t see textual warrant for Brian’s claim that Cohen’s call for change in the consciousness of individuals was “regardless of historical circumstances”. Rather, Cohen’s call doesn’t reach beyond the specific circumstances to which Rawls’s difference principle is meant to apply. (2) Regarding Brian’s claim that Cohen has reduced Marx to moralistic sermons, I don’t see any such reduction in the one place where Cohen most explicitly relates his call for an egalitarian ethos to Marx. Here I quote from pp. 1-2 of Rescuing Justice and Equality:

The big background issue in my disagreement with Rawls and the Rawlsians is the nonliberal socialist/anarchist conviction that Karl Marx expressed so powerfully in his essay “On the Jewish Question,” when he said that “human emancipation” would be “complete” “only when the actual individual man . . . has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that social force is no longer separated from him as a political power”; thus, only when he “has taken back into himself the abstract citizen” so that freedom and equality are expressed “in his everyday life, his individual work, and his individual relationships.”

The ideal liberal society is not the same as the ideal socialist society. In the ideal socialist society, equal respect and concern are not projected out of society and restricted to the ambit of an alien superstructural power, the state. If the right principles are, as Marx thought, the ones that are right for real, everyday, material life, and if they are practiced in everyday life, as the socialist ideal utopianly envisages that they will be, then the state can wither away.

And that means more than that coercive power can wither away. In the Marxist hope, it is the separation of state and society, the duality itself, that goes. There is not, then, on the one hand, as there is in Rawlsian perception, an economic structure that is organized to achieve a certain form of justice, and, on the other, a set of individual economic choices that need show no respect for that justice. The Marx-inspired question is whether a society without an ethos in daily life that is informed by a broadly egalitarian principle for that reason fails to provide distributive justice. To that question, Rawls, being a liberal, says no: here is the deep dividing line between us.

Liberally minded economists take for granted that economic agents are self-seeking, or, like James Meade, they think that they should be, and then they want people as political agents to act against the grain of their self-interest: pile up your earthly goods on the mundane plane of civil society but be a saint in the heaven of politics. One way out of the apparent contradiction is to generalize Homo economicus: hence the work of theorists like James Buchanan and David Gauthier. I am engaged in an exploration of the reverse generalization.

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Guido Nius 12.31.11 at 2:09 pm

Mike, that was helpful. I do not agree with the quoted passages but I do not see where it is somehow outside of philosophy. The problem with Rawls is indeed that it is based on this unbreakable individuality which cannot be further analyzed. Personally I don’t think the solution lies in an egalitarian ethos (let alone in a utopian view where state and society do coincide), but an exploration of the reverse of a generalized Homo Economicus certainly is a valid way forward. If only because it seems that we are kind of stuck generalizing this individual need for return and the collective need to restrain those individual needs.

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engels 12.31.11 at 7:50 pm

It’s a long time since I’ve read any of this stuff, but I believe Cohen says somewhere (possibly in Karl Marx’s Theory of History) that he plans to address class struggle in a forthcoming publication, which unfortunately turned out to be rather less forthcoming than the reader might have supposed.

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roger 01.02.12 at 10:45 am

I wonder how one can even begin Leiter’s meta-philosophical project of telling us what philosophy is by beginning with an abstract theme involving those “who think the aim of philosophy should be to get as clear as possible about the way things really are” when, of course, getting clear about the way things really are in philosophy means going to, say, philosophy departments and the history of philosophy and actually looking at what people in institutions said was philosophy, and what they produced. One doesn’t make up the ‘aim of philosophy’ ex nihilo, and then attach it to the search for clarity, bypassing… clarity and the plebian sociological method that has now been around since before Durkheim’s time. And one doesn’t mistake a position within philosophy about philosophy – a normative position – with being clear ‘about the aim of philosophy”, which is an institutional matter beyond the control of the observer. Maybe Leiter doesn’t like deconstruction, or ethics, or aesthetics. Confusing dislike with the statement about what philosophy is about, however, is exactly wrong. It is being very very unclear about what the aim of philosophy is. And if you are unclear about that aim – if you employ a deductive method steming from your personal likes to figure it out – you will probably not be very clarifying in your method or results.

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Ed 01.03.12 at 9:47 am

Sorry for coming a bit late to this but I was struck by the idea of “reaction formation”. I can understand why this sort of analysis works very nicely for perfectly reasonably liberal/left causes (i.e. criticising those who are opposerd to homsexuality and so on). But surely it can be used very widely to cover just about anything. For example, Leiter says that:

“The typical religious or moralistic homophobe will conceive of himself as “defending family values” and “traditional marriage,” when, in reality, he only mouths these moralistic platitudes because deep down he’d like nothing better than to have anal or oral sex with another man. If, in fact, it’s the reaction formation that really explains his moral beliefs, then those beliefs can’t possibly be justified, since they arise from a mechanism, reaction formation, that’s inherently unreliable (that is, it’s not a reliable way to figure out what’s morally right or wrong).”

But surely we could say the same about those who criticise the tax cuts for the rich or bankers using high class hookers: they’d like nothing better than to be in this position. But this seems to lead to nihilism.

Can those who advocate “the hermeneutics of suspicion” get around this problem?

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Tom McDonald 01.03.12 at 8:22 pm

How about this for the “aim of philosophy”. Taking a cue from Heidegger’s essay on “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth,” the aim of philosophy today must be the critical recovery of the meaning of how the individual soul is educated in relation to the representations of the cave in which the individual soul dwells. This means that philosophy becomes, as Leiter argues, no longer a constructive project aimed at establishing true propositions about the causal structure of nature or culture, but rather a negative or deconstructive project of the soul in relation to its time, in the sense of Hegel’s and Wittgenstein’s takes on the dilemma of modern thought.

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Tom McDonald 01.03.12 at 8:45 pm

I’m sympathetic to Leiter’s statement quoted here. Taking a cue from Heidegger’s pivotal essay on “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth” (discussing the “allegory of the cave”), it seems to me that the aim of philosophy today must be the critical recovery of the meaning of the education of the individual soul in relation to the representations of the cave in which he or she dwells. This means that in the modern world, dominated by the impersonal authority of scientific and technological representations, philosophy becomes, as Leiter argues, no longer a constructive project aimed at establishing true propositions about the causal structure of nature or society, but rather a negative or deconstructive project of the soul in relation to the thought of its time, this in the sense of both Hegel’s and Wittgenstein’s responses to modern thought.

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