The Owl of Minerva Problem for Public Philosophy

by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

I.

The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. That’s a philosophical chestnut attributed to the German idealist, G.W.F. Hegel. It’s a poetic way of saying that wisdom is achieved only in hindsight. The Owl of Minerva, the representation of the goddess of wisdom, begins its activity only at the end of the day, only once the deeds in need of wisdom’s guidance are done. Our plan here is to present what we see as a central feature of why the Owl of Minerva must fly only at dusk and then turn that critical thought to some, by our lights, unjustifiably optimistic calls for public philosophy.

Let’s start with a pretty intuitive distinction between different kinds of things. There are, on the one hand, things that behave how they do independently of how we talk about them or how we classify them. So, Helium behaves that way it does regardless of who we talk about it or classify it. The same goes for plenty of other things – planets, microbes, physical substances, and so on. They take no heed of what we think about them and just do their own thing. On the other hand, there are things that behave differently when we classify or talk about them differently. For example, people are that way. If you talk about a group or an individual and they hear about it, they will often start behaving differently in light of what you said. Ian Hacking calls these two different kinds of things indifferent and interactive kinds, respectively. Interactive kinds are such that “the classification and the individual classified interact.”

But interaction isn’t a one-way street. When it comes to interactive kinds, how they behave can change how we think about them, too. There’s an informational loop, then, between our concepts of interactive kinds and individuals of those kinds. That looping phenomenon between concepts and kinds occasions interesting diachronic phenomena. In essence, our concepts of interactive kinds, so long as individuals of those kinds are responsive to the content of those concepts, will change the behavior of those individuals. The kind, because it is interactive with the concept, will, from the perspective of the conceptualizer, be a moving target. Our concepts, with interactive kinds, then, will always be incomplete, because as we develop them and make them explicit, we end up changing the way the interactive kind behaves.

Here’s a Hegelian upshot. In these cases, understanding has to be backwards – given that the interactive kind will alter in light of our effort to understand it, the concepts facilitating our understanding can represent only what the kind has been. With interactive kinds, our wisdom, in reaching out to the object, also pushes the object out of reach and thus in need of new conceptualization. The process begins anew. That’s why the Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.

In some cases, the looping phenomenon strikes us progress, a process by which understanding is deepened. However, the looping can produce pathologies as well. One such pathology can be found in informal logic. Most philosophy professors teach critical thinking classes, and one of the treats of these classes is presenting the catalogue of fallacies. It’s a bestiary of errors – the ad hominem, the straw man, begging the question, and so on. But once a student has mastered this vocabulary, a new kind of error is made possible: the fallacy fallacy. One commits the fallacy fallacy when one identifies a fallacy in an interlocutor’s argument and thereby takes this as a reason to reject their conclusion. The basic form, then, is:

Argument A is given for P

A is fallacious

So, we have reason to hold P is false.

The problem, of course, is that fallacious argument can have true conclusions. But note, importantly, that the fallacy fallacy is possible only if one has the concept of fallacy. Teaching fallacy theory makes a whole new kind of fallacy possible. That’s not an insignificant phenomenon, because the thought behind developing the concept of fallacy is to provide tools to eliminate fallacies in our argument, not make whole new fallacies out of these tools. But, well, here we are.

 II.

The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. That still can have a moderately optimistic edge to it. At least the Owl of Minerva flies sometime, right? And note that this moderate optimism was what we had in mind when we proposed teaching critical thinking classes. The thought was that there would be beneficial looping effects – that as we became more self-aware, as we made the rules of our practices explicit and corrected, we’d make those practices better. But the problem was that these attempts at correction make new errors possible. It’s simply not looking good for wisdom, folks. Maybe we should just keep all of this a secret.

This brings us now to the matter of the Owl of Minerva Problem for public philosophy. The American Philosophical Association’s Statement on Valuing Public Philosophy marks two objectives as motivating public philosophy: “Public philosophy can be especially valuable when it reaches populations that tend not to have access to philosophy and philosophers,” and “public philosophy raises the profile of the discipline.” Whatever public philosophy ultimately is (which is a separate issue – is it just public introductions to philosophy? Activism with footnotes? Standard academic discourse just outside the academy?) the hope is that at least one of these ends is achieved.

Take the idea that public philosophy elevates the cultural profile of our discipline. We are skeptical. Unless public philosophers are just telling folks things they already believe, philosophy is way too annoying to most people. (Check out the comments sections of most philosophy exchanges – more a site of retrenchment, not development.) Or it comes off as harmless fun, which we think is probably worse.

If, on the other hand, the public philosopher aims to bring the insights of professional philosophy to the public, we worry about an audience self-selection problem. You’re more often speaking to folks who already agree or you’re just irritating those who disagree. (Can you think of any non-philosopher who heard a philosophical argument for a view they hate and then said, “Wow, philosophy sure is good for us. There should be more of that stuff.”? We sure can think of lots of them who said the opposite.)

But even if we were to get past this self-selection problem, the problem of the Owl of Minerva fouls the results. Consider the fact that Stoic value theory is now being used by employers as a way of developing grit in their employees so that they can ask them to work longer and harder hours. The concept of epistemic injustice is being used by conservatives to say they don’t have a voice in scholarly debates. Philosophical tools are tools, and their development may have emancipatory and progressive force when used by emancipators and progressives, but they are tools that may be deployed by anyone, for nearly any purpose. That’s the looping phenomenon, and once it’s in place, philosophical concepts designed for progress provide conditions for public pathologies.

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