A Puzzle about Metaphilosophy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

ApollocutoutEnduring movements in the history of philosophy often owe their influence not to their core doctrines, but rather to the distinctive vision of philosophy they embody. Indeed, one might say of such movements – think of the traditions associated with the Stoics, Descartes, Hegel, the existentialists, and beyond – that they are primarily conceptions of what philosophy is. A conception of what philosophy is – a metaphilosophy – coordinates ideas about philosophical method, the nature of philosophical problems, and the limits of philosophy. In other words, a metaphilosophy tells us not only how to do philosophy, but also what philosophy can do, what we can expect from philosophy. A metaphilosophy hence often distinguishes genuine philosophical problems from pseudo-problems and nonsense; it also typically demarcates genuine philosophical problems from those genuine problems that reside within the purview of some other kind of inquiry, such a natural science, psychology, and history. It is tempting to conclude that although we tend to think of the history of philosophy as a series of debates concerning truth, goodness, knowledge, being, meaning, and beauty, it is actually an ongoing clash among metaphilosophies.

Though tempting, this conclusion should be resisted. This is because it is as yet unclear how metaphilosophical clashes are to be resolved, or even addressed. Which area of inquiry is suited to adjudicate conflicts over what philosophy is? Must there be a meta-metaphilosophy? But then wouldn't we also require a fourth tier to address conflicts at the meta-meta level? Then a fifth, sixth, and seventh? This proliferation of “meta” discourses about philosophy looks well worth avoiding. A further cause for resistance lies in the fact that the very idea of a clash among metaphilosophies is opaque. Why regard, say, the phenomenologist and the ordinary language philosopher as embroiled in a metaphilosophical clash at all? Why not say instead that they are engaged in entirely different enterprises and be done with it? Why posit something over which (philosophy and its proper methods) they are in dispute? The fact that it is not clear how there could be an adjudication of metaphilosophical clashes may be marshalled as a consideration in favor of the idea that opposing schools normally identified as philosophical do not promote different conceptions of philosophy, but instead embrace distinctive concepts that each calls “philosophy,” and so ultimately do not even clash at all, but only speak past each other. It certainly seems to capture what it is like to witness such clashes.

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The Problems of Philosophy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

SocratesAn existentialist, a modal realist, and an eliminative materialist walk into a bar; the bartender looks up at them and says, “Is this a joke?”

It should come as no surprise that a discipline that was founded by an ancient Athenian urging us all to “know thyself!” should still be in the business of self-examination. But one may be stunned to find that, perhaps more than ever, the profession of Philosophy is fixed on questions of its existence. Perhaps everyone agrees that philosophy, the everyday activity of trying to think clearly and critically about things that matter, is essential to a properly human life. And maybe it’s not too controversial to say that we all should philosophize. But, as Socrates shows, there could be philosophers without there being Philosophers; there could be clear and critical thinkers without there bring a profession of Philosophy. So, why does Philosophy – capital “P” – exist?

This question comes in two related versions, institutional and internal. The institutional question about Philosophy’s existence is about why there are, and should be, departments of Philosophy. What is the curricular purpose of Philosophy? What is the role of Philosophy within the Humanities (assuming that it belongs among the Humanities at all)? Why do students need Philosophy courses? Presumably students could learn philosophy outside of Philosophy, so why bother with Philosophy? The institutional question is increasingly urgent: in an environment of severe fiscal uncertainty and shrinking academic budgets, Philosophy has been forced to confront its own institutional mortality. These days, Philosophers are called upon to defend both philosophy and Philosophy to Deans, Provosts, and Boards of Trust. The internal question, by contrast, is less about the fortunes of Philosophy within colleges and universities and more a matter of soul-searching among Philosophers: What is the point of being a Philosopher? What are we Philosophers doing? Should we encourage students to become Philosophers? The dominant view seems to be that the answer to the institutional question depends upon the answer to the internal one. Consequently, much of contemporary Philosophy is devoted, at least in part, to examining Philosophy itself.

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What is philosophy, again?

by Dave Maier

There has been some interesting recent discussion, both here and elsewhere, about what philosophy is and should be. Here are two shiny pennies from my own purse.

LeiterIn the introduction to his recent anthology The Future for Philosophy, Brian Leiter laments that “[p]hilosophy, perhaps more than any other discipline, has been plagued by debates about what the discipline is or ought to be.” This is strong language. To call such debate a “plague” is not simply to regret its occurrence as a necessary evil, but to see it as an alien force, infecting the host body from outside. On this picture, to debate the nature and ends of philosophy is akin to putting the car up on the rack; when this is happening, no progress is being made. If we have to spend all our time figuring out what philosophy is, we'll never get around to actually doing any of it.

Maybe we should simply shrug the question off. After all, no matter what you said philosophy was, one could always respond “okay, so what these other people do isn't 'philosophy' by your definition; but it's still worthwhile – maybe even more so than what you do under that name.” Coming up with a new name for what we have been calling “philosophy” seems even less pressing. Who cares what something is called, when what is important is whether and how to do it?

However (you knew this was coming), I think these debates can be quite enlightening – if you know what to look for. In any case that is our subject today.

1: Ontic science vs. the linguistic turn

So what is philosophy then? One common answer, usually just assumed but occasionally spelled out, is that philosophers try to discover the basic features of reality, just like science does. However, while physical science determines the nature of observable objects and processes, and thus contingent matters of fact, philosophy concerns itself instead with matters of metaphysical necessity, inquiring into the ultimate entities and structures underlying the world as we encounter it. This conception of philosophy is what Colin McGinn endorses in renaming it “ontic science”: non-empirical inquiry into the real.

On this view, the end result of our inquiry – as it must be if it is to be inquiry at all – is truth (specifically, true doctrines or theories); and the proper method in reaching it is precise, rigorous argument from universally accepted premises to an unambiguous, substantive conclusion. This is naturally easier said than done; and it is no secret that the list of universally accepted philosophical doctrines is – well, let's just say it's not long enough really to count as a “list”. However, I don't think that the lack of universally accepted doctrine shows all by itself that “ontic science”, which we might also call metaphilosophical “dogmatism”, is all wrong; a perfectly good response by my lights would be “well, after all, we Westerners have only been at this for 2500 years – what did you expect?”

If we can't agree, though, then maybe we're doing it wrong; and a natural place to look for the problem is in our instruments: our minds, and in particular, our language. Might these things be systematically distorting our view of reality? This question, along with important formal developments in logic and semantics (I condense and oversimplify here), led at last, in the mid-twentieth century, to what has become known as the “linguistic turn” in analytic philosophy (continental philosophy having broken off some time before).

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The Pluralism Test

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse6a00d8341c562c53ef015436d5a90a970c-250wi

The commentary stimulated by our November post helps to confirm our view that pluralism is a paradigmatic halo term. Many of the respondents clearly want to claim the term for their favored purposes; but the details concerning the term’s meaning are as yet uncertain. Of course, most philosophical terms admit of multiple interpretations; looseness is inevitable, as often the issues are the meanings of the terms in use. Yet we should aspire to as much precision as is possible. Resting with multiple well-defined yet conflicting conceptions of pluralism is preferable to the current state of affairs, which is less loose than mushy. Our aim is to suggest at a very general level what pluralism is by articulating some simple prerequisites for clarifying the term.

There are two criteria that can be employed in our task. The first would be applicable to any proposed philosophical term. It has two components. First, if pluralism is the name of any view at all, it had better be possible to identify some definite philosophical claims that are distinctive of the view. This is not to say that pluralism must be understood to name some single, monolithic position. Pluralism can be a philosophically distinctive position, and yet be a view which admits of different varieties.

Sometimes it is helpful when characterizing a philosophical position to identify what those who adopt it are united in rejecting. So we may state the first component of the first criterion in the following way. Whatever pluralism is, it had better be a view that is opposed to some other identifiable philosophical position. To put the point slightly more strongly, whatever pluralism is, it had better be a position that thoughtful people could reject. A view that only the insane, thoughtless, deluded, and incompetent could reject is of little philosophical significance. If pluralism is a view worth talking about, it is a view that both says something distinctive and is philosophically debatable.

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Searching for Pluralism

by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

JellyBeanSome terms come with a built-in halo. We use words like inclusive, liberation, empowerment, and diversity to characterize that which we aim to praise. For example, when a murderer gets off on a technicality, we say that he has been released rather than liberated. A club that welcomes membership from all who should be invited is inclusive, whereas one which denies membership to some who are entitled to it is exclusionary. Importantly, a club that has a highly restricted membership but does not deny membership to anyone who is entitled to it is not exclusionary, but exclusive. A club is exclusionary when it unjustifiably denies membership to some; it is exclusive when its membership is justifiably limited. In short, many terms do double-duty as both descriptive and evaluative. Or, to put the matter more precisely, some terms serve to describe how things stand from an evaluative perspective.

This is not news. However, it is worth noting that a lot can be gained from blurring the distinction between the descriptive and evaluative senses of such terms. For example, when one succeeds at describing an institution as exclusionary, one often thereby succeeds at placing an argumentative burden on those who support it. Now supporters of the institution in question must not only make their case in favor of the institution; they must also make an additional argument that it is not, in fact, exclusionary. Sometimes what looks like argumentative success is really just success at complicating the agenda of one’s opponents.

The point works in the other direction, too. When one successfully casts a policy as one which furthers diversity and empowers individuals, one has already made good progress towards justifying it. Very few oppose diversity and empowerment, and so a policy which is understood to embrace these values is to some extent ipso facto justified; those who support the policy in question simply need to announce that it serves diversity and empowerment. This is vindication by association.

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