Metaphilosophical Reflections I: Preliminaries

by reichorn

“Men have, as it were, a calling to use their reason socially…  From this it follows naturally that everyone who has the principium of conceit, that the judgments of others are for him utterly dispensable in the use of his own reason and for the cognition of truth, thinks in a very bad and blameworthy way.”

–  Immanuel Kant, Blomberg Logic

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Hello all!  This is Roger Eichorn.  I’ll be guest-blogging here for the remainder of the month, while Scott and his family are on vacation.

Like Scott, I’m here to peddle two sorts of product: philosophy and fantasy fiction (though, also like Scott, I find myself increasingly unable to tell them apart!).  On the philosophy side of things, I intend to present a series of posts that will introduce my metaphilosophy, that is, my philosophy of philosophy.  My metaphilosophical speculations bridge the systematic and the historical sides of my philosophical interests.  Thus, I’ll have occasion both to discuss the history of philosophy and to indulge in a bit of first-order philosophizing of my own.

As for my fantasy fiction, I hope that my front-page posts will drum up some renewed interest in the chapters that are already posted here.  If time and inspiration strikes, I may devote a front-page post or two to my fantasy work.  I’m not sure what form such posts would take.  I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on what they’d be most interested in reading.  Three options have occurred to me as likely possibilities: (i) I could post selections from later parts of the book, that is, later than the three chapters already posted here; (ii) I could try to write short, standalone-ish companion pieces, like Scott’s Atrocity Tales; or (iii) I could write ‘historical’ or ‘metaphysical’ posts about the world in which the story takes place, like the sort of material one might find in an Appendix.

Obviously, (i) would be the easiest.  In a perfect world, I would love to do (ii)—but it would require the greatest expenditure of time and energy.  Moreover, I’ve never been good at short fiction.  My ‘short story’ ideas are invariably novel-sized ideas—and my ‘book’ ideas are invariably ‘series-of-books’ ideas!  It would certainly be an interesting experiment, but I would run a serious risk of falling on my compositional face.  As for (iii), it would fall somewhere between (i) and (ii) on the ‘difficulty’ / ‘risk-of-creative-failure’ axis.

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Now, in the remainder of this post, I’d like to raise and discuss some of the questions that motivate my metaphilosophical reflections.  Most generally, there are fundamental questions such as “What is philosophy?” and “How is philosophy related to other domains of intellectual inquiry?”  In conversation, I often get at these issues by asking, “Just what exactly do philosophers think they’re doing when they philosophize?”  If I’m allowed to go on, I often elaborate thusly:  “I mean, what do philosophers hope to achieve?  And why do they suppose that their methods—whatever those happen to be—are apt for achieving those ends?  Why those methods and not others?”

It’s interesting that there seems to be no uncontroversial answers to questions of this sort.  The same cannot be said of most, if not all, other established domains of intellectual inquiry.  I mean, sure, historians or sociologists or physicists might give different answers to these sorts of questions, but there is likely to be a more or less easily achieved equilibrium between their differing answers.  Not so in philosophy.  As for methodology, there might be (and undoubtedly is) real disagreement among, say, historians about how best to pursue historical investigations; but on closer inspection, those methodological disagreements are likely to be based on a broad foundation of agreement such that their disagreements are relatively superficial.  Not so in philosophy.

This should not be taken to mean that there is no metaphilosophical harmony among philosophers.  There is.  But it is local—across both time and space—to a degree that far exceeds that of other domains of intellectual inquiry.  Moreover, what harmony does exist seems accidental (as opposed to ‘essential’), in the sense that it doesn’t appear to arise from any intrinsic feature of philosophy itself.  In most cases, it doesn’t even arise from a shared explicit commitment to some sort of metaphilosophical ‘self-understanding.’  In most cases, it seems rather to be a function of where and with whom one first studied philosophy, or to be the residue of a ‘politics of exclusion’ perpetuated by philosophers either by (a) reading (or assigning) only certain sorts of texts, or (b) actively looking down upon certain other sorts of texts (and those who read or assign them).

In short, compared to other intellectual disciplines, philosophy-as-such seems untethered, curiously free of any definitive theoretical or conceptual commitments.  (I say ‘philosophy-as-such’ to emphasize my unwillingness to play the inclusion/exclusion game.  That is, at the level of abstraction from which I’m beginning, there is no basis for claiming that person x, who calls herself a philosopher, really is a philosopher, whereas person y, who also calls herself a philosopher, isn’t really a philosopher.  One finds such accusations being made, for instance, across the notorious—and notoriously unhelpful, from an explanatory standpoint—Analytic–Continental divide.)

Another question that motivates my metaphilosophical reflections concerns the apparent interminability of philosophical disputes.  It is often claimed, especially by those unsympathetic to philosophy, that philosophy hasn’t made any progress in 2,500 years.  This is frequently contrasted with the startling successes of mathematics and the hard sciences in the modern era.  Often, pointing to this contrast is considered sufficient to prove philosophy’s intellectual bankruptcy.  As will become apparent over the course of this series of posts—and as longtime TPB’ers already know—I’m an unlikely candidate for Champion of Philosophy, given that I’m a card-carrying Skeptic.  Even so, I think that the common picture of ‘futile philosophy’ alongside ‘all-conquering science’ is deeply naive.

To begin with, there’s the historical fact that all the sciences—indeed, virtually every branch of intellectual inquiry—was once part of philosophy proper.  Far from having made no progress in 2,500 years, philosophy has in fact succeeded in spawning every branch of the modern academic tree.  (It’s telling that all Ph.D’s are doctors of philosophy.)  Furthermore, as I’m going to argue in subsequent posts, at the level of abstraction at which philosophical disputes are interminable, all disputes are interminable, regardless whether the disputes’ subject matter is thought of as belonging to ‘philosophy.’  In other words, the interminability of philosophical disputes points up a general fact about human cognition, not a fact peculiar to some specialized domain of inquiry called ‘philosophy.’  Indeed, as I’ve suggested above, there is a sense in which no such domain of inquiry exists.  There are no clear boundaries, no clear definitions, of ‘philosophy.’  Ultimately, I want to argue that ‘philosophical reflection’ is distinguished from other forms of intellectual inquiry neither by its subject matter nor by its methodology, but rather by its radicality (which should be understood literally, as pertaining to roots, an etymological link that gives us the word ‘radish’).  In subsequent posts, I’ll connect the ‘radicality’ of philosophy to the idea of presuppositionlessness, which I take to be the concept by means of which philosophy can be distinguished from, and related to, other domains of intellectual inquiry.

The metaphilosophical problem of interminability connects up with another question I’m interested in, one that seems especially pertinent given the dust-up in the discussion thread of Scott’s latest post on the Blind Brain Theory: namely, the philosophical significance of disagreement, specifically disagreement among epistemic peers.  I may or may not take up this issue to the extent it deserves, as it’s secondary to the main points I want to make.  That’s why I want to flag it here as an issue that should be kept in mind as we proceed.

There’s a sense in which the interminability of philosophical inquiries seems to be a function of—or at least to be correlated to—the interminability of philosophical disagreements.  On the other hand, unless we subscribe to a consensus theory of truth (which should be kept separate from a consensus criterion of truth) it seems that, in and of itself, disagreement is epistemically unproblematic.  After all, if person x is right about p and person y is wrong about p, then the fact that persons x and y continue to disagree about p has no bearing on the truth or falsity of p.  Yet even if this is right (which—again, barring a consensus theory of truth—it seems to be), it strikes me as wrongheaded in the extreme to deny that persistent, irresolvable disagreement among epistemic peers is epistemically problematic (in some sense, at least).  In my view, while disagreement may be unproblematic with respect to theories of truth (i.e., with regard to truth as such), it is deeply problematic with respect to criteria of truth.  In other words, even if disagreement does not stand in the way of us being right, it does (at least among epistemic peers) stand in the way of us knowing we’re right.

Kant saw this clearly.  “[R]eason,” he wrote, “has no dictatorial authority; its verdict is always simply the agreement of free citizens, of whom each one must be permitted to express, without holding back, his objections and even his veto” (Critique of Pure Reason, A738–9/B766–7).  He refers to “the comparison of our judgments with those of others” as a “touchstone of truth,” while “[t]he incompatibility of the judgments of others with our own is… an external mark of error” (Jäsche Logic).  And in the Blomberg Logic, he claims that “[a]s long as there is controversy concerning a thing… as long as disputes are exchanged by this side or the other, the thing is not yet settled at all.”  Underlying these claims is a commitment to the view that human beings share in one and the same common humanity.  There is no principled way, at the least at the outset of a dispute, to privilege one person’s opinion over that of another, for we are all human.  If we genuinely know that we know that p—that is, if we have genuine reflective knowledge that p and not simply an unverified (though possibly true) belief that p—then we should, it seems, be able to demonstrate to others that we know p such that they will come to recognize the truth of p and come to believe—and know—p as well.

In many domains of inquiry—including that vast, amorphous domain I call ‘common life,’ which simply refers to our everyday world, in which many things are routinely inquired into, etc.—there are more or less established means of arriving at the sort of rational consensus Kant has in mind.  (A prime generator of consensus in today’s world is Google, as when someone interrupts a dispute by saying, “Just Google it!”)  An example can be found in Plato’s Meno, in which Socrates teaches (‘demonstrates’ the truth of) geometric axioms to a slave-boy.  Now, looked at more closely, available mechanisms for generating rational consensus are all questionable with respect to whether or not they are productive of genuine knowledge.  (Google certainly is.)  But even so, it is peculiar that philosophy is a domain of inquiry that, as a whole, has no generally agreed upon methods for generating consensus.  Again, as I suggested above, I think this points up not a shortcoming of philosophy as such, but rather a shortcoming of human cognition as such.  Hence, no matter how well-established a given ‘regime of truth’ may be, intellectual history suggests that none is immune to revision, reconceptualization, and rejection.  Even those geometric proofs that Plato taught the slave-boy can be called into question by non-Euclidian geometries.

So what is going on when a number of people, all possessing at least the minimum intellectual capabilities necessary to grasp the matter in hand, cannot agree?  My answer, in short, is that these people are working on the basis of differing sets of underlying presuppositions, meaning that their disagreement is rooted in a deeper disagreement about which they are not actively arguing.  Hence, they are unable to make progress toward consensus, for the roots of their disagreement go deeper than their debate does.

Depending on how much conceptual baggage one loads onto this initial characterization, the view will likely seem either obviously (and so uninterestingly) true or else overly (and hence uninterestingly) simplistic.  There is a sense in which I agree with the ‘obviously-true’ charge—though I think that the consequences of the view, once thought out, are far from obvious.  As for the ‘overly-simplistic’ charge: while I agree that the view is literally neat, I think it will become clear, once it’s looked at more closely, that the apparent simplicity of the view’s initial statement masks all sorts of hidden complexities.

One thing my view does not do is provide a means of escaping dialogic impasses, if ‘escape’ means generating consensus.  The most I hope for is to point toward the possibility of reorientation, the possibility of coming to view the epistemic–doxastic state both of ourselves and of others—and hence the nature of our disagreements—differently such that we don’t give in to the tempting move Wittgenstein noted when he wrote, “Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and a heretic” (On Certainty, §611).

With respect to the charge of foolishness, we would do better to recognize that we are all fools.  As Michel de Montaigne wrote, in the voice of the Delphic Oracle, “There is not a single thing as empty and needy as you [i.e., Man], who embrace the universe: you are the investigator without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction, and all in all, the fool of the farce” (Of Vanity).

With respect to the charge of heresy, we would do better to question our own judgment at least as strongly as we question that of the person with whom we disagree.  Again quoting Montaigne:  “… it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them” (Of Experience).

I look forward to working through some of these ideas with all of you over the next couple weeks.  I’ll do my best to keep up with the comments.  Thanks for reading!