philosophy as diplomacy

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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During a conversation with Megan Fritts of Utah State, I suggested that perhaps philosophical disputes should be conducted as negotiations rather than arguments. I’d like to develop this idea a bit more.

That philosophy is a primarily argumentative business is, I trust, evident enough that I don’t need to expand on it much. I’m not denying that there are philosophical satires or poems or essays that may stray from this otherwise common mode. I do work in that vein myself. My point simply is that professional, academic philosophy, as it is generally practiced, is argumentative in nature.

As a formal matter, the point of an argument is to demonstrate the truth of something or the falsity of it. As a practical matter, the point of an argument is to persuade someone of the truth or falsity of something.  [With regard to arguments in normative and applied ethics, replace ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ with ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’.] To this second end, a rhetorical dimension may be added, but the idea is that the arguments should be doing the real work.

The presumption, then, is that philosophical positions, theories, accounts, etc., are the sorts of things that are true or false. Arguments for Utilitarianism are supposed to demonstrate that it is true, and arguments against it that it is false. Or at least, they are supposed to count for or against its truth or falsity. The same goes for arguments for and against Kantian ethics; metaphysical Realism and Anti-Realism; Freewill and Determinism; Nominalism and Platonism; theories of personhood; and others.

As people who are familiar with my work will know, I am inclined to think that many of these sorts of positions suffer from radical indeterminacy. I don’t think there is an independent fact of the matter with respect to the things that metaphysical realists and anti-realists, Kantians and Utilitarians, or nominalists and Platonists disagree about. When two people disagree as to whether or not a seven-month-old fetus is a person, for example, there is no fact the discovery of which would settle the matter one way or another. There may be advantages and disadvantages to thinking about things in one way or another [and which ways are advantageous, and which are disadvantageous will depend on the context], but there is no independent fact as to which way of thinking about them is correct or incorrect. Indeed, the very idea of correctness and incorrectness, truth and falsity with regard to these sorts of issues and disputes is inapt.

I’m not going to rehearse all of the reasons I think this, as I’ve discussed them at some length in a number of venues, including EA. Suffice it to say here that the persistence over millennia of the same disagreements with no sign of resolution or abatement and the lack of any material or otherwise substantive impact of holding one view or another are two of my more prominent reasons. One would think that were there some determinate fact as to whether Platonism or Nominalism is correct, we wouldn’t be having the same debate about it today that we’ve been having since the Middle Ages, and as far as I can tell, metaphysical realists and anti-realists don’t take their morning coffee any differently, and both libertarians and determinists will thank you for passing the mustard. [1]

Even where it seems like there must be some substantive, differentiating impact of holding these respective views, a few moments’ examination reveals it to be illusory. Yes, if you are a nominalist regarding mathematics, then mathematical truths are not going to be “necessary,” but rather, contingent, and if you are a Platonist, the opposite will be true, but nothing about how one does math or which mathematical statements are true or false is affected by it: two and two still make four, and the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is still 180 degrees, the modal status of such statements notwithstanding.

Even the difference between Utilitarians and Kantians, which one would think should have a significant impact on a person’s actions, is essentially abstract. I would be very surprised to find a utilitarian who, in his or her actual life, behaved as if people’s intentions had no moral significance, and I would be equally surprised to discover a Kantian who, in his or her actual life, behaved as if no amount of death or destruction carried any moral weight. And at the end of the day, both approaches ultimately stand or fall under the scrutiny of the same set of common, pre-theoretical intuitions that cut across every possible axiological orientation and category, which means that the ultimate conditions of adequacy for Utilitarianism and Kantianism alike lie in a set of already existing, axiologically heterogeneous sentiments. This is articulated by W.D. Ross in The Right and The Good (1930), which I wrote about here, and though some, like Peter Singer, have tried to resist the idea, their efforts have been less than convincing. [2]

If most or at least a great many philosophical positions are subject to this kind of indeterminacy, then how should we think about philosophical arguments?  In answering this, let me first be clear that I think many if not most philosophers get it wrong.  They believe that philosophical questions/positions are determinate – that there is a fact of the matter as to whether Utilitarianism or Kantianism or Nominalism or Platonism, etc., is true or false, correct or incorrect – and that consequently, the purpose of philosophical argumentation with respect to these positions is to demonstrate their truth or falsity, correctness or incorrectness. I’ve argued elsewhere that this is part of the reason why far too much philosophy is being written and why far too many philosophical arguments are pursued well beyond the point of any positive return. [3] So, the question then becomes: How should we understand philosophical arguments, in light of the fact that they could not do what arguments normally do?

The idea of philosophy as diplomacy stems from the thought that in many cases, philosophies are more akin to preferences of outlook and lifestyle than to positions in science. Views and positions in which a person may feel greatly invested and which render the world and our practical affairs from specific points of view and with particular foci, yet which have no really tangible effects.

At times it may be fruitful to focus on the role that we play in forming and shaping the world – which may lead us to take on board the sort of constructivist anti-Realist ideas that Nelson Goodman offers in Ways of Worldmaking – while on other occasions, it may be more apt to think of the world in thoroughly, even “naively” Realist terms. [4]  In certain circumstances, it may make sense to think of morality in terms of the violation of others’ personal sovereignty, in the way that Kant does, while in other situations, it may be more useful to think of it in terms of the material harms with which Bentham is most concerned. Depending on the point of the investigation, it may be useful to conceive of human beings as physiological systems, operating under a strict set of natural laws, but other sorts of inquiry may benefit more from thinking of us as agents, acting within a complex social network of prerogatives and obligations. As Hilary Putnam once observed, the level and type of description under which we should engage with something is inquiry- or activity-dependent, rather than one-size fits all. [5]

Such preferences may sit uncomfortably with one another on occasion, or there may be strong disagreement as to which among  competing philosophical approaches is more apt given the circumstances at hand. When this happens, argument is pointless and frustrating. Negotiation is what is called for, and negotiation is the main instrument of diplomacy. Hence, the idea of philosophical arguments reconceived as a kind of diplomatic activity.

Negotiation is a skill that has largely fallen out of use and desperately needs rehabilitation. In our public discourse, it has been replaced with threatening, demanding, coercing, blackmailing, dogpiling, and the like, more often than not under sway of values that are treated as factual and demonstrable, rather than as requiring negotiation themselves. Think, for example, of the current bloodletting over the question of whether or not “trans women are women,” where what is at issue is not reproductive class membership, regarding which there is an independent fact of the matter, but rather, gender identity, regarding which there is not. Like the debate over whether fetuses are persons, this dispute is unresolvable by way of arguments, given that it is about how  individuals are best regarded and not about some material or otherwise demonstrable fact about them. It also is motivated by axiological commitments and judgments that are in tension with one another and which are equally unresolvable by way of arguments.  Such cases are precisely where negotiation is needed; where what we must do is a figure out a way to coexist, in spite of our disagreement remaining unresolved.

In philosophy and other areas of academia, negotiation is rejected in favor of endless rounds of arguments or presentations of evidence, each becoming more insistent and heated, as it begins to dawn on the participants that they will not be dispositive. As with their counterparts in the public discourse, these disputes may be motivated by underlying axiological disagreements – in philosophy and many of the social sciences, the same kinds of emotionally charged, value-laden subjects are taken up as are in the public discourse – which also will need to be negotiated, rather than won or lost.  And we can all see what happens when they are not, as the state of these sorts of disagreements, today, is no better in the Academy than it is in the public arena.

Ultimately, principles or guidelines of successful negotiation must come from psychology and disciplines relevantly connected to or informed by it, but philosophically speaking it seems to me that wisdom is likely to be found in those areas having to do with matters of sensibility rather than reason. In Aesthetics, especially, there is a sophisticated and substantial literature having to do with how one “gets someone to see what one sees” in a painting or sculpture or performance, in light of the fact that the presence of particular aesthetic qualities cannot be demonstrated by the application of criteria and are not rationally scrutable. [6]  Given that so much of what in philosophy I have deemed as suffering from indeterminacy has to do with how we, our activities, and the larger world are or should be best regarded, a lot of insight can be gained from this particular and rich philosophical sub-discipline. [7]

Notes

[1] The “thank you for passing the mustard” observation comes from G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908):

[Y]ou may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say “thank you” for the mustard.

[2] https://theelectricagora.com/2015/09/21/intuition-and-morals/

[3] https://philosophynow.org/issues/130/The_Decline_and_Rebirth_of_Philosophy

[4] Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Hackett: 1978).

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/851992.Ways_of_Worldmaking

[5] See his discussion of trying to explain why a round peg doesn’t fit into a square hole. Hilary Putnam, “Philosophy and Our Mental Life” (1975), pp. 130-131 [in version linked below].

http://public.econ.duke.edu/~kdh9/Source%20Materials/Zurich%20Papers/Putnam_Philosophy_and_Mental_life_English_Article.pdf

[6] This entirely line of inquiry began with Frank Sibley’s landmark paper, “Aesthetic Concepts” (1959), which I discussed here. [The link to the paper, unfortunately, is no longer live.]

https://theelectricagora.com/2015/12/08/this-weeks-special-frank-sibleys-aesthetic-concepts/

[7] I would also suggest that metaphysics and ontology could learn a lot from work in Aesthetics, where people like Arthur Danto have offered sophisticated analyses of how there can be substantially different ontological categories, despite there being but one [material] substrate.

54 comments

  1. Wow! I really like this article, probably because it jibes with some things I’ve been thinking. I was at some point going to write something up making a similar argument, but it’s just as well that you beat me to it, because I thik your articulation is really strong.

    I recently read a book by a literary scholar studying sophistry and namely the rivaly between Plato and Protagoras, a converation I’ve been somewhat obsessed with in the recent year. And this scholar mentioned something that I hadn’t known before: that the divide between philosophy and sophistry seems to have been of Plato’s invention, and maybe a self-intereseted PR-type invention. The author goes on to suggest that the divide between philosophy and sophistry likely wouldn’t have made much sense to those prior to Plato, namely because insofar as arguments must be put into words and what we call true is contingent on what we believe to be true, philosphy can’t be partitioned from rhetorical persuasion in any clean way.

    The bit about different positions being divergent interpretations that may cash out to no practical difference is a large part of why I feel most at home with the pragmatists from James to Rorty. Questions of “what rights naturally are” leads to a lot of divergent metaphysical lip flapping that will almost surely remain unresolved to everyone’s satisfaction (let alone be amenable to an answer being PROVED one way or other). Best to reframe those questions into soething like “What do we want a good society to look like and what rights and social recognitions are necessary to go in that direction?”

    The only other thing I’d add is that I personally came to see things this way after realizing just how many damned terms of rhetoric are practically baked into philosophical argument. To say that something is “justifable” or “permissible” can’t mean anyting sensibly unless rhetoric involved. The former means “able to be justified’ nd the latter “able to be granted permission” and each question invites the natural question “to whom are we APPEALING?” I think the state of philosophy would be a lot better if we admitted that in large part, it is a study in how to get people to believe stuff and make persuasive arguments, and be okay – becaue there is nothing wrong with – seeing that as overlapping considerably with rhetoric.

  2. Normally, when a group of people negotiate, the process is a matter of give and take, but in the end they try to find a solution with which everybody in the group can live. The negotiation has a goal.

    – What would that goal be in philosophy?
    – What are the rewards for the participants? (and what defines the rewards?)
    – What about the people who are not directly involved but who may have to live with the consequences of the negotiation, when it escapes from the ivory tower of academia and starts to influence others?
    – Who is going to define what “acceptable” negotiation techniques are?
    – What about the inevitable power relations? (they’re very, very important in negotiations).

      1. I’ve had a bit of an uncommon career for somebody who studied physics, but I’m currently working for an organization that’s involved in collective bargaining. Some of my colleagues conduct these negotiations.

        The problems that are covered are indeterminate, in the sense that nobody knows what the optimal outcome for both parties is in the long term; and in the sense that the demands of half of the negotiators are totally unacceptable for the other half. Both parties feel that *they* are right, and the other party utterly mistaken.

        However, there’s something at stake, and they usually land somewhere in the middle, after a lot of powerplay, rhetoric etc. As a consequence, nobody is happy. That’s how it should be: the fact that nobody is happy is usually seen as the proof that the negotiations were “successful”. What happens between the first meeting and the landing … well, do you really want to know how sausages are made?

        But I’m not telling you something you don’t know. In your position you must have conducted plenty negotiations. Do you really want philosophy to go that way?

        1. ‘Negotiation’ has a number of connotations and uses. I don’t mean it this literally. Rather, I am contrasting it with disputation. As I already indicated, my reference at the end towards aesthetic disagreements and “getting others to see what you see” was meant to point in what I think might be a fruitful direction.

  3. Actually, you (Dan K.) are one of the least diplomatic people around. You’re a warrior and that’s what attracts people to your posts in the Electric Agora and your videos. I bet that if you became more diplomatic, you’d lose clicks.

    I don’t know anything about academic philosophy and maybe more diplomacy would be positive there, but in Youtube most of us prefer to watch warriors.

    I don’t see why a topic has to have a true or false answer for us to argue about it. We can argue about whether a foetus is a human being without there being a true or false answer or any answer at all. First of all, the welfare of women who became pregnant involuntarily depends on which answer we give and second of all, a good argument is
    a value in itself. Life would be more boring without arguments and Youtube would be more boring without undiplomatic debaters like yourself.

  4. The diplomacy metaphor reminds me of a litigation metaphor Ryle uses in his book on Dilemmas, which is concerned “not with competitions but with litigations between lines of thought, where what is at stake is not which shall win and which shall lose a race, but what are their rights and obligations vis à vis one another and vis à vis also all other possible plaintiff and defendant positions.” The litigation metaphor feels more adversarial but it seems to me to be pulling in the same direction as diplomacy (away from a battle to the death, toward a practical settlement).

  5. Negotiations implies some kind of group of official bodies and their representatives, in order to come to some lasting agreement, which will then be accepted by those who are legitimate members of these, presumably, conflicting organizations. Philosophy has never worked that way, except maybe in the Middle Ages. Science progresses because it adheres to strict peer review, and focusing only on empirically verifiable or refutable conclusions. This kind of peer process creates a progressive ratcheting of scientific knowledge that is not available to philosophy because philosophy is about ideas, presuppositions, and epistemological frameworks that can be neither verified nor refuted by empirical evidence. We don’t prove or demonstrate determinism, we simply assume it from the beginning. It’s the same with free will. We can assume that there is no such thing, but then we have an exceedingly hard time to explain morality, values, and ordinary human behaviour. Indeed, where are the “laws of human behaviour”? It’s interesting that for all the time that the science of psychology has been with us we have not seen any really convincing scientific account of meaning, intentional phenomena, emotions,or consciousness. These are all processes with “internal relationships” relations between ideas rather than relations between physical things and processes, and this is the realm of philosophy. Note also that, as with philosophy, there are no legislative bodies in morality. There are no universally recognized moral authorities, because morality is something we all do. We all participate in interpreting, following and enforcing normative rules, and normative rules are simply rules that we all agree are normative.

    1. “This kind of peer process creates a progressive ratcheting of scientific knowledge that is not available to philosophy because philosophy is about ideas, presuppositions, and epistemological frameworks that can be neither verified nor refuted by empirical evidence.”

      I would say this is only partially true. Philosophy has always been preoccupied with more than just abstract, unverifiable ideas. In the ancient world, there was little difference between philosophy and what we now call science. Philosophers often addressed empirical scientific questions in the quest for verifiable answers about the nature of reality. But they did not yet possess the sensibility of the scientific method nor much in the way of technology to help them. In ancient Greece, Thales of Miletus is considered the first philosopher to break from using mythology to explain natural phenomenon, to instead using naturalistic theories and hypotheses. Indeed, he was considered the first exponent of ‘natural philosophy’, which is what science was called up until about the late 19th century.

      Philosophy has always been a handmaiden to science, supplying science with rigorous logic, conceptual clarifications, establishing ethical guidelines for experiments, fallacies to watch out for, guiding principles (e.g. Occam’s razor from philosopher William Ockham, the Sagan Standard from philosopher Simon-Pierre Laplace, etc.) and so on.

      Even today, there is a whole field known as X-Phi (experimental philosophy) in which philosophers employ scientific methods to try to answer empirical and perennial questions. Philosophers of Mind have long used findings in cognitive science for their various arguments, and in turn have contributed to cognitive science.

      Why Science Needs Philosophy: https://www.pnas.org/content/116/10/3948

      1. I find so-called “x-phi” one of the most lamentable developments in the recent decades of the discipline. As for the other point, I never suggested that scientific results have no effect on philosophy. I simply said that a number of central philosophical positions/areas suffer from indeterminacy.

      2. Philosophy and Science parted ways four hundred years ago with Descartes and Bacon. Philosophy is not the handmaiden of science. One could say that science arose from philosophy but they are very distinct now. Most scientists, including physicists and biologists, ignore philosophy. The attempt of some forms of modern philosophy to emulate or become a science are mistaken. Basically science takes us in the direction of exploring finer and finer grains of reality and philosophy takes us in the opposite direction of exploring wider and wider frames of reference.

        1. Charles Justice

          “The attempt of some forms of modern philosophy to emulate or become a science are mistaken.”

          I agree. But philosophical thinking is a necessary part of science (just as it is a part of other modes of inquiry and activity).

        2. Unlike religion and science, philosophy and science never parted ways. I would agree the two disciplines are certainly more distinct now, as they each have splintered off into numerous sub-fields, but in general they still complement and rely on one another in important ways which I’ve already mentioned. Most scientists, including physicists and biologists, use philosophy or axioms and postulates derived from philosophy, and vice versa (albeit not every filed of philosophy uses science). There is also a whole growing field of Philosophy of Science.

          Cosmologists explore wider and wider frames of reference which often requires the incorporation of insights from philosophy and metaphysics to make sense. By the same token, you could not write a serious philosophy paper today on the subject of any aspect of physical reality and get it published without making reference to what is known about the current scientific view of nature. Mind/body problems must make reference to current understandings in biology and cognitive science. Likewise with sex and transgender issues, abortion issues, etc., you need to know at least something about biology to even discuss these issues. Otherwise you end up not being taken seriously.

          Philosophy and science have always informed one another and always will, even if certain fundamental philosophical questions remain indeterminate.

          1. It helps to be informed about science if you are a politician, but that doesn’t make politics a science. Science has to be relentlessly empirical, but philosophy doesn’t.

  6. I don’t know to what extent the first comment by Kevin Currie Knight is consistent with Dan’s views but I cite it because it clearly states a view which I would want to resist: the endorsement of pragmatism, for example. And this:

    “I think the state of philosophy would be a lot better if we admitted that in large part, it is a study in how to get people to believe stuff and make persuasive arguments, and be okay – because there is nothing wrong with – seeing that as overlapping considerably with rhetoric.”

    Though the French system is different, a traditional high school education in most Western countries had nothing in it called philosophy. Church-run schools like the one I attended had “religious knowledge” classes which is where I was first introduced to Descartes and other philosophers but essentially it was basic theology we were being taught.

    It was in English classes that we were trained in the techniques of persuasion (rhetoric). Mainly the focus was on the written word and essay writing but formal debating (involving inter-school debates, sometimes in the evening) was taken very seriously (and organized by English teachers).

    Debates are all about persuasion, not about conviction or truth. You are assigned a position to defend (a bit like a lawyer/barrister or a PR person or a politician). For us it was a performance. It was a competition. Literally, you scored points. And it was all taken very seriously. Quite rightly. These skills are important.

    But this background perhaps partly explains why I resist equating an academic discipline which I was first attracted to for epistemic reasons with persuasion, negotiation, etc..

    1. “Debates are all about persuasion, not about conviction or truth. You are assigned a position to defend (a bit like a lawyer/barrister or a PR person or a politician). For us it was a performance. It was a competition. Literally, you scored points. And it was all taken very seriously. Quite rightly. These skills are important.”

      I think that is ONE type of highly formalized school-esque debate. But all debates are surely not structured this way. You and I might debate right now, where neither of us was assigned a position, have to argue anything we don’t realty believe, etc. Even there, though, the only way we can get the other to see what we’re convinced is the truth is through words and persuasion and crafting of arguments we think the other will see the force of. I don’t see how you do that without admitting that a large part of philosophy – for that’s the lion’s share of what philosophy is and what philosophers do – is rhetorical.

      So, yes, if you are going to construe what I said as a suggestion that philosophy, because it contains an irreducible rhetorical center, is nothing more than high school debate class, I’d want to run away from that suggestion to…. because that’s not at all what I’m arguing or a remotely necessary conclusion from it.

      I’ll tell you what: you explain to me how philosophy can be done where the lion’s share of it is not about convincing others with words and THEN I will concede the point. Otherwise, convincing others of stuff by constructing arguments out of words in a way that will best show their force is what philosophy almost exclusively is. That tells me that rhetoric is baked into it very thoroughly.

      The last thing I’d say is that your first sentence quoted above shows the difference between you and I here. You dichotomize truth-finding and rhetoric and I do not. I cannot see how truth-finding does not require evaluating reasons that are put into words and structured in ways (where other ways were possible) designed to show their persuasive force. So, I can’t possibly see how truth-finding doesn’t involve a great deal of rhetorical practice.

      1. “[Y]our first sentence quoted above shows the difference between you and I here. You dichotomize truth-finding and rhetoric and I do not.”

        You are misreading that sentence. Read in context, it is entirely about *formal* debates. What you say subsequently (and previously) misrepresents what I am actually saying.

        “But all debates are surely not structured this way.”

        Of course not. I didn’t say they were.

        “[T]he only way we can get the other to see what we’re convinced is the truth is through words and persuasion and crafting of arguments we think the other will see the force of.”

        We can also present evidence of various kinds or demonstrate the truth of a claim in various ways. I do not draw an absolute distinction between the sciences and philosophy. There is no dichotomy here in my mind, just a continuum of types of investigation and knowledge seeking.

        “I don’t see how you do that without admitting that a large part of philosophy – for that’s the lion’s share of what philosophy is and what philosophers do – is rhetorical.”

        I happen to agree that a large part of academic philosophy is rhetorical. I think the difference between us is that you celebrate this fact and I don’t.

        1. Mark,

          Sorry if I am misrepresenting your position, then. But to be honest, I went back to the statemnet of yours I was responding to and simiply can’t see where my take on it was a misrepresentation. You fairly clearly state there
          that your expereince with English education and “this background perhaps partly explains why I resist equating an academic discipline which I was first attracted to for epistemic reasons with persuasion, negotiation, etc..” And in your response to me, you tell me I mischaracterized while declining to clarify the difference between my caricature and your view.

          “I happen to agree that a large part of academic philosophy is rhetorical. I think the difference between us is that you celebrate this fact and I don’t.”

          I am not celebrating anything. I am commenting on what philosophy IS, not what I want it to be. Again, I would love for you to explain how a discipline focused to a large degree on using word and sentence combinations to argue points in order that others can best feel their force and be persuaded can avoid having rhetoric at its root.

          I suspect you think it can because your experience wrongly leads you to see rhetoric in the way Plato saw the Sophists: as simply the art of using language cleverly to get things over on people. Yes, that is what a formal debate class teaches. But that simply isn’t but one posible use for rhetoric. Rhetoric literally is the study of how to use words to structure arguments in order that they can be more persuasive. If you don’t think that is what philosphy is largely about, then I’m tempted to think you believe that argument is not an important piece of philosophy, or at least that argument can be in something other than rhetoric. Both of those seem very implausible to me.

          1. Kevin

            I cannot deal satisfactorily with the issues you are raising in a short space. I don’t want to complicate things further. What I said I said carefully. But you keep extrapolating on it in terms I do not accept.

            You deny that you are celebrating academic philosophy’s (undoubted) rhetorical dimension. Okay. Let’s just say that you are more positive about it than I am.

            You wrote: “I am not celebrating anything. I am commenting on what philosophy IS, not what I want it to be. Again, I would love for you to explain how a discipline focused to a large degree on using word and sentence combinations to argue points in order that others can best feel their force and be persuaded can avoid having rhetoric at its root.”

            *Everybody* uses language to argue and persuade, scientists included. This was part of the reason I mentioned that argumentation is traditionally taught in English (or other native language) classes. It is a generic skill. If philosophy *reduces* to rhetoric (and saying that it has rhetoric “at its root” seems to imply this) the implications of this need to be squarely faced.

            Also, you are ignoring formal logic. What about Frege, Russell, Tarski et al.?

            I have written in the past about my views on scholarship and science. The basic point is that I think academic subject areas need to justify themselves in epistemic terms. There are currently many subject areas which are ideologically rather than epistemically driven.

            Is there a place for ideologically-driven discourse? Absolutely. I engage in it myself. But I don’t see it as academic – even if it is very erudite.

            “I suspect you think [philosophy] can [be not rooted in rhetoric] because your experience wrongly leads you to see rhetoric in the way Plato saw the Sophists: as simply the art of using language cleverly to get things over on people.”

            You are imputing to me (on the basis of what?) a very simplistic view of rhetoric.

            “Rhetoric literally is the study of how to use words to structure arguments in order that they can be more persuasive. If you don’t think that is what philosphy is largely about, then I’m tempted to think you believe that argument is not an important piece of philosophy, or at least that argument can be in something other than rhetoric.”

            If “philosophy is largely about” rhetoric, why not simply call it rhetoric?

  7. Thanks for posting this, Dan. It would take some work to unpack this, but let’s say Jones is firmly convinced that numbers are abstract objects and that it’s “true” that there are numbers between six and ten, four plus four is eight, etc.
    Smith, on the other hand, thinks everything that exists is in space and time and in the casual network,and, as such, he rejects Jone’s account of mathematics.

    If Smith did not believe Jones mistaken in a realist sense, what would his motivation be for “negotiation”? I suppose it would be some variant of pragmatism. Smith would be attempting to see what the benefits are, if any, from seeing things from Jones point of view. For both Dewey and Pearce, “truth” is identified with some ideal level of justification i.e., if all the relevant parties had all of the relevant information, they would conclude X. And on that account, the issue would still consist of reading, for example, Quine’s defense of Platonism and deciding if his arguments are cogent and persuasive.

    If I came to reject this realist account and what would motivate me “negotiate”? Am I right that I would be trying to draw out all the ramifications and implications of Quine’s view, and seeing what sort of beneficial effects agreeing with Quine would have?

  8. I’ve long had a growing suspicion that many of the supposedly “perennial questions of mainstream Western philosophy have long been exhausted, and for the past twenty years, a growing suspicion that many of the major debates of the philosophy of the 20th century have also been reaching the point of exhaustion. Professional philosophy should now largely maintain the history of philosophy, just in case any of the old questions and debates need revisiting or achieve some sort of real revival. Otherwise, philosophy both in and out of the academy ought really to adopt the manner and attitude and overall tenor of conversation. The “positioning” model now seems more and more somewhat out-dated. Much of the work of 20th century philosophy in its end stages was unraveling the hard fact that people ‘don’t talk that way,’ and do not have the easily categorized motivations and beliefs philosophers once asserted of them.

    In a conversation rhetoric and persuasion are more to the point than hard logic chopping, and the writing of philosophy, at least when the writer’s thinking is cogent on the topic discussed, more a matter of literary style than overwhelming argumentation.

    As a pragmatist, I have long held that ‘truth’ is a matter of agreement; this is hardly as anti-empiricist as anti-pragmatists claim; since the first ‘truth’ we need to agree on is the stubbing of one’s toe against a rock. Then we can discuss any implications such an event or experience could have for us.

    (Odd to remark that, in an era when the internet has allowed dissemination of disagreement over the very possibility of stubbing, toes, or rocks by political opponents. As the twitter crowd signs it: Sad.)

    1. “As a pragmatist, I have long held that ‘truth’ is a matter of agreement; this is hardly as anti-empiricist as anti-pragmatists claim; since the first ‘truth’ we need to agree on is the stubbing of one’s toe against a rock. Then we can discuss any implications such an event or experience could have for us.”

      As a fellow pragmatist (a Jamesian one), one of the most frustrating responses to this statement is something like: “But can’t consensus be wrong? Can’t it come to be that the truth was x where the consensus was -x or y?” William James tried to answer questions like these (though he wasn’t quite taken by a consensus idea of truth, his was something that lends itself to that direction). And his answer – which was not found persuasive by most critics – was like this:

      “Well, in that case, you have to IMAGINE the truth being x, and that people will at some point – or at least could at some point – come to believe x, when right now, they believe -x or y. That means that even when you are imaginging that truth (x) is independent of belief, the only way you can do it is to imagine believing that -x or y is true instead of x. And it can’t be another way, because TRUTH COMES THROUGH BELIEF.”

      Like, yes, consensus can be wrong. But how do we come to know that it was wrong? By some other belief coming about and convincing people – either the right people, or the majority of people, etc – of this new belief. That’s the ONLY way we can say that conensus is/was wrong…. by appealing to some other belief that manages to gain some type of meaningful consensus.

      1. I’m pragmatic about what I believe but I am not a pragmatist about truth.

        “Like, yes, consensus can be wrong. But how do we come to know that it was wrong? By some other belief coming about and convincing people – either the right people, or the majority of people, etc – of this new belief. That’s the ONLY way we can say that conensus is/was wrong…. by appealing to some other belief that manages to gain some type of meaningful consensus.”

        I could never understand this view. Here is my view and I wonder where we part ways.

        Lets say a cardinal flies in my backyard and I plainly see it clearly enough and understand what they look like enough such that I know I saw a cardinal in my backyard. I think I can “know” a cardinal flew in my backyard by this sort of thing happening.

        Maybe I tell others and they say it is very unlikely based on where my backyard was, or maybe I don’t tell anyone. Maybe the entire world or anyone that considered it thinks my view is wrong. Maybe the entire world thinks no cardinal has ever flown in my backyard during my lifetime. But my knowing the cardinal was there and the reality of the cardinal being there has nothing to do with my ability to convince anyone else, let alone any consensus.

        I subscribe the correspondence view of truth. I know Kaufman has suggested that view took a serious hit by some argument but I am not sure what it is. If you know of a clear explanation of why the correspondence view of truth is wrong I would be interested.

        1. “Lets say a cardinal flies in my backyard and I plainly see it clearly enough and understand what they look like enough such that I know I saw a cardinal in my backyard. I think I can “know” a cardinal flew in my backyard by this sort of thing happening.”

          That’s a good example. And like I said, I’m not tied to a consensus view of truth so much as a pragmatic one. I say x is true because holding it to be true does the job I want done in that given case. We might disagree about what ‘works’ means in any given case, but here, the statement works for the purposes of giving what I think is a faithful account of what I saw in the yard.

          But what we can probably also say is that your account is true to the degree that other imagined or real people (would) share your appraisal that what you saw was a cardinal. If there were 10 other people in the room looking oukt the same window at tihe same time and NONE of them saw the cardinal, you’d have at very least the question in your mind about whether you really saw one. Did you hallucinate, or mistake something else for a cardinal? The only way you could ever come to doubt your account is to have someone else’s account of what happened (real or imagined) that you seriously entertain. We assume our senses are accurate in giving knowledge until we bump up against something – often the challenge of others whose sense data yielded different conclusions – that makes us reevaluate.

        2. “I subscribe the correspondence view of truth. I know Kaufman has suggested that view took a serious hit by some argument but I am not sure what it is. If you know of a clear explanation of why the correspondence view of truth is wrong I would be interested.”

          I believe that the earth is round. I am convinced that this is where the evidence from reality points and that this statement is an accurate appraisal of reality.
          Mary believe that the earth is flat. She is convinced that this is where the evidence from reality points and that this statement is an accurate appraisal of reality.
          You, a believer in the correspondence view, think you know how to solve the matter. “I know what you all need to do to resolve this. Both of you are looking at reality the way you THINK it is. How about looking at reality AS IT IS and comparing THAT to your view of how you think reality is?”

          We continue to argue, and nothing has changed. Why? Because we already had different ideas about what “reality as it is” says. And since we can’t get to “reality as it is” sans appraisal, your comment – and even the most elaborative expansion of it – had 0 chance of solving our argument.

          How’s that?

          1. First thank you for your response. I think I appreciate your concerns and find them valid but deal with them differently. As a philosophy major I had an interest in epistemology but admit I never studied various arguments against the correspondence view of Truth. We simply dealt with other issues. My teachers would mention there are debates but for our purposes lets just say “Proposition P is true iff P accords with reality” and it seemed like a fine definition so we would move on to other issues. So now as I approach 50 I am trying to learn why I might leave a definition that seems to have worked well for me. BTW I say “redefine” the word truth not because I am trying to claim the correspondence view is the traditional view but rather just because it would be a redefinition for me. I am not alleging objective truth there. 🙂

            “I say x is true because holding it to be true does the job I want done in that given case.”

            I think the “because” is somewhat ambiguous. I say “X is true” because I hold that view, but my holding the view does not make it true. It is not true because I hold the view. Nor is it *true* because holding that belief accomplishes anything. Now I think people can rationally “hold” (aka “believe”) a view for reasons other than that they are true. I think James gave the example which I am adapting where you might have cancer and a study shows that you have a 99% chance of dying in 3 months. (lets call it the “grim study”) Now another study showed that if you believed you will survive for over a year you will have a much higher survival rate. (lets call it the “happy study”) So you decide to believe that the grim study used fake data and is unreliable. And for whatever reason you manage to make yourself believe that the grim study used fake data. I think believing the grim study used fake data is at least arguably rational. But I don’t think your belief would make it true that the study used fake data.

            “But what we can probably also say is that your account is true to the degree that other imagined or real people (would) share your appraisal that what you saw was a cardinal. If there were 10 other people in the room looking out the same window at the same time and NONE of them saw the cardinal, you’d have at very least the question in your mind about whether you really saw one. Did you hallucinate, or mistake something else for a cardinal?”

            I don’t see the advantage to your approach. My approach would be to say such doubts would be rational and may lead to fewer degrees of certainty *in my belief.* But the truth is not going to be effected at all. What is the pitfall in just saying that we can have different degrees of certainty *in our beliefs* instead of saying there are different degrees of *truth*?

            “The only way you could ever come to doubt your account is to have someone else’s account of what happened (real or imagined) that you seriously entertain. We assume our senses are accurate in giving knowledge until we bump up against something – often the challenge of others whose sense data yielded different conclusions – that makes us reevaluate.”

            I recently went to a wake of a childhood friend. I had moved to a different area when I was a sophomore in high school so me and a few other people I had not seen in about 30 years were talking about some of the things we did together. I had some memories I came to doubt before I saw them. But I wasn’t around anyone telling me to doubt them. So yes I agree we bump up against things that make us doubt our beliefs but I certainly do not think “the only way you could ever come to doubt your account is to have someone else’s account of what happened.” I am not sure if you are trying to make this subjective in that sense. But for example I may have remembered something one way but then when I drive to my old neighborhood I see the buildings are not positioned as I remember them. So I would say objective reality can also lead me to doubt my accounts.

            “You, a believer in the correspondence view, think you know how to solve the matter. “I know what you all need to do to resolve this. Both of you are looking at reality the way you THINK it is. How about looking at reality AS IT IS and comparing THAT to your view of how you think reality is?”

            I don’t see the correspondence theory of truth as solution to disputes. I don’t think that was ever the intent of the definition. I think it is a way to definition that captures why we think “truth” is valuable or important. We think reality is important.

            I agree redefining “truth” as whatever I or some group believes makes finding “truth” easier in many cases. We can just ask the relevant person or group if God exists, or if mouse traps are immoral. Then we know the “truth.”

            But it also means “truth” loses it’s gravitas. We want to comprehend *reality.* The first blog I did dealt with the definition of truth. I talk about how my kids would ask me “in real life?” when I would tell them a story. They didn’t want to just know if what I told them is “true” according to some fictional account. As in yes it is true that Cinderella had a glass slipper. They wanted to know if what I said accorded with reality. If truth was just true according to some made up story they were not interested. They were interested in reality.

            So you are saying lets do away with this concept of objective reality altogether because it will help us resolve disputes? Ok but I think if we just call some subjective view the “truth” people will want a new word that describes claims that accord with reality.

            Should people care that their beliefs and understandings conform with reality? I think that is a good question and I have wondered that myself – especially after I have gone on a history reading binge! But for now I would just say people do seem to care about from a very early age.

            Thanks for the comments I enjoy the conversation.

          2. I also wonder what is considered a “lie” on these various definitions of truth other the the correspondence model. Consider this definition “A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood.”
            https://www.thefreedictionary.com/lie

            So in the cardinal case if truth is what some group believes and I know this group believes I did not see a cardinal in my backyard I would know it was not true for me to say there was a cardinal in my backyard. So saying there was a cardinal in my backyard would be a lie.

            I have also heard that truth is what can be objectively verified. And clearly my experience of seeing the cardinal was subjective. I can only relate my subjective experience as evidence. So on that definition, I would know I can not objectively verify that I saw the cardinal. Therefore I know it is not “true” that I saw the cardinal. Therefore my saying I saw a cardinal is a lie.

            I think a formulation like this could be used on the pragmatic aspect as well. I wouldn’t have people doubting my credibility as long as I don’t say I saw a cardinal. Therefore it works for me to believe I didn’t see a cardinal therefore it is true I did not see a cardinal. I know all this so my saying I saw a cardinal would be a lie.

          3. I also wonder what is considered a “lie” on these various definitions of truth other the the correspondence model.

            Surely, to lie is to assert as true something that you believe to be false.

            You don’t need a theory of truth for that.

            My personal objection to the correpondence theory of truth, as usually presented, is that it seems to only say that true sentences are true and false sentences are false. That is to say, it seems vacuous.

            If you want more from the correspondence theory, then you need to flesh out what is meant by “correspond”.

          4. “My personal objection to the correpondence theory of truth, as usually presented, is that it seems to only say that true sentences are true and false sentences are false. That is to say, it seems vacuous.”

            I am sympathetic to some of these lines of attack. I think the deflationary view of truth argues something along those lines. I am not that well informed on these lines to have strong opinions on that debate.

            But I do think these subjective theories of truth have bigger problems.

            “Surely, to lie is to assert as true something that you believe to be false.

            You don’t need a theory of truth for that.”

            I think you are assuming something like a correspondence theory of truth. That is “the truth” is what really happened. It may seem vacuous because it seems simple. Yet I think it captures what we mean.

            But if I correctly understand some of these subjective theories they change what truth itself means. Truth is no longer what in reality happened. Truth itself becomes something different. Truth under these theories becomes:
            what certain people believe
            Or
            What can be verified by objective evidence
            Or
            what works.

            Some may also require that the event in reality happened. So it may be that a statement is true if it accords with reality and can be verified by objective evidence. But the extra requirement would mean that what is true on the correspondence theory is no longer true on their theory.

          5. But I do think these subjective theories of truth have bigger problems.

            I don’t recall that anybody has suggested a subjective theory of truth — at least not in this thread.

            I think you are assuming something like a correspondence theory of truth.

            That was in response to my comment about lies. But again, I don’t see any role for a theory of truth in identifying lies. A lie is simply stating something contrary to what the person believes. Whether or not that is true doesn’t come up.

            If P is actually true, but I happen to believe that P is false, then I am telling a lie if I assert that P is true because it isn’t what I believe.

            At least that’s my understanding of telling lies. I’ll grant, however, that some folk are too quick to accuse others of lying when maybe they are simply mistaken.

            Do I assume something like a correspondence theory? That’s just too vague unless we get into what we mean by “correspond”.

          6. Neil Rickert
            “I don’t recall that anybody has suggested a subjective theory of truth — at least not in this thread.”

            It is somewhat hard to tell what thread we are in (and I may have posted to the wrong one) but I was trying to drill down on views like these by kevinck that I think add subjectivity to “truth”:

            “But what we can probably also say is that your account is true to the degree that other imagined or real people (would) share your appraisal that what you saw was a cardinal.”

            and

            “That’s the ONLY way we can say that conensus is/was wrong…. by appealing to some other belief that manages to gain some type of meaningful consensus.”

            I don’t think there is a “degree” of truth that depends on what anyone believes. I also think a consensus view can be known to be false by a person even if they can’t convince anyone else of this. For example when we directly see something but others don’t believe us.

            The first sentence seems to go beyond what we “reasonably believe” or “know” into what is actually “true.” I don’t think the truth or falsity of a claim such as there was a cardinal in my backyard yesterday is something that is a matter of degree calibrated to anyone’s beliefs about the matter. The truth is determined by reality, regardless of our subjective beliefs or understanding of reality. I agree that view of truth doesn’t help us resolve disputes, but I think it captures what we commonly mean by truth and it also captures what we find important about the truth.

          7. The problem is that when most of us get into arguments online (I’m not a philosopher), it is not about topics such as whether there’s a cardinal in my yard or whether there’s a bottle of water on my desk, but about topics such as whether transwomen are really women.

            In the first case, the bird in my yard or the bottle of water on my desk, it seems relatively simple to determine what reality is, but in the second case, wow, it gets a whole lot more complicated.

          8. It is somewhat hard to tell what thread we are in (and I may have posted to the wrong one) but I was trying to drill down on views like these by kevinck that I think add subjectivity to “truth”:

            “But what we can probably also say is that your account is true to the degree that other imagined or real people (would) share your appraisal that what you saw was a cardinal.”

            My understanding of kevinck’s view is different from yours. Perhaps kevinck can clarify.

            Some people seem to take the correspondence theory to be something like a “God’s eye view” theory of truth. That is, they see truth as completely external to us. I take kevinck to be disagreeing with that.

            When I look around, people often judge truth claims in accordance with standards. And, as far as I can see, those standards are all human standards, typically community standards. And if the standards by which we judge truth come from the community, then we can reasonably say that truth emerges from the community.

            Yes, the consensus can be wrong about individual truth claims. But the consensus cannot be wrong about the standards by which we judge those individual truth claims. That there is a strong consensus is part of what makes those to be our standards.

          9. I may have misunderstood him.

            I think truth is external/independent of us. Some things would be true even if no people existed. I think it was true that the earth existed even before people walked on it. Of course no people “knew” it was true before there were people but it was still true.

            I always try to keep a clear distinction between what is true, and my ability to reasonable believe what is true. I don’t think reality has any requirement to be “fair” in the sense that if something is true we should be able to know it.

            Society and individuals have standards as to what it is reasonable to believe but those standards generally do not effect reality and therefore do not effect what is true.

          10. I think it was true that the earth existed even before people walked on it.

            Have you ever tried discussing that with a YEC (Young Earth Creationist)? The YEC has a very different view of the past, and you cannot persuade him that he is wrong. The YEC also has a similar view of truth to yours, that truth is external and independent of us. Yet the YEC cannot produce the external evidence and reasoning that would persuade you, and similarly you are unable to persuade the YEC.

            You might look at omphalism (you can google for that). It is an entirely different account of the past from what most people accept. Yet it is fully consistent with all of the evidence. The only way to choose between our standard view of the past, and the omphalist view of the past, is in terms of pragmatic judgments.

          11. Hi Neil

            I don’t think the correspondence view of truth will make resolving disputes easier. I like it because I think it captures why truth is important – that is truth is important because reality is important.

            I don’t argue with YEC because I don’t think someone’s beliefs about when the earth started is important. I vaguely understand that the earth was formed about 4 billion years ago. But if my belief is off by a couple billion years or so, it doesn’t really matter in any way to me beyond the intrinsic value that every truth might have. And some truths are more important than others.

        3. “my knowing the cardinal was there and the reality of the cardinal being there has nothing to do with my ability to convince anyone else, let alone any consensus.” – Without others and our relations to them, there would no need for the concept of truth at all. We speak the truth and seek the truth because we are responsible to others and to standards that we commit ourselves to. Correspondence alone is simply a metaphor for how we understand truth. There is no physical relationship between what we believe and reality.

          1. I will again admit I am not really well versed in the arguments for or against the correspondence theory of truth. But I have not read anything that suggests we should discard it.

            “Without others and our relations to them, there would no need for the concept of truth at all. We speak the truth and seek the truth because we are responsible to others and to standards that we commit ourselves to.”

            Even if I were to agree with what you say, it doesn’t follow that truth should be defined subjectively. I think morality involves relationships and other people but that doesn’t mean morality is subjective.

            Consider this: say someone is lying to their wife about an affair. And he says well “truth” is what we all believe was true so lets just set reality aside and believe otherwise. It seems to me when we talk about relationships that makes my definition more important.

            But anyway I do think we would seek the truth even if we are all alone. Is it true that I can find fresh water at this place? Is it true that I can eat this plant without being poisoned? Im asking about reality not just what I believe.

            “There is no physical relationship between what we believe and reality.”

            I have some idea of what a “physical relationship” might be. But what I imagine is not a relationship between my beliefs and reality.

          2. In the J.M. Barrie play “Peter Pan” the character Tinkerbell is dying and the audience is asked to participate by clapping if they believe in her. The rousing response of the audience appears to revive this imaginary being. It’s a neat trick, and I think it’s also the basis for the idea of truth, and for our love of fiction. Truth is self-regulatory. It only works if people believe in it as an objective standard that exists independently of their beliefs and desires. It’s as if it is an imaginary referee that we all agree to honour. It only works to guide and constrain our behaviour if we believe it is an objective standard. When people believe in outlandish conspiracy theories such as QAnon they are abandoning this belief in the objectivity of truth in favour of believing what they want to believe – accepting only evidence that confirms their beliefs and rejecting or rationalizing away disconfirming evidence. We all do this to some extent, especially when it comes to ideas that support or challenge our own identity, but overall we accept the objectivity of truth, and it’s good that we do, because without our belief in truth’s objectivity society would collapse. I could get a lot of flack for saying this on this blog, and even more so what I am going to say next: philosophical theories of truth such as correspondence, coherence, and pragmatist are not really theories at all, in the sense that they don’t explain what the concept of truth does in society. They are descriptions of what truth means to us. For some people truth means correspondence to reality, for some it means coherence with an ideal course of inquiry. But what truth really does is more like how the audience of Peter Pan saves Tinkerbell: when we believe in objective truth we regulate our behaviour accordingly and we expect others to do the same, to the point that we will censure others who spread lies. We can enjoy fiction, because when we read or listen to it we immerse ourselves in its made up world. Believing in truth as objective is simply immersing ourselves in the far more complex real world.

        4. Re truth and pragmatism, I am slowly reading through Brandom’s recent lecture notes on antirepresentionalism

          http://www.pitt.edu/~rbrandom/Courses/Antirepresentationalism%20(2020)/AR%202020%20a.html

          They are pretty pithy eg
          “Rationalists take concepts as primary, treat sensations as defective concepts.
          Empiricists take sensations as primary, treat concepts as abstract, indefinite sensations.”

          “Wittgenstein in the Tractatus is an arch-representationalist (except, crucially, about logical
          vocabulary).
          Wittgenstein in the Investigations is an arch-antirepresentationalist (and semantic nihilist?).”

          Brandom admires (with a few reservations) Cheryl Misak’s idea that Analytic Philosophy “is just the latest stage of the pragmatist tradition”, more influenced by Pierce. So Ramsay and Wittgenstein are “Cambridge Pragmatists”.

    2. I believe your obituary for “the perennial questions of philosophy” is premature, although it might be true of analytic philosophy, which, IMO, has reached the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” stage of producing ever finer distinctions about things that have no grounding in reality. Perhaps physics has reached that stage too, having struck explanatory bedrock with quantum mechanics, and now churning out theories of everything, eg. string theory, that can’t move beyond untested speculation. There will always be a future for philosophy because we’ve barely begun to understand who we are and where we are going. And we certainly can’t depend on scientific understanding which so far has utterly failed to explain freedom, morality, values, democracy, justice, truth, and meaning.

  9. There is something to be said for the ‘philosophy as diplomacy’ view. One virtue is that it encourages civility (rather than signing open letters, smearing your colleagues and demanding their removal from academic positions).

    Not all metaphysical or philosophical questions have a practical import. Before we become diplomatic and negotiate (= step 2), we would have to accept that we disagree about fundamental premises (= step 1). In philosophy it’s ok to stop at step 1 (‘This is where we part ways!’), but we can, if need be, continue to step 2.

    If the philosophically contentious position has a practical import, like policy decisions, then diplomacy and negotiations ultimately fall to the agents of the state (politicians, officials, etc. – they may even consult philosophers). The state will legislate.

    Sometimes philosophical positions can have pernicious effects, then I would not want to be diplomatic. Judith Butler (1990, 194) talks of the ‘radical instability’ of the category ‘woman’, contending that both gender and sex are socially constructed. 30 years later we have teenage girls, confused about their sexuality and looking for an identity, chopping their breasts off, euphemistically described as ‘top surgery’. In such a case I will move directly from step 1 to step 3: philosophical (and political) resistance.

    Trans-inclusive feminism, as I have mentioned, has brought out Stalinist tendencies among ‘liberal’ academics: ‘There is no debate!’ This is inimical to philosophy and has also had pernicious effects on people’s lives.

    1. “Sometimes philosophical positions can have pernicious effects, then I would not want to be diplomatic.”

      I agree with your view that philosophy can have pernicious effects. But more diplomacy is exactly the answer.

      Philosophy will shape different academic fields. It is inevitable. I think the answer is to recognize it is philosophy and present philosophical criticisms of these philosophical issues. Too many times other fields present a philosophical position as though it is established when it is not. That is the problem. It is the danger of a little bit of knowledge. I think the best answer is a fuller understanding of the philosophical issue.

      1. I have distinguished three steps as possible responses, and I believe it’s up to the individual to decide how to proceed. As I said, sometimes I will not choose to be diplomatic, but I always recommend civility.

  10. Dan, I think you are opening up a new approach to the search for truth. Pluralism in metaphysics, ontology, even language and logic would require that our search for knowledge adapt.

    Philosophy has been an exquisitely interesting, enjoyable and fertile field for a very long time but it does not appear to be very effective in dissolving conflict. On the contrary, philosophical disagreements often seem to aggravate political differences by providing a veneer of rectitude to one side or the other, or both.

    The problem is groupthink: the idea that certain groups, schools or movements have the proper understanding and approach, and that those that disagree are wrong. Of course, no one really knows how the other thinks and feels, but through a process of self delusion people are persuaded that they all agree. Many, believing that they are of singular mind, will then start engaging in group action. This is real and can lead to all kinds of consequences, good and bad.

    The explanation for why we cannot agree uniformly on most things is because we are, in reality, atomized. Every single unique one of us has to construct our own universe as we proceed through life. Diplomacy, sensitivity and diligence would seem to be better options for such a brave new world. Confrontation and hostility toward the other would more likely hinder learning and progress. In stead, we should celebrate and attempt to learn from our differences.

  11. I take a much more positive view of philosophy than you do. I would say that just because issues remain that does not mean nothing was learned. I think philosophers know quite a bit even if that knowledge leads them to be more skeptical of fully embracing any particular position.

    There are several reasons philosophers would make great diplomats. First philosophy teaches intellectual humility. Anyone who has thought long and hard about a deep philosophical issue knows what it is like to have a view you think is airtight upended. I think if you don’t know what I am talking about you have never tried to write something that would conclusively resolve a deep philosophical issue. This sort of humility for whatever reason is not always forced on people in other disciplines. In philosophy even the giants that actually did make groundbreaking arguments often learned to respect the views of those who disagree with them. And they likely dealt in other areas where they were unable to break new ground.

    Philosophy tends to bridge various disciplines. At first there was philosophy and Aristotle was taught everywhere! Then we started to branch out and create new more specialized fields. Those branches have grown but they still connect to a trunk. This is one reason why so many people in all sorts of fields from the various sciences, history, math, religion, politics will often at least at times turn philosophical.

    Another reason we see those who specialize in one area turn to philosophy is because philosophy deals with all the interesting questions. The branches tend to deal in minutia. Why should I study this history or that one? The question is not itself a history question. It is a philosophical one. We think science is so important but even if you believed in the geocentric model of the universe you would tie your shoes the same way.

    People just don’t care about much of what science finds out. I mean there is an “oh yeah that’s cool” about black holes or Neanderthals etc., but it is quickly back to, politics or religion. In other words questions that effect how we live. People who think deeply about just about anything will usually start to break into philosophy. Sure we are happy to benefit from science and technology but the vast majority of us do not need, or care, to know how the cell phone is made. Some may feign interest (many won’t even do that) but the proof is in the pudding.

    Of course questions of religion, politics, and economics will often revolve around political philosophy, epistemology, morality, then to meta-ethics. And to understand these areas you often benefit from having a handle on philosophical concepts from other areas of philosophy. Sure most people will just stay at the superficial level of politics and change their principles to suit their party. But those who prefer not to contradict their earlier views tend to look for a more coherent system for their views. And then they start driving into philosophy.

    Finally, philosophy is the department that teaches critical reasoning. Need I say more? But it is fitting because philosophy often is just letting critical reasoning guide your view on a huge variety of topics. If philosophy is the trunk then critical reasoning is the root. Critical reasoning leads to philosophy which then leads to the various other academic branches.

    Philosophers can and should offer important information for many different branches of learning. As it turns out Historians tend to take Hume’s argument against miracles as though it settled the matter. I am not sure if the fashion has changed but when I was studying philosophy as an undergrad this argument was fairly roundly rejected by my atheist professors as not particularly good. I’m not saying reasonable people can’t argue for it, but there are also some pretty decent arguments against it as well. According to historians like Bart Ehrman this argument is fairly decisive. I think philosophers could really offer some guidance there.

    Of course, the guidance can go both ways. As a lawyer I am usually doing the minutia type of work in putting together a case. Scouring documents etc. But decades of putting cases together has allowed me to recognize certain disconnects between certain academics and notions regarding what evidence is, what role testimony and even hearsay plays in forming rational beliefs, and even what it means to prove something or meet a “burden of proof.” Philosophers seem to have very vague notions of these concepts and I think it clouds some of their views. Consider the various views of free will and determinism and how that would effect our the various goals of our criminal justice system retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation. The very concept of guilt and innocence seems to be seriously questioned on determinism. But that concept is a cornerstone of our system. The branch of politics/law seems to be drifting further from the trunk of philosophy (or perhaps we might think of it as the trunk walking away from the branch) and no attempt seems to be made to strengthen the bond. One of the reasons I comment is to encourage a collaboration with philosophers to address certain of these questions.

    I also think philosophers have much to offer in areas of law and politics as well as other fields. I think when these branches become too separated from the trunk they tend fall. What should we expect a government to actually accomplish? What values can/should it promote? What if any limits should it have? What does it even mean to say we have a separation of church and state? What is different about understanding our rights come from God as opposed to coming from the government or nature? Quickly political issues run into questions of philosophy, morality and religion. So I think philosophers should interact with other branches/departments.

    The question I have is what do you mean philosophers can negotiate? I negotiate quite a bit as a lawyer. I try to get a good deal for my client. But I am not even sure what you would be trying to achieve in such a negotiation. Who would you be negotiating for, or put differently, who would ultimately decide to accept the deal? Perhaps you mean philosophers could act as a sort of mediator but again who are the parties with the dispute and what sort of deal would negotiate or mediate? The idea of diplomat seems better suited. Diplomats try to build bridges. Philosophers are uniquely suited to help various fields understand how their own field fits in the overall tree of knowledge and they can also help bridge different fields.

  12. “Philosophy has been an exquisitely interesting, enjoyable and fertile field for a very long time but it does not appear to be very effective in dissolving conflict. On the contrary, philosophical disagreements often seem to aggravate political differences by providing a veneer of rectitude to one side or the other, or both.”

    I am not sure philosophy was ever intended to dissolve conflict but I don’t see how it makes it worse. I think when people move from a political dispute to a philosophical dispute they are usually making some progress. When people remain in the political, politics is often just a matter of double standards that support your own tribe. When people try to dig down to the philosophical they are usually trying to find the root of disagreement about an issue. This is a good thing even if they don’t convince each other.

    I am not sure the tribalism of politics is any better at dissolving conflicts when people just tend to support their political party and never try to dig up the root of the disagreement. I suspect it is worse.

    1. Hi Joe, my skepticism about the truthy virtues of philosophy is based on two main observations:

      – I have been following a few philosophy blogs for a number of years since my retirement and was quite surprised by how visceral the disagreements were. Personality and ego seemed to be the problem. My eclectic readings have been very inspirational, but I must admit that I do not see an all inclusive narrative.
      – Since my retirement I also decided to review, and then expand on, all that I had learned from life, especially from circa 50 years in the medical business, i.e. in a widely eclectic applied science. My conclusions are quite straightforward: we are miraculous creatures, each and every one of us the product of almost 14 billion years of geological and biological evolution; our culture nevertheless far outstrips our cognitive computational abilities. It is a supercomplex ineffable whole – no philosopher or anyone else can identify all the components let alone figure out how it all works.

      Yes, diplomacy, humility, diligence and openness seem more important than ‘the truth’. Truth, like god, may be an unattainable goal but still a useful guidepost.

      1. Thanks Johannes
        I think the philosophy blogs can get more visceral the more they delve into politics and religion. And those seem to have only gotten worse with time. Sadly for me, I am interested in those topics like a moth attracted to a flame.

        But I think perhaps because philosophy generally hasn’t resolved issues (which I think is different than making progress) I find there is less urgency and angst. If you read philosophy papers and books they are much calmer than what you see on the internet. And don’t confuse bloggers talking philosophy with philosophers talking philosophy. Some bloggers that talk about philosophy are professional philosophers (Like kaufman) but the vast majority are not. I majored in philosophy and have had a continued interest in it for years but I am not a professional philosopher – I do not make a living teaching or writing it. Most bloggers are far less informed about the philosophy they write about than I am. There is nothing wrong with that as I think it is good for everyone to think and discuss philosophy. But I also think many times the philosophy ties into religious or political issues that often just ramps up the heat. Again I admit I am guilty of this too as my blog deals with philosophy and religion. But I don’t want to give philosophy in general a bad name.

        Here is a Philosopher that wrote one of my favorite introductory books on meta-ethics. (“Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?”)

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzC3HHCO0PU

        Russ Shaefer Landau is sort of a big deal in the area but notice how respectful he is of other positions etc. I mean from my perspective it was almost to a fault because I don’t think he made a very good case for his own view on meta-ethics which I share.

        Here are links to papers by Richard Joyce who is a error-theorist when it comes to meta-ethics. He also holds a position that I tend to support but again sometimes I wish he would be stronger in his presentation of the case.

        http://personal.victoria.ac.nz/richard_joyce/onlinepapers.html

        I think you will see there is less bluster and more humility from these people who are very well versed in the areas than you will get from bloggers. I think Meta-ethics may be the quintessential case of philosophers not resolving much as there are are several different views that all seem have merit. But I think in reading and listening to these philosophers I have gained wisdom.

        The vast majority of bloggers – including myself – are not as steeped in all the arguments pro and con as some of these professional philosophers that focus in this area – so the dunning-kruger effect can take hold a bit. Sadly I have to suspect that may be some of what is happening when I wish these guys would state arguments I agree with in stronger terms.

        I think if you read some of those guys you will find a very different tone than you find on many blogs. But whether we say this field is “visceral” is a matter of relative opinion and there are likely many fields that are not so visceral. As trial lawyer I am in a system that is purposefully designed to be adversarial so my perspective is almost certainly skewed. For example in a comment to a back blog here someone was saying Kaufman was sensationalist when it comes to politics and I was simply bewildered. But it is relative.

  13. Professor Kaufman,

    Damn. This is a really helpful synopsis of your view. I wish I had more to disagree with.

    I do have one point of potential disagreement. And since you (quite aptly, in my opinion) brought up the relevance of aesthetic appreciation, I’ll transpose my point into that key.

    Someone might ask, “What difference does it make whether you perceive the melancholy expressed in this sonata? It’s enough (if it’s possible) for you to know (from those whose sensibilities you trust) that the sonata expresses melancholy, that the sonata exhibits features X and Y, and that those features contribute to the sonata’s melancholy.”

    I think it’s obvious that if I’m not appreciating the melancholy for myself, I’m missing out on something. I choose that phrase deliberately: even if one insists there’s no *fact* about the sonata I’m overlooking, that certainly doesn’t mean I’m not *missing out* on something. Indeed, if one insists there’s no fact I’m overlooking (and granting that I really am missing out on something), it means that I can’t remedy my lack simply by grasping and affirming some proposition, no matter how well-confirmed that proposition is. I’m failing to see something, as you put it. Certainly, there are a variety of communicative exchanges that could *help* me come to see the melancholy for myself, but none of those exchanges can *give* me that sight: you can’t package up the seeing in words and transmit it to me. You can explain *what it is* you see (or *what it is* that is there to be seen), but it is I who ultimately must do the seeing, if I’m to appreciate the melancholy.

    The question is: What difference would it make if I never came to appreciate it? The difference it makes is, at least most directly, a difference to *me*. The me who merely knows that the sonata expresses melancholy has an impoverished inner life compared to the me who comes to know it *by seeing for myself* the melancholy expressed. So the question becomes: what difference does it make whether I have an impoverished inner life? Does an impoverishment of inner lives, to use your words, make a “material or substantive impact?” Does it not? What kind of a difference does it make?

    Here’s what all this leads to: I think appreciating the melancholy expressed in a sonata is importantly like seeing the sense in which mathematics is a fiction, say, or the sense in which mathematical objects exist beyond space and time. (Pick your pet indeterminate philosophical theory.) Even if there’s no fact of the matter, it makes some kind of difference to me (or to other potential appreciators) when I see (or they see) such things (or their opposites). *Something* happens to my outlook, my framework of interpretation, my field of inter-conceptual resonances — my mind, my inner life — and my inner life is, so to speak, something I can’t escape. Its impoverishment is my impoverishment.

    In brief: If you’re right about the aesthetic nature of philosophy (and I think you are), perhaps the differences made by competing indeterminate theories are important, even if they’re not “material or substantive,” in that they’re important to the potential appreciators of the theories.

  14. Too many comments to reply to each in detail, so let me just say a few things by way of overall elaboration and response.

    1. The view I am advancing depends upon no particular conception of truth. I happen to be a Deflationist/Disquotationalist myself, but it makes no difference to the view or the arguments.

    2. I am not a pragmatist of any stripe, and being one is not required for the view or the arguments.

    3. Much of the work is being done by the distinction between something’s being true/false and something’s being apt/inapt. My claim is that views as to what is of moral significance, how an individual should best be regarded, and the like — which are at the heart of many of philosophy’s most central and perennial questions — are the sorts of things that are more or less apt, given the inquiry/activity in which they are involved, rather than the sorts of things that are true or false, in some inquiry/activity independent sense.

    4. I have not said, nor am I of the view that *all* philosophical problems/questions are of this character. Only that some of the most prominent ones are.

    5. Readers should not be too literal or narrow in their reading of ‘negotiation’ in the essay. The main point is to contrast it with ‘disputation’, and given how many of the philosophical positions I am talking about come down to “How x should best be regarded,” I believe that the substantial literature in aesthetics regarding how one gets another to see what one sees in something — where the something is non-demonstrable and thus, not subject to disputation — is a good place to look if we are properly to understand the nature of *many* philosophical disputes.

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