by Kevin Currie-Knight
I stand with Friedrich Nietzsche and William James when (albeit in different ways) they arrive at a similar position: a person’s philosophy reflects their temperament. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche suggested that every philosophy is “the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious auto-biography.” In Pragmatism, James elaborates:
Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises.
For both, philosophy (and belief more generally) is our human way of navigating the world. Getting to truth may be our proximate or apparent goal, but the ultimate goal is putting this human attempt at truth to the service of living our human lives. Reason is always the reason of an embodied user, and to the degree that embodied users’ experience is colored by their personality and partiality, how they reason about the world will also be affected by those things. As well-reasoned as the philosophy might be, an optimist’s philosophy will likely look different than a pessimist’s; those who feel more comfortable with stasis and order will spin a philosophy that looks different than those more comfortable with change and vagueness, and a theist will likely have a different philosophy than an atheist. Each may start with different premises or intuitions that feel equally obvious to those who have them. Each may unconsciously have some vague sense of reality that their philosophy is spun in the service of. Even when philosophizing about the same world, each may emphasize different features of it and interpret those features differently.
For me, this “psychologized” view of philosophy means that philosophy is less a struggle to reach bona fide truths with dispassionate reason then it is a way for people to develop, exchange, and argue about differences over how to view things. Fiction, poetry, and personal essays can do some of that – sketch out different perspectives – but philosophy goes farther by adding the production and analysis of reasons into the mix. Not only does a philosopher’s argument sketch out how they conceptually make sense of a thing – whether objective moral facts exist, whether free will or determinism is more likely the best way of interpreting human choice – but she is then obligated to produce reasons that explain why she holds this view and possibly convinces others either to adopt it themselves or take it more seriously than they otherwise might have. (Analogously, judges may decide cases a certain way, but are obliged to produce opinions that show us how they arrived where they did.)
If temperament plays a crucial role in developing a philosophy and articulating reasons for (or against) it, this likely means that whether a reason is convincing has more to do with who is hearing and taking it up than with the reason itself. Barring issues like whether an argument commits an error in logic (and even that will depend on how much weight to give the rules of inference, another thing that can vary among philosophers), an argument that might be compelling for a theist may not for an atheist and vice versa. Some prefer straightforward analytic arguments and find other methods – phenomenology, hermeneutics, etc. – too loose and squishy. Those who prefer the latter types of arguments may find analytic philosophy too devoid of an existential element they find in those latter approaches. If one experiences the world with a strong intuition that objective moral facts or laws exist, it is unlikely that reasons against their existence will convince you that your intuitive experience is incorrect. Reasons are more powerful when they jibe with some set of intuitions we already have.
I want to warn against a few potential misimpressions of what this argument entails. First, this view of philosophy does not entail that reason has no role to play. Philosophy is about convincing others, preferably that one’s position is worth adopting, and at least that it is worth consideration. Even if I have little reason to think that very different others will find my arguments decisive, making those arguments serves several purposes. First, I might be wrong, and those different others may find my arguments quite compelling. Even if not, my reasons might at least convince them to take a view seriously that without supporting reasons might seem ill-considered or worthy of quick dismissal. Lastly, articulating and analyzing reasons for different positions keeps us circumspect and appreciative of the variety of conclusions reasonable people can come to.
Also, this view of philosophy – as vitally affected by individual temperament – doesn’t mean that we can’t say philosophy attempts to get at truths. For the record, as a pragmatist, I am not sure that it does, at least in the way most philosophers have in mind. The truths I think philosophers get to are truths about how best one can interpret aspects of the world that cannot ultimately be gotten empirically. The way I see it, philosophers cannot get to truths about whether humans have free will, but can get to truths (and I know some will dispute how I use that word) about whether some conception of free will is the most sensible way to think about human interaction with the world. I doubt philosophers with different temperaments – and often different intuitions from the start – will come to truths about what justice requires, but they can surely come to different ways to theorize ways of thinking about justice, getting better over time at articulating the moral ins and outs of each.
My own view of philosophy’s relation to truth is best articulated by William James, this time from his philosophical analysis of The Varieties of Religious Experience:
But why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of ideas can be true? The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas, and is so handled by different men, and will each time give some characteristic kind of profit, for which he cares, to the handler, while at the same time some other kind of profit has to be omitted or postponed.
On this account, philosophy is the exchange of different interpretations and ways of thinking about subjects – from the existence of objective moral facts to whether math is created or discovered – bolstered by argument. I think particularly of debates over free will, where each side can interpret the same things via different and equally adequate interpretations. Where free-willers make much of our feeling of choice, determinists suggest that this feeling is an illusion and maybe itself determined. Where determinists point to there being no room for free will in a seemingly mechanistic world, free-willers suggest various ways that the type of contingency that could allow for choice is compatible with a mechanistic world. In the way James has in mind, it seems that free-willers, compatibilists, and determinists are often describing and interpreting the very same world in quite different ways with no one side coming up with that feature of the world that can’t be accounted for by the opposing camps’ arguments.
This leads me to the last thing this view of philosophy doesn’t entail: that since reason might not have a shot at convincing all philosophers of a single position, it all comes down to mere opinion. I like coffee, you like Kool-Aid, and there’s nothing more to be said.
In one and only one sense, this may be accurate: If you are determined not to see my argument as convincing, then despite my insistence that it is, I can’t make you feel its force. I’m sure we’ve all had the exasperating experience of making a case we think is decisive only to find that despite our best attempts, others did not find it so. It might be that they were much worse than us at philosophy, but it may be that they did not share the intuitions that undergird our argument because they don’t find our intuitions obvious, or didn’t find the types of arguments we use convincing (as when deontologists do not find utilitarian calculation a decisive moral exercise).
An upshot of this view – that philosophies involve temperaments as much as reasons – is that I doubt philosophers will ever achieve the grand agreements they often want. If reason is always a more personal affair than we’d like and one’s philosophy is affected by temperament, then as long as philosophers and their spectators differ, different folks, convinced of different arguments, will come to different conclusions. In an essay called “Must Philosophers Disagree?” the pragmatist F.C.S. Schiller concluded that they almost certainly must. (Maybe not coincidentally, he was an admirer of Nietzsche and James.) He wrote it the way I’d have written it:
The great types of philosophic diversity, the great problems on which philosophers disagree, are very persistent, and exemplify themselves from generation to generation in different philosophies. They carry on an inconclusive and unending warfare, precisely because neither side has hitherto penetrated into the psychological core of its opponents’ creed. Could they do so and catch a glimpse of each other’s internal economy and inner harmony, they might understand why their traditional methods of controversy have been so ineffective.
To summarize, the value I see in philosophy is that, like fiction or personal essays, it can let us compare different ways of viewing the same issues. Additionally, because philosophy utilizes reason in its methods, it forces the philosopher to “show their work” in a way that renders their sketch more insightful and worthy of consideration by its consumers. I would, however, stop short of suggesting that this exchange can get us to the sorts of truths most would consider worthy of the name, because it may be that different solutions to a philosophic problem may be more or less plausible to different thinkers and this might have to do with how the different positions and arguments relate to individual temperament.