by Kevin Currie-Knight
Recently, I wrote an article here defending the position — held also by Nietzsche and William James — that a person’s philosophy must reflect their temperament and attitude toward the world. Different folks with different temperaments (and experiences) will inevitably have at least some different starting assumptions, respond differently to different types of arguments, and will favor different philosophies that accords with their different senses of the world.
Given this view, it seems a good idea to follow up with an account of how my own temperament and experience with philosophy led me to the view above. Biographical accounts have a limited value, but hopefully readers can find something useful in it. Those who disagree with my take can find a sketch that can place them inside the head of the person who produced the take; those who share my view — or something like it — might find something in my story that resonates with them. At any rate, here I go.
It is only in looking back from the age of 45 that I can see a pattern in my intellectual journey: I’ve always been fascinated with disagreement and the fact that people can occupy and see the same world but have such different takes on it. Afternoon talk shows were big when I was a kid, and the ones I remember the most gave voice to guests who had gnarly views: white supremacists, conspiracy theorists of various kinds, etc. What I remember about those shows is how normal those guests could appear at times; how secure in their views they were; and how even if I thought their reasons and evidence were shit, I could see the force those views had on their speaker. (I still eagerly devour material about cults for this very reason.)
That was long before I ever studied philosophy in anything like a formal sense. That wouldn’t come until the years after I graduated from a music college and worked at a bookstore while struggling to become a songwriter. But still, it’s what I think fascinated me. Later, when I did pick up philosophy, I struggled to understand how the bookstore’s philosophy section could contain so many books arguing so many different positions if there was — as all of them seemed to think — one correct answer to each question (that they either had or were making progress toward in a sea of wayward critics).
This was an especially odd question for me to be asking, because, like many who come to philosophy, I was first attracted to the system-builders in the field. It is with minor embarrassment that I confess that I, too, started with Ayn Rand. Even after becoming disenchanted with her, I jumped from one philosopher to another to another; to whoever promised that the tale they would tell could explain it all. Here is the true account of natural law and natural rights that can give us the definitive account of justice! Here is the way we can reduce the merely apparent diversity of phenomena into a single set of concepts and principles! Here is the true way we can decipher once and for all what we ought to do!
At some point — I don’t recall how — I came across writers of a more pluralistic temperament. The first was Isaiah Berlin (whom I’ve written about here). He was the first to make me consider the possibility that even if there were objective values, this need not mean there are objective answers about how to prioritize them. It may just be that equally good values could conflict and that we will inevitably make different choices of how to prioritize them differently. How were these different prioritizations decided? Reason had some part, but philosophical temperament probably played a part. (Berlin did not say as much, but the essays he wrote explaining the worldview of particular thinkers leaned heavily on the connection between the worldview and the thinker.)
At some further point, I discovered the pragmatists, particularly James and Dewey, whose effect on my thinking — and especially James — is still strong to this day. Both viewed human thought as a tool for living more than as a way to get at “deeper truths”; the implication was that while we can surely talk about true and false ideas of the world, it is possible that different modes of living will use different criteria for deciphering how to judge truth and falsity. It’s why Dewey was so fond of the idea of “democracy as a way of life,” and why James started an essay on morality with a paragraph about how, as in the sciences, there can be no final moral philosophy until the last person has had their say.
By this point, I had started a Masters degree in Liberal Arts and was slow-burning my way toward this type of pluralism. At some point, for instance, I was taking a course on the philosophy of biology and was reading about the feud between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. It hit me that Dawkins’ gene-centric and Gould’s phenotype-centric depictions of evolution seemed like different vocabularies that could equally account for the same process; different ways of talking. It also occurred to me around this time that the practice of reductionism so many intellectuals are keen on is “just” an attempt to put several ways of talking about the world into one allegedly superior or primary vocabulary. But isn’t it possible, I asked myself, that there is no single primary or superior vocabulary, and what there really is are different ways of talking? If so — and I still think so — different reductions of the same world are possible, none being necessarily superior to others. Different thinkers with different interests, temperaments, and starting assumptions could reduce the world differently, possibly with equal success.
A few years after I moved on to a PhD in Education after working as a high school teacher. I was thinking about the works of William James, of whom I was becoming quite fond. One thing really bugged me about his pragmatism, however: If truth is judged by appealing to what beliefs work best in the world (compared to rivals), James never gives any account of what “works” means other than vague nods to whether the beliefs produce useful consequences when acted on or used. The knock on James was always that this leaves a lot of room to “justify” very discrepant beliefs, from religions which work because they feed our souls to very different scientific accounts of the same phenomenon that can equally account for the same experimental results.
It dawned on me — again, I don’t know why — that while James’s silence on this point meant that pragmatism can’t get us to singularly True answers on any given question, that is also its virtue. Look at the world around you, I thought, and isn’t the loose-end James is refusing to tie up exactly what we see? A bunch of often equally informed and thoughtful people coming to different beliefs that they have equal conviction are justified based on a diversity of standards for justification? Is there any end in sight to many of these debates short of each side declaring to their own satisfaction that their arguments live up to their standards for justification? Could it be that the lack of any truly objective way to adjudicate between these competing views is precisely why that bookstore philosophy shelf looked as diverse as it did?
Not only was I becoming a pluralist about philosophy. It began to look to me like one unavoidable reason philosophers often come to such divergent positions and arguments is because of their different temperaments. One proceeds with one set of intuitions (we discover moral rules that exist objectively and stably) and another uses a different set (moral rules are created the way other norms are and are equally contingent). Other times, they prefer different types of arguments, or find different reasons to be decisive stopping points. I’m not much of a fan of psychologizing dead philosophers, but it is worth considering how Kant’s philosophy would have been different had he not had the autism some suspect he did. Or how Nietzsche’s philosophy would have been different had he lived free of his chronic ailments.
And then there is my temperament. I’m still a version of that kid who was fascinated to hear the white supremacists and conspiracy theorists talk on afternoon talk shows, puzzling over how convinced they seemed. I confess to excitement over the idea that, despite our best efforts, there may be a never-ending dialectic over the Big Questions, and that securing unanimity on them is but a failed human attempt to transcend the human. I am as comfortable with that vagueness as I think Berlin, Dewey, and James were.
Can I claim this position as a truth? I don’t think I can in any transcendent sense. The most truth I can claim for my position is that it works well as a way to help me make sense of the world I see in front of me. Had I a different temperament — maybe less comfort with pluralism, more longing for philosophy to produce more final resolutions — I might have been convinced of another position. But that may be the only type of truth we can get.