What Can Philosophy Actually Do?

by Daniel A. Kaufman


Robert Gressis (Cal State Northridge), Dan Kaufman (Missouri State) and Kevin Currie-Knight (East Carolina) discuss what is and isn’t realistic to expect of philosophy. Topics include realism (Rob) and antirealism (Dan and Kevin), Foundationalism (maybe Rob) and anti-Foundationalism (Dan and Kevin), and what we do when we attempt to ground and justify our positions to others. The conversation sprang from a set of articles at the Electric Agora. In one, Dan argued that philosophy is largely incapable of making sense of even basic moral considerations; in two others, Kevin argued that individual temperament plays a significant role in forming our philosophies.


2:10 – Dan Thinks Philosophy is Poor at Talking About Moral Commitments. Kevin Thinks Philosophy Owes Significantly to Individual Temperament. Rob Disagrees. 13:08 – Is 02:10 – Dan Thinks Philosophy is Poor at Talking About Moral Commitments. Kevin Thinks Philosophy Owes Significantly to Individual Temperament. Rob Disagrees. 13:08 – Is Foundationalism Based on a Bad Metaphor? Can Philosophy Be Done From Outside a Particular Framework? 25:14 – Rob Disagrees with Dan and Kevin’s “Wittgensteinian” Critiques of Foundationalism and Realism. (Freaky Friday is Also Discussed.) 32:17 – Kevin’s Pragmatic Account of What Kind of Truth Philosophy Can and Cannot Attain. Talking about Foundationalism…. Again. 45:37 – Is (Particularly Moral) Philosophy “Just” a Matter of Opinion or Taste? (Are the Quotation Marks Necessary?) 52:40 – When Should, and Why Do, We Give Reasons to “Justify” Moral Positions? 1:11:46 – Preview of a Promised Part 2 of This Discussion





4 responses to “What Can Philosophy Actually Do?”

  1. Bharath

    Thanks to all, and especially Rob, for a great conversation, really enjoyed it. As in the Investigations, the interplay between the metaphysical interlocutor and the Wittgensteinian responses makes for a dynamic dialogue.

    Why did I find the dialogue compelling? It’s not because three people were debating abstract positions like realism or Wittgensteinianism, etc – though obviously true in one sense, it’s not a panel discussion at the APA. Rather, it is three friends talking about the fact that one of them got annoyed by something another said. Though the topics are abstract, the form of the dialogue is very ordinary and relatable. It’s like if someone got upset by a political view of a friend, or if a friend felt his values were mocked by a friend, and they were trying to hash it out. On the panel discussion model, the people are treated as mere voices for abstract views, and it is the propositions (their truth or justification or meaning) which are the main players. But on the friends trying to understand each other model, it is the people – these particular people – who are the main players, and the views are expressions of them as people. If I focus on propositions, I might think “Rob is wrong” or “They are talking past each other.” But if I focus on these three people, trying to understand each other with friendship and also critically, then what is illuminated for me are not justifications of propositions but something about each of them as people, their idiosyncrasies, their virtues, their pet peeves, and I can draw connections to myself and other I know: “Rob is like me in this regard, and Dan in this other regard, and Kevin there is like someone I know” and so on. In this way the dialogue helps me see myself and others in different guises, from different angles, and opens new horizons for thinking.

    Wittgenstein, Rorty etc were trying to bring the friendship of the Socratic dialogues back into philosophy instead of thinking of philosophers as scientists dissecting concepts. Realism vs anti-realism is still pitched in terms of propositions, as in which proposition is the true one. If the bottom line is, “Is it true?”, that prioritizes the propositions over the people having the conversation. Imagine I say to a friend, “I care about you,” and he asks, “Is it true? What’s the justification of your belief?” Something is amiss there, a disconnect. Wittgenstein’s view is a lot of philosophy is like this. Not that it is nonsense (which is just another focus on propositions) but that there is something else we might want to say to each other or another way to express ourselves which can be as heartfelt and opening into new modes of communication as “I care about you”, and we get in our own way when we turn it into, “What is your argument for that?”

  2. Paul D. Van Pelt

    What can philosophy do? Well, it draws distinctions; tests theses; and trundles out theories. So the question may be wrong. The right one could be more like: does philosophy do anything, and, if so, for whom? What is important is outcome. Anything which helps us try harder, think better and do the best we can, with what we have and know is most useful. It seems to me that philosophy does this. Mostly.

  3. Jay Jeffers

    Thanks, guys. I really enjoyed this conversation.

    Robert’s been outnumbered on both podcasts and in comment sections. As I’m stuck somewhere in between realism, anti-realism, and quietism and joined in the pile on of Robert in the comment section of his most recent EA essay, I’m going to flip-flop a bit here and agree with some of his concerns.

    That is, I too feel that some kind of mention of justification is necessary for a philosophical account of morality and find it odd that Dan would find that odd. Now, whether that justification succeeds or not is another question, as I do think it’s at least worth distinguishing between what emotivism emphasizes from what error theory points to (in the event that realism isn’t on the menu). Emotivism (the meta-ethical branch of logical positivism) and error theory are both forms of moral skepticism (anti-realism).

    So, we can set aside the question of realism when debating cognitivism vs emotivism. My understanding of the latter view is not only are emotions the deepest or ultimate motivation for our moral beliefs and assertions, but that’s also how our moral beliefs and statements actually function. I even want to say that’s how emotivism sees that they function pragmatically and semantically, not just in the recesses of the human organism.

    On the other hand, cognitivism (which has realist and anti-realist versions, error theory being the anti-realist version) says that moral belief and discourse have strongly objective (“realist”) assumptions or aspirations (sometimes called “pretentions”). If cognitivism is correct, then surely there would be something odd about justification not being a part of the account of why we take morally motivated actions, especially morally motivated actions that involve the risk of death. To be clear, that it would strike us as odd doesn’t necessarily mean the justification offered is ever metaphysically correct.

    I do find that moral beliefs seem to come to me in a cognitive fashion, so I agree with Robert there. Again, I’m attempting to set aside whether my natural inclinations have just led me astray here in some kind of deep sense. I’m saying that doesn’t matter for this stage of exploration because presumably that’s consistent with error theory, and further, I’m saying that error theory is consistent with finding it odd that reasons aren’t built into moral judgements. Moral judgments, beliefs, actions, etc. manifest at a “higher” level of the organism.

    Emotivism is admittedly metaphysically naturalistic, but the point is almost moot, as you’d never have to get to the naturalism as you’d stop after the evaluation of what moral statements communicate. The naturalism is meta-ethically superfluous (though I realize it’s also connected at other historical stages). Error theory uses naturalism to block the possibility that moral statements could ever be true, but it agrees with its cognitive cousins on what moral statements do.

    In the past, I’ve perceived Dan to be advancing a kind of error theory (in conversations at Bloggingheads, here at EA, etc.) but now I think he’s more of an emotivist on meta-ethics. In any case, a lot turns on whether people normally have a judgment of an objective moral state of affairs built into their morally motivated beliefs and actions (to me it seems incredibly clear that they do), and it doesn’t at all seem that most people would be comfortable lumping moral beliefs in with matters of taste (hence Robert’s puzzlement). It seems to me much more that seeing moral beliefs as a matter of taste is a tutored or acquired position gained from the rarefied space of philosophy.

    IF that’s right, then there’s irony there in that Wittgenstein said something to the effect that philosophy “leaves everything alone,” or unchanged from normal practice, or what have you. I think it’s quite possible that leaving everything as is would involve seeing untutored moral judgements as cognitive, even if the deeper, sentimental account of moral motivation is correct. And that alone could pay the rent for the oddity Robert was feeling.

  4. A fine dialogue en te agora. Realism may be structural/ontological but it is confounded by the psychological. To put it in Platonic terms; the ideas are there but the refractive medium of the mind creates adumbration which needs the maieutic work to bring clarity. But is it right to say that the bridge between the first and second orders is broken down if indeed it ever existed? Are contingency, necessity, probability, identity, non-contradiction pontoons to the ‘other side’? To add ‘as such’ to those topics may be deemed pleonastic but it’s a tic that comes on under pressure from materialism.

    Was Hume really a metaphysican looking for first order justification of induction and causality amongst the debris of the second order? Not to be had Davey lad. Ay!

    The Vedanta people with their valid means of knowledge (pramanas) take perceptual realism as the default. Doubt arises as the result of new evidence and is not a sceptical position. The coin that we spotted turned out to be silver foil when we picked it up. There are no red barns to hide in, as it were.

    Here’s the thing: is this supposed breach between the metaphysical and the everyday scientific a mere sophism? To use an expression of the Tantra: ‘what is here is there, what is not here is not anywhere’.