how philosophy is supposed to work

(Posted during the Social Ontology 2018 Conference, hosted at Tufts) We live in a positivist culture in which many smart people hold fairly simple views of science and believe that all rigorous thought is scientific. Their objection to highly abstract conceptual questions and to questions of value (moral, political, or aesthetic) is that these matters cannot be scientific; hence progress is impossible. Endless debate must result from the brute fact that we hold different opinions.

But we must figure out what to value and what to believe about conceptual issues. Given our cognitive and moral limitations as individuals, our best way to think about such matters is with other people–learning from their perspectives and testing our beliefs with them. Words are not our only tools for thinking together–mathematical notations, diagrams, images, music, and bodily movements also work–but words are awfully helpful and usually play a role even when we make heavy use of the alternatives.

Therefore, human beings talk about conceptual and normative matters. We always do, everywhere and in every era. But a literal conversation has drawbacks. Since an actual, oral dialogue must involve a small number of people, the cognitive resources are limited. It lasts for a finite amount of time–too brief to address all the relevant questions and issues. And it proceeds in a linear fashion, with one comment or question occupying attention at any given moment, followed by the next one. Although people may make discursive moves like saying, “Let’s go back to your earlier point P, because I disagree with it,” the participants can barely explore the whole network of potentially connected ideas. A conversation is one walk through one part of the network.

A discipline like philosophy is an effort to improve the conversation by institutionalizing it. Many people can participate in a discussion that is organized in the form of journals, books, symposia, and reviews. Participants publish their claims and reasons, leaving them on the record to be picked up by others. They take time to make each point carefully, offering reasons and considering objections. If someone claims P, other people are supposed to read and cite that claim before they say P or not-P. If you criticize P, then other people who begin by believing P are supposed to read and consider your objection to P before they use it as a premise in their arguments. The debate still continues permanently, but it is supposed to become increasingly organized and refined in a process that is just as cumulative as a “normal science” is. Moreover, the strictly philosophical debate is not insulated from other intellectual work but is constantly informed by developments in the sciences, humanistic thought, and actual events in the world.

This is all idealized. I am perfectly aware that not everyone can participate in a professional discipline’s discussion; in fact, the vast majority of human beings are excluded, for a whole range of reasons. Nor would everyone want to join even if that were easy for them. Those who participate act imperfectly, showing too much deference to certain authorities, demonstrating group-think, etc. And ethics (in particular) still suffers from myopia about cultural diversity and empirical data that Owen Flanagan well describes in his new book, The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility.

Still the ideal has significance as a heuristic. It draws our attention to Robert Merton’s four CUDOS norms, which he developed for science (per Wikipedia):

  • Communalism all scientists should have equal access to scientific goods (intellectual property) and there should be a sense of common ownership in order to promote collective collaboration, secrecy is the opposite of this norm.
  • Universalism all scientists can contribute to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender.
  • Disinterestedness according to which scientists are supposed to act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for personal gain.
  • Organized Skepticism Skepticism means that scientific claims must be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted.

These norms also apply to philosophy, and we can add more values, such as 1) the norm of citing and addressing previous contributions to the same discussion; 2) the principle that academic discussions should ultimately (but not always directly) benefit public life; 3) the value of being permeable and connected to other discussions in other fields; and 4) an affirmative effort to incorporate people and perspectives that have hitherto been marginalized.

See also: is all truth scientific truth?does naturalism make room for the humanities?why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics, and adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.