Friday, December 8, 2017

No Virtues

I object to the idea that we do and should decide what philosophical positions to adopt by amalgamating our opinions about the various theories' virtues like empirical adequacy, simplicity, explanatory power, fruitfulness, consistency, etc. Ever since Kuhn's work (at least) this has been a popular idea about how scientists do or should go about deciding what theory to adopt, and my impression is that many in our field propose we adopt a similar practice in philosophy. (This idea has appeared in print a few times, but I don't want to make this about disagreeing with particular people -- I hear the idea informally quite a lot, and so I am responding to something that I take to be in the air and which I object to quite generally, rather than in any particular spelling out.) I object to this on both the individual and social level -- I don't think each or any of us do or should do this, and nor do I think we should collectively do this when making joint choices. Likewise some of these objections may well transfer to the case of science, but since on this blog I mainly do metaphilosophy I am not going to focus on that here.

There are some objections to the idea of theory choice by virtue amalgamation which, while I am sympathetic with, are not what I mean to object. First, the Okasha objection, that in general amalgamating opinions about stuff is very difficult and it looks like the same will go in this domain. Second, the Novick objection (Novick politely demurs and points out that this general idea is not original to him -- he's the person I know it from, though), that it may be that possessing those virtues is only truth conducive given domain specific facts about stuff natural scientists are interested in, and this will not transfer. (As applied specifically to the virtue of simplicity, I think lots of people have this worry even within the sciences. Sometimes people treat aesthetic properties as a virtue, and the same might go there.) While I broadly agree with both of these points, I am not going to focus on them here either.

Instead, I mean to press two points:

(1) For many of the virtues in question there is no agreed upon way of seeing whether they apply to a given theory or making comparisons among options. This goes for, say, explanatory power, simplicity, maybe empirical adequacy depending on how deep down the statistical method rabbit hole one goes. (Note that the disambiuguated versions of these virtues often run into the problems mentioned next, e.g. theories of explanation which require me to know what the consequences of my theory are to know what it explains will also run into the problems I outline below.) In so far as theory choice is meant to help us come to shared agreement about what is best and make a kind of epistemically responsible communal progress in discovering the true or best theory, then the fact that the virtues are as controversial as the theories they are meant to appraise stands in the way of that.

For some of the virtues not only is there no agreed upon way of applying them, but even just personally I don't know how to tell which of theories have them to what degree, or possess them at all, or possess them more or less than their rivals. This goes for fruitfulness and some of the aesthetic virtues especially. How fruitful is virtue ethics? Is it more or less fruitful than Kantian deontology? (Which is more beautiful or elegant?) I have no idea, and for once in my life i am not inclined to think this is a special defect in myself.

And even for the virtues which are most straightforward (consistency) to check for them they often require that I know what counts as an entailment of the theory to apply, and given the vagueness and ambiguity common to philosophical theorising it's the case that for many philosophical theories I don't know what entails what. Note that here I think a special problem arises with philosophy. I think that we in philosophy are often working with a kind of `double squishiness' - there is, on the one hand, the squishiness of some of the virtues which makes it hard to say how they apply. But there is also the squishiness of the theories we produce -- it's not clear what they entail or are entailed by, or are inductively supported by and tend to confirm, or anything of this sort. Without having much to support this beyond a feeling: I think each squishiness compounds, I think that this attempt to apply virtues whose scope or meaning isn't quite clear to theories whose scope or meaning isn't quite clear just results in a mess, no serious project of appraisal of theories is carried out, because we're just not in a position to do anything like that.

So, at the level of applying the particular virtues to particular theories (or comparisons between theories) I don't buy that people are able to do it in any reliable way -- certainly not in a way that could reasonably be expected to put us on the sure path of a science by allowing us to make communal progress, but even (given the latter problems) not at the level of allowing me to just decide what respective balances of virtues are possessed by various theoretical options.

(2) I am impressed by the fact that nobody ever actually tells me how they are carrying out the amalgamation procedure. In fact, I suspect, they are not doing any serious amalgamation procedure at all (beyond respect for dominance, which in practice doesn't often arise). Here I mean by this -- I expect a method of reasoning to be something that could, if one wanted to, be explained and, if followed, come to broadly the same kind of conclusion at a rate better than chance. And so here I suspect that, first, nobody could explain how they are amalgamating the virtues, and, second, that past use of the amalgamation procedure is no guide at all to future behaviour.

On this latter I mean: on any given instance, one could treat somebody's actual choice of theory given the virtues they say it possess (and to what degree or how well it compared to others in possessing them)  as consistent with some broad class of amalgamation procedures. I don't think one should predict that people's future attempts at amalgamation will fall within this class, people are not actually expressing any preference for an amalgamation procedure, because they're not really amalgamating at all but just plumping for a fave based on quite idiosyncratic factors. If on one occasion somebody makes a choice which only makes sense if they think that fruitfulness matters more than explanatory power, that is no reason to expect their future choices to respect that constraint -- they may well (both descriptively and normatively) in future decide something that only makes sense if explanatory power matters as much or more than fruitfulness.

So whether or not the virtues are truth conducive in the context of philosophical reasoning, I don't think we actually do, or in many cases could even if we wanted to, really apply the individual virtues. And then even supposing we did, I don't think we actually even attempt to carry out an amalgamation; which might in any case turn out to be impossible. In short, I think this is a very bad model of philosophical theory choice.

In so far as I think these virtues are playing a role at all, I think it is just as a list of things to discuss when talking about why you like your favourite theory. Having a convention that one discusses one's proposal in light of some stereotyped set of virtues could, I think, have various benefits, and I am not opposed to that. It's also not the case that I think the project of theory choice by virtues is just doomed -- I can even interpret some of my own past work as an attempt to make it easier to assess theories by their virtues. Maybe we could do that more broadly. But I think we are kidding ourselves if we think there is any serious method of theory choice or comparison that we currently do or could work with in philosophy.

(Sorry for the somewhat half-formedness of these thoughts. I wrote up some notes based on a conversation I had with Aaron Novick and Katie Creel (each of them should absolutely be held responsible for any and all errors in what was just said) -- since my sheer busy-ness prevents me from being able to dedicate too much time to blogging nowadays, I thought I'd use them for a post!)

Monday, November 27, 2017

Philosophical Tradition and Autonomy

Post inspired by a host of discussions going on in my philosophical social circles (I have been much more busy recently, so less blogging -- sorry for anyone who cares!). First there is the discussion started by this article, concerning the role of philosophy's own history in contemporary history. Second there is some further reflection on Kristie Dotson's notion of philosophy from a position of service, prompted by a recent blog post discussing other works by her. Finally, there are reflections sparked by Graham Priest's answers in this interview, concerning the role he sees for history of philosophy in pedagogy and his own logical research. What these had in common, it seems to me, is some discussion about what puts a philosopher in a position to know they are doing something worth doing.

Now, I don't mean here to discuss the question of why, ultimately, philosophy is worth doing as a whole. Let's just grant that some people somewhere should be doing philosophy, and even grant that in particular some of those people should be employed in the academy to engage in the kind of research and pedagogical practices typical of a research institution in the USA or UK (the places I am most familiar with), and furthermore even grant that the broad topics professional philosophers now wonder about are among the topics worthy of such institutional support. In fact these are properly contentious assumptions, I just don't want to enter into them here. But I just want to note that even granting these assumptions doesn't quite get the reflective professional philosopher off the hook as to the import of their own work. 

For, there are lots of things one might do consistent with these -- sure, we grant, logic and ethics and phenomenology and epistemology and metaphysics and aesthetics (etc) are all important and worth study. But surely not every question that may be asked under some such broad aegis is important. It may indeed be worth knowing what beauty is: but unless some connection can be drawn to something else of more general import, it probably doesn't matter whether anybody knows if the particular array of soap bubbles that formed when I was washing the dishes last night was itself beautiful. That might make the issue sound obvious, but (and as I have discussed before) I think that many of us are engaged in projects which will only make sense if it turns out that some broader project can be made successful or deliver results of some sort, and for which we are not now in a position to know if those enabling conditions are met. We are not a field wherein we get much immediate reason to think that we have asked an important question and addressed it in a fruitful manner.

To illustrate without picking on anybody but myself (except my coauthors, sorry!) - I have a paper on a certain way of detecting compounding causal consequences of occupying multiple oppressed categories. If it turns out that statistical social science is just a bad way of inquiring into the social world, or intersectionality theory is an unhelpful lens through which to view things (both of which are actively maintained in some quarters, and its a debate which I don't think will be resolved in the near future) then probably that paper just hasn't done anything anybody needs to care about. Its interest, such as it might be, lies entirely in its participation in these broader projects, and my own claim to have contributed some small bit to human knowledge is hostage to their fortune. Maybe it was all beautiful soap bubbles all along.

A properly reflexive and insecure philosopher should, I think, therefore want to ensure that their projects are not of the beautiful soap bubble variety. In my previous discussion I rather suggested that this came down to a kind of Kierkegaardian leap of faith, or existential vow to imagine oneself happy as one (for the seventeenth time) revises and resubmits one's reply to Black on Green on Grue. But here I explore a couple of other answers which I think are reasonably common, and which I think have contrasting strengths and weaknesses. Both, in fact, are versions of securing connection to some antecedently interesting project - so in some ways I see them as variants of one response.

The first is the answer which I take it that Dotson's post to well explicate. This is to place one's work in service to some broader social or scientific project that one has better reason to think is doing something valuable and where one has some method to tell if one is contributing well. In Dotson's own work and in her own words she ``use[s] philosophy to help support, generate and defend research, advocacy and activism that might change the current plight of Black people in the US, particularly promoting better conditions for Black cis- and trans* women, girls and gender non-conforming people.'' Dotson seeks to ensure that her own work is advancing that project, which she can make some effort to measure by its fruitfulness in her interactions with others engaged in that broader social mission. 

A version of this strategy is actually very popular in my more immediate philosophical social circles, but rather than the well being of black folk it is the advance of some scientific inquiry that is taken as the yard stick. Scientific investigation, it is thought, we have good reason to think is successful in discovering interesting truths, and through spin off technologies and techniques contributing to the commonweal. At the least, we have better reason to think it is successful in this than the vast majority of philosophy. This then spurs projects of explication, whereby one aims to assist scientists in their investigation by clarifying the concepts they use or devising better alternatives; or projects of remonstration where one ensures people do not fall into subtle error; or even direct contribution through novel mathematical or experimental study. In all these cases the point is that we are more confident in the relevant area of science's import and usefulness, and our ability to tell whether we are contributing to that, than we would be if our philosophic investigations floated free of such a connection.

Ok that's the first strategy. The second is to go more historicist. As I understand this strategy the goal is to secure the importance of one's work by showing it to be a natural outgrowth of, or at least properly responsive to, an august tradition of prior work that one is confident reflects something important. For instance Priest, at one point towards the end of the linked interview, says that the relationship he sees between the non-classical logics he investigates and Buddhist metaphysics is that through showing the former to refine or express concepts of the latter he has shown it to be connected to a fascinating and important way of viewing the world that is a serious candidate for metaphysical allegiance. I think I see something like this in the logicians and philosophers of mathematics in my immediate environment, and it is why they both produce novel mathematics and also lengthy and serious historical studies (e.g.) linking their present concerns to grand traditions of research.

I take the thought in this second strategy to be that if a research tradition has attained and retained the attention of generations of thinkers then that is some vouchsafe of its intellectual worthiness. If one wanted to be disparaging one might compare it to the claim that 50,000,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong, but honestly I think philosophers undervalue tradition and the wisdom embodied in customary practices that serve a people well through changing circumstances. If it really is the case that there are perennial questions, and some mode of addressing them has by various people in various ages all been found satisfying, that is not nothing. 

As I said, maybe these ultimately come down to the same thing. They are both, in the end, attempting to secure the importance of one's immediate project by linking it to some antecedently agreed to be interesting and important endeavour. More than that, perhaps in the second case one should find that on further investigation the reason the linked tradition is itself found to be important is that it addresses some practical need, making this just an indirect form of Dotsonian service philosophy. 

None the less, I thought it worth highlighting them here. For, there is a contrast, which is that the second option gives philosophy more autonomy. Dotsonian service philosophy or a kind of science-first naturalism both involving giving up the idea that philosopher's should set their own agenda. In fact, I personally find this persuasive, and all in all I prefer the first option -- in particular, I worry that the second option merely defers the beautiful soap bubble problem. I think Elvis is just kinda ok. However, I think philosophers (outside of my immediate very naturalistically inclined circles) tend to value their autonomy, they want to say that it's right and proper for philosophy to be done for its own sake and valued on its own terms. And so may have some to prefer the second of these options, if these are the only games in town for avoiding the risk of triviality.

But if thats the case, I think it is some reason for such philosophers to take a much greater interest in their own history, and the relationship their present problems address to the questions and topics that have been passed down to us through that history, and for that matter the process of passing down itself.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Upholding Standards

Here is a possibility I recommend for consideration: we ought hold ourselves to stricter argumentative standards than we often do, in our philosophical research manuscripts or public-forum presentations. Before getting into what I mean by this, why I think it, and why I am saying it now, it is worth saying a couple of things immediately. First, I am not claiming to have always or even often upheld my own ideals. Mea culpa. But let me at least try to stick to my own standards in this very blog post and explicitly say -- the first sentence should be considered a tentative suggestion, which I do not think I am in good position to establish with any great deal of confidence (or whatever the meta-ethically appropriate equivalent attitude to normative claims might be), and in general what is said in this blog post is just jotting down some thoughts that I accept are not presently all that probative and which contain a great many terms that stand in need of explication.

Second, this does not pretend to metaphilosophical neutrality. I shall be assuming in what follows a conventional-in-contemporary-analytic understanding of what counts as maintaining strict argumentative standards.  This means things like clarity in stating one's position and argumentative moves; that where possible ensuring one's premises validly entail one's conclusion, and that where this is not possible one presents some clear reason to think that the truth of one's premises raises the probability of the truth of one's conclusion. As is illustrated by the first link, I am certainly aware that all of these are properly up for debate, and that one may contest the definitions of various of the key terms here -- that's right and proper, in philosophy nothing should be above dispute. For this post I write from within a fairly mainstream-in-contemporary-analytic perspective, accepting and encouraging robust debate as to how to fully articulate aspects of that perspective and also as to whether that perspective should be adopted. There are many issues where I take myself not to be in agreement with the conventional analytic perspective, but on this issue I largely am.

As to what I mean regarding adhering to said argumentative standards: I think there are a number of improvements to widespread practice (no I won't be linking to examples -- feel free to just disbelieve or disagree with me if you want!) that would be relatively easy to achieve. I mean to advocate that we all in our own work implement these changes, and aid others in doing so. Let me be explicit: what I think is we should strive for widespread voluntary self-change in this, I do not believe in using gatekeeping mechanisms to enforce the following. Confucius was right, Han Fei was wrong, and the cultural revolution was a disastrous failure -- true cultural change is what matters and it cannot be forced; sincere adoption and internalisation of the norms will be more effectively brought about if it is unforced.  I'll give two examples of what I have in mind.

First, there are a great many places where it seems to me that people ought weaken their conclusions given the kind of evidence they are able to bring to bear. They present themselves as making a definite assertion about how the world is arranged (broadly construed! How norms are structured, what exactly knowledge is, how the realm of Platonic forms is grounded in the material or vice versa, etc). However,  their evidence at best supports a conclusion of the form ``this is how the world might be, and I think it is worth considering''. (In many cases I am more sympathetic to viewing and explicitly presenting one's activity as something like proposing a response to a Carnapian external question, to be evaluated on pragmatic grounds.) Note that I do not mean to downplay the interest of arguments which come to such attenuated conclusions. I would certainly be in favour of giving wide consideration to arguments with this sort of conclusion -- I do not want us to retreat to only considering issues for which we are in a position to make logically strong claims about how the world is. I have nothing against ambition and broad scope, or with philosophical theorising going out in advance of what the available evidence could presently support. But where one cannot provide a good argument for stronger claims about how the world actually is this should be clearly marked, and the claim should be defended and understood as consequently of weaker logical force.

This touches upon a second point: I think much could be achieved by adhering to standards of writing we already broadly claim to uphold but, in my opinion, we often fail to actually uphold. It would be nice for more writing to make it apparent what are unsupported premises, and what the epistemic relations among various claims made in the paper are, for instance. This is something we claim to teach undergraduates, and then regularly fail to come close to exemplifying. Likewise, I think, actually engaging with relevant sources and bodies of work which happen not to fall within a typical disciplinary boundary, or normal range of concern. Unlike the above point which I accept is a bit more contentious, these are standards which I think we should already largely agree to. The problem is that we don't practice what we preach -- this is, by the way, why I do not think that these kind of reflections are much grounds for smugness from analytic philosophers.

I feel about the rigor of analytic philosophy just as Gandhi reportedly felt about Western Civilisation: I think it would be a good idea.

My impression is that while my opinion in these regards are fairly conventional, my reasons in favour of them are not. I take it that the arguments in favour of Williamsonian disciplining or methodological constraint are epistemic: with these constraints in place philosophers may hope to make progress in collectively arriving at knowledge concerning their topic matters, and without them we are liable to flounder or waste our time. Another sort of argument, more often presented to me in conversation than the kind of high minded epistemic reasons one might offer in print, people have something like the attitude of an un-self-conscious Kuhnian scientist -- these are the rules of the paradigmatic game we are playing, and that's near enough the end of the matter. (This sometimes presents itself as a kind of ahistorical boundary policing: ``in philosophy we aspire to logically valid argumentation!'') I am unsure what I think of the epistemic argument since I think it involves unwarranted implicit assumptions about the space of possible philosophical positions, I am unmoved by the joys of paradigmatic puzzle solving, and I think boundary policing is largely arbitrary and silly where it is not pernicious, so these are not arguments available to me.

I think, instead, that there are at least the following three arguments in favour of this somewhat conservative attitude to the argumentative standards of analytic philosophy.

1 ) Ostentatious non-hypocrisy. As previously noted, one of the important tasks I think philosophers can perform is remonstration with the various powers of the age. We do spend a lot of time thinking about arguments, evidential standards, the proper basis of public policy, scientific method and its limitations, etc. We should be willing and able to deploy that knowledge in holding (potentially) influential people to account where they make unwarranted claims, or propose unwise schemes which rest on poor foundations. I suspect we shall be less effective at this the more we open ourselves up, as a community, to charges of hypocrisy. This is to say, I think there are externalities to one's own degree of adherence to the aforementioned standards of argumentation. I am happy to accept a kind of division of epistemic labour, wherein some people work on more esoteric or less public facing issues, and others engage more with folk in the wider academy or wider world. (I have wrote a bit about W.E.B. Du Bois' development of arguments to this effect, see here.) I suspect, however, that the work of the latter sort of folk is undermined and rendered relatively unpersuasive proportionally to how easy it is to find examples of philosophers engaging in shoddy or ill-informed scholarship. In many corners in the world we don't have a great rap as a discipline, and this isn't always fair or well grounded -- but it is what it is, and I'd guess that if we are to gain and retain trust of various agents and communities we need to be seen to collectively hold ourselves to a high standard in our personal epistemic conduct.

2 ) More inductive risk than appreciated. Related to the above in a somewhat inverse fashion, I suspect that philosophers are somewhat liable to under-estimate the degree to which there is genuine inductive risk in making philosophical pronouncements in published or publicly accessible work. (And I think this goes even for quite apparently esoteric work, though evidently this second rationale applies to some subfields far more directly than others.) While we may not get wide uptake, I think we are disproportionately popular among i ) politically informed and engaged folk, and ii ) wealthy, educated, business or intelligentsia types. These are not always the same folk, but there is overlap, and together they are an unusually influential segment of society. I have mentioned previously that I think it admirable for theorists to avoid seeking for themselves an unearned degree of social power. One way to do this is, I think, for it to be clear what would constitute a fair challenge to our arguments, and be clear exactly what our limitations are. This requires that we are open and upfront about where our spade is turned and we are no longer offering justifications, what sort of sources of evidence or experience might speak against us, and exactly how strong a claim our arguments really warrant. Otherwise we risk turning the cache that the title of `philosopher' has with this heterogeneous but influential group of people into an illicit kind of power, a needlessly difficult to challenge epistemic authority. (It occurs to me after writing that this perhaps bears some relationship to the idea of egalitarian potential in analytic philosophy's argumentation standards discussed at the start of Ásta's essay here.)

3 ) As yet unexplored potential for generating novelty. As noted, I think these standards are not often actually upheld. This means, I think, there is plenty of potential for generating a previously unseen way of looking at things just by formulating things more precisely and carefully drawing out the consequences, or seeing what possibilities are actually left open and compatible with our more firmly held or evidenced beliefs once one systematically avoids over-statement. (I guess this post is me gesturing at one idea for such a project. Probably `getting Nazis off the hook' isn't the best advertisement for this rationale though, to be fair.) One way that stricter adherence to standards would actually open up the possibility for more creativity is that it would make it more readily apparent that much more is left open than presently seems, that a lot more strange and wonderful possibilities may yet turn out to be true for all we know. (I feel like Eric Schwitzgebel has specialised in exploring just this consequence, see here for one of many examples.) I am not yet persuaded that this will set us on the sure path of a science. But fortunately I do think there are advantages to the generation and careful exploration of philosophical perspectives besides knowledge about their first-order subject matter -- about which more another time -- so I think this is a point in favour of the idea even if it does not bring us the benefits that the relevant sort of knowledge would.

So having defended the conventional position with some tolerably unconventional arguments, the only thing left is to say why I mention this all now. Boringly enough, part of the answer is that I am TAing for a class, and I was reflecting on what it means to instill these standards in undergrads when I do not think they are maintained by the professionals. But, less boringly, it also comes from reflections on the total state of the field. A number of senior scholars have said to me, publicly and in private, and both happily and with regret, that their impression is that now is a time with an unusually high degree of change in philosophy. What was settled is being unsettled, what was taken for granted is being called into question, all that is solid melts into air. I have not been around long enough to know how accurate this is -- and maybe everyone feels this way all the time, or the established always tell the junior something along these lines, or I am getting information from an unrepresentative sample of people. But since this is how things are being presented to me, I often spend my time thinking about what of the present order I should like to see changed, and what I should like to retain. Here, then, is one such reflection: I hope philosophy remains -- or, more accurately, truly becomes -- a place where strict epistemic standards are celebrated and upheld.

Timothy Williamson -- ``Mate, not being funny, but didn't
I already say all this?''

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Philosophy as a Vocation

There's a (perhaps apocryphal) story of a philosopher being asked at a party what exactly it was they did and responding -- ``you define a few concepts, you make a few distinctions; it's a living.'' People sometimes tell this story as an example of how base, flippant, and ignoble the culture of analytic philosophy has become; but I begin with it for the exact opposite reason. I want to acknowledge from the get go that, in the end, one of the big attractions to being a philosopher is that it's an indoor job with no heavy lifting, and that's alright. I'm not from the school of thought that thinks the problem with academics is that we fail to be sufficiently self-important, so I think it worth grounding all this vocation talk in the more humble reality straight away.

Max Weber -- ``... Wait, did I leave the stove on?''
Max Weber has a rather famous essay called `Science as a Vocation'. In it he gives an account of the existential situation of the young scientist. I'm not going to do full justice to it here, but here are four points Weber makes that I want to highlight:
  1. There is an enormous element of luck involved in deciding who makes it and who does not.
  2. To make a valuable contribution one has to narrow one's horizons and become ultra specialised.
  3. Even if one achieves something it inevitably shall eventually be over-tuned and surpassed.
  4. We live in a morally blank, existentially meaningless, universe, and one's choice of vocation will never receive compelling, external, ultimate justification.
Cheery bloke, Weber; big hit at parties.

It's not clear, from the essay, whether Weber none the less means to be advocating the life of the scientist as a noble one worthy of pursuit. Much of what he says seems to indicate that he thinks its a noble pursuit, yet when he most directly touches on the matter he says:
Hence academic life is a mad hazard. If a young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation, the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne. If he is a Jew, of course one says lasciate ogni speranza [abandon all hope]. But one must ask every other man: do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you; without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally one always receives the answer: ``Of course, I live only for my `calling'''. Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.
So we get here, also, a nod to the role that raw prejudice can play in deciding academic fates, and the bitterness that academic life can bring with it as one sees any pretense of meritocracy destroyed before one's eyes, and (so one thinks) to one's own disadvantage.

How much of this goes for philosophy as well? The role of prejudice is much discussed in our community, as are failures of our system to be meritocratic and the role of luck. I don't quite so often see it discussed, but I think we all have seen (or felt, in some of our cases) folk suffering from the peculiar kind of bitterness which results from the following combination of beliefs: that things ought be a meritocracy, that in such a system one would be doing well and widely acknowledged, that one is not doing well or widely acknowledged. Philosophy as a vocation may well contain many of the same elements as science as a vocation.

Points (2) and (3), however, are much more disputed in the case of philosophy. A recent essay in the LA Review of Books seems to me representative of certain stands of thought which vigorously protest any analogy between the sciences and philosophy in these regards. Rather than put our heads down (and together) and specialise, hoping to each make small contributions to a long running project of collective inquiry that shall - if successful - inevitably surpass our meagre contributions, ``true philosophizing is “thinking against oneself” — done systematically, mercilessly, with no safety net and no escape routes''. The picture painted is of a kind of wildly ambitious and deeply individualistic project, where one, if successful, arrives at one's own profound insight that shall last the ages, but really where one must accept at the outset that one's quest will probably result in failure.  Plato isn't quite the highlander, but there can be only so many such people. This essay was an especially fervent expression of this sentiment, but I do think it captures something of a recurring theme in our debates about our own self-conception as a distinct class of inquirers.

My heart is very much with the first of these options, I think philosophy is or ought be much more a Weberian vocation than a Romantic quest for self-assertion. I'll limit myself to one problem I had with this piece and how I think it misunderstands the position of one who commits to the less individualistic Weberian vocation. Reflections in the spirit of the LA Review of Books just fail to appreciate the full existential resources of communalism, even where they place lip service to it. For instance, in the LA Review of Books article it seems to me that a lot of what they want to claim for their own approach is its superior courage, its better ability to display that virtue. What is being praised is the courage to squarely face one's high chance of failure, and the heroism of the philosopher in daring to be idiosyncratic in an institutional structure that prefers conformism. Now, privately I initially responded by complaining a bit about the pretentiousness here (systematic mercilessness leaving no room for escape better describes assassins operating predator drones, not people who write books about philosophy and cinema) but I've got my initial disclaimer, and in any case I'll grant that there's such a thing as intellectual courage and its valuable to display it.  But somebody pursuing a Weberian vocation has no especial reason to think that the project of inquiry they commit to shall succeed in its aims. And so even if they personally have some reason to think they may succeed in making their own within-paradigm contributions (which, given the discussion about well known roles of luck, prejudice, and failures of the reward system, actually shouldn't be granted so quickly) they know that the communal project is just as precarious and fraught as the personal project of the attempted heroic individual.

Indeed, this goes in philosophy even more so than the case of science Weber focussed on, since somebody who throws themselves into a communal project of philosophical inquiry with their eyes open does so knowing that the utter abandonment of paradigms is frequent in the history of philosophy, that centuries long projects which attracted the brightest minds of entire continents are now viewed as wildly and obviously erroneous by even the average undergrad, and it is at least obscure whether we build progressively upon each other at all. (An existentialist exploration of the pessimistic meta-induction or a proper exploration of the phenomenology of the historically aware scientist would, I think,  be an interesting and valuable project.) Even granting that intellectual courage is a virtue we ought display, the Romantic individualists are too quick to write off the Weberian vocationalists as thoughtless functionaries, and not appreciate the extent to which they display the same virtue, simply at a communal level rather than displaying it for their idiosyncratic project. This kind of unsympathetic failure to appreciate the principles and positions of Weberian types is typical, I think, and part of the reason I have wrote in their defence before.

It would be exactly missing my point to see in this as a defence of all the projects of inquiry philosophy now supports, all features of dominant paradigms as they now exist. In fact, they very well might fail, and per the judgement of history bear no fruits, and this may well be because of features of how those engaged in them arranged themselves socially. See here, for instance, for one of my own discussions of a failure of the reward system which philosophers and scientists alike are subject to in the present academy. Such failings, and the real possibility that a huge number of very smart people are simply wasting their lives by their own lights but shall never know as much, underlie rather than contradict my point. One does not have to buy into a full nihilistic metaphysic to see the relevance of Weber's (4) and how it applies to philosophy -- when one buys into a communal project of inquiry, one is committing oneself to something whose horizons of success or potential revelation of failure lie far outside one's lifespan. Whether we shall collectively discern and perfect and instantiate a just society, limn and explicate the metaphysical structure of being, understand the nature of knowledge and see it properly organised, disseminated, and implemented -- and whether any of the approaches to these now adopted and collectively worked upon shall in any way help advance or hold us back in these -- we shall probably ourselves never know in this life. If one takes philosophy as one's vocation, in the Weberian sense, one none the less commits to the attempt at some or all of these problems, and does so with less hope of glory as one of history's celebrated geniuses, but as one among many making a small and under-appreciated contribution to a greater whole.

Also it's nice not having to come into the office over summer.

Friday, September 15, 2017

On The Case For Colonialism

There's a piece a lot of people are talking about called The Case For Colonialism. It is really not very good. I'm not signing the petition to have it retracted for the reasons outlined at the end of the piece here. It's also just worth reading the linked piece there as well for dismantling the argumentative strategies of The Case For Colonialism. But I do think there will be some concerted campaign to paint the reaction to this article as one of leftists being unwilling to engage in fair consideration of the facts, so I just want to have some place I can write down my own reaction to this piece for ease of reference. I will focus in particular on the first section, wherein it is claimed we should reappraise the total effects of colonial rule and would thereby realise it was net beneficial.  (The second section is an extended argument to the effect that various post-colonial governments have been awful. No argument from me on that front, though of course a better article than that under consideration would have spent more time reflecting on the kind of conditions that lead people to such desperate straits as to throw their weight behind the various wannabe tyrants who cropped up in the wake of colonialism - this would in fact also be relevant to the argument's claims about `subjective legitimacy', discussed below.  Also the role of both Western and Soviet neocolonialism in maintaining many such regimes would need discussing. The third section is an argument for `recolonisation' in some circumstances which largely depends on you buying that colonialism is a net good, and thus depends on the first section.) Much but not all of what follows can be found in the piece just linked to, but occasionally I would have put emphasis on different points or phrased things in a different manner, so I wanted to write my own take on things.


  • The Case For Colonialism contains historical infelicities. Guatemala, Libya, and Haiti are referred to as places that did not have a significant colonial history, a claim genuinely so bizarre I wonder what it could mean since charity forbids me from taking it on its face. It is at least suggested that Amílcar Cabral was involved in post-independence mismanagement of Guinea-Bissau, despite being assassinated before independence was achieved. Attention is restricted to various European colonies from the early-19th to mid-20th century; what about all the rest of colonial history, most especially and obviously the genocide in the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade this spurred? If one wants to re-evaluate the history of colonialism then to treat the actual history in so shoddy and loose a fashion immediately undercuts the entire purported point of the article.
  • As picked up by most commentators as the most striking point, it is morally pretty horrendous to call for Belgian reoccupation of the Congo, as the article does, albeit briefly and in passing. But it is worth noting just how bizarre the argument for this was. As far as I could tell it consisted entirely of noting that the government of the Congo has not ever managed to organise as efficient an army as the occupying Belgian forces once maintained. People have called it akin to Holocaust denial, and that seems fair to me -- but it's more specifically akin to defending German actions in Poland on the basis that damn was that Blitzkrieg effective.
  • In general for an article that purports to engage in or call for a `cost-benefit analysis' of colonialism, the weighing of the costs was very obviously inadequate. Genocidal wars of annihilation as in the Americas or the Australasian continent are not discussed at all; the various forms of slavery, forced labour, and gulags on the scale of nations, barely discussed; the lasting effects of various `divide and conquer' occupation tactics not mentioned; nary a word on the wars spurred by imperial competition. And so on. This does not read like a serious attempt at the task it purportedly sets itself.
  • It is a little bit unclear to me whether the article purports to be actually engaging in the cost-benefit analysis, or calling on others to do so. It seems to suggest that it knows what the outcome of this would be, thus suggesting that the author feels the cost-benefit analysis has been carried out. Most people have read it that way, in which case the above criticism is activated -- it's a poor cost-benefit analysis that does not actually take into account costs. If, on the other hand, the claim is rather that somebody should carry out a cost-benefit analysis on colonialism; then first it never actually defends the claim that we should engage in this activity directly, and one may object to this on Kantian grounds; but in any case, if this is what is going on the article can be faulted for the more prosaic reason that it would then be simultaneously calling for the fair minded consideration of a question and announcing in advance of this consideration what it takes the answer to be!
  • Relatedly, the author often notes that the European colonists did good things too in the process of colonisation. But I am reminded of Condorcet's response to this defence of colonialism in his own day: plainly it's not the case that the only way to spread technologies and ideas is through invasion and occupation and resource extraction, it does not excuse the latter to note that you did the former, since by trade and the peaceable commerce of nations and peoples you could have achieved those goods without bringing about those bads. Despite this being a rebuttal to various `civilising mission' defences of colonialism already available in the 18th century, the author of The Case For Colonialism never considers it. 
  • This actually feeds into another complaint; the appeal to counter-factual reasoning was both spurious and barely thought through. As part of the defence of colonialism, the author thinks we ought think about how history would have gone absent colonialism. The method they propose for doing this is to compare the condition of nations that were colonised to those that were not. Many of the nations they propose specifically as counter-points were in fact colonised; it is in this context that Haiti is named as a nation with no significant colonial history, for instance. But even setting that aside, those that weren't are often nations that were repeatedly invaded and menaced by colonial powers - China and Ethiopia are named, for instance. Taking this together with the above complaint about peaceable methods of cultural exchange never being considered, one is thus led to think that the rather bizarre counter-factual being set up thus seems to be as follows: suppose the European nations had not colonised the various nations they did, but had engaged in any other sort of looting and invasion -- if there is ever a situation in which colonial rule seems preferable to this, then score-one-for-colonialism. Here, to be clear, I am engaging in some speculative positing as to what they are proposing, since the author (true to form in this poorly written and argued piece) has not precisely spelled out how we are to carry out their counter-factual reasoning. In my defence, it is genuinely hard to see what the relevant counter-factual is supposed to be wherein we are to consider the fate of China as it is now as a guide to Asanteman as it would be were it not for colonisation, and see in this a defence of colonialism.
  • The argument for the legitimacy of colonialism in the minds of the governs consists of two observations. One, after being conquered people in the occupied territories would make use of the services that existed therein and take the jobs available. Second, testimony from a former governor of the Gold Coast to the effect that those under his sway quite liked the regime. The second of these is barely worth mentioning (should we assess the popular legitimacy of the Soviet occupation of Hungary by asking what a chief apparatchik thought of it?) and the first of those would be an argument in favour of the popular legitimacy of nearly every tyranny the world has ever seen. 

So we have an appraisal of historical events that gets basic parts of the history wrong, ignores or passes over key events, purports to be a cost-benefit analysis while not actually factoring in costs, is  naively credulous as to tyrant's self-affirmation, and advocates a mode of counter-factual reasoning that is both underspecified and from what can be discerned amounts to a non-sequitur. This is not good scholarship. I'll end here. This is more effort into this than I really intended, but I have now seen so many people saying that the arguments of the piece aren't being given consideration but people are rushing to condemn that I thought this worth setting out. I take this aspect of philosophy seriously, and think that a significant public role we should play is holding people to argumentative standards. For whatever that is worth, The Case For Colonialism does not meet those standards. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Spoiler

Here is a belief of mine that I think is pretty uncontroversial but which, it turns out, my friendship group contains some pretty heated disagreement on. A spoiler for some piece of fiction is any bit of information (which pertains to events depicted) for which being told it beforehand significantly affects your experience of the fiction.

(Don't read too much into the `significantly' - I am just friends with philosophers, so have to qualify to rule out irritating Cambridge-spoilers; I don't think the difference between `experiencing the fiction knowing X' versus `experiencing the fiction not knowing X' is  significant in all cases, and if you're being real neither do you. Ok.)

I think this definition broadly matches popular usage and some popular attempts at definition -- for instance this. But apparently when one draws out its consequences it becomes pretty controversial pretty quickly. Some examples of said controversial consequences.

First, historical information can constitute a spoiler. Knowing that Ceasar gets stabbed, the Titanic sinks, and that a complex series of battles, parliamentary reversals, and marriages, results in a Lancastrian monarchy can all, in the right context, spoil works of fiction.

Second, we'll only know what all the spoilers are once we're dead. We never know what information we are gaining now could turn out, in future, to affect our experience of some piece of fiction. Everything you learn is potentially a spoiler for some future tale. Life in a democracy is full of risks, and this is one of them.

Third, not quite a consequence but close: one can fully permissibly spoil things, it is not the case that it is always bad to spoil a work of fiction. Maybe it is bad always and everywhere to deliberately spoil a work of fiction (even if this bad can be overrode by other goods one thereby attains), but certainly giving away information which in fact constitutes a spoiler is not in itself even a prima facie bad in a great many scenarios. It may even be a good thing to do sometimes.

Fourth, spoiling is quite an individualistic affair. It depends on the peculiar character of the individual how they experience a work of fiction, and how their information bears on this; it does not depend (except in a derivative sense) on the intentions of the author of said fiction, nor on the nature of the information conveyed. Nothing is intrinsically a spoiler, it all depends on how it interacts with the individual and their mode of experiencing fiction.

Ok, there we go. I think all this is quite obvious, but frequent disagreement compels me to write it out in an easy to access place for future reference. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

EDIT: Thanks to Kenny Easwaran and Eric Schwitzgebel for pointing out ammendments which I have incorporated into this definition. Keep them coming!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Du Bois on Da Vinci

A quick write up on a charming essay by the young Du Bois (from his time as a graduate student at Harvard), which I only found out about through the fascinating historical work of Trevor Pearce. The essay is entitled Leonardo Da Vinci As A Scientist and is available online here.

Leonardo Da Vinci -- ``I was even a pioneer in
side-eye and general shade throwing.''
Du Bois is concerned to argue that Da Vinci deserves credit as the founder of modern experimental science. The argument strategy is twofold. First, to show that Da Vinci has sufficient (and sufficiently impressive) scientific achievements to merit attention as an early scientist at all. This Du Bois achieves by just reviewing historians (apparently then - 1889 - relatively recent) reappraisal of Da Vinci's empirical work and work inventing scientific machinery and to show that it was indeed impressive. This in itself was interesting; so for instance I learned here that Da Vinci was already floating the idea that the sublunary realm and the broader cosmos should be understood as operating on the same principles, that Da Vinci has a
claim to being an early inventor of the telescope and also being the first to notice a parallel between how the camera obscura works and the operations of the human eye, and that on the basis of observational study of plants Da Vinci was developing ideas about plant respiration which now seem to have been on the right track. Cool!

The second step in the argument, however, is the more philosophically and conceptually interesting. Here Du Bois' task is to argue that Da Vinci deserves credit not just as a link in a great chain of scientific workers, but rather some sort of special credit as a founder figure in one sense or another. Here the point is largely drawn out by comparison with three other figures: Roger Bacon Gilbert of Colchester and Francis Bacon. While Du Bois is impressed with each of these figures, he thinks they were each lacking in a certain way. Roger Bacon was not enough of an empiricist: to be credited as a founder of modern science, Du Bois feels, empiricism must be one's epistemological foundation, where for R.Bacon ``empiricism was but a branch of the tree of which philosophy was the trunk''. Glibert of Colchester has, so to speak, the opposite problem -- he's all empiricism with no metatheory. While he's impressive in his collection of observational and experimental results, he's ``a mere experimenter, with little breadth of conception, or broad generalising powers''. F. Bacon, finally, came after Da Vinci, and is substantially the same in his metatheory (so Du Bois thinks! Please don't hurt me, Renaissance scholars), but just didn't achieve as much scientifically as Da Vinci. F. Bacon comes across, basically, as an especially talented expositor of Da Vincian method, but not himself worthy of the claim to priority on scientific method.

The philosophy of science young Du Bois is working with is interesting, and worth making more explicit than Du Bois himself does in the essay. In Da Vinci, Nature had found itself a man who could do both: patient skillful observational work, aided by machines of his own device, that uncovers particular facts of great interest and also general principles, and also explicit epistemological theorising of a sort which acknowledged and explained the importance of founding one's claims in such observations. Science, then, is the epistemologically self-conscious skillful application of empiricist method. R. Bacon was a skillful natural philosopher and epistemologically self-conscious, but not an empiricist. Gilbert of Colchester was a skillful empiricist, but did not evince the requisite degree epistemological self-consciousness. F. Bacon was an epistemically self-conscious empiricist, but just not quite good enough at the actual application. Da Vinci was the first person in whom all these qualities meet to a sufficient degree, or so Du Bois claims. (This essay also features a trait which is characteristic of all Du Bois' latter work on social matters -- explicit reticence and diffidence, with frequent reminders that one ought be cautious about one's conclusions given the difficulties of gathering evidence and being sure it is complete or representative.)

W.E.B. Du Bois -- ``The idea that the person
in this picture could ever be as enthusiastic
about anything as the person who wrote that
essay on Da Vinci is genuinely surprising.''
I've worked on Du Bois' philosophy of science before, but I have never in my published work explicitly remarked on the undercurrent of empiricism. None the less, it is there; most especially it can be seen in his lifelong habit of issuing scathing condemnations of a priori approaches to history and sociology, where he thinks that prejudice unchecked by experience has been the source of much racist balderdash concerning African (and African-descended) folk. It is remarkable to think, then, how closely Du Bois' scientific and social mission accords with the early philosophy of science he developed here. For, The Philadelphia Negro or Black Reconstruction can plausibly be described as epistemologically self-conscious skillful applications of empiricist method; in both these works (and many of his less famous essays besides) he mixes explicit methodological remarks exhorting a more carefully and rigorously observationally grounded approach to the study of black life in America, with the actual collection of novel results about social, political, or economic conditions, and in both the highlighted cases they have (nowadays) come to be seen as classics of their respective fields. His work is thus epistemologically self-conscious in its empiricism, involves the actual application of observational method as well as its exhortation, and skillful performance thereof. The philosophy of science underlying this essay by the young Du Bois seems to have set a pattern that he attempted to live up to for the rest of his scientific career.

Da Vinci, of course, is not just a great scientist and engineer, but also a great artist. Du Bois was evidently aware of this, and this fact about him is mentioned at various points in the essay. Da Vinci is indeed paradigmatic of the Renaissance Man, the individual who strives to hone diverse skills to a high degree and exhibit a broad culture. In this respect too Du Bois seems to have followed Da Vinci, being more acclaimed for his literary style and humanistic moral and political vision than his scientific career. Being attracted to the broad humanism of the Renaissance, and having great respect for Du Bois' work, seeing this essay where Du Bois develops his ideas about philosophy of science as part of an ode to Da Vinci and the Renaissance scientific humanism that Da Vinci pioneered, was in its own way quite affecting for me. Even if I cannot match these figures in their skill, I hope to at least preserve and advance the spirit of humanistic inquiry that they each embodied.