Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Open Philosophy

Here are two ideals of openness in inquiry, both of which are independently attractive on both ethical and epistemic grounds.

Per the first ideal, call it openness-to-challenge, scholars are such that their pronouncements are as falsifiable as possible; as much as can be facilitated the scholar renders themselves capable of being shown wrong, if indeed they are. The goal here is to avoid gurus and unchallengable experts. The power to have people believe what one says, especially where that is likely to guide policy and action, is, after all, a very significant source of cultural power. Epistemically, falsification is attractive for all the reasons you would guess it is attractive: it helps ensure we can set ourselves aright where we go wrong, and makes debate between opposing viewpoints more liable to end in fruitful resolution. Ethically, the significance of this ideal is grounded in the fact that epistemic power is no small thing. We should like it to be the case that if somebody gains epistemic power it is not unassailable, that there are ways of challenging what is said and ensuring that where they are in error this can be recognised and corrected, and if they too frequently try to lean on their authority that we can show them up and remove them from their position of power rather than be bamboozled.

Per the second ideal, call it openness-to-participation, scholars should be such that their pronouncements can be understood and engaged with by a broad class of people. The ideal here is to avoid esotericism, and ensure that the public have access to knowledge that affects their lives. Epistemically, this allow us to gain the benefit of receiving input from as many different independent sources as possible, as more people are able to participate in discussion and debate. Ethically, again, precisely because epistemic power is an important source of social influence, we who are democrats should like as many people to have potential access to it as possible, and this means letting people into the fold by writing and studying in an accessible fashion.

Sometimes the first and second ideals play nicely together. Generally, if more people can participate in a discussion there will be more opportunity to challenge what is said, and indeed one might expect a wider variety of considerations to be brought to bear and thus a wider variety of types of challenge. Good stuff!

But, alas, the world is not always so kind. Suppose we are reasoning about the price of some good, or the load a bridge can safely take, or...  -- or, in general, the value that some variable X will take in some range of circumstances. Two proposals are made ``The value of X is given by <some formula>'', where <some formula> requires knowledge of calculus to understand, and ``The value of X will be around r'', where r is some real number and `around' isn't further specified. It may well be that whenever the former is true the latter is. But, none the less, here the two ideals are going to come apart.

To one who values openness-to-challenge, the former looks preferable. Through greater precision the scholar who offers the proposal has opened themselves up to challenge -- their statement is in some sense more falsifiable, there are more observations we could make that would more decisively refute it, and thus challenge the epistemic power of the one who uttered it. But it involves knowledge of calculus, which is a barrier to entry for many in the population. Whereas the second involves no non-trivial mathematics. The person who wants openness to participation therefore has some reason to prefer the latter contribution. (Of course there are other ideals besides these which may give us reason to all-things-consider prefer one or the other contribution, I am just noting the direction in which I think the two openness ideals respectively pull.)

More generally, there will be situations where precisification will be the natural route to openness-to-challenge, but the tools necessary to achieve this will involve moving one away from openness-to-participation. What to do?

Alas, if you are looking for neat answers, I haven't got them. (Tell truth, if you are looking for neat answers and your first thought was to check the philosophy blogosphere... I have other questions.) There's a place for both these ideals, but working out how they should be balanced is difficult. I just want to stress here that this trade off exists and must be faced, that both openness-to-challenge and openness-to-participation can reasonably be seen as valuable ideals of clarity, but that they do not speak with one voice. I think very often people in philosophy unreflectively interpret just one of these ideals as the content of `clarity', do their best to act in accordance with it, and proceed to see others as being obtuse and unclear when in fact they are optimising against a different metric. I don't now have a solution to this conflict, but I would like us in our metaphilosophy to come to self-consciousness about it.

(This post inspired by Eric Schliesser's recent illuminating post on ideals of clarity and their role in the history of analytic philosophy. In general I know Eric thinks about this a lot, so if you are interested in the metaphilosophical role of clarity ideals he's a good person to speak to. To ward off some misunderstandings: neither openness ideal is fully realisable. A canny interlocutor can always dodge falsification if they try hard enough. And in so far as we express our thoughts linguistically, there is always at least the barrier of understanding the language. It's also not the case that in moving away from one ideal you automatically move towards the other -- I'll let readers fill in their own favourite example of something that is both esoteric and also not easy to test or refute. The relationship between these ideals then is not straightforwardly competition, confrontation, or coherence.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Negro Scientist

Yesterday I came across a fascinating new paper by Du Bois on the sociology of science. It's called The Negro Scientist, and it's published in a 1939 edition of The American Scholar. The piece is framed by the following remark:

Some time ago a great American scientist noted in public print how few Negroes had made their mark in science. They were heard of in music and literature, on the stage, in painting and in some departments of public life, but not often in exact science. I called his attention to the fact that it was not easy for an American Negro to pursue science and he admitted that there might be difficulties. But I think that along with most Americans his private belief was that the exact and intensive habit of mind, the rigorous mathematical logic demanded of those who would be scientists is not natural to the Negro

Nice to see a shout out to mathematical logic from Du Bois! But in any case, his response strategy then is two fold. First, he gives an account of a series of (quasi anonymised) Negro scientists whose careers have obviously been held back by the fact that they were black. He also notes (then) recent testimony from white instructors that they had plenty of Negro students of great scientific ability in their class room, but who were not able to make it in professional science.

Second, he notes a number of results of colour prejudice which will predictably hold Negro scientists back. Such folk's...
... only opening lies in the Negro university of the South. This in itself has much to commend it. It should mean that some of the best-trained Negroes are going to teach their own youth and give them the advantage of superior education. But the difficulty here, of course, is that very few of these institutions have the facilities for research, nor can they grant teachers the time to devote to it. The young scientist who goes to such an institution is usually given a heavy load of teaching covering several branches of scientific work. If he can find any time for research he not only has few facilities at his disposal at the institution, but he has a body of college students handicapped by restricted high school and elementary school training. Few of them have seen laboratories before coming to college or have been used to rigorous scientific methods. Their English and their mathematics have suffered from poor teachers and schooling
Ernest Just -- ``I am one of the talented but
under-appreciated scientists Du Bois drew
attention to. And I have a badass name.''
And what's worse, a lot of cultural and intellectual life is shut off from Negro scientists even in this environment. Public libraries and museums will not admit Negroes in the south, inter-library loan programmes with white institutions are impossible since they refuse to loan their books out to Negro schools, scholarships and prizes are just as discriminatory as other aspects of higher education, and it is hard for Negroes to gain external funding for their work. (To illustrate that latter point he recounts the difficulties his own pioneering Atlanta sociological studies had in securing funding -- it's an interesting tale, so for a more detailed account of these difficulties I'd recommend checking out Morris' The Scholar Denied.) Finally, with all this done, he notes that this creates incentives for Negro children of scientific talent not to go into science; first they may think why bother, if this is the treatment you will receive? (He notes that at least one of the talented Negroes held back by prejudice in academia ended up making it in industry.) And second their academic advisors may perceive this prejudice themselves, and so advice young Negro aspirant scientists to pursue other options.

So, then, putting all this together, we get Du Bois' response to the `great American scientist'. His claim is, first, there is evidence that there is prejudice against Negro scientists in the academy which largely prevents them getting employment outside of Southern Universities. Second, this prejudice has the predictable consequence of making it materially harder for Negro scientists to do research, which in turn creates incentives for bright students not to go into science in the first place. It's a tidy piece of work; the evidence for the premises, that there is prejudice against Negro scientists and this prejudice affects their ability to gain access to resources, is somewhat anecdotal but on the whole seems pretty solid; could anybody really deny that there was prejudice against Negro scholars in 1930s America? And the degree of materialism (to whit: you need material support and equipment to do successful research) you need to buy into to go from the premises to the conclusion that Negroes cannot make their mark in American science under present conditions seems hard to deny. In short, this is an instance of the classic Du Boisian explanatory pattern: take some racial disparity which people might have been tempted to explain in terms of some inherent inferiority in the Negro, and give a sociological explanation for it in terms of cultural attitudes, their material consequences, and the incentives this creates. I'd recommend this essay to anybody interested in seeing an especially clean and easy to follow example of Du Bois' argumentation at work.

A couple of points of my own in response. First, one may wonder whether Du Bois' arguments still apply? To take a case I have done research on myself: black people are under-represented in US philosophy, and our work does not often appear in top journals. Could Du Bois' argumentative strategy work here? Well, I'd say it's an open question. The material conditions of the mid 2000s are not the material conditions of late 1930s, and some of the effects of formalised segregation are no longer with us. However, as I have explored elsewhere and Du Bois raises in his own discussion, in many respects perceptions are what drive incentives. In particular, Du Bois notes that the perception of prejudice is enough to create barriers to entry for Negro students -- why go into a scientific career if you can do better elsewhere, less encumbered by this prejudice? Presumably this still goes, and importantly it only has to be perceived relative degree of prejudice rather than perceived absolute prejudice for this argument to go through. It may not matter that in an absolute sense conditions now are after all better than the 1930s if still people think that academia (in this case philosophy especially) is worse relative to available options.  (This point is discussed a bit by Dotson here, and I am sure there is an essay where Haslanger makes a similar point but I cannot now remember what it is called, so if any readers know please fill me in.) Since it is not just academia but other aspects of professional and cultural life that have improved for black people in the US since the 30s, it may still be that philosophy is relatively unappealing and relatively difficult to gain the material support necessary for success within, and for that reason is avoided by black potential-philosophers.

I don't mean to endorse this explanation of black under-representation in philosophy. In fact, another Du Boisian point I am in great sympathy with is: people rush to conclusions on the basis of incredibly flimsy evidence when they are reasoning about very complex sociological matters regarding race in America. People who know me will know that I often speak in defence of scepticism as a viable position rather than bogey man to be avoided; it is partly on the basis of reflecting on these matters that I think as much. A much greater degree of hesitancy and tentativeness is generally called for, and I have tried to exhibit it in my own work on the matter; black people deserve better than the shoddy scholarship we give them, we are vastly underserved by the academy and we should be angry about it. So, without meaning to commit a sin which is one of my bugbears, I only mean to point out that the fact that formal legal segregation is no longer with us does not by itself rule out Du Bois' argumentative strategy here.

My second reflection is on a short passage that is especially interesting to social epistemologists. Du Bois says:
One may say in answer to all this: so what? After all there are plenty of white men who can be trained as scientists. Why crowd the field with Negroes who certainly can find other socially necessary work? But the point is that ability and genius are strangely catholic in their tastes, regard no color line or racial inheritance. They occur here, there, everywhere, without rule or reason. The nation suffers that disregards them. There is ability in the Negro race - a great deal of unusual and extraordinary ability, undiscovered, unused and unappreciated. And in no line of work is ability so much needed today as in science.
W.E.B. Du Bois -- ``You are probably going
to see this picture a lot on this blog so I guess
you should get used to it? Liam is going to have
a hard time thinking of a new caption every time.''
So by excluding talented Negro scientists we miss out on their potential contributions to science, and given the social value of science means we are paying a large opportunity cost for our bigotry. When applied to the position of women in science I (following Eric Schliesser) referred to this as `Platonic Feminism'. I guess this makes Du Bois a Platonic Anti-Racist? In any case, I just want to note two readings of Du Bois' particular form of Platonic Anti-Racism. First there is a kind of Romantic genius reading, relying on something like the non-substitutability of persons. Here the idea is that the particular forms of genius and talent held by particular Negroes will be forever lost unless we employ those particular persons, we cannot get equivalent labour from employing white scientists. Second, there is a kind of no-diminishing returns (or we-are-nowhere-near-saturation) assumption, where the point is that so long as you grant that black folk are capable of fruitfully contributing to science, we're better off employing as many productive scientists as possible and so removing needless barriers to entry. Egalitarian that I am I prefer the second of these readings, but knowing Du Bois I strongly suspect he meant to endorse the first.

(The social constructivist move on display in this essay is easy for us to make now, but it's worth noting that Du Bois was a real pioneer of this kind of social constructivist explanatory strategy in research on race. His speech transcript `The Conservation of Races' is viewed by many to be a foundational text for modern philosophy of race precisely because it clearly points to the need for some kind of social constructivist theory of race, and a recent article in Science credits `The Health and Physique of the American Negro' with being the first rigorous attempt to carry out large scale sociology on the basis of a social constructivist theory of race. I am not sure I agree with that priority claim -- for one thing why not Boas' work? To be fair the Morris book linked to above takes some time to dispute Boas' priority here, but ok going back to even earlier Du Bois, I think one can pretty clearly see this social constructivist strategy on display in Philadelphia NegroBut, history of social constructivism aside, all this does speak to the continued influence of Du Bois' social constructivist strategy on modern intellectual life in the sciences and humanities.)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Metalogic Against Heideggarian Naziism.

Heidegger was a Nazi. And, like, not just in a he had some edgy years as a teenager sort of way, nor in a maybe he was just naive and he didn't really think about it kind of way. No. Heidegger was somebody who thought hard about it and decided that in light of his philosophical perspective Naziism was an attractive political programme that he wished to see implemented to its fullest extent. Now, Heidegger wasn't the only Nazi philosopher out there -- Frege was an anti-Semite who had some sympathies for the emerging Nazi movement before he died, Gentzen was a Nazi, and I've heard mutterings to the effect that Gadamer may have collaborated. Nor are Nazis the only politically odious regime philosophers have supported -- Foucault infamously celebrated the Iranian theocracy, Mill wrote in defence of the British Raj, Du Bois wrote in defence of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, Locke helped author the constitution of a slave state, and Sartre was, at the least, surprisingly at peace with Stalinist concentration camps in Siberia ... the list goes on. Philosophers, in general, do not seem to be reliably disposed to reject murderous and authoritarian regimes.

However, unlike in those other cases, with Heidegger we've seen a lot of angsting about the degree to which one can still make use of Heidegger's philosophical system without oneself endorsing principles that will take us down a very dark path. I'll reflect a bit on why this difference in the bracketed comments at the end. But, in any case, if it turns out that the consequences of this system approximate to Naziism I think a great many people would consider that about as decisive a refutation of a philosophical system as could be hoped for. Since Heidegger's work is foundational to many philosophers and theorists throughout the humanities, this is quite an urgent issue for many theorists. We very much do not want to be endorsing and propagating Nazi ideology. How much needs to be rethought!? How much can be salvaged!? What if none of it can!?

Ok so that's the Heidegger affair as it stands. Within the intellectual world this has been somewhat of a minor scandal, and I have followed it fairly closely. And, outsider that I am, I have been struck by what seems to me to be a fairly convincing argument in defence of building one's work on Heideggarian foundations that does not seem to have been quite explicitly aired in the public debate so far. I think that one can accept a very very great deal of Heidegger's system and not have to worry about being compelled to accept Nazi conclusions; I suspect there is very little more reason to think that Heidegger's philosophy entails Nazi conclusions than there is in Frege's case. Here, then, is is my little contribution.
Martin Heidegger -- ``Do you know what should maybe
stop being in itself? The Sudentenland! Am I right, eh?''

My first premise is to note that, while Heidegger did argue for certain ethical or existential conclusions based on his metaphysical and metaphilosophical premises, he did not produce deductively valid arguments.  In defence of this premise I might note that, well, if one reads Heideggarian arguments they certainly do not seem to be deductively valid. But that is a bit weak -- often the work of logical analysis is precisely in reconstructing arguments in such a way as to charitably flesh out enthymemes or do the work of proving lemmas that were felt too trivial by their author to be worth mentioning. Plus, in any case, it is simply not the case that one must take on a certain aesthetic of validity to in fact be valid. For an excellent case study in this I recommend Downs' Economic Theory of Democracy, as rigorous as one could want but since it is entirely informal free flowing prose one might be forgiven for thinking that one is not facing deductively valid arguments here. This would be a mistake. Perhaps the same could be said in the case of Heidegger?

Not so in this case. Heidegger's not offering deductively valid arguments is, I think, a feature rather than a bug, in his philosophy. He developed extensive arguments to the effect that various fundamental logical notions and principles presuppose metaphysical conclusions that he thinks should be rejected, or in any case should not be presupposed during his inquiry. To take deductive validity as a normative standard for argumentation would, in the context of Heidegger's philosophy, have been question begging, or involved commitment to falsehoods. I'm not here to defend this metaphilosophy or philosophy of logic -- one might fairly wonder, for instance, what standards ought be obeyed by the reasoning Heidegger used to reach such conclusions  -- but from what I can gather this is a plausible enough interpretation of Heidegger's relationship to logic. In this case it's not just lack of charity in reading his work, rather the reason his arguments do not look deductively valid is because he was self-consciously not producing deductively valid arguments. He did not produce logically valid arguments because he did not think that was an appropriate standard to hold his reasoning to, and he did not think it an appropriate standard on the basis of a worked out philosophical theory of the foundations of logic.

With that premise granted, the rest is easy enough. So, second, if an argument is not deductively valid then all of its premises can be true while its conclusions are false. And from the first and second with a bit of substituting in one gets that: one can consistently agree to the premises of Heidegger's arguments without accepting his conclusions. One can take on board his metaphysics and his metaphilosophy, as many in philosophy and the humanities have, without being logically compelled to accept his Nazi ethical, political, or existential conclusions. One can have one's Heideggerian cake and eat it too.

Of course there is work to be done! One has to find the interpretation of the metaphysical or metaphilosophical premises which make them true while refuting the Nazi conclusions. But this, I take it, is just the normal work of hermeneutics or scholarship, and probably implicitly what folk were up to in any case. Maybe people should make extra careful to ensure there is not a hidden Nazi implication of the manner in which they were interpreting Heidegger. But to be honest I doubt many people have accidentally endorsed Naziism in this manner.

So there it is. I think this is a pretty simple argument, and probably what a lot of people had in mind. But I have not seen it said explicitly in this debate, and I at least find it pretty convincing. It's not that I think we should be Heideggerians -- in fact I think quite independently of his Naziism Heidegger was pretty profoundly wrong about a lot of stuff -- but I do think that a lot of the soul searching and angsting is probably misplaced. Heideggerian philosophy doesn't entail Nazi conclusions, because Heidegger wasn't really in the business of entailing things.

(Why do people find Heidegger's Naziism especially troubling? Partly I think this is just because of the contingent fact that Heidegger has an unusually large number of people who are devoted to him as a person, who wish to see the best in him and to model their own lives as intellectuals on his. As the evidence of Heidegger's sins mounts they are thus felt as peculiarly personal betrayals. Partly I suspect it is because there is very widespread agreement that Naziism was a bad thing; whereas, unfortunately, even people who are committed liberals or at least within the political mainstream nowadays will insist that somehow the constitution of Carolina or the British Raj were not the obvious moral disasters they seem to be on the presupposition that non-Europeans lives matter. Partly my sense is that with many of these other cases people think that the philosopher was acting out of line with their own principles. Can anybody seriously believe that a slave state respects the natural rights of persons? That Stalinism is the mode of social life under which people enjoy authentically free lives? That the British Raj was just bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number? That the Japanese regime in Manchuria was just so benign it escapes Du Bois' usual charges against Imperialism? Even if these thinkers erred, therefore, we do not think it reflects badly on their systems; it just reflects badly on them as individuals. And, finally, in other cases, people just don't much care about the thinker's politics -- Frege and Gentzen and Gadamer are not, in any case, people who we look to guidance about how to arrange society. (Note: it's really not obvious to me that Foucault's philosophy will admit of any similar escapes.) But with Heidegger -- his philosophy is to some extent explicitly political, at least ethical, and existential; and the Black Notebooks (and really the previously well known Freiburg address for that matter) suggest he really did think there was some connection between the principles he endorsed and Naziism as an ideology. And it's even a bit plausible! All his talk of authentic being-in-the-world can sound a bit ``blood and soil'' at times, if we're being honest with ourselves.)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Debating My Humanity

Recent events in philosophy and wider political life have me thinking about a point of political epistemology. There is a principle fairly popular in circles I am broadly sympathetic with which is roughly that: somebody should never be put in the position of defending their own full humanity. Any debate which does not have, as a presupposition, something like the full moral equality of persons is not a conversation one can reasonably expect those not-presupposed-to-be-fully-human to participate in or even bear witness to. Here's a tweet which says it in a snappy way:
We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.
I like the way that tweet puts it because it makes it clear this is not really a purely academic issue -- this is a matter of what it means to coexist in a pluralistic society, whether we can get along across certain cultural and political divides.

I think this principle guides a lot of people's thought, and I guess is kind of independently plausible if one has any Kantian-esque intuitions about the supreme importance of maintaining one's own dignity as a person, so it is worth giving it some thought. I don't have anything definitive to say, but I guess I just want to get people thinking and talking about it. I'll call the idea that nobody should ever have to take part in conversations that do not presuppose their own full moral equality the Presupposition of Dignity (PoD). Should we accept the Presupposition of Dignity?

Now, really, I think the PoD actually requires a lot of finessing. For instance, what's the scope of that `should'? And what exactly constitutes the kind of failure of conversational presupposition that might violate PoD? And many questions besides! I'll give examples of things which I guess would violate the PoD, based on how I think the-thing-I-have-in-mind is actually used in the relevant circles. But for the most part I am going to leave this pretty unrefined, and hope that people can pick up roughly what I have in mind. Let's get going.

So, I've seen and taken part in disagreements about whether or not black people are mentally or morally deficient in such a way that might explain our relatively low numbers in British or American philosophy, or historical canon philosophy more generally. I've seen (though not personally taken part in) disagreements about whether or not race mixing is morally impermissible (and on some occasions morally impermissible for black men in particular) that, if not quite denied my right to exist, then certainly involved at least some parties suggesting it was rather a shame that I do. I've seen disagreements in ethics which certainly seemed to take as an open possibility the idea that for various reasons my life might just not be as valuable as other peoples, and so more readily sacrificed.

All these discussions, I think, are discussions which people who agree with the PoD believe I should not have to have taken part in; and I think the idea might also be that I was thereby licensed to reprimand others for taking the stances they did as morally failing, or generally make some claim upon people to simply stop having such discussions and fall into line with my position thereon without further ado. I hope this gives some idea of what the PoD is, and how it is deployed in practice -- perhaps you will recognise some applications of the PoD from your own life.

Ok, so, for all that build up, here are my rather underwhelming thoughts on the PoD:

  1. I am very very wary of moral principles that are open to strategic interpretation. The PoD always strikes me as especially bad on this front. I worry that any version of specifying anything like what is meant by ``rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist'' shall by necessity, if it is capture all intended cases, be very lax. And in that laxity there will be much room to define an ever increasing field of disagreement and dissent as falling under the principle. Presumably, it shall often be attractive indeed to strategically manipulate such laxity so as to render disagreement with one's point socially more difficult. Further presumably, in at least some cases this shall be a bad thing for a community of inquiry.
  2. My sense is that people who do not regularly participate in discussions which violate the PoD in one's own case habitually and vastly underestimate the psychological toll it can take. Obviously there is individual difference in tolerance for such conversations. But when I have seen people reject application of the PoD in practice I have noticed the following distinct correlation: toughen-up rhetoric most often comes from people who manifestly have the least need for thick skin on this score. It doesn't seem to me that there is any correct or objectively superior degree of sensitivity on this front; a greater degree of empathy would do a lot of good.
  3. My guess is that people who believe the PoD want it to be a piece of non-ideal theory: in our actual world here, with the spread of moral disagreements that we really observe, this is meant to set limits on what kind of political debate and disagreement is within the pale. However, I worry that what drives it is the following more ideal-theoretic intuition: people should not believe false things, or perhaps morally pernicious things if one has a non-cognitivist theory, and in serious moral discussion we want to presuppose the true or morally superior things. So if one is an egalitarian and grants the kind of in-the-ideal-case or objective sense of `should' in the italicised sentence there the PoD will seem to very quickly follow. However, I doubt the italicised sentence is attractive, or at least useful, for a non-ideal theorist; simply because in this world of mass non-compliance and unresolvable-in-the-foreseeable-future disagreement it will have no actual application. Any attempt to enforce it would reduce to an argument about what the moral facts/non-cognitive-preferable-things are, which is just what this was meant to set limits upon. So I worry that the PoD is a bit of disguised ideal theory, applied as if it was a bit of non-ideal theory.
That's what I got so far. As I said, this is all very unrefined, just collecting together some thoughts prompted by my own experiences. I do think the PoD is sociologically quite a significant phenomena and does not really receive as much explicit attention as a moral or political principle as it really should, so if nothing else I hope this gets people thinking.



Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sociology Hesitant

Recently an exciting new collection of essays was released called `Ten Neglected Classics Of Philosophy'. In the spirit of this volume, I am going to explicate the argument of an essay that I think is, at the least, an under-appreciated contribution to the philosophy of science. The essay is: `Sociology Hesitant' by W.E.B. Du Bois. It's based on a manuscript he wrote in 1905 reflecting on a scientific conference he had attended, but was first published in 2000 -- this delay in publication probably contributing to its under-appreciation.

Ok so, here is the problem Du Bois takes himself to be responding to. Sociologists of his day, he thinks, are apt to be too metaphysical and theoretical and not enough empirically informed. The result is that they end up offering vague and rather mysterious pronouncements that do not obviously contribute to better understanding the day to day realities of social life that sociology should properly be informing us of. The science thus stands in a state of ill repair, and with a bit of flair he puts the matter as such:
For far more than forty years we have wandered in this sociological wilderness, lisping a peculiar patois, uttering fat books and yet ever conscious of a fundamental confusion of thought at the very foundations of our science—something so wrong that while a man boasts himself an Astronomer, and acknowledges himself a Biologist, he owns to Sociology only on strict compulsion and with frantic struggles.
Where did it all go wrong?

Well, Du Bois has a theory on this point, and based on that theory a solution. He thinks that sociologists are caught between a rock and a hard place because of a complex tangle of beliefs about human free will, scientific laws, and implicitly how those laws must feature in scientific explanation. Untangling this mess, he hopes, will put sociology on the sure path of a science.

The confusion, he thinks, is as such. Sociologists conceive of laws as something like exceptionless universal generalisations, on the model of how physical laws were then understood. To give a good sociological explanation would then be to find sociological laws that capture ``the evident rhythm of human action'' in terms of such laws. However, to suppose that human behaviour could be captured by such laws seems to contradict widely shared and deep convictions about freedom of the will. After all, if we are free, could we not just decide to change our behaviour, and thus invalidate any previously established laws? (I recall a dinner conversation with an economist who told me that he always thought successful social science would never be possible because, should a real economic law ever be discovered, he would resolve to break it, just because he enjoyed being contrary like that. Quite why he was in the business he was in I thought it impolitic to ask him!) And so the sociologist is apparently committed to an impossible task: formulate laws so as to give scientific explanation of human social life, even though such laws cannot be had given the reality of human freedom. Faced with this impossible task, sociologists retreat into studying more well behaved abstractions, resulting in what he describes as ``metaphysical wanderings—studying not the Things themselves but the mystical Whole which it was argued bravely they did form because they logically must'' (he explicitly mentions ``Economic Man'' as an example of such an unreal-but-tidy abstraction).
W.E.B. Du Bois -- ``After studying for some
time in Germany I adopted a handlebar 'stache
and started wearing Prussian calvary gloves.
This is the kind of man I was.''

Rather than such an ultimately fruitless retreat, Du Bois advocates that sociologists ``flatly face the Paradox''. Although not in these terms, Du Bois essentially advocates weakening the concept of scientific law such that sociologists can still give explanations in terms of laws. As he puts it, sociologists should adopt ``the Hypothesis of Law and the Assumption of Chance, and seek to determine by study and measurement the limits of each''. What is meant by that is: sociologists should accept that the laws they produce will be probabilistic rather than determinate, they will state not exceptionless generalisations but chance-y ones. This, he thinks, will allow sociologists to navigate their troubled waters unscathed. So long as people tend to behave in certain predictable ways we can allow that sometimes by whatever mechanism free will is maintained they will act in defiance of our established laws and yet still have laws that capture the phenomena with sufficient reliability and precision as to be useful. With a suitable conception of scientific explanation in hand, we may turn to the empirical study of actual human behaviour, confident that even if human free will does render people to some degree impossible to predict, this will not destroy our chance of offering genuine scientific explanations.

What is more, such a course of study will actually allow us to put our metaphysical convictions to the test. Probabilistic sociological laws in themselves, he thinks, should be acceptable to both the hard determinist and the believer in human free will. This because they don't tell us why the law is probabilistic -- perhaps it is because human free will renders our behaviour fundamentally inexplicable and irreducible to law in some deep way, or perhaps it is simply because we are ignorant of the true causes that, if known, could allow us to formulate a properly deterministic law. Such a situation of metaphysical neutrality is exactly analogous to the metaphysical neutrality of physical laws. As Du Bois puts it:
In the last analysis, Chance is as explicable as Law: just as the Voice of God may sound behind physical law, so behind Chance we place free human wills capable of undetermined choices, frankly acknowledging that in both these cases we [con]front the humanly Inexplicable. 
Whether free will libertarians or ignorant hard determinists, the probabilistic element of our sociological laws represents the degree to which we think ourselves unable to explain human behaviour.

 However! While individual laws may have this feature, sociology as a whole then takes on a grand metaphysical purpose. For the extent to which we are able to replace probabilistic laws with deterministic ones (or, I suppose if one wanted to be fernickity, probabilistic laws with `probability 1' filled in at appropriate places!) will measure the extent to which human free will genuinely exists and influences the course of affairs. As Du Bois puts it: ``Sociology, then, is the Science that seeks the limits of Chance in human conduct.'' So by the end of the essay not only has sociology been placed on an empirical footing, but it has done so without even losing a rightful claim to metaphysical significance and grandiosity of purpose.

That, then, is my summary of the essay. Some of this, I think, will be old hat to philosophers of science now, where for its time it was highly original. We've learned to live with probabilistic,  chance-y, or generally non-deterministic scientific laws, in a way that theorists of 1905 perhaps had not. But I do think that Du Bois attempt to show that a more sophisticated conception of scientific explanation can overcome objections to the idea of `human science' still has relevance. I still encounter people with certain Romantic conceptions of the person that balk at the notions of social science, and I sometimes suspect they are caught in the web of confusions Du Bois was pointing to. I hope people read up.

(Ok full disclosure I am friends with many of the authors in Ten Neglected Classics of Philosophy. Also, given that I motivated this blog with an image of black steam punk scientists... Du Bois is a pretty perfect mascot for this blog?)

Saturday, October 8, 2016

True For You

Kwasi Wiredu -- ``Mischief and Cruelty
would make a pretty cool album title.
This will make sense later in the post.''
Here's an idea that is perennially popular with undergraduates and perennially unpopular with professional philosophers: truth is relative; what is true for me may not be true for you; two logically incompatible perspectives may be just as good as each other, from the point of truth or accuracy. Call this vague idea `relativism' The classic philosophical formulation of relativism comes from Protagoras of Abdera, who famously said ``Man is the measure of all things; of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.'' The idea here being that in some deep and interesting sense what is true depends on what we take to be true, or on decisions we make, or on facts about how we represent things. While there is much work to be done in making this idea clear, I am going to assume that yinz know roughly what I have in mind. And while there are plenty of arguments about relativism, I am going to focus on an ethical debate.

As a way into the ethical argument for relativism I have in mind, here's a passage from one philosopher who has defended relativism, Kwasi Wiredu, who ends one of his essays on the matter as such:
The concept of absolute truth appears to have a tendency to facilitate dogmatism and fanaticism which lead, in religion and politics, to authoritarianism and, more generally, to oppression. I do not say this is a necessary consequence of that conception. Indeed, if human beings were always consistent, the doctrine of absolute truth should, as suggested earlier, lead to total scepticism rather than to dogmatism. Besides, it is not here suggested that all advocates of the idea in question are dogmatic or fanatical. It is a fact, nevertheless, that in matters of truth and falsity, drastic persecution is hardly conceivable without pretensions to absolute truth on the part of the persecutors. It is difficult to think that men could imprison and even kill their fellow men for doctrinal differences with a free conscience if they understood clearly that, in doing so, they were acting simply on their own fallible opinions. It is a totally different thing when people believe that they are in the service of absolute truth, particularly if they imagine that the destiny of a nation, or even, perhaps, of the whole of mankind, is in question. There is no end to the mischief and cruelty of which they are capable. Yet, translated into the terms of my theory, such assertions as `The Truth will prevail'; and `The Truth is on our side', amount to no more than `Our opinions will prevail' or `My opinions are on my side'.
Wiredu is far from alone in this emphasis on the tolerant ethical implications of relativism. For instance, some of the classic relativists, like Zhuangzi or Montaigne, seems to be primarily motivated by the thought that relativism is a natural accompaniment of a humble, tolerant, live-and-let-live attitude. Even philosophers whose relativism seems to be motivated by somewhat abstruse considerations of language or logic often have something like this lurking in the background. See, for instance, this short essay on Carnap's voluntarism, and I think it is telling that the penultimate chapter of the highly rewarding recent book on relativism, Assessment Sensitivity by John MacFarlane, is an argument in favour of relativism about `ought' judgements.

Zhuangzi -- ``The only absolute truth is that
this painting of me is really pretty badass.''
But why think that relativism entails a humble, tolerant, live-and-let-live attitude? Here are reasons to think it doesn't (both discussed by Timothy Williamson, if I recall correctly, here). (1): `humility' only makes sense, or is only motivated, with a robust notion of mind- or culture-independent truth. One can be humble only by acknowledging that there's a real possibility that one is entirely wrong, that one's efforts to get at the truth have failed. Most ways of formulating relativistic views end up undermining this, by rendering people infallible, or inevitably epistemically faultless, about at least some propositions. (2) relativists are not taking their own position fully seriously when they act as if any particular moral attitude follows from it. Sure, it follows for you -- but why should it follow for somebody else? For them, perhaps, the ethical corollary of relativism is totalitarian conformism! Of course, as relativists will point out, accepting relativism does not mean `anything goes'; but if one takes advantage of this in defending relativism one will just be introducing non-relativistic, absolutist, elements into one's philosophy.

I think these are fair challenges, and somebody who wishes to defend the ethical corollary of relativism must take them seriously. And in fact many do -- both Wiredu and MacFarlane, for instance, have things to say to both of these challenges. The goal of their responses is to show that one could be justified in taking a kind of humble or fallibilist attitude even as a relativist, and usually a bit of bullet biting goes on with objection (2). But one thing I do not often see said in this literature, and which strikes me as strange because from conversation I suspect it is very often the most salient reason that relativists believe the ethical corollary, is the following empirical psychological claim: accepting relativism causes one to become more humble, tolerant, and likely to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude. The exact mechanism behind this causal relationship may remain opaque: the point is just that there is a causal relationship between adopting this philosophical belief and one's behaviour, and this is somewhat distinct from that behaviour being justified in light of relativism. Humble, tolerant, live-and-let-live attitudes are a causal, not logical, consequence of relativism. Part of my reason for quoting the Wiredu passage at length, in fact, was that it is one of the few places where I think this widely held causal claim is laid out plainly.

If the italicised claim is true then it would help answer (1) and (2) in the following quasi-consequentialist manners. On (1): what was valuable in humility was not after all its logical coherence but the sort of behaviours it induces and the effect of those behaviours on one's peers. People who are humble are willing to listen to opposing points of view, do not become judgemental or condemnatory with those who differ, and are willing to revise their beliefs in the face of contrary evidence -- and such people are more pleasant to be around than those who behave in the contrary manner. If the italicised claim is true then accepting relativism makes one's peers more pleasant in just these ways, even if the ideal of humility itself is somewhat hard to make sense of for a relativist. On (2): while it does not logically follow that relativists will be more humble, tolerant, and likely to take a live-and-let-live attitude; in fact they do so, and once again it is after all actual moral behaviour that is significant.

Montaigne -- `` I was a cultural relativist, which
means that when I wore this collar it is not 
because I thought that the sartorial norms of my 
society are objectively superior and  I had 
some absolute aesthetic duty, but rather that 
I really did  just want to dress this way.''
To offer anything like these arguments depends on a very instrumentalist or consequentialist ethic of belief that a lot of philosophers would balk at. But then again I take it that anybody who offers the ethical motivation for relativism has already taken at least some steps down this road. And whether or not any of this moves one depends on believing that humility (etc) is pleasant and to be encouraged, an assumption which if the relativist tried to defend it may end up generating objections like (2). There is, as ever, more work to be done.

Further, all this was conditional on the italicised claim being true. I know of no argument to the effect that it is. Investigating the italicised claim seems ripe for the kind of sociological or social psychological investigation which experimental philosophers are now undertaking. It would be difficult, mind you! Any takers?






In advance of any evidence -- would I bet on the italicised causal claim? Tell truth, I would not. If anything, I suspect a causal arrow in the other direction. Relativism is a plausible take on how one might encode tolerant (etc) attitudes into one's metaphysics or epistemology, and I suspect that very often philosophical positions are expressions of underlying personality. But even though I'd bet against it, I still think it worth investigating. I think it is what attracts a lot of our undergraduates, and others who we too quickly dismiss, to relativism; it is not so obviously wrong; and if it is true, the consequentialist argument for relativism is suddenly viable.

(Montaigne's relativism may actually have been somewhat different in nature from the `alethic' -- relativism about truth -- focus of Zhuangzi, Wiredu, and MacFarlane; all of whom have differences from each other, and all of whom (including Montaigne) are offering a notion of relativism that may be thought of as different from the kind of conceptual-scheme relativism that Carnap offered. I tend to prefer highlighting similarities rather than differences though, so I've included them all here. I think relativism is a somewhat unfairly maligned doctrine so I wanted to do a post discussing it. When I was thinking about famous relativists for this post I thought of those named, plus Nelson Goodman and Alaine Locke. Now I look at it this is oddly gendered -- who are some famous women relativist philosophers I should know about?)

Sunday, October 2, 2016

All Power To The Meglapsychos!

Confucianism and Virtue Ethics are, at least, similar in spirit. A lot of ethical theorising consists in trying to provide rules or principles which one could, at least in theory, consult and explicitly reason with in order to work out what to do when encountering a novel or tricky scenario. Not so with either the Confucian or Virtue Ethical tradition. These latter two are ethical theories where the focus is not on rules, but rather on trying to make folk into the kind of people who of their own more-or-less spontaneous accord will make good decisions when confronted with novel situations. 

Aristotle -- ``Every philosopher has seen
a picture of this bust at least 100 times.
A serious argument in favour of selfie
culture is that it shall make the slide shows
of future philosophers less boring.''
I prefer Confucianism to most versions of Virtue Ethics that I have seen. This because: there are some incredibly authoritarian elements that often accompany Virtue Ethics. In particular in discussions of Virtue Ethics I have had with people that are sympathetic, there often seems to be a theory of ethical pedagogy that amounts to ``emulate great moral exemplars!''. Worse, it is accompanied by an ethical epistemology which makes it near impossible for us non-exemplars to judge whether or not the exemplar is doing the right thing. This has always seemed to me to make the position of moral exemplar, once attained, a kind of moral blank cheque. I can only imagine being told that ``Other people will learn what counts as good by seeing what you do -- and have no means of correcting you'' leading to abuse, domineering, and bullying. Ours not to question why, ours but to follow the exemplar -- and die. No thanks.

Of course Virtue Ethicists will have stuff to say in response to this; though I have often found these worries about authoritarianism do not seem to be at the forefront of people's mind. What impresses me is that in Confucian thought there is a lot of discussion about the use of rituals to create a more or less standardised at-least-somewhat-exemplar-independent bit of moral pedagogy. This seems to have been something people accounted for at the get go, indeed its a core part of theory. The idea seems to be to develop certain emotively charged rituals then they will shape peoples emotional responses and behavioural dispositions so that they will be the kind of people who evaluate things aright. Further, since we can observe how good people are at playing their part in these rituals, there is then a role for ritual propriety that can be interpreted precisely as a means of giving a (admittedly perhaps ineffective) behavioural check on whether a purported or previous moral exemplar really fits the bill. Maybe it will still end up being authoritarian; but at least the Confucians are trying.

Confucius -- ``The fact that Liam is presenting me as somehow
anti-authoritarian is actually pretty hilarious. Sure thing buddy.''
However, as I read this treatment of Confucianism in Barry Allen's `Vanishing Into Things', I am reminded of something that often strikes me when I read accounts of Virtue Ethics: some people obviously really like the complete non-codifiability, the utter inscrutability, of Virtue Ethical pedagogy and epistemology. Allen, it seems to me, though without often explicitly mentioning Virtue Theory, is doing all he can to interpret Confucianism as having this inscrutability feature as a way of being favourable to Confucianism. And seems a bit down on Xunzi precisely because it's hard to do that with him. I get why authoritarians and bullies like the non-codifiability part of Virtue Ethics and/or this way of reading Confucianism -- but why do people who I am very sure are not authoritarians or bullies want to preserve that element of things? It seems to be attractive to people who I really really expect to agree with politically and usually do. I just don't get it. To put it provocatively: what's up with this All Power To The Great Souled Men! ethical instinct that some otherwise egalitarian people seem to have?

(Ok in fairness it is usually but not only men, and that's probably not essential to either theory. Then again, I was given the translation of the Confucian ideal person as ``gentleman''  and ``Meglapsychos'' as `great souled man'. Also both theories have other authoritarian elements to them -- one of the virtues in a lot of Confucian theorising is basically a jumped up version of ``Do what you're told!'', and more subtly it seems that, at least, in Aristotle's Virtue Ethics in particular, some of the virtues are implicitly relying on a background social arrangement where a lot of people are providing a life of leisure for a minority. So not saying that in getting rid of the inscrutability feature you get rid of the authoritarian elements.) 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Platonic Feminism and Social Epistemology of Science

Today's post was prompted by a fascinating podcast my alma mater put out on the current status of women in science. Women are under-represented in science relative to the proportion of the population that are women, and many report experiences of harassment and discrimination. This leads many to wonder about the causes and consequences of this under-representation, and it is largely to those questions that the panel discussion recorded for this podcast was addressed.

Cailin O'Connor: ``I am a principal author
on a paper Liam is writing and no way is
he stupid enough to put words in my mouth
in some misbegotten attempt to be cheeky.''
One of the women on the panel was Cailin O'Connor. She's a philosophy professor at Irvine who has worked on diversity in science before. One of the hats Cailin wears is that of a social epistemologist: somebody who studies how the social and institutional organisation of communities of inquirers affects the communities' ability to produce and disseminate knowledge. Since I myself identify as a social epistemologist* I was especially glad to hear her so well represent our field and the general consensus therein on this panel.



As Cailin notes, social epistemologists of science are generally think that diversity in science leads to better science. This by fairly conventional metrics of `better science'; basically more reliably getting us to true beliefs, and avoiding us getting stuck on false beliefs. If you want to hear the case for it you should listen to the podcast; Cailin even makes this point fairly near the start, so you won't have to listen long. For a condensed version of the argument, I briefly summarise it in section 5 of this paper; but I really recommend you listen to the podcast.



Ibn Rushd -- ``Sexists are boring.''
So far so good -- justice and expediency seem to be lining up in a nice way! But then reading this blog post from Eric Schliesser today gave me pause. Because I recognise now, what had somehow been obscure to me before,  that this is just a variant on what Schliesser there calls `Platonic Feminism' -- the very old argument to the effect that the various ways in which women are socialised out of, and actively prevented from, participating in high prestige political and economic roles make the community worse off than it could be if only we better tapped this source of knowledge and expertise.

Why does this worry me? Well it strikes me that if people have been making this argument for centuries that probably doesn't speak very well for the rhetorical effectiveness of the argument. I had personally been attracted by the apparent hard headed realism of it. Here is a case for gender equity that makes no appeal to the sense of justice in Man that is much proclaimed but always mysteriously absent when it is needed. Rather, it seems to be an argument to the effect that by standards that can be accepted by even rather, shall we say, unenlightened men (you wanna know more stuff right?), we'd do well to have more women in science. Since, world being as it is, more often than not it is men in positions of power, they seem like the folk one wants to convince; and this seems a good way to do it.

But maybe that just gets the psychology wrong. I recall reading somewhere that Bertrand Russell, reflecting on the lead up to first world war, said that the lesson it taught him was that people would sooner see their enemies miserable than prosper themselves; that the Great War was always evidently going to be a disaster for all involved, but that pointing this out had been frustrating ineffective as an argument against war. Maybe, then, the point generalises: people would in the end sooner see the out-group doing worse than suffer the indignity of a rising tide lifting all boats.

(Some miscellaneous remarks before signing off. First, folks interested in the discussion of women dropping out of the (scientific) labour force should check out this paper, especially section 5. The roots of that problem go deep. Second, at one point in the podcast Cailin mentions the `Beamy Theory of Brilliance' wherein the True Genius Philosopher just sort of turns their attention to a topic and thereby instantly illuminates it by means of their inherent genius -- as far as I know the origins of that term `Beamy' for this go to Michaela McSweeney -- no relation to the internet tendency... as far as I know...  Third, I really enjoy the argument the historian gives to the effect that the study of science would do well to move away from valorising Great Heroes and focus more on the wide variety of people it takes to make science work. We'll hear more about that later on this very blog, I suspect.)



*And, full disclosure, have even worked with Cailin on related matters -- look out for our Formal Methods in Social Epistemology symposium talk at the PSA!

Introduction to The Sooty Empiric

The philosophy blogosphere is pretty active, and as a community we seem to get a lot of productive thinking done at too-big-for-a-social-media-post but too-small-for-a-paper levels. This seems well suited to blog posts, and I'd like to join in the discussion. Further, my interests mainly centre around philosophy of science, formal/social epistemology, and political philosophy. While there's some great blogging out there for each of these, nobody combines them in quite the way I like, so here is me trying to be the change I want to see in the blogosphere. (Mind you, I'll post on plenty besides!)  I really hope to foster discussion in this space, but anybody following the philosophy blogosphere will have noticed that we seem often to generate rather more heat than light in our online blog squabbles. So, everyone, let's try and be nice and avoid that, eh?

Anyway, that's my mission statement of sorts. For those wondering, the title for the blog comes from Richard S Westfall's `The Construction of Modern Science'. In the chapter on 17th century chemistry he notes that:
Scientists looked upon [chemists] with scorn, referring to them in a phrase that can hardly be misunderstood, as ``sooty empirics.''
Steampunk Sooty Empiric - ``Liam wanted you to know
what a steam punk aesthetic looked like but he's also
kind of feeling not great about using this random bloke,
 who after all did not give his permission, to illustrate
an alternate-history re-appropriated former racist term.''
The phrase caught my eye as a good blog title for a number of reasons. (1) that's some top quality shade right there; I doff my charmingly ridiculous proto-top-hat to you, snobby British chemistry-hating aristocrats. Should this blog, against my sincere intent, ever descend into throwing shade (perish the thought!) I hope I can live up to this august precedent. (2) As philosophical tendencies go, I rather like pragmatism and I rather like empiricism -- especially the logical kind. I rather feel that modifying `empirics' with `sooty' is suggestive of a sleeves-rolled-up pragmatic bent of empiricism. (3) It kind of sounds like a cool re-appropriated racist insult. I can imagine a good steampunk novel where `sooty empiric' was once upon a time a put down directed at black scientists but has since been appropriated by its former victims, and is now the name of the secret society wherein the heroes meet to fine tune their electro-rays and discuss the rumors of the Kaiser's plot to conquer Atlantis... ok I'll stop but you get the point. I guess I like that?

In this blog I am sure I will be discussing science, and the philosophy thereof. Pragmatism, empiricism, and all manners of epistemology and meta-philosophy beside. And, sure, I am not just a philosopher but a black man too, and maybe that will be relevant sometimes, given discussions now on going both in my profession and the world beyond academic philosophy. So stick around! I hope it will be fun, I hope it will be interesting, and I hope it will in no way interfere with my attempts to get a job in academia.

(Alas I am not a steampunk super hero though... yet.... In the mean time, British readers Of A Certain Age will no doubt be disappointed that the real Sooty seems to have no connection to this blog -- so here's a link and now you can feel old and nostalgic and sad too. It really bothers me that there were no good pictures of a black person in clock punk gear, because really to fit the era the phrase the blog title is from it should have been clock punk. Maybe I shall have to be the change I want to see on google image searches too? Almost relatedly, I have ill defined ambitions of eventually making this a group blog wherein black philosophers with a naturalistic bent can post on their work and ideas. Watch this space?)