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?''

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this and agree with you that philosophers need to apply more rigor to their own thinking and work, especially in their personal and public lives.

    Where I disagree is this "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." If I have understood you correctly, that is, if you are saying that philosophers are in an especially privileged position to do this compared with the average person. In my experience (though I don't work with them, I have engaged in conversations with professional philosophers) they are not any more epistemically virtuous than others regarding most non philosophical issues. In fact they may be more epistemically vicious regarding thinking and discussing the most important things such as public policy.

    It would be interesting to conduct studies like Eric Schwitzgebel has done wrg to nonepistemic virtues. I suspect that philosophers are no better than the average person of comparable education just as they were shown in Schwitzgebel's studies for the other kinds of virtues.

    The last election has really shown me just how fallacious, ignorant and petty philosophers can be regarding very important things. I could give so many examples but here are some salient ones: Brian Leiter's blog had an open comment post asking what philosophers thought about the presidential candidates. Not surprisingly, it opened up vigorous debate. But I was surprised by the amount of pure bullshit posted there and extreme bias among professional philosophers. Leiter himself repeatedly made many stupid, baseless claims such as claiming that Trump was "clearly", "obviously" and "certainly" a clinical psychopath and had other psychiatric disorders. Few even challenged him on these claims. Of those who did like myself raising questions such as when he had obtained his MD in psychiatry and when he had administered the Hare's Psychopathy Inventory to Trump, we were treated to nothing by vitriol and censorship.

    Now I did not support Trump and always loathed him for he has many loathsome qualities. But I also know bs when I smell it and claiming someone has a relatively rare and severe personality disorder warrants considerable burden of proof and is ethically and epistemically odious to claim so without it.

    I have also unfollowed some professional philosophers on facebook for their persistent bsing regarding baseless conspiracy theories such as on Russian "collusion". You'd think astonishing claims would demand solid evidence but many philosophers are content with evidence-free claims from Rachel Maddow and her ilk repeating their claims with the certainty and arrogance of the most coddled and privileged freshmen.

    I am reminded of the comic Logicomic. The moral of the story (as I interpret it) is that if you look at some of the greatest minds of the last 150 years such as Frege, Russell and Godel, you see people who worked to exhaustion for decades on problems which they had thought they solved only to have someone demolish their claims. They worked in the relatively neat subject of mathematical logic. So if these great minds could be upended in all their life's work after so much effort, what are the chances that lesser minds who have given far less effort in thinking and researching more contentious and nuanced topics could then come to firmer grasp of the truth?

    Like other kinds of ethical virtue, I suspect philosophers would do no better than the average person of comparable education level or even those of lesser education in epistemic virtue outside of their areas of expertise. That is indeed depressing because it would show that a philosophical education may not be as wisdom cultivating as its namesake suggests. Also I don't see the profession getting better anytime soon.