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 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.


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