On The Unity of Science, or - All Philosophy Is Political!

Recently there has been much discussion in the philosophy online regarding the slogan "All philosophy is political" (when expressed negatively by those who disagree, it might be the slogan: "Resist the politicisation of philosophy!"). I said to an LSE graduate student that I rather thought that this slogan didn't capture much of interest and we should stop discussing it. I do think that, but on reflection I thought that might have slightly misled as to my actual opinion so I should write a blog post. Prompted to actually write by this piece from Oliver Traldi, which clarified multiple senses of the term and touches upon the sense I am interested but which I think still doesn't lay the emphasis on the sense in which I think the slogan is true and which is also, I think, upstream of the actual conflicts we see. (Subsequent to posting it occurred to me that this blog post is also broadly similar to points Barnes made here.) I think the fact that all philosophy is political is a trivial consequence of the more interesting fact that all inquiry is, in the sense to be discussed, united. In this blog post I am going to sketch out why.

Historical note: it may surprise you to learn, but I am actually something of a fan of the logical empiricists. Back when I blogged on Carnap I largely stressed things I disagreed with him about. But today I am going to talk about something where I think I agree with him but in any case I prefer Neurath's presentation (or maybe: version) of the idea. The core idea, as I take it, is something like - the unity of science is an achievement to be won, not a fact to be granted. The unity of science consists in the fact that we may potentially bring the results, methods, and fruits of inquiry in one field to bear on all others, providing we take the time to formulate our claims in a way that can be mutually understood, and are sufficiently clear in stating logical or evidential relations. The unity of science is thus a kind of consequence of the attitude of seeking to be clear and assist one another. All this is very loose (and it is not going to get much clearer!) but I think understanding the point will help us understand contemporary disputes in philosophy. In any case what I say here is, in so far as it makes sense, a result of my reflecting on stuff from Carnap and Neurath, and more especially the latter.

Otto Neurath - "Alright, let's do this."
Here's something which I cannot prove but believe, and believe even more strongly that it is useful to adopt as an attitude. We cannot ever rule out the potential relevance of any one field of inquiry to another. At the level of inspiration this seems actually uncontroversial; to give a couple of examples of transfer of ideas between the natural and social sciences, economists have found use in adapting ideas from physics about exchanges of energy that occur during particle collision, and Darwin was apparently inspired by classical economists. In these cases social theory and physical theories have related just by, to speak, happenstance - it turned out to be useful for scientists to be reading and reflecting on ideas and models of the world dreamt up for quite other circumstances. Indeed, if you believe the theory of scientific creativity here, then we should think that very generally scientific creativity tends to be spurred by these sort of unusual interdisciplinary inspirations. I think this is relevant to my point, but I don't think people deny this possibility of fruitful inspiration from afar, and in addition I mean something a bit stronger.

I think that we cannot rule out the potential evidential relevance of any one field to results gained from another. I will need two ideas taken as primitives for explicating this. First, let's just grant that claims can be evidentially relevant to one another. Two claims bear this relationship when the truth of one makes the truth of the other more or less likely, or maybe when a rational agent who came to believe one would change their credence in the other, or maybe when it would be part of a good and concise answer to a request for justification for the first claim that you assert the second claim. Not going to give a full theory of this here, but I hope it is intuitive - the claim "Ed is a space cowgirl and does not like bell peppers" is evidentially relevant to the claim that "all space cowgirls like bell peppers", claims about the results of certain psychological experiments will be evidentially relevant to claims about purported priming effects, claims which constitute axioms of Euclidean geometry will be evidentially relevant to claims which constitute theorems of Euclidean geometry. And so on.

The only somewhat counter-intuitive thing (or maybe: non obvious) thing I wish to say about evidential relevance is that it is the sort of thing we can come to discover, or maybe as we change what theories we believe we also change what evidential relationships we think hold. It is not the case that it is just obvious what evidential relevance relationships exist between claims. For instance, for a long time many within the European intelligentsia thought that observations of the heavens above were not evidentially relevant to claims about the movement of bodies on earth, since they thought the sublunary realm could not be expected to work in the same way as the super lunary realm. We now disagree, but do not think they were simply missing something obvious when they thought otherwise - they simply operated on the basis of a quite different cosmological theory, which reasonably enough led them to expect different evidential relationships to hold.

Second, I take as primitive the idea that certain fields can be the evidence providers for certain claims. What is meant here is the idea that sometimes most of the work that goes into evincing a claim would typically take place in a given department, and work towards evidencing that claim would typically be counted as thereby being part of a given field. So sociology is the evidence provider for my beliefs about the effects of cumulative advantage in leading to inequality of prestige among scientists, physics is the evidence provider for my beliefs about general relativity, geology my evidence provider for super boring claims about how old are rocks, etc.

So now here is what I think: for any two given fields, we cannot rule out that some claim which one is the evidence provider for will turn out to evidentially bear upon a claim which the other is the evidence provider for. This does *not* mean that for any given claim we have to accept the evidential relevance of any particular other claim drawn from another field. Technically it is nothing more than saying we can never rule out that one area shall in some sense evidentially bear upon another. I think I should even endorse the stronger claim that for any particular claim we cannot rule out that in future it turns out that some other field will produce evidence which bears evidential relevance to that claim. But in any case I think the weaker claim holds, that one can never rule out tout court the possibility that some other field shall be an evidence bearer for some claim that is epistemically relevant to a point your field is the evidence provider for.

As I said, I cannot prove this to any satisfactory degree. But I have a couple of considerations which bear upon it. First, just reflection on the history of science seems to provide instance of surprising relationships among claims whose evidence providers were quite separate fields.  I do not think these could have been reasonably foreseen. I have already mentioned above the way that physics-on-earth came to be seen to be relevant to physics-in-space (and vice versa). We might add the way that mathematical theories developed for one purpose turn out to be pertinent to quite different lines of inquiry. The natural history of organisms turned out to be evidentially relevant to physical geology. Humanistic reflection on the way colour shading works itself turned out to be relevant to ecology. And so on. This is, I'll certainly admit, a very crude induction, but such is what it is - I am just struck by this history, and do not think that we are likely to be doing better than those previously who did not foresee these evidential relationships before somebody spelled them out.

Second, what is really somewhat more theoretically stating the same point, I am a guilty fan of Popper's argument against the possibility of predicting future theoretical advances. Since discovery is possible, the prediction of future scientific theories is not. For, if the shape of future scientific theories were predictable then we should already be able to price them in, and they would not be future advances but rather things we have already updated upon. The argument feels somewhat like a trick, I grant, but it seems to me that Popper's point is a sensible elaboration upon the point that we're not logically omniscient, we cannot see the full implications of our own ideas. Given this we cannot in fact draw out future advances in our theories from ideas implicit in our own time, we must await something making potential ideas pertinent to us and giving us cause to actually explore them. Since I think that evidential relevance claims are the sort of thing that often require a particular theory in the background to be made manifest (or, perhaps, to come into existence at all), from this it (sorta) follows that we cannot predict in advance what evidential relationships shall be seen to exist in future.

So there you have it, those are my very rough and far from conclusive reasons for thinking that we cannot rule out potential evidential relevance relations between claims that are drawn from different evidence providing fields. I think this is roughly the version of unity of science that Neurath endorsed, if one adds to this the idea that we should actively facilitate the recognition of such evidential relationships between claims drawn from different evidence providing fields. Since I think we should do that - we should want our claims to be open to as much and as varied sources of scrutiny and confirmation as we can sensibly allow - I take myself to be in full agreement with the Neurathian picture.
Isotype God - "All shall love me and despair"

This bears upon the all philosophy is political! claim in the following way. If one is a realist about normative claims - as most professional philosophers are - then normative claims are the kind of things that might be true or false. (I'm not going to deal with anti-realists, because I do not think that is what is driving the discussion in philosophy.) I thus think such normative claims falls within the scope of my unity of science thesis: a realist cannot rule out the possibility that such normative claims might be relevant to claims whose evidential providers are any other field. While I do not think most philosophers explicitly agree with the unity of science thesis, I think many implicitly do. This because it seems to fall out of popular self-conceptions of philosophers, for instance that in philosophy anything may be questions - here, for instance, questioning the apparent epistemic irrelevance of one field to another. Further, many of the actual instances of controversial political claims in philosophy seem to be instances of people claiming that evidential relationships exist that were not noticed before.  I.e. what tends to generate heated discussions of politicisation of philosophy is when people draw out purported normative consequences of apparently a-political views and assess the plausibility of the initial claim in light of the plausibility of this normative consequence. I'll just note explicitly here that this is not all of the controversy (Callard prompted some discussion recently with a discussion of whether philosophers should sign petitions or engage in other agitation-esque activities - that's a separate matter), I simply think that it's a lot of it.

Most saliently in contemporary philosophy it seems that analytic metaphysics and epistemology are full of claims to the effect that various normative claims about how society should be organised or people should be respected bear upon claims about what exists or how we come to know things. Opponents of politicisation of philosophy are often deeply unhappy about this, whereas people who like the slogan all philosophy is political! tend to be either actively engaged in these disputes or at least sympathetic to it. But these are not the only instances of this - as I mentioned here, there is a history of logicians and political philosophers or religious philosophers thinking their claims bear upon each other. That seems to be a basically similar phenomenon. For any one of these cases you might reasonably dispute the relevance, but if I am right about the unity of inquiry one is not going to be able to rule out altogether the mutual relevance of political or ethical fields to any other bit of philosophy. People might be wrong about instances, but they are not wrong that there may be surprising evidentially relevant normative consequences of apparently a-normative claims drawn from other evidence providers.

Now, I don't think there is anything special about philosophy being political in this sense. Philosophy is in this sense also chemical and art historical and sociological and (alas) geological. And all these fields are philosophical! But the political case draws our attention because discussion of those purported connections just tend to get more heated and we tend to care about the issues at hand more. So in this sense I don't think the All Philosophy is Political! slogan is really capturing a point especially worth arguing over, since for normative realists at least it's an immediate consequence of a more contentious claim. At a high level of abstraction, the unity of science thesis more strikes me as where the interesting intellectual action is.

It seems to me that Traldi acknowledges this broad idea when he says "Grand theories of metaphysics might be (and indeed have been) judged on whether they have the right implications for the rather specific questions that have become politically salient" but I had a couple of problems with his discussion. First, it is part of a more general discussion of the causal consequences of a belief being propagated or believed, and I think it is somewhat confusing to frame this as part of that. This is a matter of logical consequence or epistemic relations, and that is separate from such causal claims. Second when arguing against this Traldi says that "to call the premise political because the conclusion is political seems strange" and justifies this by saying that "What is the special power of the political such that it can reach back into logically prior inquiries, or reach across into logically separate inquiries, and alter their nature — a power not shared by the scientific, the mathematical, the musical, or virtually any other adjective of this type?" But I don't find that persuasive at all. Partly because the notion of claims having natures is obscure and I don't see why we should concern ourselves with it, and don't think we need to invoke that to explain why the slogan seems salient to people. And partly because if we must discuss in those terms I have no real difficulty with saying that a claim is of X type just in case that it rationally alters my credences about the X topic. The reason I'd say much philosophy of science is not scientific is to some degree because what we believe about it doesn't seem to reasonably affect our beliefs about first order scientific disputes. So whether or not I should believe in modern monetary theory or any other first order economic dispute doesn't seem to be related to whether I am a realist about social kinds. It thus seems that when I reason about social kind realism I am doing something different than when I reason about economics, and so I wouldn't say I am making economic claims at that time. (Though maybe noteworthy that Brian Epstein sometimes suggests otherwise!) Whereas the more you convince me that, say, disputes in the foundations of decision theory actually do affect what we should believe about how markets work the more I am happy to say that people engaged in such work are actually making economic claims.

But I wish to end on a different note, and make something explicit that I should have done in a previous post. I think arguing about the claim that All Philosophy is Political! is a distraction. As I should have made clearer when musing on standpoint theory, I think that one mistake theorists often make is have discussions at an unpleasant middling level of abstraction. I don't actually think standpoint epistemology is saying something contentious when one states it as an epistemic theory. All the contentious claims come when one discusses particular claims to expertise or insight. Yet the norms, habits, and incentives of the academy continually tempt us to try and legitimise our concerns, or in any case to actually carry out our discussion, in a more general setting. We don't discuss whether these particular marginalised people are experts on this topic, rather we discuss whether marginalised people can be superior experts per se. Yet we also don't discuss the minimal empiricism from which the generic standpoint epistemic claim follows, since that would apparently take us too far afield. We end up thus discussing a middle level principle, which cannot really be contentious if one leaves presupposed the more abstract principle, yet whose consequences opponents wish to deny in cases. Whereas I think that if you're not going to discuss the general issue just discuss the cases. The middle level principle really does have its use in showing how the one is evidentially relevant to the other. But is not, so to speak, an independent source of epistemic interest.

Since I just taught the paper I'll add: I think this is related to what Dotson was doing when she contrasted local means of validation with purported universal canons of legitimation. It's often a good idea to discuss issues in terms of what is locally pertinent to their evaluation and to resist the temptation to have a more abstract discussion wherein one invokes claimed disciplinary canons of reasoning or some such.

So it goes here. Rather than discussing whether all philosophy is political per se, we should either discuss the particular arguments or evidential claims made in particular contexts, or we should discuss the general unity of science thesis which underlies a lot of our debates. So while I have a lot of sympathies with Wittgensteinian philosophy, I think that one of his slogans is in need of modification. The icy slopes of logic have their own beauty and afford wide vistas, the rough ground is ultimately where we must make our lives - so climb to the former or live in the latter, but for God's sake don't linger in the foothills!

- Liam Kofi Bright


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