Arguments in Philosophy

One thing that is supposed to be distinctive of analytic philosophy is the dedication to providing rigorous argumentation in favour of clearly stated theses. Arguments here being understood as articulated premises whose joint plausibility, and demonstrated logical relationship to the conclusion, significantly raises the plausibility of that conclusion -- ideally deductively entailing it. Let's set aside how distinctive this ideal really is (surely some scholastic and Nyāya philosophers would protest!) and just think about the ideals themselves. I have commented on these standards before, by and large positively. On the whole I think it is a genuine intellectual good to try very hard to make people understand what you are saying and why it might be worth believing.

And yet.

I have always been a little bit uncomfortable with the role of argumentation in analytic philosophy, and today I think I will spell out why, and in the end maybe even reconcile my discomfort with my admiration.

One way of drawing this out is to ask yourself: quick, what was Plato's argument in favour of the forms existing? What was Bentham's (or Mozi's) for utilitarianism? What was Hobbes (or Xunzi's) argument for human nature being selfish and conflict-laden? Now my audience is sufficiently nerdy that I bet some of yinz really could answer those, or at least one of those, from the top of your head. But I bet that many - even from among the professional philosophers - could not. And I don't actually think that is cause for shame, instead I think it is telling us something -- articulating the positions was in each case an important contribution, particular arguments that may or may not have been deployed in their favour much less so. 

What is more, I think that some of the arguments (maybe all? See here) would totally fail to impress us nowadays. Not to deny that they can be defended by more serious arguments. Quine's indispensability argument for Platonism strikes me as worth taking seriously, utilitarianism has since had Harsanyi, and so on. But does this even matter? Inspiring position survived a long time indeed without these defences, capturing the hearts and minds of many intellectuals along the way and playing a major and productive role in the history of science. Think of Democritian atomism inspiring corpuscular theory via Lucretius' poem, or again think of the influence of Platonism on Gödel.

While it is not the only lesson one could draw, to me the take away from these sort of thoughts has always been - in philosophy good positions are interesting in and of themselves. Good arguments can help that, but they are far from necessary. Often as important as the specific details of why something might be plausible is just the spirit of what is being proposed, what it inspires and the vistas it seems to open up. This is a very diffuse thing, dependent on factors far beyond the control of the individual producing idea. But it is ultimately what matters, maybe even the only thing (if anything can) that makes producing philosophy worthwhile.

Ok so now having said something interesting let me take it back. Here's why, none the less, I still think the strong attention to argument is worthwhile. It's basically three fold. First, it's sort of like eating one's vegetables. It's not the exciting bit, but if you don't do it you'll be much worse off and ultimately less in a position to appreciate the exciting bits. I think someone who just tries to "be interesting!" without doing exercises, or binding themselves to standards, that constrain and discipline them, will in fact... just be boring. The opposite of rigour isn't creativity, it's just a kind of dull psuedo-profound sludge in which one says one's opinions at length and pretentiously. See, for example, papers like this or the kind of "work" that passes muster here.

Second, and relatedly, I very much fear the consequences of anyone trying to make a metric out of interestingness. It will be awful. Since some means of evaluating each other is necessary when resources are constrained as they are, better it be for an intellectual skill that is related and at least somewhat subject to being fairly discernible.

Third, and most importantly, arguments reveal content. What arguments do at their best is map out logical space, telling you what commitments can be jointly held, or what one takes on board over here when one was only trying to make moves over there. This isn't just good for working out what to believe, but what one does in fact believe. Positions are indeed what is interesting, but they are opaque. We don't have access to the full contours of a philosophical view simply by having its presuppositions and concepts laid before us. Through argument we come to learn what it is we are saying. So arguments play some role in illuminating the space of positions currently open, and thereby hint at where we may travel next.

So there you go. I think there is a case for stressing the importance of arguments in philosophical practice and institutional life. But I don't think that is because arguments themselves are what really matter. They do indeed have a rightful place, but we must be careful not to become fetishistic about them. They are one path, not the only one, and certainly not the destination.


Light dawns gradually over the whole.


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