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?''

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Philosophy as a Vocation

There's a (perhaps apocryphal) story of a philosopher being asked at a party what exactly it was they did and responding -- ``you define a few concepts, you make a few distinctions; it's a living.'' People sometimes tell this story as an example of how base, flippant, and ignoble the culture of analytic philosophy has become; but I begin with it for the exact opposite reason. I want to acknowledge from the get go that, in the end, one of the big attractions to being a philosopher is that it's an indoor job with no heavy lifting, and that's alright. I'm not from the school of thought that thinks the problem with academics is that we fail to be sufficiently self-important, so I think it worth grounding all this vocation talk in the more humble reality straight away.

Max Weber -- ``... Wait, did I leave the stove on?''
Max Weber has a rather famous essay called `Science as a Vocation'. In it he gives an account of the existential situation of the young scientist. I'm not going to do full justice to it here, but here are four points Weber makes that I want to highlight:
  1. There is an enormous element of luck involved in deciding who makes it and who does not.
  2. To make a valuable contribution one has to narrow one's horizons and become ultra specialised.
  3. Even if one achieves something it inevitably shall eventually be over-tuned and surpassed.
  4. We live in a morally blank, existentially meaningless, universe, and one's choice of vocation will never receive compelling, external, ultimate justification.
Cheery bloke, Weber; big hit at parties.

It's not clear, from the essay, whether Weber none the less means to be advocating the life of the scientist as a noble one worthy of pursuit. Much of what he says seems to indicate that he thinks its a noble pursuit, yet when he most directly touches on the matter he says:
Hence academic life is a mad hazard. If a young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation, the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne. If he is a Jew, of course one says lasciate ogni speranza [abandon all hope]. But one must ask every other man: do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you; without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally one always receives the answer: ``Of course, I live only for my `calling'''. Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.
So we get here, also, a nod to the role that raw prejudice can play in deciding academic fates, and the bitterness that academic life can bring with it as one sees any pretense of meritocracy destroyed before one's eyes, and (so one thinks) to one's own disadvantage.

How much of this goes for philosophy as well? The role of prejudice is much discussed in our community, as are failures of our system to be meritocratic and the role of luck. I don't quite so often see it discussed, but I think we all have seen (or felt, in some of our cases) folk suffering from the peculiar kind of bitterness which results from the following combination of beliefs: that things ought be a meritocracy, that in such a system one would be doing well and widely acknowledged, that one is not doing well or widely acknowledged. Philosophy as a vocation may well contain many of the same elements as science as a vocation.

Points (2) and (3), however, are much more disputed in the case of philosophy. A recent essay in the LA Review of Books seems to me representative of certain stands of thought which vigorously protest any analogy between the sciences and philosophy in these regards. Rather than put our heads down (and together) and specialise, hoping to each make small contributions to a long running project of collective inquiry that shall - if successful - inevitably surpass our meagre contributions, ``true philosophizing is “thinking against oneself” — done systematically, mercilessly, with no safety net and no escape routes''. The picture painted is of a kind of wildly ambitious and deeply individualistic project, where one, if successful, arrives at one's own profound insight that shall last the ages, but really where one must accept at the outset that one's quest will probably result in failure.  Plato isn't quite the highlander, but there can be only so many such people. This essay was an especially fervent expression of this sentiment, but I do think it captures something of a recurring theme in our debates about our own self-conception as a distinct class of inquirers.

My heart is very much with the first of these options, I think philosophy is or ought be much more a Weberian vocation than a Romantic quest for self-assertion. I'll limit myself to one problem I had with this piece and how I think it misunderstands the position of one who commits to the less individualistic Weberian vocation. Reflections in the spirit of the LA Review of Books just fail to appreciate the full existential resources of communalism, even where they place lip service to it. For instance, in the LA Review of Books article it seems to me that a lot of what they want to claim for their own approach is its superior courage, its better ability to display that virtue. What is being praised is the courage to squarely face one's high chance of failure, and the heroism of the philosopher in daring to be idiosyncratic in an institutional structure that prefers conformism. Now, privately I initially responded by complaining a bit about the pretentiousness here (systematic mercilessness leaving no room for escape better describes assassins operating predator drones, not people who write books about philosophy and cinema) but I've got my initial disclaimer, and in any case I'll grant that there's such a thing as intellectual courage and its valuable to display it.  But somebody pursuing a Weberian vocation has no especial reason to think that the project of inquiry they commit to shall succeed in its aims. And so even if they personally have some reason to think they may succeed in making their own within-paradigm contributions (which, given the discussion about well known roles of luck, prejudice, and failures of the reward system, actually shouldn't be granted so quickly) they know that the communal project is just as precarious and fraught as the personal project of the attempted heroic individual.

Indeed, this goes in philosophy even more so than the case of science Weber focussed on, since somebody who throws themselves into a communal project of philosophical inquiry with their eyes open does so knowing that the utter abandonment of paradigms is frequent in the history of philosophy, that centuries long projects which attracted the brightest minds of entire continents are now viewed as wildly and obviously erroneous by even the average undergrad, and it is at least obscure whether we build progressively upon each other at all. (An existentialist exploration of the pessimistic meta-induction or a proper exploration of the phenomenology of the historically aware scientist would, I think,  be an interesting and valuable project.) Even granting that intellectual courage is a virtue we ought display, the Romantic individualists are too quick to write off the Weberian vocationalists as thoughtless functionaries, and not appreciate the extent to which they display the same virtue, simply at a communal level rather than displaying it for their idiosyncratic project. This kind of unsympathetic failure to appreciate the principles and positions of Weberian types is typical, I think, and part of the reason I have wrote in their defence before.

It would be exactly missing my point to see in this as a defence of all the projects of inquiry philosophy now supports, all features of dominant paradigms as they now exist. In fact, they very well might fail, and per the judgement of history bear no fruits, and this may well be because of features of how those engaged in them arranged themselves socially. See here, for instance, for one of my own discussions of a failure of the reward system which philosophers and scientists alike are subject to in the present academy. Such failings, and the real possibility that a huge number of very smart people are simply wasting their lives by their own lights but shall never know as much, underlie rather than contradict my point. One does not have to buy into a full nihilistic metaphysic to see the relevance of Weber's (4) and how it applies to philosophy -- when one buys into a communal project of inquiry, one is committing oneself to something whose horizons of success or potential revelation of failure lie far outside one's lifespan. Whether we shall collectively discern and perfect and instantiate a just society, limn and explicate the metaphysical structure of being, understand the nature of knowledge and see it properly organised, disseminated, and implemented -- and whether any of the approaches to these now adopted and collectively worked upon shall in any way help advance or hold us back in these -- we shall probably ourselves never know in this life. If one takes philosophy as one's vocation, in the Weberian sense, one none the less commits to the attempt at some or all of these problems, and does so with less hope of glory as one of history's celebrated geniuses, but as one among many making a small and under-appreciated contribution to a greater whole.

Also it's nice not having to come into the office over summer.