onsdag 14. mai 2014

Ordinary critical intelligence.

Are there any readers of this blog who don't also read Language goes on holiday? Well, stop being in that category, and go check it out! In any case, this post is meant for you. I was thinking of writing a follow-up to my previous entry, but then gave away my good points commenting over at Duncan Richter’s. Rather than rewriting my arguments, I decided simply to post a gently edited version of the comments here.


Richard Taylor has written:
Students of philosophy learn very early -- usually first day of their course -- that philosophy is the love of wisdom. This is often soon forgotten, however, and there are even some men who earn their livelihood at philosophy who have not simply forgotten it, but who seem positively to scorn the idea.
I was, when writing that previous post, hoping to make use of this quote but in the end deiced to drop it because I didn’t know what to do with it. I have myself never heard anyone profess such disdain, but have attended lectures where this wouldn’t have surprised me much. This attitude seems to me connected with the danger of dogmatism. One form of dogmatism which concerns Taylor is the idea that philosophy really is (or should become) like the sciences. When Peter Hacker presents philosophy as a set of techniques, this sounds too mechanical, as you [D.R.] write, but doesn’t it also, and not incidentally, suggest a model of philosophy rather too close to that of the sciences? (This is surprising because Hacker too, both previously and again in this essay, has been fighting this very model.)
Academic philosophers sometimes feel a need to defend their subject, which is easily understood given the worldwide trend of cut-backs in the ”unprofitable” humanities departments. However,  inflated rhetoric is hardly the best way to make non-philosophers see things differently. As Miranda Fricker once remarked: "I think it is a bit ludicrous when people defend philosophy on the grounds that it teaches you how to think. That is extraordinarily insulting to other subjects!" This is partly why I too react against such claims. But I also think philosophers, with such claims and claims about the expertise a philosopher acquires, give the wrong impression of what philosophical thinking actually is.
Historians of philosophy often regard the subject as to have been invented by the ancient Greeks. When one's objective is to trace the understanding of philosophy as a more or less academic discipline with theoretical ambitions back to its origin, this story seems about right. However, philosophy has other (and deeper, yet more mundane) roots too. I am inclined to see philosophizing as a natural feature of human language use. Questions like “What do you mean?” and “What are the grounds for that claim?” were after all not invented by Thales. Nor are they something we first encounter at university. Someone might question our words whenever we say anything. Thus can the most casual dinner table conversation suddenly transform into a discussion or a probing investigation into the structure of our consepts. (The tools needed to resolve such situations are not theories produced at philosophical institutes, but ever-present to all competent language users in the language we share.) Philosophy -- understood as the application of ordinary critical intelligence -- is as ancient and as evenly distributed as language itself -- though some do of course exercise their critical faculties more than others.
In short, philosophers don't really do anything that non-philosophers can't do, and they don't necessarily do it better, but they ought at least to do it better than they themselves did it before they started studying and practicing philosophy, and they ought to do it without some other mission. [D.R.]

Agreed. Still, philosophers are often asked to sit on expert panels. In Norway, Knut Erik Tranøy headed several committees on medical questions; Mary Warnock has done the same in England. As far as I am able to judge, both have done great jobs; but, frankly, I believe this is more thanks to who they were and their personal characters than to their educational background. This issue has been at the front of my mind lately because I currently am in the middle of the process of applying for a position as a researcher in bioethics at my old university. If I am qualified for this job, which I think I am, this is not because I possess any philosophical (or ethical) expertise (whatever, if anything, that is); but rather because I have an interest in that field, have read a fair amount of the literature, both good and bad, and because I care about finding out which is which.

fredag 9. mai 2014

Why study philosophy?

In a recent essay, Peter Hacker gives many good answers; but as is often the case with advertisements, he over-sells his product. I will be focusing on this formulation:
The study of philosophy cultivates a healthy scepticism about the moral opinions, political arguments and economic reasonings with which we are daily bombarded by ideologues, churchmen, politicians and economists. It teaches one to detect ‘higher forms of nonsense’, to identify humbug, to weed out hypocrisy, and to spot invalid reasoning. It curbs our taste for nonsense, and gives us a nose for it instead. It teaches us not to rush to affirm or deny assertions, but to raise questions about them.
Similar claims about the general usefulness of philosophy are endlessly repeated in introductory texts. (For instance by Bertrand Russell in the raving last chapter of his Problems of Philosophy: "The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation of consent of his deliberate reason.") I must admit scepticism.

When Hacker writes that 'philosophy cultivates a healthy scepticism' and 'teaches one to detect higher forms of nonsense', he makes it sound as if taking philosophy classes were a method for developing fail-safe nonsense-alerts. Because philosophy means love of wisdom, and wisdom is never foolish or gullible, there is in that sense an intimate connection between "philosophy" and "critical thinking". Empirically speaking though the connection is less reliable. Great philosophers have been guilty of great stupidity. Heidegger famously was a Nazi. I doubt that Wittgenstein shared Hacker's optimism; but when hearing one of his students unreflectingly repeating nationalistic slogans, Wittgenstein was infuriated, and his anger seems somehow to have been aggrevated by the fact that the person talking nonsens was a philosopher:

[W]hat is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any... journalist in the use of the dangerous phrases such people use for their own ends.
Studying philosophy would be a waste of time if all it did was to enable one to talk about abstruse questions of logic. But there is no reason to think this is so. If anything, evidence seems to point in the direction of Hacker. Philosophers seem better equiped than most when it comes to general reasoning skills. Philosophy majors tend to do very well on certain tests. Some claim this is due to their education: "[P]hilosophy majors develop problem solving skills at a level of abstraction" that cannot be achieved through most studies. But if we assume (which seems plausible to me) that philosophy mainly attracts students who already possess certain skills and interests, this cannot be the final word. It doesn't follow from this that exercising one's philosophical muscles might turn out to have no effect on a person's ability to think (that would be as astonishing as if one's stamina could never be improved by physical excercise); but it does follow that even if philosophers demonstrate first rate reasoning skills, it is an open question to what extent these test results actually reflect the learning outcome of their studies.

Continuing on a semi-empirical line.
Most courses in philosophy, certainly most courses an undergraduate is likely to attend, are designed not to make the student better at reasoning in general, but to make him better at philosophical reasoning. A course in moral philosophy, say, is deemed successful not to the extent its students have become more sensitive and morally reflective persons (though this of course would not be negative), but, borrowing Wittgenstein's prase, to the extent the students have learned to talk with plausibility about abstruse questions in ethics. I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with this. Philosophising is after all working with philosophical questions. As any academic field, philosophers have manufactured tools and techniques suited to these questions. Picking up on the jargon is the first step toward making contributions to the classroom discussions. And sometimes this will prove useful in other contexts too...
But reading philosophy and acquiring the analytic and argumentative tools on offer is, as demonstrated by Erasmus Montanus, not the same as becoming a clearheaded thinker. Mastering a philosophical style, may even -- if it is true that certain philosophies offer nothing but fashionable nonsense -- have quite pernicious effects on one's judgement. Not even (mainstream) analytical philosophy is what Hacker has in mind when he hails philosophy as "a unique technique for tackling conceptual questions". Judging by his many heated debates with colleagues, mainly from the anglo-american tradition, it is reasonable to interpret the quote with which I began as deliberately echoing a sigh by his friendBede Rundle"Whatever their limitations, earlier analytical philosophers had at least a nose for nonsense. Sadly, so many philosophers today have only a taste for it."

It is puzzling that Hacker, throughout this essay, keeps using "philosophy" as if it denoted one uniform activity ("At a very general level, it [philosophy] is a unique technique for tackling conceptual questions that occur to most thinking people" and "At a more specialised level, philosophy is a technique for examining the results of specific sciences for their conceptual coherence," and so on), when he clearly would agree with much of what I have written. The reason, I suspect, is that Hacker, as Wittgenstein often did, uses "philosophy" to refer not to everything going by that name, but mainly to his own practice. In that case his claims seem on safer footing. Hacker's texts are predominantly critical, and his ability to sniff out philosophical nonsense is (usually) impressive. Studying his philosophy -- or wittgensteinian philosophy generally -- and acquiring some of his tools and techniques will be good for any critical thinker.

But in the end, though, which philosophical texts one studies (or if they are philosophical texts at all) is less important for one's ability to think straight than how one studies them. Reading even the most conceptually self-conscious and critical writer won't make critical thinkers out of us unless we read him critically.