More internal criticism of academic philosophy: Arvan on Graber

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Marcus Arvan at The Philosophers’ Coccoon provides another encouraging example of an academic philosopher criticizing problem-solving methods that continue to be pervasively, uncritically used within the profession today:

I read a really interesting paper today by Abraham Graber entitled, “Creating Truths By Winning Arguments: The Problem of Methodological Artifacts in Philosophy” (forthcoming in Synthese). The paper sort of [crystallizes] a worry that I’ve had about philosophical practice dating back at least to graduate school, and which I explored previously here and here: namely, that a whole lot of philosophy–just about anything having to do with conceptual analysis (including analytic metaphysics and meta-ethics)–is little more than philosophers (1) taking themselves to [be] discovering objective philosophical facts (i.e. what material objects are, what morality is, etc.), where what they’re really doing is (2) making more-or-less arbitrary semantic decisions to settle the semantics of fundamentally vague concepts that (3) objectively have no determinate satisfaction-conditions before those arbitrary semantic decisions are made.

There’s another, simpler way to put this worry: namely, that philosophers engaged in conceptual analysis, far from discovering philosophical facts, are making them up arbitrarily out of whole cloth–in which case a lot of what appears to be “philosophical progress” or “good arguments” at any given point in time are more-or-less-arbitrary semantic decisions that have “won out” rhetorically in the literature and seminar room.

Anyone who has been following this blog’s previous posts on contemporary academic philosophy in the analytic problem-solving tradition will find these comments very familiar. As I’ve suggested, Wittgenstein persuasively critiqued the methods that Arvan is questioning three quarters of a century ago, so it’s also refreshing to see him explicitly drawing the connection between his methodological concerns and Wittgenstein’s later philosophy in an earlier post:

I’ve been thinking more and more lately about a worry about analytic philosophy that traces back at least to Wittgenstein, and which is enjoying a resurgence (see e.g. Millikan’s Dewey Lecture, Avner Baz’ recent paper which I commented on here, and Balaguer’s paper on compatibilism and conceptual analysis, which I commented on here). The worry is simply this: analytic philosophy is, by and large, predicated on a systematic misunderstanding and misuse of language.

Analytic philosophy, broadly speaking, is dominated by conceptual analysis. I do not mean to say that this is all analytic philosophy is (I take myself to be doing analytic philosophy here, for instance, though I am not analyzing concepts). The point is simply that, in large part, analytic philosophy has been the practice of philosophers aiming to rigorously tease out — through thought-experiments, definitions, etc. — our concepts of free will, justice, morality, etc. But this is not all. In engaging in conceptual analysis, analytic philosophers take themselves to be doing a second thing: namely, getting at the referents of the terms, i.e. what free will is, what justice is, etc.

I increasingly think — and so do Millikan, Baz, and Balaguer — that this approach to philosophy is doubly wrong. First, it is based on a misunderstanding of language. I think Wittgenstein (and Millikan) were both right to suggest that our words (and concepts) have no determinate meaning. Rather, we use words and concepts in fundamentally, irreducibly messy ways — ways that fluctuate from moment to moment, and from speaker/thinker to speaker/thinker. A simpler way to put this is that our concepts — of “free will”, “justice” etc. — are all, in a certain way, defective. There is no determinate meaning to the terms “free will”, etc., and thus philosophical investigation into what “free will” is will be likely to lead, well, almost everywhere. At times, we use “free will” to refer (vaguely) to “reason-responsiveness”, or to “actual choices”, or whatever — but there is no fact of the matter which of these is really free will. Similarly, as Balaguer points out in another paper, there is no fact of the matter whether Millianism, or Fregeanism, or whatever about the meaning of proper names is right. All of these positions are right — which is just to say none of them are uniquely right. We can, and do, use proper names in a myriad of ways. The idea that there is some fact of the matter about what “free will” picks out, or what names mean, etc., all fundamentally misunderstand natural language.

And there is an even deeper problem: all of it is hollow semantics anyway. Allow me to explain. In his paper on compatibilism and conceptual analysis, Balaguer gives the following example. Two psychologists, or linguists, or whatever are trying to figure out what a “planet” is. They then debate to no end whether Pluto is a planet. They engage in philosophical arguments, thought-experiments, etc. They debate the philosophical implications of both sides of the debate (what follows if Pluto is a planet? What follows if it is not?). Here, Balaguer says, is something obvious: they are not doing astronomy. Indeed, they are not really doing anything other than semantics. And notice: there may not be a fact of the matter of what “planet” refers to, and it does not even matter. What matters is not what the concept refers to (what is a planet?), but rather the stuff in the world beyond the concepts (i.e. how does that thing — Pluto — behave? what is its composition? etc.).

It’s always heartening to come across internal criticism of academic philosophy. At the same time, I often find myself wondering: what do all of the other philosophers think of this?

I’m unaware of any persuasive rebuttal to Wittgenstein’s devastating critique of the philosophical problem-solving methods that Arvan also criticizes here (in very Wittgensteinian terms). So how is it that these methods persist? How can such indefensible methods continue to serve as the methodological bread and butter of a supposedly super-critical, super-reflective profession?

Arvan mentions that his response to having the “wrong” intuitions early in his graduate studies, while studying philosophy of language, metaphysics, and mind, was to leave these subject areas “for other areas of philosophy where my intuitions weren’t considered so ‘off’…” So: a classroom of self-proclaimed philosophers and philosophers-in-training spout off arbitrary intuitions about how to use various terms correctly in various aberrant contexts; one student does not share these intuitions; and the result is that the student goes into self-imposed exile. Truly a model of reason-based discourse! Other academic disciplines have a lot to learn from philosophy, if this kind of rational dialogue is any indication.

(NB: I am being sarcastic.)

Of course, the punchline comes when Arvan discovers similar methodological weaknesses in other areas of philosophy as well (“And yet…the worry has crept up yet again!”).

All of this would be less troubling if it were not so common, and so damaging to philosophy. As I have mentioned before, I suspect many potential philosophers who have studied the later Wittgenstein — and understood him, unlike those professional philosophers who offer the usual analytic butchery of the private language argument to their unsuspecting undergraduates — have simply chosen not to enter the profession. They’ve looked around at the indefensibility of the methods used by their problem-solving professors and classmates, they’ve attempted to question these methods — and, after encountering the academic puzzle-solvers’ usual lack of interest in skeptical methodological self-critique, they’ve abandoned their academic philosophical studies for other intellectual pursuits, leaving the profession of philosophy to the blindered dogmatists… who then feel even more convinced of the validity of their methods, because they hear so few critical voices (especially from anyone with reputable philosophical credentials).

It’s a sad state of affairs for a discipline that should be the most questioning, the most methodologically self-critical, the most skeptical of itself. But as I’ve also mentioned before, things have probably always been this way, and it’s unlikely that any critique will be heard, no matter how persuasive.


2 thoughts on “More internal criticism of academic philosophy: Arvan on Graber

  1. Thanks for your kind (and sympathetic) words on my post.

    I noted the following on one of your other posts, but I’ll note it here as well: I’m not quite as pessimistic as you and Wittgenstein seem to be about philosophical problems. Too much philosophy today is conceptual analysis. But not all is. In fact, I would wager quite a lot of it isn’t. I don’t think Rawls was doing conceptual analysis; he was trying to engage with people’s moral sensibilities! I don’t think Aristotle was doing conceptual analysis when he was making arguments about the nature of virtue. And I don’t think I’m doing conceptual analysis in most of my work! I think many philosophical problems are real, and that certain types of philosophy are well worth doing. There are just certain types of it that aren’t…and unfortunately people keep getting bewitched by that kind. :/

  2. nicholasmbourbaki says:

    Thanks for the reply. I think it’s an interesting question whether the later Wittgenstein’s critique only applies to a narrowly defined idea of conceptual analysis. This is something I was trying to explore in another very preliminary post —

    My sense is that Aristotle and Rawls might not even be very hard cases. It might be pretty straightforward to apply Wittgenstein’s critique to their thought. For example, I wonder whether both Rawls and Aristotle (unlike, say, more obviously non-analytic thinkers like Kierkegaard or Heidegger or Deleuze) could be described as (at least implicitly) taking as their starting points various intuitions — which could be cashed out as various statements they assume to be true, or various ways of using terms they assume to be correct — and then drawing inferences from these natural language statements, and presenting the results of the inferences as logically necessary conclusions.

    But if Wittgenstein is right and natural language terms are logically imperfect — and I’d argue this is just an empirical question, and Wittgenstein is uncontroversially right about it — then the inferences (especially the more complicated chains of inferences) will probably end up being logically arbitrary, not logically necessary as Aristotle and Rawls (may?) present them.

    I’d note that Rawls also seems like he’d be subject to a variation on your critique of philosophers relying on arbitrary, controversial intuitions as though they’re universally held. There’s certainly something suspicious about Rawls appearing to arrive at a vindication of the position from which he and many of his sympathetic readers began — basically, post-WWII American liberalism. Not radical left, not radical right, not radical anything. Which is fine, but if you’re just going to end up at a reflective equilibrium consisting almost entirely of your initial political preferences and ideals, what’s the point of doing the “political philosophy” part in the middle? Whether Rawls ended up mostly where he began as a result of arbitrarily taking his political intuitions as universal, or because he arbitrarily slanted his inferences in the direction of his political intuitions, I suspect that a skeptical Wittgensteinian critique of Rawls could somehow be carried out…

    As Guess has commented:
    “To those engaged (in 1971) in the various and diverse forms of intense political activity which now collectively go under the title of “the Sixties,” Rawls’s Theory of Justice seemed an irrelevance. I completed and defended my doctoral dissertation in the spring of 1971, and I recall my doctoral supervisor, who was a man of the Left but also an established figure and full professor at Columbia University in New York, mentioning to me that there was a new book out by Rawls. In the same breath, he told me that no one would need to read it because it was of merely academic interest—an exercise in trying to mobilize some half-understood fragments of Kant to give a better foundation to American ideology than utilitarianism had been able to provide.”

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