Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Philosophical Temperament

When I was 14 my mother died. By this point I was rather a bookish child, and so my instinct was to turn to some text and find solace therein. My faith made the choice of text obvious, but, still, the Bible is a big book containing many literary mansions; what to read therein? What I ended up settling on was the Book of Job --  I read and reread this text, and for some time could quote lengthy passages from the Authorised Version off by heart. No stranger to teenage melodrama, I found myself really identifying with Job's dignified resolve in the face of a fundamentally unfair and (to him) inexplicable cruelty. It brought me comfort to think that I might hope in my own way to exemplify the same sort of courage, to squarely face tragedy as tragedy, yet never give in to the temptation to simply curse God and die. However, some years later when somebody else I knew was faced with their own loss, I recommended reading Job to them - but they found this perverse, utterly unhelpful, if anything it made it worse for them.

This grim little anecdote came to mind because I have recently been reflecting on philosophical approaches to tragedy - death of those we love, fears for one's own health or mortality, oppression, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, etc. It struck me that while many philosophers and philosophies do emphasise the importance of a kind of attitude they hope to instill, a properly philosophical temperament, there are a number of considerably different approaches to tragedy adopted by different traditions and thinkers. This blog post is going to do nothing more than just sketch my loose impression of what they are at a high level of abstraction, with no claim to completeness or originality in these observation. 

The four styles of approach to tragedy I have identified are as follows:

1. Socialise -  here the idea is to emphasise that it is admirably human, even refined and civilised, to indeed feel deeply the pangs of sorrow, anger, and grief, at loss or tragedy - and to try and provide social structures and valorised practices that will allow the individual to come to terms where that is appropriate, and make changes to avoid future instances of the loss where that is appropriate. An outlet for the expression and full feeling of sorrow is provided, and in this way it is hoped that the suitably refined person can `work through' the feelings in some productive way, and eventually reenter (a perhaps changed) society once this process is carried out. I am primarily thinking of Confucianism as the exemplar of this, but I think a lot of folk mourning practices have something like this underlying rationale, and I detect this attitude underlying the Epic of Gilgamesh so perhaps the author(s) had this ideal.

2. Dissipate - here the idea is that there is something we could teach people, which if fully and properly internalised (perhaps accompanied by appropriate changes in attitude), will allow people to see apparent tragedies as no-real-tragedy at all. Perhaps, for instance, I can be made to see that the real cause of suffering is not intrinsic to the actual or feared event, but really in my own attitude to this event, and this latter is under my control and can be modified to eliminate or much reduce the unpleasant sensation. Some forms of Buddhism and Stoicism, and more recently the work of Derek Parfitt in analytic philosophy, all seem like clear examples.

3. Compensate - here the idea is that we recognise that the tragedy is indeed a tragedy, but can be convinced that it shall be compensated by (indeed may actively help bring about) some great good in the long run, and we overcome our loss by focusing instead on that great good. We shall be reunited with those we love in a better place, the meek shall inherit the earth whereas the rich shall find it easier to pass through the eye of the needle than join those they once oppressed in this paradise,  and out of the latest ``defeat'' the workers have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. For me the clearest examples of this sort of tendency come from Christianity and Marxism and the thinking of Condorcet, but if I were less (shamefully!) ignorant of Islamic philosophy I'd be willing to bet this is a common tendency therein too.

4. Heroise - here the idea is that our tragedies are, or at least can be, indeed gratuitous and utterly unjustified, shall not be compensated (and even if it were this could never really be enough), but counsels that there is none the less dignity in the struggle against this inevitability. Stark as this can be, it at least lends grandeur to our shared condition, and that in itself can be its own comfort. This is what the young me saw in Job (and in conversation about these ideas, Jewish friends tell me it is a note they frequently hear struck in their own tradition), I think it is also found in the existentialist idea of imagining Sisyphus happy, and one also sees it in the African American tradition of validating the struggle as itself an impressive cultural tradition even where it has not led to the promised land. 

There is something to all of these, I think. There is a kind of bracing honesty to (4), a valuable resilience taught by those in schools that preach (2), traditions of type (3) can lend hope and the motivating light of faith even in the face of utter defeat, and (1) is both a humane and productive attitude to acknowledging grief and turning it to the good. 

That makes it tempting to try and combine all of them in a grand synthesis. I would be fascinated to read attempts at just that, if anybody knows of some. But I suspect this would be hard to do - when one looks to the specifics of the various theories instantiating these options they pull in different directions, and often it is precisely those elements wherein they differ that allow them to promote the philosophical temperament they seek to valorise. Perhaps, as I suspect was going on in my opening anecdote, they each speak to different characters or life experiences. In that case, humanity is collectively better for having traditions of all sorts be developed and available to those in need of consolation, as we each shall surely find ourselves at some time or another.

Saturday, January 13, 2018


By Liam Kofi Bright and Aaron Novick.
(Joint work with equal contributions.)

Kongzi, on being asked the first thing to do in administering government, gave a surprising answer:

Zilu asked, “If the Duke of Wei were to employ you to serve in the government of his state, what would be your first priority?” 
The Master answered, “It would, of course, be the rectification of names.” (Analects 13.3, tr. Slingerland)

Rectifying names (正名 zhengming), Kongzi says, is the basis of social flourishing. If names are out of order, speech will not match reality, plans will be impossible to put into action, culture will decline, and punishment will be ineffective. The central task of the gentleman, then, is put names in order. As Kongzi puts it, “The gentleman simply guards against arbitrariness in speech” (13.3).

We suggest that Carnap (though we expect that similar things could be said for others of the logical empiricists) had an interestingly similar conception of the philosopher’s intellectual task. Our aim here is to draw out these connections, focusing especially on Xunzi’s constructivist Confucianism and Carnap’s work on logical analysis. For Xunzi, we are highly indebted to Kurtis Hagen’s interpretation in The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction (2007, Open Court).

Xunzi attempted to provide a theoretical basis for Kongzi’s emphasis on the importance of rectifying names. This basis he substantially co-opted from Zhuangzi, who had argued for the conventionality of both language and social customs. Zhuangzi saw these insights as posing a serious challenge to Confucianism; Xunzi sought to show how they could support it. He granted that “names have no predetermined appropriateness” (“Correct Naming”, tr. Hutton), by which he meant not just that the application of a particular sound to a particular kind of object is arbitrary, but also that the the boundaries between kinds, (henceforth “kind-boundaries”) are themselves not to be evaluated against a standard set by nature or the metaphysical structure of the world. For instance, we may use the word “cow” to pick out certain animals. The animals picked out by our usage of this term will in some ways be similar to other critters that we do not label with “cow”. Likewise the critters picked out by “cows” will have certain dissimilarities with each other. The privileging of certain (dis)similarities as more important than others is a pragmatic matter: it requires the judgment that those (dis)similarities are relevant to the tasks for which it is important to distinguish cows from non-cows. (Throughout this paragraph especially we are following Hagen; see his book for a full defense of this interpretation.)

The question, then, is how names and their associated kind-boundaries are established. Here, Xunzi offers an empiricist, pragmatist theory. Kind-boundaries are established on the basis of perceivable similarities and differences. Each of the senses has a proper realm of differentiation (e.g. “form, color, and pattern” for the eyes), while the heart/mind (心 xin) “has the power to judge its own awareness,” i.e. to recognize what the senses detect and to form judgments on that basis.

Because kind-boundaries are not predetermined, the criterion of good judgment cannot be correspondence to reality. Rather, the criterion is pragmatic. Xunzi thinks that language is open to social design, and that it should be judged based on its effectiveness in facilitating social order and human flourishing. Consider the following passage, in which Xunzi criticizes claims advanced by earlier philosophers:
Claims such as “To be insulted is not disgraceful,” “The sage does not love himself,” and “To kill a robber is not to kill a man” are cases of confusion about the use of names leading to disordering names. If one tests them against the reason why there are names, and observes what happens when they are carried out thoroughly, then one will be able to reject them.
Appropriate naming is naming that can be put into practice with beneficial social consequences. As Hagen argues, this implies that there may be multiple acceptable systems of naming, each of which facilitates social ordering. The point is just to pick and adopt one, on the basis of its ability to be taken up and applied to good end by both the government and the people.

A central task of the intelligentsia, for Xunzi, is to rectify names. Often, the form that this takes is bringing into alignment the descriptive and normative aspects of thick concepts. This can be done by either insisting on stricter application of a term’s present meaning, or clarifying the sense of a term to resolve ambiguities. One of Kongzi’s central concerns, for instance, was to modify the sense of the word junzi (君子), which roughly means “gentleman.” Kongzi recognized that the term picked out both those who were noble by birth and also those whose behaviour was noble in the sense of being morally admirable, and, crucially, was often misleadingly used to imply that those who were noble by birth were therefore morally admirable. He thus claimed that the term was more properly reserved for those whose behaviour qualified them as moral exemplars (regardless of birth), and modified his use of junzi accordingly.

For Xunzi ideally a sage king or ideal ruler would judiciously design a language system and propagate it throughout the empire. But short of direct instruction from a sage king, the ruist (i.e. Confucian) intelligentsia, which a good ruler would employ as ministers, would also be engaged in zhengming.

Further, as part of the task of rectifying names, advisors to the ruler were expected to remonstrate: in effect, to call out the ruler for failing to live up to his obligations. Rectifying names involved clarifying social roles (e.g. “parent” signifies both a biological fact and an associated set of obligations), and this clarification was not merely theoretical. For instance, a ruler who governed oppressively must be corrected. At the extreme, a ruler who failed in his obligations could lose all claim to the title (and to life), as in this case, from the Mengzi (tr. van Norden), concerning the tyrant Zhou:
The King said, “Is it acceptable for subjects to kill their rulers?” 
Mengzi said, “One who violates benevolence should be called a ‘thief.’ One who violates righteousness is called a ‘mutilator.’ A mutilator and thief is called a mere ‘fellow.’ I have heard of the execution of a mere fellow ‘Zhou,’ but I have not heard of the killing of one’s ruler.”
Moving on to Carnap, we begin with the well known fact that he was a verificationist. The exact form that verificationism took changed over his life - for a reasonably mature and influential statement of his view see here. But the broad idea of the more mature position is that any claim that is a candidate for truth or falsity must either be analytic or stand in some kind of (dis)confirmation relation to empirical evidence. Simplifying somewhat, this is to say that if the “claim” or its negation is not made true by our logico-mathematical framework, and there is no empirical evidence an ideal (team of) scientist(s) could gather that should leave you any the wiser as to whether my “claim” is true or false, then I have failed to make a cognitively meaningful claim. The hedging of “cognitively” before “meaningful” is to accommodate Carnap's recognition that there are other things one may wish to do with language besides make descriptive claims, and he was fine with that; but he thought that it was improper to try and evaluate as true or false such linguistic acts as commands, questions, poetical expressions of our yearnings, or exasperated sighs.

Carnap was also a conventionalist about kind-boundaries. For detailed discussion of the origins and development of this element of his thought, see here. For our purposes suffice it to say that according to Carnap there are no natural kinds, joints in nature, or Platonic forms, which our linguistic practices must or will inevitably line up with or pick out and attach to. Rather, we may decide upon linguistic practices on the basis of their pragmatic usefulness in achieving certain practical or theoretical goals that various language forms stand to assist us in attaining.

Most famously this view is elaborated upon by Carnap in Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology - but the same idea can be found (perhaps in more restrictive contexts of application) in other works. For instance in The Continuum of Inductive Methods Carnap discusses how one should pick an inductive method as such:
The adoption of an inductive method is neither an expression of belief nor an act of faith, though either or both may come in as motivating factors. An inductive method is rather an instrument for the task of constructing a picture of the world on the basis of observational data and especially of forming expectations of future events as a guidance for practical conduct. X may change this instrument just as he changes a saw or an automobile, and for similar reasons.

Finally, we draw attention to the fact that Carnap also thought that an important task for a philosopher was bringing people into line with the austere verificationist standards he advocated. This was the basis for the (in)famous attack on Heidegger in Carnap’s The Elimination of Metaphysics. But such language policing was also advocated as a proper intellectual activity elsewhere. For instance in the Vienna Circle manifesto, which Carnap helped edit, it is said that in the glorious philosophy of the future “[n]o special 'philosophic assertions' are established, assertions are merely clarified”. Implicitly in the former but explicitly in the latter, it is clear that the authors of the manifesto believe that rendering language empirically tractable will assist the progressive segments of humanity hold to account the representatives of the failed ancien regime. Strikingly, it is even claimed that “in many countries the masses now reject [metaphysical] doctrines much more consciously than ever before, and along with their socialist attitudes tend to lean towards a down-to-earth empiricist view”. Carnapian linguistic policing is thus meant to help ensure our theoretical or scientific projects are fruitfully and efficiently carried out, and our shared social life is free of superstition and the obscurantist propaganda of tyrants.

To review, we have now seen that according to both Xunzi and Carnap the following are true. Linguistic categories do not and need not reflect some objective true or accurate mode of dividing up the world. Rather, we have a kind of epistemic free choice in deciding upon our preferred kind-boundaries. That is not to say, however, that there are no standards of better or worse for linguistic conventions: it is just that the appropriate way of evaluating proposed linguistic conventions is how well they help us advance our practical goals. Both Carnap and Xunzi think that if this is done properly we will end up with a system wherein our utterances are answerable to empirically discernible features of the world.  They then think an important task for intellectuals is to ensure that people are in fact engaging in this kind of empirically responsive and responsible speech.

As an aside, we note that there is even a kind of stylistic similarity between them in their more condemnatory modes. Here is Carnap on where Heidegger and those like him go wrong:
Thus, the words of the foolish person are hurried and rough. They are agitated and have no proper categories. They are profuse and jumbled. He is one who makes his words seductive, muddies his terms, and has no deep concern for his intentions and thoughts. Thus he exhaustively sets out his words yet has no central standard. He works laboriously and has no accomplishments. He is greedy but has no fame.
Compare this with Xunzi’s talking about those who lack enough culture to express themselves clearly:
The harmonious feeling or attitude, which the metaphysician tries to express in a monistic system, is more clearly expressed in the music of Mozart. And when a metaphysician gives verbal expression to his dualistic-heroic attitude towards life in a dualistic system, is it not perhaps because he lacks the ability of a Beethoven to express this attitude in an adequate medium? Metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability. Instead they have a strong inclination to work within the medium of the theoretical, to connect concepts and thoughts. Now, instead of activating, on the one hand, this inclination in the domain of science, and satisfying, on the other hand, the need for expression in art, the metaphysician confuses the two and produces a structure which achieves nothing for knowledge and something inadequate for the expression of attitude.

This degree of similarity between these thinkers so divided by time, geography, and culture, is, we think, enough to merit a blog post! However,  before concluding we note some pertinent contrasts. The first thing we acknowledge, just to satisfy the increasingly agitated scholars in the back, concerns the details of their metasemantic theories. Xunzi claimed that each word functions as a name for some feature of the world we can discern with our sensory apparatus, and that a sentence consists in stringing together names in order to ever more precisely narrow down the class of things one is concerned with. Desirable tractability of a sentence is thus achieved when each name is itself properly tractable. Carnap, on the other hand, had a more sophisticated syntactic theory, and eventually allowed that it is (logically interlinked networks of) propositions or sentences which must be answerable to empirical evidence, rather than individual terms. This is indeed a difference in the letter of their theories, but nonetheless we think the spirit is the same. These differences seem to us largely due merely to the fact that (writing thousands of years earlier) Xunzi had available a much less sophisticated theory of language and logic than Carnap.

The second contrast is the particular kinds of terminology to which Carnap and Xunzi applied their respective zhengming. Xunzi tends to be in the business of clarifying thick ethical concepts and policing usage of them to ensure that those so described live up to the attached normative requirements. Carnap, on the other hand, is largely concerned to clarify concepts for use in the mathematical or empirical sciences. This is not to deny that he would police language that was of socio-political significance - one of us has a published discussion of Carnap’s linguistic reformism regarding human racial taxonomy. But the direct analysis of thick ethical terms is absent from the vast majority of his corpus (though it is gestured to in the Aufbau).  Here it seems somewhat arbitrary features of what caught Carnap’s interest limited his philosophical purview, and Xunzi’s more expansive project of zhengming strikes us as liable to be more philosophically fruitful for anyone who wanted to revive this project.

Finally,  there is the question of why one ought be a linguistic empiricist of any sort - and especially how this aspect of their thought related to their conventionalism. Xunzi, as we read him, is clearer that the linguistic empiricism of his position in Correcting Names is itself a convention. It is a semantic stance one adopts or guiding principle to be used when engaged in zhengming, because shared and empirically tractable terminology is an enabling condition for various of the social goods Xunzi hopes to secure through clarification of terms. Carnap’s position on exactly why we ought be verificationists seems on the other hand to have been unclear, and at times in his intellectual development to have left him open to charges of vicious circularity or self-refutation. Perhaps in the end Carnap had a position close to that which we see in Xunzi. But, in any case, Xunzi has at least outlined an attractive rational for any project of empiricist zhengming, which it seems Carnap or those sympathetic to him may themselves wish to explore and adopt.

Both authors of this blog post are sympathetic to something like empiricist zhengming as a fruitful project for contemporary philosophers. We thus hope that, this connection being noticed, the modern heirs to the logical positivists and modern ruists may seek greater community and dialogue. However, we think there is something to be appreciated here even if one does not wish to take up the task of rectifying names through the logical analysis of language. Philosophy, at its best, embodies a kind of cosmopolitan ideal. The superficial distinctions between people are erased, and what remains are opportunities for peaceful collaborative effort in a transnational and transtemporal republic of letters. That thinkers as different as Xunzi and Carnap gesture towards a common project is, we think, an example of such cross cultural discourse that might inspire even those who do not share their peculiar concerns.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Visualising Philosophy

Recently Peter Wolfendale wrote up a very frank and honest discussion of his time in and out and on the edge of academia, and the relationship between this and his type II bipolar disorder. It's a long essay - insightful, but heavy stuff, so give it a read when you feel in a place to read about depression and its effects on a philosopher's life. (It will perhaps pair well with this interview with Carrie Jenkins.)

While it's not really the focus of the essay, I was really struck by PW's description of how he thinks about philosophical problems:

Here’s how I think about a philosophical problem. It is a branching tree of paths, splitting off into alternative solutions, each with their own forking reasons, each caught in dialectical interaction with its opponents. You choose a path that seems right, and if you’re lucky you outlast the alternatives, chasing them into dead ends of bare assertion or loops that beg the question (either is a pyrrhic victory). However, these looping paths are tricky structures. They don’t always lead back to the alternative solution you’re disputing, but to other branches of the wider philosophical tree. This is the interesting thing about infinite trees, they’re self-similar in a sprawling fractalline fashion. This means that what you originally think is a well defined local problem can force you to see it as a branch of a bigger tree, if you want to continue arguing against an opponent whose premises reach deeper into the problem space. The tree analogy is at risk of bursting here, so let me make an explicitly formal modification: the structures we’re talking about are in some sense like proof nets, but they’re more like (infinite) directed graphs. The directional asymmetry between question and answer remains significant, and we always have to start somewhere, at what looks like the root of a tree.

I found this to be a really striking and evocative metaphor. One gets a real sense of a lot of how PW is thinking about doing philosophy. First, one gets a sense that the ideas being interacted with come with independent structure -- one starts from somewhere in the network of paths, and follows where they lead. This, I take it, means that PW experiences philosophical ideas as having a kind of inner structure that he must respond to. Second, one gets both a sense of competitiveness and a sense of playfulness, the imagery seems to be a kind of homely one of children chasing each other round a large garden, or something of this sort -- among these paths a competitive game is being played, wherein one gains victory by successfully getting one's adversaries to admit defeat at the end of a chase because they chose a bad path (where the path is bad because of features of the path rather than the one who chose it). This, I take it, mirrors PW's experience of debate among philosophers and philosophies.

But, third, one gets a sense of exploration, one is only learning where the paths lead as one chases one's opponents around. This, I take it, tells us what PW takes to be gained by the game in the previous; it's not just frivolous one upmanship or the like, we are actually learning through doing. And, fourth, the game may go on forever -- the tree is infinite and so you will never reach the end of all paths. In the other direction, while one picks what looks like the root to start from, I take it the qualification is exactly to indicate that one may well be able to turn back and try to follow the paths up to their source... and maybe it is infinite in that direction too...

Here is a sense of philosophy as an unending quest to explore a vast garden through our mutual competitive play.

It is also totally different from how I would describe my own phenomenology of doing philosophy. For one thing, I don't really encounter ideas as pre-structured. In fact when I reflected on this I realised that I have a somewhat dualistic picture of doing philosophy. There is, it seems to me, the activity of having ideas. And then there is the idea of me producing ideas. I suspect this reflects poor self-esteem in some sense, but it doesn't really seem to me like the things that inspire me and make me able to work, and the things that I qua philosopher produce, are all that similar in type. Instead, it feels to me like there is a vast unstructured I-know-not-what that I may sometimes interact with through various interlocutors and texts and films and walks in the rain and the like, and through making myself receptive to this I am thereby provided with the means to engage in the workman like day to day activity that I engage in. What I produce will be small and structured, but that is a symptom of its artifice and artificer, not reflective of its ultimate source. I also feel I have somewhat different relationship to philosophy as a social activity; there's something frenetic, if not frantic, about philosophy as PW experiences it. (He writes about this aspect at length and movingly in the blog post above; you really should check it out!) Whereas for me philosophy is something that is done socially, but as a calm and calming and collaborative activity.

Following PW's lead and making my phenomenology of philosophy into something visualisable (and somewhat inspired by my advisor) I wrote a haiku:
Ocean of reason
laps gently against the bay;
castles in wet sand.
Have a Merry Christmas, and see yinz in the new year!

Friday, December 8, 2017

No Virtues

I object to the idea that we do and should decide what philosophical positions to adopt by amalgamating our opinions about the various theories' virtues like empirical adequacy, simplicity, explanatory power, fruitfulness, consistency, etc. Ever since Kuhn's work (at least) this has been a popular idea about how scientists do or should go about deciding what theory to adopt, and my impression is that many in our field propose we adopt a similar practice in philosophy. (This idea has appeared in print a few times, but I don't want to make this about disagreeing with particular people -- I hear the idea informally quite a lot, and so I am responding to something that I take to be in the air and which I object to quite generally, rather than in any particular spelling out.) I object to this on both the individual and social level -- I don't think each or any of us do or should do this, and nor do I think we should collectively do this when making joint choices. Likewise some of these objections may well transfer to the case of science, but since on this blog I mainly do metaphilosophy I am not going to focus on that here.

There are some objections to the idea of theory choice by virtue amalgamation which, while I am sympathetic with, are not what I mean to object. First, the Okasha objection, that in general amalgamating opinions about stuff is very difficult and it looks like the same will go in this domain. Second, the Novick objection (Novick politely demurs and points out that this general idea is not original to him -- he's the person I know it from, though), that it may be that possessing those virtues is only truth conducive given domain specific facts about stuff natural scientists are interested in, and this will not transfer. (As applied specifically to the virtue of simplicity, I think lots of people have this worry even within the sciences. Sometimes people treat aesthetic properties as a virtue, and the same might go there.) While I broadly agree with both of these points, I am not going to focus on them here either.

Instead, I mean to press two points:

(1) For many of the virtues in question there is no agreed upon way of seeing whether they apply to a given theory or making comparisons among options. This goes for, say, explanatory power, simplicity, maybe empirical adequacy depending on how deep down the statistical method rabbit hole one goes. (Note that the disambiuguated versions of these virtues often run into the problems mentioned next, e.g. theories of explanation which require me to know what the consequences of my theory are to know what it explains will also run into the problems I outline below.) In so far as theory choice is meant to help us come to shared agreement about what is best and make a kind of epistemically responsible communal progress in discovering the true or best theory, then the fact that the virtues are as controversial as the theories they are meant to appraise stands in the way of that.

For some of the virtues not only is there no agreed upon way of applying them, but even just personally I don't know how to tell which of theories have them to what degree, or possess them at all, or possess them more or less than their rivals. This goes for fruitfulness and some of the aesthetic virtues especially. How fruitful is virtue ethics? Is it more or less fruitful than Kantian deontology? (Which is more beautiful or elegant?) I have no idea, and for once in my life i am not inclined to think this is a special defect in myself.

And even for the virtues which are most straightforward (consistency) to check for them they often require that I know what counts as an entailment of the theory to apply, and given the vagueness and ambiguity common to philosophical theorising it's the case that for many philosophical theories I don't know what entails what. Note that here I think a special problem arises with philosophy. I think that we in philosophy are often working with a kind of `double squishiness' - there is, on the one hand, the squishiness of some of the virtues which makes it hard to say how they apply. But there is also the squishiness of the theories we produce -- it's not clear what they entail or are entailed by, or are inductively supported by and tend to confirm, or anything of this sort. Without having much to support this beyond a feeling: I think each squishiness compounds, I think that this attempt to apply virtues whose scope or meaning isn't quite clear to theories whose scope or meaning isn't quite clear just results in a mess, no serious project of appraisal of theories is carried out, because we're just not in a position to do anything like that.

So, at the level of applying the particular virtues to particular theories (or comparisons between theories) I don't buy that people are able to do it in any reliable way -- certainly not in a way that could reasonably be expected to put us on the sure path of a science by allowing us to make communal progress, but even (given the latter problems) not at the level of allowing me to just decide what respective balances of virtues are possessed by various theoretical options.

(2) I am impressed by the fact that nobody ever actually tells me how they are carrying out the amalgamation procedure. In fact, I suspect, they are not doing any serious amalgamation procedure at all (beyond respect for dominance, which in practice doesn't often arise). Here I mean by this -- I expect a method of reasoning to be something that could, if one wanted to, be explained and, if followed, come to broadly the same kind of conclusion at a rate better than chance. And so here I suspect that, first, nobody could explain how they are amalgamating the virtues, and, second, that past use of the amalgamation procedure is no guide at all to future behaviour.

On this latter I mean: on any given instance, one could treat somebody's actual choice of theory given the virtues they say it possess (and to what degree or how well it compared to others in possessing them)  as consistent with some broad class of amalgamation procedures. I don't think one should predict that people's future attempts at amalgamation will fall within this class, people are not actually expressing any preference for an amalgamation procedure, because they're not really amalgamating at all but just plumping for a fave based on quite idiosyncratic factors. If on one occasion somebody makes a choice which only makes sense if they think that fruitfulness matters more than explanatory power, that is no reason to expect their future choices to respect that constraint -- they may well (both descriptively and normatively) in future decide something that only makes sense if explanatory power matters as much or more than fruitfulness.

So whether or not the virtues are truth conducive in the context of philosophical reasoning, I don't think we actually do, or in many cases could even if we wanted to, really apply the individual virtues. And then even supposing we did, I don't think we actually even attempt to carry out an amalgamation; which might in any case turn out to be impossible. In short, I think this is a very bad model of philosophical theory choice.

In so far as I think these virtues are playing a role at all, I think it is just as a list of things to discuss when talking about why you like your favourite theory. Having a convention that one discusses one's proposal in light of some stereotyped set of virtues could, I think, have various benefits, and I am not opposed to that. It's also not the case that I think the project of theory choice by virtues is just doomed -- I can even interpret some of my own past work as an attempt to make it easier to assess theories by their virtues. Maybe we could do that more broadly. But I think we are kidding ourselves if we think there is any serious method of theory choice or comparison that we currently do or could work with in philosophy.

(Sorry for the somewhat half-formedness of these thoughts. I wrote up some notes based on a conversation I had with Aaron Novick and Katie Creel (each of them should absolutely be held responsible for any and all errors in what was just said) -- since my sheer busy-ness prevents me from being able to dedicate too much time to blogging nowadays, I thought I'd use them for a post!)

Monday, November 27, 2017

Philosophical Tradition and Autonomy

Post inspired by a host of discussions going on in my philosophical social circles (I have been much more busy recently, so less blogging -- sorry for anyone who cares!). First there is the discussion started by this article, concerning the role of philosophy's own history in contemporary history. Second there is some further reflection on Kristie Dotson's notion of philosophy from a position of service, prompted by a recent blog post discussing other works by her. Finally, there are reflections sparked by Graham Priest's answers in this interview, concerning the role he sees for history of philosophy in pedagogy and his own logical research. What these had in common, it seems to me, is some discussion about what puts a philosopher in a position to know they are doing something worth doing.

Now, I don't mean here to discuss the question of why, ultimately, philosophy is worth doing as a whole. Let's just grant that some people somewhere should be doing philosophy, and even grant that in particular some of those people should be employed in the academy to engage in the kind of research and pedagogical practices typical of a research institution in the USA or UK (the places I am most familiar with), and furthermore even grant that the broad topics professional philosophers now wonder about are among the topics worthy of such institutional support. In fact these are properly contentious assumptions, I just don't want to enter into them here. But I just want to note that even granting these assumptions doesn't quite get the reflective professional philosopher off the hook as to the import of their own work. 

For, there are lots of things one might do consistent with these -- sure, we grant, logic and ethics and phenomenology and epistemology and metaphysics and aesthetics (etc) are all important and worth study. But surely not every question that may be asked under some such broad aegis is important. It may indeed be worth knowing what beauty is: but unless some connection can be drawn to something else of more general import, it probably doesn't matter whether anybody knows if the particular array of soap bubbles that formed when I was washing the dishes last night was itself beautiful. That might make the issue sound obvious, but (and as I have discussed before) I think that many of us are engaged in projects which will only make sense if it turns out that some broader project can be made successful or deliver results of some sort, and for which we are not now in a position to know if those enabling conditions are met. We are not a field wherein we get much immediate reason to think that we have asked an important question and addressed it in a fruitful manner.

To illustrate without picking on anybody but myself (except my coauthors, sorry!) - I have a paper on a certain way of detecting compounding causal consequences of occupying multiple oppressed categories. If it turns out that statistical social science is just a bad way of inquiring into the social world, or intersectionality theory is an unhelpful lens through which to view things (both of which are actively maintained in some quarters, and its a debate which I don't think will be resolved in the near future) then probably that paper just hasn't done anything anybody needs to care about. Its interest, such as it might be, lies entirely in its participation in these broader projects, and my own claim to have contributed some small bit to human knowledge is hostage to their fortune. Maybe it was beautiful soap bubbles all along.

A properly reflexive and insecure philosopher should, I think, therefore want to ensure that their projects are not of the beautiful soap bubble variety. In my previous discussion I rather suggested that this came down to a kind of Kierkegaardian leap of faith, or existential vow to imagine oneself happy as one (for the seventeenth time) revises and resubmits one's reply to Black on Green on Grue. But here I explore a couple of other answers which I think are reasonably common, and which I think have contrasting strengths and weaknesses. Both, in fact, are versions of securing connection to some antecedently interesting project - so in some ways I see them as variants of one response.

The first is the answer which I take it that Dotson's post to well explicate. This is to place one's work in service to some broader social or scientific project that one has better reason to think is doing something valuable and where one has some method to tell if one is contributing well. In Dotson's own work and in her own words she ``use[s] philosophy to help support, generate and defend research, advocacy and activism that might change the current plight of Black people in the US, particularly promoting better conditions for Black cis- and trans* women, girls and gender non-conforming people.'' Dotson seeks to ensure that her own work is advancing that project, which she can make some effort to measure by its fruitfulness in her interactions with others engaged in that broader social mission. 

A version of this strategy is actually very popular in my more immediate philosophical social circles, but rather than the well being of black folk it is the advance of some scientific inquiry that is taken as the yard stick. Scientific investigation, it is thought, we have good reason to think is successful in discovering interesting truths, and through spin off technologies and techniques contributing to the commonweal. At the least, we have better reason to think it is successful in this than the vast majority of philosophy. This then spurs projects of explication, whereby one aims to assist scientists in their investigation by clarifying the concepts they use or devising better alternatives; or projects of remonstration where one ensures people do not fall into subtle error; or even direct contribution through novel mathematical or experimental study. In all these cases the point is that we are more confident in the relevant area of science's import and usefulness, and our ability to tell whether we are contributing to that, than we would be if our philosophic investigations floated free of such a connection.

Ok that's the first strategy. The second is to go more historicist. As I understand this strategy the goal is to secure the importance of one's work by showing it to be a natural outgrowth of, or at least properly responsive to, an august tradition of prior work that one is confident reflects something important. For instance Priest, at one point towards the end of the linked interview, says that the relationship he sees between the non-classical logics he investigates and Buddhist metaphysics is that through showing the former to refine or express concepts of the latter he has shown it to be connected to a fascinating and important way of viewing the world that is a serious candidate for metaphysical allegiance. I think I see something like this in the logicians and philosophers of mathematics in my immediate environment, and it is why they both produce novel mathematics and also lengthy and serious historical studies (e.g.) linking their present concerns to grand traditions of research.

I take the thought in this second strategy to be that if a research tradition has attained and retained the attention of generations of thinkers then that is some vouchsafe of its intellectual worthiness. If one wanted to be disparaging one might compare it to the claim that 50,000,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong, but honestly I think philosophers undervalue tradition and the wisdom embodied in customary practices that serve a people well through changing circumstances. If it really is the case that there are perennial questions, and some mode of addressing them has by various people in various ages all been found satisfying, that is not nothing. 

As I said, maybe these ultimately come down to the same thing. They are both, in the end, attempting to secure the importance of one's immediate project by linking it to some antecedently agreed to be interesting and important endeavour. More than that, perhaps in the second case one should find that on further investigation the reason the linked tradition is itself found to be important is that it addresses some practical need, making this just an indirect form of Dotsonian service philosophy. 

None the less, I thought it worth highlighting them here. For, there is a contrast, which is that the second option gives philosophy more autonomy. Dotsonian service philosophy or a kind of science-first naturalism both involving giving up the idea that philosopher's should set their own agenda. In fact, I personally find this persuasive, and all in all I prefer the first option -- in particular, I worry that the second option merely defers the beautiful soap bubble problem. I think Elvis is just kinda ok. However, I think philosophers (outside of my immediate very naturalistically inclined circles) tend to value their autonomy, they want to say that it's right and proper for philosophy to be done for its own sake and valued on its own terms. And so may have some to prefer the second of these options, if these are the only games in town for avoiding the risk of triviality.

But if thats the case, I think it is some reason for such philosophers to take a much greater interest in their own history, and the relationship their present problems address to the questions and topics that have been passed down to us through that history, and for that matter the process of passing down itself.

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.