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Tuesday, March 10, 2009


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When Rescher retired from editing the APQ, I heard the two gentlemen who succeeded him asked what they thought the primary mission of their journal should be. Without hesitation or apology they said "to provide a venue for younger philosophers seeking to advance their careers." I believe these remarks even found publication somewhere.

Not all professional philosophy journals are like this, but most are. I don't mean this as a criticism of the genre--journals are what they are and they serve a practical purpose--but I don't think we should deluded about what the major philo journals are for. They are careerist vehicle for resume-building, tenure-hunting academic philosophers. That explains the quality of the typical offering: journal fodder written in journalese with the purpose of padding a resume.

The relevance of this to Bill's praise of blogosophy may be obvious. The blogospere is to my knowledge the only venue available for the serious public discussion of important philosophical matters. Bloggers speak to an educated general audience and must do so in an literate and lively fashion. The contrast could not be stronger with the illiterate, jargonzied pieces one finds in the professional journals. Clearly the purpose there is not to communicate but to conceal, not to attract readers but to put them off, lest they discover the vacuity and inanity of the content.

I imagine Bill will pronounce my criticism a little harsh, but that does change the lesson I draw: we must treasure and support philoblogs like the Maverick and Dissoi Blogoi because they are the only place for doing philosophy for its sake (not $$) in the agora.

Excellent post, specially for me, because after reading A.C.Grayling's angry posts here, and Brain Leiter's recent ad hominem and infantile attacks on Edward Feser, I've been seriously questioning if philosophy is an useful tool to get personal wisdom. If a "well-respected" philosophers argue and think like that, then: What could we to expect of non-philosophers?

Philosophy, then, is primarily an activity, a search, a quest.

It's correct in a normative sense, but I think that most philosophers see philosophy as a doctrine, not as an activity (or said in other words, the activity is used to rationalize a previously assumed position). This is one of the reasons why you can't convince eliminative materialists that their position is self-refuting or false. They'll try to defend it using all the intellectual means possible.

You can give them papers, books, lectures, etc. refuting eliminativism, and they will reply: "Yes, I know all that. But I'm not impressed"

Eliminative materialists aren't stupid or ignorant; they simply believe (probably, for non-rational motives) that eliminativism is truth (or close to the truth); so they use their intellect to justify that previously assumed position. Mutatis mutandis, we can think the same regarding other beliefs or philosophical positions and their defenders (including my own!)

Independent philosopher Jeff Meyerhoff has a paper titled "Arguments beyonf reason", where he says: "It's commonly thought that once the participants in a rational discussion have exhausted all rational means of coming to agreement there is nothing more to do except to agree to disagree. By following a line of thought justified by current outcomes in contemporary analytic philosophy, I argue that there is a further investigation that rational discussants can pursue which is called for because our deeply held beliefs are held for non-rational rather than rational reasons. I further argue that this exploration into the basis of belief — rather than the belief itself — does, contrary to the genetic fallacy, affect truth and objectivity. While distasteful for most intellectuals to contemplate, the basis of individual beliefs in personal psychologies makes necessary the individual and joint exploration of the irrational"

One of the arguments used by Meyerhoff (to support his position) is: "If we examine our reasons for believing what we believe beyond the reason-giving we do to defend our beliefs we find the animating core which motivates us to have the beliefs that we have and deploy the reasons that we do. The reasons we give for believing as we do are not the real reasons we believe because they always ultimately end in circularity, regress or assumptions.[6] Since all belief-systems if pursued far enough will end in circularity, regress or assumptions we cannot say that reasons are what ultimately cause us to believe. There must be something else which causes us to adopt our particular chain of reasons or web of beliefs. Since in terms of their ultimate rational foundation our belief system is as good as an opposed belief-system, there must be something else which causes us to choose, and which holds us to, our particular belief-system. What is characteristic of us is not only the combination of beliefs we have woven together, since everyone does that with greater or lesser originality, but why we adhere to this, rather than that, belief-system. In our rational discussions there is a way in which we completely miss the point since it is not the reasons we are deploying that cause us to believe. If we are trying to convince another person or challenge our own beliefs then we should, for more efficiency, go to the source of the belief, which is the emotional and psychic need to have the world be the way we believe it is"


As far I disagree with some of Meyerhoff's ideas, I think he's right about the "non-rational" motives of beliefs (including, philosophical beliefs). His thesis explain why highly brillant philosophers, discussing about the same problem, can't get a rational agreetment about it, according to the truth and the best arguments for it. But it rarely ocurrs.

Meyerhooff's thesis also explain David Lewis' assertion "philosophical theories are never refuted conclusively". The reason is that one position considered "decisively refuted" by many (e.g. substance dualism), isn't considered refuted by others (like Bill Vallicella, Edward Feser or a non-professional philosopher like me). Are we more rational, wise, intelligent or informed than the others anti-dualistic philosphers? It could be the case or not, but I doubt it's the core of the problem.

Given that refutation is a technical concept in logic, we'd expect that rational philosophers be agree when a thesis is "refuted conclusively" or not. But even in that simple logical question they disagree! (suporting partially, again, Meyerhoff's thesis)

Meyerhoff's thesis, pushed it consistently throught its ultimate implications, could imply relativism. But even relativism isn't "conclusively refuted"; in fact, there is contemporary defenses of it in analytic philosophy. One of them can be seen here:


For the record: I'm a firm believer in realism, I believe in objective truth, I support substance dualism and I think positions like eliminativism (and other forms of materialism) are probably false. However, I'm not 100% sure that my reasons to believe in them are totally due (only) to rational motives, and these doubts tend to get stronger when I see informed professional philosophers (wiser than me) defend views that (in my opinion) are completely absurd or ridiculous.


I really appreciate your kind and supportive response, but you imagined rightly when you imagined that I would find your criticism a little harsh. I would say that there is a lot of good, serious philosophy in the journals, philosophy that is not needlessly technical or jargon-laden. And I would defend the necessity of a certain amount of technicality, indeed, quite a bit of technicality.

In an aphorism: Not all technical philosophy is good, but all good philosophy is technical. Or can you think of some philosophy that is good but not at all technical?

I have often wondered what would happen if one couldn't make a living from philosophy, or if making a living from it was as difficult as making a living as a professional chess player. How many journals would survive? What would their readerships look like? How many submissions would they get? What would the operating budget of the APA shrink to? And so on.

How many so-called 'philosophers' would drop it like a hot potato and go into real estate? (Or whatever makes money these days, if anything does.)


Thanks for the comments and links. I have explored a lot of these issues and will be reposting on many of them. So stay tuned.

As for Grayling and Brian Leiter, they are two of the worst representatives of academic philosophy. Infantile when not thuggish, Leiter is the Platonic Form of status-obsessed academic careerist. But don't be put off by these turkeys. There are any number of philosophers in academe who are the real thing and decent human beings to boot.

"How many so-called 'philosophers' would drop it like a hot potato and go into real estate? (Or whatever makes money these days, if anything does.)"

Probably a decent number. But it's a mistake to look to philosophy for salvation, and a mistake to take one's philosophical calling (such as it is) to be a quasi-religious one. The philosophical order is not a religious order--thank God for that, despite my love for some orders. It makes for bad philosophy to expect this of it. The truly best that philosophy offers comes from the sort of insights we find in Wlliamson, Kaplan, Sorensen, Lycan, and the rest who manage brilliant insight, ingenious humor, rigor and playfulness. That's it at its genuine best. I'm glad that for those who do it exrtemely well and whose hearts are light enough to resist taking it on as some awesome yoke (you know, for all to witness). The extreme unction with which some insist on adorning philosophy is suited only for its burial--and theirs.


We differ dramatically on the metaphilosophical question as to the nature of philosophy. I hope to pursue this in a separate post.

I don't think of philosophy primarily as an activity. Sure, there are those who engage in philosophy, think philosophically, have armchair discussions. But this is not its defining characteristic. Philosophy is an activity, but it is not the activity itself. Specifically, the concept "philosophy" describes the nature of ideas in which it analyzes. It is concerned with as you said, "the one ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, including the ultimate truth about how we ought to live." So although individuals can philosophize, i.e., engage in philosophic discussions/activities, what we are referring to is that they are engaging in the study fundamental ideas, they are attempting to study man, nature, and his place in it.

With that you can say ideas in the field of philosophy can be taken and integrated to create a whole system of ideas that are logically connected thereby producing philosophies. But not everyone in the history of philosophy does/is able to do this, nor do I think it is a requirement for having the term "philosophy" applied to it. Individuals can contribute minor, isolated breakthroughs in their field. This says nothing against their achievement's validity and consequences.

Summing that up, I don't think you can characterize philosophy in essence by describing an individual's intentional actions. This I think is a nonessential aspect in the exercise of any field of study. Just as science isn't the pursuit of dropping apples (physics), watching acids neutralized by bases (chemistry), or in the living with chimps (biology); it is the method of the study and it's validation by reality that characterizes sciences specific fields of study. Or to clarify further still, you could ask yourself what distinguishes a scientist's activity with that of a neurotic. To an outsider the scientist may perform tasks that are completely foreign just as a neurotic may. To too with philosophy, people might say or write nifty catch-phrases that have certain implications but this doesn't make it philosophy, proper.

Hopefully I didn't take your intention as too simplistic. Do let me know if my arrow has aimed at a completely different target.

As to your query about convincing others, I would have to say that it is a two-way street. Being of a volitional consciousness, both individuals must assume the responsibility to actively present their ideas in an honest manner. I like the way Ayn Rand put it: "When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit." - Atlas Shrugged, p.936 (paperback)

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