When Is Philosophical Agreement Suspicious?


Last week, in the post about philosophy of religion, I wrote:

For a few reasons, it is not a sociologically surprising fact that most philosophy of religion in the West today is conducted by Christian theists. But it is certainly philosophically  surprising (bordering on philosophically suspect) that, of all the possible options for religious belief (which include not just actual religions), only a narrow slice of them are taken seriously by philosophers of religion.

I am informed that this passage—particularly the phrase “philosophically suspect”—bothered some people.

I’ve heard two related responses to it.

The first is a kind of “companions in the guilt” argument. If homogeneity of the X-related beliefs of philosophers of X is a reason to be suspicious of subfield philosophy of X, then there are many subfields about which we should be, for this reason, suspicious. But we aren’t suspicious of many subfields for this reason, and so we ought not be suspicious of philosophy of religion for it. (Feminist philosophy was offered as an example of this.)

The second is to see the agreement as a kind of promising evidence of convergence on the truth, and thus as a good thing, rather than as a suspicious development. So the prevalence of, say, monotheism among philosophers of religion could be seen as a kind of philosophical achievement, as when we take convergence to be evidence of progress in the sciences.

Note that both of these responses depend for whatever plausibility they appear to have on failing to distinguish between, on the one hand, agreement that is the product of philosophical inquiry, and, on the other, agreement that instead pre-dates such inquiry or is motivated by considerations largely independent of it. The former kind of agreement is (defeasibly) philosophically reputable, while the latter is (defeasibly) philosophically suspect, and it seems that much of the agreement observed among Christian philosophers of religion is the latter kind; most of them, I assume, were raised as monotheists, as Christians, and accepted and became attached to their religious beliefs prior to becoming philosophers.

The companions in the guilt response, then, can be blocked because of a relevant difference between the agreement among philosophers of religion and the agreement among philosophers within other subfields. Similarly, the agreement-as-philosophical-achievement response can be blocked if the agreement was not the product philosophical inquiry, but of certain sociological or other non-philosophical factors.

That said, I’m not particularly satisfied with this reply. I imagine that my critics believe that the companions in the guilt move can be revived, and that they would argue that other subfields are also dominated by defenses of claims that were agreed upon pre-philosophically. There seems to be a lot of that in ethics, for example.

In light of this dissatisfaction, I put the question to you. What makes agreement among philosophers a sign of promising convergence on the truth, and what makes it a sign that we ought to be philosophically suspicious?

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