The Right Tool for the Philosophical Job


Do philosophers fail to make use of the tools best-suited to their inquiries? Do they even fail to learn how to use these tools? That’s one of the claims made by Jerry Gaus (University of Arizona) in a rich and wide-ranging interview at 3:AM Magazine. He says:

Making a model more formal allows us to be more precise about what the interesting bits are, and how they are related. It does what philosophers have always excelled at: getting the ideas and their relations as clear as possible. Whether the model should be mathematical depends on the problem. As I constantly preach to my graduate students, we should never be committed to a tool or method and then look around for some problem to apply it to; we should look at the problem and try to see what tools will allow us to achieve insights. Sometimes it will be one that directly employs math, sometimes a simulation will be enlightening, sometimes it would be good to run an experiment, and other times game theory might be useful. They are all tools that might help. The problem is that all-too-many philosophers—certainly in my field, political philosophy—have convinced themselves that models and math cannot be relevant and so they never learned these tools and can’t even see where they might help.

The failure to learn and use such tools is sometimes thought to be unimportant (jokingly: “Oh, I don’t do statistics”) and is sometimes not only overlooked but defended. I’ve heard authors give papers that make various quantitative empirical assertions (“there’s more and more X these days”, “the valuing of Y will lead to less Z”) and when asked for statistical evidence for these claims, reply, in essence, “this is not how my subfield operates.”

The picture is complicated, of course, by disagreement over what philosophical insight into a problem is. But also, “I don’t know how to do that” or “that is not how we do things here” are not themselves defenses against charges of lousy scholarship.

It would be useful to get a sense of what philosophers think the right tools for the jobs are. We can ask: which non-traditionally-philosophical special skills are needed for worthwhile philosophical inquiry into which topics? And also: where are some of those tools misapplied?

wrench question mark

 UPDATE: Already some difference of opinion on this:

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