Philosopher Drops Some Bombs


There’s a fun interview with University of Waterloo’s John Turri at 3:AM Magazine in which he blithely drops a few philosophy bombs:

The first is a general claim about contemporary philosophy:

[U]nfortunately, a lot of contemporary philosophical scholarship is a decadent maze of involuted, introverted, and sterile conversations about narrow and artificial topics.

Hold on a second. I’m not sure exactly what he means by “artificial” (for there’s a sense of “artificial” in which all philosophical problems are artificial) but I suspect he has in mind something like “merely an artifact of our linguistic practice.” If all philosophy were like this, then sure, we’d have a problem. But it’s not. Further, it’s important to remember that sometimes we don’t know that a philosophical inquiry is going to end up being decadent and artificial until after we’ve done it. And even then it may have some value as a lesson or as exercise or as pleasure.

Then there’s this claim about traditional philosophical method and more empirical methods of inquiry, and the connection of this difference to gender issues in philosophy:

Any area of inquiry, philosophy included, ought to be closely informed by relevant methods and findings from other disciplines. To do otherwise is at best silly and at worst willfully ignorant and arrogant. In my view, that is a completely separate issue from how philosophy and various other disciplines, including psychology, are perceived by the broader intellectual culture or general public. If it turned out that being better informed resulted in philosophical inquiry being less favorably perceived, then I would count that as an unfortunate cost of doing business the right way.

Nevertheless, as things turn out, the opposite is probably true. In a series of behavioral experiments, Wesley Buckwalter and I found that people generally favor empirical methodology to armchair methodology, and they tend, correctly, to associate the former with psychology and the latter with philosophy. (This finding was replicated by another research group.) So being better informed by empirical findings and methods will probably improve the perception of philosophical inquiry. Moreover, this methodological preference was significantly stronger for women than for men. And since psychology and philosophy are closely related disciplines dealing with many of the same issues, a plausible hypothesis is that this gender-based methodological disparity contributes to the fact that philosophy attracts mostly men, whereas psychology attracts mostly women.

We then get more specifically targeted bombs, such as this one on the Gettier problem:

The Gettier problem is contemporary epistemology’s version of fake news.

First of all, it is a lie that philosophers traditionally defined knowledge as justified true belief (“JTB”). Gettier criticized a view that nearly no philosopher ever held. Roderick Chisholm might have been, at one point, the only one. But “Philosophers Since Plato Wrong about Knowledge!” is a better headline than “A Philosopher Wrong about Knowledge!” Second, there was never any evidence that JTB was the “commonsense” view either, and recent work by experimental philosophers, particularly Christina Starmans and Ori Friedman, shows that it is not the commonsense view. So it was a fake problem, with no basis in either commonsense epistemology or the history of the discipline. Finally, the problem is not hard to solve. So when it is discussed, an avalanche of distinctions, complications, and permutations must quickly subdue the uninitiated, who might otherwise dare to think the problem pedestrian or, worse, speak a solution. It has required effort, including self-deception and indoctrination, for philosophers to continue pretending, for decades, that the Gettier problem is a profound and formidable challenge. We owe our students, ourselves, and the wider intellectual community better than this.

And these remarks on “ought implies can”:

I guess that most Western intellectuals have heard the slogan “ought implies can,” or the view, endorsed by many moral philosophers, that if you have a moral obligation, it automatically follows that you’re able to fulfill it. These philosophers typically defend the view on the grounds that it is reflected in the very meaning of moral language or that it is a core commitment of commonsense morality. But there are theoretical reasons to reject the “ought implies can” principle, and some philosophers, myself included, do not find it the least bit plausible. But that is a separate question from whether commonsense morality is committed to “ought implies can,” which is something that Wesley Buckwalter and I set out to test a few years ago. The results were absolutely clear: commonsense morality implicitly rejects “ought implies can.” Over and over again, in a wide range of circumstances, we found that people overwhelmingly attributed moral obligations to people unable to fulfill them. In some cases, nearly 90% of people respond this way. The principal finding has been replicated in many ways and by multiple labs. At this point, it is clear that, contrary to what its philosophical proponents have claimed, “ought implies can” is revisionary.

(By the way, on this last topic I recommend you check out Moral Failure: On The Impossible Demands of Morality, by Lisa Tessman, or her entry on this in OUP’s “Philosophy in Action” series of small books, When Doing the Right Thing Is Impossible.)

All around, an interesting read.

David Schnell, “Landscaping”

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