A Call for Higher Standards in Philosophy

We ought hold ourselves to stricter argumentative standards than we often do, in our philosophical research manuscripts or public-forum presentations. 

That’s Liam Kofi Bright, who is finishing up his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University and will be taking up a position next year as assistant professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics, writing at his blog, The Sooty Empiric.

What standards is he referring to?

I shall be assuming in what follows a solidly conventional-in-contemporary-analytic understanding of what counts as maintaining strict argumentative standards—clarity in stating one’s position and argumentative moves; where possible ensuring one’s premises validly entail one’s conclusion, and where that is not possible some clear (and clearly presented) reason to think that the truth of one’s premises raises the probability of the truth of one’s conclusion… 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.

He offers two examples of places at which improvement is possible:

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”.

[Second], 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… 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.

Why should we hold ourselves to stricter argumentative standards? Bright offers a few reasons. The first he dubs “ostentatious non-hypocrisy”: we will be in a better position to hold non-philosophers to account when it comes to argumentation, evidence, and the like, if we are not ourselves failing to reason well. But as things currently stand, the reputation of even the more rigorous areas of philosophical research may be “undermined and rendered relatively unpersuasive proportionally to how easy it is to find examples of philosophers engaging in shoddy or ill-informed scholarship.”

The second is that philosophy involves “more inductive risk than [is] appreciated.” There are reasons to think that the people most influencable by philosophy are an “unusually influential segment of society,” so we should be explicit about the limits and weaknesses of our arguments, lest they be put ill use by the powerful.

The third is an “as yet unexplored potential for generating novelty.” By this he means that

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’ve left quite a bit out in excerpting from the original post; go read the whole thing.

Carl Andre – Ingots

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