Philosophy and “The Empirically Tractable”


I think you are right to be suspicious of the tendency of this institutional paradigm to postulate truths that are ‘basic’, ‘ultimate’ or ‘fundamental’ just at the point where things begin to look interesting or problematic from the point of view of those we in the profession pretentiously refer to as ‘non-philosophers’.

That’s Hallvard Lillehammer, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, in a recent interview at 3:16AM.

The interview ranged over various topics in ethics, but also touched on the sociology of philosophy. Interviewer Richard Marshall asks:

A crucial question for you as a moral philosopher is what is the point of moral philosophy—can it be justified as an enterprise? A Nietzschean might push back and attack morality for its commitment to untenable descriptive (metaphysical and empirical) claims about human agency, as well as for the deleterious impact of its distinctive norms and values on the flourishing of the highest types of human beings. And even if not a Nietzschean, philosophers like Scanlon and Parfit and Nagel defending the objectivity of moral opinions on the grounds that they were confident in the good reasons they had for them (or in their apparent truth), quite independent of whether there was evidence for them of the kind we would expect in any other domain of human inquiry thought to be epistemically reliable, strike many as being no better than religious apologetics. And if constructivism is right then is there any role for the moral philosopher now as opposed to the psychologist or the neuroscientist or biologist—or better still, why not leave it to Proust and the novelists and poets? 

Professor Lillehammer replies:

You have presented me with quite a challenge in asking me to say something sensible about Nietzsche, Nagel, Parfit and Scanlon all in one breath. Yet as far as I’m concerned, each of these writers is a paradigmatic specimen of someone doing ‘moral philosophy’ as I understand it, although they obviously differ greatly; for example in the extent to which they are prepared to let philosophy ‘leave everything as it is’, in Wittgenstein’s phrase.

The genealogical method you ascribe to Nietzsche and for which he is justly famous is one I have already registered my respect for, even though it is not the exclusive property of Nietzscheans and has a tendency to inspire arguments that overreach. I would place Nietzsche’s own use of the method to reject the cluster of views he identifies as ‘morality’ in that category. One important lesson I do take from Nietzsche’s use of this method, however, is that a philosophical outlook is sometimes a better guide to the psychosocial circumstances of its author than to the nature of its subject matter.

All of which brings me to Nagel, Parfit and Scanlon. I don’t agree that what these philosophers are doing individually can be fairly accused of being ‘no better than religious apologetics’. What I do think is that the institutional paradigm their work represents has a charge to answer with respect to its frequently coercive refusal to allow that philosophical enquiry is empirically tractable. On the one hand, this refusal has arguably helped to sustain a culture of stability and in-house rigor that has kept some of the more intellectually subversive elements of our discipline at bay during the course of recent culture wars. On the other hand, I think you are right to be suspicious of the tendency of this institutional paradigm to postulate truths that are ‘basic’, ‘ultimate’ or ‘fundamental’ just at the point where things begin to look interesting of problematic from the point of view of those we in the profession pretentiously refer to as ‘non-philosophers’.

As far as the novelists and poets are concerned: I don’t see any contradiction in the idea of a great philosophical work of art or an artistically accomplished work of philosophy. Which is not to say that the production of either is easily achievable.

That third paragraph of his answer struck me as especially provocative, so I wrote to Professor Lillehammer to ask if he could elaborate on it, and he was kind enough to reply.

Joan Miro, “The Policeman”

Regarding the claim that the institutional paradigm [Nagel, Parfit, and Scanlon’s] work represents has a charge to answer with respect to its frequently coercive refusal to allow that philosophical enquiry is empirically tractable”:

The institutional paradigm in question is one exemplified by some of the most prestigious philosophy departments in the Anglo-sphere, in which what has often been accepted as good and proper philosophy is a set of narrowly aprioristic inquiries that exclude a wide range of empirically tractable or historically specific considerations that philosophers have traditionally been concerned with, and that students of philosophy are often worried about.

To talk of ‘coercive refusal’ in this context is to highlight the manner in which some institutions have had a history of excluding or dis-incentivizing the discussion of empirically tractable ways of addressing philosophical questions. (This is a tendency that has arguably been subject to increasing challenge in recent years.)

Regarding the statement that “On the one hand, this refusal has arguably helped to sustain a culture of stability and in-house rigor that has kept some of the more intellectually subversive elements of our discipline at bay during the course of recent culture wars”:

The emphasis on clarity, rigor, precision and rational argument by philosophers who would self-identify as ‘analytical’ in orientation has played a significant role as a bulwark against a set of intellectually corrosive views, rightly or wrongly attributed to some philosophers of a ‘non-analytic’ persuasion, such as radical forms of historicism, relativism, or the view that there is nothing more to ‘truth’ than power.

And regarding the statement that “On the other hand, I think you are right to be suspicious of the tendency of this institutional paradigm to postulate truths that are ‘basic’, ‘ultimate’ or ‘fundamental’ just at the point where things begin to look interesting or problematic from the point of view of those we in the profession pretentiously refer to as ‘non-philosophers’”:

The tendency in question is exemplified by i) classifying something as “an empirical question” so as not to engage with it (as if what is actually the case is of no philosophical interest); ii) classifying something as “a purely conceptual point” (as if no concepts could be reasonably be thought to have a history); iii) classifying something as “not a philosophical question” in order to police a disciplinary boundary (as if the existence or nature of that boundary is not itself a contested matter).

Discussion welcome. I’d be curious to hear whether others agree with Professor Lillehammer’s depiction of analytic moral, political and social philosophy, and whether they agree with (and would share examples of) the tendencies he discusses being “subject to increasing challenge in recent years.”

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