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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anotherpanacea
anotherpanacea
6 years ago

Some degree of tu quoque/”companions in the guilt” is unavoidable. Some large part of philosophy really does depend on the absence of clear truth conditions for our claims.

But one consideration might be what concern the subfield gives to the gap between the plurality of folk responses and the relative orthodoxy of professional responses. Since this suggests professional selection effects may be at work (and in philosophy of religion pernicious selection effects are obviously in evidence in hiring and scholarly publication requirements), truth-seeking members of the subfield should be especially concerned when folk responses don’t even receive debunking attention in the literature. Arguably this is the case in philosophy of religion for polytheism and Buddhist nontheism (a very different kind of atheism than Dennett’s.) I believe it is also the case that for most folk concerns with the problem of evil (as well as scholarly discussions that come under the heading of antinatalism), though these concerns do receive a kind of passing dismissal that for some reason satisfies those in the subfield.

Contrast that with feminist philosophy: understanding what non-feminists of various stripes believe, why they exist, and if/how they can refuted is one of the principle research areas in feminist philosophy. Debunking the claims of non-feminists has become such a large part of the endeavor that many contemporary scholars try to avoid becoming bogged down by it. In this way, feminist philosophy has much in common with climate science, where debunking folk mistakes is important but threatens to overwhelm the progressive task of the discipline. Indeed large swaths of feminist philosophy are interdisciplinarily aligned with biology, psychology, political science, and sociology where there are clearer truth conditions for their claims and thus much better procedures for the debunking.Report

Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

According to the empirical data we have, the vast majority of analytic philosophers are materialist, atheist, and liberal. The very same chicken or egg problem you identify arises for the field in general, regardless of sub-discipline. Perhaps analytic philosophers tend to hire/publish those who reflect their own worldview, and perhaps this worldview is not a product of critical reflection and more a product of received “wisdom” (wisdom received from early undergrad days in the classroom). And perhaps those attracted to analytic philosophy reflect the sorts of assumptions that are all but made explicit in the classroom (thus, liberal, materialist, atheists are attracted to the liberal, materialist atheism being put forward by their professors). In fact, this is *extremely* likely.Report

John W. Loftus
John W. Loftus
6 years ago

I have called for ending the Philosophy of Religion discipline for at least one good reason, because it is almost exclusively parochial in nature:

http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2014/08/what-exactly-is-my-proposal-for-ending_4.htmlReport

Adam
Reply to  John W. Loftus
6 years ago

That a discipline might be “parochial” is not a sufficient reason for “ending” it. If it were, then academic freedom would be severely undermined. Don’t you think that is bad?Report

John W. Loftus
John W. Loftus
Reply to  Adam
6 years ago

Adam, that’s not the only reason, although academic freedom isn’t allowed in secular universities when people want the freedom to teach pseudoscience, so why should teaching pseudo-philosophy be any different? Read the post itself. Cheers.Report

Julia
Julia
6 years ago

Analytic philosophers of language work almost exclusively on English. Is that philosophically suspect? Not necessarily, but they should be careful to keep in mind that their theories might not apply to language in general. The same seems true about philosophy of religion: someone who examines the coherence of Christian beliefs philosophically should be careful not to generalize her results beyond that context. But if she and her fellow philosophers of religion are careful in these ways, I do not see why the fact that they concentrate mostly on Christianity should be more suspect than the fact that philosophers of language concentrate mostly on English.Report

Oscar
Oscar
6 years ago

I don’t think feminist philosophers will endorse this reply on their behalf. They tend to embrace the idea that philosophy can be a product of one’s prior experience, of one’s particular position in the world. This, they will say, is a good thing: the myth of pure philosophical reflection, uninformed by prior influence, must be left behind. It legitimizes bad power structures by allowing some people to think that they occupy this impossible position.

Suppose a woman is raised to be a particularly strong-willed person, and suppose her subsequent encounters with exclusion and sexism drive her to write feminist philosophy. She begins to associate with like-minded women who share her basic views, and they form a sub-field. I find it incredible to think that this is somehow a *debunking* story, yet on your view it must be one.Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  Oscar
6 years ago

I think we can distinguish between a non-philosophical influence on one’s research program (e.g., having the kind of experiences that lead one to be interested in feminist philosophy) and a non-philosophical commitment to a philosophical conclusion (e.g., believing in only one god because that was how you were raised) — even if there are hard cases somewhere in between. What you draw attention to is the former, which seems normal and unproblematic. That said, I worry (in the spirit of Jennifer Frey’s comment) that the latter, which does seem problematic, crops up in more places than we might think.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

“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.)”

In fact I think there’s *more* reason to be suspicious of feminist philosophy than of philosophy of religion, namely that contrary (i.e. non- or anti-feminist) views concerning the very same topics are excluded by fiat. Perhaps philosophy of religion is disproportionately practiced by religious philosophers; it may very well be unavoidable that the philosophy of X is disproportionately practiced by those who are interested in or otherwise invested in X. But at least non- or anti-religious philosophers — those who are interested enough — can (and do) work and publish in the field.Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

Anon, you write about feminist philosophy that “contrary (i.e. non- or anti-feminist) views concerning the very same topics are excluded by fiat.” Could you be more specific (excluded from what? by whose fiat?) and provide some reason for why we should think this is true? Additionally, whether such exclusion, if it exists, is relevant to the discussion will depend on whether we think it has a non-philosophical basis (i.e., that it is mere feminist prejudice). Do you have reason to think that is the case?Report

Jeff Heikkinen
Jeff Heikkinen
Reply to  justinrweinberg
6 years ago

Oh, for pete’s sake. This is the response every time someone points out that doing feminist philosophy requires substantive commitments in a way that most other subdisciplines don’t, and it’s extremely disingenuous. Is there really someone who thinks that a person who argued that feminism was harmful and dangerous, or that gender wasn’t a philosophically significant category in the first place, would nevertheless be counted as a feminist philosopher?

(It’s quite plausible that such a person would be drummed out of the discipline altogether in some places, but never mind that. In this post I’m only making the much weaker claim that such a person would not be regarded as a FEMINIST philosopher.)

This is not how analogous disagreements play out in any other subdiscipline that I can think of. Someone who argues that most of our ideas about morality are wrong is still doing ethics (we call them utilitarians :-)), and someone who doesn’t think morality is a useful category is at least doing metaethics. Sure, there is a diversity of views within feminism about some topics, but only within boundaries that, to people who aren’t already convinced feminists, appear extremely narrow. Questioning the field’s presuppositions is more likely to get you ignored or shouted down than treated as a serious interlocutor. What unifies most subfields of philosophy is a common subject matter, whereas what unifies feminist philosophers is, in addition, substantive commitments and even political goals.

This need not be considered a bad thing. I myself have at worst mixed feelings about it. But pretending not to realize it’s true is just disingenuous, and I’m getting a little tired of it. I mean, it’s right in the name – FEMINIST philosophy.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

“excluded from what?” — the discipline of feminist philosophy.

“by whose fiat?” — I don’t have anything like a detailed view of where the boundaries of philosophical disciplines come from, but (hand-wavingly) I suppose they probably supervene on collective practices of categorization in some way or another.

“provide some reason for why we should think this is true?” I’d have thought it’s reasonably obvious, but if pushed to defend it, I’d say that I have a passing familiarity with feminist philosophy and that none of the work I’m aware of is written from a non- or anti-feminist perspective. Perhaps that’s merely a symptom of the fact that my familiarity is merely passing; so I briefly looked through the philpapers “feminist philosophy” category for relevant counterexamples and found none. The most relevant subcategory appears to be “objections to feminism” which a) is very small proportion of the total, numbering 6 papers out of 5254 and b) contains, by my count, five papers responding to objections to feminism on feminism’s behalf, and one, “Fathers and Abortions”, arguing that men are sometimes wronged by women carrying their pregnancy to term, which I think is only very questionably described as feminist philosophy.

So much for my reasons; do you have any reasons why we should think the claim is false?

“Additionally, whether such exclusion, if it exists, is relevant to the discussion will depend on whether we think it has a non-philosophical basis (i.e., that it is mere feminist prejudice). Do you have reason to think that is the case?”

I’m not sure I’m committed to this. All I claimed was that there’s reason to be more suspicious of feminist philosophy than philosophy of religion; I don’t think I need to defend the claim that the exclusion of non- or anti-feminist views has a “non-philosophical basis”, which is lucky, because I’m not sure what it means. But I stand by the original claim: I think we should be more suspicious of feminist philosophy than philosophy of religion, because religious philosophers of religion must at least confront the arguments of non- or anti-religious philosophers working in their discipline, whereas feminist feminist philosophers (so to speak) have no such requirement (simply on the grounds that there *are* no non- or anti-feminist philosophers working in their discipline).Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

Do you have an example of an argument that is made by an anti-feminist philosopher that feminist philosophers take themselves as “not required to confront”? Because I think the analogy with philosophy of religion breaks down. I take it the views of anti-religious philosophers qua anti-religious philosophers that philosophers of religion must confront are arguments against the existence of some kind of god (generally speaking). But what is the view of an anti-feminist philosopher qua anti-feminist philosopher that a feminist philosopher must confront? The argument that women do not deserve equal treatment with men? It seems to me that the reason that you aren’t finding many papers under ‘objections to feminism’ is that it’s pretty difficult to write a good argument objecting to the foundational claim (whereas, disanalogously, there are many good arguments objecting to a foundational claim of religion – that there is some kind of god).Report

Jeff Heikkinen
Jeff Heikkinen
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

I think the relevant fact with regard to the “objections to feminism” category, at least, is that only the replies seem to be counted as feminist philosophy – not the objections themselves. As I say above, this need not be considered a criticism of feminist philosophy as such, but it is at the very least an interesting disanalogy between feminist philosophy and (all? most? typical?) other philosophical subdisciplines.Report

Garret Merriam
Garret Merriam
6 years ago

If there is, in fact, pre-philosophical agreement in other fields, such as ethics, I fully agree we should treat those agreements as suspect. That doesn’t mean we reject them for that reason, just that we need to be even more critical. If philosophers think they believe P because of reasons X & Y, when in fact they primarily believe P because of Z, then P, X, Y & Z all need serious scrutiny.

As such, I find the argument that we should treat the concurrence among philosophers of religion towards Christian monotheism to be suspect, but that is an argument for close, critical attention of the psychology and sociology behind religious beliefs, not an argument that Christian monotheism is wrong, irrational, etc.Report

Richard Yetter Chappell
6 years ago

In general, I’d think we should always regard philosophical progress as conditional in nature. We get a better idea of what follows from what, or what the best way of going forward from certain starting points is. So we may regard it as truth-conducive when we happen to agree with the starting points, and otherwise we should regard it as (philosophically interesting but) not truth conducive at all.

Cf. http://www.philosophyetc.net/2012/10/unreliable-philosophy.htmlReport

Ben
Ben
6 years ago

Here’s a question, maybe analogous to the pessimistic metainduction in scientific realism debates:

Are there any cases in the history of philosophy in which agreement at the time might reasonably seem, to us (or some of us?) now, to be evidence of convergence on the truth? I can’t think of any obvious candidates now, but it’s close to my bedtime, and maybe I’m missing something.

If not, what does that say?Report

Simon Rippon
Simon Rippon
6 years ago

@ JenniferFrey
“the vast majority of analytic philosophers are materialist, atheist, and liberal. The very same chicken or egg problem you identify arises for the field in general,”

I am not inclined to agree. *Perhaps* the sociological reasons you suggest are the main explanations for the prevalence of such views in analytic philosophy, but I can see no reason to think this likely as you claim, in the absence of a great deal of empirical evidence which it would be futile to speculate about. I am not sure what you mean exactly by “materialist” and I’m not sure whether the vast majority of philosophers are whatever you have in mind, but I suppose I am probably what you would call materialist, atheist, and liberal. However, I was not brought up as such, and I was none of these things before I started thinking philosophically and reading philosophy. I have no reason to believe mine is an untypical experience. Even if a lot of philosophers settle on these views relatively early in life as a result of philosophical reflection (which need not be in a philosophy class in a university!), why should that matter? In contrast, it’s pretty obvious that most analytic philosophers of religion enter the field *because of* the theism they were brought up with, rather than becoming theists as a result of working in the field.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

This is a reply to Jeff at 8:07 (for some reason I can’t reply above).

Someone who argues that there is no such thing as actions which are morally right and morally wrong would not count as a normative ethicist, but instead a meta-ethicist. What unifies normative ethicists are certain assumptions about the answers to questions that meta-ethicists disagree about (and so normative ethicists are unified by substantive commitments). Similarly, a person who argues (explicitly) that gender isn’t a philosophically significant category would not count as a feminist philosopher, but would count as doing philosophy of gender.

So, I think that two things are true: (1) it is not all that unusual for a sub-discipline to require a substantive commitment in order to count as working in that sub-discpline. (2) It is not a problem if a sub-discipline requires a substantive commitment in order to count as working in that sub-discipline. (I have of course not argued for this, but if the analogy with ethics holds, then I see no reason to think that (2) would be a problem).

Further, you say that “Questioning the field’s presuppositions is more likely to get you ignored or shouted down than treated as a serious interlocutor.” Why do you think this? And which presuppositions do you have in mind? It matters for the following reason: my impression is both that there is a greater diversity of views within the discipline than you seem to be assuming. So the field’s presuppositions (that is, substantive commitments that almost everyone in the field agrees upon) are a smaller category than you seem to think. As I have said above, I can think of only one on which there is widespread agremment – that women deserve equality. Also, I think there are some cases in which a person questioning a presupposition ought not to be treated as a serious interlocutor. For example, if someone questions the presupposition that women deserve equality. Such a view (and such a person) ought not to be taken seriously.

Maybe you think that the claim that gender is a philosophically significant category is also a substantive commitment of the discipline. But I don’t see any evidence that there is a serious disanalogy here with other fields. Sometimes we have to assume that a certain commitment is true (i.e. ignore an argument against it) in order to make progress within a discipline (for example, consider the way in which a normative ethicist must often ‘ignore’ meta-ethical debates in order to discuss normative ethics).Report

Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

Simon Rippon:

Quite a claim you make about philosophers of religion, also empirical. I am amazed you know so much about how they were “brought up.” Where’s your evidence? In my own case, I was raised an atheist, but I now consider myself a theist. are you privy to facts about how other philosophers of religion were raised? Please share these facts with us, since they are “pretty obvious” to you.

Also, there is an incredible amount of empirical data which shows that groups tend to want to be around those who think and act similarly, and this especially comes out when it comes to deciding who’s in a group and who isn’t (i.e., hiring, firing, inviting to conferences, etc). Why philosophers think they so different is interesting, but it is contentious to think that’s because philosophers are *really* different psychologically and not prone to irrational bias. Epistemologists are currently doing good work on this. In my opinion, that work, in conjunction with the massive literature on self-deception, speaks in favor of my hypothesis rather than yours.Report

Simon Rippon
Simon Rippon
Reply to  Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

@Jennifer Frey

Thanks. I don’t have specific evidence about the upbringing of most philosophers of religion, of course. But, as you suggested, we have no reason to believe philosophers are fundamentally different from everyone else, so we can generalize from broader studies. In a recent study of Canadian undergraduates, for example:
53% identified themselves as having the same religious identity as during their first ten years of childhood, only 2% identified themselves as converts to religion, and 7% identified themselves as in a different religious group than that of their first ten years. On the other hand, the number of “apostates”, who had become atheists or agnostics since their first ten years of childhood (21%) outweighed the number of lifelong atheists (18%). If Canadaian undergraduates are anything to go by, then most western theists accept the theism they were brought up with. Why should philosophers of religion be any different? I don’t think my additional claim – that most philosophers of religion choose to specialize in that field partly because of their theism – is controversial, is it?
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10508619.2014.916590

The rest of what you write is beside the point, as I’ve said nothing to deny that there is in-group/out-group thinking and bias; I only questioned whether, without specific empirical evidence, this could be reasonably assumed to be the *main* explanation for the prevalence of materialist, atheist, liberal views in professional philosophy.Report

Gordon knight
Gordon knight
6 years ago

It os less the case now bit there certainly was a time when mainstream philosophy of mind simply assumed materialism went on it merry way to be sure there are philosophical arguments for materialism but these argents are not or we’re not what motivated the popularity of materiali. Rather it was this vague cultural assumption that materialism is some how more “scientifically respectable” than it’s alternatives.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

@Anon 12:27: ”As I have said above, I can think of only one on which there is widespread agremment – that women deserve equality. Also, I think there are some cases in which a person questioning a presupposition ought not to be treated as a serious interlocutor. For example, if someone questions the presupposition that women deserve equality. ”

1-Why not? There are debates in philosophy about whether or not death is a bad thing, whether pain is a bad thing, whether we have moral responsibility, whether there are moral facts, whether moral statements are meaningful, whether abortion, infanticide and euthanasia are bad (or good), whether we can know anything about the external world, whether induction can be justified etc. Sure, people (including myself) feel strongly that men and women should be equal. But the fact that something seems obvious should not exempt it from from philosophical investigation and critique. Why should feminist philosophy get to have its sacred cows when no other area of philosophy does?

2-Feminism is not limited to the claim that women and men should be equal. (An extremely vague claim given the debates between feminists as to what constitutes ‘equality’). There are a number of other claims that have widespread support among feminist philosophers. For example, that there is such a thing as objectification, that there is such a thing as patriarchy, that there is such thing as rape culture, that rape culture exists in developed western nations, that relationships where a power differential exists are bad, that gender is a social construction…among many others.I deny that any of these claims are contested in feminist philosophy with even half as much vigor as the basic claims of Christianity are in philosophy of religion, materialism in philosophy of mind, or moral realism in meta-ethics. In fact, denial of these claims may lead one to be subject to a campaign of vilification. When it comes to weighing reasons for and against positions, there is simply no analogy between discussions in feminist philosophy and discussions that take place in the rest of the discipline.Report

anon
anon
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

On 1: right, but there is an important difference between the claims you are talking about, and the claim that I mentioned. The difference is this: a person who thinks that women do not deserve equality is, in advocating for a view like that, advocating for a view according to which it is unlikely that *I* would be treated as a serious interlocutor. So I do not see why I should have ay obligation to take such views seriously, or treat someone who advocates such a view as a serious interlocutor.

On 2: You say that feminism is not limited to the claim I described, and then present examples like that there is objectification, rape culture etc. I agree that it is certainly true that some feminists advocate for certain positions on these views. But this is not equivalent to the claim that such claims are claims that feminism as an ideology is committed to (for example, even if it is true that many consequentialists are hedonistic act utilitarians, it does not follow that consequentialism is committed to the claim that we should be hedonistic act utilitarians).

Also, it seems to me that it is simply false that “when it comes to weighing reasons for and against positions, there is no analogy between feminist philosophy and discussions that take place in the rest of the profession.” At the very least, I think it is unfair to make such a claim without having anything more to back it up than your claim (without supporting evidence) that “denial of {certain claims}…may lead one to be the subject of vilification.” What you’re doing (intentionally or not) is implying that everyone who works on a particular area (feminist philosophy) are not as good *qua philosophers* as people who work on other discipline (because they’re not capable of weighing reasons in the same way. But you’re not making this claim based on an assessment of work that happens in that area – rather, you’re making this claim based on your impression of whether certain claims are contested to the extent that you think is appropriate, and your impression of how people who do contest certain claims are treated. You might think there is a ‘serious disanalogy’ between feminist philosophy and other areas in the discipline, but you’ve given us no evidence for this.Report