Philosophy “Changes the Subject”


Much of philosophy simply changes the subject when it brings the world under its analysis.

That is Nellie Wieland (CSU Long Beach) in her review of How To Do Things With Pornography by Nancy Bauer (Tufts). Wieland is describing Bauer’s view, and continues:

When we write about pornography we risk not writing about any phenomenon that tracks the experience of ordinary people. When we describe sex and gender and language (and surely most everything else too, like happiness and knowledge and religion and poverty) we are describing something other than that which is experienced in the world (146-147). Again, this is not a dull claim on her part that philosophers ought to care more about the perspectives of the folk but rather a more interesting one about philosophical authority. If, for example, a feminist writes about the authority of pornographers in structuring sexual subordination, and she does so with an aim of bringing her expertise to bear on a matter of grave political importance, then her work only matters insofar as she is writing about real pornography and not a stilted, technical version of pornography. As I understand Bauer’s argument this is supposed to apply everywhere; analyses of pornography are only an example.

The idea that philosophers “simply change the subject” and in doing so lose authority is provocative and plausible sounding (a possible interpretation of Wittgenstein’s “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday”?). What are other examples of this, besides analyses of pornography?

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Kevin DeLapp
Kevin DeLapp
6 years ago

I wonder if the way philosophers commonly present certain ideas in logic might qualify as changing the subject in Wieland/Bauer’s sense: the material conditional, while representing an important conceptual relationship, strikes most of my students as an artificial “stilted, technical version” of the actual ways conditionals are used. A second example that comes to mind might be the way that ethicists and metaethicists construct theories based on notions of psychopathy or sociopathy which seem overly idealized.

On the other hand, maybe sometimes it’s good that philosophers change the subject, if a certain folk conception is too simplistic. For instance, a lot of the popular debate about the ethics of genetic cloning seems guilty of having changed the subject away from what the actual science would involve. Philosophers can help change it back properly. So I guess when Wieland writes that subject-changing can happen when philosophy “brings the world under its analysis,” it might depend on what we mean by “the world”–do folk intuitions count as part of the world under analysis?Report

Joshua Miller
6 years ago

1. Any discussion of distributive justice that doesn’t focus on the institutional mechanisms of redistribution and predistribution. A discussion of the empirical evidence around basic income or a citizen grant is far different from a utility curve. (Basically this is Anderson v Van Parijs.)

2. Recent work on political authority that uses “common sense” analogies, like Huemer’s book, has this quality too: “imagine the government is a violent gang, what then?” If only it were that simple: we’re not suffering from Stockholm syndrome, we’re dealing, imperfectly, with collective action problems. (The same goes mutatis mutandis for much anti-capitalism work.)

3. The literature on justified punishment almost always ignores the actual patterns of racialized policing and the racial reasons for participation in black and grey labor markets, not to mention prosecution bias in the U.S. When philosophers DO attend to those facts, they tend to incorrectly attribute mass incarceration to the drug war. (Most prisoners are in state rather than federal prison, and most are there for violent crimes. We’ve simply grown much more retributive in the last three decades as evidenced by in the UK where much otherwise top notch philosophical work on punishment is done.)Report

Wesley Buckwalter
6 years ago

“Did I not foresee –have I not already told you, that whatever he was asked he would refuse to answer, and try irony or any other shuffle, in order that he might avoid answering?”Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

Gadamer argues that we do this when we try to understand ‘language’ by investigating the properties of formal, artificial systems of signs. He thinks that those aren’t really languages–at least not in anything like the sense that English and French are languages.Report

Kenny
Kenny
6 years ago

The example I’ve seen most clearly is the discussion of hallucination and illusion in philosophy of perception. While there may be interesting conceptual issues for perception around the philosohpers’ notion of hallucination, I’m not sure that it bears any resemblance to the actual phenomena associated with drug use, sleep deprivation, etc.Report

Andrew Sepielli
6 years ago

This Bauer book looks terrific; glad to find out about it. I think the phenomenon to which Bauer’s drawing attention happens a lot in meta-ethics. The positions that typically occupy space on those meta-ethics flowcharts do a poor job, I think, capturing the ways in which ordinary people think about meta-ethical issues. This is not obviously to their drafters’ discredit; not all philosophical tasks require capturing the ways ordinary people think. But I do think it helps to explain why we’re so often unable to budge ordinary folks off of theoretical positions that most of us think are seriously mistaken — subjectivism, divine command theory, whatever you want to call that Sam Harris b.s., etc.

Plug time: I speculate about what ordinary subjectivists might be thinking in this blog post: http://andrewsepielli.weebly.com/normlessness-and-nihilism/what-are-ordinary-subjectivists-thinkingReport

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
6 years ago

@Joshua Miller I don’t think that criticism of Huemer is quite right although there are many other things to criticize in the book (and many to admire). He argues throughout the book that there is no relevant moral distinction between a gang and a state that can give political authority to the latter if we think it is denied to the former. I think there are lots of problems with this, but it’s not “imagine the state is a gang” it’s rather “there’s no morally salient distinction for our purposes (i.e. political authority) between a state and a gang”. As to the Stockholm issue, he is then asking why we fail to recognize this if his arguments are acceptable and he gives various hypotheses for our false belief that political authority and (violent) political coercion are justified. I assume that Huemer is aware of complex collective action problems. He just doesn’t think that justifies political authority.Report

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
6 years ago

And he’s certainly not anti-capitalist. Indeed I don’t think he’s really an anarchist, but rather a libertarian capitalist and much closer to Nozick than he might like to admit.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
6 years ago

My initial reaction is that this criticism can and has been leveled at other disciplines, like physics. Cartwright and others have argued persuasively that physics deals not with the physical world as it is, but with an idealized version of it.

But what are we to make of this? Physics is not engineering. But engineers that ignore the physics are poor ones, and will fail in their goals. Similarly, ethical theorizing (say) is not social engineering, but it may have quite a bit to say about how good societies (and good people) are organized.Report

Joshua
6 years ago

To be clear, I was suggesting that much anti-capitalist work similarly assumes that the firm is a barely disguised violent street organization.Report