The Philosophy Bubble


In her interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? (a part of which we discussed here), Sally Haslanger (MIT) draws attention to three problematic tendencies in philosophers. The first concerns the idea of multiple intelligences:

To be honest, I think most philosophers are pretty limited in their intelligences. They may be amazing along a certain dimension of intelligence, but in many cases the other dimensions are atrophied. And moreover, they don’t even recognize the multiplicity of intelligences and think the kind they have is either the only one or the most important. That, to my mind, is a serious limitation that negatively affects our discipline. 

The second concerns philosophers’ understanding of their cognitive limitations:

Another problem is that most philosophers are clueless about the social factors that influence cognition and perception.  They introspect and think that they have discovered the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  This is a serious liability for a discipline that aims to engage in critical thinking! 

The third concerns evidence and philosophy’s disdain for other disciplines:

I am shocked at how often philosophers disparage other disciplines for their lack of argument, etc., when those other disciplines are much more sophisticated in their approach to evidence, methods for self-reflective critique, and attention to social/historical context.

Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam) discusses the first issue in a post at Digressions & Impressions. He notes that a monolithic account of what it means to be smart may not only affect what we say about human agents in our work, but also affects the structure and output of the discipline, and could do so for the worse. If only one form of intelligence is recognized as valuable in philosophy, then philosophers will be encouraged to work in ways suited to that one form of intelligence, including people who would produce better philosophy were they instead working in ways suited to other forms of intelligence. It is a version of the problem of the second best (that also involves a mistake about what is “best”).

It’s not clear to me that this interesting point is best put in the language of “mulitple intelligences,” which is a rather controversial idea. What’s not controversial is that people vary in their abilities to perceive and understand different philosophically significant aspects of our life and world, and people vary in their abilities to make productive use of different types of inquiry, and people vary in their abilities to use different forms of communication effectively. If the discipline of philosophy tends to reward work on only some of what’s philosophically significant, investigated in one of a few familiar ways, and communicated in a standard form, then that is what philosophy as a discipline will get a lot of. We’ll get less excellent “heterodox” philosophy.

On the second issue, there does seem to be a kind of progress. More and more philosophers are aware of the arational influences on people’s cognition generally, and are bringing them into their understanding of the agents they’re writing about. But there is still the question of whether they are taking them into account when it comes to their own thinking. It’s not as if philosophers are immune to a vast array of cognitive biases. More work on the social, biological, and cultural influences on how philosophers think and work would be most welcome. (Feel free to point to extant work in the comments.)

The third point gets at philosophy’s insularity. There is no doubt something to this, and it’s plausibly related to the first one about intelligence. Philosophy majors have the highest IQ scores of any non-science discipline (according to at least one study). Perhaps that is part of the reason we are attached to a notion of a single scale of intelligence that can be measured by IQ tests. (Recall Joshua Knobe’s remarks on the “almost absurd value” philosophers place on intelligence.) This belief among philosophers that they are really smart probably contributes to the neglect of work in other disciplines. (Note that the recent call for philosophers to recommend recent good books in other disciplines yielded an astonishingly small response.)

Still, there seems to be movement on this. Philosophy dissertations tend to venture out beyond the humanities more than dissertations in other humanities fields. There are huge interdisciplinary projects in philosophy. There’s a project to show how philosophy can be especially helpful in interdisciplinary contexts.  And there has also been some research to document the growth in interdisciplinary approaches to at least some philosophical questions.

Haslanger’s remarks help us see part of the bubble philosophers are in. There has been some progress pushing out of it. We have other limitations, no doubt.

 

bubble-reflection

 

Related:
What Philosophy Makes You Worse At
There Is No One Thing Philosophers Should Be Doing

 

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Tristan Haze
4 years ago

‘Another problem is that most philosophers are clueless about the social factors that influence cognition and perception. They introspect and think that they have discovered the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’ – This seems like it might be a bit of a straw man based on stereotypes. What evidence is there that most philosophers are like this? The ones I know don’t seem to be like this – sure, they sometimes introspect or use what seems right to them (i.e. “intuition”) as a guide, but are in my experience trained to be very aware of their fallibility, not least of all through experiences of thinking you’re right and then realizing you’re wrong.Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
Reply to  Tristan Haze
4 years ago

Doesn’t that go hand-in-hand with the narratives of ‘genius’ we like to peddle?Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Tristan Haze
4 years ago

Hi Tristan! Fair point. Some thoughts:

Unless philosophers working on X usually cite and analyze the relevant cognitive science of X when citing their own intuitions about X (and adapt their stance toward their intuitions accordingly), they might still be “clueless about the …factors that influence cognition and perception.”

Here are two examples of philosophical moves that are compatible with such cluelessness:

“The idea that the natural resources of a country belong to the people of that country is so intuitive that most will need no more proof than its statement. [Now consider some examples of (and not arguments for or relevant cognitive science of) this intuition]” (Wenar 2008, 10, emphasis added).

“”I propose to stipulate…. In effect, I’m assuming [P]. This seems to me intuitively plausible; if it doesn’t seem intuitively plausible to you, so be it. Squabbling about intuitions strikes me as vulgar” (Fodor 1987, 10, emphasis added).

Perhaps these philosophers do not take themselves to have arrived at the “whole truth” in these passages, but they are certainly <b?resistant to the idea of investigating the factors that influence their intuition(s).

And is anyone surprised when philosophers do that?

If not, then that would seem to be a reason to think that this kind of discourse if fairly common and that Haslanger is on to something.

But perhaps it can be demonstrated that this kind of discourse is the exception in philosophy. Of course, demonstrating that would require extensive cognitive science — e.g., hiring corpus linguists to analyze massive philosophy corpora. Simply analyzing a dozen well-known philosophy passages wouldn’t nearly settle the question (Cappelen 2012).

Cappelen, H. (2012). Philosophy without intuitions (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fodor, J. A. (1987). Psychosemantics: The problem of meaning in the philosophy of mind (Vol. xiii). Cambridge, MA, US: The MIT Press.

Wenar, L. (2008). Property rights and the resource curse. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 36(1), 2–32.Report

Sagga
Sagga
Reply to  Nick Byrd
4 years ago

“Relevant cognitive science of” the intuition that the natural resources of a country belong to the people of that country? I suppose this isn’t supposed to mean that cognitive science is to decide normative questions. So it’s probably about whether Wedar’s intuition is as widely shared as he imagines. That would be interesting to test. Presumably much would hang on which alternative views available in the questionnaire to choose from, and how the presentation of these views. Suppose now it turned out that Wedar is wrong – many people don’t find his view obvious. He will then find himself in the difficult position of trying to argue for something he finds basic and obvious by appealing to other considerations and principle he might well find less obvious. I think that’s one function of intuition talk in philosophy: to point to your convictions and rhetorically present them as obvious. Report

Dave Ripley
Reply to  Sagga
4 years ago

Further evidence that Haslanger is right about philosophers’ general unwillingness to investigate the factors that influence our thought: when someone explicitly proposes such an investigation, they are commonly heard as instead having proposed to investigate either 1) whether the thought is correct, or 2) whether it is widely shared. That is, the mere idea of investigating what factors influence thought meets with so much resistance that it is difficult to get it heard even by explicitly saying it. The above exchange provides an example. In my experience, this is far from exceptional.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Dave Ripley
4 years ago

This comment would have more force if you could explain what kind of investigation is being proposed and its import for Wenar’s quoted claim. What is the intended alternative that Sagga’s comment neglected? Report

Sagga
Sagga
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

Yes, if the investigation is in a socio-historical vein I definitely find it a very worthwhile project. But I got the impression that what Nick Byrd calls “cognitive science” is something I would find less illuminating. Probably just my prejudices.Report

Dave Ripley
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

Finding out what influences or has influenced a thought is very different from finding out whether the thought is true, or whether it is widely shared. I don’t know that anyone actually disagrees with that; I just think it’s frequently overlooked. That’s all I’m really saying.

So the kind of investigation I think Sagga’s comment neglects is just this: an investigation into what factors influence intuitions about ownership of natural resources. This is a different question from whether Wenar’s intuition is widely shared. I take Byrd to be discussing the first kind of investigation, and Sagga the second.Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

Thanks, Dave Ripley. You’ve definitely come closest to the notion of ‘investigation’ that I have in mind: I am more interested in the ways intuitions are formed, reinforced, updated, inhibited, etc. than in the truth and/or robustness of intuitions.

(Confession: I have no idea how we would even determine whether intuitions are “true” or “correct” in philosophical contexts. Perhaps we can do this for intuitions about axiomatic domains like math, logic, etc. But philosophy? I suppose that’s another conversation for another day.)

To be fair to Sagga, those two kinds of investigation (i.e., of content and robustness of intuitions) more or less capture some (early and/or exploratory) work in experimental philosophy. And experimental philosophy is associated with cognitive science. So, unless one is familiar with the broader goals of experimental philosophy and cognitive science, then they might associate them with (only) those two kinds of investigation.

Also, apologies for the formatting issues with my earlier comment. Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

“Finding out what influences or has influenced a thought is very different from finding out whether the thought is true, or whether it is widely shared.”

Certainly this is true, but how does the former investigation bear on Wenar’s project in the paper cited above? No doubt it is an interesting investigation in its own right, but why should it be so revealing that any given paper in philosophy is not engaged in such an investigation? Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

RE: Derek Bowman · December 11, 2016 at 6:35 pm

For me, the answer goes back to my response to Tristan’s response to Haslanger: that until we conduct (or cite) such cognitive science, it would seem that we might be “clueless about the social factors that influence cognition and perception.”

But maybe you have a more broad question in mind: how does the cognitive science of certain intuitions bear on the arguments/conclusions that rely on those intuitions?

That’s a fun question, but it seems well beyond the scope of what Haslanger, Tristan, or I was talking about. Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

Thanks for the reply, Nick. I guess I imagined Haslanger’s point to be not simply that philosophers tend to be clueless about those social factors, but also that such cluelessness is a problem for the very enterprises we are engaged in as philosophers who rely on the results of such cognition and perception. Insofar as that’s not the point, then it seems that this is just one of the many interesting sets of questions in epistemology, philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and/or sociology that any given paper in, e.g. political philosophy, will predictably fail to engage with. On that view there’s nothing very telling about the example of Wenar, anymore than it’s telling that he doesn’t there deal with general questions of philosophical skepticism or of the proper account of reference or the nature of mental causation. Report

Sagga
Sagga
Reply to  Nick Byrd
4 years ago

Thanks for the clarifications Nick! I’m still a bit confused regarding the place for socio-historical innvestigation in this framework. I tend to find it illuminating when changes in e.g. ethical intuitions are traced through history, and perhaps linked to economic or religious transformations. So, for instance, one might claim that Wenar’s intuition is only possible given a certain conception of the people, one that emerged in conjunction with the new nation states, à la Benedict Anderson. This would, I think, be an interesting claim about what influences that intuition. But it isn’t part of cognitive science, or is it?

As for the point that investigating what influences intuitions is very different from determining their truth, I think we all agree. Still, it seems to me that part of Haslanger’s point was that finding out about what influences our intuitions may help us to overcome them. Isn’t experimental philosophy also to some extent open to the idea that knowledge about the cognitive causes of our intuitions can help us to get rid of some of them? So that origin and “truth” is perhaps not so easily separated after all?Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Sagga
4 years ago

Regarding your first question, I’m not sure if socio-historical investigations of intuition are “part of cognitive science” — mostly because I am not sure what you mean by “socio-historical investigations.” If what you have in mind is a scientific investigation of the mind — broadly construed — then I don’t see why it wouldn’t be part of cognitive science.

Regarding your second question, sure: experimental philosophy is open to the idea that ” knowledge about the cognitive causes of our intuitions can help us [block] some of [those causes].” I’m not sure, however, why that would make ‘origin’ and ‘truth’ less separable — perhaps because I am not sure what you mean by ‘truth’ and how it relates to intuitions and the scientific understanding thereof.

Finally, I’ll draw attention back to Tristan’s inaugural question about whether philosophers are “clueless about the social factors that influence cognition and perception.” I only meant to point out that some textual evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that some philosophers are (at least) sometimes so clueless. Whether, when, and why it is (or is not) acceptable for philosophers to be so clueless are separate (albeit fruitful and probably important) questions. Report

wesbuc
Reply to  Tristan Haze
4 years ago

It seems pretty common to see cases being used as theoretical motivation in one way or another. But it seems pretty uncommon to see the source of reactions to them systematically investigated too much though, beyond whatever their source is legitimizing the theorizing. You get it on the table and start your next section. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

“I am shocked at how often philosophers disparage other disciplines for their lack of argument, etc.”. I haven’t heard philosophers do this. What disciplines are being disparaged by philosophers for their lack of argument, etc.? And what’s the etc.?Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

English literature is a pretty common target. ‘Studies’ fields. Education. Business/commerce.

They aren’t all always disparaged for lack of argument, of course. Sometimes it’s bad arguments, kowtowing unreflectively to relativism, not being ‘real’ subjects, being stupid, and so on. The reasons are pretty varied, but they’re all very common targets. I do think that the antipathy is sometimes warranted, but that’s another story. Mostly, it’s just part of thr university status hierarchy game.Report