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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King Robert
King Robert
3 years ago

sounds very pedantic…Read “Bertrand Russell and AJ Ayers”
on logical positivism and realize we have symbolic logic to assess truth and relevance of sentence structure
and read some Hemingway to aid your own euphuistic style…but unlike you, to quote Montaigne, “what do I know!Report

David Braden-Johnson
David Braden-Johnson
Reply to  King Robert
3 years ago

Sounds commonsensical and reasonable to me; nothing much new here.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

I applaud this! Too many papers fail to make clear exactly what the chain of reasoning is intended to be. Just clearly identifying the unsupported premises would be of so much help.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
3 years ago

A simple clear articulation of the conclusion and premises would be a good start. This is what we teach to every intro student but rarely adhere to in professional articles. Also, clearly stating what evidence would make you change your mind would help inject some humility into the process.Report

Ted
Ted
3 years ago

Bravo! Logical precision is THE primary contribution that we philosophers have to offer, beyond what the sciences and the rest of the humanities already offer. That is not to say that logical precision is the summum bonum of human existence, but it is something important that philosophy can contribute.Report

Chris Stephens
Chris Stephens
3 years ago

I disagree a little: While Bright’s post is sensible and makes some good points, I don’t think more rigor is the only – or always the best – way to get new and creative approaches. Sometimes a philosophical problem can benefit from a less than rigorous approach because there CAN be a trade-off between rigor and originality. He mentions “inductive risk” but to use a related analogy – if you think about type 1 and type 2 errors in hypothesis testing – there are two kinds of mistakes to worry about. Analogously, I worry that at least sometimes, focusing too much on rigor requires a trade-off in originality. Some philosophers might be better at coming up with original ideas but less good at working them out rigorously. Some are the other way around. But, I fear, it is unrealistic to think that there are never trade-offs between rigor and other things we value in philosophy. It is the rare person who is the master of both. Perhaps it is something for us to aspire to, but for some, maximizing both is not an option.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Chris Stephens
3 years ago

I think there is a version of your point that is entirely compatible with the sort of rigor being described here. I don’t think he’s insisting that we never write any sentence that doesn’t validly follow from some premises that we have explicitly stated – rather, he’s just saying that we should be clear when we are putting forward a creative new possibility that hasn’t been ruled out by existing considerations (but also definitely hasn’t been supported in any interesting way yet) rather than putting forward an argument that things definitely are the way we are describing. See these passages from the linked post, which seem to me to be quite open to the idea that we might discuss a possibility and perhaps even make it the focus of a paper without having given a valid argument that this possibility is actual:

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! … 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”.

One way to do this is, I think, for it to be clear what would constitute a fair challenge to our arguments, and be clear exactly what our limitations are. This requires that we are open and upfront about where our spade is turned and we are no longer offering justifications, what sort of sources of evidence or experience might speak against us, and exactly how strong a claim our arguments really warrant.

it would make it more readily apparent that much more is left open than presently seems, that a lot more strange and wonderful possibilities may yet turn out to be true for all we know.Report

Liam Kofi Bright
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
3 years ago

Thanks Kenny! That seems exactly right to me, so in addition to my reply below I also endorse this.Report

Ted
Ted
3 years ago

Chris Stephens makes a very good point: Let’s distinguish between philosophy in the best possible world vs. the most efficient methodology in the real world. With the latter, it sometimes makes sense to sacrifice rigor for originality, even though the ideal is to achieve both. Point well taken. (Another example of proper dialectics leading to better philosophy.)Report

Liam Kofi Bright
3 years ago

Thanks for the replies everyone!

Eek, sorry if it’s pedantic, King Robert! I hope it wouldn’t be, since one of my aims is actually to foster creativity. So hopefully my reply to Chris Stephens below will explain a bit why I think it need not go that way.

So, to Chris Stephens, I think that is a good and important point. Two lines of thought in reply. First, I think that perhaps as you and Ted say I might say this is something like a governing ideal, accepting that hard choices and trade offs might be forced upon us for various reasons. Second, I think that part of what I am advocating for involve creating the social conditions that enable and encourage creativity or originality. That is, I take it that if these principles were more often adhered to then it would be more apparent that there are wide open fields of possibility which are not properly foreclosed by the most persuasive arguments yet offered. This would, I think, actually encourage original thinking, by preventing people from being intimidated by a misleading consensus (or appearance of it) or apparently-decisive reasonings which they falsely believe speak against their fledgling ideas.

So even if these ideas were not fully followed, I hope that even following them to a greater extent than followed would actually be a boon to creativity in our field.Report

Joe
Joe
3 years ago

“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.”

Now, every argument contains a vast number of unstated, unsupported premises. Every term used has a definition, for example, and when a term reappears in a subsequent premise there is an unstated rule: “I am using the term in the same sense.” The laws of identity and noncontradiction are always at work. As are certain unstated inductive rules and informal inferences. Commonly held (though not universally held) beliefs about objects, persons, theories and relations are always presupposed. And, the kicker: whenever you explicitly identify and clarify these presuppositions, you will rely on… further unarticulated presuppositions.

So unless this is a call to write infinitely long papers and blog comments, what the requirement actually says is: “identify *salient* unsupported premises, and identify(/defend?) the *important* epistemic relations between your claims.” But conceptions of salience and importance vary from reader to reader, depending on how familiar they are with the literature, what their philosophical background is, which assumptions they share with the writer, etc. As always, we should not accept the (implicit!) premise at the heart of these oft-repeated calls for clarity, namely, that clarity is the same thing for each of us. (If you need more convincing here, look at the two referee reports for your last rejected journal article. )Report

Liam Kofi Bright
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

“. As always, we should not accept the (implicit!) premise at the heart of these oft-repeated calls for clarity, namely, that clarity is the same thing for each of us. ” — for the record, this is not an implicit premise, I mention it, say that it is dubious, and link there to a previous post of mine which outlines two notions of clarity, both of which I find attractive, and which may sometimes conflict!

That said, I agree re. judgements of saliency being important and necessary for anything like these principles to be operational.Report

Tom
Tom
3 years ago

I like this very much. It’s similar in many ways to Williamson’s “Must Do Better”, but far less combative and holier-than-thou in tone, which makes it far easier to take seriously. Bravo!Report

David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

Back when I was working on my doctorate in philosophy at Ohio State, I was often amazed at how often I’d see “professional” philosophers (viz., academics) use wishy-washy qualifying language in their writing or in their oral comments. Someone would present a paper to the Department, for example, and it would be full of claims or conclusions that “seem to be” the case, or that the presenter “thinks” to be the case. Similarly, someone would raise an objection, and almost inevitably use “seems” or “appears” in the articulation, or make some vague reference to “our intuitions.” Could this constantly-qualified and watered-down style of argumentation, if you really want to call it that, be any weaker? Ironically, this author does exactly the same thing in this article — “where it seems to me” (first example), and “it would be nice for” (second example).Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

Why is it bad to use the qualifiers “seems to be” and “think”?Report

Adam
Adam
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Suppose person S has the following conclusion in a paper: “it seems to me that x is the case.” I think that it is bad for S to state his/her conclusion like this because one’s denial of the conclusion is not to deny x itself but to deny how x seems to be for S.Report

David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
Reply to  Adam
3 years ago

Precisely. During my thirty-plus-year legal career, I wrote hundreds of complex legal briefs, mostly in the federal courts, dealing with thorny issues of constitutional law, federalism, and legal ethics. I purposely edited-out all of the wishy-washy “seems-talk” from my own arguments. My position was that if the most I could argue was that something “seemed” to be the case, that claim was so weak that it wasn’t worth saying at all.Report

Adam
Adam
Reply to  David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

I do not want to say that if one says that “x seemed to be the case” then they have said something that “isn’t worth saying at all.” For example, I just tried to explain how I understood a passage from Lewis’s OTPOW to a professor of mine (who knows the hell out of OTPOW). In response, I was told that I “seem to be confused.” It would be ridiculous for me to respond “well, professor, your claim about my reading comprehension is so weak it isn’t worth saying–it does not matter how my confusion *appears to you at all*!” When my professor explained why I seemed confused to him or her, I listened. I learned.

Again: I think the issue with hedging with “seeming” prefixes is not that doing so is always a mask for some thought that *isn’t worth saying*. Rather I think the issue is to prefix as such makes it more difficult for one to challenge what follows the seeming.

In short, it’s a tool not to hide worthless thought but a tool to buttress the insecure thinker’s thoughts.Report

David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
Reply to  Adam
3 years ago

Adam — In the context of an ordinary conversation like the one you mentioned, there is no problem at all with “seems-talk,” of course. Nobody takes everyone literally all of the time. But in the context of formal philosophical or legal argument, which is the context at issue here, engaging in “seems-talk” weakens your position — which is fine, I suppose, if you actually have a weak position.Report

Matt
Reply to  David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

My position was that if the most I could argue was that something “seemed” to be the case, that claim was so weak that it wasn’t worth saying at all.

As a former court of appeals law clerk (and current law school professor) this seems, at best, to be pretty misleading. If a case is really clear-cut, it should settle, unless the clients are pig-headed, or the lawyers are bad. If it’s not clear cut, it might go to trial, and then advocates have a duty to argue the case as strongly as they can, but that’s really a very different position from what philosophers do, or should do. Not seeing that is why lots of law faculty, who approach their “scholarship” like advocates, make bad scholarship. Especially when a case gets to the court of appeals, either the case is at least arguably, or else one or more of the parties is foolish, or has a bad lawyer who is not properly advising the client. This is all really very different from the disinterested search for the truth, in which case proper hedging about the strength of one’s claims is not only desirable but required by proper behavior.Report

David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

Matt — Did you ever practice law?Report

Matt
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

I can’t directly reply to David Curtis Glebe (thread is too embeded) but I spent two years as a law clerk o the U.S. Court of international Trade (where about 1/3 of our case load was actually cases taken by designation, mostly from the SDNY), a year as a law clerk on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, and represented people in immigration matters (one of my main areas of interest) both in proceedings and out for a few years, though not as part of a law firm, but working with a public interest group I was connected with. So, I have worked closely on many hundreds of cases, at the trial, appeals, and administrative levels, and seen the work of many, many types of lawyers (and people without representation.) And, of course, I work regularly with lawyers and future lawyers now. So, I have a pretty good idea why lawyers write like they do, and a very good idea why that would make, for the most part, lousy scholarship.Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

You realize that—especially by your standards—your degrees should have absolutely zero bearing on whether one should accept your claims. So why do you make a point of attaching them to your name? Are you appealing to authority instead of argument? Higher standards in philosophy, or law for that matter, also entail disregarding status and magic words. And, *to me at least it seems*, hedging claims is more epistemically responsible than prefacing your remarks with lofty signatures.

With all due respect.Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  Nick
3 years ago

Sorry Justin. Not quite sure this is so irrelevant, but I’ll stop. My bad.Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

David, do you have a PhD and a JD? I wasn’t sure from your signature.Report

Daid Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
Daid Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
Reply to  Nick
3 years ago

Nick — As one of my favorite philosophers, P.W. Herman, would say, “That’s so funny I forgot to laugh.”Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  Daid Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

That’s because your standards are clearly too high. Not everyone is a JD, PhD, after all.Report

Aspasia
Aspasia
3 years ago

I worry that this demand for rigor and clarity may very well be part of what drives the specious claims of having offered a deductively sound argument, rather than one justified by inference to the best explanation or some such thing. That is, I think writers are tempted to cover up the actual justification for their claims precisely because philosophers implicitly, at least, demand deductive arguments, which I think would, as a side effect, stultify creative work, since new claims are often justified by non-deductive justification. I often, in fact, make explicit in my own papers that I am not offering a deductively sound argument, merely a hypothesis that is justified on explanatory grounds, and then get ground into the ground by criticism that I have not offered sufficient support because I have not provided a deductive argument, and I am even sometimes outright insulted because the referees actually think I was trying to do so, even when I say I am not doing so. I worry that Bright’s demand for clarity here, even though one of the points is for us to stop misreading justifications, and stop covering up our non-deductively justifications, would be better put in different language.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Aspasia
3 years ago

While someone could have bad motives for wanting to know whether your argument is deductively sound, it is entirely reasonable for people to want to be able to tell if your argument is deductively sound, or is intended to be.Report

Aspasia
Aspasia
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Uhhh. That’s exactly what I just said I did in my papers, and that it made no difference to whether I was judged as attempting to give a deductively sound argument. I said “I often, in fact, make explicit in my own papers that I am not offering a deductively sound argument…” I don’t understand your comment given what I said. Did you actually read it?Report

Aspasia
Aspasia
Reply to  Aspasia
3 years ago

Honestly, this comment just makes me see why I have pretty much abandoned reading any philosophy blogs at all, except when dying from boredom.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Aspasia
3 years ago

I assumed that your reply was intended to be relevant to the question of whether philosopehrs should be clearer.Report

Aspasia
Aspasia
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

And here I go again. It was not intended to address that issue, but rather the rhetoric with which this call was made.Report

Aspasia
Aspasia
3 years ago

Apologies for some of the errors in the expression of my ideas 😛Report

David Velleman
David Velleman
3 years ago

If this methodology had been followed in the past, most of the great papers of the 20th century would not have been written, much less published. Just taking examples from my own field: Davidson’s, “Action, Reasons, and Causes”, Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”, Frankfurt’s “Free Will and the Concept of a Person”, Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, Perry on the “essential indexical” … . Anscombe would never have written “Intention”. I doubt Kripke would have produced “Naming and Necessity”. Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” would have been desk-rejected. All this talk of premises that establish conclusions has very little to do with the way that philosophy works.Report