Philosophy: Not Just About Argumentation


We are no longer able to detect the philosophical unless it comes to us in the form of the peer-reviewed academic article, published (preferably in English) in a journal with a stellar ranking and a top-notch editorial board. No wonder philosophy has become so irrelevant today. Why should anyone need philosophers, if philosophy limits itself so radically?

So writes Costica Bradatan (Texas Tech) in “Philosophy Needs a New Definition,” in the L.A. Review of Books. Bradatan thinks that the dominant strains of Western academic philosophy seem to misunderstand what makes for good philosophy. In Western academic philosophy,

there is at work in it a strong purist assumption: the notion that philosophy is reducible to a purely logical exercise, conducted strictly by the rules of rational argumentation and debate: whatever is not translatable into argument is irrelevant. 

But, he writes, this isn’t desirable:

But philosophy has never only been about rational argumentation. It would be the saddest thing if it were, and it would not have lasted that long. What makes philosophy such an endurable affair, in the West as well as in the East, is that it engages not only our cognition, but also our imagination, emotions, artistic sensibility, religious impulses—in short, our being complicated, messy, impure creatures. To be human is to be always caught in existential entanglements, to have to deal with hybridity and messiness of all sorts. We are an unlikely union of high and low, spirit and flesh, reason and unreason. And philosophers, if they are not to lose their integrity, need to account for such wholeness.

Nor is it historically accurate:

Philosophy—not the bland academic sort, but the lasting, transformative variety that we come across in Lao Tzu, Pythagoras, Plato, Saint Augustine, Rumi, Meister Eckhart, Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, Gandhi, Simone Weil—doesn’t come in a pure state. It always gets mixed with myth, poetry, drama, mysticism, scientific thinking, political militancy, or social activism. To complicate matters, often fiction writers (think Dostoyevsky, Huxley, or Borges) turn out to be particularly insightful philosophers, and so do filmmakers—such as Bergman, Kurosawa, and Tarkovsky—who philosophize just as insightfully on screen. All these entanglements and contaminations mark philosophy profoundly—indeed, they make it what it is….

So what is to be done, according to Bradatan?

What we badly need now is a liberal dose of humility. We should at last understand that philosophy comes under different guises, and by many names, that it never comes in a pure state but loves messiness and hybridity, that it gets entangled with the philosophers’ lives and earthiness. Such an act of humility wouldn’t impoverish philosophy at all. On the contrary, it would empower the philosophers and make philosophy a richer, more sophisticated, and more relevant affair.

What to think of all this?

Let me sound a few cautionary notes:

First, we should be suspicious of claims about what philosophy needs, or what philosophers in general need to do. We should be pluralists about the aims, methods, and subjects of philosophy.

Second, even before assessing the prescription, we should ask whether the diagnosis is correct. Do contemporary academic philosophers think that philosophy is “only about argumentation”? To the contrary, I think that academic philosophy now, moreso than at any point in the past 75 years, is welcoming of work that draws on a diversity of non-philosophical resources and acknowledges that we’re “complicated, messy, impure creatures.”

Third, we should be careful before swallowing Bradatan’s prescription for a “liberal dose of humility.” Yes, humility is a reasonable response to our epistemic situation in philosophy, but we don’t want to overdose. Academic philosophers are experts, with specialized training, experience, and skills (e.g.). It is false modesty as well as long-term professional suicide to deny that. And it is misplaced populism to deny the value of fora, like academic journals, in which philosophical experts can share ideas.

Bradatan’s essay is here. Your thoughts welcome.

Louise Bourgeois, from “À l’Infini” series

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M
M
3 years ago

To be fair, I think that what Bradatan is saying is precisely that we need to embrace pluralism in philosophy, so Weinberg’s first cautionary note seems misplaced (to my view, at least).
As to the second cautionary note, Bradatan says ‘rational argumentation,’ not argumentation simpliciter. There is considerable debate in argumentation theory about whether rational modes of argumentation are valued over emotional, narrative, & other (putative) modes, & Bradatan taps into this important discourse (see Michael Gilbert, for example). We should not specialize at the expense of excluding contentful modes of argument that could, if embraced, enhance knowledge.
As to the third note, advising epistemic humility in a discipline that is overwhelmingly white and male is, in my humble opinion, simply good advice.
Thank you for posting on this thought-provoking critique.Report

Brian Kemple
3 years ago

I think this was the way, and still is the way, in many places; where if you do not at least have a background in analytic philosophy (though as my dissertation director used to say, “Is there any philosophy which *isn’t* analytic?”), you are given no consideration. I also think it’s clearly the case that there is an egregious degree of specialization. Anyone who specializes in (and myopically so), say (to give an exaggerated example… but only slightly), 17th century queer Jewish eastern European philosophy has probably lost something of what philosophy is.

And finally, I think that part of this difficulty really *is* about a fundamental (mis)understanding of philosophy and philosophy’s purpose quite common to those trained in analytic schools of thought, though also found among continentals, semioticians, and even some historians: namely, the belief that philosophy is somehow ordered to solving problems. I’m all for pluralism of philosophical traditions, but it seems to me that such a conception renders the term “philosophy” an equivocation, inasmuch as one seeking to solve problems has already left the search for wisdom.Report

Roman Altshuler
Reply to  Brian Kemple
3 years ago

“one seeking to solve problems has already left the search for wisdom” I’m not sure that’s exactly right, but I agree that what’s most compelling about philosophy isn’t solving problems. What’s most compelling, I suspect, is *framing* problems. Descartes, for example, is often taken to be the “father” of modern philosophy, but this isn’t because of the problems he solved, but because of the problems he left: the relation between mind and world, appearance and reality, volition and belief, etc. But one can hardly frame a problem in good faith unless one aims to solve it.Report

Brian Kemple
Reply to  Roman Altshuler
3 years ago

Respectfully, I disagree. There is, as we tend to use the words, an important difference between “problems” and “difficulties”, namely that a problem admits of a solution, and a solution works for every instance of that problem. Problems occur when things don’t work; which presupposes we know what the work is, or ought to be; and to solve a problem, you don’t need understanding, just a model which enables something like predictive success.

Descartes did leave behind a lot of problems… not the least of which was the attitude that philosophy should be solving them.

https://semioticthomist.wordpress.com/2017/11/25/a-short-what-is-philosophy/Report

Roman Altshuler
Reply to  Brian Kemple
3 years ago

“not the least of which was the attitude that philosophy should be solving them” — and that attitude brought us Hume and Leibniz, Kant and Hegel, and all they spawned. Forgive me for failing to see how giving rise to some of the most beautiful work in the history of philosophy was a bad thing.

Great philosophers do think they “know what the work is”; they do think the the “problem admits of a solution”; and they follow that solution wherever it may lead. That generates all sorts of results, some mundane and some sublime.Report

Brian Kemple
Reply to  Roman Altshuler
3 years ago

And see here, I think Hume’s work an abomination which doesn’t even deserve the name of philosophy–not even remotely; can anyone who so egregiously begs the question, who so patently structures questions so that only his own answer could seem satisfactory, really be considered a great intellect (e.g., of course “metaphysics” is nonsense if we accept as reasonable only concepts reducible to impressions)?

Kant is admirable for recognizing that to explain anything one needs to some extent explain everything, and for being as remarkably consistent as he could given his principles… but he begins with principles so radically wrong that his work could never amount to something true.

And Hegel, to quote C.S. Peirce, considered his phenomenology “in a fatally narrow spirit, since he restricted himself to what actually forces itself on the mind and so colored his whole philosophy with the ignoration of the distinction of essence and existence and so gave it the nominalistic… character in which the worst of the Hegelian errors have their origin.”

Leibniz I do admire, probably because he alone among the moderns (prior to Kant, at least) carried on his philosophy with a kind of scholastic rigor.

Naturally, the position I am advancing will be met with hostility. I am undoubtedly telling quite a lot of people who “do” philosophy that they’ve been doing it wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s worthless or inadmissible or that they have contributed nothing to philosophical insight. But it is to say I think we learn most from them by examining their errors, how and where and why they went wrong. It may be *beautiful* work, but that does not make it any less wrong, or wrong-headed.

For my part, I think philosophical beauty emanates from philosophical truth, not the other way around.Report

Roman Altshuler
Reply to  Brian Kemple
3 years ago

You seem to have very strong views about what is and what is not philosophy, have a marked preference to “scholastic rigor” (which I find a boring monstrosity), and don’t seem to prize beautiful work. On all three points we could not be further apart, so I am going to bow out of this conversation.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Brian Kemple
3 years ago

And see here, I think Hume’s work an abomination which doesn’t even deserve the name of philosophy–not even remotely; can anyone who so egregiously begs the question, who so patently structures questions so that only his own answer could seem satisfactory, really be considered a great intellect (e.g., of course “metaphysics” is nonsense if we accept as reasonable only concepts reducible to impressions)?

= = =

Lol. You’re funny.

If you’re being serious then you need some basic education. At least if you want to have credible conversations about philosophy.Report

Brian Kemple
Reply to  Brian Kemple
3 years ago

That’s cute.Report

K
K
3 years ago

I’m willing to believe that many philosophers don’t actually believe that philosophy is only about analyzing argumentation, but it does seem true that that is often said to be the goal of philosophy. If philosophers are forced to give a one-line description of philosophy, they are likely to come up with something along these lines (especially if they’re analytically trained). I’ve definitely heard this multiple times, and have been forced to give one myself (to non-philosophers). Maybe one way to alleviate some of the author’s worry is to stop giving these one-line summaries to students, journalists, and other “outsiders” whose opinions on philosophy matter.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  K
3 years ago

I am pained to admit that my “one-line description of philosophy”, despite the fact that I am trained as Continentalist, is much like this. I don’t think that this is *only* a problem for analytic philosophy, much as it may suit the caricature of it.Report

Catherine Hills
Catherine Hills
3 years ago

– only got BA in philosophy – long ago – so was at zero – then kept reading on my own a hell of a lot – but no general stuff whatever I know is out there but don’t ever want to go near – point is philosophy led me to write “very short” stories – and I’ve been told they’re not for the general public – which was meant as a compliment – these stories are fiction but derived from a might’ve had life – they’re cool and deep – most likely cause my ancestry is Russian – dark and deep – I got great respect for Masters degrees and PhDs – but I was too busy to get either one – too busy living – glad I found your site – scuse my naïveté – https://m.facebook.com/notifications.php?refid=7Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
3 years ago

I worry that without the emphasis on arguing and clarity and rigour, it gets very difficult to distinguish professional philosophers from anyone with a soapbox, which in turn makes it difficult to justify our existence to others. “What do you do?” “Oh I’m a philosopher. We don’t really have a specific aim or method or skillset or co-ordinated enterprise, in fact lots of things which don’t look like classic philosophy do count as philosophy. It can be too restrictive to limit ourselves to the categories of arguing and finding justification for our beliefs, you know?” just doesn’t really convince non-philosophers that what we’re doing is a worthwhile enterprise, that any progress can be made, or that there’s any measure of one being ‘better’ at philosophy than they were before. Platitudes like ’embrace the messiness’ sound great until someone comes along and wants to claim that counting blades of grass, conspiracy theories and Michael Bay movies are just part of the philosophical messiness too, and without the emphasis on argument I really don’t know how to tell them that they’re mistaken.Report

agradstudent
agradstudent
3 years ago

Instead of expanding the notion of philosophy until it becomes coextensive with virtually all human intellectual activity, why don’t we just accept that philosophy is not the only thing worth studying or doing? That it’s not in any way a denigration of poetry to say that it is poetry and not philosophy, or of political activism to say that it is political activism and not philosophy; that we do not insult Dostoyevsky, Borges, Kurosawa, or Tarkovsky when we describe them as great novelists, poets, or filmmakers, rather than philosophers?

The idea behind polemics like this seems to be something like the following: if philosophy is only about rational argumentation, then if I’m a philosopher I can do nothing but rational argumentation, and that’s a horribly impoverished way for a human being to live.

Well, yes, that is a horribly impoverished way for a human being to live, but the conditional claim is just wrong. I am a philosopher, but I can and should read and write and learn and think about things other than philosophy as well.Report

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

“Argumentation” is ambiguous. It could mean, in a narrow sense, just the exchange of reasons. Or, in a broader sense, developing relationships and a shared life so that people are able to appreciate each other’s reasons when they are exchanged.

Two neighbors might be arguing about, say, why the donkey was shot. They keep talking and talking, offering this reason and that, but with each side just digging in their heels. But then, they also take breaks from talking and sit down to eat meals together, or read poetry or watch a movie together – in general focus on sharing their lives together – which then helps them understand the reasons they offer when they talk explicitly about their disagreement.

Academic philosophy has become too focused on argumentation in the narrow sense. Where in academia can one learn the practical skill of how to live with people one disagrees with so that the exchange of reasons can be better appreciated by both sides? Or for that matter, in what class normally can one learn how to go through the tough process of changing one’s habits once one overturns a deeply held belief? Bradatan’s point, rightly, is that we need to incorporate art, movies, religion, etc. into philosophy so that philosophy can be about argumentation in the broader sense.

What Bradatan leaves off how to do argumentation in the broader sense while philosophy is one discipline among others in academia. It is much easier to do argumentation in the broad sense outside academia, where one simply speaks as a person and not as a representative of this or that discipline.Report

John Woodworm
John Woodworm
3 years ago

ITT: “And see here, I think Hume’s work an abomination which doesn’t even deserve the name of philosophy–not even remotely; can anyone who so egregiously begs the question, who so patently structures questions so that only his own answer could seem satisfactory, really be considered a great intellect (e.g., of course “metaphysics” is nonsense if we accept as reasonable only concepts reducible to impressions)?”

The person who wrote this is serious and has a PhD in philosophy. He’s probably an adjunct. Are we REALLY having a conversation about whether there are too many philosophy PhDs?Report

Matias Slavov
Matias Slavov
3 years ago

I read the original article, and I mostly disagree with the author’s claims.

The author writes that “much of contemporary philosophy” works with “a strong purist assumption.” This is a paradigm example of a straw man. Who commits to the things the author attributes to the ‘purists’? Who are these ‘purists’? Names, works, schools, institutions?

It is very clear that argumentation and rhetoric cannot be separated. Argumentation is not simply about logical rules, and providing reasons and evidence to support claims. Rhetoric and literary style are inseparable in the business of trying to convince others that what we are saying is truthful and acceptable. Logos and pathos are taught hand in hand in argumentation and critical thinking courses.

I personally value more careful (not necessarily peer-reviewed but still somehow edited) philosophical publications than e.g. provocative and dichotomous arguing that is abundant in social media. We really do not find such disrespectful and black-and-white discussions in respectable philosophical fora. Journals are far from impeccable, but they do practice ‘A good argument is a good argument is a good argument’ type of thinking more than online or newspaper discussion boards.

I agree with Prof. Bradatan’s call for intertwining literature and philosophy. Many classical philosophers have done this, and beautiful writing is today as great as it has been for ages. But it is important that literary style does not lead to obscure writing or mystifying philosophical content. Contrary to what the author says, a quest for high quality argumentation does not intend to make us “operate on some superior, angelic plane, where their [the rest of humankind] earthiness and their mundanity never follow them [philosophers]”. Apply the basic rules of argumentation theory, and define concepts you are using clearly – this is not self-aggrandizement, it is simply being fair.Report

Paul Taborsky
3 years ago

I think it is worth remembering a remark of Adorno’s (in ‘Prisms’): “The superstitious belief that the greatness of a philosophy lies in its grandiose aspects is a bad heritage of Idealism – as though the quality of a painting depends on the sublimity of its subject-matter. Great themes prove nothing about the greatness of insight. If, as Hegel argues, the whole is what is true, then it is so only if the force of the whole is absorbed into the knowledge of the particular.”

Philosophy, like any other academic discipline, is a mix of scholarship and creative insight – they each depend on the other, just as science (according to Kuhn) has both normal and revolutionary phases. It is senseless to demand that science always be revolutionary, and likewise to ask that every philosopher be always transformative. I’m sure every philosopher would prefer to be a transformative genius rather than a plodding scholar, but whether one ends up as one or the other often depends on opportunity, not to mention the judgement of posterity.Report