Philosophy and “The Empirically Tractable”


I think you are right to be suspicious of the tendency of this institutional paradigm to postulate truths that are ‘basic’, ‘ultimate’ or ‘fundamental’ just at the point where things begin to look interesting or problematic from the point of view of those we in the profession pretentiously refer to as ‘non-philosophers’.

That’s Hallvard Lillehammer, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, in a recent interview at 3:16AM.

The interview ranged over various topics in ethics, but also touched on the sociology of philosophy. Interviewer Richard Marshall asks:

A crucial question for you as a moral philosopher is what is the point of moral philosophy—can it be justified as an enterprise? A Nietzschean might push back and attack morality for its commitment to untenable descriptive (metaphysical and empirical) claims about human agency, as well as for the deleterious impact of its distinctive norms and values on the flourishing of the highest types of human beings. And even if not a Nietzschean, philosophers like Scanlon and Parfit and Nagel defending the objectivity of moral opinions on the grounds that they were confident in the good reasons they had for them (or in their apparent truth), quite independent of whether there was evidence for them of the kind we would expect in any other domain of human inquiry thought to be epistemically reliable, strike many as being no better than religious apologetics. And if constructivism is right then is there any role for the moral philosopher now as opposed to the psychologist or the neuroscientist or biologist—or better still, why not leave it to Proust and the novelists and poets? 

Professor Lillehammer replies:

You have presented me with quite a challenge in asking me to say something sensible about Nietzsche, Nagel, Parfit and Scanlon all in one breath. Yet as far as I’m concerned, each of these writers is a paradigmatic specimen of someone doing ‘moral philosophy’ as I understand it, although they obviously differ greatly; for example in the extent to which they are prepared to let philosophy ‘leave everything as it is’, in Wittgenstein’s phrase.

The genealogical method you ascribe to Nietzsche and for which he is justly famous is one I have already registered my respect for, even though it is not the exclusive property of Nietzscheans and has a tendency to inspire arguments that overreach. I would place Nietzsche’s own use of the method to reject the cluster of views he identifies as ‘morality’ in that category. One important lesson I do take from Nietzsche’s use of this method, however, is that a philosophical outlook is sometimes a better guide to the psychosocial circumstances of its author than to the nature of its subject matter.

All of which brings me to Nagel, Parfit and Scanlon. I don’t agree that what these philosophers are doing individually can be fairly accused of being ‘no better than religious apologetics’. What I do think is that the institutional paradigm their work represents has a charge to answer with respect to its frequently coercive refusal to allow that philosophical enquiry is empirically tractable. On the one hand, this refusal has arguably helped to sustain a culture of stability and in-house rigor that has kept some of the more intellectually subversive elements of our discipline at bay during the course of recent culture wars. On the other hand, I think you are right to be suspicious of the tendency of this institutional paradigm to postulate truths that are ‘basic’, ‘ultimate’ or ‘fundamental’ just at the point where things begin to look interesting of problematic from the point of view of those we in the profession pretentiously refer to as ‘non-philosophers’.

As far as the novelists and poets are concerned: I don’t see any contradiction in the idea of a great philosophical work of art or an artistically accomplished work of philosophy. Which is not to say that the production of either is easily achievable.

That third paragraph of his answer struck me as especially provocative, so I wrote to Professor Lillehammer to ask if he could elaborate on it, and he was kind enough to reply.

Joan Miro, “The Policeman”

Regarding the claim that the institutional paradigm [Nagel, Parfit, and Scanlon’s] work represents has a charge to answer with respect to its frequently coercive refusal to allow that philosophical enquiry is empirically tractable”:

The institutional paradigm in question is one exemplified by some of the most prestigious philosophy departments in the Anglo-sphere, in which what has often been accepted as good and proper philosophy is a set of narrowly aprioristic inquiries that exclude a wide range of empirically tractable or historically specific considerations that philosophers have traditionally been concerned with, and that students of philosophy are often worried about.

To talk of ‘coercive refusal’ in this context is to highlight the manner in which some institutions have had a history of excluding or dis-incentivizing the discussion of empirically tractable ways of addressing philosophical questions. (This is a tendency that has arguably been subject to increasing challenge in recent years.)

Regarding the statement that “On the one hand, this refusal has arguably helped to sustain a culture of stability and in-house rigor that has kept some of the more intellectually subversive elements of our discipline at bay during the course of recent culture wars”:

The emphasis on clarity, rigor, precision and rational argument by philosophers who would self-identify as ‘analytical’ in orientation has played a significant role as a bulwark against a set of intellectually corrosive views, rightly or wrongly attributed to some philosophers of a ‘non-analytic’ persuasion, such as radical forms of historicism, relativism, or the view that there is nothing more to ‘truth’ than power.

And regarding the statement that “On the other hand, I think you are right to be suspicious of the tendency of this institutional paradigm to postulate truths that are ‘basic’, ‘ultimate’ or ‘fundamental’ just at the point where things begin to look interesting or problematic from the point of view of those we in the profession pretentiously refer to as ‘non-philosophers’”:

The tendency in question is exemplified by i) classifying something as “an empirical question” so as not to engage with it (as if what is actually the case is of no philosophical interest); ii) classifying something as “a purely conceptual point” (as if no concepts could be reasonably be thought to have a history); iii) classifying something as “not a philosophical question” in order to police a disciplinary boundary (as if the existence or nature of that boundary is not itself a contested matter).

Discussion welcome. I’d be curious to hear whether others agree with Professor Lillehammer’s depiction of analytic moral, political and social philosophy, and whether they agree with (and would share examples of) the tendencies he discusses being “subject to increasing challenge in recent years.”

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Carnap
Carnap
1 year ago

As what is necessarily the case is actually the case, I assume Prof. Lillehammer meant to say “what is merely actually the case” or “what is contingently the case.”

Myself, I see nothing wrong with boundary policing and it seems to me that observing boundaries would have saved recent philosophers from some embarrassing errors produced by confident reliance on putative empirical results.Report

Millennial
Millennial
Reply to  Carnap
1 year ago

OK boomerReport

Matthew
Matthew
Reply to  Millennial
1 year ago

Now here is a philosophically interesting question: what does ‘Ok Boomer’ mean?
I got OK Boomer-ed yesterday and I’m only 22.Report

Larrry
Larrry
Reply to  Matthew
1 year ago

It means you’ve taken the blue pill, not the red one.Report

David Thurman
David Thurman
Reply to  Larrry
1 year ago

Sounds like a variation on traditional Christian group think “oh we are different”.

Someone recently asked me what’s wrong with religious folk my comment was “nothing they are normal”. But I am a lefty literally so what do I know about “normals”.Report

Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
Reply to  Matthew
1 year ago

Perhaps you’re a ‘young fogey’ -?Report

M
M
Reply to  Matthew
1 year ago

“Ok Boomer” means OK BOOMER.
— Paul Horwich.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Millennial
1 year ago

if you want to make the case that people stigmatized as non-analytical are stigmatized unfairly, making this sort of reply (or upvoting it) isn’t the way to go.Report

Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
Reply to  Carnap
1 year ago

This is amusing – this response is a brilliant example of the kind of ‘coercive refusal’ that it seems to me Prof. Lillehammer is highlighting for our critical scrutiny. It has everything – it leads off with some pretentious showing off of arcane (modal) knowledge to intimidate the reader, and finishes with scary shaming of anyone who might presume to cross the disciplinary line (“embarrassing errors”), whilst the line’s exact location is left a mystery, insofar as specific examples of cases where confident reliance on putative empirical results led philosophers astray are not given (thereby shielding ‘Carnap’ from any alternative perspectives on the usefulness to philosophical inquiry of the cases in question, if indeed he had anything specific in mind).Report

Carnap
Carnap
Reply to  Professor Apricot
1 year ago

That actual isn’t opposed to necessary is hardly arcane and noting this is not showing off.

There is, I think, a lamentable tendency among certain philosophers to suppose that philosophy is interested in mere possibility as opposed primarily in necessary truths about its primary targets (knowledge, justice, mind, truth, explanation, etc). That tendency makes it seem that knowledge of what is actual is to be sought empirically.

As for embarrassing errors, one might look at the headlong rush to invoke stereotype threat and implicit bias.

Not sure why noting these facts is “coercive refusal.”Report

Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
Reply to  Carnap
1 year ago

Dear Carnap,
It seems to me no-one who hasn’t been trained in modal logic would be able to follow the first sentence in your earlier post – yet there was no need to put the point in those terms. Hence I submit that it was showing off – also because of how along the way you presumed to correct Prof. Lillehammer’s understanding of his own meaning.
Regarding stereotype threat and implicit bias – thank you for giving specific examples of your earlier point. But why are these examples “embarrassing”? At least now we’re having a real philosophical discussion…Report

Carnap
Carnap
Reply to  Professor Apricot
1 year ago

Professor Apricot,

I guess I think every philosopher understands those distinctions. What better way is there to put the point? I don’t “presume to correct Lillehammer’s understanding of his own meaning” merely to suggest a statement on which it was more clearly true.Report

David Thurman
David Thurman
Reply to  Professor Apricot
1 year ago

” it leads off with some pretentious showing off of arcane (modal) knowledge to intimidate the reader”

I think they learned that from the theology department. In regards to theology it’s an absolute neccesity, till it’s understood for it’s absurdity, which then one realizes it’s necessity is, to discover it’s absurdity. . Philosophy is probably the same thing. Breathing is way way under appreciated in philosophy theology etc. I never read any philosophy debates on breathing!Report

Avalonian
1 year ago

I absolutely agree here, and I recall that even at an empiricist-friendly grad school my own efforts to bring broadly empirical data to bear on normative issues were met with bemused skepticism. Certainly none of the big-name philosophers there ever did anything like that, and this served as a powerful reminder that the top echelons were reserved for those whose work made no sustained, significant contact with contingency.

However, I do think we should be wary of singling out Analytic philosophy; this runs much deeper than that pesky divide. Huge strands of Continental philosophy are the same; i.e. those who conceive of phenomenology as “first philosophy”. Moreover, In my experience, it is entirely normal for people who study newer forms of continental philosophy to dismiss empirical tractability on entirely different grounds; namely that social or natural science is ideological, that its concepts merely further the interests of power or oppressive systems, that our primary task as philosophers is to deconstruct and unmask all of this and call it a day. The functional effect is the same as in the analytic case: students who want to build models of how the world contingently is that can inform normative theorizing are shunted out of the discipline.Report

gradstudent
gradstudent
1 year ago

I don’t agree with Lillehammer about the classification of any of the views he listed as “intellectually corrosive”, and would submit that the very use of such a classification at all is part of the problemReport

David Thurman
David Thurman
Reply to  gradstudent
1 year ago

“intellectually corrosive”, and would submit that the very use of such a classification at all is part of the problem. ”

I might say anything to get the intellect off itself would appear corrosive to those whom only understand the intellect as primary. So the good professor may be in the asperger spectrum neurologically speaking.

Philosophy like theology is horrid at dialogue on experience it’s fantastic at debating details and interpretations created in regards to experience. Just like theology.Report

Murali
Murali
1 year ago

Here is the thing. When pressured as to why a given empirical consideration is relevant, the so-called empiricist either has no answer to give it gives an aprioristic principle.

Regarding so-called basic propositions, the way I understand that they are used, the implicit claim is that either we are stipulating the meaning of the key terms, rose terms non-stipulatively have those meanings, or the linguistic intutions deployed suggest strongly that one constraint on possible meanings of this term is that they make the sentence come out true.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Murali
1 year ago

“Why is this given empirical consideration relevant?” That question admits of many kinds of answer, the most satisfying of which depends on how we answer this question: Relevant to whose purposes, as part of which project? Empiricism or scientism is, in part, a lionization of scientific relevance, relevance to the various scientific disciplines.

In class the other day, my students and I were finishing up our discussion of Nagel’s “The Absurd.” My students quickly became interested in Nagel’s claim that, since mice lack self-consciousness, mice do not live absurd lives. They picked up on the implication that self-consciousness is a necessary condition of living an absurd life. This led to the question of whether other animals are self-conscious in the relevant way, which led to the question of how to figure that out, which led to the question of whether there is a threshold of biological complexity and what that threshold might be.

What my students were doing by asking these questions was articulating a context in which these empirical questions took on a specific, non-scientific relevance they did not have before. That’s a valuable intellectual accomplishment.

Even though it is becoming fetishized these days, the idea of starting with empirical considerations assumed to be relevant and attempting to draw philosophical conclusions from them is only one way for philosophical and scientific thought to interact.

All of this is a qualified agreement with what you say in your first paragraph, or something nearby what you say in your first paragraph.Report

Ben
Ben
1 year ago

To describe one’s opponent as subscribers to the notion that “truth” is nothing more than “power” sounds like an either-or argument. How can that be accepted?Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
1 year ago

well, quite a few things are not philosophical questions. I do sympathize with the author, but I also think some of you are forgetting how many undergraduate courses — and even graduate courses — are used as soapboxes for whatever social or political opinions the professor has (or particular students have). extreme policing of this is obviously objectionable, and you should be able to experiment with odd views you might not know how to categorize, but: it’s a waste of both time and tuition to get into a discussion of the empirical merits of, say, standardized testing in a philosophy of education course when it’s better studied by another discipline and essentially no one is familiar with enough literature to have an informed opinion. when your time in class is quite expensive — which is the case for many students — defining what is not philosophy is practical in several senses.Report

Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
1 year ago

I am completely in sympathy with Professor Lillehammer. You may or may not think that philosophical propositions (e.g., “Pleasure is the only good,” “Colour is real”) are directly testable by empirical methods. But even if you don’t, you can still think that empirical propositions help make them credible (or not). For example, suppose you find that people willingly make huge sacrifices of pleasure and ease to educate themselves and their children. This doesn’t prove one way or another that pleasure is not the only good, but at the very least it makes philosophical work for pure hedonists. Similarly, suppose you find that individuals normally vary as to their perceptions of colour: this once again doesn’t prove that colour is subjective, but at the very least it makes work for the objectivist. One can, of course, disagree (in both cases) about what exactly the work consists in, but it’s unacceptable to say that these empirical propositions, and the scientific work done to establish them, are simply irrelevant. So, I completely agree with Professor Lillehammer that “classifying something as “an empirical question” so as not to engage with it” is a form of pre-emptive “policing”—an arbitrary exercise of institutional power to silence opposition. It’s not an accident, I think, that in philosophy, the most elite schools tend to be the most aprioristic and in philosophy of mind, the most devoted to established paradigms.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
1 year ago

“It’s not an accident, I think, that in philosophy, the most elite schools tend to be the most aprioristic and in philosophy of mind, the most devoted to established paradigms.”

Is the claim that Rutgers, Pitt and Michigan are not elite, or that they are aprioristic? Neither seems super plausible to me.Report

Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
1 year ago

They’re elite departments. I am not sure that they are elite schools. I meant to be referring to a cultural attitude of privilege.Report

David Doyal
David Doyal
1 year ago

I fail to understand how a conversation like this can go on without any concern about the meanings of the words that are being used in the examples being put forth. Truth or falsity are dependent on the meanings of the words and sentences, yet there seems to be a lack of awareness of this during the conversation.Report

Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
Reply to  David Doyal
1 year ago

Do say more.Report