In Defense of the Details (guest post)


Are today’s younger philosophers “focusing too much on detailed investigations of individual things and not enough on the big picture”?

In the following guest post*, Joshua Knobe, professor of philosophy, linguistics, and psychology at Yale University, argues they’re not.

(An earlier version of this post first appeared at The New X-Phi Blog.)


[Hieronymus Bosch, “Garden of Earthly Delights” (detail)]

In Defense of the Details
by Joshua Knobe

Talking with other philosophers from my generation, I often encounter a certain amount of dissatisfaction about what has been going on within the younger generation in certain areas (language, mind, epistemology, philosophy of science). I don’t share this dissatisfaction, and I thought maybe I should say a little bit about why.

Broadly speaking, the usual worry is that “kids today” are focusing too much on detailed investigations of individual things and not enough on the big picture. Caricaturing somewhat, the thought is that a typical Gen X grad student in the philosophy of language would have been working on something like “the nature of meaning,” while a typical Gen Z grad student is working on something more like “free choice inferences involving disjunctions under epistemic modals.” Similarly, the typical Gen X student in the philosophy of science would have been working on something like “the nature of scientific theories,” while the typical Gen Z grad student is working on something more like “the application of causal Bayes nets to time series data.”

It is hard to deny that certain areas of philosophy have changed in precisely that direction, but I don’t agree that this change is something we should regret. To see why, we need to introduce an important distinction. The distinction is between (a) the amount of words people are writing about the big picture issues and (b) the degree to which people are finding important truths about the big picture issues. It might well be the case that philosophers these days are writing fewer words that are directly about the big picture issues, but in my view, the things philosophers are doing now are actually teaching us more about those very issues.

As one illustration, let’s consider the way things have changed over time in the study of folk-psychological concepts. I choose this specific example just because I happen to be especially familiar with it, but the aim is to illustrate a broader point that applies equally in numerous other cases.

A few decades ago, research in this area was dominated by discussion of sweeping theories that were supposed to capture the nature of all folk-psychological concepts. These theories prompted an enormous amount of discussion, but one striking feature of that discussion was that it hardly ever involved any real engagement with questions about the individual concepts found in folk psychology.

Clearly, things have changed quite radically. These days, there is much more work on individual folk-psychological concepts. There is now an extensive body of research on the folk-psychological concept of pain, on the distinction between the folk-psychological concepts of thinking vs. believing, on the concept of happiness. Anyone working in this area could name lots of further research along similar lines.

So, what has been the overall effect of this change? I certainly agree that there are fewer words being written these days about the larger questions involving how to understand the nature of folk-psychological concepts as a whole, but I don’t agree with the view that we are now learning fewer important truths about these larger questions. On the contrary, I would say just the opposite: Thinking purely in the abstract about the nature of folk-psychological concepts led us to miss some of the most important aspects of these concepts. Now that philosophers are engaging more with the little details, we are actually learning more about the most fundamental questions regarding the nature of folk-psychological concepts more broadly.

Similar points apply in other areas. Within the philosophy of language, there might be less work these days that involves just thinking in the abstract about the nature of language, but the detailed investigations philosophers have been pursuing about individual things (epistemic modals, presupposition projection, indefinite singular generics) have been giving us valuable insight into truly fundamental questions regarding how language works. Indeed, it is really beginning to seem that the best way of getting a better understanding of those larger questions is to engage in a more serious way with the details of various individual things.

Ultimately, then, I would not say that contemporary philosophy is moving away from an attempt to go after the most fundamental questions. What is changing is people’s ideas about how to go after those questions. The core idea is that we are not going to find the answers to those questions by turning away from the study of individual things and focusing instead on something completely abstract. Instead, the way to find the answers to those questions is precisely by engaging in a detailed study of individual things.

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WiseGuy
4 days ago

since the new kids hate Kant and like memesReport

5v8x5v.jpeg
John
4 days ago

I’m tenacious, and that means that I’m willing to spend a lot of time getting as clear as I possibly can about issues that are manageable for non-brilliant labourers like myself.

But solving philosophy’s ‘big problems’ (whatever those are)? I’m not smart enough. And you probably aren’t either.

And that’s okay. It helps us revere the titans more authentically.Report

Joshua Knobe
Reply to  John
4 days ago

Hi John,

I’m really glad that you are bringing out the connection between the disdain for detail and the idea that great philosophy is the product of “brilliance.” As Justin Sytsma recently pointed out to me, it seems like two ideas are indeed very closely connected.

There is a certain picture of philosophy according to which, for example, most ordinary philosophers are only able to make progress on more general questions by first thinking in detail about individual things, but then the true titans of philosophy are able to somehow skip over all of these details and just directly see into the heart of the general questions.

But surely, this is a pernicious picture that we should be trying to resist. The way to make a genuine progress here is not to skip over the details and directly access the answers to the general questions using our brilliance; it is to evaluate answers to the general questions by carefully assessing the evidence coming out of detailed investigations of individual things.Report

John
Reply to  Joshua Knobe
4 days ago

Hi Joshua,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’re right here. And I think I should have been clearer (though I might be revising my thoughts now…).

I didn’t mean to suggest the ‘titans’ can skip over the details; just that they don’t get as lost in, and overwhelmed by, them as much as I do. I also didn’t mean to suggest any dichotomy between detail labourers and genius. But I can see how my post implies otherwise.Report

Joshua Knobe
Reply to  John
4 days ago

Thanks John! I really appreciate your engagement, and this clarification is very helpful.Report

Nope
Nope
Reply to  Joshua Knobe
3 days ago

“But surely, this is a pernicious picture that we should be trying to resist.”

Could you say more about why you believe this? It doesn’t seem obvious to me. (Nothing against non-titans, myself included—but “surely” there’s something reasonable about how this picture describes a lot of philosophical work. Or do you mean that the picture intends to say how philosophizing *ought* to be done? That seems more pernicious to me, but still not obviously so.) Thanks!Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Nope
3 days ago

I don’t know what Knobe had in mind, but here’s a thought:

To someone suspicious of attributions of brilliance (as a sort of innate talent), connecting the work of “titans” with brilliance tends to perpetuate a picture of philosophy as something to be properly done by the brilliant. And to many, this picture seems likely to perpetuate the underrepresentation of women and non-white (and for that matter, the socioeconomically disadvantaged) in prestigious philosophy departments. For these people, then, it makes sense that the picture would seem to be pernicious and something to be resisted.Report

Average Joe
Average Joe
Reply to  Jen
2 days ago

Jen, I’ve definitely witnessed both the reverence for brilliance and the scandalous underrepresentation of non-white, non-males, and disadvantaged in the profession. So I don’t doubt that there may be a link between these correlated trends. But what is the causal connection supposed to be, exactly? Sorry if I’m being thick (it’s a common affliction of the non-brilliant).Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Average Joe
1 day ago

It’s not what I believe (as I’m not sure what to believe), so I’m not sure what people believe the causal connection to be. (For what it’s worth, I believe in brilliance, and believe it can be found in the “average Joe” as well as in prestigious philosophy departments.) But here’s a thought that makes sense:

Most people aren’t brilliant, and for this reason can’t identify brilliance in anyone. They find that others associate brilliance with the “titans.” Then, trying (but failing) to identify brilliance in people, they tend to associate it with irrelevant core factors associated with the “titans”: white, man, Ivy League, etc. It is thus less likely to be noticed or falsely identified in women, people of color, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged. These things obviously can perpetuate the underrepresentation of these people in prestigious departments.Report

Adnjunctius Maximus
Adnjunctius Maximus
Reply to  John
4 days ago

Maybe it’s my suspicious nature, but I think that most of the “titans” are colossi with clay feet. I read in a recent blog post that the 1960’s-1990’s period in anglophone philosophy will one day be remembered as a Golden Age, and I wish it was someone’s idea of parody. Of course, I’m one of those weird people who thinks that the history of philosophy has wisdom to teach us and lessons about the human condition, and that philosophy is not mainly about posing clever puzzles and working out intricate solutions.Report

lowlygrad
4 days ago

Locke: The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity: but every one must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge….

Old conversation on this (from which I copy-pasted): https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2013/03/on-being-an-under-labourer.htmlReport

Sara
4 days ago

Part of this might be the push to publish before hitting the job market and having narrowly-focused papers within the research project that can be sent for publication. It could also be the result of how classes have been taught lately–focusing seminars on examining independent articles within a topic area instead of taking more time to examine the bigger picture.Report

Colin
4 days ago

Thanks for the post, Josh! I like this as a response to complaints about over-specialization.

This got me thinking about how something similar has happened in history of philosophy circles too. It’s not that (say) historians of early modern philosophy don’t care about the big ’empiricism vs. rationalism’ issues any more. Instead, it’s recognized that those big issues are better tackled by, say, understanding the subtle differences between various so-called rationalists (and bringing in previously-neglected figures) than by initially lumping them together in some sweeping narrative. It’s more work going through the details, so it will slow us down on making grandiose claims… but that’s a good thing.Report

Jen
Jen
4 days ago

It seems to me that there’s at least one way in which Knobe’s response is inadequate. Here’s what I have in mind: What we often want from big-picture inquiry is that it helps us to adjudicate between big-picture theories. But detail-focused inquiry often enough makes assumptions regarding big-picture theories, and in this way fails to make satisfactory big-picture progress.

Here’s an example for illustration: One might be working on the semantics of ‘ought’ and, in doing so, assuming that ‘ought’ is a modal term that operates on preference-rankings of available outcomes. Presumably, this requires assuming a peculiar noncognitivist theory of normative judgment (according to which ought-judgments express preference-rankings) or a peculiar cognitivist theory (according to which ought-judgments express beliefs about our own preference-rankings). Either way, the assumption limits the big-picture progress that can be made because, in assuming one or the other theory, it fails to provide a basis on which we can adjudicate between noncognitivist and cognitivist metanormative theories.

Of course, big-picture inquiry also requires making assumptions, but the nature of those assumptions, it seems, less often precludes adjudication between big-picture theories.Report

Joshua Knobe
Reply to  Jen
4 days ago

Hi Jen,

Thanks, that’s a really good point. Just as you say, when philosophers are working on questions about individual things, they do sometimes presuppose answers to larger theoretical questions, and this can result in a type of research on individual things that doesn’t help us to make progress on big picture questions.

But though I completely agree with your point that this sometimes happens, it also seems that there have been many cases in which it was precisely the attempt to work out detailed accounts of some individual thing that led researchers to start raising foundational questions about big picture theories. Sticking with the case of semantics for the moment: relativism was motivated in large part by attempts to work out the details of predicates of personal taste and epistemic modals, dynamic semantics by attempts to work out the details of presupposition and anaphora, the grammatical approach to implicature by detailed questions about implicatures in embedded contexts, expressivism by questions about what happens when we embed an epistemic modal under “suppose.”

Again, none of this is to disagree with your main point – which is completely correct – but it does seem like we have a pretty good track record of doing work on the details of individual things that it doesn’t just presuppose existing theories about the big picture but instead ends up calling into question those theories.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Joshua Knobe
4 days ago

Thanks for the reply. I agree with the thrust of your point.

I am, however, slightly suspicious that at least some of the work you describe as being work on individual things is properly described as big-picture work. For example, relativist semantics as I understand it (i.e. MacFarlane’s stuff) arose out of a dissatisfaction with the treatment of certain predicates and modals by existing theories, where the work on those terms was to pose prima facie problems for existing semantic theories and to motivate and support a competing semantic theory. If that’s right, then there’s a question of whether it is properly regarded as big-picture work.

This is not to claim that all the work you have in mind is improperly regarded as being work on individual things. It is, rather, simply to raise a question about some of it.Report

Mark Wilson
4 days ago

I’m inclined to think that there has always been lot of nitty-gritty work being done in philosophy, but only the more sweeping and visionary stuff tends to make it to the next generation.Report

thedevil'sinthem
4 days ago

The good men all are dead,
the good women are all too.
What are we, in the Silver Age,
supposed to do?
 
Pick some nits instead—
a minor point will do.
Who has time to be a sage
ere tenure review?Report

Last edited 4 days ago by thedevil'sinthem
V. Alan White
4 days ago

Really look to the sciences here. General relativity sought big-picture to unite the special theory with gravity, but the clincher to Einstein was in the details–the perihelion of Mercury. That led to predictions of other details like the eclipse results–more details. Not to mention much later stuff like the invention of GPS and the detection of gravity waves. Big truth requires small stuff to invigorate it.

The problem for philosophy big truths is that the conceptual small stuff is consistent with so very many big conceptual truths. I for one think this makes enormous room for the place of pragmatism to mitigate anything philosophical that might have consequences for everyday living, because workability as an ultimate arbiter for science (in the relativity example above) might play best out best (defined pragmatically) for philosophical big-versus-small issues as well. For most of my career I distrusted pragmatism as a reliable philosophical approach: in the last part of my life’s thinking I’ve gotten more focused on what “reliable” might mean.Report

Kafkas Caprazli
4 days ago

Thank you author Joshua Kobe and facilitator Justin Weinberg for this nice and useful guest post. It triggered the following for me :

Present philosophers need to differentiate between facets of meaning and importance which I noticed are often used interchangeably – mistakenly as well erroneously.

Meaning is assessing and explaining linkages between facts that are objectively verifiable. You may wish to label a group of facts as information and the insights synthesized analyzing that group of facts as knowledge. So the concept of meaning responds to our question of interlink ages between things, the why and how things are linked, can one or more thing trigger, support or stop, brake another thing or its processes. We shall find stuff that is interesting.

Importance is about the purposeful impact of things on other things. The concept of importance responds to our question of Well all this is interesting but so what? We shall find stuff that is relevant and significantly impactful.

To advance philosophy it could useful to broaden and deepen the classical scope from individuals and organization of societies to include our planet with it’s limits and opportunities. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations represents a framework for making roadmaps for decision makers. The 2030 Agenda is the result of the probably the largest and longest scientific and political negotiations in recorded history with participation of 193 nations of our world. It is time to bring a philosophy into the world of sustainable development so that we try to think beyond our (humans) limits of time (2030) and space (earth).Report

Ted Parent
4 days ago

I am *certainly* not one to dismiss detail-oriented work. However, there is something about Josh’s (excellent) post which confuses me.

His rationale for detail-oriented work is that it leads to a better understanding of the big picture. However, working out how the details feed into the big picture is, itself, an immensely large philosophical undertaking. It requires some kind of systematic accounting of a galaxy of particulars.

This leads to two points. First, I don’t see anyone doing much of this systematic accounting. At least, the people who are invested in the details don’t seem to do much of it. They just seem to stick with the details (apart from maybe a few, loose remarks in their closing paragraphs). So I don’t see any real threat to detail-oriented work.

Second, Josh’s rationale for detail-oriented work concedes the *primacy* of the big picture. But if that is the primary thing, then why encourage more work on details instead? I understand that knowing more detail is always better, but sleuthing out more detail is a game that doesn’t end. At some point, some big picture accounting should be done, if we grant (as Josh seems to) that the big picture is primary. And if big picture accounting should be done at all, it should be done well–meaning that there should be lots of philosophers regularly devoted to big picture accounting. (No elitism here–everyone is invited to the party. In fact, the more, the better…social epistemology FTW.)

One worry, I suppose, is that if we cannot agree on the details, how could we ever agree on the big picture? Well, I wouldn’t expect widespread agreement. But that does not make the work valueless, just like widespread disagreement does not make detail-oriented work valueless.

Another worry is that big picture accounting will be done poorly without intricate knowledge of the details. But again, I agree that more detail makes things better. What’s more, however, I don’t think big picture accounting will inevitably be “poor” without exhaustive technical knowledge. Yes, it would be nice to have such knowledge in reconstituting the big picture, but even partial detail-oriented knowledge could yield big-picture theories with some value. (And of course, further tweaking on these theories would be the norm; they wouldn’t be ossified, unrevisable worldviews.)

Again, the context is that we really do *not* see big picture accounting in contemporary philosophy, even though we see *reams* of detailed-oriented work. If the situation were reversed, I would be the first to scream for more details. But things being as they are, I don’t see why Josh is calling us to work more on the details, especially when that is a game which doesn’t end, and especially when we agree that the big picture is primary.Report

Joshua Knobe
Reply to  Ted Parent
3 days ago

Hi Ted and Martin,

I strongly agree with a lot of what you are saying here, and I’m sorry if my original post was written in a way that made it seem like I was trying to deny all of this.

Consider again my example of research on folk-psychological concepts. The point I was making is that the best way to come to a deeper understanding of the larger issue is to engage in serious, detailed work about individual folk-psychological concepts: the concept of deciding, the concept of happiness, the concept of love, the concept of learning, the concept of knowledge, and so forth.

Applying your broader point to this particular case, I could imagine someone saying that there is too much work these days devoted to understanding each of those individual concepts and not enough devoted to taking what we’ve learned from the detailed study of those individual concepts and using it to explore more general questions. This strikes me as a fair criticism. For example, I could imagine someone thinking that there has been interesting research on the ordinary concept of happiness and interesting research on the ordinary concept of love, but that there hasn’t been enough work aiming to synthesize these two strands of research and think about how, taken together, they might be teaching us something fundamental about folk psychology .

But presumably, the change we see over time is not that there is now ever less work aimed at synthesizing detailed investigations of individual things to arrive at more general theories. I mean there might be too little of that type of work right now, but at the very least there is more than there used to be! The change over time seems rather to be a decrease in the amount of work that defends broad claims about abstract questions while just not engaging at all with detailed investigations of individual things.Report

Martin Glazier
4 days ago

I think Ted Parent nicely brings out the fact that philosophy needs not only detail-oriented work but also big-picture work — after all, someone has to figure out how all those details hang together. It’s hard to disagree with Josh Knobe that detail-oriented work is important, in part for the reasons he gives, but the difficult question here is what the balance should be between the details and the big picture. Speaking as a younger philosopher (though not a Gen Zer), my own sense is that we have tipped too far in the direction of the details. Sara, above, offers a broadly materialist reason for this trend that is surely part of the explanation.Report

Mark Wilson
3 days ago

One has to also wonder to what extent the ‘grant’ model of funding is a cause of all this. Philosophers are doing an increasingly large amount of work under grants, for which ‘results’ must be obtained and published in order that one be able to obtain future grants. This is very feasible if one has concrete, small goals, but completely unfeasible if one has broader, big picture goals. Such a system itself discourages larger scale projects whose outcome cannot be all but guaranteed in a fixed time frame.Report

Alan White
2 days ago

I have no objection to detailed work per se, but I do deem it highly regrettable that there appears to be great resistance to big-picture work. Evidence of this is given in my podcast “Why Podcasts” (available at various sites, including https://open.spotify.com/show/7ypUVMqn1uhGEPk3DV2mXB?go=1&sp_cid=241ad76b4bb1015910367c855b005ede&utm_source=embed_player_p&utm_medium=desktop&nd=1). Among the details: the person who agreed to review STRUCTURE AND BEING for the TLS never wrote the review, Peter van Inwagen agreed to review STRUCTURE AND BEING and BEING AND GOD for NOTRE DAME PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEWS but never delivered, and Gary Gutting was unable to find anyone will to review TOWARD A PHILOSOPHICAL THEORY OF EVERYTHING for NDPR even when he quoted the CHOICE review describing that book as “a critically important work for all those deeply interested in philosophical issues and their significance for basic human concerns.”Report

Chris
Chris
Reply to  Alan White
2 days ago

I wonder how hard NDPR tries. I have never been asked to review a book by them. Then again, I’ve never written any, and maybe they only ask people to review books who have written one themselves.Report

Alan White
Reply to  Chris
2 days ago

I’m convinced Gary Gutting worked hard trying to find a reviewer for TAPTOE. But what puzzles me more than his failure there is the failure of Peter van Inwagen and the TLS reviewer to write after having promised to do so. If they thought the books were bad, wouldn’t they have written negative reviews? Why would they not have written at all, given their prior agreements? I’m baffled.Report

V. Alan White
2 days ago

A small detail of my own if Justin will allow: most of my comments over the years here have been with simply “Alan White”–and so should not be attributed to the other such who has posted here recently. (Hi Alan–we met once at the APA–remember?) Anyway, to avoid further confusion I will always and only post under my author’s name from now on. BTW if you’re curious the “V.” stands for “Villard”, which my father dubbed me with and which he never used either. Our common name does presently sit on the surface of Mars on the chip inscribed with millions of names in the Perseverance rover.Report