The Purpose of a University / Negativity about Philosophers


A couple of weeks ago, I posted about a popular tweet asking why people had negative attitudes towards philosophers and philosophy. Later that day, an email brought to my attention an essay and response to it that seemed to be the kind of thing one might point to as part of an explanation for those negative attitudes.

The email was from Andrew Beck, senior editor for philosophy at Routledge, sharing with me an exchange in The Chronicle of Higher Education between a pair of historians, Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder (both of Carleton College), and philosopher Michael Veber (East Carolina).

Khalid and Synder’s point in their piece is that the variety of legitimate research and teaching activities of academics in the variety of disciplines found at a university is not well captured by the idea of “the pursuit of truth.” (They are concerned with this because they’re worried that some professors will not find the “pursuit of truth” rhetoric used by some academic freedom organizations sufficiently motivating.) They don’t think truth is irrelevant to the work conducted at a university, but rather that talk of its pursuit is an inapt way of describing what is going on when professors intepret literature, identify the meaning of historical events, create art, develop new techniques for making music, write computer programs to address practical problems, and so on. As they say:

Different disciplines have different standards for assessing the quality of evidence and claims. These standards should not be abandoned. Appeals to truth or truth-seeking may play an important role. There may even be a kind of sliding scale when it comes to how much truth matters, with the periodic table of elements at one end, the meaning of Huck’s raft in the middle, and throwing a clay pot at the other.

Unfortunately, Khalid and Synder’s article was given a needlessly provocative title (probably not by them, but by an editor): “The Purpose of a University Isn’t Truth. It’s Inquiry.” 3 out of 4 analytic philosophers will read that headline and say “But… it’s inquiry… toward the truth!” and proceed to hate-read the article. The remaining 1 out of 4 analytic philosophers will not read the article because their heads will have already exploded. I was initially one of those 3 out of 4, as was, it seems, Michael Veber. But as I read the article, my view of it changed.

Before I proceed, let me emphasize that I’ve got nothing against Professor Veber. He seems like a fine philosopher who has written lots of interesting stuff—check out his work—and who is now working on a book, Epistemology: What it Is and Why You Should Care, which you should all buy multiple copies of to give to your neighbors when it is published.

I suppose that on a day that began with me reading a tweet asking why people have negative views of philosophers, I’d be primed to interpret everything I see philosophers doing as providing possible answers to that question, and indeed that’s how I read Veber’s piece. In it, he defends the pursuit of truth as the proper aim of a university and central to the importance of academic freedom and free speech. Yet he does so in ways that I think might provide examples of why people sometimes have negative views of philosophers, if they in fact do.

1. Condescension. Khalid and Synder’s essay, Veber writes, “reminds me of something a senior prof told me when I was a young philosophy grad student. ‘A good philosophy paper is one so clear that if you are wrong, we can tell.’ By that standard, Khalid and Snyder’s article is excellent.” Philosophers may, unfortunately, be used to talking this way to each other. But we should be sufficiently aware how it comes off to others who might not find clarity a sufficient consolation for error. Furthermore there’s the odd belittling of K&S, comparing them to students trying to write a good philosophy paper. Maybe Veber meant these lines in the friendliest of tones, but they don’t come off to my ear that way.

2. The Naive Gotcha. The headline of K&S’s article says that “the purpose of a university isn’t truth” and they note that many university mission statements don’t refer to “truth.” One strategy Veber takes in response is to show that even when universities describe their missions without use of the word “truth,” they often use words that imply truth, such as “knowledge.” You can’t have knowledge without truth, because knowledge has to be true, and so the pursuit of knowledge is the pursuit of truth—Haha! However, it would be strange sounding to use “pursuit of truth” to describe the pursuit of much know-how, and there’s plenty of know-how being pursued in academia. Perhaps one could render, for example, “she knows how to intepret the literature of that era” in terms of the pursuit of truth, but there would certainly be an odd ring to it. Even if it involves the pursuit of truth, describing such work that way seems rather Procrustean.

Veber takes issue with K&S’s preferred replacement for describing what university’s are about: “critical inquiry.” He says: “What is inquiry if not an effort to get at the truth or to get at knowledge or to get at something else that entails truth?” Haha again! Except, well, K&S do answer that question. Inspired by John Dewey, they say:

critical inquiry harnesses the power of what Dewey saw as four natural human instincts or interests: conversation and communication, investigation, construction, and artistic expression. These, Dewey says, are the “natural resources” for deep, transformative educational experiences. Critical inquiry knits these four instincts together, giving them shape, purpose, and direction. How? By placing them in an educational context characterized by discipline, self-awareness, and reflection. Critical inquiry seeks to cultivate habits of mind that go beyond mere curiosity about the world. It combines creativity, experimentation, and evaluation in an ongoing, iterative process. It can encompass the full range of learning, teaching, and research activities on college campuses, from experiments in particle physics to orchestra rehearsals of Brahms’s concertos.

3. Philososplaining. If mansplaining is paradigmatically the phenomenon of men explaining things they’re not expert or experienced in to women who are, we can use “philososplaining” to refer to philosophers explaining things they’re not expert or experienced in to others who are. Veber says, “Khalid and Snyder say there are entire disciplines on contemporary college campuses that aren’t even trying to get at the truth. Their example: history.” He continues

I am not a historian. Khalid and Snyder are. Nonetheless, I feel completely confident in saying: That’s insane. If Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, then it’s true — in fact, really true — that he did, and there’s nothing any of us can do now to make it so that never happened.

Note the simplistic example—the identification of a year in which an event happened—which is not representative of the kind of work academic historians do. If it were, then perhaps I could better understand Veber’s excited reaction. Still, though, isn’t concluding that what history professors say academic history is like is “insane” at least modest evidence that one’s facts or reasoning is off? Here’s what K&S say:

In our discipline, history, the idea that historians can capture history as it really happened has been rejected as a fool’s errand by most of its practitioners for more than a century. As the British historian Edward H. Carr wrote in the early 1960s: “The reconstitution of the past in the historian’s mind is dependent on empirical evidence. But it is not in itself an empirical process and cannot consist in a mere recital of facts. On the contrary, the process of reconstitution governs the selection and interpretation of facts: this, indeed, is what makes them historical facts.”

They then go on to look at the example of “why South Boston resisted school desegregation efforts in the 1970s” and note that “looking at the same evidence, two historians can reach very different conclusions.” Identifying actual historical causation is complicated and likely to involve a lot of argument, evidence, and indeterminacy. As philosophers who are still figuring out how best to understand causation itself, we should appreciate this. If historians are knowingly engaging in a collective enterprise that will generate informative yet mutually incompatible complicated historical stories, perhaps owing to different choices about who or what to focus on, and with no means of conclusively settling which is correct—that is, if they know they are not going to end up with the truth, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that history is not best understood as “pursuit of the truth.” That of course doesn’t mean truth has nothing to do with their work.

4. Canon Calling. Veber thinks that defenders of academic freedom should be be focused on truth because “the best defense of freedom of expression is still Chapter II of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty—and the entire argument there is tethered to the idea that we want the truth.” He then provides a brief summary of part of Mill’s argument. But this kind of move can come off as a profession of faith—“as Mill said…”—when obvious worries about it are left unmentioned. Like Veber, I am a fan of Mill’s argument for freedom of speech, but it is premised on major empirical claims that are not only unsubstantiated but that, with each new development in communications technology, face new and seemingly stronger challenges. I share the great Millian hope that freedom, knowledge, and happiness are positively correlated, but it is a hope. More generally, name-checking well-known philosophers and even rehearsing their arguments, when done in a way that fails to acknowledge obvious questions about or challenges to them, convinces no one and may make the author seem smugly ignorant. Of course, philosophers aren’t the only academics who do this, and probably aren’t the ones who are most guilty of it, but so what? As Kant would say…

*  *  *

Veber takes himself to be in opposition to “folks on campus who don’t care about the truth,” but that doesn’t seem to be the people K&S are concerned might be alienated by the rhetoric of academic freedom organizations. People whose work is not best described as “the pursuit of truth” may nonetheless care about the truth as part of their work—and that’s the case in and outside of academia.

If I am aiming for my pancakes to be fluffly yet slightly crisp around the edges, as good pancakes are, then one could say that I need to know whether it’s true that such-and-such ingredients and such-and-such methods will yield fluffy-yet-slightly-crisp pancakes. But that doesn’t mean that, as I stood at the range this morning, spatula in hand, and one of the kids asked, “what’s for breakfast?” I should have answered, “Truth, son. Truth is what’s for breakfast.”

Or maybe I should have. That would at least explain why it’s the most important meal of the day.

Regarding the four issues I used Professor Veber’s article to point out, as I said, I don’t think philosophers are the worst at “canon calling”, and I get the sense that condescension as a disciplinary norm is, thankfully, waning. But I do see a fair amount of “naive gotchas” and “philososplaining”—related to the familiar problems of missing the forest for the trees and armchairing assumptions—in philosophers’ interactions with others, and it seems to me that we should be on guard about such things. But perhaps that’s just me; I’m curious how others see things.

UPDATE: From the comments and some emails, I learned there was both a reply to Veber by Khalid and Snyder and a rejoinder to that by Veber.

UPDATE 2: Professor Veber responds to this post here.

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Caligula's Goat
2 months ago

Would this be enough to call for a truce?

Theory-based discplines aim at truth (here I would count not only the humanities, including literature but also mathematics, the sciences, etc).

Practice-based discplines aim at excellence (dance, art, applied engineering, etc).

Insofar as a university must create a generic unifying mission (we can later why it would need to do such a reductive thing), then I think it’s fair to say that universities are grounded in the pursuit of truth. Some discplines reach for it directly, through critical inquiry, and others depend on that project in order to express or create works (of art, engineering, etc.).Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 months ago

Of course, some might reverse this. Insofar as a university must create a generic unifying mission, universities are grounded in the pursuit of excellence. Some disciplines reach for it directly, in creative arts, performances, and technological development, while others depend on that project in order to more skillfully seek the truth. (What after all are things like the theory of finite simple groups, or Lewisian modal realism, other than excellently constructed tools designed for a purpose, in this case, a purpose of inquiring after the truth?)Report

Timothy Bays
Timothy Bays
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
2 months ago

Kenny,

the theory of finite simple groups is definitely inquiry after truth. Lewisian modal realism…?Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Timothy Bays
2 months ago

Lewisian modal realism is a tool for inquiring after the truth about things like the semantics of counterfactuals, the concepts of causation and laws, and thus the foundations of decision theory. We may think that in the end, this particular tool is not the best one for getting the truth, but it’s clearly an excellent and powerful tool, and a lot of the work it enables us to do is valuable, even if, in the end, not quite true.Report

Nate Sheff
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
2 months ago

The university’s grounding in the pursuit of excellence explains the importance of college sports.Report

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 months ago

I’ve talked to scientists who rather vehemently reject the idea that they are truing to uncover “truths” or anything like that. They want to characterize their work as coming up with useful models for helping us understand and function in the world. Whether those models were “true” descriptions of reality was a further claim they actively professed to avoid (for many of the reasons the historians adduce in the piece Justin refers to, etc.).

I also would not be surprised if many in the dance, art, etc. departments did not want to characterize their expression as depending on the pursuit of truth.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
2 months ago

How do they measure whether the models are useful?Report

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Laura Grams
2 months ago

We didn’t get that far in the conversation. (Also, just to be clear, I’m not going to bat for their views; just for the idea that their self-conceptions are based on what they take to be ideas other than truth.)Report

Last edited 2 months ago by Daniel Weltman
Cognitive Schmientist
Reply to  Laura Grams
2 months ago

I’m one of those scientists, so I can try to answer for myself! Briefly, I flatly reject the presumption that the notion of truth (of propositions) must be somehow metaphysically prior to the notion of usefulness or desirability (of action). I’m familiar with how incomprehensible this can seem to analytical philosophers; I don’t apologise for that, and I don’t accept that my viewpoint is self-evidently absurd. 

It’s not inconsistent to see the truth-values of statements about some object domain D as deriving from more fundamental (non-alethic) relations in D itself (if I understand right, deflationary accounts of truth do so). Nor is it inconsistent to suppose that one can interact with the domain D in ways that do not involve making statements about it, whose truth-values need to be evaluated.

For instance, it seems to me that when I engage with propositions about biscuits, there is a profound phenomenological difference from engaging more directly with the biscuits themselves. My main interaction with propositions is through (silent) verbal articulations, and I can attend to these, and they have a particular phenomenology, which is utterly different from the the phenomenology of biscuits: for instance, propositions are associated with a sense of plausibility, which biscuits aren’t; biscuits are associated with a subjective qualitative odour, which subvocalised propositions are not (at least for me). 

When I go looking for a biscuit, I do indeed care about whether there are biscuits in the jar. But that is not the same, in an important sense, as subjectively caring about whether the proposition “there are biscuits in the jar” is true. I will sometimes seek out a biscuit without subvocalising any proposition about biscuits (or indeed anything else). Likewise, I take dogs to care about biscuits and their locations, but I think that dogs can legitimately be said not to care about propositions or their truth-values. 

In philosophical terms, I am an arch-pragmatist: I see my interactions with subvocalised-propositions as subordinate to my interests in biscuits and other worldly desiderata. Crudely speaking, the reason that I care about the subjective properties of propositions (e.g. plausibility) is that doing so allows me to acquire biscuits more efficiently than a dog can, because I can employ more sophisticated behavioural strategies. 

So it is with science. Ultimately, I want theories that work well in procuring biscuits (and similar desiderata). Often, this does involve caring about (subjectively experienced) propositions and their truth-values. After all, much of science consists in making statements, of the sort amenable to plausibility-evaluation. But these are a means to an end, not the end in themselves. Report

Cognitive Schmientist
Reply to  Cognitive Schmientist
2 months ago

Incidentally, if one were interested in a sociological explanation of why philosophers tend to be so focused on the truth-values of statements rather than object relations in an underlying domain, it seems relevant to remark the following. 

Most non-philosophical disciplines, at least collectively, need to engage directly with their object domain in ways that do not immediately require propositional subvocalisation: scientists set up equipment, take measurements; historians look at photographs and physical artefacts; potters throw vases. These activities do not require consciously thinking about statements qua statements, and in some cases excessive propositional-style-thought would actively interfere with their competent execution.

By contrast, it is not clear that anything analogous applies to philosophy. The professional practice of philosophers consists (almost?) entirely of making verbal statements and arguments; so it would be sociologically unsurprising if they developed an institutional worldview under which statements (and their properties) were privileged over those object domains about which the statements are made.

This is idle conjecture – I’m just thinking out loud here!Report

koala
Reply to  Cognitive Schmientist
2 months ago

I feel that there’s a disconnect happening here with what philosophers care about and what you profess to care about. As a philosopher, I don’t conceive of myself as interacting with the various philosophical phenomena I inquire about by subvocalizing propositions about them to myself and assessing their plausibility. For example, I have various emotions in the process of making moral judgments that do not in the first place involve subvocalizing a proposition to myself. I will consider various situations (whether they are situations that I’ve personally experienced, situations that others have experienced, or hypothetical situations), and the actions of people in those situations will strike me as wrong or right. Of course, in the process of writing a paper about ethics, I will articulate and write down the proposition “so-and-so behaved wrongly in such-and-such situation,” but scientists also have to write down various propositions about the functioning of their lab equipment. My way of relating to the moral features of the situation does not involve any subvocalized propositions any more than a scientist’s use of their lab equipment requires subvocalized propositions. I don’t know about any philosophical field in which its practitioners primarily reflect on the object of their inquiry by subvocalizing various propositions about it. Of course philosophers have to write papers, and writing involves subvocalizing propositions to yourself, but just like everyone else, philosophers come up with their conclusions before they write them down.Report

Cognitive Schmientist
Reply to  koala
2 months ago

You’re right of course, and I was self-consciously just engaged in exploratory thought with that conjecture. My talk of subvocalised-propositions is really nothing more than gesturing at an idea, because I don’t really think that our mental processes can be modelled so crudely. I do still think that there is some relevant difference between philosophy and (many) other disciplines, which predisposes philosophers to truth-talk.Report

koala
Reply to  Cognitive Schmientist
2 months ago

Yeah, I certainly agree with you that philosophers are more disposed to truth-talk than members of other disciplines. After reflecting on what you said in your original comment some more, I think I have a better idea of what you were getting at, though I wouldn’t characterize it as “philosophers inquire into their subject matter by only reflecting on propositions.” But I think that something in the area is true, namely that the only “disciplined” part of philosophical inquiry is the part to do with writing and reflecting on propositions qua propositions. Scientists (and some historians, social scientists, literary critics) as part of their training learn to come into proper contact with their subject matter in a non-propositional way (e.g. the use of laboratory equipment, etc.) Philosophers are trained to write in a way that is persuasive to other philosophers, but the way in which they non-propositionally come into contact with the subject matter they write about is left up to them (e.g. I could come into contact with moral truths by reflecting on my personal experience, coming up with structurally interesting hypothetical cases, reading a cool Henry James short story, etc.) There aren’t exactly “research methods” you learn in philosophy (unless you are learning to conduct social science experiments or do archival research) in the way that there are in other disciplines. So maybe that has something to do with it. It’s an interesting question.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  koala
2 months ago

I do think there’s a sense in which “the linguistic turn” in mid century philosophy took this form, and a lot of topics like contextualism in epistemology only make sense if we think the primary goal is about identifying the truth values of certain sentences about a phenomenon, rather than understanding the phenomenon itself. I don’t think this is universally what all philosophers are doing, but because it is what some philosophers are doing, and because the work that did this is so influential throughout the field, people often do act as though this is what they’re doing even in cases where they aren’t.

I find in my own area of philosophy (Bayesian epistemology) a lot of people make an assumption that 50% is the default credence for things, because they assume that everything is a proposition that is either true or false. But as a matter of act, most propositions naturally come in much larger contrast classes (and often many of them) so that this obsession with truth as the primary property is probably leading people astray (even if truth is still somehow centrally important).Report

koala
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
2 months ago

I have to say that you are probably right about this, and my initial post was probably colored by my own intellectual sensibilities. I find the debate surrounding contextualism and similar debates where the focus is on when sentences about a phenomenon are true rather than the phenomenon itself to be unintelligible. I don’t see what people are getting out of those debates, and I haven’t had occasion to engage with work like that myself (partially because I mostly work on normative ethics and political philosophy, where those sorts of issues are much less salient). But of course, I should acknowledge that despite me finding it unintelligible, such work really does exist and has an influence on many areas of philosophy.Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Laura Grams
2 months ago

by whether or not they account (to the satisfaction of their peers) for the phenomena in question, Rorty rightly noted that after a scientist gives an account of what they did to come to the results they offer there is nothing extra that is added by truth talk or lacking because they don’t account for truth.Report

David
David
Reply to  Laura Grams
2 months ago

In terms of how well they allow us to build or predict things.Report

Non
Non
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 months ago

I ask this half-jokingly, but: aren’t most of the comments in this thread *still* a kind of “philososplaining”? Granted, we’re just chatting informally, and we can’t expect non-philosophy academics to frequent this blog and offer their perspectives on their own disciplines. But, on the other hand, whereof one cannot speak…Report

Jeff Snyder
2 months ago

As one of co-authors of the original Chronicle piece here, I appreciate this write-up and analysis. For people paywalled out, I’m attaching links to the PDFs of our pieces. The second one responds to some of the objections that Veber makes–

https://www.jeffreyaaronsnyder.com/_files/ugd/5c295d_0bbdb12048cc411b8530f21ddb749bc7.pdf

https://www.jeffreyaaronsnyder.com/_files/ugd/5c295d_1f127e9554434714a58027cb2bb72179.pdf

All best,

JeffReport

Jeff Snyder
Reply to  Jeff Snyder
2 months ago

One other quick comment. One of the things that struck me in Veber’s response was that he felt, in his own words, “completely confident” telling two professional historians what their discipline was all about. Seems to me that curiosity about other disciplines in which one is not expert would be a better approach than summary judgment.Report

John M Collins
Reply to  Jeff Snyder
2 months ago

We should include Veber’s letter to the editor addressing Khalid and Snyder’s response: https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/letters/response-to-criticism-of-essay-on-truth-leans-on-fallacies?cid=gen_sign_inReport

Brandon Beasley
2 months ago

The example of history is a good one, and I think shows how to incorporate the arguments of both of the sides here. It’s right that historians aren’t looking for The Truth, because they don’t take that to be possible, given our limited access to the past and to the interpenetration of interpretation and evidence. But Veber says that the whole aim of history seems to be lost if we don’t understand it as seeking truth: after all, we want to know what happened in the past and why, which is another way of saying that we want to have a true idea of past events and their causes. His example is simplistic, and not representative of most of what historians do, but thinking about what K&S say historians DO do, it’s clear that the inquiry is being *governed by a norm* of *truth-seeking*, or at least, of knowledge-seeking. They may not take themselves to *arrive* at the absolute truth, but the point is that their inquiry and debates are structured around finding out what happened and why. In the case described, where two historians look at the evidence and find different explanations, do they then just stop there? No. The debate continues, and the various interpretations are criticized and defended, and further evidence is sought, more reasons given. It’s hard to make sense of *why* that would be unless historical inquiry is being governed by some kind of norm of truth- or knowledge-seeking. Historians or other academic may not see their various claims as representing ‘The Truth’, but — and here it’s nice to recourse to Dewey, whom K&S mention — they are at the very least warranted assertions which have the aim of getting at the truth; the humdrum, everyday ‘truth’, not some grand, timeless Objective Truth, which many historians and other social scientists think that ‘truth’ would have to be if it were to be what they were after.

“Truth” is getting in the way here, I think, largely because analytic philosophers and humanists/social scientists understand ‘truth’ very differently from one another.

I recall Adrian Currie (Exeter) using the phrase “knowledge-producing practices” to refer to academic disciplines, and that seems as good to me as anything; recognizing that sure, knowledge does entail ‘truth’, but what that really means is that knowledge-producing practices make *truth-claims*, which may or may not actually be true, and we may not ever know “for sure” if they are true, but no practice of generating and testing warranted assertions can get along without ‘the truth’ as at least an ambition.Report

Jeff Snyder
Reply to  Brandon Beasley
2 months ago

This makes a lot of sense to me.Report

James Wilson
2 months ago

Prof Veber’s article does seem somewhat intemperate. Khalid and Snyder explicitly explain they are relying on Dewey’s conception of inquiry, so it seemed decidedly uncharitable to attempt the naive gotcha. While one might want to argue criticise Dewey, it seems arrogant to assume that his account of inquiry is naively mistaken.

It’s worth noting that even Robert Zimmer, in what must be the high-water mark of FIRE-friendly defences of campus free speech, explained University of Chicago’s mission in a way that places inquiry front and centre, and didn’t even mention truth seeking:

“The University of Chicago, from its very inception, has been driven by a singular focus on inquiry—with a firm belief in the value of open, rigorous, and intense inquiry and a common understanding that this must be the defining feature of this university. Everything about the University of Chicago that we recognize as distinctive flows from this commitment: our belief that argumentation rather than deference is the route to clarity; our insistence that arguments stand or fall on their merits, not the background, position, or fame of the proponent; our flexible organization that fosters rigorous and imaginative analysis of complex problems from multiple perspectives; our education that embeds learning in a culture of intense inquiry and analysis, thereby offering the most empowering education to students irrespective of the path they may ultimately take; our commitment to attract the most original agenda-setting faculty and students who can most benefit from and contribute to our environment; and our recognition that our important contributions to society rest on the power of our ideas and the openness of our environment to developing and testing ideas.” (https://magazine.uchicago.edu/0712/features/president-print.shtml)Report

Last edited 2 months ago by James Wilson
Laura Grams
Laura Grams
Reply to  James Wilson
2 months ago

How do we judge the merits of arguments without recourse to any notion of truth or consistency or at least what is likely to be true?Report

Dr Heart
2 months ago

I have an objection… to the amount of butter in your pancake recipe.Report

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Dr Heart
2 months ago

A dirt simple vegan pancake recipe – somewhat easier on the heart:

1 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegan milk (water also works)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Combine the 4 dry ingredients in a bowl.

Add the milk and vegetable oil to your mixture.

Mix until smooth.

Cook.

It has a surprising amount of baking powder, but trust me, it works.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
Reply to  Dr Heart
2 months ago

Funny you should mention this: I was thinking about the examples of cooking because I read the article while making myself a grilled sandwich. The lack of a single truth of the sandwich doesn’t mean we lack truths about how to make sandwiches, or that learning the how-to of cooking won’t involve learning those truths. Even if the goal of the art is pleasing a thousand unique palates with their diverse truths of enjoyment, truth hasn’t left the building and is needed for the endeavor.Report

David
David
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 months ago

Can you imagine being a historian, artist, or computer scientist trying to explain this to a philosopher and they just keep going, “but, but, but… what about truth”Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
Reply to  David
2 months ago

What if this concern was instead expressed as “getting it right”? I think that’s a reasonable summary phrase for what all of these endeavors are attempting to achieve. Trying to get pancakes right – maybe there are different versions of right when it comes to pancakes, but a correctness of procedure and composition is desirable at the end?Report

David
David
Reply to  Laura Grams
2 months ago

I think the idea is that we get good pancakes as the outcome. Maybe there are ways of doing it right and it gets us good pancakes, we’d be happy. But even if we didn’t do it in one of the right ways but we got good pancakes, we’d still be happy. Or even if there are no right ways to do it but we got good pancakes, we’d again be happy.Report

Candlesticks
Candlesticks
Reply to  David
2 months ago

Most computer scientists are not software developers. As such, a large number of computer scientists would disagree with you that they are doing anything analogous to trying to make a really good pancake. Truth, in a formal/mathematical sense, is often their primary concern.Report

David
David
Reply to  Candlesticks
2 months ago

I’m in computer science now. CS is a pretty interdisciplinary field, but I don’t think the majority of even those who are on the far on the side of formal/theoretical CS would express that their primary concern is truth. That’s just not how they talk. They most often talk about how well things, mathematical models or whatever, work.

But much of current CS research is very much like trying to make a really good pancake. I’m not talking about the software development profession. CS researchers do things like figure out how to devise the next generation of wireless protocols, how to architect better computer vision or database systems, how to build better ML models, how to construct better programming languages, how to design better distributed or concurrent computing systems, how to make systems more resilient to attack, and so on.Report

Candlesticks
Candlesticks
Reply to  David
2 months ago

Being in CS, you will have much more knowledge than me on things like theory of computation and analysis of algorithms. Are these not areas devoted to questions like, “What kinds of problems can be solved algorithmically?” and “How do we know that this algorithm actually solves the problem?” These seem to me to be significant areas in CS that are primarily concerned with truth (again, in a formal/mathematical sense).

I agree with your characterization of machine learning researchers though. From what I can tell, they are not concerned with truth at all. Their goal is not so much understanding or knowledge, but prediction, accuracy, and performance. The best ML tool is a crystal ball. 😉Report

David
David
Reply to  Candlesticks
2 months ago

I said in another comment that I see mathematicians more concerned with provability than truth, and I think that’s right about those who work in the areas of algorithms and theory of computation too. What do you think of this as a mathematician? Maybe there’s some assumption that provability is deeply connected with truth. But I think it’s often more accurate to say that they’re inquiring into the entailments of their assumptions, and that’s not conceptually identical to seeking the truth.

I think, keeping with the point of the post, it’s not that mathematicians, computer scientists, historians, artists, and the like don’t care about truth or don’t seek truth, but rather than often the best way to describe what they’re doing is not flatly in terms of truth seeking.

Could it be that the reason you keep pointing out “formal/mathematical truth” in some kind of contrast to “truth” is because you recognize that there may be some difference in what philosophers are talking about when they talk about truth and what mathematicians talk about when they talk about truth?

Also, yes, it does often seem like ML researchers are just fiddling around with the parameters of their crystal balls to see if it performs better. 😀

But prediction, accuracy, and performance are also things that, for example, algorithms researchers care about too. Sure we know which algorithms will give us the optimal results for the traveling salesman problem, but also that it’s not performant with real world sized graphs. So lots of research has gone into finding algorithms that give good enough results on an acceptable timescale.Report

Candlesticks
Candlesticks
Reply to  David
2 months ago

“Could it be that the reason you keep pointing out “formal/mathematical truth” in some kind of contrast to “truth” is because you recognize that there may be some difference in what philosophers are talking about when they talk about truth and what mathematicians talk about when they talk about truth?”

I’ve read a little bit in philosophy of mathematics, not widely by any means, but probably more than the average mathematician. What I read was predominantly concerned with truth in the analytic sense that I am referring to here and in other comments in this comment section. Now, if I am reading you right, you are saying that philosophers of mathematics are philosophers who don’t really think about truth in the same way as philosophers.

“I see mathematicians more concerned with provability than truth.”

Sorry, this just doesn’t make any sense to me. Provability is how the mathematician goes about establishing truth. Would it make any sense to you if I said, “I see philosophers more concerned with argument than truth”?Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Candlesticks
2 months ago

There isn’t any one way that philosophers think about truth. (This follows from the fact that for all X, there isn’t any one way that philosophers think about X.)

Of course, Tarski’s semantic conception of truth is enormously influential in contemporary philosophy generally, so it’s not *too* surprising that the way a lot of mathematicians think about truth overlaps the way a lot of philosophers think about truth.Report

David
David
Reply to  Candlesticks
2 months ago

But surely you and other mathematicians recognize that valid formal proofs are not enough to establish truth.

And, yes, I don’t really think philosophers are centrally trying to figure out truths or facts. If they are, they’re pretty bad at it. Every field has games that it plays and philosophy’s game is definitely argumentation. So, yeah I think that claim does make a lot of sense. Just go read lots of philosophy articles.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  David
2 months ago

It may be worth pointing out that the intuitionistic tradition in mathematics understands the truth of a mathematical sentence in terms of the construction of a proof for it. More generally, proof-theoretic semantic methods prioritize the intralinguistic relations of inference, as a basis for meaning, over the language-world relations typically associated with truth and truth-makers.Report

Last edited 2 months ago by Preston Stovall
Jason Brennan
2 months ago

Philosophy is about examining and, as part of that process, challenging and sometimes overturning our most basic assumptions and beliefs. Of course people hate that. Forget about whether philosophers are arrogant. (Most of you are. I come across that way but I’m actually quite humble, given how awesome I am.) People hate philosophy because they hate thinking about these things. And who cares if they hate it? I mean, look, most people would murder another person if ordered to do so. It’s not like we should care what most such people think.Report

Patrick Gamez
Patrick Gamez
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 months ago

Why forget one in favour of the other? It’s entirely possible to love the part of philosophy that’s about examining basic assumptions and beliefs and to hate that some philosophers are jerks about it, perhaps in ways ingrained in the course of an education in philosophy.Report

Robert A Gressis
2 months ago

I catastrophize. In fact, I’m convinced that one day my perseverant catastrophization will lead to my death, and that of everyone I love.

But that day has not yet come, so…

I worry that, if you change the language universities use to describe themselves, you will open the door to changing how universities justify their own practices to themselves.

Consider the move from finding truth to pursuing inquiry. It looks pretty harmless to me, but the word “inquiry” can be used in ways that the word “truth” can’t, and vice versa. E.g., inquiry is a practice, and truth is an outcome. And some people might claim that presenting some things as truths will interfere with some people’s practice of inquiry. And if the point of the university is to pursue inquiry rather than find truth, then discovering unpleasant (putative) truths may be seen as, and therefore condemned as, antithetical to the university’s mission, as they may interfere with inquiry.Report

Tom Hurka
2 months ago

In their reply K & S give as one reason for not talking of “truth” that the word suggests infallibility, but to most philosophers it doesn’t do that at all. There being a truth doesn’t imply anything about how easy or hard it is to discover and is consistent with thoroughgoing intellectual humility. For K & S “truth” seems to have troubling connotations its philosophical defenders wouldn’t take it to have.Report

Matthew Silverstein
Matthew Silverstein
Reply to  Tom Hurka
2 months ago

I would go further than this and say that, for many philosophers, avoiding talk of truth makes it harder to understand the need for intellectual humility, since there is nothing for those engaging in “inquiry” to be wrong about.Report

Jeff Snyder
Reply to  Tom Hurka
2 months ago

Yes, this comment on FALLIBILITY is interesting. And may be a key difference between the way that most philosophers understand “truth” and the way that many other academics and especially the general public understand the term.Report

Patrick Gamez
Patrick Gamez
Reply to  Jeff Snyder
2 months ago

Yeah, anecdotally, it seems a lot of other academics think that the norm governing explicit claims that something is true involves certainty.Report

V. Alan White
2 months ago

I’m surprised that there has been no explicit discussion that can I see here about a pragmatic concept of truth guiding action, though Easwaran’s comment about excellence strays in that direction, as does the references to Dewey’s work in Justin’s OP above (and the pancakes). Though pragmatism frequently welds values and facts together, and analytic types often find that an anathema, perhaps the debate here is about truth as a pragmatic inquiry, and perhaps that is the best interpretation of what K&S offers, and what V takes to task. Before pancakes, it was said the proof was in the (eating of the) pudding, as good a take on pragmatism as there is (pace Brandom).Report

John M Collins
2 months ago

I’m unsure whether Khalid and Snyder should use Dewey in support of their view. In the original piece, they offer his definition of “critical thinking”, which is actually his characterization of “reflective thought”. A few sentences earlier, Dewey says “Imaginative enterprises [such as story telling] often precede thinking of the close-knit type and prepare the way for it. But they do not aim at knowledge, at belief about facts or in truths; and thereby they are marked off from reflective thought even when they most resemble it.” The clear implication in the last clause is that reflective thought does aim at truth.Report

JTD
JTD
2 months ago

I think that Justin’s “stay in your disciplinary lane” point actually get things back to front. When historians like E.H.Carr say things like “The reconstitution of the past in the historian’s mind is dependent on empirical evidence. But it is not in itself an empirical process and cannot consist in a mere recital of facts. On the contrary, the process of reconstitution governs the selection and interpretation of facts: this, indeed, is what makes them historical facts.” and take this as a reason for thinking that historians cannot access historical truths they are NOT doing historical research, they are philosophizing about the nature of history (i.e., they are doing the philosophy of history). Furthermore, they typically are making various (often quite dubious and poorly argued for) epistemological and metaphysical assumptions. So if anyone is stepping outside of their disciplinary lane it is the historians making these kinds of claims when they do philosophy of history. However, I don’t believe in all this “disciplinary lane” stuff. Historians should feel free to make arguments for various claims in the philosophy of history (or philosophy of anything else for that matter). However, when they do this, they should be willing to have (and expect) philosophers to critique their arguments and point out any naïve errors that they are making.

I do, however, agree with Justin’s point that when philosopher’s do this they should do it in a kind and gentle way.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  JTD
2 months ago

I was about to say something similar, JTD — but I think that, if anything, you put the problem too mildly. This quote about historical facts isn’t just dubious and poorly argued for: it actually seems incoherent!

The quote was “On the contrary, the process of reconstitution governs the selection and interpretation of facts: this, indeed, is what makes them historical facts.

The problem isn’t just the technical one that ‘fact’ is meant to refer to a state of affairs in the world, rather than one’s conception or description of it. Even if we charitably assume that by ‘fact’ they mean something like ‘something generally accepted as true’, the statement would then say that the selection and interpretation of things generally accepted as true is what makes them generally accepted as true. But if they only come to be generally accepted as true once we select and interpret them, then they were not generally accepted as true before they were selected and interpreted.

More generally, whatever they mean by ‘fact’, it cannot simultaneously be the case that there are facts out there waiting to be selected and interpreted *and* that being selected and interpreted is what makes something a fact.

The charge that pointing out these sorts of problems to historians is ‘philososplaining’ seems to depend on the assumption that such claims properly fall under the expertise of historians and not philosophers. But it is philosophers, not historians, who are specially trained to handle conceptual confusions and common confusions between facts, beliefs, and statements. Historians can generally be expected to know more about historical research methods and about the general outline of history than others (at least, for those areas of philosophy they have studied), but I don’t see what it is in historians’ training that equips them to make reliable judgments about the constitution of historical (or other) facts.Report

Jeff Snyder
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 months ago

Let me take a crack at responding to this statement:

“it cannot simultaneously be the case that there are facts out there waiting to be selected and interpreted *and* that being selected and interpreted is what makes something a fact.”

So here’s an example. There was a long period of time where oral history was not recognized as a legitimate method/source for writing historical accounts. So a whole generation of professional historians did not talk to the formerly enslaved when writing their accounts of slavery. (In retrospect, a stunning and obscene oversight!) When pioneering Black historians began to incorporate the testimony of former slaves, that was a process of selection and interpretation. Selection in terms of seeking out particular evidence (oral accounts) and interpretation in terms of asserting that the evidence (testimony by African Americans) was real evidence. So there aren’t just facts out there WAITING TO BE selected and interpreted. The historian, in a manner of speaking, actually helps to GENERATE facts. This comes into sharp relief with oral history in which the work that the historian does (selecting who to interview, conducting interviews, analyzing interviews) does indeed make something a fact.

At a high level, testimony from the formerly enslaved helped overturn what had been the reigning interpretation of U.S. slavery–that it wasn’t that bad, that Blacks were “natural born slaves, etc. This slavery wasn’t that bad view was accepted for a long time as “true.” The facts that emerged from listening to the voices of the people who actually experienced slavery (thru a process of selection and interpretation on the part of historians) were decisive in this regard. Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Jeff Snyder
2 months ago

this gets at some way to something like the Is/Ought distinction that plays some role in the dismissal of philo, once I’ve described the happenings of something like slavery (and given an account for how I came to them, philosophy per se has nothing concrete to add to questions like whether slave accounts are accurate/representative or not) there isn’t some added objective something that says this was bad or not, something we ought to do or not. This has come up alot with COVID, the idea that philosophers have something objective to offer to debates about what we ought to do about masking or vaccinations and the like is just wrong, seems to confuse a subjective preference for some approach/outcome or another for something like a science. Just politics in disguise…Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jeff Snyder
2 months ago

Jeff, that really seems to be a strange thing to say. Let’s say that Bill, a slave, helps to put out a fire in the kitchen in the year 1861. Then, in 1880, some historian writes what is taken to be the definitive account of the fire at that plantation house, and the owner of the house takes full credit for putting out the fire, not mentioning Bill, Finally, in the year 1930, some new historian takes the time to talk with old Bill and gets the full story, which is confirmed by many others and by some unambiguous evidence. So the new book that is taken to be authoritative on the subject gives Bill due credit for his help in saving the place from fire.

Now, on your account of facts, it seems that it was a fact in 1861 that Bill helped put out the fire, but that it was not a fact in 1880, and then it became a fact again in 1930. Moreover, on your account, it seems that all it would take to make it no longer a fact that Bill helped put out the fire would be for someone to round up all the copies of the 1930 history, destroy them, and then write a new book that doesn’t mention Bill at all. I don’t understand the metaphysics that allows that to work.

The fact is that Bill helped put out the fire in 1861. That fact never changes. People may be warranted in not knowing that it’s a fact, and people may neglect to mention that it’s a fact, but facthood does not depend on knowledge.

If you disagree with that because you use the word ‘fact’ only to refer to what is recorded in history books, then facts are not things that ’emerge’ from listening to oral histories: they are created by the act of writing. More important, it cannot be the case, as Carr says, that facts are ‘selected and interpreted’ if they are not facts until the historian writes them down, since — again, if a ‘fact’ is something a historian writes down — it follows that Bill’s testimony was not a fact until 1930, when it was at last written down by a historian.Report

Jeff Snyder
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 months ago

I think this gets at difference btwn how professional historians conceive of our work and ways in which others see history. Here’s how we attempted to address the issue your raise above in our second Chronicle piece:

Veber insists that historians should stick to what really happened. Either Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 or he did not, Veber proclaims. The fact that Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 is one among thousands of different facts that historians draw from to build our knowledge about Nazi Germany. But, as our first-year students are delighted to discover in our classes, history is much more than merely “one damn fact after another.”

The most significant historical questions cannot be reduced to a “true” or “false” trivia format. Regarding World War II and Nazi Germany, here are just a few questions historians continue to grapple with: To what extent was Hitler’s incursion into Poland driven by premeditated expansionist aspirations? Why did so many ordinary people participate in the Holocaust? How did Britain navigate the ethical pitfalls of joining forces with Stalin to forge an alliance against Hitler?

These questions can’t be and will never be fully resolved empirically in the same way that, say, whether a fire happened/was put out by a particular individual.Report

Jonathan
Reply to  Jeff Snyder
2 months ago

Are you talking past each other here? Seems like one of you is saying, “There are facts out there to investigate regardless of whether we have good prospects of figuring out what they are or of settling our disagreements about what they are.” And the other is saying, “We’re unlikely to settle our disagreements about most claims that really matter to us.” To me, those seem compatible with each other. Moreover, both seem correct. What am I missing here?Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Jeff Snyder
2 months ago

Yeah, I agree with Jonathan here — there might be a terminological misunderstanding or something.
Suppose (as Jeff says) that these questions can never be resolved empirically.
The only way that could show that they aren’t capable of being true or false is if the only things that can be true or false are those that can be resolved empirically. Is that what you’re thinking? That would be weird — if it turned out that the historians were the ones following in the footsteps of the logical positivists!

I think (and this is along the lines of what Benj is saying in his comment) this is a good test. What if a historian published a book, arguing that so many ordinary people were involved in the holocaust because the material conditions of Germany were the perfect soil for just that kind of self-deception. (Right, I know, I would not have made a good historian.) And then someone else published a critique, giving really good evidence, compelling interpretive narrative, showing that that’s *not* why.
Would the author of the book say, “Oh, that’s okay, I wasn’t trying to say something true”? If so, then I buy the idea that historians aren’t aiming at the truth. But if that answer seems nuts… then I think they are.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 months ago

E.H. Carr in _What is History?_ was, iirc, working with a particular definition of “historical fact.” A “historical fact” in this view is something that a historian at some point has thought significant enough to mention. Carr uses the example of a mid 19th century English festival, or fair, at which a crowd of people got angry with a seller of gingerbread (or whatever), set upon him, and killed him. (I don’t have the book in front of me so I’m doing this from memory and the details may be a little off.) Carr says this incident wasn’t a “historical fact” until G. Kitson Clark mentioned it in his lectures (later turned into a book) on Victorian Britain. At that point Clark, in Carr’s view, had proposed this incident for membership in the club of historical facts, and if it appeared subsequently in some other historians’ work it would have, so to speak, achieved membership in the club.

This seems to me a reasonable way (if not the only way) to think about what a “historical fact” is, though — as a non-philosopher — I suspect it would cause a good many philosophers to roll their eyes in annoyance or etc.

But Carr as a working historian was in at least as good a position to opine on “historical facts” as a philosopher.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
2 months ago

Thanks, Louis. If Carr was using ‘historical fact’ to mean ‘something that a historian at some point has thought significant enough to mention’, as opposed to a fact about what took place at some point in history, then what he is saying appears to come down to the almost trivially true claim that historians don’t mention things that they have not yet picked out as worthy of mention and come up with something to say about them.

Fair enough, but in that case it would be a remarkable philosophical blunder to move from that simple observation to the conclusion that it’s a ‘fool’s errand’ to even try to present an accurate factual history. Of course, not every single thing that happened over the period and scope that a historian writes about is mentioned, and not all the things are given equal weight. But did anyone ever deny that?

The effect of brushing off the search for truth as a ‘fool’s errand’ merely because it is practically impossible to write a completely neutral history is like laughing at an archer for trying to hit the bull’s eye on the grounds that, a hundred years ago, someone pointed out that every arrow that hits the target will be off by at least some small degree. Even if one cannot attain the exact truth, there is a property of being closer to the truth than something else.

I’m not sure how a historians are better equipped than philosophers, through their training and experience as historians, to see the problems in that reasoning.Report

Cognitive Schmientist
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 months ago

I’d like to take issue with the claim simpliciter that “there is a property of being closer to the truth than something else”. I’m only happy to assent to that claim when it is interpreted with the implicit rider, “(relative to some particular pragmatic purposes)”; this disagreement goes to the heart of questions about whether the ultimate aim of inquiry is truth. Consider approximations in science. It seems natural to me to interpret them as “better” or “worse”, rather than “truer” or “falser” by some notional objective standard. 

Crudely speaking, the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any universal intrinsic metric of truth-distance. Suppose the true value X of some physical variable is 4 (on some measurement scale M). Is Y (= 3.8 on M) a better approximation to this constant than Z (= 4.5 on M)? If we go by the numbers on the measurement scale M, the answer would seem to be “yes, Y is closer to X than Z”. But there are guaranteed to be other measurement scales (assigning different numerical values to the same points) according to which Z is closer to X than Y.  

My personal view is that pragmatic purposes alone are what make some approximations better than others. Crudely speaking (again), Y is a better approximation to X than Z, with respect to purposes P, iff acting as though X were Y produces better outcomes than acting as though X were Z. Of course this is only a simplified model; there are other desiderata for approximations in reasoning (e.g. how much additional cognitive effort is required to adapt them appropriately, when one can see that they aren’t good enough).

Perhaps, it might occasionally be the case that Y is a better approximation to X than Z for all logically possible pragmatic purposes, in which case we could say that Y is (absolutely) better than Z as an approximation to X. Even if that’s possible (I’m unconvinced that it is), it leaves a huge swath of cases in which Y is better than Z only relative to implicit purposes P which researchers share (because Z is better than Y relative to purposes Q which researchers collectively do not value). Collaborative inquiry (by researchers who share purposes P) should clearly prefer Y to Z in such cases.

Hence, I don’t think one can even meaningfully aim towards truth without having some (non-alethic) goal that induces a definite measure of what approximations to the truth are better or worse. If that’s right, and if truth is also never perfectly attainable, then it’s hard to see how the ultimate purpose of inquiry could ever be truth.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Cognitive Schmientist
2 months ago

Cognitive Schmientist, just a quick reply: as someone who’s done work on “closeness to the truth” (there’s a vast philosophical literature on that topic!), I completely agree with your claim that (in most cases) measures of closeness to the truth are relative to pragmatic goals, so truth clearly isn’t the *only* goal in science. I think most philosophers of science would agree. Does this observation also suggest that truth is not the “ultimate” goal? I don’t know. Strictly speaking, I don’t think it really makes sense to talk about science itself as having goals, since it’s not the kind of entity that can have goals (at least that’s how I’m inclined to think). People who do science have goals. Many of them, I’m sure, see truth as an important goal, and if they don’t, I think they should!Report

John M Collins
2 months ago

One thing to be noted is that Veber commented on this paper at a FIRE event a few months ago, so they are not strangers to each other.Report

Benj
2 months ago

Those of us who are “deflationarily” inclined think of talk of an “aim at truth” as amounting to an aim to do this (for all p): claim that p only if p — or, perhaps equivalently, to not do this (for any p): claim that p when not-p.
For someone not to have this as their aim, they would need to think it sometimes perfectly ok to claim that p when not-p.That is a weird thing to think, at least for an academic researcher. In general, we try to avoid publishing claims we disagree with!
That is peculiar to our job, for other jobs do it differently. Think of political advertisers or candidates, or employees of a troll farm, or “think tank” writers, or lobbyists — “advocates”, let us say. When one works in an advocacy job, there is some doctrine q such that one’s job is to publish claims importantly supporting q: if p is such a claim, then whether one agrees, or disagrees, with p, one should publish it regardless.
Put another way, academic research avoids disingenuousness, while advocacy does not. This seems to me to be an extremely important contrast, and one that universities should trumpet. Conversely, it would be disastrous for universities to permit academics to come to be seen as just another cluster of advocates — indeed, the rightist attack strategy on universities consists principally in an attempt to blur this line.
I am broadly sympathetic to much of the K&S line, and was not entirely enthusiastic about Veber’s criticism. But the K&S line attacks a more “inflationary” understanding of “aim at truth” (for reasons I won’t get into here), and not the “deflationary” understanding I have sketched. So the K&S line does not support jettisoning “aim at truth” talk tout court; and were this talk to be jettisoned, it would be naturally understood as jettisoning even the “deflationary” understanding, and with it the prohibition on disingenuousness — which, again, would be disastrous.Report

Ian
Ian
2 months ago

So I think what’s going on with philosplaining needs some clarification. There’s the obvious interpretation you seem to be understanding it as:

(1) Philosophers explaining or claiming to know something about another field that they don’t know and then explaining it for them.

But I think there’s another explanation of the situation:

(2) People in other fields make use of philosophical claims and truths without understanding philosophy. Philosophers then try to explain why these claims are wrong/misguided/etc. Philosophers are then accused of undermining these other academics’ expertise in their own field, when really, the philosopher was applying their own expertise of philosophy to the other field.

Both (1) and (2) likely happen possibly in the same discussion, as it seems happened with Veber above. Both of them contribute to these negative attitudes toward philosophers, but it seems to me that thinking philosophers are in the wrong for (2) is misguided. And in fact, you might interpret the situation in the reverse:

(3) Non-philosophers are philosplaining x philosophical concept to philosophers, and then when they try to object to it, they don’t have enough philosophical ability to argue with you, so they claim that this is part of their field and you don’t understand it sufficiently.

All of this is to say that I don’t think philosophers bear full responsibility for what is going on here.

But there is more philosophers can do so that people actually listen to them when they question certain philosophical concepts that non-philosophers are using. They can start with realizing that dynamics like (3) are likely to happen and that they need to be strategic about when it’s most appropriate to question non-philosophers’ interpretations of philosophy. The who is important too, some non-philosophers are much more receptive to these discussions, others, not so much.Report

Alex Hughes
2 months ago

I am surprised nobody has mentioned what goes on departments of mathematics (those hippies!).

It is not so clear to me that mathematics is the pursuit of truth. Perhaps it is better understood as a discipline which specializes in a certain sort of stipulation – i.e. constructing formal systems, which others (economic forecasters, physicists, etc.) may take-up for the purpose of modeling real-world systems.Report

Benj
Reply to  Alex Hughes
2 months ago

Mathematicians (as such) do avoid disingenuousness — that suffices for “pursuit of truth” at least in a deflationary sense.Report

Alex Hughes
Reply to  Benj
2 months ago

Could be! Are stipulations governed by a (deflationary) truth norm?Report

Candlesticks
Candlesticks
Reply to  Alex Hughes
2 months ago

Mathematics can very well be described as the pursuit of mathematical truth. That these truths are not empirical does not mean that the mathematician does not aim at truth. Very many mathematicians have zero professional interest in the subsidiary uses to which mathematics is put by those in other disciplines. Moreover, much of our mathematical knowledge to date was pursued with absolutely no thought of its usefulness for modeling real world systems.

Disclaimer: I am a mathematician.Report

David
David
Reply to  Candlesticks
2 months ago

Suppose we find out that mathematical fictionalism is true and all these mathematical truths are false. Would that fundamentally change what mathematicians do?Report

Candlesticks
Candlesticks
Reply to  David
2 months ago

I am not a mathematical platonist. But to answer your question about what I think would change (in terms of what mathematicans do) if we were all to accept that mathematical fictionalism is true, may answer is: nothing. That’s because both mathematical platonists and mathematical fictionalists both do exactly the same things as mathematicians. Ever since Euclid, what a mathematician does is say, “If you accept premises P and definitions D and rules of logic L, then we can deduce theorem T.” We have also known for a long time that if we change any of P or D or L, then we change the theorems that follow. Indeed, we might even change them enough to deduce -T. In doing so, we have not established a contradiction, nor have we shown that mathematics is not concerned with truth. Instead, we have simply demonstrated that no theorem is true or false independently of P, D, or L.

I think there are very few mathematical fictionalists working as mathematicians. But those that exist would still, I think, be concerned with mathematical truth at least in the sense that I have sketched above. Report

Alex Hughes
Reply to  Candlesticks
2 months ago

Candlesticks: Thanks for the comment. And you’re a mathematician! Welcome to Daily Nous. What’s your main research project?

(i) Can you say a little about what you have in mind when you describe something as mathematically true? Is it, for example, mathematically true that functions are sets of ordered pairs?

(ii) You may well be right that much of our mathematical practice was developed with absolutely no thought to its usefulness for modeling real world systems – which is why I didn’t say it was. Though: who can deny that the formal systems mathematicians construct are useful for modeling real world systems?

(iii) David’s question seems pretty important in this context!Report

David
David
Reply to  Alex Hughes
2 months ago

The way I’d put it is that mathematicians are mainly concerned about provability. And maybe they would describe provable statements as mathematical truths. But I think that provability is not the same thing as what the philosophers are talking about.Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  David
2 months ago

I’ll be interested to see what Candlesticks says. But every time I’ve heard a mathematician tell someone what Godel’s (first incompleteness) theorem is, they’ve said he proved that there are always going to be true statements that aren’t provable. (I understand this is what Godel himself thought he’d proved, though of course it’s not what he says in the paper.)
This shows that they don’t mean ‘provable statement’ by ‘mathematical truth’. It may be that mathematicians typically aren’t interested in mathematical truths that aren’t provable, that I don’t know — I suspect some are and others aren’t.

I guess if fictionalism is true, then what mathematicians are seeking is truth-in-the-fiction. (Isn’t this basically the story for every domain in which fictionalism is an option?) I don’t know whether that counts as fundamentally changing what mathematicians do.Report

David
David
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
2 months ago

I think we should be careful when we say that truth is often not the primary concern for field X that we do not confuse it with the claim that truth is never the concern for field X or that there’s no such thing as truth in field X.

But sure, there are true statements in some formal system that aren’t provable from within the system. That’s one reason why mathematicians build stronger and stronger systems, so we can ultimately prove them in some system.

My thought is that even if mathematical fictionalism is true, nothing would change about the mathematical profession.Report

Last edited 2 months ago by David
Candlesticks
Candlesticks
Reply to  Alex Hughes
2 months ago

“You may well be right that much of our mathematical practice was developed with absolutely no thought to its usefulness for modeling real world systems – which is why I didn’t say it was.”

I took your original comment to be saying that mathematics is best understood as a field that develops systems that can be used by others to model the real world. I think this is not the best way to understand mathematics as a field. At very least, I do not think it describes the aims of many (even most) working mathematicians. By analogy, I would raise the same objection to someone who said, “Honey bees are best understood as a species that specializes in producing a certain sort of sticky fluid which others (bakers, bartenders, etc.) use for the purpose of creating delectable things for people to eat and drink.”Report

Alex Hughes
Reply to  Candlesticks
2 months ago

I understood that you took my original comment to be saying that – which is why I corrected your misunderstanding in my reply.Report

P D Van Pelt
2 months ago

I have posited several ideas about truth, on the Stanford University blog, Philosophy Talk. Most briefly: Truth and belief are virtually never indistinguishable. Belief is conditional. Truth is not.
This claim may appear simplistic, until one considers reality…which depends upon circumstance; content; context and contingency.
Truth is as it is. Belief is changeable, as illustrated by postmodernism…
(And some few other human inventions)Report

brunchalicious
2 months ago

I tend to disagree with Weinberg a fair amount but to give credit where credit is due, I made the “pancakes of truth” this morning and they were indeed excellent.Report

Gordon Barnes
2 months ago

The general public accepts the role (and the cost) of the university in our society on the assumption that the university achieves goals that the public shares. Those goals include things other than truth, to be sure. In science, it’s often just accurate prediction that the public really cares about. In English it’s probably an appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of literature, among other things. However, one goal that they certainly do not share is the goal of “academics imposing their value judgments on everyone else , while simultaneously disguising those value judgments as some sort of expertise that all must accept, as if it were knowledge of objective truths”. That is not a goal that the public shares, and it is a goal that they increasingly see as the actual goal of many academics. Enter K&S. They tell us that the goal of a discipline like history is not truth, but “interpretation”. That will confirm the public’s growing suspicion that they have been the victim of a crude bait-and-switch, in which a goal that they shared with historians (truth) has been replaced by a goal that they do not share — “you impose your values on the rest of us”. That is the underlying issue here, and on that issue, K&S are on the wrong side. If they advertised their History program to students by constantly reminding them “you won’t learn historical facts here; just interpretations”, then how many people would retain their interest in studying history? If people just wanted interpretations, they could go to church for that. Why would they need history?Report

Kon
Kon
2 months ago

A fine list. We may surprisingly add: lack of engagement with philosophers outside one’s strict purview of expertise. Pragmatist, relativistic/subjectivist, constructivist, etc. theories of history have long been defended (and disputed) among philosophers of history. The example of Hitler’s invasion of Poland is not merely a ‘naive gotcha’ but a fairly simplistic and misinformed one.Report

Anderson Brown
2 months ago

Wittgenstein famously said, “Philosophy changes nothing.” One thing I take from this is the distinction between understanding for its own sake and knowledge production that is potentially of instrumental use. As a teacher of over thirty years, I see myself as a coach who develops skills more than some imparter of deep knowledge: philosophy can take care of itself that way.Report