The Contingency of Philosophers’ Philosophies

In an interview, Josef Mitterer is asked about how approaches to philosophy may vary by whether they provide “an escape from contingency.”

[Ernesto Neto, “SunForceOceanLife” (detail)]

Mitterer’s answer begins with a discussion of the epistemic products of different philosophies but then moves to the contingency of the philosophies themselves:

Why do philosophers advocate the philosophy they do and not another one? They will answer this question by citing the merits of their philosophy and the errors, shortcomings and deficiencies of other philosophies. The response is always a retrospective one: We did not decide as realists, pragmatists, or constructivists which philosophy to study where and with whom. Only in retrospect, long after the decision in favor of the philosophy we defend has been made, do we thank our academic teachers for their influence on our intellectual development. A different university or different teachers might have been sufficient to turn us into transcendental philosophers instead of analytic philosophers, or the converse.

Three philosophical schools flourish alongside each other at a major European university, a phenomenological school, an analytical school, and one oriented to Lacan. The direction students latch on to is conditioned in part by the language they studied at high school (English?– then more likely analytic philosophy; French?– more likely Lacanian thought; German?–in the past Marxism, nowadays phenomenology), by where and from whom they get information, which lectures they happen to attend first, whether they know other, more senior, philosophy students, and so on. 

The circumstances leading a philosopher to defend this rather than that philosophy are contingent.

The whole interview is here.

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Neil Levy
Neil Levy
2 years ago

Gerry Cohen:
Now people of my generation who studied philosophy at Harvard rather than at Oxford for the most part reject the analytic/synthetic dis- tinction. And I can’t believe that this is an accident. That is, I can’t believe that Harvard just happened to be a place where both its leading thinker rejected that distinction and its graduate students, for independent reasons—merely, for example, in the independent light of reason itself—also came to reject it. And vice versa, of course, for Oxford. I believe, rather, that in each case students were especially impressed by the reasons respectively for and against believing in the distinction, because in each case the reasons came with all the added persuasiveness of per- sonal presentation, personal relationship, and so forth.
So, in some sense of “because,” and in some sense of “Oxford,” I think I can say that I believe in the analytic/synthetic distinction because I studied at Oxford. And that is disturbing

Yasser Khan
2 years ago

Everything is contingent. So what? Not least the existence of the solar system and humans emerging.

Marx could not have been Marx in a period prior to capitalism emerging. And he knew it.

Nietzsche would not have been so incensed by Christianity, or impressed by the Hellenes if we were Japanese.

Camus’ anxieties only came about because of the Nazis and the Algerian independence struggle.

The closest philosophical treatment of the above is of course moral luck: the belated realisation by silly analytical philosophers that a world exists in which others don’t share their privileges.

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Yasser Khan
2 years ago

In response to your question: “So what?”:

Insofar as I understand your examples, they seem to be importantly different from, e.g., the Gerry Cohen case in Neil Levy’s comment. There is, on the face of it, a good explanation of a certain sort of why Marx was better-positioned to write true or at least enlightening things about capitalism than he would have been had he lived before the advent of capitalism. By contrast, there does not seem to be a good explanation of the same sort of why having attended Oxford would put you in a better position to believe the truth about the analytic/synthetic distinction than having attended Harvard would. Hence Cohen’s worry. (It would be strange for Marx to have said: “Gosh, I worry that I’m just making up this whole ‘alienation from one’s labour’ thing; after all, Thales (or whoever) was pretty smart, and he never even mentioned it!”)

It seems to me that the apposite literature here within “analytic” philosophy is the work in epistemology, meta-ethics, and metaphysics on debunking arguments. Should you deign to read some of this work, you might find it instructive.

2 years ago

I think of rationality as sufficiently permissive that reasonable people can end up in different places. So the contingency doesn’t really bother me.
However, the same kind of contingency might obtain for my view of rationality. Given a different origin, maybe I would have thought that rationality requires us to end up in the same place. Then maybe the contingency would keep me awake at night.

Reply to  P.D.
2 years ago

You have read your van Fraassen with care! You are now ready for the observable parts of the world, Grasshopper.

Robert M Wallace
2 years ago

Could it be that “analytic” and “transcendental” philosophers are all missing something important? In my own case, I think I’ve outgrown both my analytic teachers and my continental teachers. It took a long time, but it happened. We all know that our starting points are likely to create biases. The question is whether we are capable of (ever) getting beyond those biases. Statistics about career paths can’t give a definitive answer to that question.

Trevor Adams
2 years ago

Everyone’s epistemic position is contingent. Besides, many of us do pick the schools we go to and sometimes go to schools where we are the minority of a certain opinion (at least I have seen this in the U.S.). I’m not sure that it’s so cut-and-dry as his language example made it seem.

Furthermore, you might just think this is showing that people are being epistemically responsible so far as their evidence goes, it’s just that their evidence is limited by the epistemic bubble they live in. As long as they allow their bubble to be popped (and by extension the different schools at large allowing their bubbles to be popped) I am not sure it’s something to worry about it.

Rollo Burgess
2 years ago

This is just a case of the ‘context distinction’ isn’t it? Of course the cause of philiosophers (or anyone) holding the views they do will relate to contingencies of where and with they studied etc., or their temperaments. But to articulate these views they need to justify them according to appropriate norms.