Philosophical Exceptionalism & Philosophical Writing

“I like to think that academic fields often have a proprietary emotion. In the case of philosophy, the proprietary emotion is embarrassment.”

That’s Daniel Stoljar (Australian National University) in conversation with Nathan Ballantyne (Arizona State University) for The Workbench, Professor Ballantyne’s site of interviews about academic writing.

There are many interesting points in the interview. The above quote comes from a part in which they discuss Professor Stoljar’s work on philosophical progress and philosophical exceptionalism:

Stoljar: …all of this stuff led me to think about the nature of philosophy and how it is different or similar to other fields.

Ballantyne: It sounds like your thinking about philosophical progress was a natural outgrowth of work on other themes.

Stoljar: Yes, it was. And since writing the book on progress I have become increasingly interested in other ideas that follow on from that, in particular ideas of exceptionalism and anti-exceptionalism to adopt some vocab Timothy Williamson has used recently. In the book on progress, I defend a sort of anti-exceptionalist picture of philosophy, but many people, both in and outside the discipline, tend to hold exceptionalist views about it.

Ballantyne: What do these views say?

Stoljar: Roughly, on the exceptionalist picture, philosophy is in some hard-to-articulate way set apart from other disciplines in the university, either in the humanities or sciences; the anti-exceptionalist view denies this, insisting that the difference between philosophy and other disciplines is like the difference between, say, biology and physics. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the origins and influence of epistemological exceptionalism. I think it is false, but that doesn’t mean that loads of people aren’t attracted to it, and have been attracted to it since philosophy got going as a modern discipline in the nineteenth century. I’m also interested in the interaction between exceptionalism in an epistemological sense and exceptionalism in a social sense.

Ballantyne: Could you say more about the difference between the two senses of exceptionalism?

Stoljar: Well, exceptionalism in the sense I just described is an epistemological idea: it means that inquiry in philosophy is somehow fundamentally different in an epistemological way from, say, inquiry in linguistics or history. Whatever you think about epistemological exceptionalism, though, it is hard to deny that philosophy is socially exceptional, and that your average philosophy department looks quite different from your average linguistics or history department. Is it a coincidence that a discipline that is at least widely believed to be epistemologically exceptional is also socially exceptional? I find that pretty hard to believe!

Ballantyne: I’ve noticed the social exceptionalism you described. Some philosophers I’ve met seem to feel they are different than practitioners of other disciplines, and yet they seem a touch uncomfortable and insecure about their line of work, don’t they? They tend to look to one another for affirmation that they aren’t wasting time on pointless problems. How do you fit philosophers’ exceptionalism together with their intellectual insecurities?

Stoljar: I know what you mean. I like to think that academic fields often have a proprietary emotion. In the case of philosophy, the proprietary emotion is embarrassment.

Ballantyne: Say more—I’d like to know why I am embarrassed to be a philosopher.

Stoljar: Embarrassment is a social emotion, as the sociologist [Erving] Goffman pointed out years ago. To feel embarrassment is to perceive or apprehend some event or situation as violating some social norm or other that you accept. In the case of philosophy, embarrassment is a symptom that the discipline is ‘not behaving as a standard discipline’. It is in violation of a social norm that collectively it accepts.

Ballantyne: What happens when that embarrassing feeling creeps up on us? How do we react?

Stoljar: One reaction is to try to recast or reimagine philosophy so that it no longer violates the social norm. Some people might think of it as a systematizer or enabler of other disciplines that are ordinary by the implicit standard; others might reject the view that philosophy is truth- or knowledge-normed, resolving the tension that way. My own reaction is different: it’s to reject the norms that provoke the embarrassment in the first place—in other words, to refuse to be embarrassed!

Ballantyne: I wonder whether epistemological exceptionalism might have led some philosophers to do their work in particular ways. Maybe they haven’t been inclined to collaborate with investigators in other fields because, in their minds, never the twain shall meet. Does that seem like a plausible consequence of exceptionalism?

Stoljar:  It’s an interesting idea that exceptionalism in meta-philosophy has implications for the acceptable genres of philosophical prose; there might be something to that. Still, even if that’s true, I’d hope that the genres sanctioned by exceptionalism can nevertheless be used to promote anti-exceptionalism. Otherwise I’m in serious trouble!

Ballantyne:  Are there any ways in which your commitment to anti-exceptionalism might influence how you go about your work?

Stoljar: I may be imagining things, but I do find anti-exceptionalism about philosophy in some hard to define sense liberating about the possible forms of philosophical writing. If you think as I do that the answers to philosophical questions are there anyway, then in effect what you are doing when you write philosophy is describing the facts that constitute those answers, or at least attempting to do so. But clearly there are lots of different ways to do that, some good, some not so good, and it is unlikely that any of us will come up with some definitive way. So if you do it once and it doesn’t come out in the way that you wanted, you can do it again in a different way.

You can read the whole interview here.


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10 months ago

Brief argument for exceptionalism:
Biology, physics and history are distinguished by their subject matter. What is different about philosophy is that the question “what is the subject matter of philosophy” is itself a philosophical question. While biologists and historians can ask the same questions, when they do so they are doing philosophy of biology or philosophy of history.

Also why would anyone be embarased to be a philosopher!!!???

Kenny Easwaran
10 months ago

I’m interested in this remark: “Whatever you think about epistemological exceptionalism, though, it is hard to deny that philosophy is socially exceptional, and that your average philosophy department looks quite different from your average linguistics or history department.

What is this social exceptionalism supposed to consist in? There are definitely some social differences between philosophy and other fields, but are they really of a different character than the socially-exceptional features of mathematics, or linguistics, or machine learning, or modern languages, or any other academic field?

I also don’t think the belief in exceptionalism is itself in any way exceptional. Similar beliefs in exceptionalism exist within mathematics, computer science, psychology, physics, economics, and likely other fields.

L. A. Paul
10 months ago

It’s “Erving Goffman,” not “Irving Goffman.”

naive squirrel
naive squirrel
10 months ago

Does exceptionalism about philosophy entail that there must be one sort of style/prose in which philosophy ought to be done/communicated? I don’t think so, and I would argue there is actually a positive correlation between the rigid/cookie-cutter fashion of academic philosophy and it’s lack of anything that would indicate its exceptionalism. I think there might be two ways of thinking of philosophy – one is with a capital “P” where it is an abstract principle of an all-encompassing grand unity and systematization of all knowledge and information that could ever be acquired (here it is exceptional), and the other is with a lowercase “p” where it is understood as a discrete ‘science’ among the others, which deals with questions that do not have clear answers or potential for definite answers, where something like the traditional scientific method is not sufficient for establishing true or probable conclusions (and here it is not very exceptional, since it operates much like other disiciplines but just focuses its attention on a particular domain of questions that may or may not relate to questions that characterize other disciplines, and uses a variety of methods). In the latter understanding, the risk is hyper-specialization (which is a risk in any discipline). And I would say the former understanding of philosophy does not seem very popular, or intuitive for most academic philosophers today.