Externalist Explanations of Philosophy


Why did a particular philosophical view emerge or flourish at a particular time? Why did another fall into disfavor? Why are philosophers today thinking and writing about the particular questions, problems, ideas, and figures they are?

[photo by Justin Weinberg]

The kind of explanation philosophers typically turn to in thinking about these questions are what we think of as philosophical explanations. That is, we look to the arguments and objections in the relevant literature, the evidence and examples philosophers made use of, the explanatory power of the relevant ideas, and so on.

We look for philosophical explanations for a few reasons. First, they’re obviously relevant. Second, they’re what we’re trained to focus on. Third, since we’re so trained, we’re better at finding those kinds of explanations than others, and so success and any pleasure taken in it reinforces the practice. And fourth, they tend to strike us as the right kind of explanation. Perhaps this is a form of charitable interpretation: philosophers’ beliefs should be justified, so we look for the kinds of things that justification involves, such as reasons. Perhaps it is a form of self-flattery: we want the members of the club we’re a part of to have been doing things right.

But (and I know I make use of this phrase a lot, in lots of ways): philosophers are people, too. And just as the thinking of ordinary people in all sorts of ordinary contexts is influenced by various social, economic, political, institutional (etc.) forces to which they’re subject, so, too, are philosophers.

And so philosophical explanations of the course of philosophy are going to be, at best, incomplete.

Historians of philosophy often take the broader social context in which philosophers ideas emerge into account, to varying degrees, but it seems that lately we’ve been seeing in increase in more robustly “externalist” explanations of philosophy, and an increased receptiveness to them. Some of them have been mentioned at Daily Nous before (e.g., here).

In a recent example of this kind of work, “Critical Realism and Technocracy – RW Sellars’ Radical Philosophy in its Context,” Mazviita Chirimuuta (Edinburgh) describes an “externalist explanation” as “one which takes, as explananda, contextual factors rather than considerations pertaining to the internal logic of the arguments.” She adds:

Externalist explanations come in many varieties. A historian of philosophy of science who considers the practical benefits conferred by a philosophical view, such as realism, on practicing scientists, can avail themselves of one kind of externalist explanation; a historian who focusses on the mesh between a certain theory and pedagogical practices within the institutions that popularized it, has another kind. Most well known are the externalist explanations in the history of science referring to the social and political context within which a scientific movement has risen to prominence. [notes omitted]

I’m curious about a few things here:

  • Do others agree there has been an increase in both the production of and disciplinary receptiveness to externalist explanations in philosophy?
  • What are some further examples of this kind of work produced by people associated with philosophy departments?
  • Since some of the skills and knowledge needed to produce externalist explanations (in part because they’re inherently interdisciplinary) are distinct from those that philosophers are typically trained in, does the increase in such work represent the emergence of something we should as a profession recognize as a subfield or area of specialization?
  • Is the increase in externalist explanation a way that philosophy is “catching up” with other humanities disciplines? And if so, what might come of that?

and, of course:

  • What is a good externalist explanation for the increase of externalist explanations in philosophy?

Discussion welcome.

(Thanks to Eric Schliesser for bringing Chirimuuta’s article to my attention.)

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Christopher Martin
Christopher Martin
3 months ago

Suppose I say that this or that prevailing philosophical view is clearly a direct deceit of the Devil, isn’t that an externalist account?

cecul burrow
cecul burrow
Reply to  Christopher Martin
3 months ago

It certainly would be. But can you make a good case for it?

Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
3 months ago

All I know is my bff and I got in trouble from our boss for “talking philosophy” at work.

She was a drudge and didn’t abide no philosophy.

Ptooey.

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
3 months ago

As I recall, Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice gives externalist explanations of various developments in Rawls’s thought, i.e. explanations in terms of events in the larger political world post-WW II. And there could a more general “sociology of Rawls,” one that tries to explain the utter dominance of his ideas in so much of political philosophy for so many decades. (And no, this wasn’t just because of the quality of the ideas.) There’s first the matter of timing, i.e. A Theory of Justice came out at arguably the perfect time, both within philosophy and in the larger political world (e.g. student protests), to have its greatest impact. There’s Rawls’s position at Harvard, his apparently immense influence on his students, and their ability to find — or his ability to find them — influential positions at other top universities. Also the fact that Philosophy and Public Affairs was for a time essentially a Rawlsian house journal, and doubtless more. There just seems a lot of scope for at least partly externalist explanation of this familiar fact of recent philosophical history.

Matt L
Reply to  Tom Hurka
2 months ago

Also the fact that Philosophy and Public Affairs was for a time essentially a Rawlsian house journal

This is said a lot, and the “likes” here, and the amount of times its said (usually w/o support) suggets that it’s “common knowledge”. But is it true? I think that’s a lot less clear. I went and looked at all of the issues of P&PA from its founding in 1971 for it’s first 10 years (so, 40 issues, with typically 4-5 papers per issue, though sometimes a bit fewer or more) and there were… 5 papers primarily on Rawls, and a few more that made some significant use of his work (like Beitz on international relations or Daniels on health care) but that were significant on their own, or that took Rawls partially as a foil (such as Nozick’s paper on distributive justice.) There were many more papers on Marx and Marxism, abortion, and just war theory (with Michael Walzer being the subject of more papers than Rawls.) Maybe the Rawlsian “caputre” was supposed to come later than the first 10 years, and maybe that’s right, but I suspect it’s one of those things that “everyone knows” that just isn’t actually true. If people want to make the claim, I hope they’ll do more tedious work of looking at issues and supporting it rather than just repeating it. Doing history a priori isn’t very rewarding, after all.

Sam
Sam
3 months ago

A good start is the rejection of behaviourism in psychology

Luisa A. V. Rodal
Luisa A. V. Rodal
3 months ago

Externalist explanations point to some intrinsic properties of something, be it a phenomenon or an issue/ thing. Inasmuch as ut aims to describe the core of anything it needs to search for it. Then it implies internalism. Understanding something involves intentionality towards the core of anythung meant by the explanation. Humans are philosophical bt nature or definition. Externalism cannot do away with the internal structure or essence/ eidos of anything

mario
mario
3 months ago

I heard that John McCumber (sp?) argues that the dominance of Analytic Philosophy in the US has to do with …not clear argument, as my teachers always claimed, but with the politics of the McCarthy era. Is that roughly right? Is that externalist?
Would any roughly Marxist history of philosophy be by definition externalist?

Matt L
Reply to  mario
3 months ago

John McCumber has definitely argued that, as has, in a more detailed and careful way, George Reisch. These would both clearly be “externalist” arguments. I don’t find either one very plausible, but not primarily because they are “externalist”, but because I think there are better, more plausible, stories that better account for the changes. (Purely “externalist” accounts are unlikely to be that plausible, I think, but so are most purely “internalist” ones.)

Matt L
Reply to  Peter West
2 months ago

That article isn’t very plausible, as several of the comments in the earlier discussion of it here point out: https://dailynous.com/2023/01/10/is-any-of-analytic-philosophys-dominance-owed-to-mccarthyism/

Ray V
Ray V
Reply to  Matt L
2 months ago

Can you say which argument you think disproves the thesis?

It can’t be the one about the lack of red scare because both Australia and the UK had red scares if not full blown McCarthyism.

I am unsure which argument you mean though.

Matt L
Reply to  Ray V
2 months ago

This reply is a good example of part of the problem w/ both McCumber’s book and the Jacobin article (and, though to a lesser degree, Reische’s book) – a tendency to move between relatively precise (and so more plausibly testible) formulations, like “McCarthyism” and more broad ones, making it hard to pin down claims. Joined with some post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, a lack of specifics (*), and you end up with an argument that’s based on feelings, and that ignores alternative explanations. (They are often not even considered.) It’s the sort of work that a careful historian would be embarrassed of, but that appeals to pop sensitivities, especially of people who don’t much know the details.

(*) Interestingly, you _can_ find some good details that help explain certain changes in some parts of “continental” philosophy. For example, major shifts in the thinking of Lukacs map quite nicely with his being threatened with jail or death by Soviet and/or Hungarian communist party officials. But we don’t get anything even romotely like this in the stories about analytic philosophy. We wouldn’t need anything so dramatic, but we don’t get anything like this.

Brandon Beasley
Brandon Beasley
3 months ago

Forgive what is perhaps a naive question…but aren’t these “external explanations” just historical or sociological explanations? They are certainly not new. If, indeed, the new phenomenon is philosophers taking them more seriously, then: on the one hand, that’s great–philosophers, particularly anglo-american analytic philosophers (of which I am one), have generally been too ignorant of the larger historical, social, and intellectual context of philosophy. On the other hand, here lies a danger: these historical explanations should not be confused for evidence or reasons that a certain philosophical view is true or false, justified or unjustified. It might be the case that, say, Rawlsian liberal political philosophy was a response to the Cold War political situation in the US. But can that tell us anything about what we should think of Rawls’ arguments? Not really. The question of whether his arguments are good or not depends on the arguments themselves. Their historical, social, and intellectual context can gives us really valuable *clues* for where to look for possible weaknesses or deficiences of his arguments, but it cannot act as evidence against them or reasons to reject them, on their own. No more than we could use the fact that, say, Plato came from a well-to-do family to reject the theory of Forms.

GradStu
GradStu
Reply to  Brandon Beasley
3 months ago

I think this is right. Certainly, externalist explanations of the sort described in the post don’t provide direct evidence of truth or falsity. At the same time, they might lead one rationally to reduce one’s confidence in some philosophical position in some cases, such as cases where you come to suspect that your evidence in favor of a philosphical position is not quite as strong as you initially took it to be.

Consider the following. You endorse some philosophical position X, and you do so primarily because of the strength of the arguments for it, the fact that your mentors and influences accepted X, and so on. But then you learn that X came to be widely accepted in large part due to purely external factors—perhaps X was more politically palatable than rival positions when X was first formulated, and, consequently, non-X positions weren’t developed in as much detail as X.

Were I in this position, I’d be inclined to reduce my confidence in X due to a suspicion that the evidence I’ve received in favor of X isn’t strong enough to warrant my prior level of confidence after all. (That said, it’s far from clear that I’d be obligated to reduce my confidence in this way, of course. I might even be obligated not to do so. I’m just outlining a possibility here.)

(That case just illustrates the problem of arbitrary influences on belief, as in Cohen’s famous case of accepting the analytic/synthetic distinction due to studying at Oxford even though he likely would have rejected the distinction had he studied at Harvard. And if Roger White is correct, this problem, in turn, is nothing but the problem of disagreement in disguise. In general, it would be interesting to put the discussion of externalist explanations of philosphical positions in dialogue with the literatures on arbitrary influences and disagreement.)

Last edited 3 months ago by GradStu
toro toro
Reply to  GradStu
2 months ago

Hi Gradstu,

Do you mind saying which Roger White you mean, and where either of them made the argument you refer to?

Cheers!

GradStu
GradStu
Reply to  toro toro
2 months ago
toro toro
Reply to  GradStu
2 months ago

Wonderful, thank you!

Aaron Goldbird
Aaron Goldbird
3 months ago

I feel like when I was at uni, and mostly but not entirely in informal contexts, explanations people took to be externalist explanations took the form of debunking arguments and were given as explanations of the uptake of positions one really disliked (their popularity if they were popular, their unpopularity if they were unpopular). Eg. Deleuze must be popular because of human weakness for pseudo-profundity; analytic naturalism must be the popular because of the political context of prestige universities.

But the sort of explanations which might seem like internal philosophical explanations often are or imply at least partly straightforwardly historical externalist explanations. Eg. X said this, then Y offered this devastating objection, which spawned a significant literature cementing the importance of Y’s ideas and leading to a currently popular subfield. But Y also had the epistemological resources for and could have plausibly offered this other equally devastating objection, in which case we might be focussing more closely on an entirely different set of ideas. That sort of thing is about reasons and the quality of ideas and pretty standardly philosophical stuff, but also about what people did, choices they made and not just “Y was right and X was wrong, so we care about Y but not about X”.

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
2 months ago

Three thoughts. First, the notion of external and internal explanations bears some resemblance to Brandom’s reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology in A Spirit of Trust. For Hegel, it’s always possible to give a niedertraechtig or pusilanimous rational reconstruction of some intellectual development (or really any event), explaining it by way of factors external to the rational details of the ideas and the high-minded intentions of the agents — cf. the hermeneutics of suspicion. At the same time, it’s also always possible to give an edelmeutig or magnanimous rational reconstruction, which ascribes explanatory power to those reasons and intentions. It’s just in the nature of the kinds of beings we are, and the richness of the world, that such readings are both always available. For Brandom, trust results from a judicious application of these two attitudes, finding a way to ascribe sincerity to an actor’s stated intentions, and explanatory significance to what they say they were up to.

Second, regarding the sociology of analytic philosophy in the U.S., interested parties might look to Joel Katzav and Krist Vaesan’s work on the journal capture that took place at The Journal of Philosophy, Mind, and The Philosophical Review in the middle of the 20th century, shifting those journals from a pragmatist-inflected pluralism toward analytic philosophy. From p.774 of their “On the Emergence of American Analytic Philosophy”:

[This essay] suggests that analytic philosophy emerged in America at a time characterized by philosophical pluralism and a widespread commitment to addressing meta-philosophical issues related to such pluralism. It also suggests that analytic philosophy came to dominate American philosophy partly by analytical philosophers taking control of key institutions within academic philosophy and using these to promote analytic philosophy, and that crucial steps in the direction of such control occurred before 1950. The reason for the growing dominance of analytic philosophy appears to have been, at least in part, the suppression, by institutional means, of existing diversity and, possibly, the exploitation of American pluralism.

Finally, one place where an externalist explanation seems to me ripe is in the dominance of so-called “intensional semantics” downstream from Carnap’s appropriation of Leibniz’s term “intension” as an Ersatz for Frege’s notion of Sinn, and especially the work done at UCLA in the late 1960s, which at the time was home to Rudolph Carnap, Alonzo Church, Keith Donnellan, Donald Kalish, Hans Kamp, David Kaplan, David Lewis, Richard Montague, and Barbara Partee. Much of the work done in philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive science since that time has been blinkered by an exclusively denotational conception of meaning, at the expense of a properly intralinguistic or connotational one. The “hyperintensional revolution”, for instance, is largely an artifact of Carnap’s terminology, and the research programs devoted to the study of hyperintensions work within the conceptual space delimited by Carnap’s notion of intension as a function from state descriptions (an early analogue to possible worlds, minus the accessibility relations) to extensions.

I’m not sure how to give the edelmuetig compelment to that niedertraechtic externalist explanation for the dominance of Carnapian notions of intensionality in Anglophone analytic philosophy today, but I suspect it will come by way of an appreciation of Rorty’s anti-representationalist stance, and its influence on people like Brandom.

Brad
2 months ago

People working in HPS are quite familiar with externalist explanation , provided they interact with historians and sociologists of science (which many do). There is a firm tradition of offering externalist accounts of the rise of the historical school in philosophy of science, the school associated with Kuhn, Hesse, Hanson, Toulmin, Feyerabend, and others. Steve Fuller and George Reisch both offer quite full-blown externalist accounts of Kuhn’s philosophy, attributing it to the Cold War culture in which he worked, and under the influence of James B. Conant

Brad
Reply to  Brad
2 months ago

My own book, Kuhn’s Intellectual Path, was intended to offer an internalist account of Kuhn’s philosophy, to trace the intellectual influences on Kuhn – his Aristotle epiphany, Conant’s theory of science (taught at Harvard in the Gen Ed History of Science courses), the history of chemistry (rather than physics or astronomy), and logical positivism (through Quine’s lens).

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
2 months ago

By externalist I take it you just mean contextualist. In the history of modern phllosophy there has been growing tolerance of and and even embrace of contextualist approaches. But this has been the case for as long as I’ve been in the field. I do think it helps in relating to other humanities disciplines — it’s good to actually engage with the writings of academics in other fields as opposed to just saying “foolish academic you think Derrida’s a philosopher?” And this involves recognizing that they know something you don’t. Not just how to work in an archive and read impossible handwriting but also how to make sophisticated connections you would never see by not thinking in the same ruts you do.

Cynthia Anne Freeland
Cynthia Anne Freeland
Reply to  Aaron V Garrett
2 months ago

This makes me think of Eileen O’Neil’s impressive archival research on early modern women philosophers, which is a major component of more numerous efforts at understanding how women did participate in the history of philosophy in ways that were erased, and which in turn is part of the grounding of various streams of feminist philosophy.

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Cynthia Anne Freeland
2 months ago

I was thinking of a paper she gave on Gournay when writing this!

Michael Prinzing
Michael Prinzing
2 months ago

People like Nick Byrd and David Yaden have been doing some really interesting work on psychological influences on philosophical views. There’s also the PhilPapers surveys. Although those have more descriptive, rather than explanatory, aims they could easily become fodder for a sociology of philosophy.

toro toro
2 months ago

Schopenhauer, who had superb English, submitted a proposal to an academic press to write the first translation of Kant into English. I think it’s fair to say the history of philosophy in the English language might have gone very differently had the commercial situation seemed more positive to the publisher.

Matt L
2 months ago

If we take an “internalist” explanation to be one where peopel work on particular topics or research programs because of the “internal”/”instrinsic”/”intellectual” values of the arguments or programs, then it seems important to me to distinguish several different types of “externalist” explanations. Some examples might be the follow:
1) working on a topic because a lot of other people are working on it, and so it’s easy to find people to talk to, get attention from, etc.
2) Working on a topic/following a research program because it (secretly?) promotes the interests of the ruling class in some more or less direct way
3) Not working on certain topics because doing so would bring negative attention from the ruling class
4) Following trends (related to, but not exactly the same as, 1) above)
5) Doing what your advisor does
6) Picking a topic/making certain arguments/writing in a style that is more likely to be published in “top” journals, where one isn’t otherwise motivated by the above.
7) A development in another field has made some topic seem interesting/accessible in a way that it wasn’t before. (Maybe this is partially “internal”? I’m not sure.)
8) Changes in personal temperment over time (sometimes in normal/predictable ways, sometimes due to less predictable historical events) (i.e., being more optimistic about the possibility of social progress when young, and less optimistic when older.)

No doubt there are others, and over-lap among all of these, but it seems important to not blur them, not least because some of them more clearly lead to “de-bunkng” arguments than others.

Alexandre Billon
Alexandre Billon
2 months ago

Great topic. There are psychopathological explanations of metaphysics. Noticing a certain type of patients who kept doubting about the reality of the world the great psychologist Pierre Janet who had been trained as a philosopher lamented : « when one has seen many of these pathological doubters [scrupuleux], one comes to sadly wondering whether philosophical speculation is a disease of the human mind (Janet, 1909, p.302) ». Ferdinand Alquie, an important French historian of philosophy concurred and concluded that no one would do philosophy unless he is a little crazy. I have an article under review about these things.

praymont
praymont
Reply to  Alexandre Billon
2 months ago

And then there’s John Oulton Wisdom’s work on Berkeley, according to which the latter’s antipathy to matter stemmed from disgust at his own body’s, um, excretions.

Brad
2 months ago

It is worth noting that Ian Hacking has connected externalist explanations with a desire to “unmask” something. He writes about this in The Social Construction of What? Constructivists aim to show that something, x, that we thought had one cause – say, the development of certain line of thought – has in fact another cause, perhaps a certain social change. The REAL cause, we are led to believe, undercuts the legitimacy of the thing being explained.

praymont
praymont
2 months ago

The impact of WWI on western philosophy. Before the War, it was normal for many British philosophers to study in Germany. That practice diminished after the War. It wasn’t all at once, but interaction between the two philosophical communities fell off. Tom Akehurst has written about the War’s impact (esp. in his book The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe).

In French philosophy journals from WWI, I found articles or letters in which French philosophers called for French philosophy to become pure, or truly French (viz., no more German influence). But German influence was stronger than in the UK partly because of Alsace-Lorraine (e.g., Jean Hering at Strasbourg) and because more Russian refugees moved to France. Some of these refugees had studied philosophy in Germany (e.g., Gurwitsch, Levinas, Koyré, Kojève). So, Husserl’s post-WWI talks in the UK met largely with polite indifference and his talks in France weren’t attended by many of the leading French philosophers, but they were channeled into French philosophy by Hering’s students and emigre Russians (see Ekaterina Shashlova’s paper “Russian philosophers in France in the interwar period: a review of the studies of emigrant philosophers”).

That’s not a complete explanation of why France remained more engaged with German philosophy than did the UK, but I think it’s essential to any full account. Major wars and large population migrations influenced 20th-Century philosophy.  

Also, the sheer number of promising young German philosophers who were lost in WWI. The Germans had to reach deeper into their male population to find enough soldiers, so many 30- and 40-something philosophers were on the front lines. Several British philosophers served in WWI, but mainly in the intelligence services. It’s harder to find any early or mid-career British philosophers who were killed in that War.

Tara Braswell
Tara Braswell
2 months ago

Calling a historical-critical or philological perspective an “externalist” perspective, rather than historical-critical, philological, or even “Hermeneutics of Suspicion” ignores the fact that this has been a pretty standard practice both in Political Theory and Continental Philosophy for centuries. In theory, Marxists critiques of any ideology or philosophy should consider its history and social positioning, even if the Marxist lens is its own ideology with its own history to be examined from an ‘externalist’ perspective.

An extremely glib “externalist explanation for the increase of externalist explanations” could just be that Continental philosophy is now more common in English speaking universities. It might be more worthwhile to ask why historical criticism/ externalism/ philology/ HoS became unpopular for a while.

Graham Clay
2 months ago

Focusing on or worrying about “externalist” explanations has been a common theme through much of the history of philosophy, as many have noted in the other comments. On this point, I would like to add Hume to the list. At the very least, Hume’s commentators now tend to agree that one of his core contributions is a well-developed view on the limits of efforts at belief change through philosophical argumentation. Some of his interest with skepticism just is an interest in why some arguments (namely, the “skeptical” ones) lack lasting purchase on the beliefs we form/have/keep. A more radical interpretation that I have been working to motivate lately is that Hume holds that our belief formation processes in philosophy are fundamentally the same kind as those which we use in the rest of our lives and, strikingly, they are those by which we reason causally. In a sense, this is the interpretation that Hume holds that philosophy must be “externalist” all the way down, given human nature as it is. (Drafts available upon request.)