The Curious-ers?


There are the “View X-ers” and “the Curious-ers”.

These are names Joshua Knobe (Yale) gives to two broad approaches to philosophy.

In a recent interview, he says:

A number of decades ago, there was a clear sense that your goal as a philosopher should be to articulate a big new philosophical view and then argue that everyone else is wrong and your new view is right. So there was a widespread understanding that you were supposed to have some paper where you say: “In this paper, I boldly introduce View X.” Then, over the course of the next few decades, you were supposed to keep saying that View X was right and defending it against all objections. Let’s refer to philosophers who do this as “View X-ers.”

The View X-ers always get a lot of attention, and they can sometimes manage to upstage the philosophers engaged in another, very different form of inquiry. The most noticeable fact about these other philosophers is that they are curious about philosophical questions. They are thinking about the big issues, but they aren’t wedded to any specific view about those issues. Instead, they are focused primarily on trying to think carefully about the evidence and what it suggests about the various different views. We can refer to these philosophers as the “Curious-ers.”

According to Knobe, we need more of the curious-ers:

Traditionally, I think the Curious-ers were completely underrated. They did lots of fantastic work, but all the attention got sucked up by the View X-ers. Things are clearly beginning to change on that dimension—but we still have not gone far enough. We need even more love for the Curious-ers!

I don’t quite know what I think about this distinction. It seems to me that there are plenty of philosophers who introduce a view, argue for its correctness, and defend it against objections, and so will look like “View X-ers” from the outside, or in retrospect. But this approach needn’t be owed to dogmatism, or habit, or arational influences, or lack of curiosity. To the contrary, one might be quite open-minded but not find alternatives to their own View X compelling. Or it might be curiosity that spurs a philosopher to focus on their View X—curiosity about whether it can withstand certain kinds of objections, or be extended, or be applied to new problems.  Maybe Knobe only had in mind thoroughgoing View X-ers, not the merely apparent ones. But how good is our evidence that any apparent View X-er is a thoroughgoing one?

Take Rawls. On the surface, he may come to mind as an example of a “View X-er.” After all, he did have a view and he defended it for decades. Yet he acted like a “Curious-er”, too. Consider: the multidisciplinary breadth in evidence in A Theory of Justice and in the content of his view, that major basic aspects of his theory changed over time in response to critics, that objections to his view led to his explorations of and fundamental contributions to a new branch of political philosophy. Whatever you may think of his view or his work, he doesn’t come off as lacking in curiosity. Perhaps Knobe has better examples in mind.

Even if we might question the distinction, it does seem like some philosophers may better exemplify valuable “curiosity about philosophical questions” in their work than others, or an attention to “big issues” with a mode of inquiry characterized more by open-minded agnosticism rather than defensiveness. I’d go along with Knobe’s call for for giving some love to these philosophers. Let’s hear who they are.

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don't mourn, organize!
don't mourn, organize!
3 months ago
David Wallace
3 months ago

Justin’s description doesn’t quite get at what (I think that) Knobe means. A concrete example: in philosophy of quantum mechanics I’m clearly a view-X-er, in that I’m a consistent defender of the Many-Worlds theory and most of my work in quantum mechanics defends or assumes it. That’s true even though I’d like to think I came to, and continue to hold, that view without “dogmatism, or habit, or arational influences, or lack of curiosity”; to the contrary, I’m open-minded, non-habit-forming, rational, curious, and generally wonderful.

But there are definitely curious-ers in philosophy of quantum mechanics, and it’s important that we have them, and we could probably use more of them. Some (e.g. Harvey Brown or Guido Bacciagaluppi) are interested in what a bunch of different approaches to quantum theory say, and will do one bit of work that assumes one approach and then another bit of work that assumes another. Some (e.g. Juha Saatsi, Alberto Cordero) have been interested in the general contours of the problem of how to interpret quantum mechanics and how it relates to broader issues in scientific interpretation. I’ve said for a while that it would be good for metaphysicians to spend less time asking ‘is the many-worlds theory correct?’ and more time asking ‘assuming for the sake of argument that the many-worlds theory is correct, what follows about philosophical thesis X?’, and there’s starting to be more of that work done.

I take Knobe’s distinction to be largely behaviorally characterized, answerable without looking at the detailed reasons for a philosopher to do work of one sort or another. And I take it as compatible with it being good for some people still to be view-X-ers.

Richard Y Chappell
Reply to  David Wallace
3 months ago

Maybe ‘Samplers’ would be a better term than ‘Curious-ers’?

David
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
3 months ago

I’m not so sure. I think there’s a subset of curious-ers that are driven by an interest in puzzles, aporia etc… and aren’t primarily engaging through ‘sampling’ various X-er views.

julian
julian
3 months ago

“The most noticeable fact about these other philosophers is that they are curious about philosophical questions.”

Is the implication here that the “View X-ers” are uncurious? That say, Hume (X=empiricism), Lewis (X=modal realism), Frege (X=logicism) lacked, of all things, curiosity?

Meme
Meme
Reply to  julian
3 months ago

Is the implication here that Knobe might actually think that Hume, Lewis, Frege, etc. were uncurious (rather than that curiosity is perhaps not their most “noticeable” feature)?

What does basic charity suggest?

julian
julian
Reply to  Meme
3 months ago

Charity suggests that this is not what he intended, but then logic suggests that the intent is confused. There’s no joint to be carved between salient curiosity and salient theory-crafting.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  julian
3 months ago

I think that this is an excessively pedantic criticism for what is obviously a loose observation. Of course the distinction between philosophers who defend views and philosophers who merely explore them doesn’t carve at the joints–why would anyone expect that here? It’s just a generally useful but imperfect distinction.

julian
julian
Reply to  Meme
3 months ago

I don’t think that *I* am the pedant here.

Contrasting X against “curiosity” clearly implicates that curiosity is something that X lacks. Sure, the observation is loose, there’s degrees, overlap, etc blah blah, but if two categories are contrasted then one would expect that the terms used to describe the categories are identifying some actual contrast.

If the theory-crafters do not lack for curiosity, then contrasting them with curious-ers is the opposite of useful — it’s misleading.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  julian
3 months ago

I think it’s more likely that you’re being a contrarian for its own sake, but I do that too, so whatever.

Anyway, again, the contrast was never between curiosity and incuriosity. It was (being charitable) between the salience and non-salience of curiosity, and clearly the latter does not entail incuriosity. Also, this contrast was merely one of several orienting glosses of the distinction between Curious-ers and View-X-ers. That’s another reason not to subject it–yes, pedantically–to counterexamples.

Surely, there is an actual (if exceptionable, imperfectly natural, etc.) contrast between philosophers who tend to emphasize the defense of their view and those who tend to emphasize the noncommittal exploration of questions. I really think that’s all that Knobe was getting at here, and it’s missing the point to contest his choice of adjectives.

Last edited 3 months ago by Meme
julian
julian
Reply to  Meme
3 months ago

Sure, some philosophers tend to build theories, others tend to come up with counterexamples or objections, yet others chart conceptual spaces, and others still derive further consequences of existing theories. None of this, however, has anything to do with curiosity.

Knobe is continuing the proud philosophical tradition of diagnosing the malaises of the field as philosophers coming in two kinds, the common overappreciated ones, and the upstaged, underappreciated ones like me. (Hume in the Enquiry did it best)

I think this is all very silly. One might draw the same distinction you have outlined, but call the curios-ers the “meanderers”. I’d then ask whether you still think that the choice of adjective does not matter.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  julian
3 months ago

What’s silly is reading Knobe’s gloss of an obviously rough, non-exhaustive distinction, seeing that he used “the most noticeable fact about these other philosophers is that they are curious about philosophical questions” as one description among several, inferring that he must be suggesting that the other philosophers are incurious, and then getting hung up on how joint-carving the label “noticeably curious” is. Good grief.

(And no, if he had said “they tend to meander,” and even called them “meanderers,” I still would have understood his obvious intention and not found it worthy of such scrutiny. Sometimes excessive precision in language is an impediment—and it certainly is in an informal interview like this one.)

Leif
Leif
3 months ago

Both tendencies go on at the same time it seems. There is an assertion of what makes sense as well as an interest in how assertions fit into the history of philosophy. Some are more focused on creating a theory of the world and others more focused on how the theories fit or don’t fit together. The former can be a function of the institutional position of the philosopher politically and economically. The latter more a function of being a philosopher.

felipe morales carbonell
felipe morales carbonell
3 months ago

A lot of people here have discussed the case of people who seem to be a View X-er when they are not, but I think the opposite can happen too. In my written work I tend to explore the solution space to the problems I deal with (I think this is what Knobe means by ‘being curious’) more than develop my own view, but I certainly have preferences and I am mostly undertaking Curious-er work in order to clarify my own view.

Louis Zapst
3 months ago

The reality of a philosophical career/body of work is very often far more complicated. This is clear when you see, in philosophers known for developing definitive views on some things, nevertheless clear evidence of curiosity when they change their minds or say things in conflict (or even contradiction) with other things they said earlier. One could cite many examples, but I’ll just mention Kant and Wittgenstein as examples of philosophers who at a certain point in their careers abandoned some of their own important earlier views (presumably driven by curiosity about the truth), but could still be called “view-Xers” even to the extent that they are widely identified with certain definite views-X.

Simon
3 months ago

This distinction is almost the entire reason that I did not peruse a philosophy grad program after a philosophy undergrad program (I ended up going to business school). All of the grad programs I was exposed to seemed to focus only on training people to develop their “View X” opus, something that didn’t interest me at all.

Patrick Lin
3 months ago

This distinction seems to track what Julia Galef has called the scout’s mindset versus the soldier’s mindset.

The scout is not in attack-and-defend mode like the solider—which comes with certain cognitive biases—but makes a more neutral or objective assessment. And both are needed in battle; they play different roles.

Here’s her short talk about that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MYEtQ5Zdn8

And here’s a Q&A interview about her book on the same: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/22410374/julia-galef-book-scout-mindset-interview-think