Brave questions. A response to Sara Uckelman

Sara Uckelman has great advice for new students: be brave and ask questions! Even and especially those questions that you might find silly. Why should you? “Because I can guarantee you that every question you have, someone else in the class is going to have it too, and they’re not going to be brave enough to ask, and they will be so grateful to you that you were.”

Going from my own experience as a student and professor, this is quite true. The only thing I’d like to add is that this advice applies not only to beginners but perhaps especially to advanced practitioners. The reason is that there is no such thing as a question that is both genuine and silly. Why? Because at least in philosophy nothing is ever justified by itself.

Nevertheless, asking questions is difficult. As Sara Uckelman points out, it involves bravely embracing “your ignorance and confusion”. Moreover, questions are almost a textual genre unto themselves. (See Eric Schliesser’s advice on how to develop more elaborate questions.) Therefore, I think it’s worthwhile to acually practise asking questions. Here are a few ideas how to get started:

(1) Write down your question! You don’t even need to ask it if you’re unsure. But writing it down will enable you to keep track of your concern as the discussion moves on. You can perhaps see how close your question is to other questions (which might be variants of your question). And you can still choose to leave it at that or ask it later or even after the talk or class.

(2) Figure out what kind of question you have! Back in the day, I often felt stupid because I couldn’t actually pin down what to ask for in the first place. Asking for the meaning of an unfamiliar term is fairly simple (and it’s always a good thing to ask, because terminology is often used in specific and different ways by different people). But more often than not, I just felt like saying “I don’t understand that passage at all.” If you feel like that, it might be a good start to figure out more clearly what exactly you don’t understand about it: a word, a certain argumentative move, the relation between two sentences etc. You can then begin by stating what you do understand and then move on to saying where exactly you lose track. It locates the problem, makes one feel less helpless, and will help your interlocutor.

(3) Structure your question! Sometimes you might just want to get it out and over with. But if you feel comfortable enough it might be helpful to raise a question in a more elaborate manner. I find the following parts useful:

  • target: say what the question is about
  • state the actual question
  • give a brief explanation why the question arises
  • perhaps provide a brief anticipation of possible answers (at talks this is helpful to prepare follow-up questions)

Of course, it’s not necessary to do all of those things. But bearing such a structure in mind often helped me to prevent myself from losing track of where I actually am. Sometimes even the mere act of talking might seem difficult. In such cases, this structure might help you to say some things without having to think (which is difficult when you’re nervous). So you might begin by saying “I’d like to ask a question about this … (insert term or phrase)” or by saying “I have a question. Let me explain how it arises.” Uttering such (or other) words will perhaps make you feel more at home in the space you’re inhabiting.

On relevance and othering

Do you remember talking about music during your school days? There was always someone declaring that they would only listen to the latest hits. Talking to philosophers, I occasionally feel transported back to these days: especially when someone tells me that they have no time for history and will only read the latest papers on a topic. “What do I care what Brentano said about intentionality! I’m interested in current discussions.” Let’s call this view “currentism”. I sometimes experience versions of this currentist attitude in exams. A student might present an intriguing reconstruction of a medieval theory of matter only to be met with the question: “Why would anyone care about that today?” I have to admit that I sometimes find this attitude genuinely puzzling. In what follows I’d like to explain my puzzlement and raise a few worries.

Why only “sometimes”? I say “sometimes”, because there is a version of this attitude that I fully understand. Roughly speaking, there is a descriptive and a normative version of that sentiment. I have no worries about the descriptive version: Some people just mean to say what they focus on or indicate a preference. They are immersed in a current debate. Given the constraints of time, they can’t read or write much else. That’s fine and wholly understandable. In that case, the question of why one would care might well be genuine and certainly deserves an answer. – The normative version is different: People endorsing the normative attitude mean to say that history of philosophy is a waste of time and should be abolished, unless perhaps in first-year survey courses. Now you might say: “Why are you puzzled? Some people are just more enthusiastic in promoting their preferences.” To this I reply that the puzzlement and worries are genuine because I find the normative attitude (1) unintelligible and (2) politically harmful. Here is why:

(1) My first set of worries concerns the intelligibility of this attitude. Why would anyone think that the best philosophy is being produced during our particular time slice? I guess that the main reason for (normatively) restricting the temporal scope of philosophy to the last twenty or fifty years is the idea that the most recent work is indeed the best philosophy. Now why would anyone think that? I see two possible reasons. One might think so because one believes that philosophy is tied to science and that the latest science is the best science. Well, that might be, but progress in science does not automatically carry over to philosophy. The fact that I write in the presence of good science doesn’t make me a good philosopher.

So if there is something to that idea people will ultimately endorse it for another reason: because there might be progress in philosophy itself. Now the question whether there really is progress in philosophy is of course hotly debated. I certainly don’t want to deny that there have been improvements, and I continue to hope for more of them. But especially if we assume that progress is an argument in favour of doing contemporary philosophy (and what else should we do, even if we do history!), how can someone not informed about history assess this progress? If I have no clue about the history of a certain issue, how would I know that real advancements have been made? In other words, the very notion of progress is inherently historical and requires at least some version of (whig) history. So unless someone holds the belief that recent developments are always better, I think one needs historical knowledge to make that point.

Irrespective of questions concerning progress one might still endorse current over historical philosophy because it is relevant to current concerns. So yes, why bother with medieval theories of justice when we can have theories that invoke current issues? Well, I don’t doubt that we should have philosophers focussing on current issues. But I wonder whether current issues are intelligible without references to the past. Firstly, there is the fact that our current understanding of justice or whatever is not a mere given. Rather, it is the latest stage of a development over time. Arguably, understanding that development is part of understanding the current issues. Now you might object that we should then confine ourselves to writing genealogies of stuff that is relevant today but not of remote issues (such as medieval theories of, say, matter). To this I reply that we cannot decide what does and doesn’t pertain to a certain genealogy in advance of historical studies. A priori exclusion is impossible, at least in history. Moreover, we cannot know that what we find irrelevant today is still irrelevant tomorrow. In other words, our judgments concerning relevance are subject to change and cannot be used to exclude possible fields of interest. To sum up, ideas of progress and relevance are inherently historical and require historical study.

(2) However, the historicity of relevance doesn’t preclude that it is abused in polemical and political ways. Besides worries about intelligibility, then, I want to raise political and moral worries against the normative attitude of currentism. Short of sound arguments from progress or relevance, the anti-historical stance reduces to a form of othering. Just like some people suffer exclusion and are labelled as “weird” for reasons regarding stereotypes of race or gender, people are excluded for reasons of historical difference. But we should think twice before calling a historically remote discussion less rational or relevant or whatever. Of course, there is a use of “weird” that is simply a shorthand of “I don’t understand the view”. That’s fine. What I find problematic is the unreflected dismissal of views that don’t fit into one’s preferences. But the fact that someone holds a view that does not coincide with today’s ideas about relevance deserves study rather than name-calling. As I see it, we have moral reasons to refrain from such forms of abuse.

If we don’t have reasons showing that a historical view has disadvantages over a current one, why do we call it “weird” or “irrelevant”? Here is my hunch: it’s a simple fight over resources. Divide et impera! But in the long run, it’s a lose-lose situation for all of us. Yet if you’re a politician and you manage to play off different sub-disciplines in philosophy or the humanities against one another, you can simply stand by until they’ve delegitimised each other so much that you can call all camps a farce and close down their departments.

What does it mean to be ‘actively’ researching a paper?

After reading one of Martin’s earlier posts on turning a half-baked idea into a paper, it got me thinking about the writing project that I’m currently engaged in, which one might describe as turning a fully baked idea into a paper – but that I left in the oven for too long. This might not be the best metaphor – I don’t think the idea I express in the paper is burnt or has gotten worse over time (at least I hope not), but the paper is one that was nearly finished and that I started to refine into a publishable article nearly a year ago, but that I put down to work on other projects that had more pressing deadlines. It’s now at the point where I’m returning to the paper and finally bringing it to completion. This situation has certain disadvantages to it that I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss and caution against, and it also got me thinking about what it means to be ‘actively’ working on or researching a paper.

Obviously, this kind of situation (where one has to return to and finish an already started and possibly almost finished project) is less than ideal. In an ideal world one starts a paper and continues to work on it regularly and without significant interruption until it’s finished (for my purposes let’s say a ‘finished’ paper is one that is submitted for publication). I say without significant interruption because rarely is it the case that an academic is able or even wants to work on only one paper for a length of time until it’s finished, and not work on anything else. At the very least there will be other things one is working on – other research projects, grant proposals, administrative work, teaching, etc. – and that will necessarily interrupt progress on a project to some degree. The situation I have in mind, rather, is where working on a project gets interrupted to the extent that one has to put down or stop working on a project for some period of time such that returning to it is not an easy task. In this scenario, returning to the project requires re-familiarizing oneself with the project itself (what you are trying to argue in the paper) and perhaps also the secondary literature one is engaging with. Not only this, but depending on how long the project has been sitting, one might also need to make sure that no new research has been published in the meantime that one ought to consider. There are, therefore, significant disadvantages to ‘leaving a paper in the oven’ or, perhaps better, leaving it in a folder to collect (virtual) dust for too long. Given one shouldn’t forget about a paper for too long, and also that it is unrealistic that anyone is able to work on a single project from beginning to end in a short time frame, what sort of scenario should we aim for that both avoids the disadvantages mentioned as well as counts as ‘actively’ researching a paper? What does it mean to be ‘actively’ researching a paper anyways?

I won’t try to answer all of these questions here, and I’ll focus on the last one. To start, I should clarify that, although related, I’m not here interested in what it means to be an ‘active researcher’ for any institutional purposes. However, given institutions have definitions of this, it might be interesting to look at one. Let’s take the first option that google offered me, namely the definition adopted by Dundalk Institute of Technology in Ireland: they define a ‘Research Active’ individual as “someone who conducts research on an ongoing basis and ensures it is a significant focus of their academic activity”. This definition is shared by institutions like Macquarie University as well (see here).[1] This basic definition is a good one to work with, and emphasizes what I think are the key factors when it comes to avoiding the disadvantages associated with leaving a paper in a drawer, a folder, or the oven for too long: when working on a paper we should aim to conduct research on an ongoing basis, and it should be a significant focus of ours.

The idea of working on a paper on an ongoing basis stresses that we never let a project sit or forget about it, that we’re thinking about it almost every day, and keeping up to date on the secondary literature. This ‘ongoing’ work should prevent one from having to re-familiarize oneself with one’s argument in the paper, and also with the intellectual conversation one is contributing to with the publication. I suppose these features are also stressed by the idea that working on such a project should be a ‘significant’ focus of ours, but this second feature might emphasize that the time and energy we devote to working on a project never falls below a certain threshold, i.e. that we are always giving the project an amount of attention needed to bring it to completion. I’m not sure what this threshold is, and it might even vary from individual to individual (we each have our limits when it comes to how much multi-tasking we’re capable of). But if we want to be actively researching something, we should never take on too much given our limits, and if we want to finish a project it should always be a significant or main focus on ours.

I’m sure much more can be said about what I’ve discussed here. To conclude, it’s worth highlighting that I’ve assumed that the end goal of working on a project is its eventual publication. This may not be one’s goal, but academics working at institutions will likely have this goal, and it is at least mine for the project I have in mind. It would be interesting to think about how things might change if our end goal is different, but I leave that for a different occasion.

[1] For another definition of ‘research active’ that is obviously tied to more institutional concerns, and thus that I’m not interested in here, the (now non-existent) Higher Education Funding Council for England defined someone as ‘research-active’ for contractual purposes as someone who is carrying out “research that would be appropriately assessed by the criteria used by the REF.” (see here)


P.S. Seeing as it’s my first post, let me take the opportunity to thank Martin for having me on the blog! I’m really looking forward to taking part.

What is philosophy? A response to Laura Georgescu

Some years ago, I began to make a habit of telling students what I think philosophy is. Not in order to tell them the one and only Truth, but in order to clarify what I look out for in papers and interactions. So I will say something like the following: “Philosophy is a huge and on-going conversation. Thus, philosophy is not directly about phenomena; rather it deals with claims about phenomena. So you won’t ask “What is thinking or justice?” Rather you will deal with what other people or you say about thinking or justice etc.” This is normally followed up by some explanation of how to identify claims and arguments (or other kinds of evidence) in relation to such claims. Finally, I try to explain that the evaluation of a position does not mean to say that one is for or against it, but to spell out in what way and how convincingly the arguments support the claim.

Recently, I’ve grown a bit wary of saying such things. Why? Of course, I like to think about philosophy that way because it highlights the fact that it’s a conversational practice where certain rules of discourse apply. And sometimes it also stops people from doing their head in about the phenomena themselves. If you have to write a paper it’s easier to think about the things people say than to ask yourself what consciousness really is. But on the other hand it sends the message that philosophy is all about making claims. Now what’s wrong with that? In a way, not much. But then again it seems to have things the wrong way round. One might even think that we are mainly trained to question others rather than our own beliefs. But in fact a claim is something you might come to after a lot of thinking, talking and doubting yourself. A claim is not one’s starting point, or is it?

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it before reading Laura Georgescu’s recent blog post “Against Confidence in Opinions”. Go and read it! I’ll just give you the main take-home message it had for me: Like the much of the world, academic philosophy is infected with the idea that it’s a good thing to have confidence. Especially in the rightness of one’s opinions. So it’s all about defending one’s claims. But what is the outcome of that? Something most of us would claim not to find desirable: dogmatism. So there’s a cultivation of confidence and it leads to dogmatism. This nailed it for me. I realised that what I found problematic was that people were too often invested in defending their positions rather than questioning them. If you look at philosophers, you might want to distinguish two types: the one who is self-undermining and asking questions all the time as opposed to the confident one, tossing out one claim after another. The latter type seems to abound. – But as much as I like to believe in such a distinction, I doubt that it holds. So what now?

I recently said that advising to work on one’s confidence is cold comfort. Neither do I think that we can just ignore this culture. So let’s think what precisely might be undesirable about it. When I remember my student days, I remember myself admiring many of my fellow students for their confidence. They were speaking up, eloquently so, while I was running through possible formulations of an idea and remained doubtful whether I had a point at all. That feeling remained for a very long time. After the PhD and Habilitation it got better, but whenever I went out of my scholarly comfort zone, I felt I had no points to make. There is a kind of confidence that depends on having a feeling of legitimacy, and I often think getting a permanent job helps a lot with that feeling. – So now that I feel confident enough to write blog posts about what philosophy is I should start preaching that confidence is a bad thing? Doesn’t sound convincing to me. So what precisely is wrong with it?

First of all, there is a lot right with it. It helps getting through the day in all sorts of ways. But as Laura Georgescu emphasises, it’s confidence in opinions that is troublesome. How then can we prevent dogmatism without giving up on being confident entirely?

I think it might help to come back to the idea of philosophy as a conversational practice and to distinguish two kinds of conversation: an internal conversation that one has with oneself (Plato called this “thinking”) and the external conversation that one has with others. When we see external conversations happening between people, we often hear someone asking a question and someone else responding with a claim. Further questions ensue and the claim gets defended. What we observe are two types: the questioner and the one defending claims. This is what we often witness in philosophy talks, and our paper structures imitate that practice, mostly with the author as the one making claims. The upshot is that, in papers and talks, we often play just one of two or more possible roles. That might be undesirable.

However, if we focus on internal conversations we find that we do in fact both. The claims we pin down come after a lot of self-undermining back and forth. And the confidence we can muster might be the last resort to cover the relentless doubting that goes on behind our foreheads. In our internal conversations, I guess most of us are far from any kind of dogmatism.

I suppose, then, if we see reason to change the practice of coming across as dogmatic, a good start might be to bring some of that internal conversation to bear on external conversations. Rather than playing sceptic versus dogmatist, we might every now and then remember that, most of the time, we just do what Plato called thinking. Having a dialogue in which we take on all sorts of roles and propositional attitudes. Bring it on! But I guess it takes some confidence.

All interpretations of ideas in Locke are mistaken – really? A response to Kenny Pearce

I’m exaggerating, but only a bit. Earlier this year, Kenny Pearce* wrote a fine post on “Locke’s Experimental Philosophy of Ideas”, highlighting what is often forgotten: that Locke’s Essay ties in with Baconian natural history. He then goes on to argue that we should also see Locke’s account of ideas as part of that project and concludes:

“This line of interpretation has consequences for how we must understand Locke’s account of ideas. If Locke is following this kind of Baconian methodology then, although he does at various points seek to explain various phenomena, his ‘ideas’ cannot be understood as theoretical posits aiming to explain how we perceive external objects.”

If this is correct, almost all interpretations of Locke’s theory of ideas are mistaken. Locke’s account amounts to nothing more than an unsystematic catalogue of the “ideas of which we are aware”. Indeed, the whole Essay is to be seen as an “intentionally unsystematic work”. Or so Kenny Pearce claims.

I think this is a challenging approach and certainly deserves more attention. At this point, however, I would like to address just one issue, i.e. the claim that ideas are to be seen in a “natural historical” sense. Given the evidence, I think this is correct and has been overlooked too often in attempts at making sense of book II of the Essay. But I would like to add two observations that might put a wholly different spin on Locke’s account.

(1) Natural history is not simply an account of what we “are aware” of. Locke sees his natural history of ideas as one that proceeds from simple ideas to the more complex. Starting from the simple ingredients, however, is not meant to imply that we are aware of simple ideas as givens. Locke doesn’t think that our awareness starts with simple ideas. Rather, Locke starts with simple ideas for two reasons: firstly, he wants to account for the origin of ideas; secondly, he starts with simple ideas for what one might call didactical reasons: “Because observing the faculties of the Mind, how they operate about simple Ideas …, we may the better examine them and learn how the Mind abstracts, denominates, compares, and exercises its other Operations, about those which are complex …” (II, xi, 14)

(2) Perhaps more importantly, Locke explicitly finishes this natural historical account early on and begins an entirely new discussion of ideas: here, he is interested in relations between different kinds of ideas and in what I’d call their epistemic content: “Though in the foregoing part, I have often mentioned simple Ideas, which are truly the Materials of all our knowledge; yet having treated them there, rather in the way that they come into the Mind, than as distinguished from others more compounded, it will not be, perhaps amiss to take a view of some of them again under this Consideration …” (II, xiii, 1) Thus, a great part of book II is not owing to the natural historical perspective.

The upshot is that Locke introduces two different perspectives on ideas: the natural historical one, accounting for the origin, and the epistemic one, accounting for representational content. As I elaborate in a paper of mine, I think that the former perspective focuses on the causal history of ideas, while the latter is intended as a consideration of the different kinds of representational content in our episodes of thought. In other words, the former explains how ideas originate in experience, while the latter explains how we end up taking things as something, e.g. as substances, modes or relations.

If this is correct, we should indeed acknowledge Locke’s reliance on Baconian natural history. But we should also carefully consider where Locke introduces different ways of treating ideas. After all, in conjunction with the considerations on language, Locke took his account of ideas as something that would “afford us another sort of Logick and Critick, than what we have been hitherto acquainted with.” (IV, xxi, 4)


* Kenny Pearce regularly blogs on early modern philosophy.


Talking texts. Conditions of a good interpretation

It’s difficult to determine what the claim of a (philosophical) text is. And thinking about today’s topic, I feel like I haven’t even mentioned the crucial difficulty. I don’t know about you, but for me things start moving once I begin to look at relations between texts. It’s like listening to a conversation. Once you listen to different voices, each of them is more distinguishable. It’s the relation to other texts that makes the aims, claims, and arguments visible in the first place. I’d even say that figuring out the claim of a text is impossible unless we understand what the claim is responding to.

Why is that? I suppose that it has to do with a very simple fact about sincere conversations: no one will just start out by making a claim. I won’t get up in the morning and start a conversation by saying: “By the way, I think, therefore I am.” Claims are responses. They might be responses to questions, refinements or corrections of other claims. And this is why texts don’t make much sense unless we see them in relations to other texts. To put the point in a more technical fashion, claims make sense if you consider them in inferential relations, not if you solely consider them in relation to phenomena or facts. So if someone talks, say, about consciousness, you won’t be able to say much beyond that if you only think about the relation between the claim and the phenomenon (of consciousness). Only when you begin to see how it relates to a specific question, to other tenets or a competing claim will you be able to assess it.

Now you might want to raise the following objection: Surely, you will reply to me, surely you can assess a claim in relation to a question or a different claim. But why should it not be possible to see a claim in relation to phenomena? At this point, I can only hint at an answer: This relation will leave the claim underdetermined. The reason is that the phenomenon is not ‘on the same level’ as the text. It’s like making a pointing gesture into the midle distance without at least attempting a description of the kind of thing you want to point at. Of course, you are able to consider an extralinguistic phenomenon or state of affairs. Think of a red elephant! Now there are a thousand things you can say about that elephant: you can talk about anything in relation to the elephant. Only in response to a specific question can you make a claim that stands in an inferential relation. If someone asks you: “What does the elephant look like?” or “What colour does it have?”, you can claim that it is red. Only such inferential relations make claims in texts determinable.

If you read my earlier piece, you might now hold this against me: But you, Martin, listed various interpretations of Ockham’s “mental propositions”; and these were not primarily standing in relation to other texts but to the phenomenon that was assumed to be picked out by the term “mental propositions”. Sure, the interpretations might have been shaky, but they were intended to get at the extralinguistic facts that Ockham wanted to explain! – Well, although that might seem to be the case, it’s not really true. Even if these interpretations were not formed in explicit relation to other texts of Ockham’s time, they were still formed in relation to contemporary texts. Such texts might remain unmentioned as tacit presuppositions. But if I say that Ockham is or isn’t like Fodor, I compare the Summa logicae to Fodor’s Language of Thought. There is always another text. But if we want to provide accessible interpretations, it’s better to say what these texts (or presuppositions) are.

Now there are of course many possible texts that I can relate any given text to. How do I pick them? – That depends. Of course, there will be your personal associations to begin with: other texts that a given text makes you think of. “This sounds like that”, you might think without ever writing it down. Although you perhaps won’t admit what you initially thought of, keep it in mind. It might be important one day. The next question to ask is what kind of interpretation you want to give. If you are interested in current philosophical topics, think about pertinent texts. If you want to provide a historical analysis of the claim, it will be good to figure out what a text is actually responding to. Now you enter the field in which you can make true and false assertions about the text. But don’t worry. It’s so hard to assess such assertions that any false claim is better than remaining silent. (I mean that.)

But how do you go about determining the claim now? No matter whether you want to give a more philosophical or historical interpretation, it’s important to look for a point of contact. Such a point of contact is a more or less explicit way of relating to another text, either by paraphrase or direct quotation. It might be a term, a phrase or even a paragraph. A point of contact is evidence for a historian: another text has been responded to. But it is way more than that. In finding a such a point of contact you make sure that two texts (and you) share a common ground: something that is agreed on or disagreed about. There are several ways of estabishing a point of contact, but it seems sensible to begin by distinguishing at least three approaches:

(1) If you analyse a text historically, you might begin by looking for quotations or references to other texts. This gives you a first idea of what an author relates to or disagrees with. If you’re lucky you’ve now found something that the claim is a refinement of or an opposition to. So here you can begin to figure out what is being claimed.

(2) If you read secondary literature, you’ll often find that it disagrees about certain points of contact. Figure them out. If there is no clear point of contact, people might be talking past one another.

(3) If you’re more interested in the topic than the historical ties of the text, you can establish a point of contact by relating it to any text you find pertinent. Here, you might follow your initial associations and wonder why you thought of them.

In any case, by establishing a clear point of contact, you’ll provide your reader or interlocutor with an accessible piece of evidence that a discussion can focus on. Texts talk to other texts. In this sense, establishing such a focus between texts, shifting it, or making a new emphasis in an existing one under discussion is a good way to enter a debate or to begin looking at it.

What are we on about? Making claims about claims

A: Can you see that?

B: What?

A: [Points to the ceiling:] That thing right there!

B: No. Could you point a bit more clearly?

You probably know this, too. Someone points somewhere assuming that pointing gestures are sufficient. But they are not. If you’re pointing, you’re always pointing at a multitude of things. And we can’t see unless we already know what kind of thing we’re supposed to look for. Pointing gestures might help, but without prior or additional information they are underdetermined. Of course we can try and tell our interlocutor what kind of thing we’re pointing at. But the problem is that quite often we don’t know ourselves what kind of thing we’re pointing at. So we end up saying something like “the black one there”. Now the worry I’d like to address today is that texts offer the same kind of challenge. What is this text about? What does it claim? These are recurrent and tricky questions. And if you want to produce silence in a lively course, just ask one of them.

But why are such questions so tricky? My hunch is that we notoriously mistake the question for something else. The question suggests that the answer could be discovered by looking into the text. In some sense, this is of course a good strategy. But without further information the question is as underdetermined as a pointing gesture. “Try some of those words” doesn’t help. We need to know what kind of text it is. But most things that can be said about the text are not to be found in the text. One might even claim that there is hardly anything to discover in the text. That’s why I prefer to speak of “determining” the claim rather than “finding out” what it is about.

In saying this I don’t want to discourage you from reading. Read the text, by all means! But I think it’s important to take the question about the claim of a text in the right way. Let’s look at some tacit presuppositions first. The question will have a different ring in a police station and a seminar room or lecture hall. If we’re in a seminar room, we might indeed assume that there is a claim to be found. So the very room matters. The date matters. The place of origin matters. Authorship matters. Sincerity matters. In addition to these non-textual factors, the genre and language matter. So what if we’re having a poem in front of us, perhaps a very prosaic poem? And is the author sincere or joking? How do you figure this out?

But, you will retort, there is the text itself. It does carry information. OK then. Let’s assume all of the above matters are settled. How do you get to the claim? A straightforward way seems to be to figure out what a text is intended to explain or argue for. For illustrating this exercise, I often like to pick Ockham’s Summa logicae. It’s a lovely text with a title and a preface indicating what it is about. So, it’s about logic, innit? Well, back in the day I read and even added to a number of studies determining what the first chapters of that book are about. In those chapters, Ockham talks about something called “mental propositions”, and my question is: what are mental propositions supposed to account for? Here are a few answers:

  • Peter Geach: Mental propositions are invoked to explain grammatical features of Latin (1957)
  • John Trentman: Mental propositions form an ideal language, roughly in the Fregean sense (1970)
  • Joan Gibson: Mental propositions form a communication system for angels (1976)
  • Calvin Normore: Mental propositions form a mental language, like Fodor’s mentalese (1990)
  • Sonja Schierbaum: Ockham isn’t Fodor (2014)

Now imagine this great group of people in a seminar and tell them who gave the right answer. But note that all of them have read more than one of Ockham’s texts carefully and provided succinct arguments for their reading. In fact, most of them are talking to one another and respectfully agree on many things before giving their verdicts on what the texts on mental propositions claim. All of them point at the same texts, what they “discover” there is quite different, though. And as you will probably know, by determining the claim you also settle what counts as a support or argument for the claim. And depending on whether you look out for arguments supporting an angelic communication system or the mental language humans think in, you will find what you discover better or worse.

So what is it that determines the claim of a text?* By and large it might be governed by what we find (philosophically) relevant. This is tied to the question why a certain problem arises for you in the first place. While many factors are set by the norms and terms of the scholarly discussion that is already underway, the claims seem to go with the preferred or fashionable trends in philosophy. While John Trentman seems to have favoured early analytic ideal language philosophy, Calvin Normore was clearly guided by one of the leading figures in the philosophy of mind. Although Peter Geach is rather dismissive, all of these works are intriguing interpretations of Ockham’s text. That said, we all should get together more often to discuss what we are actually on about when we determine the claims of texts. At least if we want to avoid that we are mostly greeted with the parroting of the most influential interpretations.


* You’ll find more on this question in my follow-up piece.

Philosophy is History (Part I)

The relation between philosophy and history of philosophy is controversial. Some believe that history is of mere instrumental value; reading the odd classic might prevent us from reinventing the wheel and sharpen our wits. Others believe that history is an integral part of philosophy; working through our ancestors is necessary for finding our own place. Let’s call them the instrumentalists and the integralists. Of course, there are good reasons for both views. Although I have slight leanings towards the latter view, I don’t want to argue for it. Rather, I wonder whether even instrumentalists engage in some sort of history when they practise philosophy without any obvious historical ties. What, you might ask, is the point of showing such a thing? Well, I think that all camps, historians and philosophers, no matter whether they are instrumentalists or integralists, can learn from one another. So my point is not that philosophy is inherently historical; my point is that doing philosophy involves doing (some) history.

Now how does philosophy involve history? I think a very basic issue that any philosopher will have addressed (at least tacitly) is the question of why a certain problem arises in the first place. Imagine someone claims that p. If you think or want to argue that not-p, you must have some idea why you find p problematic. It doesn’t matter whether “p” = “all humans are equal” or “the mind is like a computer”. Any claim needs justification, and if you want to offer such a justification you will need to begin with an understanding of what precisely needs justifying. This means you need some understanding of why a certain problem arises for you or for certain participants in a debate. Now the point is that the question of why a problem arises is always sensitive to a certain context, no matter whether you ask why a problem arises for you or your contemporaries or for Spinoza. History doesn’t need to be about dead people; it can be about you, too.

But why, you might ask, does that matter? Certain problems just never go away, do they? That problems arise is, you might say, a fact about certain concepts or their application, not about your personal take on the matter. At this point, philosophers often invoke the distinction between context of justification and context of discovery. It doesn’t matter whether you discovered your dislike of Fodor’s computational theory of mind while having a shower or during a walk to the pub. Justification is one thing; the history of a justification or a problem is another.

But my point is not that certain biographical details might lead to the discovery of a problem; the issue is why a problem or a certain set of concepts is relevant. In other words, the question is why something is a problem. When you spell out why a problem arises for you, you won’t tell me the story of your life but you will appeal to facts about concepts: your rejection of Fodor’s theory will perhaps rely on the concept of computation. But such facts about concepts are (partly) historical facts, unless you want to claim that Hobbes and Fodor use “computational” in the same sense. Historical facts about our understanding and the relevance of concepts and problems are not external to our current debates. They determine whether we find certain intuitions relevant, whether we speak about the same thing or past one another. Of course, we often don’t take notice why things matter to us. But once we leave the boundaries of our specialisations or the field of philosophy we are reminded quickly of our synchronic anachronisms. This is why context is tied up with relevance. Thus, the answer to the question of why a problem arises remains unsaturated so long as we don’t spell out why it is relevant to whom.

That said, there are also crucial differences between philosophy and its history. While certain philosophers stress that they are interested in making true claims, historians will point out that they are also interested in why certain claims stick around. Facts that make a claim true are (often) different from what makes the claim stick in our minds and debates. But the question why something matters to us involves both kinds of facts. This is why philosophy is always partly history.

Is there a difference between offline and online discussions? A response to Amy Olberding

“My trouble is usually… that I don’t entirely know what I think. And not knowing what to think is itself sometimes cast as shameful.”

Thanks to Daily Nous, I recently came across these sentences in a moving blog post by Amy Olberding. The message is clear and there is perhaps nothing substantial I have to add. As Justin Weinberg aptly notes, there is an “irony to philosophers in particular—whose job description has long included undermining certainty and complicating the obvious …” I agree that questioning one’s beliefs is one of the main points of doing philosophy. Having opinions and especially “defending” them is seriously overrated. But if Amy Olberding’s observations are correct, we are mainly trained to question others rather than our own beliefs.

However, I wonder why she restricts her observations to the “online discourse”. It seems to me that aggressive assertiveness is encouraged in many places, not least among philosophers. Of course, there is a particularly worrying trend in anonymous comments on social media, but the attitude seems to be a (perhaps somewhat inflated) reflection of our common modes of offline interaction.

This makes me wonder about the general distinction between online and offline discourse. It is now common to distinguish between social media of the internet and our real life. But although online interaction requires technological aids and enables, among other things, anonymity, I don’t see a principled difference between the two. If I insult you, this is an impertinent behaviour, no matter whether I do it online or offline. Yes, I have more options to hide or pretend when online, but that does not alter the moral dimension of interactions. Online interaction can be good or bad, because we behave well or badly. And despite all the hate there are good interactions online. They just don’t receive as much attention.

So the one thought I would like to add, after all, is that there might be good reasons to deflate the distinction between online and offline interactions. It’s not as if we were angels who happen to turn into moral monsters (only) when online. This is also why I have mixed feelings about the idea of “leaving” online discussions and “returning” to real life. Our lives and interactions are real wherever we are. Leaving an online discussion does not just mean switching off a machine. It means to stop interacting with certain people (that one can only reach online).*


* That said, I don’t question Amy Olberding’s reasons for leaving the discussions from which she resigned. I just think such a resignation is not all that different from leaving a discussion in a room full of people.

What is synthetic philosophy? A response to Eric Schliesser

Much current philosophy is done in what could be called a piecemeal fashion. Rather than plotting huge systems of thought, many of us work on details by trying to tackle issues that can be handled in the length of a paper. Of course, the details or pieces are still parts of larger projects, but most of the time these projects are not philosophical systems. Nevertheless, there are some philosophers whose approach strikes me as resulting in a sort of system. My favourite example is Ruth Millikan. Not only did and does her work shape the landscape in philosophy of mind and language; rather her biofunctional approach provides underpinnings that run through all the details of her work and that even inspire novel accounts in other fields of philosophy. Perhaps it is no coincidence that other philosophers working in the tradition of naturalism appear systematic in a similar fashion. In an intriguing blog post on the work of Daniel Dennett, Eric Schliesser has coined the term synthetic philosophy:*

“Synthetic philosophy is the enterprise of bringing together insights, knowledge, and arguments from the special sciences with the aim to offer a theoretically (reasonably) unified, coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both). It may, in turn, generate new research in the special sciences or a new science connected to the framework adopted in the synthetic philosophy.”

Note that Eric Schliesser does not simply speak of a kind of survey work or journalism about science. Rather he takes this approach to be a philosophical category or trend in nuanced opposition to analytic philosophy. In highlighting the traits of unification and connection to a wider culture, his description strikes me as a tacit appeal to the old-fashioned idea of a philosophical system. However, a distinctive feature of synthetic philosophy is that it is to be informed by what he calls “special sciences”. Having a “kinship” with early modern natural philosophy, its current version promises “new cognitive tools … for the special sciences and philosophical reflection, including (ahh) the development of useful new myths.”

But what kind of category is synthetic philosophy? Given that we are still in the grip of a highly problematic divide between analytic and continental philosophy, baptising emerging trends is not an innocent matter. Such baptising or coinage is involved in canonising. So what are the boundaries of synthetic philosophy? Is it a trend within or going beyond the divide? In view of Millikan, Dennett and others that people have named in discussion, this trend seems to emerge from naturalism in its Darwinian branches. “Naturalism” is said in many ways, but if unification and being informed by the special sciences are its main traits then we should perhaps be hopeful that it surpasses some of the old divisions. That said, I have at least two worries about Eric Schliesser’s coinage:

  1. Which of the special sciences does Eric Schliesser have in mind? Are the humanities included?** Aiming at unified explanations, many branches of naturalism would probably tend to exclude them. The term “special sciences” is of course itself problematic in that it lends itself to restrictions or even reductionism. But if there are restrictions in place, they should be there for a reason. As it stands, it is unclear whether synthetic philosophy is supposed to be merely a certain way of doing philosophy (building explanatory systems and being informed by special sciences) or the systematic development of a programme (unifying certain branches of naturalism).
  2. If we want to think about categorising emerging branches of philosophy, it might be problematic to tie these branches too closely to names of individual philosophers.*** In addition to the danger of feeding into the genius cult, there are good reasons to resist seeing philosophical or intellectual developments more generally as the achievements of a single person. One reason is that doing philosophy is essentially dialogical, happening between and not inside people. But if we accept this point, then what is it that distinguishes synthetic philosopjy from the piecemeal fashion alluded to in the beginning?

Now if we accept that philosophy is not the work of geniuses, then what is it that creates the synthesis in synthetic philosophy? If it is not the person, is it perhaps a programme after all? Or the union of philosophy and other disciplines? But which ones? Why is synthetic philosophy not just philosophy? – One way of tackling these worries would be perhaps to drop the label “synthetic philosophy” and just continue to speak of (Darwinian) naturalism. Another way would be to see this trend indeed as a “way of doing” philosophy. But then there can’t be a principled reason to exclude any field of study. In this case philosophical conversations invoking arguments from history or literature would be in the same business as those invoking biological or physical theories: synthetic philosophy.


* Note that he notes that Herbert Spencer might have introduced the term. See also ES’s previous posts on Rachel Carson and Peter Godfrey-Smith.

** ES suggests this when saying that “Dennett brings Darwinian theory to bear on and connects existing work in offering empirically informed, but still speculative accounts of the origins of mind, language, and life (most of which already deeply influenced by Darwinism) and to open up a new meta-science of culture, memetics, that can draw upon and re-orient existing cultural studies and human/social sciences.”

*** Of course, ES is well aware of this problem and alludes to this when noting that in “Dennett’s case, Darwinisms provides the synthesizing glue. This is no coincidence because Darwin himself is the hard-to-classify (among the) last natural philosopher(s)/naturalists or (among) the first synthetic philosopher(s) (if Spencer had not jumped ahead of him).”