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.

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