Ugly ducklings and progress in philosophy

Agnes Callard recently gave an entertaining interview at 3:16 AM. Besides her lovely list of views that should count as much less controversial than they do, she made an intriguing remark about her book:

“I had this talk on weakness of will that people kept refuting, and I was torn between recognizing the correctness of their counter-arguments (especially one by Kate Manne, then a grad student at MIT), and the feeling my theory was right. I realized: it was a bad theory of weakness of will, but a good theory of another thing. That other thing was aspiration. So the topic came last in the order of discovery.”

Changing the framing or framework of an idea might resolve seemingly persisting problems and make it shine in a new and favourable light. Reminded of Andersen’s fairy tale in which a duckling is considered ugly until it turns out that the poor animal is actually a swan, I’d like to call this the ugly duckling effect. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this might be a good, if underrated, form of making progress in philosophy.

Callard’s description stirred a number of memories. You write and refine a piece, but something feels decidedly off. Then you change the title or topic or tweak the context ever so slightly and, at last, everything falls into place. It might happen in a conversation or during a run, but you’re lucky if it does happen at all. I know all too well that I abandoned many ideas, before I eventually and accidentally stumbled on a change of framework that restored (the reputation of) the idea. As I argued in my last post, all too often criticism in professional settings provides incentives to tone down or give up on the idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many criticisms focus on the idea or argument itself, rather than on the framework in which the idea is to function. My hunch is that we should pay more attention to such frameworks. After all, people might stop complaining about the quality of your hammer, if you tell them that it’s actually a screwdriver.

I doubt that there is a precise recipe to do this. I guess what helps most are activities that help you tweaking the context, topic or terminology. This might be achieved by playful conversations or even by diverting your attention to something else. Perhaps a good start is to think of precedents in which this happened. So let’s just look at some ugly duckling effects in history:

  • In my last post I already pointed to Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning. Recontextualising this as a theory of representation and connecting it to a use theory or a teleosemantic account restored the picture theory as a component that makes perfect sense.
  • Another precendent might be seen in the reinterpretations of Cartesian substance dualism. If you’re unhappy with the interaction problem, you might see the light when, following Spinoza, you reinterpret the dualism as a difference of aspects or perspectives rather than of substances. All of a sudden you can move from a dualist framework to monism but retain an intuitively plausible distinction.
  • A less well known case are the reinterpretations of Ockham’s theory of mental language, which was seen as a theory of ideal language, a theory of logical deep structure, a theory of angelic speech etc.

I’m sure the list is endless and I’d be curious to hear more examples. What’s perhaps important to note is that we can also reverse this effect and turn swans into ugly ducklings. This means that we use the strategy of recontextualisation also when we want to debunk an idea or expose it as problematic:

  • An obvious example is Wilfried Sellars’ myth of the given: Arguing that reference to sense data or other supposedly immediate elements of perception cannot serve as a foundation or justification of knowledge, Sellars dismissed a whole strand of epistemology.
  • Similarly, Quine’s myth of the museum serves to dismiss theories of meaning invoking the idea that words serve as labels for (mental) objects.
  • Another interesting move can be seen in Nicholas of Cusa’s coincidentia oppositorum, restricting the principle of non-contradiction to the domain of rationality and allowing for the claim that the intellect transcends this domain.

If we want to assess such dismissals in a balanced manner, it might help to look twice at the contexts in which the dismissed accounts used to make sense. I’m not saying that the possibility of recontextualisation restores or relativises all our ideas. Rather I think of this option as a tool for thinking about theories in a playful and constructive manner.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to see that the ugly duckling effect works in both ways, to dismiss and restore ideas. In any case, we should try to consider a framework in which the ideas in question make sense. And sometimes dismissal is the way to go.

At the end of the day, it could be helpful to see that the ugly duckling effect might not be owing to the duck being actually a swan. Rather, we might be confronted with duck-swan or duck-rabbit.

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