How do I figure out what to think? (Part I)

Which view of the matter is right? When I started out studying philosophy, I had a problem that often continues to haunt me. Reading a paper on a given topic, I thought: yes, that makes sense! Reading a counterargument the next day, I thought: right, that makes more sense! Reading a defence of paper one, I thought: oh, I had better swing back. Talking to others about it, I found there were two groups of people: those who had made up their mind for one side, and those who admitted to swinging back and forth just like I did. I guess we all experience this swinging back and forth in many aspects of life, but in philosophy it felt unsettling because there seemed to be the option of just betting on the wrong horse. But there was something even worse than betting on the wrong horse and finding myself in disagreement with someone I respected. It was the insight that I had no clue how to make up my mind in such questions. How did people end up being compatibilists about freedom and determinism? Why do you end up calling yourself an externalist about meaning? Why do you think that Ruth Millikan or Nietzsche make more sense than Jerry Fodor or Kant? – I thought very hard about this and related questions and came up with different answers, but today I thought: right, I actually have something to say about it! So here we go.

Let’s first see how the unsettling feeling arises. The way much philosophy is taught is by setting out a problem and then presenting options to solve it. Sometimes they are presented more historically, like: Nietzsche tried to refute Schopenhauer. Sometimes they are presented as theoretical alternatives, like: this is an argument for compatibilism and here is a problem for that argument. I had a number of reactions to such scenarios, but my basic response was not: right, so these are the options. It was rather: I have no idea how to oversee them. How was I supposed to make up my mind? Surely that would require overseeing all the consequences and possible counterarguments, when I had already trouble to get the presented position in the first place. I went away with three impressions: (1) a feeling of confusion, (2) the feeling that some of the views must be better than others, and (3) the assumption that I had to make up my mind about these options. But I couldn’t! Ergo, I sucked at philosophy.

In this muddle, history of philosophy seemed to come to the rescue. It seemed to promise that I didn’t have to make up my mind, but merely give accurate accounts of encountered views. – Ha! The sense of relief didn’t last long. First, you still have to make up your mind about interpretations, and somehow the views presented in primary texts still seemed to pull me in different directions. My problem wasn’t solved but worsened, because now you were supposed to figure out philological nuances and historical details on top of everything else. Ergo, the very idea of reporting ideas without picking a side turned out to be misguiding.

Back to square one, I eventually made what I thought was a bold move: I just picked a side, more or less at random. The unease about not seeing through the view I had picked didn’t really go away, but who cares: we’re all just finite mortals! – Having picked a side gave me a new feeling: confidence. I had not seen the light, but hey, I belonged to a group, and some people in that group surely had advanced. Picking a side feels random only at the beginning: then things fall into place; soon you start to foresee and refute counterarguments; what your interlocutors say matters in a new way. You listen not just in an attempt to understand the view “an sich”, but you’re involved. Tensions arise. It’s fun, at least for a while. In any case, picking a side counters lack of confidence: it gives your work direction and makes exchanges meaningful.

For better or worse, I would recommend picking a side if your confusion gets the better of you all the time. At least as a pragmatic device. It’s how you make things fall into place and can take your first steps. However, the unease doesn’t go away. At least for me it didn’t. Why? Let’s face it, I often felt like an actor who impersonates someone who has a view. Two questions remained: What if people could find out that I had just randomly picked a side? This is part of what nourished impostor syndrome (for the wrong reasons, as might turn out later). And how could I work out what I should really think about certain things? – While getting a job partly helped with the first question, a lot of my mode of working revolves around the second question. I got very interested in questions of norms, of methodology and the relation between philosophy and its history. And while these issues are intriguing in their own right, they also helped me with the questions of what to think and how to figure out what to think. So here are a few steps I’d like to consider.

Step one: You don’t have to pick a side. – It helps to look more closely at the effect of picking a side. I said that it gave direction and meaning to my exchanges. It did. But how? Picking a side means to enter a game, by and large an adversarial game. If you pick a side, then it seems that there is a right and wrong side just as there is winning and losing in an argumentative setting. Well, I certainly think there is winning and losing. But I doubt that there is right and wrong involved in picking a side. So here is my thesis: Picking a side helps you to play the game. But it doesn’t help you in figuring out what you should think. In other words, in order to work out what to think, you don’t have to pick a side at all.

Step two: Picking a side does not lead you to the truth. – As I noted, the way much philosophy is taught to us is by setting out a problem and then presenting options to solve it. The options are set up as better or worse options. And now it seems that picking a side does not only associate you with winning, say, a certain argument, but also with truth. And the truth is what you should think and be convinced of, right? But winning an argument doesn’t (necessarily) mean to hit on the truth of a matter. The fact that you win in an exchange does not mean that you win the next crucial exchange. In fact, it’s at least possible that you win every argument and never hit on any truth. It’s merely the adversarial practice of philosophy that creates the illusion that winning is related to finding the truth.

Now you might want to object that I got things the wrong way round. We argue, not to win, but about what’s true. That doesn’t make winning automatically true, but neither does it dissociate truth from arguing. Let’s look at an example: You can argue about whether it was the gardener or the butler who committed the murder. Of course, you might win but end up convicting, wrongly, the gardener. Now that does show that not all arguments bring out the truth. But they still can decide between true and false options. Let me address this challenge in the next step.

Step three: In philosophy, there are no sides. – It’s true that presenting philosophical theories as true or false, or at least as better or worse solutions to a given problem makes them look like gardeners or butlers in a whodunit. Like a crime novel, problems have solutions, and if not one solution, then at least one kind of solution. – This is certainly true of certain problems. Asking about an individual cause or element as being responsible or decisive is the sort of setting that allows for true and false answers. But the problems of philosophy are hardly ever of that sort. To see this, consider the example again. Mutatis mutandis, what matters to the philosopher is not mainly who committed the crime, but whether the gardener and the butler have reasons to commit the murder. And once someone pins down the gardener as the culprit, philosophers will likely raise the question whether we have overlooked other suspects or whether the supposed culprit is really to blame (rather than, say, society). This might sound as if I were making fun of philosophy, but the point is that philosophers are more engaged in understanding than in providing the one true account.

How does understanding differ from solving a problem? Understanding involves understanding both or all the options and trying to see where they lead. Understanding is a comprehensive analysis of an issue and an attempt to integrate as many facts as possible in that analysis. This actually involves translating contrary accounts into one another and seeing how different theories deal with the (supposedly) same facts. Rather than pinning down the murderer you’ll be asking what murder is. But most of the time, it’s not your job to conclusively decide what murder is (in the sense of what should count as murder in a given jurisdiction), but to analyse the factual and conceptual space of murder. Yes, we can carve up that space differently. But this carving up is not competitive; rather it tells us something about our carving tools. To use a different analogy, asking which philosophical theory is right is like asking whether you should play a certain melody on the piano or on the trombone. There are differences: the kinds of moves you need to make to produce the notes on a trombone differ vastly from those you need to make on the piano. Oh, and your preference might differ. But would you really want to say there is a side to be taken? – Ha! You might say that you can’t produce chords on a trombone, so it’s less qualified for playing chord changes. Well, just get more trombone players then!

I know that the foregoing steps raise a number of questions, which is why I’d like to dedicate a number of posts to this issue. To return to swinging back and forth between contrary options, this feeling does not indicate that you are undecided. It indicates that you are trying to understand different options in a setting. Ultimately, this feeling measures our attempts to integrate new facts, while we are confronted with pressures arising from observing people who actually adhere to one side or another. For the time being, I’d like to conclude by repeating that it is the adversarial style that creates the illusion that winning and losing are related to giving true and false accounts. The very idea of having to pick a side is, while understandable in the current style of playing the game, misguided. If there are sides, they are already picked, rooted in what we call perspectives. In other words, one need not worry which side to choose, but rather think through the side you already find yourself on. There are no wrong sides. Philosophy is not a whodunit. And the piano might be out of tune.

What is a debate? On the kinds of things we study in history of philosophy

Philosophers focus on problems; historians of philosophy also focus on texts. That’s what I sometimes say when I have to explain the difference between doing philosophy and history of philosophy. The point is that historians, in addition to trying and understanding what’s going on in a text or between texts, also deal with the ‘material basis’ on which the problems are handed down to us: the genres, dates, production and dissemination, the language, style and what have you. But what is it that we actually find in the texts? Of course, we are used to offer interpretations, but I think that, before we even start reading, we all tend to have presumptions about what we find. Now these presumptions can be quite different. And it matters greatly what we think we find. In the following, I want to say a few things about this issue, not to offer conclusions, but to get the ball rolling.

An assumption that is both common and rightly contested is that we might find the intention of the author. Wanting to get Aristotle, Cavendish or Fodor right, seems to mean that we look for what the author meant to say. It’s understandable that this matters to us, but apart from the fact that such a search is often in vain, we can understand texts independently from intentions. – Another unit is of course the focus on arguments. We can read a text as an argument for a conclusion and thus analyse its internal structure. Getting into the details of arguments often involves unpacking and explaining claims, concepts, assumptions in the background, and examples. Evaluating the arguments will mean, in turn, to assess how well they support the claims (I like to think of an evaluation as indicating the distance between claim and argument). But while all this is a crucial part in the philosophical analysis, it does not explain what is going on in the text, that is: it does not explain why and on what basis an author might argue for a certain conclusion, reject a certain view, make a certain move, use a certain strategy, use a certain term or concept. In other words, in addition to the internal analysis we need to invoke some of the so-called context.

As I see it, a fruitful approach to providing context, at least in the history of philosophy, is to study texts as elements of debates. One reason I like this is that it immediately opens up the possibility to locate the text (and the claims of an author) in a larger interaction. We hardly ever write just because we want to express a view. Normally we write in response to other texts, no matter whether we reply to a question, reject a claim, highlight a point of interest etc., and no matter whether that other text is a day or thousand years old.

But even if you agree that debates are a helpful focus both for studying a historical or contemporary text (in research as well as in teaching), there might be quite some disagreement as to what a debate actually is or what we are looking for in a debate. I think this matters not only for historians but also for understanding debates more generally. – Currently, for instance, we have a public debate about climate change. What kind of ‘unit’ is this? There are conditions under which the debate arose quite some decennia ago, with claims being put forward in research contexts, schools and the media. These conditions vary greatly: there are political, technological, scientific, educational and many other kinds of conditions. Then there are different participants, many kinds of scientists, citizens, politicians, journalists. Then there are different genres: scientific publications, media outlets, referee reports for politicians, interviews, protests in the streets and online etc. What is it that holds all this together and makes it part of a debate? My hunch is that it is a question. But which one? Here, I think it is important to get the priorities right. There are sub-questions, follow-up questions, all sorts, but is there a main question? This is tricky. But I guess it should be the most common and salient point of contact between all the items constituting the debate. For this debate, it is perhaps the question: How shall we respond to climate change?

Once we determine such a question, we can group the items, especially the texts, accordingly. The debate is one of the crucial factors that makes the text meaningful, that places it in a dialogical space, even if we do not understand very much of what it says (yet). Even if I am not a climate scientist, I understand the role of a paper within the debate and might be able to place it quite well just by reading the abstract. The same is true of a medieval treatise on logic or an early modern text on first philosophy. – So this is a good way in, I guess. But where do we go from here? You probably can already guess that I want to say something critical now. Yes, I do. The point I want to address is this: How is a debate structured?

When we think about debates in philosophy, we obviously start out from what we perceive debates to be nowadays. As pointed out earlier, much philosophical exchange is based on criticising others. Therefore, it seems fair to assume that debates are structured by opposition. There is a question and opposing answers to it. Indeed, many categories in philosophical historiography are ordered in oppositions and it helps to understand one term through thinking in relation to its opposite. Just think of empiricism versus rationalism, realism versus nominalism etc. That’s all fine. But it only gets you so far. Understanding the content, motivation and addressees of a text as a response in an actual debate requires going far beyond such oppositions. Of course, we can place someone by saying he’s a climate change denier; but that doesn’t help us in understanding the motivations and contents of the text. It’s just a heuristic device to get started.

Today I had the pleasure of listening in on a meeting of Andrea Sangiacomo’s ERC project team working on a large database to study trends in early modern natural philosophy.* It’s a very exciting project, not least in that they are trying to analyse the social and semantic networks in which some of the teaching took place. Not being well-versed in digital humanities myself, I was mainly in awe of the meticulous attention to details of working with the data. But then it struck me: They are tracking teaching practices and yet they were making their first steps by tracing opposing views (on occasionalism). Why would you look for oppositions, I wondered half aloud. Of course, it is a heuristic way of structuring the field. It was then that I began to wonder how we should analyse debates, going beyond oppositions.

Now you might ask why one should go beyond. My answer is that debates, even though the term might suggest critical opposition over a question, might be structured by opposition. But the actual moves that explain what’s going on in a text on a more detailed level, that is: from one passage or even one sentence to the next, are way more fine-grained. Again, as in the case of the straightforward opposition, these moves should be thought of as (implicit) responses to other texts.** Here is a list of moves I think of ad hoc:

  • reformulating a claim
  • quoting a claim (with or without acknowledgement)
  • paraphrasing a claim
  • translating a claim (into a different language, terminology)
  • formalising a claim
  • simplifying a claim
  • embedding a claim into a more complex one
  • ascribing a claim (to someone)
  • (intentionally) misacscribing a claim
  • making up a claim (as a view of someone)
  • commenting on a claim
  • elaborating or developing an idea
  • locating a view in a context
  • deriving (someone’s) claim from another claim
  • deriving (someone’s) claim from the Bible
  • asserting that a claim, actually, is another claim
  • asserting that a claim is ambiguous
  • asserting that a claim is self-evident
  • asserting that a claim is true, false, paradoxical, contradictory, opposing another one, an axiom, demonstrable, not demonstrable
  • asserting that a claim is confirmed by experience
  • asserting that a claim is intuitive, plausible, implausible, unbelievable
  • raising (new) questions
  • answering a question raised by a claim
  • doubting and questioning a result
  • revising a claim
  • revising one’s own claim in view of another claim
  • understanding a view
  • failing to understand a view
  • misrepresenting a view
  • distorting a view
  • evaluating a view
  • dismissing a view
  • re-interpreting a (well-known) view
  • undermining a claim, one’s own claim
  • exposing assumptions
  • explaining an idea in view of its premises or implications
  • illustrating a view
  • finding (further) evidence for or against a view
  • transforming or applying a concept or view to a new issue, in philosophy or elsewhere
  • recontextualising a view
  • repairing a view or argument
  • popularising a view
  • trying to conserve a view
  • trying to advance a view
  • juxtaposing views
  • comparing views
  • resolving a tension between views
  • highlighting a tension between views
  • associating a view with another one
  • appropriating a view
  • pretending to merely repeat a traditional view, while presenting a bold re-interpretation of it [yes, what Ockham does to Aristotle]
  • explicitly accepting a view
  • pretending to accept a view
  • accepting a view, while condemning the proponent
  • rejecting a view, while praising the proponent
  • pretending to reject a view, while actually appropriating (part of) it [yes, I’m thinking of Reid]
  • pretending to accept a view, while rejecting its premises
  • highlighting relations between views (analogies etc.)
  • ridiculing a view
  • belittling a view
  • shunning a view
  • showing societal consequences of a view
  • suppressing or hiding a claim
  • disavowing a claim
  • retracting a claim
  • putting a view in euphemistic terms
  • showing that a claim is outrageous, heretical, controversial, complacent
  • polemicising against a view
  • etc.

This list is certainly not exhaustive. And “view” or “claim” might concern the whole or a part, an argument, a term or concept. Even if we have some more positive or negative forms of responses, we have to see that all of these ways go beyond mere opposition, counterargument or criticism. Sometimes the listed moves are made explicitly; sometimes a move in a text might be explicable as result of such a move. What is perhaps most salient is that they often say as much about the commitments of the respondent as they are intended to say about the other text that is being responded to. While mere criticism of an opponent does not require us to expose our commitments, much of what we find in (historical) texts is owing to commitments. (In other words, adversarial communication in current professional settings, such as the Q&A after talks, might often be taken as people merely showing off their chops, without invoking their own commitments and vulnerabilities. But this is not what we should expect to find in historical texts.)*** So if we look at Spinoza as criticising Descartes, for instance, we should not overlook that the agreements between the commitments and interests of these authors are just as important as the tensions and explicit disagreement. Looking again at the issue of climate change, it is clear that most moves probably consist in understanding claims and their implications, establishing agreement and noting tensions, corroborating ideas, assessing consequences, providing evidence, trying to confirm results etc. So the focus on opposition might be said to give us a wrong idea of the real moves within a historical debate and of the moves that stabilise a debate or make it stick.

Anyway, the main idea of beginning such a list is to see the variety of moves we might find in a text responding to someone else. To analyse a text merely as an opposing move with pertinent counterarguments or as presenting a contrary theory makes us overlook the richness of the philosophical interactions.

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*Here is a recent blog post by Raluca Tanasescu, Andrea Sangiacomo, Silvia Donker, and Hugo Hogenbirk on their work. I’m only beginning to learn about the methods and considerations in digital humanities. But I have to say that this field strikes me as holding a lot of (methodological) inspiration (for history of philosophy and science etc.) even if you continue to work mostly in more traditional ways.

** Besides texts of different authors, this might of course also concern other texts of oneself or parts or temporal stages (drafts) of the same text.

*** I’m grateful to Laura Georgescu for pointing out this difference between criticism in current professional settings as opposed to many historical texts.