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.

8 thoughts on “How do I figure out what to think? (Part I)

  1. I think you are right about this, and that it needs saying because students tend to be of a similar young age when they study philosophy, and are judged on how well they are studying it.

    Your final point about perspectives makes me think that some of the main sides probably arose historically, from such things as heresies versus the Church, and later atheism versus the Church, or the political right versus the political left. In the past, philosophers were maybe older, and already embedded in a particular side of some cultural divide, and were maybe using philosophy as a way of making peaceful progress.

    For myself, I began to suspect that the main sides in various philosophical questions were associated with left or right politics, and atheism versus theism, and that none of that was being spelled out by the teachers. I suppose that my own position now is that I use my own wondering what the truth of a matter is to fuel my studies. If some particular philosophical question turns out to be based on some confusion, I want to know the truth about whether it is or not, and if it is, then the truth about that confusion. I am always just interested in that, and then only if it is related to some interest of my own.

    Pursuing the truth will lead to progress; supporting one particular set of beliefs will tend to get in the way of that, I think. But of course, that is all very amateurish. I think that a professional approach is not going to be so easy, and that your approach looks good.

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    1. Many thanks for your kind and insightful comment! Yes, I am sure that the adversarial model is tied up with historical precendents, relating them to all sorts of larger controversies about politics, religion etc. It’s one of the things I’d like to take up in the following posts.
      That “none of that was being spelled out by the teachers” might be owing to the fact that many political ties remain hidden even to those propagating them. Just like ideologies in general can be spread without explicit endorsement (thinking of *structural* sexism, for instance). However, sometimes such political ties are invoked as arguments to underscore the value or to devalue positions, sometimes distortingly so.
      An example that comes to mind is that naturalism in the philosophy of mind, such as e.g. proposed by Ruth Millikan, was often framed as a “right wing” reading of Sellars’ philosophy. I have a glimpse of an idea how this might have come about: After all, naturalists see themselves more in line with the sciences than the (supposedly leftish) humanities. But today, when thinking how ecological ethics can be tied up with naturalism and its refutation of anthropocentrism, it’s strange to think of naturalism as right wing. – All that said, I find such historical developments very interesting in their own right. Here, it might actually matter whether it really was the butler.

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      1. Yes, such was my impression (much more vaguely in my case). Another aspect to the adversarial approach is that philosophy only really exists as an academic profession. Philosophy is about pursuing the truth, but it does that in a university, and it does it nowhere else. So I wonder if its relationship to the pursuit of truth is akin to the relationship between modern art and the creation of beauty.

        Universities are some sort of mass market finishing school, where a lot of subjects are studied mostly by students who will not go on to use that subject directly. So a big part of any university subject is the teaching of critical thinking. With philosophy, there is little else. So the demand to be teaching critical thinking to pre-employment people is presumably a big factor in what and how philosophy is. It needs to be taught in such a way that it can be assessed, how well it is being taught, and in a way that relates to future employment. There is no other job that philosophy needs to do, really. And since a lot of the employment of the graduates will be adversarial, since that is how our economy and a lot of our society and politics work, perhaps that helps to explain the dominance of the adversarial approach to philosophy?

        How we work out what to think may well be different to thinking critically in an adversarial setting. I suppose that there will be arguments about that in the philosophy of Law. Etc.

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  2. Martin,

    Thank you for the insights. I think I agree with most of it. Hence, more than making comments or presenting arguments, I would like to suggest aspects for part II:

    1. The adversarial game also plays an important role in the making of the philosophical canon, and I think it is one of the most important – and tricky- consequences of such a vision. It is the main mechanism that defines, especially in students’ heads, what should and what shouldn’t be read and considered. On the other hand, it seems to me that is the adversarial game, as well as the “sides” standpoint, that happens to encourage and foster the “going back” to philosophers from the past, namely, looking for good arguments against and for a given position. I am aware you have mentioned it somehow in the text, but I would like to see you expand it.

    2. Linked to the former, I think there’s another worthwhile aspect I would like to see you coping with. Having in mind the debate between “contextualism” and “appropriationism”, it seems that, strictly speaking, a non-adversarial way of looking history of philosophy would favor a “contextualist” standpoint. If it is so, it seems that the “adversarial” approach could be at least “instrumentally” valuable in doing history of philosophy (and, thus, it could be a tool for an “appropriationist”).

    Well, once again, congratulations for the insightful post.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Gabriel!
      Ad 1) I agree that the adversarial approach is often *informing* our way of looking at the canon. But I doubt that this approach is in any way necessary or true of whet we encounter in canonical work. I have tried to suggest a number of ways in which texts relate that are not (merely) adversarial: https://handlingideas.blog/2019/10/03/what-is-a-debate-on-the-kinds-of-things-we-study-in-history-of-philosophy/

      Moreover, you write: “It is the main mechanism that defines, especially in students’ heads, what should and what shouldn’t be read and considered.” Is that true? While we often ‘order’ larger movements in oppositions, I doubt that this works when we try to understand the details of ideas. Say, I’m trying to understand Locke’s natural historical approach: Does it really help to say that he is antagonising some ‘rationalist’ position? I mean, does it help in understanding the Essay? Would it not be more helpful to try and explain what “natural history” means and how this idea might be informed, non-adversarially, by Bacon’s understanding of natural history? Can we understand Locke’s project better if we find his adversaries, rather than say the traditions than he is building on? – NB: I’m not saying that adversariality doesn’t play *any* role. I’m just wondering whether we should privilege that approach.

      Ad 2) I guess I have to disagree with the claim that non-adversariality speaks in favour of contextualism:) Why would that be the case? I work to a large degree in an appropriationist manner and instrumentally mine history and contemporaries for ideas much of the time. But I don’t see this as adversarial, or at least not necessarily. Most of my intellectual efforts go into *understanding* ideas, their implications and consequences as well as what they might be opposed to. In this regard it might help to discuss limits and contrarieties. But even this endevour doesn’t require me to argue against someones position. Granted, it *might* involve that. But again I don’t know why it should be priviledged in the way it is.

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      1. Dear Martin,

        Thanks for your comments. Just a few lines.

        Regarding both “1” and “2”, my comments about were descriptive, not normative. I totally agree that such a view is not necessary -although it can be useful- but, at the same time, I usually notice that students have the tendency to organize HoP and justify the canon through the adversarial approach. The author X and the book Y became canonical “because” they either refuted or showed flaws in W’s views, and so on.

        Specifically about “2”, my comment about the non-adversarial approach as “favoring” a contextualist ways of coping with HoP is due to the fact that often that “mining” process -that I do like and do as well- is used to find forgotten arguments “against” a given standpoint. Once again, it is not normative, but it can be quite profitable.

        Thank you once again.

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