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.


*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.

Love, crime, sincerity and normality. Or: sameness claims in history

How do the things mentioned in the title hang together? – Read on, then! Think about this well known illusion: You see a stick in the water; the stick seems to be bent. What can you do to check whether it is really bent? – Knowing that water influences visual perception, you can change the conditions: You take it out of the water and realise that it is straight. Taking it out also allows for confirmation through a different sense modality: Touching the stick, you can compare the visual impression with the tactile one. Checking sense modalities and/or conditions against one another establishes an agreement in judgment and thus objectivity. If you only had the visual impression of the stick in the water, you could not form an objective judgment. For all you knew, the stick would be bent.

Now, objectivity is nice to have. But it requires a crucial presupposition that we have not considered so far: that the different perceptions are perceptions of the same thing. Identity assumptions about perceptual objects come easily. But, in principle, they could be challenged: How do you know that what you touch really is the same thing as the one you feel? Normally, yes: normally, you don’t ask that question. You presuppose that it’s the same thing. Of course, you might theorise about a wicked friend exchanging the sticks when you aren’t looking, but this is not the issue now. We need that presupposition; otherwise our world would fall apart. Cutting a long story short, to ‘have’ our world we need at least two things, then: (1) agreement in our tacit judgments (about perceptions) and agreement with the judgments of others: So when someone says it’s raining that judgment should agree with our perceptual judgments: “it’s raining” must agree with the noise we hear of the drops hitting the rooftop and the drops we see hitting the window; (2) and we must presuppose that all these judgments concern the same thing: the rain.

Now all hell breaks loose when such judgments are consistently challenged. What is it I hear, if not the rain? What do you mean when you say “it’s raining”, if not that it’s raining? Are you talking figuratively? Are you not sincere? – One might begin to distrust the speaker or even one’s senses (or the speaker’s senses). It might turn out that the sameness was but a presupposition. (Oh, and what guided the comparison between touch and vision in the first place? How do I know what it feels like to touch a thing looking like ‘that’? Best wishes from Mr Molyneux …)

Presuppositions about sameness and challenging them: this provides great plots for stories about love, crime, sincerity and normality. I leave it to your imagination to fill in the gaps now. Assumptions about sameness figure in judgments about sincerity, about objects, persons, about perceptions, just about everything. (Could it turn out that the Morning Star is not the Evening Star, after all?) It’s clear that we need such assumptions if we don’t want to go loopy, and it’s palpable what might happen if they are not confirmed. Disagreement in judgment can hurt and upset us greatly.

No surprise then that we read philosophical texts with similar assumptions. If your colleague writes a text entitled “on consciousness” or “on justice” you make assumptions about these ideas. Are these assumptions confirmed when you pick up a translation: “De conscientia” or “Über Bewusstsein”? Hmmm, does the Latin match? Let’s see! What you look for, at least when your suspicion is raised, is confirmation about the topic: Does it match what you take consciousness to be? But hang on! Perhaps you should check your linguistic assumptions first? Is it a good translation?

What you try to track is sameness, by tracking agreement in judgments about different kinds of facts. Linguistic facts have to match. But also assumptions about the topic. Now a new problem emerges: It might be that the translation is a match, but that you genuinely disagree with your colleage about what consciousness is. Or it might be that you agree about consciousness, but that the translation is incorrect. – How are you going to find out which disagreement actually obtains? – You can ask your colleage: What do you mean by “conscientia”? She then tells you that she means that conscientia is given if p and q obtain. You might now disagree: I think consciousness obtains when p and r obtain. Now you have a disagreement about the criteria for consciousness. – Really? Perhaps you now have disagreement of what “consciousness” means or you have a disagreement of what “conscientia” means. How do you figure that out? Oh, look into a canonical book on consciousness! – Let’s assume it even notes certain disagreements: What are the disagreements about?

I guess the situation is not all that different when we read historical texts. Perhaps a bit worse actually. We just invoke some more ways of establishing sameness: the so-called context. What is context? Let’s say we invoke a bunch of other texts. So we look at “conscientia” in Descartes. Should we look at Augustine? Some contemporaries? At Dennett? At some scholastic authors? Paulus? The Bible? How do we determine which context is the right one for establishing sameness. And is consciousness even a thing? A natural kind about which sameness claims can be well established? – Oh, and was Descartes sincere when he introduced God in the Meditations?

Sometimes disagreements among historians and philosophers remind me of the question which interpretation of a piece of music is the proper one. There is a right answer: it’s whichever interpretation you’ve listened to first. Everything else will sound more or less off, different in any case. That’s where all your initial presuppositions were rooted. Is it the same piece as the later interpretations? Is it better? How? Why do I like it? How do I recognise it as the same or similar? And I need a second coffee now!

I reach to my cup and find the coffee in there lukewarm – is it really my coffee, or indeed coffee?


Whilst I’m at it: Many thanks to all the students in my course on methodology in the history of philosophy, conveniently called “Core Issues: Philosophy and Its Past”. The recent discussions were very intriguing again. And over the years, the participants in this course inspired a lot of ideas going into this blog.

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.

On taking risks. With an afterthought on peer review

Jumping over a puddle is both fun to try and to watch. It’s a small risk to take, but some puddles are too large to cross… There are greater risks, but whatever the stakes, they create excitement. And in the face of possible failure, success feels quite different. If you play a difficult run on the piano, the listeners will equally feel relief when you manage to land on the right note in time. The same goes for academic research and writing. If you start out with a provocative hypothesis, people will get excited about the way you mount the evidence. Although at least some grant agencies ask for risks taken in proposals, risk taking is hardly ever addressed in philosophy or writing guides. Perhaps people think it’s not a serious issue, but I believe it might be one of the crucial elements.

In philosophy, every move worth our time probably involves a risk. Arguing that mistakes or successes depend on their later contextualisation, I already looked at the “the fine line between mistake and innovation.” But how do we get onto that fine line? This, I think, involves taking a risk. Taking a risk in philosophy means saying or doing something that will likely be met with objections. That’s probably why criticising interlocutors is so widespread. But there are many ways of taking risks. Sitting in a seminar, it might already feel risky to just raise your voice and ask a question. You feel you might make a fool of yourself and lose the respect of your fellow students or instructor. But if you make the effort you might also be met with the admiration for going through with an only seemingly trivial point. I guess it’s that oscillation between the possibility of failure and success that also moves the listeners or readers. It’s important to note that risk taking has a decidedly emotional dimension. Jumping across the puddle might land you in the puddle. But even if you don’t make it all the way, you’ll have moved more than yourself.

In designing papers or research projects, risk taking is most of the time rewarded, at least with initial attention. You can make an outrageous sounding claim like “thinking is being” or “panpsychism is true”. You can present a non-canonical interpretation or focus on a historical figure like “Hume was a racist” or “Descartes was an Aristotelian”. You can edit or write on the work of a non-canonical figure or provide an uncommon translation of a technical term. This list is not exhaustive, and depending on the conventions of your audience all sorts of moves might be risky. Of course, then there is work to be done. You’ve got to make your case. But if you’re set to make a leap, people will often listen more diligently than when you merely promise to summarise the state of the art. In other words, taking a risk will be seen as original. That said, the leap has to be well prepared. It has to work from elements that are familiar to your audience. Otherwise the risk cannot be appreciated for what it is. On the other hand, mounting the evidence must be presented as feasible. Otherwise you’ll come across as merely ambitious.

Whatever you do, in taking a risk you’ll certainly antagonise some people. Some will be cheering and applauding your courage and originality. Others will shake their heads and call you weird or other endearing things. What to do? It might feel difficult to live with opposition. But if you have two opposed groups, one positive, one negative, you can be sure you’re onto something. Go for it! It’s important to trust your instincts and intuitions. You might make it across the puddle, even if half of your peers don’t believe it. If you fail, you’ve just attempted what everyone else should attempt, too. Unless it’s part of the job to stick to reinventing the wheel.

Now the fact that risks will be met with much opposition but might indicate innovation should give us pause when it comes to peer review. In view of the enormous competition, journals seem to encourage that authors comply with the demands of two reviewers. (Reviewer #2 is a haunting meme by now.)  A paper that gets one wholly negative review will often be rejected. But if it’s true that risks, while indicative of originality, will incur strong opposition, should we not think that a paper is particularly promising when met with two opposing reviews? Compliance with every possible reviewer seems to encourage risk aversion. Conversely, looking out for opposing reviews would probably change a number of things in our current practice. I guess managing such a process wouldn’t be easier. So it’s not surprising if things won’t change anytime soon. But such change, if considered desirable, is probably best incentivised bottom-up. And this would mean to begin in teaching.

The fact, then, that a claim or move provokes opposition or even refutation should not be seen as a negative trait. Rather it indicates that something is at stake. It is important, I believe, to convey this message, especially to beginners who should learn to enjoy taking risks and listening to others doing it.

How we unlearn to read

Having been busy with grading again, I noticed a strange double standard in our reading practice and posted the following remark on facebook and twitter:

A question for scholars. – How can we spend a lifetime on a chapter in Aristotle and think we’re done with a student essay in two hours? Both can be equally enigmatic.

Although it was initially meant as a joke of sorts, it got others and me thinking about various issues. Some people rightly pointed out that we mainly set essay tasks for the limited purpose of training people to write; others noted that they are expected to take even less than two hours (some take as little as 10 minutes per paper). Why do we go along with such expectations? Although our goals in assigning essays might be limited, the contrast to our critical and historical engagement with past or current texts of philosophers should give us pause. Let me list two reasons.

Firstly, we might overlook great ideas in contributions by students. I am often amazed how some students manage to come up with all crucial objections and replies to certain claims within 20 minutes, while these considerations took perhaps 20 years to evolve in the historical setting. Have them read, say, Putnam’s twin earth thought experiment and listen to all the major objections passing by in less than an hour. If they can do that, it’s equally likely that their work contains real contributions. But we’ll only notice those if we take our time and dissect sometimes clumsy formulations to uncover the ideas behind them. I’m proud to have witnessed quite a number of graduate students who have developed highly original interpretations and advanced discussions in ways that I didn’t dream of.

Secondly, by taking comparably little time we send a certain message both to our students and ourselves. On the one hand, such a practice might suggest that their work doesn’t really matter. If that message is conveyed, then the efforts on part of the students might be equally low. Some students have to write so many essays that they don’t have time to read. And let’s face it, grading essays without proper feedback is equally a waste of time. If we don’t pay attention to detail, we are ultimately undermining the purpose of philosophical education. Students write more and more papers, while we have less and less time to read them properly. Like a machine running blindly, mimicking educational activity. On the other hand, this way of interacting with and about texts will affect our overall reading practice. Instead of trying to appreciate ideas and think them through, we just look for cues of familiarity or failure. Peer review is overburdening many of us in similar ways. Hence, we need our writing to be appropriately formulaic. If we don’t stick to certain patterns, we risk that our peers miss the cues and think badly of our work. We increasingly write for people who have no time to read, undermining engagement with ideas. David Labaree even claims that it’s often enough to produce work that “looks and feels” like a proper dissertation or paper.

The extreme result is an increasing mechanisation of mindless writing and reading. It’s not supring that hoaxes involving automated or merely clichéd writing get through peer review. Of course this is not true across the board. People still write well and read diligently. But the current trend threatens to undermine educational and philosophical purposes. An obvious remedy would be to improve the student-teacher ratio by employing more staff. In any case, students and staff should write less, leaving more time to read carefully.


Speaking of reading, I’d like to thank all of you who continue reading or even writing for this blog. I hope you enjoy the upcoming holidays, wish you a very happy new year, and look forward to conversing with you again soon.