Skip

"Rigor should be seen as pluralistic[....]"
January 6, 2013 2:35 PM   Subscribe


 
Socrates would never get tenure: what did he write?

Worth it just for that line.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:38 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Formal education is broken; forcing everyone that seems to be intelligent through a one size fits all, lowest common denominator system of higher education has destroyed many fine minds.

I'm not going to reference any iconic smart people and destroy the legitimacy of my argument but intelligence at the outer end of the bell curve does not function well when placed in our higher education system, and anybody arguing otherwise has never been there or witnessed that shocking event second-hand.

There's quite a few books written on this subject, my favorites are by John Taylor Gatto, which he's made freely available on his website.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Taylor_Gatto

Reading his books really helped me a lot when I was in middle school to understand that public schools were originally designed by the British to enforce their rule over the subcontinental peoples. In other words, you're put in school for them, not you.

Now with the perspective of 20+ years of self-education I can see the benefits of disciplined study, it allows you to avoid crank outsider status, but anybody sending a gifted child into our school system condoning the destruction of their child's intellect.

On the other hand, public school made me a better person and now that I'm past the angst I can understand that knowing I need to shut up and toe the line was the single best lesson for me to have learned. Life, school, and society does not reward intelligence and learning, it rewards delayed gratification and hoop jumping. Taking that to heart that early allowed me to put my energies toward more results-oriented endeavors, rather than being trapped in the endless academic circle jerking that is, say, grad school.

I hope this eventually changes with the rise of online education, but I doubt it. All I know is that as a gifted child that had no peers during public school in the late 90s, having access to the internet saved my life.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 2:57 PM on January 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


Socrates didn't write anything, but Plato and Aristotle definitely did. And, contrary to what the authors say, Aristotle was an incredible scholar. Every time Aristotle writes on a topic, he begins by surveying what previous thinkers said about it. Most of what we know about Democritus we know through Aristotle's commentaries: none of Democritus' actual works survive today.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:58 PM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Um, Bieber fever. Like all things, it too will pass. As it often is, there are some pretty interesting comments on the original article.
posted by ovvl at 3:16 PM on January 6, 2013


Wow, these guys have a really narrow-minded view of academic disciplines, especially philosophy. It sounds like they think every philosophy department that bases their tenure evaluations on peer-reviewed publications is deliberately avoiding any sort of interdisciplinary interaction. I'm very certain that such is not the case; in my observation, academic philosophers are already bending over backwards to reach out to psychologists, neuroscientists, physicists, biologists, linguists, sociologists etc. etc. Moreover, I'm not sure that cross-disciplinary work is any more relevant to everyday life than "pure" academic work; as I understand it, philosophy of physics (for example) is a smaller field with fewer people adequately informed to judge the validity of both the physics and philosophical side of the work than you would find in either physics or philosophy of science alone, not to mention just plain ol' "philosophy."

Consequently I am suspicious of the authors' motivations, since their arguments seem based on some faulty assumptions about the nature of philosophy today (as I understand it, from the outside looking in). To me, it feels like a thinly-veiled insinuation that philosophy departments are irrelevant since they don't focus on "big issues," which are somehow more subject to criticism by both other disciplines and the public at large. It's a step away from saying that intellectuals shouldn't expect to have job security unless they can prove to any non-expert in their field that their work is relevant to a vaguely defined "big picture;" which is a short step away from saying artists, writers, thinkers, etc. shouldn't expect to make a living off of their work unless it's comprehensible to a broad, uneducated public.

The fact that these guys are all philosophers at North Texas kind of makes me wonder if UNT is about to purge its philosophy department.
posted by daisystomper at 3:27 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


not a good piece. for starters, his claim that, of all the academic disciplines, philosophy alone should welcome "non-peer" review, rests entirely on the contentious and weak claim that philosophy claims that it "has a special relevance to everyday life." 1) i don't think this is true, at all, and 2) if it did, so what? it's not good enough to just assert this and fly past it - it needs to be argued.

i'm not an academic, or a philosopher, but if i were i would distance myself as loudly and insistently from this suicidal accommodationism as i possibly could. yes, people who do things for their entire lives know more about them than people who don't. no, corporate-sponsored functionaries and their cost-benefit algorithms should not decide what scholarship stays and what goes.

man, dumb article. no offense to the poster.
posted by facetious at 4:28 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


which is a short step away from saying artists, writers, thinkers, etc. shouldn't expect to make a living off of their work unless it's comprehensible to a broad, uneducated public

I think large swaths of American society are indeed a short step away (if that) from saying that artists and writers shouldn't expect to make a living off their work at all, irrespective of its appeal. This is at the heart of every discussion about copyright. I don't think philosophers are likely to find much protection by hiding in those coattails.

I'd agree the article reads like a veiled indictment, although I wouldn't bother with the second haf of that sentence (about "big issues"). The implication is that philosophy departments are irrelevant. Is that untrue? More to the point, is it untrue in perception? Does philosophy successfully convey its relevance to the public?

If you polled fifty people on the street and asked, "Your local university has an [X] department. What do you think is the benefit of that?", then I think you'd get concrete answers when you asked about sciences, business, communications, etc. Some of those answers might lean on the slightly awkward rationale, "To train teachers," but still. When you asked about philosophy, I suspect you'd get something less. Assuming that's true, it's an ivory-tower problem.
posted by cribcage at 4:38 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Biologists are the ones competent to judge work in biology, and only chemists can judge the research of other chemists. Nonexperts — whether within or outside the academy — will only disrupt the process, leading to misguided or even disastrous results. Best to leave such questions to the experts.

But what of philosophy? Across the 20th century and now into the 21st, philosophers have been evaluated in the same way. Even while claiming that philosophy has a special relevance to everyday life, philosophers have mostly written for and been evaluated by their disciplinary peers. Philosophy became more and more professionalized in the 20th century, with nonexperts increasingly unable to comprehend, much less judge, the work of philosophers. A philosopher today is not considered successful unless he or she contributes to professional, peer-reviewed publications in the field.

But should philosophy really act like the other disciplines in this regard? Should philosophy be considered a "discipline" at all? And if not, what are the consequences for the governance of philosophy?


I shall refer back to the esteemed Colin McGinn's suggestion that academic philosophy change its name so that the public (and perhaps these UNT professors) can recognize that academic philosophy and "philosophy" as the public understands it are two completely different things:

"Most of the marks of science as commonly understood are shared by academic philosophy: the subject is systematic, rigorous, replete with technical vocabulary, often in conflict with common sense, capable of refutation, produces hypotheses, uses symbolic notation, is about the natural world, is institutionalized, peer-reviewed, tenure-granting, etc... [Philosophy] is an a priori science, like the 'formal science' of mathematics."
posted by SollosQ at 4:41 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


i.e., State your opinions, whatever they may be, of academic philosophy and public philosophy, but please, please, please just acknowledge that the two are two completely different things and have and want no interaction with the other.
posted by SollosQ at 4:53 PM on January 6, 2013


academic philosophy and "philosophy" as the public understands it are two completely different things

Speaking as an academic philosopher, I see no reason to accept that. Many of the most interesting questions in philosophy are problems that are of at least occasional interest to everyone. What professional philosophers do is not different in its aims from what ordinary people do.

Knowing the history of these questions and knowing the range of answers currently up for grabs makes for better answers. The technical vocabulary professional philosophers use adds necessary precision. Formal logic makes our work more rigorous. No one should be surprised that a careful, systematic approach gives better answers to tough questions than making stuff up on the fly. No one is surprised.

However, as Vonnegut said, it is a rule in all of science that whoever can't explain what he is doing to a bright eight year old is a charlatan. Total disconnection from public discourse is a sign that a debate has gone rancid.

SollosQ, maybe we're talking past each other. What do you mean by "public philosophy?" Do you mean something like freshmen toking up and going on about the meaning of life at two in the morning? It's true that sufficiently bad philosophy isn't philosophy anymore, just like a pile of rubble isn't a house. That said, why wouldn't we want to call it philosophical to the extent that they use (informally) logical arguments that are capable of refutation?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:20 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


"as Vonnegut said, it is a rule in all of science that whoever can't explain what he is doing to a bright eight year old is a charlatan."

To be fair, Vonnegut didn't exactly say that; he put it in the mouth of a character who destroys the world.

So I don't think it's fair to attribute that belief to Vonnegut, which is good, because that belief is false. I talk to academic philosophers a lot. I think academic philosophy is awesome. The philosophers can, indeed, explain to me what they're doing. But I don't think they could have done this when I was eight.

That said, I liked and was largely on board with the linked article! Maybe because I'm one of those people who didn't realize academic philosophy was doing things I was interested in until later in life, and I wish I'd found out earlier.
posted by escabeche at 6:33 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


that belief is false

It's hyperbole, but we agree that academic philosophers should be explaining their work to the general public. It's good for both sides.

Still, I'm very much against having non-academics do peer review on academic philosophers. The skill of making arguments that sound good to non-specialists is not the same skill as making arguments that can stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny. I'm not saying that professional philosophers have the right answers to the big questions. I'm saying that unless you've dug deep into the literature you have no idea just how wrong our best answers are.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:11 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


"As universities face growing demands for academic accountability, philosophers ought to take the lead in exploring what accountability means."

Talk about thin gruel.

And interdisciplinary studies is still a thing? Really? Even in the 90's people realized this was career suicide, academically speaking.
posted by bardic at 7:24 PM on January 6, 2013


Kierkegaard's withering critique of the "professors" and Hegelianism has long-since and much more insightfully looked at this issue.

Philosophy is not and will not be dependent upon anything but thought, least of all "academic accountability", and will and has exist(ed) outside the Academy. What's worse, applying philosophies of economics to "philosophy", or "philosophers" failing to quash such inconsistencies and instead actively debating said inconsistencies "philosophically"? In either case the Academy cannibalizes itself.
posted by riverlife at 7:35 PM on January 6, 2013


SollosQ, maybe we're talking past each other.

Perhaps we are. My distinction between academic philosophy and "philosophy" is a distraction, and it is a distinction which is not relevant to what I find objectionable about this piece which is all I am concerned about here.

What is relevant and important here is my objection to this article which seems to suggest that academic philosophy needs to meet certain conditions with relation to the public that the other disciplines (like mathematics) do not.
posted by SollosQ at 7:37 PM on January 6, 2013


SollosQ, agreed.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:44 PM on January 6, 2013


"[Philosophy] is an a priori science, like the 'formal science' of mathematics."

I'm nearing the end of my philosophy degree, and I have to disagree. In the last few months I've had a crisis of conscience in the entire philosophical endeavour based on one major finding from the sciences: that we humans can still screw up our reasoning even with philosophical training. Philosophy cannot be an apriori endeavour. In the terms of metaphysicians: our brains are more ontologically primitive than the philosophical concepts we create and use.

Some of the scientific literature concerning this are:

Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It by Max H. Bazerman & Ann E. Tenbrunsel, which has chapter on chapter about how we humans screw up ethical reasoning and decision making even with philosophical and ethical training. There is an entire chapter in there on how professional philosophers and ethicists fall prey to the same cognitive biases in ethical decision making. Apriori reasoning from philosophy and ethics alone cannot stop bad moral reasoning.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. People here are probably familiar from this book, and the associated research of cognitive biases screwing with our reasoning processes. One major aspect of it is our minds seem to revert to system 1 (automatic thinking) over system 2 thinking (logical). This occurs even when we have training in areas that philosophy typically covers (like formal and informal logic). Take a concept from propositional logic like disjunctions. Humans have real trouble reasoning with disjunctions.

Now, there are ways to alleviate these cognitive problems, but to say that one can do philosophy apriori -- when all the scientific evidence says that we philosophers still can screw it up in such a manner -- I think is shortsighted.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 7:53 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


that we humans can still screw up our reasoning even with philosophical training.

I don't understand what you're trying to say.

Are you saying that even with philosophical training in ethics, that one can or will still fail to act ethically? This is an irrelevant issue.

Or are you saying that even with philosophical training in ethics, one will make mistakes in their ethical reasoning? Because this doesn't violate philosophy as an a priori science. It just means humans aren't perfect, hence peer review. Peer review doesn't mean a discipline isn't a priori: just look at mathematics.
posted by SollosQ at 8:08 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Because this doesn't violate philosophy as an a priori science."

Sure it does. I mean look at the proposition here:
Philosophy is an a priori science.
Here are two possible interpretations of your sentence:

(1) A metaphysical interpretation that the sentence is ascribing philosophy with the property "a priori science." The first reason you give is that humans aren't perfect, but peer review should fix that. Bazerman's book above shows humans are still bad with ethical reasoning in groups. The point I'm getting at, in Dennett's language, that these bad reasoning processes act like a universal acid. Even with the right mindware (philosophical training), both the original a priori reasoners, and the people that review the reasoning, can get it wrong. The second main reason you give in support of this a priori endeavour is the argument via analogy to mathematics. Here are some dis-analogies that make them completely different: Most of mathematics is built on clearly defined definitions and axioms. Knowledge is then built on these by proofs in a formal language. Much of philosophy, apart from formal philosophy (or continental styles), is analysis of natural language arguments and concepts. Arguments that fall prey to vagueness.

(2) A logical interpretation that, "If there is philosophy, then it is an a priori science". The negation of this sentence, and a counter-example to it, is "There is philosophy, and it is not an a priori science." The most obvious counter-example here are philosophical endeavours like hermeneutics, which is more about interpretation than formal and experimental reasoning found within the sciences. But to bring it back to the main point, logically you could break down the term "a priori science" into some conjunction into whatever is meant by "a priori"-ness AND science. I don't have too much of a problem with the science aspect of this conjunction. It is the a priori part of this conjunction I have a problem with. Philosophy has many of the aspects that McGinn mentioned above, but it is also foremost about argument and reason. If science shows that we can still get those aspects wrong, even as specialists in reasoning, then there is nothing a priori about it. The brain and its bad reasoning processes are more ontologically primitive than any a priori endeavour we engage in.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 8:55 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Whoops, that shouldn't be "your sentence," but McGinn's.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 9:04 PM on January 6, 2013


I don't see how Bazerman's book shows this. From the link, the book is described as being about

distinguishing our "should self" (the person who knows what is correct) from our "want self" (the person who ends up making decisions)

which speaks to my first interpretation.

In any case, when you say,

Even with the right mindware (philosophical training), both the original a priori reasoners, and the people that review the reasoning, can get it wrong.

still doesn't get at anything. Can get it wrong? That means they can and do get it right. Why? Well, how else did we know that have gotten it wrong?

Much of philosophy, apart from formal philosophy (or continental styles), is analysis of natural language arguments and concepts.

This too, doesn't make philosophy not a priori. In fact, this is halfway at the way philosophy is commonly defined. As an a priori analysis of concepts. What would philosophy otherwise be? Empirical?
posted by SollosQ at 9:58 PM on January 6, 2013


ollyollyoxenfree,

I think you're missing SollosQ's point. The fact that we reason badly about something does not mean that we are reasoning a posteriori about it. SollosQ's reference to mathematics was not meant as an analogy but as a counter-example to your claim. We often fail to reason correctly about mathematics. But our failure to reason well about mathematics does not mean that our reasoning about mathematics is a posteriori.

Philosophy might or might not be an a priori discipline. I think that it is not. (Or more carefully, I don't think that the whole of philosophy is correctly described as either a priori or as a posteriori -- parts of it are a priori and parts are a posteriori.) But the limits of human cognitive capacities have nothing to do with whether or not philosophy is a priori. Where human cognitive limitations matter is in how much credence we should give to our reasoning.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:03 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Most of mathematics is built on clearly defined definitions and axioms. Knowledge is then built on these by proofs in a formal language.

Speaking as a working mathematician, I think it's important for people to keep in mind that the first of these sentences is only sort of true of actual mathematical practice, and the second not at all.
posted by escabeche at 10:09 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


"I don't see how Bazerman's book shows this"

Chapter 6 and 7.

"still doesn't get at anything. Can get it wrong? That means they can and do get it right. Why? Well, how else did we know that have gotten it wrong?"

Firstly, rhetorical questions aren't arguments. Secondly, this an empirical claim, not one deduced by logic. Both works above draw on extensive science that shows that philosophers get it wrong even after being trained in philosophical methods. You are reasoning that this is wrong based on the principle of bivalence (that it isn't or is true). It's an inductive claim, not deductive. You haven't refuted any of the actual science.

"The fact that we reason badly about something does not mean that we are reasoning a posteriori about it. SollosQ's reference to mathematics was not meant as an analogy but as a counter-example to your claim. We often fail to reason correctly about mathematics. But our failure to reason well about mathematics does not mean that our reasoning about mathematics is a posteriori."

The original statement I took aim at stated, "[Philosophy] is an a priori science, like the 'formal science' of mathematics." It was a clear analogy between the two (albeit one attributed to McGinn).

I'm not sure where you got the idea that I'm saying it is a posteriori. To clear things up, here is Robert Audi on what a priori is:
"... called a priori (meaning, roughly, based on what is "prior" to observational experience) because it apparently arises not from experience of how things actually behave, but simply in an intuitive way. It arises from a rational grasp of the key concepts one needs in order to have the belief ..."

"... have been called a priori propositions (propositions knowable 'from the first'), because they have been thought to be such that they can be known a priori, in a very strict sense of this phrase: known not on the basis of sense experience but simply through reason as directed toward the concepts occurring in them, at least if reason is used extensively enough and with sufficient care."

Bold text added. You stated, "But the limits of human cognitive capacities have nothing to do with whether or not philosophy is a priori."

If you are reasoning in the a priori sense, which is what the issue is here, then cognitive capacities of individuals are going to come into play. Bazerman and others build up solid proof that professional philosophers fall prey to bad reasoning. Reasoning, which is at the heart of what a priori knowledge is. At least one of these bad reasoning stems from not knowing how their brain can fail them. Now Audi states in the above definition, "... if reason is used extensively enough and with sufficient care." Now, even given this mindware (reason), people can still be led astray by cognitive biases, even with careful reasoning. The claim above is to set philosophy on this foundation, a foundation that is shown to be weak by science.

"Speaking as a working mathematician, I think it's important for people to keep in mind that the first of these sentences is only sort of true of actual mathematical practice, and the second not at all."

I've only done up to third year mathematics courses, so I have no personal experience with actual mathematical research. That said, nearly all the courses that weren't applied mathematics, were of this sort i.e. knowing definitions and axioms, and then proof after proof. Definition, theorem, proof. Building on each other. The only time a natural language (like the one we are talking in now) were used, was in certain key argumentative terms like 'so' or 'then'. Now granted, this is a small universe of education, but I'm left wondering then how mathematical knowledge in the real world is built if not on these foundations?
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 11:42 PM on January 6, 2013


ollyollyoxenfree, I agree that as we discover more about cognitive biases we might want to change the way we do philosophy. That sort of data is the reason why I grade blind. However, "bad reasoning" implies that some people in some circumstances are capable of good reasoning, otherwise we would not say that anyone's reasoning is good or bad, only that we reason differently. What techniques do the experimenters in your favorite experiments use to ensure that they are using good reasoning in setting up the answer key for the questions they ask? Why couldn't philosophers use similar techniques?

As an a priori analysis of concepts. What would philosophy otherwise be? Empirical?

Yes, some philosophy has an empirical component. Finding out about what constitutes the good life for a human being requires finding out what human beings are actually like, not just a priori reasoning about idealized rational beings.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:09 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, thinking about it some more, and re-reading Bazerman. I think I may be wrong. I seem to be conflating practical forms of reasoning, with the different sorts of reasoning that philosophers may engage in within research.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 1:02 AM on January 7, 2013


If you are reasoning in the a priori sense, which is what the issue is here, then cognitive capacities of individuals are going to come into play.

Our cognitive limitations come into play with respect to the degree of confidence we ought to have in our reasoning. And knowing something about our cognitive limitations often helps us to reason better. But, again, that is orthogonal to whether or not philosophy is an a priori discipline.

Your initial claim was that because philosophers continue to suffer from cognitive biases after receiving philosophical training, philosophy cannot be an a priori endeavor. I am saying that your conclusion does not follow -- not even probabilistically -- from your premiss.

Illustration. Suppose I invite you to play a simple dice game. I give you a six-sided die numbered one through six as usual. I tell you that you win if you roll a two on a single toss. You have a severe limitation. You are unlikely to win the game given the way it is set up. You would be more successful if you could use a die with all its faces showing two. But if the game requires you to use an ordinary die, then you are stuck with the limitation. Pointing out the limitation doesn't make you more likely to win the game, and winning the game requires using the unreliable tool provided.

Maybe you meant to say that because a priori reasoning is unreliable, philosophers should not make use of it? That might be sound advice. If you cannot win the game (maybe you only win if you roll an eight), then you are better off not wasting your time and energy by playing. But whereas the existence of severe cognitive limitations with respect to a priori reasoning might show that one should never trust a priori reasoning (or not trust it very much), it would not show that the questions that matter to philosophers could be settled by a posteriori reasoning instead. It might be that the questions that matter to philosophers (or some of them) must be settled by a priori reasoning if they are to be settled at all. If so, then philosophy (or some part of it) is an a priori discipline, regardless of whether or not philosophers have the cognitive tools required to actually solve their problems.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 1:08 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Now granted, this is a small universe of education, but I'm left wondering then how mathematical knowledge in the real world is built if not on these foundations?

This is a great thing to wonder about, and philosophers of mathematics wonder about it for a living. I think Tymoczko's New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics is a great sourcebook well-grounded in actual practice.
posted by escabeche at 5:41 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


« Older Vengabus Kei   |   Beauty matters. Plainness hurts. Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post