What Philosophers Think They Know

Portrait caricatureAh philosophers, you gotta love ‘em. Even if they have given up the pretension of being wiser than everyone else, they still purport to be smarter, or at least more analytically adept. And yet they continually make conspicuous public display of just how bad their arguments can sometimes be. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s recent review of the infamous Colin McGinn’s new book, Philosophy of Language: The Classics Explained, is a case in point. Goldstein, a prominent philosopher herself and recipient of this year’s National Humanities Medal, argues in her review that philosophy, contrary to popular belief, does progress in a manner analogous to the sciences and does have practical value. Unfortunately, her argument is deeply and obviously flawed, revealing, once again, that philosophers are often no better at reasoning than is the average person and that academic philosophy probably does not have the kind of practical value she argues it does.

McGinn’s book is designed to make some of the classics in the history of the philosophy of language, which are notoriously impenetrable to nonspecialists, accessible to students, and others, who have “no previous familiarity” with the field. Goldstein begins her review, “What Philosophers Really Know” (The New York Review of Books, Oct. 8, 2015), with the observation that “[a]cademic philosophy often draws ire.” There are two sorts of complaints against it, she says, but they are “not altogether consistent with each other.”

The first complaint is that philosophers “can’t seem to agree on anything.” This “lack of unanimity,” she explains, “implies a lack of objectivity” and that suggests that philosophy doesn’t actually “progress” in the way the that, for example, the sciences do. This complaint, she continues, “culminates in the charge that there is no such thing as philosophical expertise.”

The second complaint, she asserts, “is that academic philosophy has become inaccessible,” in that it has generated technical “vocabularies and theories aimed at questions remote from problems that outsiders consider philosophical.” But this latter charge, she asserts, contradicts the earlier charge in that it implies “there are philosophical experts and that, in carrying the field forward, they have excluded the nonprofessional.”

It’s pretty clear, however, that the second charge implies no such thing. How could the nonprofessional lament being excluded from this purported forward movement in philosophy, when any movement whatever within the profession has already been dismissed by the nonprofessional as remote from what he or she considers philosophical? A reading of the second charge that makes it not only internally coherent, but cohere with the first charge is not that it implies that there are philosophical “experts,” but rather that it implies there are philosophical initiates whose technical vocabularies are so complex and foreign to ordinary language usage that they make it impossible for the lay person even to enter the philosophical conversation, let alone argue that philosophers theories are “aimed at questions remote from problems outsiders consider philosophical.”

That is, the second charge is, I believe, that philosophers have effectively insulated themselves from criticism by making their ideas and theories inaccessible to anyone but themselves. Or in the words of Jonathan Rée (as quoted in Philosophy Now), that they have become nothing more than “a self-perpetuating clique like freemasons.” This reading is perfectly consistent with the charge that there is no progress in philosophy, the real “culmination” of the observation that philosophers can’t seem to agree on anything. No one disputes, after all, that there are degrees of mastery of any technical vocabulary and methodology specific to a given field and hence that those on the high end of the spectrum may be considered “experts.” What is at issue in criticisms of academic philosophy is whether this “expertise” amounts to wisdom (i.e., sophia), which is to say whether it can make a positive difference in anyone’s life, or indeed, any sort of difference at all.

Goldstein claims philosophy has practical value, but the examples she offers fail to support her claim. She presents the fact that “[c]ertain speech situations yield their meaning without inquiring about the speaker’s intentions… [and that] other situations require inquiry into what is called pragmatics, which analyzes both the language employed and the language user’s intentions” as an insight specific to philosophers. This in itself strains credulity given how important “misunderstandings” based on mistaken interpretations of “the language user’s intentions” have been throughout human history and how often they have been depicted in literature and film. Goldstein observes herself that “[e]very serious novelist” pays close attention to the relationship between “what a sentence means and what a person means in uttering the sentence.” But then she goes on to assert that this relationship is some kind of philosophical discovery, as if, even serious novelists cannot make sense of the relationship without the help of technical philosophical terms such as “referential definite descriptions” and “attributive definite descriptions.”

”Definite descriptions,”Goldstein explains, are ones that begin with the definite article ”the,” such as ”the blonde woman over there.” The philosopher Keith Donnellan, continues Goldstein, came up with the distinction, however, between referential and attributive definite descriptions. Whether the woman is really blonde, or only wearing a blonde wig, doesn’t matter. “When I use a definite description referentially,” explains Goldstein,

I have a specific individual in mind, and my aim is to refer to that individual. So long as I get the listener to know who or what I’m talking about, I’m using the definite description successfully… The specific content of the description doesn’t really matter; I’m just using it in effect, to point. But when I use a definite description attributively, the content is precisely the point. The phrase will refer to anything or anybody that uniquely satisfies what it describes, even if I, as the speaker, am ignorant of the referent, as when I say, “The bastard who hacked my computer has made my life a living hell.”

Goldstein then gives an example she asserts illustrates the practical value of this purported philosophical insight concerning the difference between what people mean with their words and what the words can be interpreted to mean independently of the speaker’s intentions.

The example is of a man who deserts his wife, but then later “marries” a new woman. In the process of forming a new business, he signs a contract stipulating, among other things, that “‘the wife of the depositor’ shall benefit in the event of his death.” He makes it clear, explains Goldstein, “though of course, not in writing,” that he intends the beneficiary to be his new “wife,” not the wife he deserted.

But what happens when he dies? The wife he deserted suddenly presents herself and declares she is the rightful beneficiary. “Should ‘the wife of the depositor’ be interpreted referentially, asks Goldstein, so that it would refer to the woman the bigamist intended to indicate with the phrase, or attributively, as the real wife demands?

“Just such a legal situation arose in 1935,” explains Goldstein, though she does not identify the case by name, “and the majority of judges decided on the referential interpretation.” But then Goldstein goes on to assert that “[t]he philosopher Gideon Rosen has argued that subtle points in the philosophy of language raised by, among others, [Saul] Kripke, imply that the majority opinion was mistaken.”

Really, I kid you not, she says that. How, one is compelled to ask, can philosophy of language determine that sort of legal, or indeed any sort of legal question? The court knew that “the wife of the depositor” could be interpreted to refer to either the original, and legally only legitimate wife, or to the second, legally illegitimate “wife.” It didn’t need the fancy-schmantzy philosophical terminology of “referential” versus “attributive definite descriptions” to know “the wife of the depositor” could be interpreted in two different ways. Nor, on Goldstein’s description of the case, can there have been any doubt on the part of the court concerning how the dead man intended it to be interpreted.

The question for the court was how it wanted to interpret the phrase. Did it want to honor the wishes of the dead bigamist or the technically correct claim of the first woman to be the genuine “wife” and hence the legitimate beneficiary? That is, did it want to honor the spirit or the letter of the contract? Philosophy can’t answer that question for the court. It can only give the court a new way of articulating it.

The second example Goldstein gives involves the interpretation of the Constitution. This example is analogous to the first and hence has the same problem. “Should we,” she asks, “as strict constructionists urge us, consider only the semantics of the words themselves in order to interpret the Constitution’s meaning, or must we use pragmatics, too, consulting historians to try to understand the original intentions of the framers?” That is, can philosophy “lend support to those who argue for the Constitution as a living document?” The answer, of course, is yes, it can, but so can it lend support for those who do not want to see it as a living document.

How, one might ask, are we supposed to be able to reliably determine the original intentions of the framers? What are we going to consider sufficient evidence of those intentions? Those kinds of questions are the very lifeblood of philosophy. God help us if we turn to philosophy for answers to them because philosophy, as Goldstein observes herself, is better at discovering questions than at discovering answers.

Goldstein points out that McGinn’s book omits many classics in the philosophy of language. Among those whose writings were omitted is, according to Goldtein, is Willard van Orman Quine. Goldstein would have done well to review her Quine because Quine argues in an essay entitled “Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People? (Theories and Things, 1981), that professional philosophers are not, in fact, purveyors of wisdom, nor, he asserts, have they any ”peculiar fitness for helping society get on an even keel.”

I don’t mean to suggest that there is no value at all to academic philosophy. Nor do I mean to suggest that there is no practical value to it. Philosophy, whether it is defined as the love of and search for wisdom, or as the love of and search for “conceptual clarity and argumentative precision” (Goldstein’s articulation of the “analytic” conception of philosophy), is a perennial human activity, and like other perennial human activities such as art and literature, it deserves serious study. I believe as well, and have argued elsewhere, that it has practical value. My point here is simply that it does not appear, according to Goldstein’s own arguments, to have the practical value she claims it has.

There is one point on which I agree with Goldstein. If there is such a thing as philosophical progress, then it is indeed “less accurately measured in the discovery of answers and more in the discovery of questions.” I doubt whether most people would consider this progress, but I do think it has a certain positive value in that it can encourage humility.

Strangely, humility is precisely what so many professional philosophers, including Goldstein, seem to lack.

(This piece appeared originally in the Sept. 18, 2015 edition of Counterpunch.)

3 responses

  1. I think philosophy often does advance in terms of answers, and not just questions, even if those answers often lead to additional questions – perhaps that’s another way of thinking about it?

    Your example (or Goldstein’s) of Constitutional interpretations is particularly interesting, as I don’t think many within the Philosophy of Law support a strict constructionist position. It’s only within law schools (rather than philosophy departments) that strict constructionism is entertained as a viable interpretation of law, and this reflects political ideology rather than a reasoned philosophical position, because to my knowledge, a strong philosophical argument in support of constructionism doesn’t really exist. For instance, the two heavyweights in 20th century Legal Philosophy, Hart and Dworkin, might disagree on certain features of the law, but they agree on other features, and neither would support a strict constructionist position, because they both recognize that strict constructionism betrays the very nature of what the law is. In other words, we don’t solve the question of constitutional interpretation by way of linguistic analysis, but by first understanding what the law is. And, if we understand what the law is, it invalidates certain positions, among them constructionism.

    Now, Dworkin might reveal many questions about the law that we didn’t have before, and which weren’t evident in Hart’s earlier philosophy, but he also answers many questions that seem pretty stable. In fact, as I mentioned, he agrees with Hart about a good deal, and I think this agreement demonstrates that in Dworkin’s criticism of Hart, many underlying answers manage to endure. This doesn’t mean that they won’t be subjected to questioning in the future, but saying this is the sort of platitude that I might say about any piece of knowledge, insofar as they all might be proven wrong.

    Taken all together, if we simply look at the disagreement between these two, it might seem like Philosophy is all about questions. But if we understand that disagreement substantively, and then see that they agree on a great deal, I think we do get a great many answers about what the law is. And, if we understanding this, and realize that the law itself invalidates certain positions by the very nature of the law itself, I’d call that something that comes close to wisdom, no?

    Anyways, just some food for thought. Constitutional Law gets me going, especially as the popular debate about it is so misinformed, and it’s particularly troubling that Philosophers are subject to the same foolishness. But what might be at hand is a simpler problem: how someone who is good at one thing often thinks they must be good at something else. But that’s Rousseau, who was pretty wise when it came to explaining why the ability to make money didn’t make you a good political ruler.

    • Thanks for this comment. Are you a philosopher? Your points are beautifully articulated and I agree with most of them. That is, I agree with your assertion that “a strong philosophical argument in support of constructionism doesn’t really exist.” The problem is that the fact that you and I (and many other rigorous analytical thinkers) agree that there is no strong philosophical argument in support of constructionism doesn’t mean there is NO philosophical argument in favor of constructionism. Goldstein is right that philosophers rarely come to a consensus on anything. The ones I like tend to take this position, but there are others who will defend constructionism. To whom should the nonphilosopher listen? You and I think this issue is fairly straightforward, but nothing is fairly straightforward for “philosophy” understood as a profession.

      I don’t think you have to be a philosopher to understand that constructionism is ultimately indefensible. You just have to be a rigorous analytical thinker. Philosophers can certainly contribute to legal discussions, particularly, though not exclusively, ones concerning the interpretation of the constitution, but philosophy as a whole isn’t going to be much help. And that, as Quine observed, in “Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People?” “is perhaps as it should be” (Theories and Things, p. 192).

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