Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Philosophical Trust

What is the difference between those philosophers who are willing and those who are unwilling to invest the time to master works like Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Kant's first Critique, or Heidegger's Being and Time (assuming those works touch one's areas of interest)? It must have something to do with trust -- trust that these men were geniuses enough to make the effort worthwhile. Perhaps most relevant here is a ratio, the ratio of self-trust (that one can make progress without their help) vs. trust in others. Of course, pleasure along the way is relevant too: how much joy one gets from puzzling out the details, in the early stages of understanding. But it's hard to imagine such pleasure without an undergirding trust.

It seems to me there's a great divide within philosophy between those with high self- to other-trust ratios and those with low ratios. So I wonder: Is there any way to measure this difference, apart from examining a philosopher's willingness to bang her head against Kant's deductions? Does the difference correlate with any other philosophical or non-philosophical traits or behavior?

15 comments:

Nick said...

Interesting point. I suppose the obvious way would be to check which of us studies historical philosophers seriously... to do so is to admit that they have something to say to you, and to admit this before you've even encountered what they have to say.

Another interesting question would be: under what conditions is self-trust warranted, and under what conditions is trust in historical figures warranted?

Justin said...

I'd worry that your framing might make it look like there's more of a phenomenon here than there actually is. It's not only opaque masterworks that demand trust. It might equally demand trust to think that studying formal semantics could shed light on philosophical problems.

Or perhaps a better way to put my point might be that depending on your background, different types of study are going to be evidence of trust. Some paths into philosophy make Kant look like the sort of fellow who obviously has insights to be studied, others make him look incredibly weird.

Amy said...

Couldn't it say something about one's willingness to take risks, rather than about one's ability to trust?

Brandon said...

I'm not sure it's so difficult to imagine pleasure in the puzzling details without trust -- unless you mean that we feel we can trust the philosopher in question to provide the pleasure in question. In many cases I think it's just a sort of fandom -- and to be a fan of something I'm not sure you have to have trust; the aesthetic pleasure alone will do.

Also, while it's possible that I like getting into the minor details of the text of Hume because I somehow trust him to help me make progress toward something (although I'm not sure what that would be), when I use the same tools to get into the details of contemporary philosophers, it is usually because I don't trust them; I think they are going off the rails somewhere and want to pin down where exactly they do. So if trust is an explanation, I rather suspect that it's a very limited one.

Brandon said...

It occurred to me that part of the problem I have with your suggestion could be put another way. I do a lot of work on Nicolas Malebranche -- a lot of work, and on a lot of nit-picky stuff (a thesis, several papers, etc.). A great many people, even professional philosophers, assume that because I do so much Malebranche I must have some sort of special sympathy for his views. It's sort of the ambiguity between being a malebranchiste in the sense of being an expert on Malebranche and being a malebranchiste in the sense of being someone in the Malebranchean school of thought, so to speak. But in making this assumption they are wholly (and sometimes irritatingly wrong). The reason I do so much Malebranche is that it is a simply fact that he was (at the time) a major figure in the period I study -- for instance, Hume occasionally takes over arguments word-for-word (allowing for translation) from Malebranche, despite the fact that they have radically different points of view, Berkeley was heavily influenced by him, Leibniz corresponded with him and developed some of his ideas in response to claims by Malebranche, the most widely known philosophical dispute of the seventeenth century was between Malebranche and Arnauld on the nature of ideas, etc., etc. And so studying him is based not on any trust in Malebranche but on the provable fact that he's important for many different people in a period I find fascinating. That seems a very different thing, and so the issue of trust seems to me to go only so far in clarifying why people invest so much in difficult works (like Malebranche's sprawling Search after Truth).

Mariana Soffer said...

You are not considering the theroy they are working on, its complexity, how different is from the current paradigm, how intelligent they are, how much access they have to other books, how much relation they have with other philosophers or thinkers, what is their personality (are they perfectionist, scatterminded), can they truly belive what they say? How much passion do they have? and so on.
So I guess you have to add lots of variables to the equation.

(Sorry I do math)

Anibal said...

Mariana highlights many of the complexities involve in swimming others´texts.

But i think personal affinities are among the most critical.

I like so much this area of inquiry (e.g. philosophy of psychology) because is able to give us clues about what tendencies are behind the way people philosophize.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks!

Nick: Yes, when is self-trust warranted is a very interesting question. I guess there is a bit of a literature on this in epistemology, but I don't know how much it relates to self-trust in one's philosophical capacities specifically....

Justin: You're surely right that there's a more general phenomenon of putting a lot of work into something in the expectation that down the road it will pay off -- a phenomenon that encompasses both studying Kant and mastering formal semantics. I do think there is something specifically trust-related, though, too, in many people's relationship to Kant that is psychologically different from the relationship to formal semantics.

Amy, Mariana, and Anibal: Yes, there must be such other factors. I don't mean to be completely reductionist here. To say that one factor is playing a big role isn't necessarily to deny that other factors may also be. (And trust is already a sort of risk-taking, yes?)

Brandon: Yes, I see what you mean. I think there's room for purely historical motivation, where you look at a thinker wholly because of his historical importance. That comes apart to some extent (but rarely fully, I suspect) from being interested in a thinker as a source of philosophical insight; and it's only the latter that (for difficult thinkers) requires trust. And of course trusting a thinker to be a source of philosophical insight is quite different from trusting a thinker to be right.

Mariana Soffer said...

It could be really intresting to do a multivariate analysis about the subject. We could define the variables we are going to include in the analysis (for example IQ), we can also include some of the nominal variables by transforming them.

After that we perform a Factor analysis that extracts the percentage of variance each of the phylosopher variable is able to explain from the target variable that measures if "is willing or not to invest the time to master works".


After that we could come to some intresting conclusion, for example it can reinforce your idea that self-trust is a very important factor or maybe not.

Anyway bear in mind that the measures are pretty subjective

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That sounds like a fun project, Mariana!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. For me, my willingness (to study ancient philosophy) is certainly based on trust--though not necessarily in the philosophers themselves, but rather in the philosophical tradition's ability to sort out what is valuable and what is not over long periods of time. It's not only that Aristotle was a genius, but that lots of subsequent geniuses have recognized the fact. In the other direction, I trust that Book Zeta will be an object of philosophical study in 200 years. I am not sure about placing a similiar faith in what I might accomplish on my own.

KenF said...

You don't necessarily have to trust in the individual genius of an author. You just need to trust in the value of the whole enterprise value over time. The enterprise value, in other words, goes beyond the individual value of each of its constituents taken separately. It is the interaction among them that inspires the trust.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks anon & Kenf! Those are good points. In a way, perhaps, one trusts the thinker *because* one trusts the tradition.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy said...

At the distance of 2300 years we know that Aristotle was wrong about a good many things. But without him being "wrong" (without our coming to "trust" ourselves over him) we could never have grown to be "right". We, in our turn, will become "untrustable," "wrong" in due time.

If we trust ourselves over the historically far more recent Kant, the case is not so clear. Many do not "trust" him but fail miserably to forward a more "trustable" argument themselves. Kant is simply a far more powerful reasoner than the vast majority of mankind. If our trust (or lack thereof) does not reflect that, above all other factors, then, our trust (or lack thereof) is properly called "personal opinion". Were this not the case, philosophy would be nothing more than a Monte Python skit.

If one can present a better rational argument than Kant, on some particular, then one is justified to "trust" oneself, in that particular, and only that particular, more than Kant. Or, should the question be "Why not throw off the tradition for direct, pragmatic reasoning?" the only answer can be "Why not jump in the ocean if one wishes to learn to swim?" Sometimes one swims, sometimes one drowns. If this is an acceptable result than "trust" in oneself is thoroughly justified and philosophy is pablum. As for society as a whole, the fact that one's success or failure is highly unlikely to be of consequence is the operative point.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

But how do I know if my arguments work better than Kant's until I understand Kant's? And how do I come to understand Kant's without devoting a lot of time -- time that I could be spending on something else instead (neuroscience, Hume, linguistics)? Isn't that the crux?