Monday, August 08, 2011

Stanley Fish in the New York Times: Philosophy Doesn't Matter

... by which he means something like: Philosophical reflection has no bearing on the real, practical decisions of life. See here and here.

My guess: Most philosophers will react negatively to Fish. When faced with an outsider's attack of this sort, our impulse (my impulse too) is to insist that philosophy does matter to the ordinary decisions of life -- or at least to insist that portions of philosophy, perhaps especially ethics and political philosophy, can matter, maybe should matter.

But that brings us straightaway to the ethics professors problem. If philosophy "matters" in Fish's sense, then it seems that people who frequently and skillfully engage in philosophical thinking should, at least on average and to a modest degree, make better decisions on topics that philosophy touches. They should behave a bit more ethically, perhaps, or show a bit more wisdom. And yet it seems as though people with philosophical training (e.g., ethics professors) are not better behaved or wiser than others of similar social background, even in areas on which there is extensive philosophical literature.

My thought here can be formulated as a trilemma on the conditional A -> C where A is that philosophy matters, in Fish's sense, to certain areas of practical life, and C is that philosophical training improves practical wisdom in those areas of life. We can either deny the antecedent and say philosophy is irrelevant to ordinary life, accept the consequent and say that people with philosophical expertise have more practical wisdom in those areas of life as a result of their philosophical training, or somehow reject the major premise connecting the antecedent and the consequent. All three horns of the trilemma are, I think, a bit uncomfortable. At least I find them uncomfortable. Oddly, most philosophers I speak to seem to be eerily comfortable with one horn -- unreflectively, un-self-critically comfortable, I'm tempted to say -- though they don't always choose the same horn.


Unknown said...

Well, most of (or maybe even ALL) REAL problems are of philosophic nature on the most basic level. F. ex. when one asks himself "why I feel myself down all the time?" he actually asks "is the existential reality of suffering (grief) the only available for me?". If philosophy used for solving the REAL problem then it "matters".

And about ethics professors problem. It is the question not about thinking - it is the question about configuring the systems of knowledge, about establishing connection between philosophical concept and the REAL problem. If the ethics professor have a skill (or maybe talent) for establishing such connection then he'll surely "make better decisions on topics that philosophy touches" because his knowledge results not only in "thinking" but also in appearance of an effective tactic that regulate his ethical acts. And if the tactic is really effective (read: realistic) than the problem will be solved "better".

That's my opinion.

Marshall said...

I'm thinking about the recent Supreme Court nominations: theories of interpretation were prominant. A lot of epistemology was spoke, most of it pretty bad, and beyond dispute with practical consequences in the real world. Generalizing, theories of knowledge and so on would seem very valuable to those who are trying to form a society, esp. out of such recalcitrant parts. Important issues there, having to do with the limits of the possible.

If "philosophy" is about evaluating arguments and forming reasonable judgements from such evidence as we can have, then it has a valuable place in the lately-neglected formation of a "liberal education", a valuable thing to have in our popular leaders. If it's just about who can make the better argument as judged by other people arguing, better if it stays in the classroom.

Likewise religion, actually.

Matthew said...

In as much as philosophers tend to work in areas that they find intellectually puzzling or challenging, I wonder if people drawn to ethics aren't more morally challenged than their peers working in other areas. If the ethically challenged tend to work in ethics, then that the are as ethical as their peers shows that philosophy does matter to our decision making/life shaping, etc. Does the "Ethicists Problem" rule out this worry?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Gleb: One would hope. And yet that's not where the simplest reading of the empirical evidence seems to point.

Marshall: I would hope it can be valuable in that way. One historical fact to consider is that Heidegger and other philosophers of his era were even capable of making philosophical reasoning look compatible with Nazism. It would seem that in such cases philosophy serves mainly to dress up one's views post-hoc. One question, then, is whether that exhausts most of the value of philosophy or whether philosophy can serve a more productive role as well. I hope the latter, but again it's an empirical question.

Matthew: That's definitely a viable option. Roughly: Ethicists start out below average morally, as it were (perhaps they have weaker than average moral emotions) and work their way up to average through intellectual means. This view allows intellectual philosophical reflection to have a positive causal role on behavior; of course it's committed to a risky empirical view about the psychology of ethicists.

bad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

"the simplest reading of the empirical evidence" is the division "real/abstract"?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Gleb: The simplest reading of the empirical evidence is that philosophical moral reflection has no impact on behavior in ordinary, daily life (e.g., voting, eating meat, donating to charity).

tikolanesla said...

philosophy called. she said stanley fish doesn't matter.

cl said...

Thanks for the great post. If I could make a pitch (not an unreflective assertion) for one horn, it would be the second: that philosophical training improves practical wisdom--though I'd say that that proposition requires more than a few caveats. Aristotle would, I think, agree to something like this. Practical knowledge of living well requires being able to recognize what sorts of attitudes and activities are most conducive to eudaimonia. Surely, one might argue, while metaethical reflection might *itself* not lead one to eudaimonia, it does promote the sorts of habits by which one is more likely to achieve eudaimonia. It does this by promoting the sorts of cognitive habits needed to recognize the virtuous agent acting virtuously.

Even if ethics professors are no more likely to behave better than others, that itself doesn't show that philosophical reflection can't lead to the eudiamon life. It just means, perhaps, that living a eudaimon life is something very difficult though not unachievable. Philosophical training might make one more practically wise, though it does not guarantee it.

Paul Torek said...

A -> C isn't true, where A is "philosophy matters in Fish's sense". cl gave one way it could fail: if a eudaimon life is something very difficult. More generally, philosophy could matter but philosophical training fail to make us better at it. At least, this might be true in some selected areas of philosophy, such as practical ethics.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, cl and Paul! I agree those are both possibilities. The issue is more complicated -- and I think more interesting -- than it's usually given credit for being.

Richard Marshall said...

Perhaps the issue is to do with the relationship of thinking and knowledge. Nelsen Goodman has an argument that we know less the more we study. So perhaps the ethicists lose their ethical principles the more they study them. Principles once hallowed are placed in parenthesis. So your empirical evidence that shows ethical professors being no better than the rest of us is suprising - they ought to be less ethical.

Anonymous said...

Hi, charles Myro here,

I agree with the opinion that Philosophical issues and questions are discussed by non-philosophers very commonly; Philosophy takes it farther and deeper and more seriously, and consequently its analysis is much more thorough and its treatment more creative.
People use their reasoning and analytical abilities everyday in every sphere of life and do ask broad questions about life and knowing that we mau call Philosophical questions. But very often they also simply seek, as the Sophists taught, to use emotional rhetoric and a kind of shallow reasoning to manipulate the public; and Sophistry is not Philosophy, in my opinion.
Fish says he is the kind of relativist who thinks there are a bunch of "candidates" that could be moral absolutes---but can't get universal assent for any one.
Apparently, he presumes that unless everyone agrees that one candidate is the sole absolute, then there are no absolutes.
But I don't see any necessary connection between a moral absolute and a vote by the public-- and Fish gives no argument for it.
Seems to me that a moral absolute may well exist regardless of how the public votes.
Not sure what you mean by "more productive role" What would that be? You want to have Philosophical consultants in business and government? No. They want Sophists.
And what do you mean the "value" of Philosophy is an "empirical question"? Since when
is a question of "value" an empirical question? Is there some kind of physical circumstance not subject to interpretation as to its value? Sorry, I think your view odd (Or perhaps I misunderstand you).
Finally, how does Fish know that the general public could not be benefitted by the study of Philosophy? The ability to think and reason well is considered a good thing generally by the culture (unless one is a fundamentalist or some such) and I claim that it is Philosophy which is the best teacher of thinking and reasoning generally. To the degree that every profession uses
such skills---and they all do---I think everyone would find useful advantage in specific development of those skills.

cl said...

Eric, I couldn't agree more. (And I hope I didn't come across as suggesting that these matters are simple ones!)

Marshall said...

Maybe you were already planning on commenting on Joel Marx' Stone column in Sunday NYT. Here is an ethics professor who is using his ethics to guide his commitments, in this case against animal abuse in the food industry. For actual morality, that is moral behavior, you need to find commitment. Commitment can be unconscious, probably necessarily begins below consciousness, but as with our physical intuitions, disciplined speculation can make them more efficient and effective. Commitment is the thing. So where can we find moral speculation joined to commitment?

....can we not say the Heidegger did indeed provide a plausible background to Nazism? Possibly as an unintended consequence but there you are, not all that's justified is gold. Evil can be perfectly rational. And so we need something in addition to rationalism to be moral actors.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Marshall! I've been away travelling and wasn't up to date with the NYT. I'll have to check that article out.

I'm not sure you need commitment for reflection to be valuable. Sometimes it seems like mere attention -- attention to what other neglect -- might be enough.