a guest post by Regina Rini
You’re at a cocktail reception and find yourself talking to a stranger. She mentions a story she heard today on NPR, something about whether humans are naturally good or evil. Something like that. So far she’s just described the story; she hasn’t indicated her own view. There are a few ways you might respond. You might say, "Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder why this question is so important to people." Or you might say, "Here’s my view on the topic… What do you think?" Or maybe you could say "Here's the correct view on the topic… Anyone who thinks otherwise is confused."
It’s obvious that the last response is boorish cocktail party behavior. Saying that seems to be aimed at foreclosing any possible conversation. You’re claiming to have the definitive, correct view, and if you’re right then there’s no point in discussing it further. If this is how you act, you shouldn’t be surprised when the stranger appears disconcerted and politely avoids talking to you anymore. So why is it that most philosophy books and papers are written in exactly this way?
If we think about works of philosophy as contributing to a conversation, we can divide them up like this. There are conversation-starters: works that present a newish topic or question, perhaps with a suggestive limning of the possible answers, but without trying to come to a firm conclusion. There are conversation-extenders: works that react to an existing topic by explaining the author’s view, but don’t try to claim that this is the only possibly correct view and clearly invite response from those who disagree. And there are conversation-enders: works that try to resolve or settle an existing debate, by showing that one view is the correct view, or at least that an existing view is definitively wrong and must be abandoned.
Contemporary analytic philosophy seems to think that conversation-enders are the best type of work. Conversation-starters do get some attention, but usually trying to raise a new topic leads to dismissal by editors and referees. "This isn’t sufficiently rigorous", they will say. Or: "What’s the upshot? Which famous –ism does this support or destroy? It isn’t clear what the author is trying to accomplish." Opening a conversation, with no particular declared outcome, is generally regarded as something a dilettante might do, not what a professional philosopher does.
Conversation-extenders also have very little place in contemporary philosophy. If you merely describe your view, but don’t try to show that it is the only correct view, you will be asked "where is your argument?" Editors and referees expect to see muscularity and blood. A good paper is one that has "argumentative force". It shows that other views "fail" - that they are "inadequate", or "implausible", or are "fatally flawed". A good paper, by this standard, is not content to sit companionably alongside opposed views. It must aim to end the conversation: if its aspirations are fully met, there will no need to say anything more about the topic.
You might object here. You might say: the language of philosophy papers is brutal, yes, but this is misleading. Philosophers don’t really try to end conversations. They know their opponents will keep on holding their "untenable" views, that there will soon be a response paper in which the opponent says again the thing that they’ve been just shown they "cannot coherently say". Conversation-enders are really conversation-extenders in grandiose disguise. Boxers aren’t really trying to kill their opponents, and philosophers aren’t really trying to kill conversations.
But I think this objection misses something. It’s not just the surface language of philosophy that suggests a conversation-ending goal. That language is driven by an underlying conception of what philosophy is. Many contemporary analytic philosophers aspire to place philosophy among the ‘normal sciences’. Philosophy, on this view, aims at revealing the Truth – the objective and eternal Truth about Reality, Knowledge, Beauty, and Justice. There can be only one such Truth, so the aim of philosophy really must be to end conversations. If philosophical inquiry ever achieves what it aims at, then there is the Truth, and why bother saying any more?
For my part, I don’t know if there is an objective and eternal Truth about Reality, Knowledge, Beauty, and Justice. But if there is, I doubt we have much chance of finding it. We are locally clever primates, very good at thinking about some things and terrible at thinking about others. The expectation that we might uncover objective Truth strikes me as hubristic. And the ‘normal science’ conception of philosophy leads to written work that is plodding, narrow, and uncompanionably barbed. Because philosophy aims to end conversations, and because that is hard to do, most philosophy papers take on only tiny questions. They spin epicycles in long-established arguments; they smash familiar –isms together in hopes that one will display publishably novel cracks. If philosophy is a normal science, this makes perfect sense: to end the big conversation, many tiny sub-conversations must be ended first.
There is another model for philosophical inquiry, one which accepts the elusiveness of objective Truth. Philosophy might instead aim at interpretation and meaningfulness. We might aspire not to know the Truth with certainty, but instead to know ourselves and others a little bit better. Our views on Reality, Knowledge, Beauty, and Justice are the modes of our own self-understanding, and the means by which we make our selves understood to others. They have a purpose, but it is not to bring conversation to a halt. In fact, on this model, the ideal philosophical form is the conversation-opener: the work that shows the possibility of a new way of thinking, that casts fresh light down unfamiliar corridors. Conversation-openers are most valuable precisely because they don’t assume an end will ever be reached. But conversation-extenders are good too. What do you think?
The spirit of this post owes a lot to Robert Nozick, especially the introduction to his book Philosophical Explanations. Thanks to Eden Lin and Tim Waligore for helping me track down Nozick’s thoughts, and to several facebook philosophers for conversing about these ideas.
image credit: Not getting Involved by Tarik Browne