Tuesday, June 20, 2006

History of Philosophy as a Source of Data for Psychology

I've recently become intrigued by the idea of the history of philosophy as a source of data for psychology. What variety of opinion, across cultures and centuries! Surely this says something about the human mind.

In Do Things Look Flat? I examined the course of philosophical variation in the opinion that visual appearances show the kind of shape and size distortions one sees in photographs (e.g., obliquely-viewed coins looking elliptical; distant things looking very much smaller than nearby ones). In Why Did We Think We Dreamed in Black and White? I looked (a little bit) at the history of philosophical opinion about the coloration of dreams. In both essays, I suggested that what people found to be "common sense", and what was endorsed by the most reflective philosophers and psychologists (not different people, generally, before the late 19th century), reflected culturally variable metaphors for aspects of the mind -- metaphors for visual experience and dream experience, respectively.

This variability, I think, to some extent undermines the credibility of what ordinary folk and philosophers now say about visual experience and dreams, since it raises the suspicion that this, too, is grounded in culturally contingent metaphors. We should be very wary of testimonial evidence by consciousness researchers or their subjects regarding the nature of their visual experience or dream experience.

Cultural variation in philosophy gives us a window into the variability of "common sense" and rational opinion -- somewhat like the variability cultural anthropology provides, but with a different and more public set of data, focused more deeply and exclusively, and often more carefully and with greater nuance, on ethics, metaphysics, mind, and other topics of philosophical interest. To the extent psychology analyzes the variability and sources of common sense intuitions (as in developmental psychology) or relies upon the intuitive judgments of researchers and subjects (as in consciousness studies), a sense of the relative cultural stability of those intuitions may be illuminating.

It's too easy to suppose that what we find intuitive is universally so -- or, conversely, that intuitive judgments (e.g., about ethics) vary so radically between cultures that we can find nothing in common between them. The history of philosophy provides crucial data for assessing such suppositions.

Of key importance in such an enterprise are philosophical traditions -- Asian traditions especially -- with a robust written philosophical literature and minimal Western influence.


Justin Tiwald said...

I'm always glad to hear yet another justification for the study of Asian philosophy, especially one where China's lack of continuity with Socrates gives us more reason to read about it and not less.

Another thing I like about this is that it justifies a particular kind of history of philosophy that tends to get bad press, which I will call "all explication and no argument." I'm thinking of work aimed at showing that Confucius had a concept or justice or rights, etc. Even if, in the final analysis, Confucius never offered arguments for his concept of justice (and the arguments must therefore be supplied by us) this sort of work should still be taken as informative for non-historians. After all, the fact that Confucius had *some* intuitions about justice, even if they were never explicitly defended, is a telling fact indeed.

I myself am intrigued by the fact that nearly every major Neo-Confucian philosopher from 1017 to 1529 seems to hold a position in metaethics that might be described as expressivist realism--sharing the expressivists' intuition that moral claims express certain motivational stances, but the realists' intuition that moral claims are truth apt. This is an astonishingly wide swath of thinkers who hold a remarkably similar view, but they do not offer much in the way of explicit arguments for it (although one could write volumes explaining why, given their other commitments, they would have seen it as appealing). Since I saw the value of this observation as being primarily historical, I had been somewhat reluctant to work on it. But it is a remarkable pattern that to my knowledge has gone completely unmentioned in the secondary literature, and it might be valuable to non-historians for that reason alone.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the encouraging thoughts, Justin!

I agree that the fact you mention about Neo-Confucian metaethics has more than "merely" historical value. It says something about what people find intuitive, about what they can take for granted, and possibly (conjoined with other evidence) about the cultural conditions influencing our metaethical stances. This isn't a matter merely of antiquarian interest but a potentially valuable piece of a larger picture of the genesis of our ethical and metaethical opinions.

I'd wager, as "empirical philosophy" gains more traction, a very interesting literature will arise that looks very seriously at the empirical bases of our ethical and metaethical opinions.