Monday, January 09, 2012

For All X, There's Philosophy of X...

... one only needs to plunge to the foundation. The issues at the foundation are always the same: What there really is, how we know about it, what separates the good from the bad.

If one delves deeply enough, with sufficient generality and abstraction, the foundational issues about X will reveal their kinship with foundational issues in other areas. Discussion of them can thus be illuminated by knowledge of how similar issues are treated in other areas -- the philosopher's special expertise.

Consider the philosophy of hair, for example. At the foundation: What is a haircut, really? How much does it depend on the intent of the hairdresser? What makes a haircut good or bad? For example, must it please its bearer? Is it relative to fashion, and if so how locally? How, if at all, can we settle disputes about the quality of a haircut? A true philosopher of hair will have informed opinions about such matters. The answers to these questions might differ from the answers to similar questions about, say, painting as an art or about the morality of charitable giving, but a family resemblance should be evident, along with the possibility of cross-fertilization.

Consider also: The philosophy of Coke cans, the philosophy of starlight, the philosophy of football, the philosophy of birds, the philosophy of siblinghood.

To the person with the right turn of mind, perhaps, all thought becomes philosophy.


Felipe De Brigard said...

I think it was Douglas Hofstadter who said that philosophy was "all you can do I can do meta".

Bernard said...

Isn't that Rule 34?

Unknown said...

Y X is the philosophical goal?

Justin (koavf) said...


Isn't this a contradiction of the exchange we had two and a half years ago...?


Carl said...

Which raises the question of whether there's a philosophy of philosophy, and if so, whether there's a philosophy of philosophy of philosophy, etc.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Okay, I had to look up Rule 34. Now I get it.

Thanks for Hofstadter quote, Felipe! Now it's stuck in my head, but with the "Anything You Can Do" melody line (which was the intent?).

Justin: No fair comparing my comments across time! More seriously: I went back and looked at our exchange, and I'm not seeing the inconsistency. I agree there was a difference of *emphasis* in that earlier post -- the emphasis in the old post being on the necessity of breadth and generality, the emphasis in the current post being on the "for all X". But I think if you really do do the philosophy of Coke cans you get into fundamental issues of worldview rather quickly.

Carl: Yes, ad infinitum, but in an asymptotic way.

clasqm said...

@ Justin "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a small mind" - Emerson

@Carl: we may need to invent a notation for this. I suggest:

Philosophy of philosophy
Philosophy of philosophy²
Philosophy of philosophy³

Anonymous said...

All this blog shows is that even philosophers might have a bad hair day.

Anonymous said...

The philosophy of siblinghood would be a nice addition to the already numerous sub-fields within philosophy.

Case in point: Jerry Fodor's 1998 book Concepts (Clarendon Press). In chapter 5, Fodor says, "Imagine a hierarchy of concepts ordered by relations of dominance and sisterhood, where these obey the intuitive axioms (e.g. dominance is antireflexive, transitive, and asymmetric; sisterhood is antireflexive, transitive, and symmetric, etc.)."

Antireflexive, transitive, AND symmetric?!? I don't think so...

Roger Eichorn said...

Love Hofstadter's quip. The next line is obvious, right?

Anything you can do, I can do meta /
I can do meta things better than you

There we have it, folks! The philosopher!

Unknown said...

"Antireflexive, transitive, AND symmetric?!? I don't think so..."

I'm not sure I understand. Are you objecting to symmetry on the idea that if S = "is a sister of", x and y are siblings with x male and y female, then y S x holds but x S y does not? That's fair, but I take the description in the quote to exclude from "sisterhood" the relationship between brother and sister. Thus if x, y, z are all siblings, with x male and y and z female, then y S z and z S y, but not x S y, y S x, x S z, or z S x. (Alternatively, we could just take him as positing the existence of only females in the quote, or as using 'sisterhood' as a synonym for 'siblinghood').

Or are you objecting to something different?

Anonymous said...


9:30 here.

Sisterhood, and siblinghood for that matter, is not a transitive relation.

I have a sister and no other siblings. She is my sibling, I am her sibling, but I am not my own sibling.

If a relation is symmetric and antireflexive, then it cannot be transitive (at least, it can't be if there are things that have that relation to one another).

Anonymous said...

hair today gone tomorrow

which is the faster or slower - the tortoise or the hair

herr hitler caused a lot of people to loose their hair prematurely

Unknown said...


Gah, I should have caught that. Thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

The notion of a philosophy of hair reminds one of this exchange from Plato's Parmenides:

"And would you feel equally undecided, Socrates, about things of which the mention may provoke a smile?-I mean such things as hair, mud, dirt, or anything else which is vile and paltry; would you suppose that each of these has an idea distinct from the actual objects with which we come into contact, or not?

Certainly not, said Socrates; visible things like these are such as they appear to us, and I am afraid that there would be an absurdity in assuming any idea of them, although I sometimes get disturbed, and begin to think that there is nothing without an idea; but then again, when I have taken up this position, I run away, because I am afraid that I may fall into a bottomless pit of nonsense, and perish; and so I return to the ideas of which I was just now speaking, and occupy myself with them."

David Sanson said...

I remember a metaphysics workshop at UCLA in the late nineties, run jointly by Rogers Albritton and Kit Fine. At some point, for some reason, the question was raised as to whether or not one's hair and nails are really parts of one's body. Memorably, Rogers was strongly inclined to the view that they were "mere excrescences", and so, like more familiar excretions, not parts, at least after they had been excreted.

Is that one of the issues discussed by philosophers of hair?

Anonymous said...

"Tomorrow, Phaedo, you will probably cut this beautiful hair."

(Like everything else, contemporary philosophy of hair is just a footnote to Plato!)

Bob Hockett said...

Platonist that I am where mathematical objects and possible worlds are concerned, and realist-cum-cognitivist that I am where morals and aesthetics are concerned, I am nevertheless an expressivist qua philsopher of shag carpeting ('ouch!') and an intutionist qua philosopher of lava lamps (not for all x, truth value x entails x = lovely v. x = unlovely). A splintered mind, mine, if ever such there was. So much for unitary dispositional 'complexes' of the Adornovian 'authoritarian personality' variety. My lot - our lot - is to be irreducibly Whitmanesque 'all the way down.' To contain multitudes. To be dialethian pseudo-universal-classes.

Kenny said...

This sounds like something that should be pursued at the Frege Hair Salon on Westwood Blvd, a few blocks from UCLA, or Ah!-Dorno, the hair salon just a block or two away from UC Berkeley. (If either of them still exists - I can't easily find them on Google Maps at the moment.)

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:46, thanks very much for posting that passage from Parmenides. I haven't read that dialogue, Philistine that I am, but I'm currently (and somewhat drunkenly, to be honest) persuaded that it is exemplary of a profound tension within most of philosophy that I do not choose to attempt to describe at this time.

No flies on that Plato, eh?

Bill W. said...

Are questions about how many hairs someone can have while remaining bald part of the philosophy of hair?

philosopher-animal said...

On the other hand, clasqm, it is possible that Bunge is right when he says that philosophy is idempotent, and so you can algebraically simplify in a straightforward way and avoid using that notation much.

Anonymous said...

I have an algebraic proof that 'philosophy of' is not an idempotent operator on the space of fields of study.

Writing 'P(X)' for 'the philosophy of X', I think it is clear that for any fields X and Y, P(X+Y) = P(X)+P(Y), where 'X+Y' is the sum total of everything falling under X and everything falling under Y.

It is also apparent that, if P is idempotent, then there are finitely many fields X1, ..., Xn (say, biology, language, religion, ...) such that Philosophy = P(X1)+...+P(Xn). You might say 'Really? Finitely many?' (and the finiteness is important, because P might not distribute over infinite sums), but I bet you can't think of more than about 50 non-overlapping ones.

But then we have that P(Philosophy) = P(P(X1)+...+P(Xn)) = PP(X1)+...+PP(Xn) = P(X1)+...+P(Xn) = Philosophy, which is clearly absurd, as some philosophy is not philosophy of philosophy.

Er, QED.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Neat little proof. I'm not sure I'd accept that P(X+Y) = P(X) + P(Y), since (arguably) there might be relations between X and Y that would be part of P(X+Y) but not part of P(X) or P(Y). And clearly I'm not going to accept that the function has a finite domain given my own views. But perhaps that latter point doesn't matter; I'm not sure why you're worried about finiteness as a condition for distribution in this case.

Unknown said...

I don't buy linearity with respect to "addition". Surely P(X+Y) contains some inquiry into the relationship between X and Y that does not belong to either P(X) or P(Y).

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking that any investigation into the relations between X and Y is in both P(X) and P(Y) (and, of course, also in P(X+Y)).

On the finiteness condition - I just don't really have a good grasp of what an infinite sum of fields would be like, so in particular it's safer not to have to argue that P will distribute over them.

Unknown said...

But if that's how you're understanding the "philosophy of" modifier, I don't see how it's obviously absurd to conclude that all philosophy is the philosophy of philosophy. If the philosophy of X includes everything relevant to the study of X in any which way, then it seems clear that the philosophy of philosophy would likewise include everything relevant to the study of philosophy - i.e. all of philosophy. And the philosophy of philosophy is obviously a subset of philosophy. So, under your understanding of "philosophy of", what's the problem?

Anonymous said...

I don't think that holding that investigation into the relations between different fields is part of the philosophy of both fields amounts to holding that the philosophy of a field includes the study of absolutely everything of relevance to the field.

How about an example? Applying a new statistical method in biology falls under all of the fields Statistics, Biology, Statistics+Biology, but none of the fields P(Statistics), P(Biology), P(Statistics+Biology). However, studying how and why statistical methods are useful in biology falls under all of P(Statistics), P(Biology) and P(Statistics+Biology).

Further, studying how and why statistical methods are useful in biology is something that I take to fall under Philosophy but not P(Philosophy).

(Maybe I'm missing the point, but I'd need a more concrete example to see how. It's not like I have a well worked out ontology of fields of study behind this; I was just tickled by the idea of an algebra of sub-disciplines.)

Unknown said...

Sorry I didn't respond to this sooner. It's not quite as fresh in my brain, but I think you're basically right, at least under one reasonable definition of the fields. (I'd understand 'philosophy' broader than you have, but that might well be broad enough to make this trivial.)

Anyways, just wanted to drop a note and say you had me convinced. :)

Nichi Yes said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the idea. It is because of philosophy I'm able to make myself of use to people in nearly any field. It also makes it a fantastic sort of "hub discipline" for polymaths. This and that all things are related to other things are the two things I've found that are truly universal.

Formally, though, I think this falls to Russell's paradox. Consider the philosophy of all philosophies. If it is of itself, then it ceases to be distinct from itself. But if it's not distinct from itself, ...actually I'm not so sure it falls. When you try to do the philosophy of philosophy of ... cascade, it just approaches a limit point of absolute reflexivity. I.e. the philosophy of itself. Like two mirrors that you fold together, and they approach perfectly reflecting each other.

The talk of meta-meta-meta-meta-aaaaa reminds me of this video . Or repeated JPEG compression. Philosophy abstracts, and the further you abstract, the less there's left to distinguish anything from anything else. If you're close to a tree, you can step back to get a fuller view. But if walk too far back then you won't see it hardly at all.