Friday, May 04, 2007

Philosophical sloppiness

Almost all the philosophical blogs—theist and atheist, smart and dumb—I read with any regularity have a tendency to philosophical and intellectual sloppiness, and this tendency drives me up the wall.

I'm not talking about trivial mistakes of spelling, grammar or punctuation. I'm talking about the tendency to assume the truth of one's basic premises without argument or substantiation, to make broad, unsubstantiated generalizations about intellectual topics, and glossing over controversial enthymemes.

Scientists can get away with this kind of sloppiness, because there's an enormous canon of uncontroversial and widely-accepted work. Scientists don't have to re-argue or even mention first principles for every argument or discussion because their first principles are well-defined and univocal.

Philosophers lack this sort of canonical basis. Absolutely nothing is uncontroversially accepted as a first principle. Indeed, philosophy is in no small part devoted to the study of first principles. Even when not devoted to first principles, whatever basis is being assumed needs always to explicitly mentioned. If you're evaluating some ethical question on a Kantian basis, then you need to say that you're referencing Kant.

I have worked most of my life as a profession engineer. Precision, clarity, and an explicit recognition of underlying assumptions is a professional requirement. Computers simply do not recognize even the tiniest bit of imprecision or ambiguity. Maybe it's just me, but I find vagueness, imprecision, ambiguity and hidden assumptions in philosophy just as outrageous as I do in engineering or science.

To a certain extent, professional academic philosophy is devoted to topics that I really don't care about, among them argument for argument's sake and a detailed examination of various works that form the academic philosophical canon. Because I'm not interested in these topics as topics, I just don't comment on them. Say what you will about Kant; I've not made a sufficiently detailed study of his work to make any sort of meaningful comment about what he really says or means. I have my opinions about these writers (chiefly that they—unlike scientists writing about quantum mechanics—are not sufficiently clear to take at face value) but I freely admit my opinions are relatively uninformed. So be it. But I do know that the philosophical canon is a multi-voiced literary canon, not a univocal scientific canon.

Just because you know a lot about Kant or Hume or Aquinas doesn't necessarily mean that you know anything at all about philosophy. Most do, but many do not. And even a PhD in philosophy and a tenured professorship does not exempt you from showing your philosophical argument all the way down to the "bare metal"; as opposed to way that a scientific PhD does provide such an exemption by virtue of a univocal canon.

I've seen this tendency all too many times. A professor will make some dodgy philosophical argument, I'll criticize it, and I'll be slapped down for lack of credentials. It's infuriating. I'll take it from a scientist (or a philosophy professor talking about the canon), because I know they know quite a lot that I know I don't know. But I won't take it from a philosopher talking about philosophy. I'm not impressed by philosophical credentials: It's just not that hard to think logically and sensibly; one does not need the better part of a decade's worth of academic study to understand a syllogism.

Not every PhD and philosophy professor does this, and I'm not drawing any broad conclusions. I'm just discussing something that some people do that pisses me off.


  1. I stopped having respect for graduate work in philosophy once I saw my cousin's curriculum in her PhD program at The New School. Anyone with a brain can read philosophical treatises and great literature and draw lessons from them.

    I learned pretty early on, during my first tentative steps into philosophy by auditing one of my friend's classes, that philosophers don't really think the same way other disciplines do. I trained as a political economist and social scientist (dual studies in international relations and psychology; my graduate work combined both political economy and social science), and I noticed that, in a class about Philosophy of Law, my answers and interpretations to questions would be very different from the philosophy majors' answers.

    My principle frustrations with most philosophy have been twofold: 1) As you stated, many, many, many philosophers take certain base assumptions as givens when they shouldn't, and 2) Philosophers suffer from diarrhea of the pen, which is why I often prefer those with an aphoristic style, like Hoffer and Wittgenstein (not that either couldn't be positively lyrical when they wanted). It's the rare philosopher, like Nietzche, who can be both eloquent and comprehensible.

  2. I agree with this to some extent, and there are some rather important and even Jeffersonian implications which follow from your thesis. Though many PhDs in Philosophy would presumably understand that an argument from authority carries no real weight, they do tend to "pull rank." People in other disciplines do this as well: some English lit. specialist with her PhD in Shakespeare thinks she can sort of ignore any sorts of tangible arguments or evidence and more or less be correct merely because she has wields nice rhetoric and can conjugate french verbs; and even hard-nosed scientists will often sort of dismiss any arguments which do not appear to be in line with their scientific materialist assumptions (as say, an argument in favor of objective ethics). Yet I think the Left has contributed to this bizarre sort of scholasticism: many academic hacks seem to believe that it doesn't matter what you say as long as you have the right credential or stamp of approval. That's sort of the European tradition, going back to catholics, Aristotle, mastery of Latin etc. In fact TH Huxley often addressed this issue, as did CP Snow--as did Bertrand Russell to an extent.

    I think the only way around the "the argument from authority" BS common to many philosophy people and other bureaucrats in the academy would be a radical retrofitting of colleges and schools, based only on quantifiable measurements of intellectual skills. And of course logic as well as mathematics and scientific/technological knowledge would be ranked as important as mere rhetorical ability. There are all these sorts of professional hacks in academy--from the local high school to Berkeley or Steinford---who are there sort of via "grand-father rights" but who might not know standard deviation much less a valid and sound syllogism from their state stipend. I used to be a bit more contra-quantification, but as I age, I tend to think that the behaviorist impulse was on the whole correct, and that postmodernists and other freaks (including religious ones) have sort of brought this strange "aestheticism" back into the academy.

  3. "And even a PhD in philosophy and a tenured professorship does not exempt you from showing your philosophical argument all the way down to the "bare metal"; as opposed to way that a scientific PhD does provide such an exemption by virtue of a univocal canon."

    Certainly, any given blogger arguing their position may have a tendency to, at least occasionally, put rhetoric above philosophical tidiness. However, I wonder if part of the problem lies in the medium itself. If a blogging philosopher takes the time to preface every entry with paragraphs of "bare metal", I think he's going to lose readership. A complete foundation for the proceeding arguments are necessary if one is writing a book, but who wants to slog through the basics (poster or reader) before getting to the interesting part in every new post? It seems to me that clarifications can be handled in the comments section.

    Also, it's not just that laying down the basics every time can bore impatient readers who live in a sound bite culture. It's the fact that there's so much out there to choose from. There are only so many hours in a day for even the most conscientiously patient readers to absorb.

  4. Yet I think the Left has contributed to this bizarre sort of scholasticism: many academic hacks seem to believe that it doesn't matter what you say as long as you have the right credential or stamp of approval.

    Really? This seems rather at odds with your critiques of post-modernism (many of which I share) and deconstructionism (I should note here that I'm making a leap of logic; you have yet to actually discuss deconstruction), which are most usually conflated with the academic Left. But, gasp and alack, I agree with much of your comment.

    Steelman, I think your point is valid, and can be addressed through using tags and category links in sidebars.

  5. Well postmodernism is a vast, bizarre subject and I have not mastered all of it, nor do I care too. However the political aspects--even the watered-down marxism--are not prima facie mistaken (but I think Foucault, sort of the Uncle Fester of postmod, should be denounced, in regards to his writing and his character). It is the strange Derridean anti-semantics---the idea that language cannot refer, or that truth does not exist, that communication is or is nearly impossible, etc.--that I object to. Some academics claim Quine was a type of postmodernist, and while I don't agree with that, I sort of understand it. What they are really saying, I believe, is that Quine's view of "truth" as all synthetic a posteriori seems anti-platonic, which it is. Quine was, I assert, consistently "nominalist", though he didn't like to say it because that offends all sorts of people , whether in philosophy, mathematics, theology or belle-lettres, etc., and they start barking reductionist, etc. (or wondering if they will have contracts for the next semester). Nominalism is the real core of shall we say rational or at least reasoned skepticism. Even Hobbes realized that.

  6. I have much longer reflection to write on this post, but that will have to wait until later, I'm just stealing a moment for a quick post...

    James F. Elliott wrote:

    "I stopped having respect for graduate work in philosophy once I saw my cousin's curriculum in her PhD program at The New School. Anyone with a brain can read philosophical treatises and great literature and draw lessons from them."

    This is from a grad student's perspective...

    One thing to remember is that curriculum is only one portion of the graduate school experience! It fails to capture three critical things. First, the sheer amount of time one has to do philosophy (or any field) in grad school. Spending every day doing philosophy is bound to make you a better philosopher, and it is an advantage of grad school that you get such time! Second is having colleagues with whom one is constantly debating and testing ideas - my fellow graduate students have made me a better philosopher. Third, one has distinguished and deep thinkers available to read and comment on your work, but also to discuss live problems that they are working on.

    I speak to defend graduate studies, because I know I've grown leaps and bounds as a philosopher in my couple of years in graduate school (and I still have lots of growing to do!). There is a lot more to the experience than merely reading the classics.

  7. I see your point, Jeff. But I don't necessarily feel that this per se allows someone to pull rank. After all, many wonderful thinkers -- including "fathers" of philosophy -- had little to no formal education.

  8. Steelman:

    However, I wonder if part of the problem lies in the medium itself. If a blogging philosopher takes the time to preface every entry with paragraphs of "bare metal", I think he's going to lose readership.

    But I think philosophy is, with the possible exception of canonical logic and little bit of jargon, all about the bare metal.

    Writing philosophy is an art—an art I don't claim to have mastered. Too much background and you bore your readers; too little and you're theorizing on gossamer and bullshit.

    In the sciences, there's an enormous canon of completely uncontroversial material. A scientist goes to school for a decade just to get that uncontroversial background in one specific field. Differential equations. Cells. F=mA, etc. Since it's all uncontroversial, you can simply take a scientist's word for it about the background and focus on what's new.

    But philosophy isn't like that, or certainly doesn't seem to be that way. The "canon" in philosophy is a literary canon, broad rather than deep. It's all chosen because it's all especially well-written (according to philosophical literary standards), not because it's all part of a coherent whole.

    Quite a lot of philosophy seems like an exploration of that canon, and in that sense, a large degree of background can be assumed. If some philosopher is writing something sophisticated about Kant, he should be able to assume uncontroversial scholarship and criticism, and we can take his word for it.

    The problem arises, I think, when philosophers assume that because Kant is in the philosophical canon, the truth of his philosophy should be taken for granted, and that's where I start to object. It doesn't take a PhD to realize that the truth of Kant is controversial even within the canon as well as in the real world.

  9. Jeff:

    Spending every day doing philosophy is bound to make you a better philosopher.

    I think Nigel Warburton might call this the Protestant Work Ethic Fallacy. '-)

    It's certainly not true in computer programming, my own profession. There's actually very little correlation between the amount of time spent programming—once the basics have been mastered—and one's actual competence, at least until you get into the 20-30 year range.

    If graduate school is valuable to you, it's valuable. But I still agree with James and stand by my assertion that, unlike the sciences (and perhaps criticism of the philosophical canon), no amount of education allows one to pull rank with regard to philosophy itself.

  10. Note that I didn't say anything about pulling rank. My point was merely to dispute James' reason for ceasing his "respect for graduate work in philosophy." There is a difference between defending the value grad school has in making people better philosophers and using that status to defend arguments. I was commenting on the former.

    Anyway, longer reply is still forthcoming.

  11. Note that I didn't say anything about pulling rank.

    I understand. I was just agreeing with James, whom I assumed was referring to my original post.

  12. It is important to remember that philosophy is not done in blogs. What I mean by that remark is that for professional philosophers, the blogosphere is not where their professional work is presented. I have never read a blog that dealt with philosophical topics in which the thoughts presented were worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal. So in one sense, it's all sloppy.

    But that's precisely the point! The philosophers whom I know that have blogs treat them as avenues to informally discuss relevant and timely issues. They treat them as opportunities to air out some ideas that occupy their mind. They treat them as places to ruminate and speculate, to ponder and wonder. The arguments given are not designed to be of the same sort you'd find in a peer-reviewed journal, they are designed to be thought-provoking and interesting.

    Sloppiness is part of what it means to blog – and I have never seen a blog that had standards necessary to consider its work rigorous. Surely we all wish to treat issues with sharpness and clarity, but to demand theoretical rigor is an unfair request. Not only do blogs offer opportunities to engage and discuss arguments one finds unsatisfying, they encourage it. Which is all to say – if one sees sloppiness that is dangerous to the argument presented, then by all means it should be discussed! I do not, however, think that it is a problem or a good source for ire. The lack of rigor is part of what opens the doors for general discussion. Rather than slopiness, I see a prompt.

    I'm not quite sure that I understand your remarks on the work that professional philosophers do in journals, etc. Surely there is a good deal of exegetical and interpretive work that gets done on the great figures, and there is a membership fee there – you have to really know the figure in question to be competent in the debate. That, however, is only one corner of the vast number of topics philosophers consider, many very relevant to the work you do.

    The central philosophical commitment that seems to underly your thoughts is naturalism. Well, one of the biggest bones of contention amongst philosophers is what that term even means! It is a difficult issue, and one that philosophers have and continue to struggle with. Another thesis you defend is meta-ethical relativism, well there is another issue with a vast presence in the literature! Just this past term I spent a good deal of time working through Jesse Prinz's sentimentalist theory, which claims meta-ethical relativism as a consequence (from his forthcoming The Emotional Construction of Morals, it seems like a book you might enjoy). It also has a number of serious grounds for contention amongst philosophers all across the spectrum.

    This is all to make my final point – professional philosophy is interested in these issues. Philosophers do give them intense and rigorous consideration. It just doesn't happen in blogs. It takes a tremendous amount of time to give difficult philosophical issues due consideration. Blogs are off the cuff reflections. Different standards and objectives for different mediums.

    Now, again, I'm still not trying to defend pulling rank. It's typically ad hominem to do so. Rather, the point of my post is simply to change how we look at philosophy blog posts - from rigorous philosophy to discussion prompts. As such, issues that fall under the label "sloppy" are certainly open and ready for criticism and discussion, but that this is the nature of the blog.

  13. I think Jeff's offered some rather impeccable reasoning. I was rather too flippant, I think, in my first comment.

  14. Jeff:

    If philosophy were a progressive discipline, and a fundamental discipline, I might agree.

    But philosophy seems very much more broad rather than progressive. Philosophers don't seem to build on each others' work so much as seek out new areas of study. Secondly, philosophy seems more descriptive and post hoc, rather than, for instance, the sciences, which are fundamental to engineering and technology.

    The output, in a societal sense, of philosophers works is popular books (Consciousness Explained for example) magazine articles and, lately, blogs. Other than that, philosophy seems like Vegas: What happens in the philosophy department stays in the philosophy department.

    This is, of course, a broad generalization, and not the case in every particular, but I think its apt. Even Dennett wars about Higher Order Truths about Chmess; this warning would seem out of place in the science department (unless perhaps as a criticism of string theory).

    I don't object to philosophers doing whatever it is they do that stays entirely within their academic milieu. But until philosophy gets out of the philosophy department, it doesn't have much use to me.

    I don't think it's a bad thing that philosophy is broad. Why shouldn't we have a broad discipline that studies the fundamentals of things? But a discipline devoted to fundamentals cannot, obviously, ever take those fundamentals for granted.

    There is, of course, a difference between apparent sloppiness and real sloppiness. Those popularizing science engage in apparent sloppiness: The don't explain the fundamentals of what they're popularizing. But the fundamentals are there, they're agreed upon, and they're managed by the scientific community. Biologists don't have to recapitulate cell theory, because it's well-defined, settled, and agreed upon.

    I honestly don't think this is the case in philosophy. When a philosopher fails to recapitulate the fundamentals, it really seems as if she is ignoring a real controversy—because philosophers don't seem to agree on any fundamentals. The apparent sloppiness looks to me like real sloppiness.

  15. Also, in Jeff's defense, I think Sturgeon's law explains a lot of James' negative experiences in grad school. 90% of everything is crap, and unless you have the sort of personal dedication and commitment that people normally show only to their primary discipline, it's hard to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the unavoidable preponderance of crap.

  16. Ah it's ye olde "academic philosophy doesn't work like engineering works" positivist line, courtesy of BB. If only those muddle-headed philosophers were more functional, practical, efficient! Philosophy is not practical: that's the whole point.

    While I respect the analytical school, I don't think we should automatically accept positivism and "functionalism" as the only real philosophy. Formal logic is here to stay, but it is rather limited in terms of application, and language generally does not function in the tidy manner of truth tables or reductio ad absurdum proofs. Probability, contingency, modality are generally issues with nearly any sort of specific assertion about politics, economics, psychology.

    Yet philosophy is hardly a unified whole: what a Rawls or a Gewirth produced (one could say the "Hobbesian tradition" of political philosophy and ethics) seems quite close to social science. The pragmatist school was also in that vein. And really that Hobbesian impulse, however tres sauvvage to some, also relates to some modern sorts of concerns, the prisoner's dilemma, socio-biology, consensus, moral realism vs. skepticism, etc.

    It's rare to find someone who has made a close study of empiricist classics, say Hobbes' Leviathan however quaint, or Locke's ECHU, the more philosophical Marx (who really follows Hobbes in terms of ontology), or a later day logico-empiricist such as Carnap (tho' his positivism in regards to all matters of values should be questioned). Hobbes' account of perception was quite sophisticated for the time---at least he was aware of vision and sensation in a way many metaphysicians were not.

    Ethicists have routinely challenged scientists and other scholars to produce some coherent account of human values (and the Barefoot Bum's own moral skepticism and "MESR" is a fairly typical scientific-positivist response). Generally they avoid the issue.

    Having completed a few graduate courses successfully, I would agree that academic philosophy requires a more rigorous type of thought than the "does the light go out in the fridge" type of bull session common to blogs or bars. There are few Bertrand Russells around, but again it's mistake to identify philosophy solely as great logic chopping. There's a certain conceptual skill involved, as there is with literature: perhaps not always quantitative (though there is sometimes too much conceptualism , as with postmodernists or a Rorty, etc.).

  17. Or, shall we say, if philosophy is identified solely as logic chopping, the one still has decide on premises, on what arguments and the key issues are to be decided---logic is inductive as well as deductive; and certainly politics, economics, and ethics seem as relevant as the endless semantics or metaphysics discussions. That is why something like Rawls' Theory of Justice (and the Hobbesian tradition) seems a bit more weighty than the endless semantics or postmod game or Kripkean oddities.

    Perhaps philosophy will come to an end in the next few decades when some efficiency minded technicians and bureaucrats come into power, along with other rhetoric-based subjects, but political-economic foundations (and in a sense, political--teleology) will continue to be discussed, that is, unless the communists succeed, or theocrats of one sort or another.

  18. No question that I am with you on the need for philosophy (and academia in general) to make a better effort to get their work out into the public sphere.

    I think I agree with you in how you characterized the field of philosophy. I do think there is progress, and it is non-linear. I think hoping for massive agreement on the foundational issues is not going to happen. Philosophy, even if contiguous with the sciences, does not operate like them. This is precisely because philosophy is aimed at foundational issues that other fields take for granted in order to get started.

    The research programmes that philosophers are engaged in will always be open to dispute, because of philosophy's interest in foundational issues. Progress does, however, happen within these research programmes. Engaging in these programmes is just like engaging in science - one has to take certain assumptions on board to make the enquiry possible. Philosophy is a communal field - sometimes helping to see how a research programme looks when carried out (for both success and failure) casts light for other thinkers on the foundational issues.

    I think your own work is a fine example of this. You are, generally speaking, a naturalist. Your ethical views centrally rely on the fact that you think it is a consequence of the lack of any metaphysical properties of rightness and wrongness. In order to pursue this project, you have to take the naturalism on board. But of course, even identifying this assumption is "sloppy" in the way philosophy is sloppy. What naturalism really means, and how it is best cashed out is a real and vibrant issue! A lot of ink has been spilled by people trying to figure that out. I don't think this is a mark against you - thinking about ethical questions surely has value even if we cannot secure the foundations!

    So perhaps it is a disagreement of emphasis. I do not think this is a problem, and I do not think most philosophers are engaged in bad argumentative practice (not to say I think they are right). It's an inescapable trait of philosophical investigation, and something that ought to shape how we look at inquiry. It's a field that at once pursues research programmes and asks which research programmes are worth pursuing.

  19. Foundations you say? Another reason to read Leviathan. Hobbes, unlike countless clerics and metaphysicians, realized that humans require things: food, work, clothing, shelter, etc. Bada bing: foundation. Now how to arrange a political and ethical structure which will facilitate that, without lapsing into anarchy or totalitarianism. It is the metaphysicians who continually overlook that economic foundation (as Hobbes hisself realized when debating with Marquis DesCartes)


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