Archive: Philosophy of Philosophy

L’Agora et son encyclopédie

The Encylopédie de l’Agora is the website for the journal L’Agora (Quebec). Of most interest philosophically is the section “Grandes Questions”, on religion and philosophy. Sample contents:
  • Michel Despland. “Légitimation et délégitimation de la loi”.
    Réflexions à partir de Platon, Calvin et Hegel.
  • Daniel Cérézuelle. “La technique et la chair”.
    « La raison technique, comme la raison économique et l’institution rationnelle ne peut se déployer qu’en ignorant l’unité charnelle de la vie et l’importance du symbolique. »
  • Erasmus, “Cicéron ou la sainteté d’un savant homme”
    A translation of Erasmus’s introduction to the Tusculan Disputations.
Other documents include articles from Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, and dossiers on individual philosophers, including Leibniz and Descartes.
Subscriptions to the electronic version of Agora are Can$20 for one year, which is about US$16.

LinkMay 20, 2005

Is that all there is?

People of a certain age will recognize in the title of this entry the refrain of a Peggy Lee tune that made the charts in ’69. It’s occasioned by a remark (in Swedish) about an earlier entry here on how philosophy gets done. I described “normal” philosophy as consisting in more-or-less standard Problems, Arguments, Examples, and so forth. My Swedish is shaky (even though my mormor and morfar spoke it). But the gist of the entry from Filosofikarummet is the Peggy Lee question. Is that all there is to philosophy?


LinkApril 2, 2005

How philosophy gets done

Brian Weatherson, responding to a query from Matthew Yglesias (the link to his query no longer works), writes on doing philosophy, and in particular on applying “old ideas to new fields”. Yglesias had written:
One of the things that’s dawned on me as I approach graduation is that for all the hours I’ve put into listening to lectures and participating in seminars on philosophy, I’ve never really had anyone speak to me on the topic of how, in practice, philosophy is done.
I’m generally of the opinion that expecting students to just “pick things up” is a bad idea; it tends to perpetuate the inequalities already existing among them when they enter graduate school. In order to pick something up, you have to know first of all that there is something you ought to pick up, and then figure out, from the data available to you, what that thing is. Some people are very good at picking up, for example, social norms; others are indifferent, by temperament or by class origin, to bourgeois niceties, but will have, if gently advised, no difficulty in becoming observant (in both senses).
The same goes for style in writing: some people are capable of figuring out how to write academic prose just by reading a lot of it; others, equally capable of writing decently, respond readily to advice but are not, at least initially, very good at the induction of norms just by exposure. It just may never have dawned on you, for example, that there is such a thing as a standard bibliographic style, not because you’re too dense to notice or too inept to reproduce it, but because you have never learned that such matters are to be attended to.
So I agree that making explicit our tacit knowledge in such matters is a service to the community. Weatherson shows very nicely how to do the kind of philosophy that consists in Problems, Arguments, and Examples (some of which are Puzzles).
  • A Problem is a standard question for which Arguments supply putative answers. Answers to Problems are called Positions.
  • Arguments are bits of reasoning. Some arguments have had proper names given to them: the Causal Exclusion Argument, the Third Man.
  • Examples are situations which one can describe in a few sentences and offer up to intuition as illustrations of or counterexamples to the Arguments. Puzzles are examples that produce conflicting intuitions among philosophers, thereby creating new Problems and Positions for which new Arguments will be invented.
Doing philosophy, or some part of doing philosophy, consists in having ready to hand a stock of Problems, Positions, Arguments, and Examples, and in developing a knack for
  • (i) varying the Arguments slightly so as to apply them to new cases, and
  • (ii) generating new Examples from everyday experience or (in “philosophies of”) the discourse of some other discipline.
A competent philosopher is one who is well primed to pick out relevant analogies on the basis of which Arguments can be transferred from one domain to another, and to notice Puzzles that hook up with current Problems.
This is, mutatis mutandis, a decent description of “normal science” or its equivalent in any discipline—or, for that matter, almost any productive activity. Weatherson gives some examples.


LinkMarch 2, 2005

Inebriate simian

Wednesday as I’m getting ready to leave I notice that the keys aren’t in the door. I look for them in the usual nearby places. There they aren’t. It occurs to me that I have been known to leave them hanging on the outside of the door. I look: aha keys. But since they’re outside, or so I say to myself, I still must find another key to open the door and retrieve them.
So I start looking again, cursing whoever removed the extras from the vase they’d been sitting in for six months (unless I removed them). Finally it dawns on me that if my keys are outside, and there are no others, then the door is not locked. Sheepishly (if it’s possible to be sheepish when alone) I pull the door open and grab them.
Sometimes I’m inclined to agree with those who call the mind a “drunken monkey”. Of all things we know, or think we ought to know, the mind best of all; and yet much of our mental discourse just happens, as events “outside” the mind just happen—events we neither control nor regard ourselves as being in any special position to know. Importance and availability make for fascination; opacity in the determination of thoughts makes for mystery. A mystery independent of “hard questions” and “explanatory gaps”, though perhaps referable to them. (It’s independent because even a dualist of the Cartesian sort might believe, as Malebranche did, that the nature of the mind is not known to us.)


LinkOctober 24, 2004

The infinite Auntie

Fodor goes after intuitions (London Review of Books 26.20 (21 Oct 2004), via Experimental Philosophy).
I’ve never been good at intuitions. Even when I have them, I don’t place much stock in them. Why should my intuition that Jim or Jane does or doesn’t know the fake barn is a barn deserve respectful consideration, and publication perhaps in a peer-reviewed journal, while my intuition that table sponges are to be strictly segregated from floor sponges probably doesn't deserve to be mentioned even here, let alone used in polite controversy? The first is an intuition, the second is only a belief, a superstition, a residue of my mother’s kitchen-lore. Or so I gather.
Why some dispositions get promoted to the status of providing evidence in philosophical argument, and others do not, is beyond me. This is not for lack of thinking about the matter. But at the moment I can’t do more than express malaise. And commend Fodor.
Addendum: For a defense of the use of intuitions in analytic philosophy, see L. J. COHEN, The dialogue of reason: an analysis of analytical philosophy (Oxford, 1986). Find it at ABEBooks, Powell’s, or Amazon. See also Ernest Sosa, “A defense of intuitions” (an answer to some arguments of Stich against justification by appeal to “reflective equilibrium”).

LinkOctober 23, 2004

Hume is probably dead too. But the more I think about it, the less likely it seems…

The following is from a piece by Rod Liddle via Brian Leiter:
Jacques Derrida, the famous French philosopher, is ‘dead’ (↓1). But as there is no straightforward, one-to-one relationship between the signifier (‘dead’) and the thing signified (the termination or otherwise of the actual person, M. Derrida), we cannot be entirely sure what has happened. We are faced instead with an endless multiplicity of truths, a string of infinite possibilities.
(There’s more, but anyone who has read Derrida on language can write the rest themselves.)
OK. Fair enough. Here are two more:
I don’t know how to tell you this, but Donald Davidson died last year. I don’t know how to tell you because according to Davidson, there’s no such thing as language.
My native informants tell me that a collection of undetached Quine parts passed away today. Or maybe it was a momentary Quine stage. Then again, they might have been saying something about Gödel numbers.
The bêtise here, or should I call it antiphilosophical philistinism, is this. It doesn’t take lengthy reflection or abstruse theory to become convinced that explaining how language hooks up to things is not going to be easy. Indeed it may seem so difficult as to induce doubt that the relation can be explained. Reference is inscrutable, meanings undecidable, language itself a myth. Any philosopher who reaches such conclusions can, of course, be mocked, and sturdy common sense thereby vindicated. —Why hello, Dr. Johnson, how’s your foot?


LinkOctober 16, 2004