Does philosophy have a future?

philosophy_dictionaryby Mark English

Anyone who claims that the writings of philosophers are pointless or unnecessary is immediately accused of philosophical naïveté. And so in order to avoid or counter the charge one has to do a bit of philosophy. Likewise, it’s difficult to articulate an anti-metaphysical stance without getting bogged down in something that looks a lot like metaphysics. In a sense, you’ve lost the battle before you’ve even begun.

However, what I wish to do here is not to prove or demonstrate anything but merely to articulate — tentatively and reflectively — some doubts and reservations I have about the nature and role of academic philosophy today.

Just to be clear: I accept that some of the questions which are seen as basic to philosophy and metaphysics are real and possibly important questions which can and should be thought about in serious ways. But I don’t know that this conviction necessarily entails a commitment to the institutional philosophical status quo.

There are, of course, different views regarding the scope and nature of philosophy and metaphysics and the relationship between the two. (The closeness of the relationship between metaphysics and physics is also a subject of dispute.) But traditionally metaphysics was seen, and is still seen by some, as a — or even the — core philosophical sub-discipline. I used to see it like this, in fact, but these remarks are not predicated on that assumption.

One of problems with philosophy is that — unlike in science — virtually nothing within the discipline is ever definitively resolved. Old approaches are routinely exposed as logically flawed or inadequate. But the usual pattern is that someone then comes along and finds that the original view can be salvaged with some small modifications and/or that the critique is also flawed.

Even something approaching Cartesian dualism has been resurrected from time to time. Karl Popper endorsed such a view, and he was not the last. As David Berlinski (whose PhD was in philosophy) put it in a discussion of consciousness: “Philosophers are confounded — by their irrelevance if nothing else. A few have been seen administering a number of discreet kicks to what appears to be the corpse of dualism: Get up, you fat fool, I need you.” [1]

The general belief within philosophy is that the process of collegial debate, discussion and review leads to a refinement or clarification of views and so to a progress of sorts. Refinement, yes. Clarification, I’m not so sure.

Often this process can all too plausibly be interpreted in one of two ways (or both — the ideas are not mutually exclusive): it can be seen as a cover for what is essentially an ideological battle; or merely as a competitive game, self-perpetuating and futile.

With respect to the former point, it is at one level extremely difficult to demonstrate that a particular philosopher’s arguments are influenced by his or her ideological or religious convictions; but on another level it is blindingly obvious that, say, Christians or hardline physicalists are motivated to find and defend arguments which accord with their beliefs. Likewise with social and political beliefs. But playing the philosophical game involves ignoring these issues (and so potential sources of bias) and any mention of them is considered irrelevant — just not philosophy. Such an approach reflects, I think, an outdated view of cognition and one that puts far too much faith in discursive reason.

The view that much philosophy is self-perpetuating and futile, a game of sorts which ends not when some kind of “truth” or resolution is finally arrived at but when people just get tired of that particular game and move on to another, has often been more or less acknowledged by philosophers.

Here is A.C. Grayling introducing a book comprised of some of his old papers on metaphysical themes. He writes:

“All the papers are of their time. Looking back at some of the earlier of them I am struck by how far the literature on each topic has accumulated, in some cases leaving the issues quite behind though they are by no means satisfactorily resolved. There are fashions and trends in philosophical interest, changes in which are frequently induced not by solutions and resolutions to problem areas, but by exhaustion of the resources and language for dealing with them.” [2]

Somewhat amusingly, he admits that his work on the realism-anti-realism question “will seem at first to strike this note” but that, as he didn’t agree with “the terms of the debate as it was then and still is commonly discussed” his contributions, at least, remain “direct and fresh.” (The thought occurs to me that his erstwhile antagonists may well see their own contributions in similar terms.)

More radical critiques of philosophical practice have, of course, been made. By Nietzsche, for example. Or Wittgenstein. Or Heidegger. Or Richard Rorty.

Rorty, for example, agreed with Pascal Engel’s characterization of the history of 20th-century analytic philosophy as “a sort of battlefield opposing various ‘realist’ and ‘anti-realist’ conceptions of truth,” but clearly tended to the view that “the battlefield has been trampled to a quagmire.” [3]

Another major 20th-century thinker who began his career in the analytic tradition and moved on into other areas was Isaiah Berlin. Others gave up philosophy for science.

In the end, I think a suitably perspectival view is called for: individuals decide for themselves which intellectual activities (if any) they wish to pursue and which they deem — from their own point of view at least — to be futile.

This kind of relativism — as distinct from the sort of relativism which puts mythical thinking on the same level as scientific and logical thinking, for example — is benign. It harms no one and also tends to discourage proselytizing.

My general position is that I look to the sciences for knowledge of how the world works and don’t really feel that professional philosophers can tell me anything I want to know. I know a bit of philosophy myself, and it’s possible I’m taking this knowledge for granted and undervaluing it. But I just don’t have the sense that it amounts to a coherent discipline.

Philosophy I have doubts about, but not (certain forms of) philosophizing. Philosophizing I see simply as a form of meta-thinking. Meta-thinking about mathematics and the scientific disciplines (and other disciplines, such as history) is done as a matter of course by practitioners of those disciplines when they reflect, for example, on their particular discipline’s scope and nature, or the meaning of its key concepts, or its relationship to cognate areas. And the value of this kind of thinking is self-evident.

But areas like metaphysics (when detached from the study of physics) or epistemology (when detached from relevant sciences) are in my view more problematic.

It’s clear also that areas relating to human values such as ethics pose problems. And though I see value in applying reason to ethical questions and dilemmas and even in seeing them within the context of various theoretical ethical frameworks, I resist the idea that normative ethics can operate as a rigorous intellectual discipline, if only because questions about the rightness or wrongness of certain actions or the relative importance of particular virtues or character traits are not purely intellectual questions.

Though there is educational value in the sorts of courses traditionally taught under the banner of philosophy, other subjects — like mathematics and the sciences and mastering one’s native language — are clearly (in my opinion) more important. Which leaves philosophy to compete with the likes of literature, foreign languages, music and history.

Part of the problem is that philosophy today lacks, as I suggested previously, coherence as a discipline. Arguably it had more coherence when it was perceived — as it was until the fall of German idealism about a century ago — to have a metaphysical core. Metaphysics thus conceived was important not only in itself but also as a source of and justification for ethical and political and aesthetic doctrines. And the metaphysics, as Whitehead famously asserted, often harked back to Plato.

I realize that this is just one strand (albeit a major one) of the Western philosophical tradition. But it was perhaps the only major strand that was never going to morph into a science or (like logic) a formal or technical discipline.

For so much of what was considered philosophy in past eras has become science, leaving the old discipline looking to many eyes rather sad and depleted. Psychology and related disciplines were seen as philosophical as recently as the early 20th century but of course no longer are. Even logic is claimed by mathematics. And argument and reasoning and debate — which are often put forward as essentially philosophical — have been taught at high school level for centuries as a component of the English (or other primary language) curriculum.

One other area of concern relates to the complex relationship which continues to exist between religion and philosophy.

Many of philosophy’s iconic figures were religious. Plato was heavily influenced by the Pythagoreans; Plato’s Socrates, still a model for many philosophers, not only believed that concepts have some kind of essential meaning, but also clearly had supernatural beliefs. (He was guided by his daimon, for example.) Even Aristotle’s thought is strongly influenced by what are generally (and I think rightly) seen as completely discredited teleological and other metaphysical notions. Descartes was a believing Catholic. Spinoza was a mystical thinker. Leibniz was religious. Kant’s writings are deeply marked by his Pietism. Hegel was a Christian. Wittgenstein was a Christian and a supernaturalist in the manner of Pascal or Dostoevsky.

The philosophical canon includes of course many skeptical as well as religious or Platonistic thinkers. But often they were only writing to counter essentially religious doctrines.

And even the very notion of a canon is suspect, suggesting a religion-substitute (like the progressive 19th-century idea promoted by Matthew Arnold of replacing the Christian scriptures with secular literary works).

Canons are also necessarily contingent and arbitrary. What do all these people we happen to call philosophers have in common that will allow us to meaningfully distinguish them from scientists or other kinds of intellectual?

Philosophy can be seen not only to have arisen from religion in a historical sense but also to be — as a modern, independent discipline — still strangely dependent on it. There are funding issues involved here and little doubt that academic philosophy is cleverly exploited by churches (and other ideological groupings for that matter) [4], but perhaps even more important than this is the extent to which the agenda of philosophy has been determined, directly or indirectly, by religious ideas.

Sure, sections of the philosophical community seek to undermine religious belief, but often the topics discussed (in popular forums and undergraduate contexts especially) relate in some way to religious ideas. Examples that come immediately to mind include Euthyphro-type arguments against a divine command view of ethics, classical arguments for the existence of God, and free will (the very term is taken from Western theology via the Late Latin liberum arbitrium). More sophisticated thinking in philosophy, of course, engages with science and advanced logic and mostly leaves the theological trappings behind, but the origins of many of the key problems still lie, I would suggest, in religious modes of thought.

Whether this means that there would be no philosophy or just a very different kind of philosophy in societies which had lost all meaningful connections with their deep cultural and religious roots I am not sure, but there are certainly many examples in Western history of philosophy thriving during periods when religion was also thriving (albeit often in a creative tension with religion). Both the Vienna Circle and the Polish logicians of the early-to-mid-20th century flourished in the context of broader cultures in which traditional religious beliefs and practices jostled with newer forms of spirituality and mysticism.

Likewise, the philosophical ferment in France in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century was to a large extent precipitated by the rise of the so-called Modernist movement within the Catholic Church and the clash between Modernism and more traditional approaches to religious thinking. For example, Pierre Duhem — a French conventionalist whose views influenced the Vienna Circle as well as Quine — can only be properly understood when he is seen in the context of late 19th-century France.

It takes a while to get one’s bearings when one is studying eras other than one’s own, especially where (as is very often the case) religious commitments are implicit if not deliberately hidden or disguised. Duhem’s private correspondence, for instance, clearly shows that he was driven in his philosophical work by a passionate commitment to traditional religion. He saw himself primarily as an apologist, using the secular (philosophical) language of those seeking (as he saw it) to undermine traditional religion in order to counter those threats.

You could argue that there is no necessary connection between Duhem’s philosophical ideas and his motivations and religious affiliations. But it seems very clear that the idea that convention or convenience (convenance) plays a large role in determining the shape and nature of scientific theories can be used (as it often was) explicitly or implicitly to defend religious and other non-scientific outlooks or views of the world. Seen historically, French conventionalism — whatever its intrinsic merits as a general framework for discussing scientific and mathematical ideas — was devised by religious thinkers (such as Duhem and Édouard Le Roy) as a defense of religion or religion-like ideologies. (Le Roy’s views prefigured those of his friend and associate, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, by the way. Both men’s views were pretty wild and mystical.)

Not all conventionalist thinkers or those who drew on them took this line, of course. Quine and most Vienna Circle members certainly didn’t. But many associates of the Circle did take this approach, sometimes explicitly identifying with the French tradition. [5]

The case of conventionalism illustrates some of the ideological and religious complexities which can underlie philosophical activity, but my general claims about the relationship between philosophy and religion remain tentative and speculative.

I am definitely not claiming that philosophy is necessarily religiously oriented, only that it thrives in a broader environment that is. Why this may be I cannot say, but I am increasingly inclined to the view that the presence in a society of a critical mass of people who are committed to religious or mystical ideas tends to create a space for non-scientific but rationally-informed discourse about “the nature of things.”

Many other periods of Western intellectual history could be cited in support of this general view but the late-19th and early-20th century offer a particularly rich and fertile source of illustrative examples, especially, I would say, from amongst the ranks of the Vienna Circle thinkers, their precursors and associates. And it is certainly not implausible to suggest that all that marvelous creative intellectual activity was in some sense a response to various religious or otherwise supernaturalist movements which had built up considerable momentum over the course of the 19th century.

But though the idea that philosophy may be, as it were, parasitic upon religion challenges what has become the standard view of philosophy as a discrete, self-contained and entirely secular discipline, it does not entail a belief that the discipline is doomed. If it is indeed doomed, it is doomed for other reasons, because religion is certainly not going to disappear any time soon.


Mark English has an interest in aspects of 20th-century European social and scientific thought and, more generally, in ideology, language, and the scope and nature of science. He holds a PhD in philosophy from Monash University, and blogs at Language, Life and Logic.

[1] The Advent of the Algorithm. San Diego, CA.: Harcourt/Harvest, 2001. p. 274.

[2] Truth, Meaning and Realism. London: Continuum, 2007. p. vii.

[3] Taken from a review by Richard Rorty of Pascal Engel’s book Truth.

[4] This is not a well-documented area, but here is something I posted last year which includes relevant excerpts from a piece by Nathan Schneider on the broader topic of the Templeton Foundation.

[5] For example, Louis Rougier, who was the only significant French thinker to have strong links with the Vienna Circle, had deep roots in conventionalism and was more sympathetic to religious modes of thought than most of his Austrian and German associates. Also the Polish philosopher-logicians Jan Lukasiewicz and Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz were both influenced by the French tradition, and both had strong mystical or religious convictions which colored their writings on epistemology and science.


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217 replies

  1. labnut, I am sorry my non-belief threatens you. If I had know it would cause someone so much angst, I would not have engaged. I would suggest that projecting your biases and fears onto me says so much more about yourself than you are willing to face. I wish you all the best, but I think this has run its course; you seem to be unable or unwilling to remain unemotional about this topic. I was hoping to find out how religious knowledge is gained, but once again I am no wiser than I was before. I will continue my quest – reading theologians – in hopes that someone may someday provide an answer.


  2. Hi labnut,

    Science works by publishing its findings. There is no hidden evidence, so, if your claims were true, we would find abundant evidence for them in published, peer reviewed science papers.

    A vast chunk of the psychological literature is scientific description of human morality. I’ve cited trolley problems as a particular example of the sort of thing they study, asking different people whether they judge particular situations to be moral. I’ve also pointed you to reviews of this, such as Joshua Greene’s book “Moral Tribes”.

    The reason we are totally talking past each other — with you thinking I am not answering the question and me thinking that you are simply not understanding me — is this:

    *You* think that there is an absolute morality, such that the question “what is the right thing to do?” becomes: “Which action ranks highest on the Absolute Shouldness Scale?”.

    Thus, when I say that “science can answer moral questions”, you interpret me as claiming: “science can tell you which action ranks highest on the Absolute Shouldness Scale”. You are then demanding refereed papers telling us which actions rank highest on the Absolute Shouldness Scale.

    But of course I am *not* saying what you interpret me as saying. I am saying that there is no absolute morality and thus no Absolute Shouldness Scale. Thus nothing — not science, not philosophy, not religion — can tell you which which action ranks highest on the Absolute Shouldness Scale.

    Nothing can tell you “what is the right thing to do”, because there is no objectively “right thing to do”. All there is is people’s *opinions*, all there is is someone’s *opinion* about what is the right thing to do, and science can tell you what people’s *opinions* are. Psychologists achieve that by the simple practice of asking people what their opinions are. Science can readily study human feelings and opinions, just as it can study any other aspect of our biology.

    [Now, you are going to mis-interpret that, as you did last time — and given that you find morals without an Absolute Shouldness Scale inconceivable — as the claim what where something ranks on the Absolute Shouldness Scale is determined by people’s opinion — that is *not* what I’m saying.]

    Given that there is nothing about human morals except our opinions and feelings, any actually properly posed question about human morals (= about human opinions and feelings) can (in principle) be answered by science. That’s what work on things like trolley problems does.

    I’ve already given the above answer 6 times but it’s clear that I failed to get you to even understand what I’m claiming. How did I do this time?


  3. Coel, I apologize if you think I’m being condescending. If you knew me better, you’d know differently. And you would know that I’m an agnostic. I have a better appreciation of your point of view as a result of this post and your comments. I just don’t personally find much in my own experience that rings true about your position, particularly your use of objective and subjective when you try to make a case for your views. I think your academic background and my own background play a role in our approaches to the subject. This is unavoidable. Thank you for taking the time to address my remarks. But I think this post and the commentary have run their course.


  4. Michael,
    I am sorry my non-belief threatens you.
    Not at all. You are welcome to your non-belief.
    I am surrounded by atheists and they fascinate me. I am always looking for opportunities to understand them and I have learned a lot from observing your behaviour.


  5. Coel,
    The reason we are totally talking past each other — with you thinking I am not answering the question and me thinking that you are simply not understanding me

    No, Coel, I am not talking past you. I asked a plain question(where is the evidence?) to test a claim you made(Yes science can answer it) , and I expected a plain answer – here is the evidence, as one would expect from science.

    You gave replies but they were not replies to my question. They were replies to assertions that I never made, like the so called Absolute Goodness Scale(where on earth did that come from? I have never heard of it before. Is this your invention?). I understood them easily enough, this is not rocket science after all. It is all rather simple stuff but they did not answer my question. And I have stuck to my guns, insisting on an answer to the question and refusing to be diverted.

    You finally made an admission:
    any actually properly posed question about human morals (= about human opinions and feelings) can (in principle) be answered by science.

    The key phase there is ‘(in principle)‘. I take that to be an admission that there are no science papers answering moral questions(poorly formed, properly formed or whatever). If you don’t agree with that then please point me to the papers and I will happily read them this weekend. I have a devouring curiosity and read voraciously.

    Of course we have a problem here. You maintain, on the one hand, that science can answer moral questions(in principle, as you claim), and yet on the other hand it does not do so in practice(only in principle, as you say).

    Why should that be so? Why has science not answered moral questions?
    Now you say that science can in principle answer moral questions. Have they given any in principle answers? Are there, for example, any science papers outlining the means by which moral questions could be answered(in principle, as you say)?

    But most of all, I am interested in the question, why does science not actually answer real moral questions? You asked for examples of moral questions and I gave you the list of questions answered by The Ethicist column of the NY Times(good real life examples, not specially selected by me). You never replied to that, by the way.

    I hope you can see where I am going with this. Moral questions are traditionally answered with the tools provided by philosophy. You maintain in effect that science provides(or could do this in principle) better answers than philosophy. I have decided to take you at your word and eschew the philosophical answers, demanding instead only the scientific answers. That is why I have deliberately avoided being drawn into philosophical arguments about the subject. In any case Thomas and Aravis have done an excellent job of using arguments from philosophy to show where you are wrong. But right now I want to engage with you on your ground, empiricism, and test your claims against the empirical standards of science.

    And so I don’t want replies based on philosophy, I want replies based on science. You haven’t provided any.

    A vast chunk of the psychological literature is scientific description of human morality
    Describing human morality does not answer moral questions. Go back to the list I provided from the NY Times Ethicist column(lovely real life examples) and see if the descriptions of human morality by science answers any of those questions. Once again, I am open to replies in the form of good science. I am arguing on your grounds, after all, and so you should feel comfortable and at home by providing such replies.

    Just to refresh your memory, this is how the debate started:
    I said: “what’s the right thing to do?‘ … This is not a question that science can answer.
    You replied: “Yes science can answer it


  6. Just wondering if you guys don’t think you’ve reached an impasse here…


  7. I do think you are talking past each other. The impasse may be unbreachable but here’s my attempt to help clarify a few things.

    Labnut, there will be no scientific papers claiming to answer moral questions, and I don’t think Coel is saying there will. Coel, you should explain what you mean with an example.

    Here’s one. Should homosexual couples be allowed to adopt? Now, if and only if we agree that what matters in this case is the welfare of the children as well as the welfare of the adults, various claims about the consequences can be assessed scientifically. We can look at outcomes for children adopted by gay parents and we can look at what impact gay adoption has on the acceptance of homosexuality in a given society.

    Science cannot show that we ought to care about the welfare of children or of gay people, and I think Coel will agree with that. So there will be no scientific papers on morality per se, but there may be scientific papers which can provide the answers we need to make moral decisions. I hope we can all agree on that.

    I think that there are many examples of moral attitudes changing over time and which can be traced to both improved scientific understanding and the work of philosophers. I think Coel’s position is not that science gives moral answers directly, but when informed by science you often don’t need an expert philosopher to figure out what needs to be done – it is obvious. I would disagree with Coel that this is always or even typically the case. We often have very difficult trade-offs to make, and even when we know all the facts we need to do some hard thinking and engage in deep discussions in order to build a consensus and forge a way forward.

    Absolute Shouldness is indeed Coel’s coinage but it’s just an explanation of what he understands by the idea of objective morality. If one believes in objective morality, one presumably believes in absolute shouldness because they are the same thing by different names. By comparing it to a scale, such as a temperature scale, Coel is attempting to paint a picture of the idea that some decisions or actions or situations are objectively more morally right than others, and in fact that any given decision or situation might in principle be assigned some kind of numeric value for comparision so that all options could be ranked in ascending order of moral good.

    If Labnut does not think this is an appropriate description of objective morality then Labnut simply does not interpret objective morality in the same way as Coel understands the term and it would be helpful for Labnut to explain, with examples, how his interpretation differs.


  8. Hi labnut,

    Massimo is right, we’re getting nowhere and talking past each other. I’ll make one more attempt, but then discontinue, unless it looks as though we’re getting somewhere.

    Just to refresh your memory, this is how the debate started:
    I said: “what’s the right thing to do?‘ … This is not a question that science can answer.”
    You replied: “Yes science can answer it”

    The problem is that your question “what is the right thing to do?” is incompletely posed and means different things as spoken by different people. I would appreciate it, labnut, if you would tell me which of the following is closest to what you think you are asking by that question. The main alternatives that different people might mean by “what is the right thing to do?” are:

    1) What is the thing that God would prefer us to do?

    2) Given an absolute scale of morality that is independent of human opinion, what action ranks highest on that scale?

    3) If we were to agree on some aim such as the flourishing or well-being of society or a goal such as maximising human contentment, which action would best advance that aim?

    4) What do I personally, having consulted my moral feelings, consider would best accord with my moral feelings?

    5) Which action would get most support if we consulted a wide swathe of people who had considered the issue, and if they all judged by their own moral feelings?

    The problem here, labnut, is that I don’t know which of those you intend (and perhaps you’re not even sure in your own mind?). Any of these can be answered by science, but we do need a proper well-posed question to answer.

    (The answers, by the way, would be: For 1 and 2, no such god/scale exists. For 3, this is the province of sociology and economics, and if we agree on an aim and a way to evaluate that aim, then science can help you with achieving the aim. But, human society is complex so the answers will not be simple and easy. 4 and 5 are the province of psychology, both are descriptive, and both can be achieved by techniques of psychology such as asking people. Your New York ethicist, by the way, seems to be mostly interpreting the question as 4 and then telling us his answer. )


  9. Hi DM,

    We are mostly in agreement, and the slight differences might be only over wording, but:

    Science cannot show that we ought to care about the welfare of children or of gay people, and I think Coel will agree with that.

    Agreed. In the same way science cannot tell Tom that he “ought” to like chocolate ice cream more than coffee-flavoured ice cream. Nor can philosophy or religion or anything else for that matter. The whole idea that any of these can *prescribe* morality is illusory, hankering after a standard of absolute morality that does not exist.

    So there will be no scientific papers on morality per se, …

    There will be plenty of scientific papers *describing* human morality, and those are “on morality”. Of course there will be none *prescribing* human morality.

    … but there may be scientific papers which can provide the answers we need to make moral decisions.

    Given that humans set their goals, derived from their feelings and opinions (e.g. “I want a harmonious, flourishing society with contented people”) then science can inform about pathways to those goals. It is still humans doing the prescribing of goals.


  10. DM,
    I do think you are talking past each other. The impasse may be unbreachable but here’s my attempt to help clarify a few things.

    Actually, DM, the endgame is in sight(I’m not a chess player for nothing!) I will continue the conversation with you privately by email. I don’t think we should try Massimo’s patience any further. I’ll email you tomorrow.


  11. It’s coming around Mark. As religious and mystical thought slowly becomes seen as simply other avenues by which we understand things, similar to sciences, philosophy is then injected with new life and vigor. But the empirical nature of the sciences is not as democratic when it comes to mysticism/religion, because we are told only a small percentage of people have ESP. So we await public onboarding of new ideas about consciousness, irrelevance of time and space, and how individuation might work given recent discoveries in the sciences, As public awareness of the changes wrought by 20th century physics sinks in, and this is indeed happening, philosophy becomes a growth industry to guide those will otherwise stagger.


  12. Another pointless post about philosophy without much substance. If you can study philosophers like Plato and Wittgenstein or even modern academic philosophy and not feel intellectually improved, challenged and inspired, what could be said to convince you of the value of the subject? I don’t think nothing could. It’s like trying to convince a toddler that Galois theory is beautiful mathematics.


  13. “If you can succeed in your argument then why can’t other arguments succeed in a similar fashion? If these are irremediable then why is yours not?”

    Any argument (even a bad one) can ‘succeed’ if it convinces someone to believe its conclusion. My point on pg. 98 was in reply to the criticism that my thesis is ‘self-defeating’. As long as it succeeds in convincing some readers that its conclusion is true, the book has fulfilled my purpose in writing it, and is therefore not ‘self-defeating’. I also pointed out that my thesis is philosophical, and therefore semantically indeterminate. In other words, I don’t know if it’s a good argument, and (if I’m right, paradoxically) there’s no way to find that out. The same goes for any extended philosophical argument. However, I do have a conviction that a) my conclusion is true, and b) that I’ve done my best to explicate the reasons for it. Do I KNOW that my conclusion is true? No. Do I KNOW that my reasons are good? No. So I don’t know if my convictions of a) and b) are justified. I just HAVE them. That’s why I don’t do much philosophy anymore, because it’s shooting in the dark; and that gets a bit pointless after a while. Any philosopher can produce an argument, and claim that it ‘succeeds’ because others believe its conclusion. But what is actually ACHIEVED by that kind of ‘success’ (which is the same kind of ‘success’ that can be claimed by any propagandist, cult, snake-oil merchant or new-age guru)?

    “Are you sure you’re not really just taking aim at a particular narrow definition of philosophy”

    As mentioned in the book, my argument is aimed at any purely discursive or exclusively theoretical discourse; whether in philosophy, social theory, cultural or literary studies, speculative theology, and maybe even string theory in physics.


  14. “But what is actually ACHIEVED by that kind of ‘success’ (which is the same kind of ‘success’ that can be claimed by any propagandist, cult, snake-oil merchant or new-age guru)?”

    But you’ve already answered your own question. With your book you want to shape other people’s opinions because you believe in your conclusion AND presumably because you believe it’s important for others to as well. Important why? Because people’s understanding shapes who they are and in turn shapes the world we live in. There are very real practical implications for particular beliefs. The notion of individual rights is not a scientifically supportable hypothesis, for example, it’s a normative construct that has been vigorously argued for (ONLY theoretically), and has radically shaped life for generations since. It’s one amongst many.

    Sure, a snake oil merchant or propagandist can achieve something similar. But that’s the point of doing philosophy! To analyse arguments, question their underlying premises, check their internal consistency, reflect on their implications, etc, etc – in short to determine what counts as a ‘good’ argument and what is merely selling snake oil or just generally a poor argument. You couldn’t be more wrong when you say philosophers can make an argument and claim it succeeds because others believe it. Philosophers even coined a term for this kind of inadequate basis for the justification of an argument, the argumentum ad populum. There have to be ‘good’ reasons. What counts as good and what counts as bad is ultimately a slightly grey (or indeterminate if you like) area, but that doesn’t make it a hopeless or useless project or a failure. You must clearly believe that there is a difference between a good argument and a bad argument, or the enormous amount of work you have clearly put in to your book would be pointless and inexplicable. You can’t seriously expect me to believe that you penned your book without feeling like the reasons for your argument were ‘justified’ or ‘better’ than the reasons for the counter-argument or null hypothesis. You don’t get to pull out the ground from underneath us all (including yourself) and expect to be still standing.

    If we can talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ arguments without needing an argument to cash out Absolute Truth or Certain Knowledge, and we can say that arguments influence beliefs and beliefs influence behaviour, then you’ve got a pretty strong basis right there for the importance and practical relevance of philosophy, which as a field makes this kind of activity its bread and butter.

    ” As mentioned in the book, my argument is aimed at any purely discursive or exclusively theoretical discourse; whether in philosophy, social theory, cultural or literary studies, speculative theology, and maybe even string theory in physics.”

    Well then I think that’s where you’ve over-extended yourself and ended up at what seems to me to be a pretty ridiculously extreme position.


  15. “If we can talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ arguments without needing an argument to cash out Absolute Truth or Certain Knowledge, and we can say that arguments influence beliefs and beliefs influence behaviour, then you’ve got a pretty strong basis right there for the importance and practical relevance of philosophy, which as a field makes this kind of activity its bread and butter.”

    I think you’ve conflated two distinct but overlapping activities in the above statement:

    a) Informal logic (the use and study of argument forms in natural language) which is valuable but hardly rocket science, and doesn’t merit a separate academic discipline all to itself. The practical impact of errors in informal logic are also overrated. Most arguments are bad because of errors and omissions of FACT, not logical fallacies. Most logical errors get sorted out pretty quickly in debates (because it’s a priori and doesn’t require in-depth research), it’s the facts that are harder to ascertain, because that often calls for detailed and expert knowledge. Disciplines outside philosophy have generally been able to sort out their own logical fallacies without any help from philosophers. Philosophers have not found much to criticize in arguments outside philosophy, and few non-philosophical disciplines have seen the need to consult ‘experts’ in informal logic. When was the last time an engineer, doctor or chemist had to consult a philosopher to get a job done?

    b) Philosophy. This, like all other disciplines, incorporates informal logic, but it’s about a lot MORE than that (what exactly? I argue that nobody knows). I’ve already said plenty about the shortcomings of philosophy.


  16. “When was the last time an engineer, doctor or chemist had to consult a philosopher to get a job done?”

    How is that relevant to anything? You haven’t addressed my point that philosophy plays an important role through normative arguments (of which I gave you a specific example) and you’ve then just shifted the posts to its (lack of a) role in helping an engineer build a bridge. The question isn’t whether philosophy contributes to other disciplines, any more than it makes sense to ask whether building a bridge contributes to medical science and then judge the former on its inability to provide anything relevant for the latter. The question is whether philosophy is useful, meaningful and important in its own right. That’s the case for the negative that you’re claiming to make in your book. It’s your argument, not mine. Why do I have to remind you of it?

    But you also sidestepped my point that you obviously see some import and practical value in writing your book, in making your theoretical argument, and you obviously feel your reasons can be justified in a manner other than by ’empirical facts’ and that your ‘reasons’ are better than the counterargument’s. Otherwise I’m at a loss to explain or understand why you wrote it in the first place and why you’re even bothering with this discussion, since we could both be snake oil salesmen and there would be no measure by which we or anyone else could determine otherwise. Again, if all of that can be attributed to your work, why can’t it also be said about other philosophers, about other positions mostly or entirely theoretical (as yours is)?

    You’re right, confining philosophy to informal logic is ridiculous…but I never did that. You did. I spoke about good and bad reasons in a general sense. Informal logic may be a part of that, but so are the other things I listed, internal consistency, implications, clarification of meanings, etc. It’s by these standards that your own argument will be judged, and I suggest it’s by these standards that you’ve formed and made your argument the way that you have (and weighed the counterarguments).

    At the end of the day what you seem to me to be doing is kicking out the ladder after you’ve climbed it, then using the benefit of your now elevated position to shout down at everyone else below that ladders are useless.


  17. “But you also sidestepped my point that you obviously see some import and practical value in writing your book, in making your theoretical argument, and you obviously feel your reasons can be justified in a manner other than by ‘empirical facts’ and that your ‘reasons’ are better than the counterargument’s.”

    Again, you’ve conflated two different things:

    a) I BELIEVE there is import and practical value in writing my book, and that my reasons can be justified in a manner other than by ’empirical facts’, and that my reasons are better than the counter-argument’s.

    b) I don’t KNOW if there is import . . . etc etc.

    If we only BELIEVE that philosophy is semantically determinate, but cannot KNOW that it is, then we have no way of knowing if a (grammatically correct) philosophical text is meaningful or a piece of nonsense. Then philosophy would be shooting in the dark (I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from doing it, I’m just informing them of what I believe to be the consequences).

    On the other hand, the same is true of my thesis. But I’m happy to accept that, because I can’t help believing what I do, despite doing my best to question it. Of course, if others can’t help doing philosophy despite believing my thesis (or disagree with me), then that’s fine with me too. In fact, I recently wrote a philosophy article ( so perhaps I can’t help doing philosophy either, only time will tell. So presumably our point of disagreement is that you believe you KNOW philosophy is semantically determinate. So far, you have produced little in the way of arguments to support your view, and nothing you said has convinced me to abandon my thesis. But I’m happy to continue the dialogue, and appreciate the feedback.


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