Archive for August, 2012

Eric Schwitzgebel (author of this fascinating paper on introspection) has a blog post up defending “uncharitable and superficial history of philosophy.” At New APPS, Catarina Dutilh Novaes responds, arguing that we should be critical, but not superficial. Now what Schwitzgebel says he is arguing against is “excessive charity.” We should all agree that there is such a thing as excessive charity in interpretation, and of course it’s bad. (If it were good, it wouldn’t be correctly described as ‘excessive’.) The question is, at what point does interpretive charity become excessive? I take it part of Dutilh Novaes’ point is that there is a place for sympathetic exposition, and that place is before criticism. This, I think, is absolutely correct: we need first to really understand a view, and then criticize it. However, there is more to be said here, since the fundamental question is really about the sympathetic exposition stage. It does frequently happen that we historians read our favorite historical figures and say that they couldn’t possibly have really meant anything so ridiculous as what they appear to have said, and it’s certainly true that we sometimes (especially when dealing with our favorites) go too far with this, in a way that doesn’t take the text seriously and let the philosophers say what they said. Nevertheless, I think that this line of thought, which claims that a certain view or argument is too absurd to be what the philosopher really meant, is often correct. What I want to do here is offer some defense of this claim, and also some thoughts on how to distinguish the cases where this kind of interpretive charity is appropriate from the cases where it is not.

Let me start with a claim that might prove controversial: there is such a thing as philosophical expertise, and great philosophers have it in a very high degree. Now, we are all aware that there are problems about the ‘canon’ of Great Dead Philosophers. I’m not saying that any one of the canonical Great Dead Philosophers have greater philosophical expertise than any non-canonical figure. I’m saying instead that thinkers who truly are great philosophers have a lot of philosophical expertise. The ‘canon’ may be mistaken about who the Great Dead Philosophers really are.

What exactly is involved in philosophical expertise? That question is more difficult. One thing it surely involves is the ability to see the logical consequences of propositions. Seeing such consequences requires both logic and conceptual analysis, so these will be among the activities at which someone who has philosophical expertise will be skilled.

Now here is my main claim: to the degree that a certain individual is truly a great philosopher (has a lot of philosophical expertise), we should be resistant to the attribution to that individual of philosophical errors, where a ‘philosophical error’ is a mistake which indicates lack of philosophical expertise. This is an instance of a more general claim, which seems to me to be obviously true: the more expertise of a particular sort an individual has, the less likely it is that that individual should make a mistake with respect to the domain of that expertise. So the more some individual deserves to be classified as one of the Great Dead Philosophers (or Great Living Philosophers, for that matter), the less plausible the attribution of a philosophical error to that individual will be.

Now, we should note that all of this is a matter of degree. One of Schwitzgebel’s main points is that human beings in general tend to be bad at logic. This might be right. My claim is just that there is some variation in how bad at logic we are, and truly great philosophers are much better at logic (and whatever other important philosophical skills there are) than the rest of us. More concretely, what I’m saying is that the claim that Berkeley has made a philosophical error is (prior to the examination of the particular text in which the alleged error occurs, and the examination of the surrounding philosophical issues) less plausible than the claim that I have made a philosophical error, since Berkeley is better at philosophy than I am. We should, of course, also account for the severity and/or obviousness of the error in question, and how deeply the thinker seems to have thought about the particular issues involved, and a host of other questions like this, but the level of philosophical expertise of the individual alleged to have made the error is surely a relevant factor.

There are two remaining questions which I will try to answer in the remainder of this post. First, what sorts of mistakes are, and are not, philosophical errors? Second, is there not a problematic circularity here? Our evidence for believing that an individual is a great philosopher will consist mostly of the observation that she or he wrote quite a lot of philosophy while making relatively few philosophical errors (or at least few serious/obvious ones), and we then use the fact that that individual is a great philosopher as a bit of evidence against the claim that she or he has made philosophical errors. That sounds bad, but I’ll argue that it’s not.

On the first question, I have only vaguely gestured at what philosophical expertise might be, and I then defined ‘philosophical error’ in terms of it. I don’t have a handy definition of philosophical expertise, so what I’m going to do is make my definitions slightly less vague by listing some things that I think are philosophical errors, and some that are not. The following then are, I take it, philosophical errors:

  • Having inconsistent beliefs (at the same time)
  • Making inconsistent assertions (in the same work, or works written in the same period)
  • Attacking strawmen
  • Giving arguments that don’t support their conclusions in the way they are claimed/intended to (deductively or inductively)

The following, I take it, are not philosophical errors, either because they are not errors at all, or else because they are failures of a sort that philosophical expertise does not protect one from:

  • Being mistaken in one’s philosophical conclusions
  • Changing one’s mind (for good reasons)
  • Accepting assumptions common in one’s context but no longer common today as fundamental premises
  • Having false, but subjectively reasonable, empirical beliefs
  • Misunderstanding (even culpably) non-philosophical subject matters

The first item might be surprising. I include it because I believe that philosophical questions are so difficult that no level of philosophical expertise (or any other kind of expertise) attainable by human beings is sufficient to protect one from coming to some false conclusions about them. Of course, if philosophical expertise is good for anything at all, then it should be somewhat helpful in moving one toward the right answers, but the whole enterprise is so difficult that I don’t think we should ever treat it as unlikely that someone’s conclusions might be wrong. This is especially true since the other items on the list can lead even the greatest of philosophers to start from the wrong premises.

It should be clear that on my view the kind of charity we ought to exercise toward the Great Dead Philosophers does not involve interpreting them in a way that makes them right; it only involves interpreting them not to make certain sorts of mistakes (or at least to make them less often than the rest of us). Note also that, on this view, quite a lot of contextual research is required to know whether a particular interpretation would involve attributing a philosophical error: we must know whether the view attacked is really a strawman, or whether perhaps the argument might be directed at someone other than the obvious (to us) target. We must also know whether certain assumptions were widespread at the time, and whether certain beliefs would be subjectively reasonable for someone in the philosopher’s epistemic position. Also, it seems to me that there are actually different skills involved in the avoidance of different philosophical errors, so that philosophical expertise is not monolithic. This gives rise to the possibility that a philosopher may be great in some respects but not others. For instance, I think everyone must acknowledge that in the Essay Locke sometimes make contradictory assertions, and I agree with Schwitzgebel that philosophy is a public, communal activity so that saying something contradictory is a genuinely philosophical failing, regardless of what one meant to say. However, proponents of Locke’s philosophical greatness try to explain away these assertions in a way that avoids attributing contradictory beliefs (at the same time) to Locke.

This brings us to the evaluation of particular individuals as, to some degree, great philosophers. It seems to me that, in the end, one must make a holistic judgment as to the plausibility of the claim that this particular philosopher could make this particular error. Now, a ‘holistic judgment’ is difficult to differentiate from a hunch or ‘gut feeling,’ so there is a real danger that we will just develop attachments to our favorite philosophers (and perhaps hostility to other philosophers) and this will become the basis for our attributing, or refusing to attribute, philosophical errors. However, I don’t think this is the whole story. Part of the practice of history of philosophy as a discipline is just this: someone finds something that looks like a philosophical error in a Great Dead Philosopher. Then, we see if it can be explained away, either by claiming that it isn’t really an error at all (in the context), or by claiming that the philosopher doesn’t really endorse that view or argument. These attempts at explaining away can be more or less credible, and more or less closely related to the text. The more apparent problems there are, and the more ingenuity is required in explaining them away, the more reason we have to revise our evaluation of the philosopher and attribute more philosophical errors to him or her. Interpretation is a messy business, and there is no quick and easy answer to the question of when philosophical errors should be attributed to (someone who is reputed to be) one of the Great Dead Philosophers, but, as with other interpretive questions, there are a number of factors which can be weighed publicly, so that we don’t come to a standstill when one person insists that Descartes has made an error, and another insists that Descartes was too great a philosopher to have made said error. This is all part of the enterprise of interpretation, and it’s the hard work we have to do in order to determine what level of charity to exercise.

(cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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(Following up on my earlier post on an argument for nominalism in the Elements of Law.)

In chapter 2 of De Corpore Hobbes offers two further arguments for the view that names are the only universals.

(1) The first involves the way in which common names denote.

However a common name, as it is the name of several things taken one by one, but not however of all the things together at the same time (as ‘man’ is not the name of human kind but of Peter, John, and the other men separately) is called for that reason universal. So the name ‘universal’ is not the name of some thing existing in rerum natura, and not the name of an idea, or some phantasm formed in the soul, but is always the name of some vox or name (DeCo 2.9).


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Hobbes was a nominalist, in that he believed that “there is nothing universal but names” (EL 5.6), so there are neither universal things nor universal ideas. But why did he believe this?

In chapter 5 of the Elements of Law, having introduced names, Hobbes distinguishes between universal and singular names: singular names name one thing, while universal names name more than one thing. As an example of a universal name he gives ‘man’, which is a name given “to every particular of mankind” (EL 5.5), that is, to every individual man.

Having distinguished the two sorts of name, Hobbes goes on to note that the universality of certain names has lead some to think that there are also universal things (EL 5.6). On this view

besides Peter and John, and all the rest of the men that are, have been, or shall be in the world, there is yet somewhat else that we call man, (viz.) man in general, deceiving themselves by taking the universal, or general appellation, for the thing it signifieth (EL 5.6).


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The Philosophy Department at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA is pleased to announce that it will host a Locke Workshop on Friday October 26 and Saturday October 27, 2012.

Invited speaker: Antonia LoLordo (UVA).

Papers on any topic in John Locke’s philosophy are welcome.

Please send paper abstracts (of no more than 500 words) prepared for blind review to:

Jessica Gordon-Roth: gordon-rothj@wlu.edu.

Abstracts are due September 7, 2012.

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For John Locke, as a general rule, words signify ideas.  For instance, he tells us:

§2.  Besides articulate Sounds therefore, it was farther necessary, that he should be able to use these Sounds, as Signs of internal Conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the Ideas within his own Mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the Thoughts of Men’s Minds be conveyed from one to another.

Essay III.i.2, p. 402

And here is an objection to this view, offered by John Sergeant, in his Solid Philosophy Asserted:

[W]hen a Gentleman bids his Servant fetch him a Pint of Wine ; he does not mean to bid him to fetch the Idea of Wine in his own head, but the Wine it self which is in the Cellar ; and the same holds in all our Commerce and Conversation about things without us.

Solid Philosophy Asserted, Preliminary Second,  §16

And, here is, in essence, that same objection, from John Stewart Mill, in his System of Logic:

When I say, “the sun is the cause of day,” I do not mean that my idea of the sun causes or excites in me the idea of day; or in other words, that thinking of the sun makes me think of day.  I mean, that a certain physical fact, which is called the sun’s presence (and which, in the ultimate analysis, resolves itself into sensations, not ideas) causes another physical fact, which is called day.  It seems proper to consider a word as the name of that which we intend to be understood by it when we use it; of that which any fact that we assert of it is to be understood of; that, in short, concerning which, when we employ the word, we intend to give information. Names, therefore, shall always be spoken of in this work as the names of things themselves, and not merely of our ideas of things.

System of Logic, Book 1, Chapter 2, §1

As near as I can tell, there are two ways to interpret this objection.  One of them is a very bad objection, which actually targets Locke’s view, and the other is a perfectly find objection, but clearly doesn’t target Locke’s view.  As a note regarding Mill, he doesn’t mention Locke by name (I think he refers to Hobbes, and people who have adopted Hobbes’s doctrine), but the objection is so similar to Sergeant’s that I felt it needed to be included here.  Sergeant really does call out Locke specifically.  Anyway, here are the two versions:

Version 1 (A good objection to some view, just not Locke’s):

  • 1. If the term “wine” names the idea of wine, then whenever one makes an assertive utterance involving the term “wine”, the assertion made is about the idea of wine.
  • 2. It is not the case that then whenever one makes an assertive utterance involving the term “wine”, the assertion made is about the idea of wine.
  • 3. So, the term “wine” does not name the idea of wine.

Version 2 (An objection targeting Locke’s view, but not a very good one):

  • 1′. If the term “wine” signifies the idea of wine, then whenever one makes an assertive utterance involving the term “wine”, the assertion made is about the idea of wine.
  • 2.  It is not the case that then whenever one makes an assertive utterance involving the term “wine”, the assertion made is about the idea of wine.
  • 3′. So, the term “wine” does not signify the idea of wine.

I guess part of why I am posting this is in case I am missing something about this objection which makes it stronger than it appears. To my mind though, it looks like what is going on is this: V1 correctly points out that if the term “wine” referred to, named, or had as its content, the idea of wine, discussions using the term “wine” would all have to be about the idea of wine, rather than wine itself (I am going to just presuppose that Berkeley is wrong about those being one and the same thing, here).  Since not all discussions featuring the term “wine” are discussions about the idea of wine, it looks like the term “wine” does not refer to, name, or have as its content, the idea of wine.  So far so good. The problem is, that’s not Locke’s view. Locke’s view is that we use words to give an outward manifestation of our otherwise undisclosed mental lives.  You can’t see what is going on in my mind. But I can use words to reveal to you what is going on in my mind.  So much for V1.

V2, though, doesn’t fare any better.  If we read “signify” as a technical term from Locke’s philosophy of language, premise (1′) isn’t a consequence of the view that words signify ideas.  Because Locke’s commitment is, roughly, that any use of the word “wine” indicates the presence of the idea of wine in my mind.  Or, in other words, whenever one makes an assertive utterance involving the term “wine”, the speaker is giving an outward manifestation of the occurrence of an idea of wine in their thought.  There could be reasons to doubt that view, I admit, but none of them have to do with this Sergeant/Mill objection.

Contemporary discussions in philosophy of language recognize the key difference here under the terminology of “describing” vs. “expressing”.  Saying “ouch” expresses one’s pain, whereas, saying, “I am in pain” describes one as being in pain.

There is a tendency for people to read Locke as having the view that our utterances all wind up being descriptions of our mental states. In essence, they take him to treat “Grass is green” as a way to describe oneself as believing that grass is green.  But this is not Locke’s view. Rather, in contemporary lingo, he is maintaining that “Grass is green” expresses the belief that grass is green.  Now, such a view has to face a challenge of constructing the descriptive content of a sentence, starting from the mental state expressed by it.  And there is a question about whether this can be done.  But I don’t see any good reason to think that Locke has to worry that he has accidentally given a view on which we wind up talking about our ideas all of the time.

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