About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dogmas of analytic philosophy, part 2/2

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part 1 appeared here]

So, we were talking about an interesting article by University of Waterloo philosopher Paul Thagard, about what he sees (and I largely agree) as eleven dogmas of modern analytic philosophy. As you may recall, I’m interested in this within the context of a broader project I am pursuing about the nature of philosophy and whether the discipline makes progress over time (the thing will soon become a new book published by the University of Chicago Press). In particular, I’m with Thagard when he calls for moving forward from analytic (and, I would add, continental) philosophy to something he calls “natural philosophy” (a term with which I quibble, given its historical association with proto-science), basically the sort of philosophy that most people outside of a small cadre of hyper-specialist academics actually think of as “philosophy” anyway.

Let us therefore move on to:

Dogma #7. “Reason is separate from emotion.” 

No, it ain’t. And there is plenty of good evidence to that effect that has accumulated from modern neuroscience. A functional human being better be somewhere intermediate between Spock and McCoy, avoiding the equally perilous extremes of the Scylla of hyper-logicism (which affects analytical philosophy) and the Charybdis of hyper-emotionalism (which, mixed with a high dose of obfuscation, may be said to be one of the problems of much continental philosophy). To put it otherwise, Hume was closer to the mark than Plato.

Dogma #8. “There are necessary truths that apply to all possible worlds.” 

This is a criticism to the (admittedly out of control) Kripke-style talk about possible worlds, (logical) distances between possible worlds, and so on. While I’m with Thagard on thinking that much of that stuff isn’t particularly useful, indeed veering perilously closed to neo-scholasticism, I stop short of abandoning the concept of logical necessity. Let’s just agree that it is of less use than a number of philosophers have historically thought it to be and leave it at that.

Dogma #9. “Thoughts are propositional attitudes.” 

Thagard doesn’t like thinking of thoughts in a formalistic way, as of relations between abstract “sentence-like” entities. But when he says that we need to “accept the rapidly increasing evidence that thoughts are brain processes” he makes the same mistake already noted vis-a-vis Dogma #6: thoughts are the result of brain processes, but they do — sometimes — refer to abstract entities, so that the two views aren’t at all in contrast. What we need, then, is a broader conception of thoughts than is allowed by a rigidly formalistic analytic philosophy, without however reducing the whole thing to mere neuroscience.

Dogma #10. “The structure of logic reveals the nature of reality.” 

This is the assumption underlying the old rationalist program in philosophy, going back to Plato and that should have been abandoned once and for all at the least after the abysmal failure of Descartes’ cogito. I agree with Thagard that one cannot infer metaphysical conclusions from pure logic, but he is also correct when he says that logic is one of the areas “relevant to determining the fundamental nature of reality,” and therefore still an important player.

Dogma #11. “Naturalism cannot address normative issues about what people ought to do in epistemology and ethics.” 

To which Thagard wishes to substitute “a normative procedure that empirically evaluates the extent to which different practices achieve the goals of knowledge and morality.” Yes, although — again — let’s not push it. The naturalistic fallacy is still a fallacy, in my opinion, and while we most certainly want to bring facts (empirical procedures) into both ethics and epistemology, I think the problem with said dogma is that it reflects too narrow (Quineian?) a conception of naturalism. As I pointed out before, there are more fecund varieties of naturalism that have no problem incorporating reasonable (and empirically informed) metaphysics, ethics and epistemology.

What picture of philosophy emerges from Thagard’s analysis, with or without my ancillary notes? A very reasonable one, methinks. What he calls natural philosophy is the kind of reflective enterprise that is informed by empirical evidence (science, personal experience, common occurrences in everyday life), and deploys a battery of logical (both formal and informal) tools to make sense of the world and our place in it. Natural philosophy stays away from the often sterile micro-focus of much of analytic philosophy, while at the same time rejecting the frequently obfuscatory rhetoric of much continental philosophy. It’s the kind of philosophy that people from Aristotle to Hume have taught us to practice, and that would be a welcome antidote to much irrelevance and nonsense coming out of modern academy. [1]


[1] Repeat of the same note that appeared in the last post: While in this essay I join the common sport among philosophers of criticizing philosophy, those among my readers who are scientistically inclined better not snicker too much. Science itself could use quite a bit more self-doubt and internal probing. When I was a practicing scientist I saw first hand how the overwhelming majority of scientific research is just as useless and self-centered as the majority of any other academic enterprise — with the difference that science is a hell of a lot more expensive to conduct than philosophy or literary criticism! But that’s another story, and possibly another book project...


  1. Very interesting article and blog post(s). I have two questions.

    My first question actually concerns the 1st dogma. By "theory construction", is the author referring to something different than what scientists are doing when they are devising theories? (You covered this in your previous post, but I think I can get away with it here anyway.)

    My second question concerns the 10th dogma. How does this fit with mathematical Platonism? Aren't some of the best arguments for mathematical Platonism purely logical arguments? And don't they reveal features of the nature of reality (i.e. the independent existence of mathematical objects)?

    1. Björn,

      > By "theory construction", is the author referring to something different than what scientists are doing when they are devising theories? <

      It's not entirely clear. Analytical philosophy has always being "science-like," but obviously philosophical theories are not like scientific ones, in the sense that they rarely are subject to empirical tests (think of, for instance, Kripke style theories of meaning).

      > the 10th dogma. How does this fit with mathematical Platonism? Aren't some of the best arguments for mathematical Platonism purely logical arguments? <

      Yes, and I am sympathetic to those. I think the point is that one should not do metaphysics that ignores physics, but of course physics has nothing to say about the ontological status of mathematical (or any other abstract) object.

    2. RE: theory construction. I took it to mean building theories from existing evidence and conceptual frameworks in the sciences. Something like Alva Noe has done with Embodied Cognition. Or Thomas Metzinger's work on the self. Or from the continental side of things, Manuel de Landa's work on complex systems.

      Whether or not this is just science under another name, I'm not sure. Someone would have to really tease out what the difference is between Noe, Metzinger, de Landa, and other similar philosophical theory builders; and theory builders in science. Given the first and second dogma from Thagard's list, I think he wants philosophy to concentrate on the synthetic and creative side of science by playing to philosophy's strengths (taking concepts, arguments, and propositions from the sciences and creating new permutations and combinations of concepts).

  2. Having been trained in analytic philosophy, and moving away from it toward Massimo's stance ever since,I found his comments quite helpful. But one complaint:"the old rationalist program in philosophy, going back to Plato." Maybe it goes back to early PlatonISM, but, as many Plato scholars are emphasizing today and recently, not to Plato himself. cf. "Philosophy in Dialogue: Plato's Many Devices" ed. Gary Alan Scott. To think that Plato's characters (esp. Socrates)present Plato's views is not quite as bad as thinking that Hamlet voices Shakespeare's own ideas . . . but close to it!

  3. My view is that the problems with modern philosophy are not such that you can simply say, we need to strike a balance or avoid focusing too much on a given kind of topic. Or – for that matter – simply expose a few unfortunate dogmas. (Eleven is rather a lot isn't it? Things have clearly deteriorated since Quine's two. Before long it may be thirty...)

    There's not the space to make the case here, but the gist of my thinking is that scientific developments have so radically changed the intellectual landscape that we need a new model entirely. (I am interested actually in what you had to say about structural realism and Ladyman and Ross. Maybe something like this could form the basis for a new model. I'm undecided.)

    I have particular concerns about philosophers consciously or unconsciously pushing specific religious or political or moral agendas. (There is a place, of course, for informed, partisan discourse where the values involved are made explicit and so are open to scrutiny.)

    Also, the wide range of disparate activities which go on under the umbrella of 'philosophy', do drain meaning from the term. 'Philosophy of ...' is still useful; but philosophy per se?

  4. On the issue of whether science has something to say about the ontological status of mathematics, I have thought that mathematics could be materialized (de-Platonized) in a manner proposed by Jan Mycielski [ http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/30227216 ], which he calls "intentionalism".

  5. Dogma #7. “Reason is separate from emotion.”

    Massimo, with all due respect, I think you relapsed back into being a scientist in your response to this one ;) This statement is so vague that no empirical evidence could possibly say anything about it. What is reason and what is emotion? And what could it mean for them to be "separate"? Whether or not reason and emotion are separate depends entirely on how philosophical refelction leads us to define 'reason', 'emotion', and 'separate'. It's essentially a word definition, i.e., philosophical, issue. To think neuroscience has defined these terms well enough to establish an empirical connection among them is absurd. Neuroscience might have working definitions of these terms, but the philosophical question of whether these definitions are correct remains.

    1. Paul,

      I disagree. Certainly there is a lot that philosophy has to say about both reason and emotions, but I really don't see why neurobiology, or even simple psychology, should be silent on the issue. There are many pertinent empirical studies on both phenomena (and their interactions) that a serious natural philosopher should really take into consideration.


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