Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Advancing the Discipline

What constitutes "progress" for philosophy as an academic discipline? Where is it aiming to end up, and how can we help it get there? Jack writes:
I see philosophy as a young discipline (still young, like Elizabeth Taylor). What we need are more theories, not a verdict on which of the four that we have is superior/least inferior. This is not a call to abandon our scruples and jot down anything bordering on consistent. Theory proliferation needs to be bridled by our reflective judgments and our common sense. But in too many fields we have yet to cut the issue at the joints. In the dialectic we are far nearer to the brainstorming part than the conclusion-in-unanimity part.

At the end of the day, we presumably want knowledge and understanding of important issues. But philosophical exploration may be what we really need for now. If the existing options are inadequate, we shouldn't necessarily want everyone to converge on the "least inferior" one. This would seem to justify some degree of dogged perseverance even in the face of stronger arguments, at least if you think that further refinements to your position could prove fruitful. The risk, of course, is that becoming personally invested in a position could undermine your ability to recognize when it has turned into a dead-end.

Thoughts?

3 comments:

  1. Eh, more theories? There are plenty of "theories" out there, and given that not even the ones that seem the most similar are very congruent, adding more of your own without regards to what has already been said is a mistake. You already know my complaints over this.

    What does Jack mean by "the dialectic". I smell a Hegelian, and if he is such, he should check out Critical Inquiry's 2003 symposium.

    http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/features/symposium03.shtml

    The lectures are all available on video at the website. The basic question is almost exactly what you ask, Richard, and, them being Critical Inquiry, they are approaching it with a slightly Hegelian, slightly Marxist slant.

    If I were to propose a way to "advance" philosophy, it'd be along my own slightly Nietzschean, slightly Deleuzian slant and suggest that previous theories should be re-animated and creatively "exploded" without losing at least a sub-conscious or hidden sense of what the original theorists were trying to get at. Therefore, it is not the proliferation of theory that is important to me, but a multiplicity of approaches.

    I think I'll expand this comment into a full blog post; in the meantime, I might also direct your attention to Nietzsche's comments on Columbus in The Gay Science where criticizes the scientific aims of philosophers in favor of exploratory aims.

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  2. I've heard some people say they're materialists simply because it's the less ludicrous option. Why they feel an irresistible compulsion to affiliate themselves with a camp at all costs, I don't know. I was not aware that if I don't ally myself with some established tradition, god will wring lasting damage upon my immortal soul. Let me put it this way. For any three bad theories, there will always be the less ridiculous option. Why should we subscribe to it? Worse of all, if you settled for bad theory X simply because it is the lesser of all evils, your future endeavors will probably not be concerned with how satisfactory of a theory X is, but with defending the betterness of X (from its inferior opponents) forever and ever. Ah, A philosophical nightmare, but that way you will always be right.

    "This would seem to justify some degree of dogged perseverance even in the face of stronger arguments, at least if you think that further refinements to your position could prove fruitful. The risk, of course, is that becoming personally invested in a position could undermine your ability to recognize when it has turned into a dead-end."

    I take you to mean that if what we need are more theories, than one might be tempted to persevere over one's faulty theory just for the sake of theory proliferation. My reading of Jack was that we need not "more theories" per se, but only when the existing theories are inadequate. By "my reading of Jack" I mean "my own view of the matter." My reading of Jack is that if your own new theory is not as strong as that other guy's existing theory, too bad for you, and you shouldn't labor in its defense just because it is yet another theory. But on the other hand, your theory being the best of 3 pathetic theories does not make it the one true answer to the problem/puzzle you purport to solve. (As some philosophers seem to think. The term 'inference to the best explanation' comes to mind.) I'm also not sure what he means by 'THE dialectic'.

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  3. Jared—What could be meant be *there are plenty of “theories” out there*? Plenty for what? For each philosophical question such that we posit theories to answer it, is there already a correct theory? If not, then we do not have enough theories to achieve truth or knowledge.

    Isa—I agree that we only need more theories when our current theories are inadequate, and add that in my view, across the philosophical spectrum, our current best theories are very inadequate. But inadequacy is to be expected when we are brainstorming.

    I am not a Hegelian; I’m not even sure what that means. I don’t mean anything special or technical by dialectic. You can read “dialectic” as “philosophical progression” or “philosophical process.” We as philosophers are discussing sensations, and that discussion is the sensation dialectic; we are also discussing causation, and that discussion is the causation dialectic.

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