Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Problem with Non-Philosophers

... is that they don't "get" reason. They don't know how to do it; they don't even realize why one should want to.* I generalize, of course, there are some exceptions. But for the most part, even intelligent non-philosophers** seem to lack the mental discipline required to follow a clear and logically rigorous argument. And that's a tragedy. It's something every kid should learn in school.

* = (Yes, I'm ranting, as you would expect from the post title. Yet here you are reading it anyway. Don't say I didn't warn you!)

** = (I should clarify that by "philosopher" I just mean anyone who has received sufficient philosophical training. They needn't be professional academics themselves.)

Spookyblog claims that "philosophers are getting pissed off" at the common misconceptions about our discipline, as pointed to in some of the recent "ten things" lists. I wouldn't say that, exactly. (Folk misconceptions about philosophy can be a source of much hilarity.) What really irritates me is the pathetic quality of public discourse on political and ethical questions. And, of course, the whole "not getting reason" thing mentioned above. But I think they're closely related. Anyway, here's a new list of common characteristics (of non-philosophers) that I find especially depressing:

1) They don't understand that rational argument is a form of inquiry. This leads many to close their minds to the perceived "threat" of another's persuasion. They think it's all just a matter of opinion anyway, and so don't bother to seek the truth by challenging their own preconceived beliefs. This leads them to "argue" insincerely. So the perception of empty rhetoric can be sadly accurate when applied to other layfolk and partisans. (And don't get me started on politicians!)

2) They seem incapable of focusing on a particular argument. They don't realize that the only way to make progress is one step at a time. They tend to want to tackle everything about an issue all at once. So half-way through an argument, they will suddenly demand that you address some completely different point. (Especially if the previous argument wasn't going well for them. Perhaps this is related to the intellectual dishonesty mentioned in #1 above.)

3) Perhaps related to the above two points: they only care about conclusions, and not the quality of particular arguments for getting there. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that they'd endorse the argument: "The moon is made of green cheese, therefore [insert any conclusion they agree with]." But rational argument is one arena in which the ends do not justify the means.

4) They constantly fail to understand how a point (e.g. an analogy or thought experiment) fits in to a particular argument, and instead insist on applying it more broadly -- and then objecting when this irrelevant application fails! It's so frustrating.

For example, it seemed like just about every right-winger who read my "stuck down a well" thought experiment failed to realize that its purpose was to establish the conceptual point that mere non-interference is insufficient for the kind of freedom that we value. (If you think the man stuck down the well lacks freedom, then you are forced to go beyond negative freedom, for he has no lack of that. QED.) Instead, they'd start complaining about how forcing people to help others out of wells would be impractical, yada yada yada. Completely missing the point.

Perhaps my exposition was insufficiently clear. But there is a trend here. Another example concerns G.A. Cohen's "ticket" thought-experiment, which illustrates how poverty is a form of (even negative) unfreedom. A commenter responded by "objecting" that Cohen's tickets and money were disanalogous in respect of origin -- something entirely irrelevant to Cohen's point about freedom. Again, very frustrating.

Focusing on the particular argument at hand is a really basic rational skill, and there's no reason why more people shouldn't be capable of this. It would make them so much more worth talking to. And that would be nice, don't you think?

5) Relatedly, they fail to grasp the import of hypotheticals. For example, it's easy to show that injustices could arise under pure capitalism (e.g. if all the propertied classes were racist and chose never to contract with black people, then the latter could never access any privately owned resources, and so would all starve to death. Few people would consider such indirect genocide "just"). This conclusively refutes the thesis that capitalism is intrinsically and necessarily just. It doesn't help to say that such situations would "never arise in practice". A theory of justice (or morality more generally) has universal scope, and purports to cover all possibilities. Any counterexample, no matter how outlandish or unrealistic, suffices to refute such a universal claim.

(Granted, one may legitimately raise concerns about the reliability of our moral intuitions in bizarre scenarios. See, e.g., here. I merely mean to criticize knee-jerk rejections of thought-experiments based on no further reason than that it "would never happen in practice".)

Perhaps more commonly, hypotheticals are also important for elucidating actual dispositions. For example, a fellow resident recently claimed to not care a bit about the suffering of distant strangers. I responded with my standard anti-egoist hypothetical: if you could save a million lives simply by pressing a button (which will also wipe all memory of your choice, so that it makes no difference to you), would you do it? He gave the politician's answer: "I don't do hypothetical questions." But of course he would press it - as I eventually got him to concede - and that proves that in fact he does value their lives to some extent (even if this could be easily outweighed by more egoistic concerns).

A third - and vitally important - use of hypotheticals is to clarify distinctions by separating variables that are commonly conflated in actual situations. Thought "experiments" allow us to control for confounding variables, and thus distinguish fundamental principles from others that they correlate with. (Consider Parfit's thought experiments for distinguishing prioritarianism from egalitarianism, for example.)

6) Logical fallacies. People who don't know logic reason poorly, and often can't tell when other people are reasoning poorly. The plague of illogic is totally unnecessary, and should be easy to remedy through basic education.

7) They hold silly views, like crude relativism, with a psychological certainty inversely proportional to the strength of reasons they can muster in its defence. (This may be related to #1 above. Most of the time, they don't even realize that any reasons are necessary. Such views are the "received wisdom" of popular culture, and hence need no defence. Right.)

Okay, that's enough ranting from me. Your turn... What annoyances have I missed? (Or if you like, turn it around and list "the problem(s) with philosophers"!)


  1. Oh wow... Can I relate. My entire family has this problem, and it's become a very strange issue. I've actually reached a point where I don't try to rationally converse with them because of the effort neccessary to do so.

    Trying to get them to understand a VERY simple point requires me to attack it from so many angles that I've actually developed a very strange habit of "over-selling" everything I believe in. If I try to explain something of interest to me, they end up beginning to ignore me or just make empty statements like "yeah." I believe part of this has to do with an inability to even keep up with what I'm talking about.

    This frustration I've seen in so many wide areas that I've really begun to see socializing with normal people mostly as an excuse just to play around and mess with people (in order to avoid being frustrated). It seems that the only way I can reliably communicate with ANYONE in an enjoyable fashion is by communication in a very illogical, non-linear, making-a-joke-a-minute fashion.

  2. I'd also like to add that this problem has become (or always has been) SO widespread that I've lost a lot of faith in humanity as a whole.... and by that, I mean about 99.999999% of humanity. I expect to meet very few people that match my ability to reason and think abstractly.

  3. Since I know most readers of this blog will be philosophers, as was defined by Richard, I think I'll stick up a hand for those among us who aren't.

    In #1 it was stated that non-philosophers "close their minds" to new ideas, relying on preconceived beliefs, and in #2 it was further stated that we cannot loically progress from one point to another and stay "on topic"

    In response to these I'd like to ask you, Richard, have you considered that philosophers themselves close their minds to any other form of reasoning than linear thinking? It seems to me that, since everything in the world is utterly connected at very subtle and deep levels, the best way to broaden ones thoughts, and thus arguments, is to consider any connection that the mind presents.

    What was described above by daniel was "attack it from so many angles" which I think is probably good for him (even if it may be frustrating). Surely the most thorough way of exploring any idea or point of view is to look at it from every direction possible? This would mean taking those tangents and seeing where they lead, and making sure your theory holds up against the ideas found in those regions.

    In #3 Richard said we only care about the conclusions, and not the quality of reasoning used to get to them. I'll grant he has a fair point, but (and I know its terrible that I can't for the life of me find the site I'm looking for here and thus cannot provide examples) there have been many theories throughout history (yes, it sounds weak, bear with me and I'll try to find the site) in which the reasoning was thought very sound at the time, but the theories themselves were utter failures.

    I fully expect to get jumped on by a load of logically-minded philosophers who demand I follow that point through, but I'll make a further point with it and say perhaps one of the problems with philosophers is that they sometimes refuse to realise when non-philosophers are winding them up.

    Feel free to reason yourselves in circles!

  4. Richard, have you considered that philosophers themselves close their minds to any other form of reasoning than linear thinking? It seems to me that, since everything in the world is utterly connected at very subtle and deep levels, the best way to broaden ones thoughts, and thus arguments, is to consider any connection that the mind presents.

    There may be other forms of thinking than linear thinking, and that is an interesting question. But when it comes to reasoning I don't see what other forms are available here (except by a sort of metaphorical inclusiveness, things like 'visual reasoning' and the like - but these are really thinking). The value of reasoning is precisely that in doing so one engages in it with others, and to do so really requires, if you want any sort of conversation, a reasonably linear progression. (Considering any connection that the mind presents doesn't result in the sort of discussion that ends up being fruitful, after all, and Philosophy is at its root a conversation.)

    Tangents may be informative or interesting, but if what you're doing is inquiring (and this I think is Richard's point) tangents are, well, tangents. And unless one has the time to exhaust all the avenues one might wonder down in speaking and the patience and ability to keep them all in mind all that results is a meandering conversation in which very little is gained. (Here, of course, by 'gained' I mean to use the specific sense relevant to inquiry: one might gain any number of things from an extended conversation which veers wildly from topic to topic.)

  5. Yeah, I too have some interest in such ideas, though I think it would be an advantage if this could build on blogs rather than replace them.

  6. I'll go with the "problem with philosophers" turn around.

    The main problem I have with philosophers is that they do all the reasoning, and yet so rarely change their position. Most progress in philosophy seems to be made by philosophers passing the torch rather than current philosophers changing their minds due to argument. Now obviously some do change, but this is by no means the rule.

    Even worse, philosophers annoyingly leave reason at the office. They rarely change their lives to match good arguments they accept that SHOULD have practical implications (here one might just claim that reason alone can't move one to act, but even with this possibility in mind, philosophers also rarely attempt to cultivate the right dispositional states that reason suggests we should adopt).

    There are two ways to characterize philosophers being good reasoners. (1) they are good at reasoning in the classroom/office, i.e. they are good at logical proofs and argumentation and fallacies, etc. (2) They are good at reasoning tout court.

    (1) sees wrong based on the observation that philosophers often refuse to change their positions in the face of good arguments. They seem to go about this sort of thing the same way non-philosophers do--by searching really hard to find a way out for their thesis beyond the point which it is reasonable to revise it.

    (2) is clearly wrong because philosophers are not, as a group, any better as people than non-philosophers are--even though if they are better at reasoning tout court, they should be able to reason about practical and ethical matters better than non-philosophers. And yet they don't.

    That's my problem with philosphers.

  7. Daniel,
    do you have a website? the other 58 people and I want to have a look at your stuff!

    Potential problems with many philosophers
    1) The insincere open mind. Often they declare they have an open mind on an issue but in reality don't. There are a number of ways one can achieve this (maybe the other points will reflect this). One is to create a line of argument you know you will reject (potentially for an arbitrary reason and encourage them to debate it as opposed to any other.
    2) Focusing on a specific argument that has no real life impact, as if it DOES have a real life impact. For example a debate about semantics or one about some thought experiment that fundamentally cannot exist. This reflects in either a misuse of their well argued conclusion or leaving others confused constantly wondering if there is some secret practical application (as opposed to breaching some social convention by wasting their time).
    3) From wider evidence they believe they know something and can’t understand why you would ignore wider evidence in order to have a specific debate.
    4) Hypocrisy - they argue a moral position and then don’t live up to it. Since their positions are more idealistic generally they are also more hypocritical.
    5) Not treating the other side as an equal in the debate and seeing their debating style as a sign of inferiority
    6) failure to integrate other fields of knowledge as suggested above
    7) being too deep in one's field to properly engage with someone outside of it. Ie making arguments that have no validity or meaning to the other party and which thus serve no purpose.

  8. For Richards,
    to me 1 is crucial there is rarely any point me agreeing with someone, so I tend to be critical particularly of my own views because revising my own views is the most important thing.
    and 3) I’m willing to bite the bullet on many issues far more than anyone else I know.
    As for mine,
    my 3 and 6 relate to how I view many "philosophers" and 1 is true generally.
    and I think 7 is common

  9. I think what you are saying is basically true, the level of reasoning in the community is appalling. I remember when I was first starting philosophy, I grew excited, then horrified, then depressed at my new found ability to spot six non seqitirs a second.

    Still, depression cures no ills. That's why I'm going to propose to you that a carnival of the rigorous be set up for posts that exemplify all the things that, as you pointed out, are tragically lacking.

    I am only an eighteen year old kid, so I was wondering if I could get your advice on how to do it since you've set up a carnival before.

  10. Having just read the comments pdf23ds sounds like he might like to help to.

  11. Timothy, great idea! I've written up some thoughts in response, here -- let me know what you think. (And don't worry, I was only 19 when I started the Philosophers' Carnival!)

    Miss M. - I'd echo Dr. P's response to your first point. On your final point, I'm sure no-one will deny that there have been many reasonably justified theories (Aristotelian cosmology springs to mind) which turned out to be false in light of new evidence or ways of thinking. Reason isn't infallible. Like democracy, it's simply less bad than all the alternatives. But at least it can be self-correcting, as shown by these very examples of progress.

    Ben - I'm not sure that (2) is clearly wrong. It may just be that philosophers are insufficiently motivated either to reason about practical morality, or else to enact their conclusions. Interesting problem, though. Cf. Eric Schwitzgebel's recent post: The Problem of the Ethics Professors.

  12. Genius,
    Not currently. I'm really considering getting a blog up though. However, my blog won't be specifically philosophy related so much as just what-im-pondering related.

  13. Agree with all of this, though Brandon's point about 'good taste', i.e. an 18C all-roundedness that modern education no longer cultivates, is a good one. If for example you compare Hume's writing on economics, which delve into all sorts of odd corners of his classically-educated world, with any modern writing on economics, you will see what I mean.

    As for thought experiments, I gave up long ago of using them with non-philosophers. What is it about them? I don't know, but they are guaranteed to generate confusion and misunderstanding. But they are the most perfect and unconfusing form of argument ever invented.

  14. Can I also recommend this.


    "The modern schoolmaster is expected to know a little of every thing, because his pupil is required not to be entirely ignorant of any thing. He must be superficially, if I may so say, omniscient." How true (except that was written two hundred years ago).

  15. I wish to take up your point 6, by raising a distinction raised before by commentators to this blog: that of the cultural dependence of modes of reasoning. There is strong anthropological evidence that not all societies use the same rules of inference known and loved in western philosophy. Given this fact, one could ask (as some philosophers have, eg Susan Haack) how one could justify the standard rules of deductive inference.

    To take one example: Modus Ponens. If you try to justify the use of this rule of inference with examples of its application, you are using a form of inductive reasoning to justify a deductive inference rule. That seems too weak a justification. If, on the other hand, you try to justify MP using arguments based on truth tables, you will find (as Haack noted) that you will be using Modus Ponens itself in the justification.

    Given this inability of very clever professional philosophers to find justification for the use of the standard rules of deductive logic, I think the ground underneath your point 6 is very shaky indeed.

  16. >>>
    Given this inability of very clever professional philosophers to find justification for the use of the standard rules of deductive logic

    How would we justify rules of logic? By some kind of argument?

  17. >>
    As long as you're aware of their limitations.

    As I said, their obvious limitation is that they are guaranteed to generate confusion and misunderstanding

  18. pdf23ds: Have you seen Wikireason by any chnace? It looks just like that argument mapping thing you've linked to, but in Wiki style. It's criminally underused, and I think it has to do with Richard's point that people don't really know how an argument works.

  19. One problem is (this is somewhat idiosyncratic) that communication about abstract matters is difficult and people on both sides of the philosopher/non-philosopher divide tend to forget that. Without some of the common background that philosophy classes give you, it becomes really hard to see what the implicit premises being employed are. A lot of philosophical discussions end because one or both parties lose track of the dialectic and follow an unfruitful tangent, like you pointed out. I think it needs to be acknowledged that following a dialectic and only paying attention to premises that are in play is a skill that requires training and refinement. Of course, at least in the US, this is not helped by the idea that argumentation is some sort of pugilistic encounter that is more mixed with rhetoric and posturing than with reasoning and counter-examples. It might be the same way in Australia.

    In response to your discussion of thought experiments and hypotheticals in (4) and (5), there are a couple of possibilities that I think you're leaving out. Applying the idea behind a thought experiment to another situation might be an attempt to undermine the intuition you think the thought experiment brings out. If the second case is relevantly similar but doesn't support the conclusion, someone needs to explain how it either changed an important basic part of the hypothetical or how it isn't actually relevant. Relatedly, someone could be trying to generalize your point in an obvious way. If it doesn't generalize, this could indicate a fault in the argument, although it may not.

    The last thing I wanted to say is that I agree that general discourse is in bad shape. On the West Coast, there is some effort to change this. One of the ideas behind John Perry and Ken Taylor's radio show, Philosophy Talk, was to introduce philosophical ideas and reasoning into the general public discourse. (I saw that your blog links to their blog.) I work for their show and we have gotten several emails from people (non-philosophers) how nice it is that there is some clear discussion and argumentation on the radio. It is also reasonably popular, so there is definitely an interest out there for this sort of thing. I hope that curbs your despair a little bit.

  20. In the 1950s, BBC Radio (UK) used to broadcast the Philsophy Department seminars from University College, London, seminars chaired by the head of department, AJ Ayer. I'm not sure this had any marked impact on the quality of British discourse.

  21. seems to me to assert that the groups you are describing are those who have and have not experienced "sufficient philosophical training", while it seems to me that the difference is substantially temperamental, and cannot even be reliably predicted by IQ style intelligence, creativity or a philosophy PhD. Many people who have never formally studied philosophy are found in both groups.

  22. Michael, that's right -- I'd simply say that how much philosophical training is "sufficient" will vary between individuals! (Unless you mean to suggest that some people are inherently ineducable when it comes to logical reasoning?)

  23. I'm sure that there are biological humans who are inherently incapable of logical reasoning, but I'm not sure they count as "people" and they aren't numerous. However, it seems possible to me that the vast majority of people are inherently incapable of seeing the point of much philosophical discourse. They can follow the logic if they really try, but don't care about the subject and have difficulty seeing how anyone else could care (for which reason they often think that philosophy is all just excuses for power as posited in crude post-modernism).

  24. Certainly most people do exhibit this ignorance (which was precisely my complaint), but why think that they must? (i.e. that their ignorance is incurable?)

  25. Great thread Richard. I really enjoy the discussions you host on this blog. I will like to respond briefly to the first objection raised by Miss M.

    It seems to me that, since everything in the world is utterly connected at very subtle and deep levels, the best way to broaden ones thoughts, and thus arguments, is to consider any connection that the mind presents.

    I believe the starting premise of this argument illustrates what many philosophers find frustrating about talking to non-philosophers. The claim that ‘everything is connected’ is taken to be so obvious, as not to warrant defence, when it is not even clear what the claim means. If we mean that everything in the universe is physically connected (in the sense that every atom is connected to every other atom via a finite string of intermediary atoms) then this claim is trivial to the point of being vacuous. It certainly has no bearing on the rational structure of arguments. If this is supposed to be rational claim, that every proposition is evidentially connected to every other proposition, then this claim seems plainly false. Sun spots are not evidence that olive oil is healthier than corn oil, even if the sun is partly responsible for growth of both types of plant. Whatever physical relationship may exist between sun spots and the health benefits of olive oil is completely irrelevant to the argument at hand. So what, pray tell, is the significance of the starting premise, ‘since everything in the world is utterly connected’?

  26. A problem with philosophers? How about far too many lacking any sense of humor, lightness, or grace in their writings and lectures. By this I don't mean constantly making jokes, puns, etc. (though if Derrida's your thing you can find plenty of those there). I mean, rather, possessing a kind of self-aware modesty. One might also say irony...in a limited sense...or playfulness. A subtly explicit recognition that "Though I'm pretty sure you don't know what you're talking about, you know what...I may not know what I'm talking about either." And being comfortable with that. This is distinct, I believe, from acknowledging you might be wrong on an "intellectual" level, which I'm sure every philosopher is concerned with. Well, maybe not Searle. jk

    Internalizing this very simple thought leads to a somewhat different, more approachable, and in my opinion more valuable and convincing style of argument and writing. Plus it makes you not such a damn pretentious bore! Surely that is useful!

    I might add that this is something I think Richard tends to do pretty well and is a large reason why his blog is so successful.

    A problem with non-philosophers? My biggest peeve is one Richard named: an unwillingness to follow an argument in any kind of depth.

  27. Oh, I'm kinda partial to pretentious bores...

  28. Well, I'd assume we all are here, myself included! I suppose with that not entirely serious quip I was thinking more in the context of readership beyond a small set of phil grad students and professors.

    That said, I do often prefer Nozick, Quine, Davidson, Putnam, and others who, perhaps, write in a more "playful" style.

  29. Richard,

    I have been quite fascinated by the proceedings of this post, but I wonder if the difference we are considering here is not one of trained philosophers and laypersons, but one of the "professional" versus the "casual" logician.

    Most important to me is point 1 and it's various responses, especially Miss M.'s response about philosopher's also closing their minds to new ideas. I would like to argue both for and against philosophers here.

    For: I know in the past, I have been accused of being quite stubborn in my opinions. One friend, however, hit on the true source of the problem. He said he didn't like arguing with me because I have already considered the options he is presenting, so I made the conversation seem quite one-sided, much the same way that someone who was deadset in his opinion might make it. My argument for philosophers in this case then is that, given they are clearly interested in the topic, they have thought about their opinion rigorously and possibly had very similar arguments with other philosophers and friends, giving them many opportunities to have already changed and fully formed their opinions. In contrast, the layperson must react on his/her feet, meaning his arguments can often seem ill-conceived.

    Against: Directly following from this notion then is the idea that such a scenario can, if not presented the correct way on the part of the philosopher, seem like a rapid-fire barrage of counter-arguments, seemingly shooting down the layperson's arguments almost before they are finished fleshing them out. Put in such a situation, many people, including philosophers would become defensive and slightly less rational.

    So I came to realize that I needed to spend the time to use some dialogic techniques, such as paraphrasing and proper listening skills to encourage the other person to explore his/her viewpoint more fully. This can run counter to a linear process at times, indulging tangents to see what the person really meant by the tangential line of inquiry. The goal, of course, is to get back on the main track in an explorative, rather than an argumentative, way. Essentially, this involves a cooperative, rather than a competitive means on arriving upon a solution to a particular inquiry.

    So I would posit that it is not always the case that non-philosophers are close-minded or do not respect the proper path of inquiry, rather it is merely that they are less practiced in a particular argument or line of thought. For example, while I could hold my own in a discussion on social philosophy, I would have more trouble with someone trained in metaphysics (or physics for that matter).

    Either way, I agree with Richard that philosophical ways of thinking should be taught to children, especially in areas of creative thinking and mathematical reasoning.


  30. Thank you, this neatly sums up much of the frustration I have faced today.

  31. This is a simply outstanding post - the same gripes have been niggling away at me for ages.

    My mother is a particular case in point. I will calmly explain to her that if she believes A (which she claims to believe), then she cannot also believe B (which she claims to believe) for they are logically incompatible. I then ask her to choose A or B...and she says both.

    At this point rational argument gives out and my head explodes.

  32. I have the same problem but logic should entail to look at it on both sides. Logic is like asking someone to accept something that completely contradicts peoples beliefs theyve relied on for years.

    Maybe its just me but many people who are illogical are also not the quickest minded. Logic should force you to look at myself as truthfully as possible. That problem to you is a good one. I would love to say im an intellect over im a moron. Imagine reading a book and maybe 1 idea per page gets through to you. Thats the elegant universe to me at this moment. I completely believe that acceptance is best in the long term though, no ego equals barely any depression.

  33. Luke of 'Common Sense Atheism' offers some examples from his own experience, here.

  34. Genius, I agree so much with what you say on 'the problem with philosophers'. I fear I probably reflected a lot of those traits in my earlier years. While I disagree that philosophical problems need to have real life relevance to be worth debating, I think if you're going to seriously raise an abstract point for debate (rather than in a banterous/speculative context), you should be prepared to not become so infatuated with your belief that it becomes immune to rational critique. Some thought experiment situations can never exist but neither can a frictionles plane, and again, 'numbers' aren't literally rational or irrational. I think of thought experiments, however *temporally* bizarre, to be worth thinking about if they make a wider conceptual point, or reveal a fundamental weakness in an idea. Anyway I might add to your list of problems with philosophers:

    1) Pretending not to understand what others are saying because they didn't say it in philosophese. This, to me, is one of the most offensive habits that some philosophers have when talking philosophy with non-philosophers. This reflects a general disdain for non-professional philosophers, I think.

    2) Inventing terms. I consider most terms of art to be 'landmarks' in a discipline rather than metaphysically essential. They're a way of fixing the parameters of discussion on a limited issue or aspect. Philsophers tend to get carried away making up new words (especially, I think, in continental philosophy). This confuses discussions and adds unnecessary hermeneutical complexities for people who read such work in the present or the future. And it looks like cheating: a deus ex machina for problematic arguments. Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, whom I consider to be two of the most forceful philosophers of all time, spoke and wrote in colloquial, aphoristic prose, to great effect. We could probably learn something from that. Unless I'm talking to a fellow philosophy student or academic, I avoid using jargon unless it's as a signpost. I like ideas to be as naked as possible (one of the things that attracts me to the analytic tradition).

    3) Lack of charity. When debating with other philosophers, philosophers sometimes have the tiresome habit of giving the least reasonable interpretation to what their interlocutors say or write, or focussing on red herrings and presenting them as fatal to the argument. I think it's best to treat ideas quiet(ist)ly first, however much you don't like, and only then put your own forward as alternatives. I always assume that people aren't wrong on purpose.

    4) Texts (or names) over substance. This applies perhaps more to philosophy students than to academic philosophers. There's a tendency to treat philosophy as a series of texts, quotations and names rather than attempts to solve or address certain epistemic or existential problems. As you say Richard, philosophy is a mode of inquiry, not merely a canon of texts.

    That said, I find intelligent (or shall I say 'intellectuall confident') people with strong opinions and no, or minimal, philosophical training, to be the most difficult to deal with. It seldom occurs to them that their views are fallible. They look for 'corrct' views rather than 'better' ones, and they tend to use logic dishonestly, or otherwise over-praise rationality as an action-guiding standard.

    In a final point, I reject the common view among philosophers and non-philosophers alike, that philosophy has no relevance to real life. Theoretical mathematics has limited relevance to anything other than maths departments, but the concepts and conceptual clarifications they discover can have spillover use in other areas from software design and data management, to simply creating controlled 'worlds' to test ideas. I suspect people essentially conceieve of the world -- even its physical properties -- in an abstract context. To this extent, philosophy remains a useful way of tidying up our patterns of thinking, a little.

  35. I agree wholeheartedly with your observations about non-philosophers and arguments. However, like all of us, when you complain about other people "not getting" you point there is a tendency to assume that you point was there to be grasped, and that once grasped, it should be affirmed.

    Point 5) for example. Your hypothetical about racist owners of capital actually does not show that capitalism must therefor not be intrinsicly or necessarily just. For the capitalist could merely reply that what causes the injustice in scenarios like this is not capitalism at all, but racism.

    We all have our biases, and often "complaints" contain an element of frustration that more people do not share our beliefs.

    But as I said, I think your point on the whole is one that more of us should be complaining about.

  36. Glenn, if racism can cause injustice compatibly with capitalism, then that suffices to establish my claim that a capitalist system is not necessarily just. It needs to be combined with protections against racism, etc.

    (You seem to be confusing "not necessarily just" with "intrinsically unjust". Of course I'm only suggesting the former, not the latter.)

  37. Richard, no, I am not confusing the two.

    This now makes me think that perhaps (but only perhaps) your concern was more about people not agreeing with your beliefs than about people not understanding arguments.

    Your concern was about "the thesis that capitalism is intrinsically and necessarily just." It seems to me that intrinsically just things can be coupled with unjust things (like racism) without conflict. Now you mightn't agree, but I wouldn't accuse you, on that basis, of failing to understand anything.

  38. To clarify: the question is whether a capitalist system is necessarily just, in the sense that it necessarily contains no injustice. To restate the disputed thesis in other words: respecting property rights exhausts the requirements of justice, so justice is done so long as nobody has been robbed, defrauded, or the like. It is this claim that I had previously arguing against (by way of hypothetical counterexamples). The present point is that it's no defense of this claim to complain that the counterexamples (of injustice in a capitalist society) are "unrealistic" or whatever.

    You're changing the subject by proposing the weaker claim that capitalism might be just in itself (so far as it goes), but not exhaustive of justice.

  39. Well no, I'm not changing the subject, I'm just talking about capitalism. You're talking about things that can exist in a cpitalist society as though they can be said to be "contained" by capitalism.

    If this is what you really meant earlier than I can't really be blamed for not knowing this. I would just say now that it's very strange to think of such things as being "contained" by capitalism, and I can hardly blame those people you refer to for being confused by the idea.

  40. Well...
    As a non-philosopher who came here from a link on LessWrong, formelly known as Overcoming Bias (and has many -though not all- philosophical opinions that one would expect from a "moderate modern rationalist" LessWrong reader), I am now honestly afraid to comment on this blog.

    1. Ha, don't worry, I'd expect any OB/LW readers to count as having sufficient philosophical familiarity and reasoning ability to escape the ire of my undergrad self who wrote this blog post half a lifetime ago :-)

  41. Apologies if this comes off as non-philosopherish, but I understand this struggle a lot. I'm only an undergraduate student, but to converse in philosophy is nothing but struggle as one of the first responses in the dialogue is that of "what's the point?", and this is a question I despise because while I know the average person isn't concerned with whether or not you can use invisibility virtuously, but the whole point of it is to engage the use of logic in a person, and that question throws it all out the window.


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