Monday, May 01, 2006

Sterba on "the battleplace of ideas"

If those doing philosophy are always trying to win philosophical battles and emerge as victorious, or at least not be defeated, in philosophical wars, they will not be able to achieve the sympathetic understanding of their opponents' views necessary for recognizing what is valuable in those views and what, therefore, needs to be incorporated into their own views. If your goal is always to achieve philosophical victory or to avoid at all costs philosophical defeat, then, given the complexity of philosophical views, it will almost always be possible to rearrange the elements of your views so as to deceive others, and even yourself, about the defensibility of those views... For this reason, the warmaking model of doing philosophy renders it difficult to make needed improvements in your philosophical views, or even to abandon them entirely for the sake of better ones. It thereby undercuts the very possibility of your having truly justified philosophical views.

That's from James P. Sterba's Justice for here and now, p.4. He continues:
[P]hilosophers who are committed to the warmaking model of doing philosophy... are trying in every way they can, both fair and foul, to avoid having to admit to philosophical defeat. No wonder, then, that so few clear and undeniable philosophical victories emerge from these contests.

He then goes on to offer "a peacemaking way of doing philosophy", which is nicely summarized in the four questions he asks his readers at the end of the first chapter (p.13):
1) Will you give this book the kind of attention necessary to assess its arguments and conclusions fairly?

2) Are you open to being informed by the discussion of topics in the book with which you are unfamiliar or positions with which you disagree?

3) When you find that you have objections to some of the arguments or conclusions of the book, will you try to uncover ways to respond effectively to your own objections?

4) Finally, but most importantly, will you approach the book entertaining the possibility that you might modify or abandon your previous views should the arguments appear compelling?

(They'd be good questions to stick at the top of one's blog, come to think of it. I'm tempted to add a blogified version of these questions to my "introduction" post.)

He adds, "only if readers could truthfully answer yes to all of these questions would they, in fact, be committed to a peacemaking way of doing philosophy as I have characterized it."

Sterba notes that the "peacemaking" label might be misleading, as it "may suggest that participants are interested in securing agreement or reconciliation at all costs, which violates fair-mindedness by requiring participants to give up or modify their views when there is really no good reason to do so." (p.11)

It seems to me that he's really just talking about doing philosophy in a fair and open-minded way. It's a pity we sometimes need the reminder. (See also Norman Swartz's 'Philosophy as a blood sport'.)



  1. Is there anyway that this post could have been developed in absolute isolation of the post which I put up less than 24 hours beforehand?: If it truly was a coincidence, that what a coincidence it was!

  2. Hmm, I'm not sure. Now that you mention it, I skimmed part of your post (hyperlink) as it appeared in my feed-reader this morning, but didn't really take it in. I certainly had no conscious recollection of it when writing this post, which was simply inspired by reading Sterba this afternoon (and seemed relevant to recent discussions). So make of that what you will! *shrug*

  3. The marketing method of debating philosophy (selling of books) means it is best to sell your ideas than to prove your ideas and it is better to have a few zealous converts than a large amount of ambivalent people who agree with you or no one who has any strong objections despite the fact that the latter would almost be proof while the former doesn't mean much at all.

    The cynical side of me wonders if he is just describing the type of people he wants to debate with (i.e. potential converts) as opposed to the way he behaves. It gives the impression it is more the former.

    To me the best trait in philosophy is to be able to rip apart someone else making your own argument (being a good devils advocate). If you don’t understand the other side well enough to argue it fluently then you don’t really know if your argument is better (almost always).

    As a result I expect a great philosopher should generally only write good books and essays for the masses when he is intentionally being a little misleading.


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