Are Philosophers Giving Up on Reason?

I recently read What Philosophers Know, by Gary Gutting, for one of my philosophy courses. The book is, in essence, an attempt at rebutting skeptics of philosophy who say that philosophers have not established any disciplinary knowledge; the idea is that he will rebut these skeptics by showing what knowledge philosophy has gained. Unfortunately, the book ends up justifying skeptics rather than rebutting them – the entire book consists of Gutting describing a philosophical dispute, reassuring everyone involved that they are entitled to their opinion, and then moving on. His “philosophical knowledge” is simply that “everyone is entitled to their opinion” repeated over, and over, and over.

His reason for this relativistic assertion is that he believes that this is necessary in order to get any interesting results. He argues that since a strictly foundationalist approach (basically, only accepting as premises for arguments points that are either extremely obvious or extremely well justified) fails to produce interesting results, we must loosen these criteria for accepting premises; and Gutting loosens his criteria enough that on every issue he discusses he ends up simply telling each side of the argument that they are “warranted” in holding their position, and that neither one should give way to the other. Attacking premises, or asking for them to be justified, is outlawed in the name of “anti-foundationalism”.

There is a continuum of how stringent the criteria for accepting premises can be – on the one side of the spectrum we have radical skepticism, which has criteria so stringent that no knowledge can be established, and foundationalism, which has criteria stringent enough that establishing useful or interesting knowledge is extremely difficult, and on the far other end of the spectrum, we have relativism, where nearly any belief can be seen as “warranted” because its only objective criterion is that the premise is logically coherent with itself and with the other premises of the argument. Gutting’s book indicates that because of fear of foundationalism and radical skepticism, philosophers have moved further and further away from a harsh foundationalist viewpoint, and have ended up on the complete other side of the spectrum. The result is that no true philosophical progress can be made, because the premises of arguments are considered virtually immune to criticism – and so arriving at any definitive answer to a philosophical question is impossible, and the use of reason is relegated to the sidelines in favour of subjective arguments based on pathos and “intuitive plausibility.”

Think I’m being too hard on Gutting? That philosophy really isn’t all that relativistic? Let’s look at what philosophers know. Gutting on “what philosophers know” about analytic knowledge: “Knowing that analyticity cannot be defined in essentially different terms means that we must either accept it (or another term in its immediate family) as basic or else reject it.” (p73) Ah, thanks to our reasoned analysis of analytic knowledge, we have established that we must either accept it or reject it. But, which one? Up to you! Take your pick!

Gutting on “what philosophers know” about Kripke’s claims that there is such a thing as necessary a posteriori knowledge: “[Kripke] did not establish that his essentialist theses were true, but that the picture they presented was worthy of attention.” (78) Do philosophers know whether Kripke’s right? Nope.

Gutting on “what philosophers know” regarding free will, determinism, and so forth: philosophers haven’t established anything for sure, but “we’re going to [hold people responsible for their actions] no matter what. Perhaps we can take this very result as an important piece of philosophical knowledge. Couldn’t it be plausibly claimed that one outcome of philosophical anti-foundationalism, applied to the case of freedom, has been that the practice of holding responsible is in order even without philosophical justification?” (p148) Yes, because that’s knowledge that non-philosophers will find useful. “Hey, laypeople, you know that thing you’re already doing? You can keep doing that.” Thanks, philosophy!

Gutting’s complete unwillingness to favour one view over another is highlighted when he considers Alvin Plantinga’s book “The Warrantedness of Christian belief.” He mentions a possible counterargument to Plantinga’s defense of the warrantedness of Christian belief; that “to the extent that Plantinga’s book supports the warrant of Christianity, [one could use these same arguments to] support the warrant of, for example, conservative Islamic views on the status of women, Catholic views on papal infallibility, and perhaps even Jehovah’s Witnesses’ views on blood transfusions and Aztec views on the need for human sacrifice.” (p117) It seems like he is finally understanding the flaws of this relativistic approach to philosophy; but no! Gutting is so committed to avoiding telling anyone that they are wrong that he asks, “But why should any of this bother Plantinga or other Christians who rely on his defense?” (p117) Hmm. Yes, why should this bother Plantinga? maybe because “Aztec views on the need for human sacrifice” are clearly wrong, and so if they can be defended by the same arguments Plantinga uses to defend Christianity, this constitutes a reductio ad absurdum refutation of Plantinga’s defense of Christianity? Or maybe this should just bother Plantinga for the same reason that it should bother any other philosopher, i.e. that it means that if Plantinga’s arguments (which Gutting endorses) are successful then philosophy is doomed to accomplishing basically nothing at all!

Gutting’s idea of a conclusive, useful piece of philosophical knowledge, that he uses in the conclusion to his entire book as an example of what philosophy can do for non-philosophers, is: “no standard popular version of a theistic or atheistic argument makes an adequate case for its conclusion.” (p232) Congratulations, the grand message of philosophers to nonphilosophers is: “Laypeople! Keep doing what you’re doing, but with the understanding that no one is really wrong or right about anything.” And to think that those silly skeptics thought that philosophers might not have accomplished anything worthwhile!

Gutting sets out to show “what philosophers know.” But all that he ends up “showing” is that philosophers have become too afraid of radical skepticism to excercise any skepticism at all, too afraid of having their own false beliefs exposed to expose the false beliefs of others, and too distrustful of their own reason to accept it when it leads them counter to their intuition. Now, maybe Gutting is wrong about the state of philosophy and of philosophers. But if his take on the state of philosophy is accurate then the majority of the philosophical community is using an overly lax approach that fundamentally undermines the philosophical enterprise.

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7 Responses to Are Philosophers Giving Up on Reason?

  1. Kirbycairo says:

    Interesting post, though I am not sure where you stand on the issue. I think that there is a pretty solid argument to be made that Philosophy as a Western academic exercise has largely failed to produce the kinds of results that many rationalist philosophers expected it to produce. But then isn’t this really what modern Continental philosophers have really been arguing for thirty years or so now? But, more importantly, aren’t they arguing this from a sort of “antirationalist” view point which suggests that trans-historical, objectively verifiable knowledge is not really (or shouldn’t necessarily) be the objective of philosophy? And yet they have done some very interesting and, I believe, important, work. Derrida, for example, has demonstrated a remarkable philosophic process of deconstructing ideas and ideology but he has not contributed to philosophy in the ways that Anglo-rationalist philosophers would think appropriate or even meaningful.

    Sorry, I am going on a bit and it is late, and I may be making no sense. I just think that the paradigm of philosophy is changing but these kind of paradigm shifts are slow and difficult to get a handle on. We often think of this shift as a ‘linguistic’ shift in philosophy, (or a relativist shift) but I sometimes wonder if it could be characterized as a new kind of pragmatism?

    • screwplato says:

      My own stance, and where the continental philosophers and I may be in agreement, is that philosophy has failed so far to produce substantial or interesting results. Where we part ways is that they argue (to my limited unerstanding) that there is no possible way to arrive at useful, objective truths, while I disagree. I think that there is a skeptical viewpoint that finds the “golden mean” (broken clocks are right twice a day) on the spectrum I described, where its premises are well justified and yet it can still give reliable, useful answers.

      The only reason I can think of that such a balance isn’t already dominant in philosophy is that it does require holding one’s tongue on matters (e.g. the conceivability of zombies) which are currently out of the reach of evidence and reason, and philosophy naturally attracts the sort of people who find that difficult to do.

  2. Kirbycairo says:

    It seems to me that it is mostly the Anglo-American tendencies in philosophy that attract the kind of people you are talking about. I am also not sure that I would characterize it the way you have here. You have equated “useful” with “objective” which I think kind of misrepresents the situation a bit. But I do think a philosopher like Habermas does kind of fit the bill you seem to be talking about concerning someone who inhabits both sides of the argument. Particularly in his Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas goes to great lengths to distinguish between different kinds of knowledge and different kinds of claims to truth (ie. factual claims, normative claims, and dramaturgical claims) The interesting thing about Habermas’ approach is that he also goes to great lengths to demonstrate how modes of thought that belong in the region of “claims to fact” have colonized the other areas.

  3. JustSomeone says:

    Can’t you learn something without criticizing it? Like atheists learn about religion before becoming atheists, otherwise their arguments would be invalid. Plato’s perspective and recollected sensorial data is obviously not yours or mine.
    Only if you become successful at being a philosopher without going back to the system and subjecting yourself to other people’s ideas (which you’re going to be exposed to unless you move to space, a desert or a cave) can you convince me that you’ve succeeded at thinking “right”. (Considering that you’re personality is arrogant.) Of course,only if this is what you consider your “career” and what you’re willing to do.
    I type career that way not to point out unappreciation, rather to point out or consider other views on what “career” means or might significate in these society or being experience.

  4. JustSomeone says:

    First point:
    Knowledge can be obtained by the use of “critic”.

    Second point:
    Plato’s life experience cannot be repeated nor replicated.

    Third point:
    Philosophy does not require philosophers to think alike, but it does require an undefined minimum effort to think until reaching a “loophole”. (Or it is at least presumed by the masses)

    Fourth point:
    Contemporary definitions are highly affected by society and changes in time.

    I apologize for paraphrasing my thoughts with such carelessness. Even thought apologizing is a mere invention. A shame-machine.

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