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19 December 2011


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Eric Schliesser

Initially, I offer just a small correction: I quoted a lament on the taboo on transcendental idealism. I did not endorse the lament. By contrast, I think philosophy needs taboos and can't tolerate them.

John Protevi

The second way complains that reasoning is a hegemonic tool used by the powerful few to guard their own privilege against the presumptions of the questing many.

What works do you have in mind when saying this, Mohan? I recognize the constraints of blogging, but this mannequin seems to have a bit of straw peaking out of the stitches.

Mohan Matthen

I am not going to reply to that, John! Not sure what you mean by "straw peeking out of the stitches." That I am bluffing, or that you might know who.

Here, however, is a clue. There is a book by a grad student from a department recently the subject of controversy on this blog (and others). It makes precisely the claim that I report. It was published, by the way, before this department took on its present composition and became the subject of said controversy. (It was worse before.)


Sometimes Catherine Mackinnon says things like that, John- not about "reasoning" but about "objectivity" and other similar ideas in essays like "Desire and Power" in _Feminism Unmodified_. I read her, when she does this, as presenting a not very clearly stated version of standpoint-epistemology. (I think that's essential to understanding her views.) I don't think standpoint epistemology is a rejection of objectivity or reason, when properly understood (it probably depends on it!) but it sometimes presented as if it were, by MacKinnon and others.

Eric Schliesser

I am intrigued by your defense of PES-Squared history by Kripke, Mohan. (Would be nice if you could spell it out more as a distinct post.)
However, when you write "[X] simply denies rationality," I treat that as a rhetorical move no better than an 'incredulous stare' (against, say, para-consistent logic, etc). Maybe a bit worse, because it is an instance of boundary policing that is not inclusive.
Leave that aside, one of PES' patron-saints, Hume, insisted that the claims of rationality were overblown (to say the least--he certainly thought that long trains of deductive reasoning were to be mistrusted) and that much of our very best thinking was really a species of feeling. Yet, it seems misguided to say that Hume did not reason or offered reasoned arguments. I think the same is true, in fact, for the non-PES that I am familiar with. (Much of the very best PES philosophy comes to us in the guise of myth, stories, narrative, thought experiment etc, but about that some other time more.)
PS You are the second person this year who has called me "distinguished;" the first clearly meant something like 'old-fart.'

John Protevi

And your position is that this formulation, drawn from a book by a grad student (or did you mean "graduate"?) of an unnamed department, is an adequate description of the work of Irigaray, Kristeva, Deleuze, and Badiou? Perhaps you also need to add "carefulness" to your list of attributes that PES Squared dispenses with in its consumption of (French) philosophy!

Mohan Matthen

I gave an example of something that wouldn't count as PES. It wouldn't matter if it were completely fictional (which it isn't), given how I used it. I didn't attribute it to Irigaray et al. You know perfectly well that the latter occurred in a quote. Please look at my post, and recrack your joke about carefulness.

John Protevi

Joke retracted. Serious question: do you agree with Brian Leiter's suggestion?

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

I meant to comment on Mohan's concept of PES before, but never got around to doing it in the previous thread. Here it is at last.

In a sense, one of the problems with PES is precisely that it is NOT sufficiently informed by the sciences. At least a large chunk of what is done in the PES spirit deliberately remains oblivious to actual scientific investigation (under the argument that 'philosophy is about how things ought to be, not how things really are' or something along these lines). And yet, it claims for itself the aura of objectivity of the sciences, while relying on highly problematic methods such as 'intuition-based' approaches, which leave a lot to be desired in terms of 'objectivity'.

In a sense, this is much more pernicious than the kind of philosophical practice that is willing to recognize the historicity and contingency of its own basic tenets.

In sum, while I'm all in favor of PES, at the very least it should be properly done, i.e. in a truly scientifically-informed way (which is definitely already the case of a lot of its practitioners, but alas by far not all). Moreover, PES has much to learn from 'genealogical' approaches in terms of scrutinizing its own assumptions and tenets.

PES also has much to learn from other approaches to philosophy in terms of how to work with texts. The kind of 'selective' history that is often done by those within the PES realm of influence is pernicious even towards the authors themselves. For example, Frege is severely misconstrued so as to be deserving of the honorific 'father of analytic philosophy'. The 'odd' aspects of his thinking (odd for not fitting the role) are hidden under the carpet - for example, the treatment of the judgment stroke, arguably one of the most misunderstood aspects of Frege's thought (but with a few exceptions, such as Nicholas J.J. Smith, Danielle Macbeth, my former supervisor Goran Sundholm etc.).

So all in all, again I'm making a plea for methodological pluralism by arguing that different methodological approaches can counterbalance each other's weaknesses. But should there be any doubts, I am most certainly very much a PES-philosopher myself, albeit perhaps one who takes a critical stance towards the underlying methodologies of big portions of PES.


John, an anecdote. I was briefly supervised by Liz Grosz. She once told me (roughly) that one day I would grow out of my belief in truth and rationality. She said that belief in either was 19th century.

Mohan Matthen

Retract is better than re-crack (which is what I challenged you to do). I am very happy with that.

About Irigary & Co, to be frank, I don't know whether I agree with Brian: I simply don't know enough. (As I was saying, I find philosophical reading very difficult and painful, and don't read for general knowledge. I do learn a lot from Jeff Bell's Continental Connections series, and I would love to hear from him on this topic.)

Just to be clear, though, what I said in my post is that the male hegemony approach to questioning the legitimacy of deductive reasoning would be scorned in PES circles, which would include (say) Husserl and his contemporary followers. I put the Brian quote out there for the sake of comparison. I should have written 'Compare Brian's remark . . . ' instead of 'As Brian said . . . '.


“Reasoning is a hegemonic tool used by the powerful few to guard their own privilege against the presumptions of the questing many”:

One version of this claim is not defensible: it would take reason to be merely or nothing other than a tool etc.

Another version has, it seems to me, some plausibility. It is that reasoning, or the appearance of reasoning, has been one of the many instruments by which those in control of political institutions seek to buttress their position. Racial ideologies were said to rest on sound science, for example; the inferior social position of women was, and in some quarters still is, legitimated by appeal to science.

At the very least asserting the second does not entail a refusal to reason. On the contrary, the examination of the rhetorical uses of reasoned discourse would help to preserve reason from abuse by those for whom it is indeed merely an instrument of control.


PES: I’m not sure the word “extension” will do, even as a sociological label, for two reasons.

(i) It makes philosophy sound as if it were a mere adjunct to science, ancillary to science now as in the middle ages it was thought to be ancillary to theology. I don’t think very many PES types would assent to that.

(ii) More importantly, as you describe it (and as many philosophers would have it), philosophy, with its proper methods, runs parallel to science, with its proper methods, not before nor after it as the metaphor of “extension” would suggest.

An important feature of the ideology you’re describing is that philosophy has a distinct intellectual identity (and therefore ought to preserve its distinct institutional identity: PES as I see it is very much about patrolling boundaries), which is to say that although it respects the results of science, it isn’t, in fact, much interested in what it takes to be merely “empirical” matters—or historical. (I take it that the revisionary treatment of Frege in the work of Beaney, Ferreirós, and Tappenden wouldn’t interest Kripke. Only the “beautiful system” matters, and whether the writings of the actual, historical Frege “demand” it is irrelevant.)

I think your reading of the PES attitude is very astute. Descartes said to Beeckman that Beeckman couldn’t have taught him anything because one’s hearing from another that p is true can only have been the occasion for one’s coming to know that p is true: but that one can achieve only by demonstrating p to oneself, in which case what occasioned one’s thinking p has only anecdotal significance. Once I know the Pythagorean theorem, the fact that I first encountered it in the Great Books edition of Euclid fifty years ago matters not a whit.

The tunnel vision you describe in relation to Parfit raises a question. Even in mathematics it turns out that sometimes a problem is solved by someone who brings from some other part of mathematics techniques that turn out to supply the tricks needed to overcome various difficulties. Or it may be that thinking like a physicist yields intuitions to aid in thinking about mathematical objects, as it did for Riemann. What turns out to be relevant to solving a problem is not always known in advance.

In philosophy it seems to me that the sphere of relevance for the “big problems” is hardly determined at all. Does one need a deep understanding of human nature to arrive at answers to basic ethical questions? Not if you’re a number-crunching utilitarian; but if you tend toward Aristotle’s way of thinking, you probably do. Does one need a thorough acquaintance with physics to answer metaphysical questions about the ontology of material things? I don’t know, but I do think that “I’m not interested in that” won’t do as an answer to that question.

None of this touches directly on whether the philosopher investigates reality or whether the methods of philosophy are or ought to be transparently objective. But it does suggest that philosophy might not thrive if it follows the methods of science too closely—in particular its manner of dividing intellectual labor into small, very specialized pieces. In that respect philosophy ought not to be an extension of science except in the very loose sense of being a discipline that like science strives to attain its result by the use of reason (this would distinguish philosophy from spiritual exercises, for example, that strove to attain their results through beatific visions of the divine).

Mohan Matthen

Thanks Eric.

I don't know if I can defend Kripke's "exegetical notes" about Frege. I don't even know that Kripke would accept my account of his method and project. What I know is this: the interpretation turns on a very close reading of a relatively short passage from "The Thought," a paper written late in Frege's life. The reading is defensible, but the fact that Frege uses the words he does may be evidence in support of a certain view of indexicals, rather than in support of an attribution of that theory to Frege. In other words, it may be that the intrinsic character of indexicals puts pressure on thoughtful and accurate speakers of language to use words a certain way, even when they have not explicitly grasped the intrinsic character of indexicals.

Your comments about Hume are in line with my own thoughts. There is a tradition of worrying about long trains of deductive reasoning: that tradition is concerned about the vagaries of memory. I don't think that this is a worry about the legitimacy of reason but about the unreliability of our cognitive processes, which is different. And as you say, Hume offered reasoned arguments.

Mohan Matthen

Thanks Catarina. I entirely agree that PES ought to be informed by empirical science. However, as I'll try and make clear in my response to Scaliger, philosophy as an extension of science is a project that views philosophy as investigating reality, just as science does, using transparently objective methods. It can be a matter of disagreement within this enterprise whether philosophical methodology may admit a posteriori propositions as premises. You and I think it should; somebody like Tim Williamson thinks otherwise (for the most part). But Williamson is squarely within PES.

There is room for disagreement also about the legitimacy of PES Squared history. If you think that the point of history of philosophy is to give an accurate account of what was in Frege's mind, then "selective history" or Kripke's enterprise as I described it (which is not selective, but rather idealized) are both off track. But you might think (as I suggested PES Squared does think) that history engages an author and draws out his meaning in ways that s/he was not aware of.

Mohan Matthen

Scaliger, thanks for these comments.

1. "Reasoning is a hegemonic tool used by the powerful few to guard their own privilege against the presumptions of the questing many": I was talking about the use of this proposition (which may, for all I know, be true) to attack the legitimacy of reason. I take it that we agree that the proposition has no bearing on this.
2. I didn't want to claim that philosophy was an adjunct to science. My claim rather was that in a certain conception (under which my own philosophical activity falls) philosophy does "the same thing" as science "in the same way". Philosophy could, nonetheless, be autonomous since the methods it uses might not be available to science (and vice versa). Science uses experiment; philosophy does not (XPhi notwithstanding). Philosophy may be more a priori than science.
2a. Perhaps, as you say, 'extension' is not the right word, or at least not literally correct. I was using it with a certain sense of irony.
3. I love your Descartes-Beekman anecdote!
4. I agree with your general point about tunnel vision. But importations from other fields may be fortuitous. That is, something I happen to read, or hear in a department colloquium, or discuss with a colleague may illuminate a problem I am working on. So tunnel vision isn't necessarily broadened by conscientious broad reading. Science is "inter-disciplinary" in this way also, right?

John Protevi

Thank you, Mohan, for this clarification. I am sorry for taking your post as a provocation rather than as an invitation.

The reason for that, I think, is that I read the "as" in your appending of Brian Leiter's suggestion as approval rather than as offering a comparison to a merely similar desire to advise students with certain approaches to not attend PhD programs in philosophy. (Of course, "advising" students before they apply to a program and not accepting otherwise qualified students when one is serving on an admissions committee are different matters, but let that be.)

I see now that you are reporting what you see as a wide-spread feeling among PES Squared people that those who take the "male hegemony approach" should not be (allowed? encouraged? admitted as students? hired as faculty members?) in philosophy departments. (What exactly constitutes the “male hegemony approach” -- ideology critique as in Dennis's suggestion or something more radical -- should have to be further specified [perhaps Neil could help us here by telling us more about Liz Grosz's bon mot], as would the relative worth of those sub-positions, for I could imagine mounting a defense of the claim that the second is more interesting and in fact more philosophical, but again, let's pass that by.)

Back to my original misprision of your post. I took you as saying that the adopting of the male hegemony approach by Irigaray, Kristeva, Deleuze, and Badiou was Leiter’s reason for advising students interested in those thinkers not to attend PhD programs in philosophy, and that you agreed with him as to that reading, and as to the worthiness of that advice. (Such is the power of the “as” when read by me late at night!) But I see now that you made no such claim.

I am relieved to see that you are in fact reserving judgment as to Leiter's suggestion. This is a relief to me, for had it been offered to me 25 years ago, and had I taken it seriously, I would not have gone on to do a PhD in philosophy -- though I do have to admit that might have saved the world some of the prose I've cranked out over the years.

For the record, Leiter’s reason for his advice was the following, offered in response to Eric Schliesser’s question: “There's really no decent philosophy graduate programs where anyone takes those figures seriously, so one couldn't both get a proper philosophical education and concentrate on these 'thinkers.'” Now that IS a provocation, but you can take my lack of response to it on the original thread to be my judgment as to its worth, not merely as a reason, but indeed even as a provocation -- though noticing it enough to crack wise about it here does involve me in something of a performative contradiction I suppose.

Mohan Matthen

John, 'as' means exactly what you took it to mean, and my phrasing was a mistake. I made the claim that you objected to, but I didn't mean to. Apologies.

Anyway, on the substance of the issue, the "male hegemony approach" is as follows:

Premise: Logic is an instrument of hegemony.
Conclusion 1: Logic is worthless.
Conclusion 2: Logic is mistaken.

I don't wish to contest the premise, but as a PESer, I find the inference anti-philosophical. No doubt this is very 19th century.(There I go exercising hegemony again!)

As for Irigaray et al I continue to live in ignorance, and consequent epoche about whether they would endorse either of the above inferences. If they do, I would shudder, but I would still reserve judgement on whether there was enough other stuff of merit to warrant their inclusion.

Mark Lance

Thanks Mohan, this is really interesting. I'm not sure I understand what you are taking to be definitive of PES or PES2, however. So here are a few observations and distinctions. First re-PES:
I didn't say that "some prominent philosophers contest deductive reasoning (thus giving the lie to the “transparent objectivity” of critical reasoning". Some paradigmatically PGR philosophers do, of course, but not the ones I mentioned. One doesn't need to challenge deductive reasoning to challenge the transparency of deductive reasoning as a methodological tool. Sellars and Brandom certainly do the latter. The main point of Brandom's Big Book is to give an account of reasoning as the making explicit of social proprieties. I think I have shown quite clearly that there must be many such patterns of reasoning implicit in social practice. These include a multiplicity of non-monotonic material inferential proprieties including subjunctive reasoning (made explicit by subjunctive conditionals), evidential reasoning (of the sort made explicit by indicative conditionals), default reasoning, defeasible reasoning, etc. They also include more than one form of monotonic deductive reasoning: commitment entailment - of which I define by latest count I think 9 distinct systems - and permissive entailment. Now if there is this much variety - or really if it is so much as intelligible that there might be - and if this all connects in such complex ways to social practice, I just don't see how critical reasoning can be transparently objective, or even less how any of the philosophers working in such waters could be taken to presuppose that it is.

When we move beyond mere structures of reasoning, to broader conceptions of how philosophical justification works, I mentioned in the previous post McDowell, Dreyfus, Putnam, Rorty, Nagel, Taylor MacIntyre as philosophers who treat objectivity as anything but unproblematic. The question of what objectivity consists in is a crucial issue for these philosophers as is the question of what it is to achieve understanding of objective facts. (And I could easily have extended this list - Korsgaard, Kitcher, Van Fraasen, Kukla and Lance, Rouse, Pippin, etc.) Many of these also deny that understanding - philosophical or otherwise - is capable of being fully captured by any system of rules. (More contentiously, I'd say that Goedel argued the same thing.) One could also, following Catarina, mention all the debates about intuitions, about what experiments can show in philosophy, and on and on as evidence that the center of the PGR world does not take the methods of investigating the objective world to be remotely transparent.

So that was my prior gripe - with the idea that most PGR philosophers take philosophical methodology to be transparent, not that they take standard deductive principles to be true.

Now it seems that the ground has shifted a bit. You say: "Think of two ways of challenging the validity of deductive reasoning. The first points out that reasoning is validated by meta-reasoning and is thus circular. The second way complains that reasoning is a hegemonic tool used by the powerful few to guard their own privilege against the presumptions of the questing many. The first is a PES challenge because it employs dialectical tropes that both sides of the question accept as probative. The second is non-PES because it refuses to reason...A similar point can be made about idealism. One way to support idealism is to emphasize the ways that human reasoning falls short of grasping transcendent reality. Intuitionist mathematics relies on such a strategy: proof is the construction of the human mind, intuitionists insist, and as such it cannot reach out to a platonic universe. Another way of supporting idealism is simply to deny that thoughts and words denote, and to insist that talk about “the world” is actually self-referential. The first way poses a rational challenge to principles; the second simply denies rationality. "

I think I disagree with almost every step of this. First, a small point that I think is what John was getting at. If the contrast is between those who take their critiques to be ones that aree recognizably rational rather than merely denying rationality altogether without argument, then it is very unclear that there is an interesting contrast class. True, you weren't making claims about particular individuals, but you seem to be suggesting that some prominent group of non-PES philosophers exists. And I got the impression that people like Harding, Foucault, Deleuze, Nietzsche, Butler, Daston and Galliston, etc. were included in the non-PES camp, or were at least likely candidates. But put this way I don't think any are. So the worry is that if the definition of PES is that one try to produce views that are recognizably rational - however one conceives of rationality and however one critiques prior conceptions of what rationality is - then everyone who matters is PES.

A much more restrictive definition is that a "PES challenge ... employs dialectical tropes that both sides of the question accept as probative". But here, I don't see that either of your examples works. Does the critique that reasoning is validated by meta--reasoning, and is hence circular count as probative? Well, no. I don't think so. In fact, I think the question of whether it is is precisely one of the great dividing lines in 20th c philosophy. (Have you see the back and forth between Glymour and Putnam - both paradigmatic PGR philosophers I suppose - on Putnam's "Models and Reality"? Such an utter impasse precisely over what counts as showing at a meta-level that one does not have determinate facts at the object level.) Simiilarly for intuitionism. This seems at the moment to be a paradigmatic methodological stand-off. Intuitionists give their arguments, the majority of non-intuitionists recognize them to be perfectly valid, but they precisely deny that proof must be construction. What common methodological principle will settle this? If there is one, it has escaped philosophers of mathematics so far. And further, if you let intuitionism in on the grounds that it is intelligible to PES philosophers that mathematical reality must be constructed by human mathematical practice, then why would you reject other constructivist impulses - say Butler claiming that gender is constructed by modes of second personal address? I just see no principled difference here. Again, I am claiming that you confront a dilemma: if you define PES as only recognizing challenges that accept some neutral set of methodological principles that are agreed upon by all participants, then you can't make sense of the very disputes you bring up as paradigmatic of PES dispute. If you define PES as only recognizing challenges that are in principle understandable to the various participants, then you let in all the paradigmatic folks that one would want to exclude.

My own view is that there is far less difference between the critique of rationality that one finds in Putnam, intuitionism, Kitcher, Goedel, Korsgaard, Brandom, Dreyfus, Haugeland, MacIntrye, etc. and the critique of rationality that one finds in Marx, Foucault, Harding, Butler, etc. than folks like to claim. Rather, I think there is a general gradation of difficulty. I mean this not in the substantive sense that the excluded ones are inherently harder, but in the sense that their terminology and style is less familiar. The latter is something that grows. Once a split develops, then later inheritors of the split explain their views by reference to different historical antecedents, and this further leads to greater terminological difference, and a deeper split. (So notice that Dewey and Heidegger thought that they both understood one another just fine. Now, many who find Dewey easy treat Heidegger as simply unintelligible.)

Mark Lance

Who do you have in mind as endorsing this "male hegemony approach"? I don't know of anyone significant who argues this way.

Jeff Bell

This is an interesting post Mohan, though I'm entering the fray rather late and thus I don't have too much to add to John's and Mark's comments (which I largely agree with). I think Mark is exactly right that the critique of rationality one finds within Brandom, et. al., is of a piece with that which one finds in Heidegger, et. al. My initial reading of your post, though after reading through the comments I'm not sure this is what you meant, was that you were trying to lay out a sharp contrast between PES and non-PES on the basis of the stance taken with respect to reason, the implication being that Heidegger, Foucault, Deleuze, etc., are anti-reason and PGR philosophers are pro-reason. I now don't think this is what you would argue. That said, I think there are a number of philosophers within the PGR tradition who would challenge the claim that PES2 is the true philosophy. I myself take a pluralist approach (I'm in agreement with Catarina here) and think that PES2 is limited methodologically to certain contexts and under certain assumptions. I like Mark Wilson's discussion of patchworks in his bookWandering Significance and think that applies here as well. The methodologies of PES2 are one of a number of approaches philosophy ought to employ.

As for Liz Grosz's claim that we will one day outgrow the belief in truth and rationality, I can't speak for her of course, but even if the anecdote is true I don't think this implies that she would be an irrationalist. She may have something along the lines of Foucault in mind when he critiqued rationality. When in discussion with Habermas, the issue was brought up whether he was an irrationalist since he set forth a critique of rationality. He called this enlightenment blackmail: either you are a rationalist through and through or you're an irrationalist. This is a false dilemma Foucault argued. Rationality is not a monolithic methodological set of practices and assumptions, but a diversity of context-sensitive practices with their accompanying reasons and justifications - their regimes of truth to use a Foucauldian term. Foucault also claimed to be anti-science, a claim that can also be taken out of context to mean he's against the rationality and legitimacy of scientific claims. What he was against was the hegemonic authority of science that excluded other forms of critique and understanding, the subjugated knowledges as Foucault discusses them.

One last point, and echoing Eric's comment, when Hume claimed that reason is and ought to be a slave of the passions he was not siding with the non-reason camp but acknowledging what he took to be the limitations of reason (which again is not to claim that reason does not have its proper place). As I read a number of the French philosophers, Deleuze especially, they very much track Hume on this point.


John, I can't offer a further clarification of what Liz (whose work I respect, btw) meant. I meant it only to suggest that a suspicion toward truth and reason seemed to me then to be common among people working in the French tradition. I know far too little to venture an opinion about how common these views were (the only further clarification I can offer is that I recall Liz adding that one day, when I was ready, I would read Levinas - she was right, I hadn't - and then I would see ow antiquated the ideas of truth and rationality were. For the record, I read Levinas later, and it had rather different effects on me. I loathed it; if anyone's interested, I have a paper on the deeply immoral implications of his work. It provides th universal get out clause for evildoers. Now there's iconoclasm!).

N.J. Jun

Excellent post, Jeff.

I am reminded of Deleuze's distinction between "royal science" and "nomad science," which seems very apropos of this discussion.

Eric Schliesser

What Mark said.

But, Mohan, you write in the context of your Physics education, "When you can, of your own free and unprompted volition, recapitulate the reasoning of the author, you have understood a paper. When you have critically examined it so that you can anticipate the author’s (successful or necessarily unsuccessful) responses to challenges not mentioned by herself—when, in short, you can recreate the dialectic of the author with Reality—you have mastered it."

1. I don't think this is the aim of physics education. In part, I just mean the familiar Kuhnian point that physics education is designed to make students good at applying technique to recognizable puzzles. In part, I mean the annoying sociological point that much of that education is meant to screen out folk without the right aptitude(s) at succeeding in the physics profession. But more importantly, almost no physics paper or textbook makes clear what the "dialectic of the author with Reality" [whatever that means!] is--too much post-graduate training is abstracted away and too much detailed know how between the theories, models, machinery, and data is hidden from untrained eyes.

(I will blog more about the dangers of folk with a little bit of physics training pontificating about the nature of Reality at some later point.)

2. There is a contestable, but rich, literature in history (and sociology) of science going back to Crombie (well, Pierce, I think) and made prominent in recent philosophy by Hacking on the different styles of reasoning within the science(s).

(This is not to deny that there are good arguments contesting it; see work by Kusch.)

3.But even if I granted your take on the aim of physics, I think this is a very impoverished template for philosophic thought. It ignores the fact of the matter that philosophic thought can sometimes, indirectly perhaps, change social reality or our sense of self (of course, there are constraints on this, too).

4. Now, I don't deny that we can turn philosophy in a kind of enterprise where all sides agree on what dialectical tropes are probative. But it would make the enterprise extremely dull, and empty (I almost wrote "formal," but then realized that this would be a mistake). Philosophy worth having only gets going when the grounds have been shifted...

Benjamin Goldberg

Eric, i'm very interested in : "... the dangers of folk with a little bit of physics training pontificating about the nature of Reality ..." and I look forward to that post!

In fact, I think its also pretty dangerous when any physicist, knowledgable or otherwise, starts pontificating about reality (look at Briane Greene and all the string-theologists).

Eric Schliesser

Benny, maybe you should write that post! Can I still send you comments on your paper?

David Wallace


I'm not sure I understand your disagreement with Mohan about physics. I think it turns on the phrase "hidden from untrained eyes". On one reading, that just means that the physics literature often makes unexplained mathematical moves, tacitly-justified approximations, uses models or results that are widely known but not explicitly cited, etc - but all that is consistent with Mohan's description (it's just that you can't master a paper without command of a good bit of background knowledge). On another reading, it implies a more radical lack of transparency in the literature that doesn't really match my own experience. I'd be interested to hear more about what you meant.


What is the issue with Greene? I'm happy to concede that he could do with being a bit more up-front about the scientifically tentative character of string theory. But if you enclose everything in, say, the Elegant Universe, with "if string theory is true, then()", is there a residual problem? And what do you mean by "string theologists"? (There's a general negativity about string theory in some corners of philosophy which I don't fully understand.)

Eric Schliesser

Dear David, I don't think there is a conspiracy or anything. I do think that even very advanced post-graduate (to use the English locution) training in most of the sciences frequently does not convey all the information and associated complications that are involved in trying to get any mathematical structure to connect up to a bit of the world. So, I deny that the "background knowledge" required is taught fully to students. [Even the post-doc is often a whole other round of apprenticeship.]
One way to get a feel for this is to do detailed historical work; another way is, of course, to spend considerable time as participant or observer in a lab.

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