A week or so ago, commenting on Brian Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR), I remarked on a certain style of philosophy that has come to dominate the English-speaking world. This style of philosophy defines itself by a certain ideology: it conceives of itself as “investigating reality” using “transparently objective methods.” These methods include critical reasoning. Or so I said. I didn’t (and don’t) mean these words to lead into a discussion of whether or not the methods used are transparently objective. I am just saying that a certain kind of philosophy treats them as so, and defines itself by so doing.
Today I reflect on the practice of such philosophy.
Now, the purpose of my post was not to offer a manifesto. I thought of myself rather as offering a coarse sociological characterization of the PGR point of view. The PGR ranking is an accurate sounding of how PES philosophers view the discipline, I said. I was therefore somewhat surprised to find myself seriously discussing whether PES is really the official ideology of the PGR. In some extremely interesting comments, Mark Lance, and others pointed out that some prominent philosophers contest deductive reasoning (thus giving the lie to the “transparent objectivity” of critical reasoning) and in a later post, Eric Schliesser lamented the new “taboo” against idealism, thus conceding but deprecating the pretensions to the “investigation of reality.”
Now, it is not at all clear to me that my distinguished co-bloggers have it right. Let me first amplify my position with a contrast. 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. Here’s my contention: the first way would be accorded legitimacy within PES circles. The second would be scorned: “if that’s what you think, you’d be better off in a department of anthropology or literature,” PGR-types (including myself, I confess) would say. (As Brian remarked in comment #1 on John Protevi’s post about PGR: “none of these people are interested in Irigaray, Kristeva, Badiou et al. (some are interested in Deleuze). But I think anyone interested mainly in those figures should probably not be going to a philosophy department anyway for a PhD.”)
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. Intuitionism is PES; the “world as text” is not.
These points will, of course, be contested, both in substance and in form. But my observation today is restricted to a faction within PES—a group of philosophers whose methods are more akin to those of scientists than to those of humanists. Let me call this faction PES Squared. I aspire to be an example, and so I’ll begin with an autobiographical reflection.
As an undergraduate, I took Physics. Physics doesn’t teach you to read; it teaches you to think in unison with the author of a textbook or paper. 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. Philosophers, of course, take something of the same attitude towards reading philosophical texts: practitioners of PES regard the dialectic to be governed by rules that are evident to all by the light of Reason. PES Squared regards the dialectic to be predetermined and delimited by such rules.
Thus conceived, learning from text is difficult and painful—and very time intensive. In a finite life, you can do no better than triage: you scan literature to gauge whether it is worth mastering. Once you decide that it is you proceed by figuring out how the paper matches the truth.
The attitude is delicately illustrated by a recent masterpiece of PES-Squared history by Kripke (“Frege’s Theory of Sense and Reference: Some Exegetical Notes”). There are some hints in the footnotes of the selection process. “I have not checked Heidelberger’s original, which, as Dummett remarks, would obviously be inconsistent . . . “ “Dummett favors just such a revision of Frege, but in his very critical discussion of Church’s system, he fails to notice that Church makes exactly the same revision.” “I have not read Searle on this question.” Kripke's paper is a masterpiece of rational (not textual) reconstruction. A beautiful system is presented. Frege’s words take us to the system. But Frege’s words do not give the system. Nor is this Kripke’s point. It is that Frege’s importance to the history of philosophy is that his theory demands the beautiful system.
Given this attitude towards texts, PES Squared does not consume philosophy broadly or in quantity. One brilliant member said to me recently: “It is one of the lovely things about our discipline that if you have read for three hours a day, you have done as much as you can do.” PES Squared people are not the ones to approach if you want a report of the ten most important works of 2011. If they have dipped into Parfit, they haven’t opened Burge (and vice versa). For as Parfit himself informed me when I spent a term at All Souls, “I am not interested in the kind of thing you do.” He didn’t mean offence, Dear Reader, he was just speaking a very relevant truth.