Dialectic and rational arguments in philosophy

Socratic dialogue is modeled on dialectic, and for that reason it is a central part of Western philosophy. In the previous post, I pointed out that, historically speaking, dialectic contrasts with three other argumentative styles — rhetoric, scholasticism, and mathematics. Unlike rhetoric, dialectic is not about persuasion for its own sake, but the pursuit of stable conclusions (as we saw in selections from both Gorgias and Phaedo). Unlike scholasticism, the dialectician attempts to resolve disputes through engagement (i.e., the method of disputation), not through deference to written authority in the form of scripture. And unlike mathematics, dialectic investigates the worthiness of its premises (i.e., what I called the ‘collapse-and-consequence’ model), instead of treating premises as axiomatic.

Last time, I suggested that these three historical contrasts help to hone in on a particular feature of concept of dialectic, which is that dialectic is a form of second-order rational persuasion. I suggested that the constitutive point of dialectic is to convince people that some passages of thought or speech are rational, and to resolve disputes in that minimal sense of creating directed change towards a state of intellectual common ground. I called this ‘persuasionism’. A vital part of the persuasionist thesis is the idea that dialectical arguments occur in the context where they are directed towards change in mental state (what Gilbert Harman calls a “change in view”), leading to resolution of dissonance. I argued that the persuasionist theory is superior to the purity thesis, i.e., someone who thinks the collapse-and-consequence model is sufficient to characterize dialectic, and that no reference to effective perspective change is strictly necessary.

The persuasionist thesis says that dialectic involves a directed change in view accomplished by means of demonstrating the rational defensibility of a passage of thoughts in light of potential challenges. One might wonder whether demonstrating defensibility of some train of thought actually counts as “persuasion”. But a moment’s reflection shows it clearly does. As a matter of definition, to persuade just is to cause someone to believe or act in some directed fashion that they did not before. When you subject a set of reasons to potential objections, you leave the set of reasons altered — stronger, if all goes well for the defender of those reasons. This means that in the process of demonstrating defensibility, you have produced a change in view about the status of the arguments as being more reasonable than they seemed at the outset, all other things equal. And my suggestion is that this sort of directed change is not an accident or an irrelevant side-effect, but rather is a part of the dialectician’s stance of attempting to direct a change in view during the course of presentation of argument. Notably, though, it is an attempt at mutual persuasion between defender and opponent; that is to say, it is as a joint enterprise with reciprocal expectations. Hence, when the dialectician fails to persuade their good-faith interlocutor of the rational qualities of their passage of thought, they thereby gain some reason to regard those passages of thought as irrational under some description.

In the rest of this post, I provide reasons to think that persuasionism makes the most sense of dialectic in philosophy. First, I’ll make a brief remark on the consequences of persuasionism on meta-philosophy. I suggest, briefly, that is persuasionism is conducive to productive philosophy. (Indeed, I think it is even more conducive than the purist’s alternative, which I think is worse than sophistry; but I will not argue this point in this post.) Second, I will consider some attempted refutations, based on the idea that I am excluding some kinds of argument as examples of dialectic.

1. On meta-philosophy. When I say that dialectic is not just an autodidactic exercise of getting ideas clear in isolation — of studying logical implications and entailments, or (Harman again) “what follows from what” — my emphasis is on the word “just“. Dialectic involves the study of such entailments, but is not reducible to that study. I offer two reasons. First, as we have seen in the previous post, Socrates himself thought he was attempting rational persuasion. Indeed, one of the characteristic tropes of Socratic argument is his willingness to throw the whole game away, if only a good answer can be given to a master question (which he then shows cannot be done).

But second, even in a parallel world where our Hellenistic heroes thought they were just making ideas clear independently of their audience’s convictions, it is still a fact that people can do a lot of things with all sorts of side-effects, and some of those side-effects might actually be the thing that makes the activity essentially worth doing. Sometimes, a practice has a function, and that function occurs independently of the ways the practice is conceived; it, instead, has to be recovered by examination of intuitively valenced presuppositions. And that fact makes it possible to engage critically with the tropes in Socratic dialogues, to separate the stuff Socrates thought he was doing well from the stuff that he actually was doing well. Which is just to say that contemporary critical thinkers could probably do without Socrates’s leading questions, for example, or Plato’s noble lies, even if for whatever reason Plato and Socrates in our parallel world had decided these  ideas were essential parts of their whole philosophical package. Revisionism is the price we sometimes pay for rational reconstruction.

2. On excluded cases. Most of this post derives from a spat I had with the author over at Siris blog, who seems to be a purity theorist. In our exchange, he argued that the persuasionist view of dialectic excludes a few cases of rational argumentation. 1) It seems to exclude cases where we apply the collapse-and-consequence model through habit. 2) It seems to exclude practice arguments, e.g., as when the student makes use of natural deduction. 3) It seems to exclude cases involving a stimulating exchange of reasons for exploratory purposes. But these examples are not on equal footing. So, my view is that (1) is not an argument at all, (2) is rational argument but not dialectic, and (3) is an unobvious kind of dialectic.

Habitual processing. I reject the idea that arguments are, or can be, merely habitual passages of thought. For a person to suggest that habitual passages of thought are not directed at change in view, is for that person to fail to attend to the internal point of view, and in particular to neglect the intuitive force of argumentation. Intuitively, there seems to be a difference between mere regularities and rules, and rational arguments are about rules, so regular habits of thought are not themselves arguments.

The point can be made in part by appealing to the philosopher’s ego. If merely habitual orderings of thought counted as philosophical arguments — if it were even possible to follow the quick turnabouts in collapse-and-consequence model into habits — then it would turn philosophy into something even worse than sophistry. Indeed, it would collapse the study of rational argument into the study of the psychology of reliable heuristics, or the study of computational processing. It is a rare philosopher who is eager to make themselves Turing-incompatible in this way.

Perhaps the purity theorist would consider it a strength of their view that they think they can rationally argue as a function of personal habits. And, indeed, much of logic feels like habitual or schematic, once it is mastered. And if they could get away with that, then to be sure, “persuasion” would drop out of the analysis. But the only *rational* way you can get away with the habitualist’s conviction is by finding some independent means of calibrating your passages of thought by placing them into an orderly rule-like quasi-sentential (propositional or imperative) structure. And it is difficult to see how habits or mere regularities could have that rule-like character — a man who “argues” with himself habitually is not engaged in inference, hence not arguing rationally at all. In that sense, the approach from habits is going to founder on the question, “What makes this rational?”, and one does not even have to be a persuasionist to suspect that it is a mistake. But even if we come up with an adequate causal account of rules (as, indeed, we might), there is the remaining requirement of needing to account for the ‘following‘ part of ‘rule-following’, which is an intentional activity that seemingly requires both identification of rules and calibration of them.

Practice arguments. A different argument proceeds by observing that, when we are doing proofs in natural deduction, we aren’t trying to persuade anyone of anything. From premises, we are given the task of showing their consistency. Sure enough, this does not look like rational argument.

In this case, I think it would be useful to remember that philosophical argument is not all dialectic. The geometric or analytical method, of deriving consequences from axioms, is one method in philosophy, though it is not a Socratic method. So, one might insist (correctly) that the geometric method has got all the bells and whistles of a rational methodology, and that this is being ignored in a conversation about dialectic. And then one might notice that practice arguments have the form of analytical arguments.

This argument has my blessing, though it is not of first importance in a conversation which is meant to be about the merits of rational argument insofar as it has been conceived of through the Socratic approach. It also reminds us that we ought to notice that a presumptive dichotomy, between dialectic and rhetoric, is a false one. The mathematician is not just doing rhetoric.

Bullshit sessions. The author of Siris also asserts, plausibly, that the persuasionist view of argument seems to make no sense of ‘stimulating thought’ exchanges, where the aim is apparently to open oneself to exchange, not to create a directed change. I agree these contexts are not obvious attempts at rational persuasion; it is easier to say that they are attempts to explore the space of reasons. In bullshit sessions, for example, rational people can take on points of view “for the sake of argument”.

But appearances are deceiving, because the difference has got to do with whether or not the attempts at change are built to last. I submit that in these cases, participants are attempting to persuade others into the view that it is rational to regard some perspective as appropriate in a context, not to persuade people that it is rational to hold the positions are true. The attempt is still to show that, in a contest of reasons, one comes out stronger, even if the contest is local, and comes to an end when the sun goes down. So they still fit with the persuasionist model of dialectic.

Dialectic and rational persuasion

In an early essay (2006), I suggested that legitimate philosophical argument shall sometimes have some specific sophistic qualities. For example, legitimate pedagogical simplifications, which I dubbed “sophiboles”, or wise exaggerations. The point of that essay was meta-philosophical, to direct attention at the ways in which philosophers, scientists, and sophists are on the same spectrum, despite the fact that they have distinctive aims. Call this the ‘Isocratic thesis’. The motivating case was of Galileo, whose defense of heliocentrism was (rightly) phrased in a bold, realist form for the purposes of popular instruction, though a more conservative probabilistic statement would arguably have been more appropriate at the time. At any rate, the Isocratic thesis was a provocative meta-philosophical statement of purpose. Its central aim is to deflate excessive philosophical pretensions while acknowledging the distinctiveness and productivity of philosophical activity.

I have come to appreciate that the Isocratic thesis concerning philosophy can be distinguished from a more modest thesis about the nature of dialectic. Dialectic, a species of rational argument, is a practice of reducing premises and inferring consequences; Socratic dialogue is the exemplar. But what, exactly, is going on in Socratic exchanges — how does it work, and why do philosophers think it worth doing?

I assume that everyone can agree that the Socratic exchanges have a characteristic rational structure: first, some set of hypotheses are derived from some foundational principles, and then (and only then) consequences are inferred. (Kenny, A New History of Western Philosophy, p.128) In the Phaedrus, Socrates refers to these as processes as generalization and division, and attributed to the dialectician’s toolkit. Call this the “collapse-and-consequence” model of dialectic, and suppose that it is the answer to the how-question. But then there’s still the question of what the philosopher thinks they’re trying to accomplish — what makes their activity productive. An alluring answer would to achieve a greater mutual understanding of some topics and/or decreased confusion, under a guise. Key to this idea is that argument is a conversational effort at reconciliation between two or more divergent perspectives. Hence, the later Hegelian formulation of dialectics as “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”. From these scholarly data-points, one might believe that the aim of dialectic is to be rationally persuasive (under some description), and call that conviction the ‘persuasionist’ interpretation of dialectic.

It is not uncommon to find folks who endorse the persuasionist view today. It is a core element in Trudy Govier’s excellent introductory textbook in critical thinking, A Practical Study of Argument (Seventh Edition): “When we use arguments in the sense of offering reasons for our beliefs, we are responding to controversies by attempting rational persuasion.” (2) Also, it is held in argumentation theory as a pragma-dialectical theory, according to which argument is intended to resolve disputes by diagnosing the appropriateness of the competing standpoint through a model of critical discussion. Resolution, here, can be read as persuasive success or rational cogency.

(I cannot help but also note that Catarina Dutilh Novaes almost endorses something like the persuasionist argument in Dialectica (2015). In that article, she argues that deductive inference as such can be understood as a kind of lopsided debate. “The claim is that, rather than for mono-agent mental processes, (deductive) logic in fact comprises norms for specific situations of dialogical interaction, in particular special forms of debates… It will become apparent that the conception of logic as tightly connected with debating and disputing rather than with thinking has been quite influential throughout the history of logic, even though if it is now mostly forgotten.” (588) Mind you, her account is not as striking as an account of persuasionism, since it applies to a form of inference that has been willfully contorted away from its initial dialogical purpose, in order to provide means for the “built-in Opponent” to get on with their part during the business of disputation. On first blush, I worry that Novaes’s conception is too agonistic, or post-Gricean, to qualify as persuasionist. But I could be wrong about that, and it would be interesting to find out.)

The persuasionist thesis is not the only game in town. It contrasts with the ‘purity thesis’. Purity theorists are sufficiently impressed with the answer to the ‘how-question’ as to think that it tells us everything we need to know about dialectic. The purity theorist holds instead:

  1. Historically, dialectic is defined in terms of pure structure of reasons (the answer to the above-mentioned ‘how question’), without reference to powers of persuasion or any other communicative aims. Hence,
  2. Some kinds of arguments do not seem to involve persuasion at all, e.g., practice arguments, are excluded by the persuasionist. Since persuasionism fails to explain parts of the denotation of the concept of rational argument, it fails as an account.

The purity theorist is wrong on both counts. (1) only makes sense so long as it relies on a provincial and distorted historiography (which Novaes alludes to in the pull-quote in the above parenthetical). Also, (2) is only distinctive so long as it involves eccentric ideas about what counts as an argument in philosophy. In the rest of this post I will only suggest some counter-examples to (1), and will say something about (2) on some other occasion.


For present purposes, my point of departure is the medieval conception of dialectic. For scholars in the Middles Ages, dialectic was conceived of as a method of disputation. “As the art of discussion– disciplina bene disputandi–dialectic deals with substances”. (Paul Vignaux, Philosophy in the Middle Ages, p. 21) At the time, dialectic was regarded with suspicion, in contrast with the scholastic method, whose point is to make credulous (usually theological) inferences based on the authority of scripture. The method of disputation sure sounds like it has all the airs of an attempt to engage in mutual, rational persuasion (under a description).

Is the medieval conception of dialectic viable in light of other contrasts? I think so, because it follows naturally from the Platonic canon, in its discussion of the contrast between dialectic and rhetoric. Two books are pertinent here, Gorgias and Phaedrus. In Gorgias, the distinction is made in the following way: while rhetoric is directed at persuasion for its own sake (or for the sake of money), depends on the science of human character, is fickle and fleeting. Meanwhile the Socratic method, hence dialectic, is better at persuasion because it is built to last, trading as it does on insight and methodological rigor. Persuasion has a potential role in both forms. The purist’s alternative is to say that dialectic is about pure structure — the collapse and consequence model while rhetoric is about mere persuasion. But this flattens out the nuances of what is said in the above-mentioned passages which most directly bear on the question.

The purity theorist would probably reply by invoking the Phaedrus, where Socrates seems to describe dialectical methods in terms of their potential to allow personal growth and self-education. Hence, the serious pursuit of the dialectician is to “find a congenial soul, and then with knowledge engrafts and sows words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, and are not unfruitful, but have in them seeds which may bear fruit in other natures, nurtured in other ways — making the seed everlasting and the possessors happy to the utmost extent of human happiness.” (89) We might struggle to make sense of the fruit-seed metaphor in connection with the idea of persuasion. This does not sound much like persuasion, since it lacks a sense of directed acquisition of judgments. But this is a one-sided observation. The persuasionist thinks that argument can occur in contexts of mutual persuasion, which involves an assumption of reciprocal effort with convergent ends. The fruits found by the student may very well differ from the seeds planted by the teacher, but do we think Socrates would have us say that the teacher is released from prizing the fruit once it has grown? One or more parties are expected to recognize the attractiveness of the “winning” argument, if one is found.

In fact, I shall suggest that the persuasionist’s point is entirely resonant in Phaedrus.  Socrates concludes the dialogue with the following remarks. He begins with a fairly clear, though elliptical, reference to the dialectician’s method, and concludes that it is the most effective means of teaching or persuading. “Until a man knows the truth of the several particulars of which he is writing or speaking, and is able to define them until they can be no longer divided… he will be unable to handle arguments according to rules of art, and far as their nature allows them to be subjected to art, either for the purposes of teaching or persuading…” (Phaedrus, 90, emphasis mine) And we have already seen from the Gorgias that he is not inclined to find many resources to distinguish between education and persuasion. The dialectician’s work has clear import to the art of persuasion, if there is one.

It can be objected, at this point, that the collapse-and-consequence model does not say anything at all about the aim of mutual persuasion. Indeed, to be sure, is fairly well established in the canon that dialectic, unlike rhetoric, is not about persuasion of a positive first-order intellectual programme. Instead, I would like to say that dialectic is about clearing the intellectual ground and inferring what follows — its point is to persuade us that some passages of thought are rational, not to compel belief in a particular proposition. So the ‘persuasionist’ label is in a way misleading, since one can try to persuade someone of something without engaging in dialectic. But this is not to say that persuasionism is incorrect; it is only to deny naive persuasionism. Instead, we should say that dialectic — a project of reducing premises and inferring consequences — is a second-order attempt at persuasion. It is not an attempt to convince people about the true and the false, but about the rationality and irrationality of passages of thought and speech through characteristic means.

So, if the villainous brainwasher from Netflix’s Jessica Jones, Killgrave, were to say to me, “Socrates is a mortal”, I would likely be persuaded of the claim’s truth, but it would not be an argument. Meanwhile, if someone gives me the Socratic mortality syllogism, I will be persuaded of the rationality of the conclusion given the premises. And if the same or similar results were given in the collapse and consequence model, it would be dialectic. The point of rational argument is to direct a change in view, allowing an alternative perspective to observe the inferential train as a rational passage of thought or talk. It does not require that they agree with the conclusion or premises.

So I do not quite see the historical appeal of the purity thesis. I am sure there must be a more compelling case, and I have seen some people try to defend it. But I suspect, for the moment, that the problem here is somewhat ironic: namely, that the teachers of classics sometimes resort to sophiboles outside of the classroom. It is a fact that, during the teaching of a freshmen level course, dialectics and rhetoric are simplified for pedagogical purposes. In that context, I can imagine a harried instructor drawing a strong line between them, with ‘persuasion’ on the rhetoric side, ‘pure reason’ on the dialectic side. It is, at best, a wise exaggeration — though I confess I am not convinced of its wisdom.

The three faces of philosophy

[Adapted from a post initially published at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog in 2014.]

Philosophy is a big tent kind of thing. There is a world of difference between being philosophical,  being a proper philosopher, and being a professional philosopher. The first is an action; the second, a kind of vocation; and the third, a description of an academic job.

As far as I can tell, the practice of doing philosophy is intimately related to the state of being philosophical.  To do philosophy is to engage in the rational study of some characteristically general subjects (e.g., morality, existence, art, reasoning), for the purpose of increasing understanding and reducing confusion. In the ideal case, being philosophical involves manifesting certain virtues: you must have the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and you must proceed using a reflective skill-set (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). The bare requirement for being philosophical – even when you do it badly – is that you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways.

It is possible to do philosophy without being a proper philosopher or a professional philosopher. This is unusual, as these things go; to see that, compare with engineering. The requirements for doing actual philosophy are quite a bit lower than the requirements for doing actual engineering. To do philosophy you have to approach some of the general questions while behaving philosophically; to do engineering, you have to be a proper engineer. So, it is seldom claimed that Meno was a proper philosopher, but we won’t hesitate to say that Meno was seriously doing philosophy with Socrates. In contrast, professional engineers would probably not say that a child playing with Lego has really seriously done some engineering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Lego. If it came to that, I’d be more inclined to say there’s something wrong with engineers.)

And yet, in the vocation of philosophy, there are unusually high barriers to success. A person who does philosophy in a middling way is not a proper philosopher; if you can describe her philosophizing in a cheap metaphor, it is a sign that things may have fallen short of the mark. Proper philosophers do productive work that is worthy of attention, however you would like to cash that out.

Moreover, I would argue that the merits of a work in professional philosophy are only obliquely defined in terms of their vocational traits. Professional philosophers are judged according to various things, including their scholarly competence, their intelligence, their papers, peers, prudence, and pedigree. By and large, professional philosophers are not directly tested on whether or not they have philosophical acumen. Indeed, it is rarely stated outright what ‘being philosophical’ amounts to, uneasily marked by opaque approbative terms (which, following Amy Olberding, we might dub ‘top-notchitude’). When you ask professional philosophers to articulate their conceptions of good philosophy, it is sometimes asserted that the professional desiderata overlap substantially with the philosophical traits. And I think there is something to that. But at their worst, professionals will float blissfully along from one encounter to the next operating on the assumption that whatever they are up to is all aces, and good riddance to the rest of the profession. (Consider that in certain areas, professional citation practices are remarkably ad hoc; and consider that most articles are cited only once or less even when published). Beneath the wandering skies of top-notchitude, we have the shifting sands of the documentary record which ostensibly makes up the bulk of this field’s productive output. So there is at least some room for someone who is committed to philosophy as a vocation to look at the profession with a skeptical eye.

But despite the fact that philosophy can be discussed in any of these modes – as proper (the vocation), as professional (the job description), and as philosophizing (the act) – it is instructive to notice that they share certain commonalities. At one end of the spectrum, proper philosophers should be seen to hold the four virtues; and at the other end, the worst professional philosophy is evaluated in terms of tropes that imply some one or more of these virtues are out of sync. Whatever else we think about philosophy and its fate, we should not be lulled into an identity crisis. I say, again, that philosophy is best understood as the kind of projects and habits it encourages and cultivates in us, and which makes us better directed towards making sense of things. This is something to hold onto, something worth protecting, come what may.

Is philosophy self-indulgent?

Thinking about the accusation that recent professional philosophy suffers from self-indulgence. Anyone who pays attention to the cycles of colorful meta-opinions about philosophy will know by now that “X is self-indulgent” is maybe one of a handful of favorite insults that gets tossed around on a pretty regular basis (alongside “X is just logic-chopping”, “Only crazy people would worry about X” and “People who do X are sycophants”). Sometimes with justification, sometimes not, and usually asserted as generic broadside complaints that are conspicuously difficult to refute.

So let’s ask: suppose recent philosophy is self-indulgent. So how can we tell?

Well, since [for the moment] we care about self-indulgence, not sycophancy or whatever other insult, let’s assume that, if something has been published in a prestigious professional journal of philosophy, it contains rational, non-crazy, non credulous argumentation. (Falsely, perhaps.) To do lip-service to those assumptions, let’s consider journal offerings that score quite highly on every impact measure, are generalist (e.g., unlike Bioethics), and are dedicated to original research (unlike, e.g., Philosophical Review). And for the purposes of seeing if things are any better or worse than in the past, let’s find a journal of long-standing. For those purposes, I chose Nous.

Now, for fun, let’s imagine a test, analogous to the Bechdel test, which we use to assess individual works; though, like the Bechdel test it is meant to say something illustrative about the self-indulgence of works *in the aggregate* without necessarily proving anything about individual works. We might call it the Null Test (or, if you prefer, Navel test).

For every article in an issue of a journal, there might be three questions we might ask:
1. Can someone with an education in philosophy state the philosophical problem this article is trying to solve without the use of proper names?
2. Whose problem is it?
3. Did it get solved (by the author’s own lights)?

And now let’s say that the Null Test is failed if, even after charitable reading, one of the following conditions obtains: the answer to (1) is a null answer or cannot be briefly stated (e.g., in one or two English sentences); OR the answer to (2) is “Mine alone”; OR the answer to (3) is “Not at all”.

What do we find, if we try to run the Null Test? Are the results at all illuminating? Or are are they fully unfair? You’ll see my findings below.

The result, amusingly, supports the idea that philosophy is more self-indulgent in the 2016 sample than the others, though it seems like a return to the same pattern as the 1976 sample.


Nous 1976 (September): 3/6 PASSSES

TITLE: Reference of Theoretical Terms
PROBLEM: Is semantic externalism suitable to examine theoretical terms in science?
WHOSE: Kripke-Putnam
SOLVED: Yes (No, because some terms are non-ostensible)

TITLE: Sentence, Utterance, and Samesayer
PROBLEM: Does Davidson’s account of indirect discourse mesh with a Tarskian theory of language, and do its part in characterizing the truth-conditions of every sentence in indirect discourse?
WHOSE: Davidson
SOLVED: Yes (No)

TITLE: Truth, Meaning, and Paradox
PROBLEM: Is Davidsonian semantics defeated by the Liar’s Paradox?
WHOSE: Davidson
SOLVED: Yes (No)

TITLE: What Could Have Happened
PROBLEM: Is the freedom to act properly captured by sentences that express possibilities about the conjunction of events?
WHOSE: White
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: When Rational Disagreement is Impossible
PROBLEM: Is it rational to remain steadfast when everyone is searching for truth shares the same information?
WHOSE: Social epistemologists
SOLVED: Yes (No)

TITLE: Identities and Reduction: A Reply
PROBLEM: Have Ager et al. succeeded in creating a model for reductionism in science?
WHOSE: Ager et al.
SOLVED: Yes (No)

Three critical notices omitted

Nous 1986 (September) 4/6 PASSES

TITLE: Revealing Designators and Acquaintance with Universals
PROBLEM: Are universals meaning-like entities?
WHOSE: Quine
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: The Ways of Holism
PROBLEM: What is holism, as far as the philosophy of science is concerned?
WHOSE: Quine, Hegel, Duhem
SOLVED: Yes (Holism is a feature of those theories which occur in specific contexts, insofar as the theories presuppose and are consistent with the existence of other more general theories in those contexts)

TITLE: Persons and Their Micro-Particles
PROBLEM: How can new objects (e.g., persons, basic-level objects) be made up of old objects without destroying the old objects (e.g., particles)?
WHOSE: Aristotle
SOLVED: Yes (By re-engineering Davidson’s anomalous monism)

TITLE: Metaphorese
PROBLEM: What is figurative meaning?
WHOSE: Searle, Black
SOLVED: Yes (Figurative meaning is not semantic meaning belonging to a vernacular, but rather is a kind of passing dialect that emerges from cooperative engagement)

TITLE: Nietzsche’s Perspectivism and the Autonomy of the Master Type
PROBLEM: Is Nietzsche able to reconcile the demand for moral autonomy of the ‘master’ with an account of how the master might come into being?
SOLVED: Not really (Exploratory)

TITLE: Questioning the Basis of Hume’s Empiricism: “Perceptions”, What are They?
PROBLEM: What does Hume mean when he talks about perceptions?

Eight reviews omitted

Nous 1996 (September) 5/6 PASSES

TITLE: The Function of Consciousness
PROBLEM: Is there any point in arguing about the evolutionary function of consciousness?
WHOSE: Various
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: The Limited Unity of Virtue
PROBLEM: Is there anything we can salvage from the unity of virtue thesis?
WHOSE: Walker, Foot, Flanagan
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: ‘Ought’ and Extensionality
PROBLEM: Are deontic operators (in deontic logic) referentially transparent with respect to singular terms?
WHOSE: Kanger
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: A New Argument from Actualism to Serious Actualism
PROBLEM: Does actualism entail serious actualism?
WHOSE: Fine, Hinchliff, Pollock
SOLVED: Yes (Yes, plus new argument to that effect)

TITLE: Analyticity Reconsidered
PROBLEM: Is there an analytic (a priori)/synthetic distinction?
WHOSE: Quine
SOLVED: Yes (Yes; the epistemic analytic apriori)

TITLE: Analyticity Regained?
PROBLEM: Was Boghossian correct in his reading of Quine?
WHOSE: Boghossian
SOLVED: Yes (No)

1 critical study omitted

Nous 2006 (September) 5/7 PASSES

TITLE: Multiple-Act Consequentialism
PROBLEM: Is act-consequentialism false?
WHOSE: Scheffler
SOLVED: Yes (No — there is an unexplored version of act-consequentialism that meets standard objections)

TITLE: Is Mental Content Prior to Linguistic Meaning?
PROBLEM: See the title
WHOSE: Lewis, Fodor
SOLVED: Not really / it’s complicated

TITLE: Realism and the Meaning of ‘Real’
PROBLEM: What is the meaning of ‘real’ and its cognates?
WHOSE: Various
SOLVED: Yes (It signals a transition between meta-discourse to discourse)

TITLE: Appearance Properties?
PROBLEM: Is there any such thing as appearance properties?
WHOSE: Shoemaker
SOLVED: No (Shoemaker’s appearance properties might exist, but they’re not properties)

TITLE: Does Informational Semantics Commit Euthyphro’s Dilemma?
PROBLEM: See title
WHOSE: Dretske, Fodor
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: The Determinable-Determinate Relation
PROBLEM: What is the nature of the determinables / determinate relationship (e.g., color is determinable related to red, and red determinate related to color)?
WHOSE: Prior, Yablo
SOLVED: Yes (Eight desiderata)

TITLE: The 3D/4D Controversy
PROBLEM: Is there anything of substance to the controversy between three and four-dimensionalists?
WHOSE: Sider
SOLVED: Yes (No)

1 review omitted

Nous 2016 (September): 5/9 PASSES

TITLE: Leibniz on the Modal Status of Absolute Space and Time
PROBLEM: Are absolute space and time impossible?
WHOSE? Leibniz
SOLVED: No (Exploratory, not Leibniz’s view)

TITLE: Causes and Categories
PROBLEM: Must a theory of causation presuppose a specifiable ontology, and especially an ontology that is shared in common by both cause and effect?
WHOSE? Various (too many to list)
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no)

TITLE: Why Every Theory of Luck Is Wrong
PROBLEM: Do we have any adequate account of luck at all?
WHOSE? Various
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no)

TITLE: Endurantism vs. Perdurantism? A Debate Reconsidered
PROBLEM: Do objects persist because their parts do, or because their wholes do?
WHOSE? Contemporary metaphysicians
SOLVED: No (Answer: clarification)

TITLE: Triviality for Restrictor Conditionals
PROBLEM: Might restrictor conditionals be trivial?
WHOSE: Kratzer, among others
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: there is some reason to think so)

TITLE: On the Innocence and Determinacy of Plural Quantification
PROBLEM: Does (higher-order) plural logic inherit the ontology established in first-order claims? And is it susceptible to Henkin interpretations?
WHOSE: Plural logicians
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no to both)
STATUS: Fail (Proper name is essential to problem)

TITLE: Conciliation, Uniqueness, and Rational Toxicity
PROBLEM: Can conciliation be upheld even when our standards for rationality are highly permissible?
WHOSE: Social epistemologists
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: yes, depending on the kind of peer)

TITLE: Self-Reinforcing and Self-Frustrating Decisions
PROBLEM: Is there ever any sense in which ‘shall’ implies ‘ought’?
WHOSE: Unclear; nobody really believes it does
SOLVED: Yes (it doesn’t)

TITLE: Attitude, Inference, Association: On the Propositional Structure of Implicit Bias
PROBLEM: Are implicit biases associative or propositional?
SOLVED: Yes (Not associative, therefore propositional)

Journal rankings and prestige bias

If you want to know about the prestige of a journal or school, there is no substitute for subjective rankings. If prestige is something you value, then the (perhaps limited) importance of these evaluations should be pretty clear. For one thing, if all other metrics of philosophical productivity are unavailable, then prestige will matter quite a lot. For another thing, the pursuit of alternative measures can be emotionally exhausting.

As it happens, I do not consider prestige to be a particularly effective sales pitch when selling the value of philosophy. It seems relatively clear to me that evaluating philosophy in terms of prestige is effectively conceding that it is a boutique discipline; as self-images go, it reeks of undignified desperation. And they are not a great reason to keep doing philosophy so long as you think philosophy is a productive activity.

Instead of prestige, people might instead look at citation rates, or ‘impact’. Presumably, those who attend to impact factors believe this idea, embedded in the notion of peer review, that the attention of experts in a discipline towards content ought to be some kind of indication that it is productive.

Impact of a journal can be measured in at least three ways: average citation, average weighted by network centrality, or h-index. Average citation is, importantly, indifferent to the volume of output; so, a journal that publishes a small amount but gets a lot of citations might have an equivalent average to one that publishes a lot but which has a lot more variability. Average weighted by network centrality means (very roughly) if two journals have the same average of citations, but one journal gets cited by a whole variety of different journals, then that journal will be ranked higher — it is more central to the network. The explanation of h-index is unintuitive enough that it resists being expressed in a parenthetical, but maybe we could think of it roughly as a journal’s ‘highest floor’. Which metric do you choose? It depends, really, on what it is that you value about impact: what it is about impact that makes it interesting, philosophically.

That said, the gulf between impact and productivity is wide. Much depends on your choice of scales, which depends on your values. So, some might think that the quality of a journal depends on whether it is willing to take risks on very good content, while others might prefer a relatively conservative approach which only publishes content for which it has absolute faith. And some might want to produce work that is relevant to non-philosophers; others might want to keep philosophy pure.* It makes an enormous difference to how we come up with rankings, and not all systems of rank are a good fit for measures of prestige. And if you don’t believe me, try looking at the h- indices for philosophy journals, and see how they relate to subjective rankings. http://www.scimagojr.com/journalrank.php?category=1211&order=h&ord=desc

*[These values strike me as being about as philosophically significant as musical tastes. So, whether you prefer “alternative rock” as opposed to “classic rock” (high vs. low risk), or “genre music” vs. “pop music” (endogenous vs. exogenous uptake). And of course even the choice to pay attention to impact factors betrays an aesthetic disposition for “radio-friendly” music as opposed to the punk or indie view, but I’ve always been a pop sort of guy.]

Seeing philosophers as people

Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog in a three-part series.

Abstract. Philosophers are best understood as people trying to better themselves and the world they are in. As members of a vocation, philosophers direct themselves to the pursuit of intellectual virtues: especially, in striving to be insightful and humble in belief, while being rigorous and cooperative in dialogue. Together, the virtues assemble into rough philosophical archetypes: what I call the ‘programmist’, the ‘lone wolf’, the ‘informalist’, and the ‘syncretist’. Typically, philosophers are both vilified for lacking in these virtues, and lionized when they possess them.

Autobiographical note: Originally published on Talking Philosophy blog, intended for a general audience, and written in a jocular style. It was generally well-received, and is a favorite of mine. Later, I learned that a similar typology was formulated on the basis of a statistical analysis of personality profiles (programmists as “builders”, informalists as “explorers”, lone wolves as “directors”, and syncretists as “negotiators”). That is a happy convergence of opinion.

Continue reading “Seeing philosophers as people”

Using Gephi to model philosophical networks in medieval Christendom

I was playing around with the Gephi beta graph designer, and thought it would be interesting to map out the network of Christian philosophers during the period 1000-1200.

Emphasis on betweenness centrality. Betweenness centrality is a measure of a node’s centrality in a network, equal to the number of shortest paths from all vertices to all others that pass through that node. Lanfranc is hardly a well-known figure in philosophy, but he looms conspicuously large here.


Emphasis on degree of linkage. Nodes are emphasized depending on the number of immediate neighbors they have.

Adapted from Randall Collins’s “Sociology of Philosophies” (p.464).

Who needs sophistry, anyway?

An old article from 2006. Originally published at Butterflies and Wheels.

Scientists and philosophers need sophistry. This article will show why and how. The argument will need to draw from the history and philosophy of science of Pierre Duhem, as well as the concepts of intellectual property and the science of persuasion.

Continue reading “Who needs sophistry, anyway?”