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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wolterstorff on "doing" philosophy

From Nicholas Wolsterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Note that I am providing this for interest and/or comments, not because I endorse it, though there is clearly, I think, something to it:

Seldom anymore does the analytic philosopher assume that he is obligated qua philosopher to ground rationally what he says in certitudes; analytic philosophy as a whole is on the way to becoming "Anselmian." ... The philosopher, approaching the practice of philosophy from his life in the everyday, finds himself believing many things, both large and small. Perhaps he finds himself believing in physicalism. He then regards the challenge facing him as a philosopher not to be that of discarding all those convictions unless he can rationally ground them in certitudes; the challenge facing him is that of working out the nature and implications of his physicalist convictions in various areas of thought, doing so in such a way as to cope not only with the complications in his own mind but with the objections lodged against this line of thought by others. In principle these objections might prove so powerful that he gives up his physicalism. In place of the old foundationalist picture, the picture of an academic enterprise now being taken for granted by philosophers in the analytic tradition is what I call dialogic pluralism. The academic enterprise is a dialogue among persons of different perspectives. The goal of the enterprise remains to achieve agreement.

First, let me just note that the continual use of masculine pronouns is unfortunate. But having noted it, I'll pass over it.

I'll have some more to say about Wolterstorff over the next couple of days, but let me repeat that the passage has some force. It's not as if the man's a fool. On the other hand, there's something disappointing about it, and also something unnecessarily conservative: I just "find" myself with certain beliefs (perhaps, as in Wolsterstorff's case, religious beliefs), so I try to do philosophy in a way that, in the first instance at least, tries to sort out the ramifications of those beliefs. So it seems to go. To Wolterstorff's credit, he thinks that objections to my starting beliefs may, in principle, lead me to revise them, but note that my aim is not to interrogate my starting beliefs sceptically or ruthlessly, or even with any vigour. Objections will occur to me, and I'll hear them from others in the philosophical enterprise, but my goal is to work out a view of the world based on whatever starting point I happen to have.

The admitted force of this approach is that foundationalist enterprises have been unsuccessful over the past four centuries, and there is little prospect of agreement on what the foundations even are or on how they could ever be established in the face of disagreement (after all, the things to be established include the methods by which we establish such things).

Nonetheless, I doubt that philosophy has yet become so tame, or that it should do so. Sure, we have to start somewhere, if only tacitly. For example, it's hard to see how we'd get anywhere unless we assumed that it is legitimate to apply logical rules such as modus ponens; that the senses are, if not exactly reliable, at least sufficiently useful and open to correction to help us investigate the world; that our memories are, once again, not totally reliable, but not so wildly in error as to be useless. We may not be able to state in any exhaustive and convincing way what rock-bottom assumptions we wish to use, and the quest for foundations of this kind may well be frustrating. It has been to date.

Still, it seems a bit much, when doing philosophy, simply to start with whatever ideas we have been socialised into accepting, even though they may be quite remote from anything that looks even like a reasonable candidate for being foundational. There is a difference between taking a fairly pragmatic approach to foundations and giving a free pass, in the first instance, to whatever you find yourself believing, however unreliable may be the process by which you came to the beliefs, and however shaky may be your grounds for justifying them.

As so often with such issues, there's much to say, but I don't think Wolsterstorff can simply help himself to a whole heap of religious doctrine - as he does - simply because he "finds himself" believing it.

This is, I suppose, why I'll always be a sceptic about religions, moral codes, and the like. They contain claims that  are truly remote from ordinary beliefs about physical reality or social reality, and I think that we should do philosophy with a consciousness that the onus is on us to establish them in ways that are generally acceptable to others - not to people who are gung-ho epistemological sceptics, but at least to people who don't find themselves with whatever religious and moral convictions we happen to have been socialised into. Some morality may be indispensable, of course, to avoid disaster ... but much of it may not be.

When we engage in philosophical reflection, we don't have to start with something as comprehensive as physicalism, just with ordinary knowledge of the physical and social worlds, some widely-accepted assumptions about such things as sense perception, memory, and logic, and some of the healthy scepticism that has provided the fuel for science. Poke around, see what you find if you bracket off your more specific system of disbelief ... if you have one. Maybe you'll be surprised.

I think that philosophy is still a much more penetrating and unsettling enterprise than Wolterstorff wants it to be, and from my viewpoint that's the good thing about it.

9 comments:

Greywizard said...

Since it is quite clear, reading through the introduction to the book, that Walterstorff intends to subvert all but a religious point of view, in general ruling out consequentialism (in his critique of eudaemonism), in what sense does he leave room for a dialogic pluralism? Since he bases himself on so-called Reformed epistemology, according to which belief in god is "properly basic" -- which is about as absurd as saying that belief in the devil is "properly basic" -- the starting position is already philosophically perverse. Philosophy may not base itself on certitudes. Indeed, the whole idea of certitude seems to be philosophically questionable. But surely we need at least something that is intuitively plausible as a starting point, and god just isn't that.

Ophelia Benson said...

Sounds a bit Rortyish, with that "The goal of the enterprise remains to achieve agreement."

He loads the dice, making the criterion "unless he can rationally ground them in certitudes." One can ground convictions in something well short of certitude, so simply hanging on to whatever one "finds" oneself believing is not the only alternative.

Wonderist said...

In regards to 'how can we know anything?', I've written on a "pragmatic approach to foundations" in an article about pragmatism and prediction:

From this basis of measuring the truth of ideas based on the predictions they make, we can begin searching for more and more ideas, and building a collection of good ones, while eliminating ideas we've tried already that have proved to be bad ones. This is what pragmatists do, and it's why even though they may have many disagreements at a higher level, at a core, foundational level, they are all pragmatists.

In regards to 'how can we resolve conflict?', I've written for evidence and against faith:

Now take the same two people in the initial experiment, and this time turn up the evidence-based reasoning knob. Increase the degree to which the people seek out more and more evidence, evaluate it by testing the predictions of X and Y, and follow where the evidence leads. As you increase their evidence-based reasoning, the two people will start gathering more and more evidence. If belief Y is true, then the more evidence is gathered, the more it will mount in support of Y, and in contradiction to X. A starts to see the incorrect predictions his X theory makes, and the correct predictions the Y theory makes, based on the evidence. Following the evidence, A switches to the Y theory. Now both people believe Y, and agreement has increased!

Evidence leads to agreement. Faith leads to disagreement.


In regards to self-scrutinizing our own foundations, rather than settling for complacency, I've written this from an article arguing for wonderism and against post-modernism:

Wonderism does not mean, "I feel a sense of wonder, therefore I must be right!" I reject that reasoning as strongly as I reject faith-based reasoning. It is not actually a wonderist position to take, since it closes off further investigation, and shuts down the search for knowledge, rather than honestly seeking knowledge. It is more a fear of being wrong (fear of the unknown; i.e. terror) than it is anything wonder-related. The feeling of wonder, in that case, is just being used as an excuse to pretend to know the unknown.

A wonderist could (and should) respond to this faulty reasoning with, "Well, how do you really know that?" This question is a further expression of wonder, and is an honest seeking of knowledge.

So, wonderism does not stop at the sense of wonder, it only begins there. Acknowledging the feeling of wonder does not mean we enslave ourselves to it.


Foundations are easy to find and agree upon if we rely on our natural curiosity to explore the evidence of our universe. That is, after all, the foundation of the success of the scientific endeavour. It's no surprise that philosophies which ignore this principle are on the outs. But for those that do respect evidence, philosophy is flourishing.

Wonderist said...
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Wonderist said...
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Brian said...

There's more than a hint of relativism in the quoted passage. It reminds me also of something Russell wrote in his History of Western Philosophy concerning Aquinas, something like, he set out to use philosophy to support his beliefs, not to find the truth....

Wonderist said...

Apologies for the multiple duplicate comments! I kept getting a 'Request URI too long' error, and thought that my posts had failed altogether.

thinkmonkey said...

Since Socrates at least (if not before), the practice of philosophy has first and foremost been interrogating received wisdom. For that matter, fallibilism -- the recognition that we might be mistaken about any given truth claim -- is the proper starting point for any and every form of honest intellectual inquiry, not solely philosophical inquiry. Walterstorff's distorted claim that the core of modern analytic philosophy lies in simply teasing out the implications of our prior assumptions rather than questioning those assumptions (and keeping our attention firmly fixed on the ultimately questionable nature of even those assumptions we cannot seem to do without), reveals a fundamental intellectual dishonesty in his character and his project. Even if you had not mentioned Walterstorff's religious convictions, I would have judged him to be a rationalization-generating ideologue rather than an honest inquirer just from his description of what doing philosophy consists in: There are worlds and worlds of difference between giving up on the untenable goal of absolute certitude about all of one's foundational assumptions and not even bothering to question or minimize one's starting assumptions.

G Felis

Russell Blackford said...

No problem at all. Blogger has its quirks.