The phrase ‘doing philosophy’ has resonated with me since I was fifteen. I used to read a BBC magazine’s weekly transcripts of radio interviews Bryan Magee was conducting with prominent philosophers of the time, including A.J. Ayer, Karl Popper, Gilbert Ryle, Peter Strawson, and Bernard Williams. I noticed that they described themselves as ‘doing philosophy’, not as ‘philosophizing’. I thought they were trying, perhaps too hard, to emphasize that their work was down to earth, not up in the clouds. Those interviews helped me realize that I was better suited to philosophy than to archaeology, my previous ambition. I loved the level of abstract clarity at which they thought, and the subtlety of the distinctions they drew. An archaeological dig is down to earth if anything is, while the philosophers were flying high—but above the clouds, not in them. Despite the altitude, common sense was still serving as some sort of compass. I had already encountered pretentious theoretical bullshit: this was not it. The air felt fresh, even though there was not much oxygen. The route from common curiosity to logical reasoning looked doable. In fact, I suspected that if only one could fly still higher, one would see even more clearly, and the picture would take a more elegant form. Of course, I wanted to be the one who would fly higher. Later, I came to realize how such methodological gains—and losses—tend to happen collectively more than individually.
One aim of my book Doing Philosophy is to explain, in non-technical terms, how philosophers can fly so high in thought, sometimes without crashing. How can they get anywhere, despite not using the experimental methods of modern science? Since the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, there has been a long tradition of dissolving the puzzle by saying that philosophers are not really flying after all: we are just doing something much less ambitious, such as cleaning the aircraft before someone else flies it. In less metaphorical terms, philosophers are not discovering anything about reality itself, we are only clarifying, improving, and organizing the ideas or concepts or words which natural scientists and other non-philosophers will then use to formulate their discoveries about reality. In another variation on that theme, philosophers only describe our experience of things, not the things themselves. As far as I can see, that tradition of making philosophy a second-order discipline has gone bankrupt—although some people continue to invest in it. The tradition fails to work for philosophy as it has developed over the past sixty years. Contemporary metaphysicians (for example, David Lewis and Kit Fine) are interested in the nature of possibility and necessity themselves, not just in our experience of possibility and necessity, or the ideas or concepts or words we use to think or talk about possibility and necessity. Contemporary moral and political philosophers are interested in the nature of justice and injustice themselves, not just in our experience of justice and injustice, or the ideas or concepts or words used to think or talk about justice and injustice. Philosophers formulate substantive theories about possibility and necessity, and about justice and injustice. Whether those theories are true or false is no mere matter of definition. It depends on what possibility and necessity, or justice and injustice, really are. Someone might agree that many contemporary philosophers are resuming the ancient ambitions of philosophy, but condemn them for doing so, and argue that they are falling into nonsense, or at least asking questions which they have no chance of answering properly. But the evidence does not support such condemnations. Contemporary super-ambitious philosophy is often intelligible by any reasonable standard, and explicitly guided by rational argument and evidence. It is constrained by modern physics and biology, where relevant, but natural science often provides only very limited help with the questions philosophers are asking. So how do we manage? A clue is mathematics. It does not depend on the experimental method, yet it is even more rigorous and reliable than any natural science. Some philosophers have tried to interpret mathematics as not telling us anything about reality, but such attempts have failed to make good sense of the mathematical enterprise. Mathematicians themselves tend to regard mathematics as discovering truths about the abstract structure of reality; the central role of mathematics in physics and other experimental sciences is indirect evidence that they are right. Although mathematics proceeds mainly by deduction, its proofs rely on first principles which are not themselves justified by being proved. Rather, they are justified by their capacity to unify previous mathematics. The laws of mathematics are less different than you might think from the laws of physics, even though physics is an experimental subject while mathematics is not. Mathematics is a science, but not a natural science. Similarly, I suggest, philosophy is a science, but not a natural science. Deductive logic plays a very significant role in philosophy too, though of course nothing like as dominant a role as it plays in mathematics. There is obviously far more disagreement and disputation in philosophy than there is in mathematics—though mathematics is not without its controversies and unorthodoxies. At any rate, we can use the case of mathematics to disrupt the tunnel vision which sees the experimental method as the only path to truth. Having done that, we can notice the deep similarities between the ways of comparing and testing theories in philosophy and those of comparing and testing theories elsewhere. In Doing Philosophy, I explain and illustrate what I take those similarities to be. Four commentators—Nigel Collins, Hisham El Edrissi, Edward Gibney, and Amanda McBride—presented responses to Doing Philosophy at a one-day workshop of the Newcastle Philosophy Society. I am delighted that they responded in such creative, diverse, and interesting ways. Their responses appear below, with my replies. There are many areas of agreement, which for reasons of space I have not emphasized, preferring to concentrate on points where I had something different to say, sometimes in addition, sometimes in disagreement. The book is meant to be provocative (though sincere), and at least in that respect it seems to have succeeded.
Timothy Williamson’s book is called Doing Philosophy which suggests something more than merely describing philosophy. The question of doing philosophy is subtly different from the question of what philosophy is: it implies an activity, an agent, it emphasises that philosophy is not a passive activity. There is a requirement to do something and, as Williamson argues, this something is not unnatural for us. It already happens without any formalised methodology – we all ask in our own way questions on the meaning of life or the nature of reality. Philosophy, then, starts with ways of thinking that all humans engage in naturally but reaches fruition through the application of care, method, and a deeper and more consistent level of thought. In short, for Williamson philosophy starts from common sense, so I will focus on this for the remainder of my essay.
To his claim that ‘we have to start from common sense’, Williamson adds that philosophy ‘never completely escapes its origins in common sense’. But given that he places the pursuit of knowledge and truth at the top of philosophy’s agenda, Williamson accounts for the fact that common sense is often false by splitting common sense into mere common sense belief (which can be true or false) and common sense knowledge (which is true). However, this distinction opens up new problems as there needs to be a reliable method for separating false common sense from true common sense, mere belief from true knowledge. Therefore, even if we accept that philosophy may begin with common sense, the first thing the philosopher must do is question it.
In this sceptical spirit, Bertrand Russell writes, ‘Common sense, however it tries, cannot avoid being surprised from time to time.’ Even if we forgave common sense its occasional errors of judgement, another problem is how we get to an objective view of common sense as my view of common sense is likely to be different from yours. René Descartes, called common sense ‘the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it.’ And even if we find shared notions of common sense that overcome the whims of individual subjectivity, does this point to the truth of the notion or is it just another example of popular prejudice or mob rule?
Of course one way to overcome this risk of collapsing common sense into subjectivity is by giving primacy to the reality of the physical world rather than the ideas of the mind. This was a motivation for the 18th century Scottish School of Common Sense who were reacting against the sceptical positions of, amongst others, Locke, Berkeley, and, especially, Hume. According to this kind of view, the physical world exists independently of our conceptual schemes, so we can gain ‘common sense’ knowledge of it purely by virtue of the fact that the world is common to all.
However, appealing this may be, the realist and common sense starting point for philosophy is still only one possible starting point for philosophy, and favours some kinds of questions over other equally important questions. Consider, for example, the existentialism of Sartre or Heidegger in which the focus is on the human condition as experienced through our consciousness of the world. I don’t deny the world but I do deny that we can understand our place in the world through mere empirical evidence. The common sense scientific-empirical stance seems to overlook the human condition and the place of the mind (however we may describe it) as a critical and irreducible structure in this condition.
Returning to scepticism about common sense, one way to defend common sense from scepticism is to see it as pragmatic and useful, and that this is itself a guide to truth. Williamson hints at this when he writes that although common sense beliefs have evolved to be practically useful rather than true, ‘true beliefs’ he says ‘tend to be more practically useful than false beliefs’, and that we overestimate errors in common sense because we find them more interesting. But how far can we take the kind of reasoning born out of everyday experiences of our environment? It may be common sense not to touch a hot stove but can this type of knowledge illuminate questions related to the meaning of a life or the creation of an ethic? Can it answer the question of God’s existence or the puzzle of determinism verses free will?
In Williamson’s account, common sense is not only a starting point for the philosopher but also acts as ‘a check on the philosopher’s provisional conclusions’. How can a philosopher begin to deny the existence of time when we have to get up before eating breakfast? Or deny the existence of free will when we can raise our hand on demand? Or deny the existence of a self when there is an ‘I’ who denies it? But must common sense always be there to keep a rein on supposed metaphysical excess? For my part I don’t see why common sense must act as a constraint upon philosophical theory or why departure from common sense is seen as an indication of philosophical error.
For the philosopher Bertrand Russell, philosophy ‘suggests many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and frees them from the tyranny of custom’, and ‘while diminishing our feelings of certainty as to what things are’ it ‘increases our knowledge as to what they may be’, and keeps alive ‘our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect’. Too often common sense is simply custom writ large and a way of dulling our sense of how things could be otherwise. So, at the risk of entangling myself in a paradox, it seems like common sense to treat common sense sceptically.
Nigel Collins is a member of the Newcastle Philosophy Society and a tutor for the U3A. His main philosophical interest is in existentialism.
Nigel and I agree that common sense is sometimes wrong. Nigel draws the lesson that ‘even if we accept that philosophy may begin with common sense, the first thing the philosopher must do is question it’. Does that mean questioning all of common sense or only part of it? If one begins with common sense and then immediately questions all of it, one has nothing left to continue with. All one’s beliefs, knowledge, and ways of thinking are in question, and not to be relied on. But if one first questions only part of common sense, how does one decide which part not to question? At that initial stage, one has only common sense to tell one which part most deserves to be doubted—will Nigel be happy to rely on common sense for that guidance?
Think of it this way: if you must always test something before you use it, then before you test a belief you must test the test, and before you test the test you must test the test of the test, and so on in an infinite regress.
Imagine a scientist thinking that since sense perceptions are sometimes wrong, the first thing to do is to question them. A similar issue arises: does that mean questioning all sense perceptions or only some of them? If one questions all of them, what basis is left for science to get started? If one questions only some of them, how does one decide which not to question? Descartes’ approach was to suspend belief in whatever he could get himself to doubt, and then rebuild his beliefs on the remaining indubitable basis. But he cheated, by relying on a fallacious ‘proof’ of the existence of a god and then using the god to underpin the rest of his knowledge. Indubitability and certainty are unreasonable standards. If you exclude whatever fails to meet them, you are left with too little to do anything with. It is a kind of intellectual self-harm.
Science has a better strategy for dealing with the possibility of error. Rather than setting itself the hopeless task of ensuring that errors never arise, it accepts that they will sometimes arise, and concentrates on identifying and eliminating them once they have occurred. We can and should become more reliable; we cannot and need not become perfectly reliable. To make progress, we should not doubt whatever we can. Instead, we should concentrate our doubts on what we have serious, specific reasons to doubt. In the famous metaphor of the Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath, we must repair our ship while at sea in her.
The same lesson applies to common sense. Even if we were psychologically capable of suspending all our reliance on it, which we are not, doing so would be a kind of intellectual self-harm. Instead, we should concentrate our doubts on those parts of common sense which we have serious, specific reasons to doubt. Those reasons may come from other parts of common sense. Both natural science and philosophy originate in the self-refinement of common sense.
I would like to begin by setting up a few oppositions as they have been helpful for me in thinking through this response to Timothy Williamson’s Doing Philosophy:
Philosophy as a way of knowing vs. Philosophy as a way of living
Dialogue vs. Debate
Reason vs. Affect
Academic philosophy vs. Community philosophy
Williamson is very clear that he considers philosophy to be a discipline that is in the business of knowing, and hence to be allied with the sciences. The idea of philosophy as a way of living appears to place it dangerously close to the kind of ‘lifestyle advice’, ‘pop psychology’ or general self-help approach that Williamson is keen to distinguish from proper philosophy.
In terms of the second opposition, Williamson justifies the adversarial nature of philosophy when he writes that ‘the process of two sides arguing against each other is too central to philosophy to be considered misbehaviour.’ Certainly, Williamson’s vision of philosophy as involving at least two people is an improvement upon the kind of isolated individual in a mountain hut approach that has been glorified since Descartes, but the idea that the gold standard for philosophical discussion must involve intensive criticism, with only those ideas that survive this onslaught being considered up to scratch, seems problematic to me for a number of reasons. Williamson anticipates one objection when he acknowledges that such a format can privilege confidence at the expense of insight, but this concern is explained away with reference to the reasoning power of the philosopher. Bullying, bluff and sophistry are presented as counter-productive to philosophy, while the genuine philosopher is presented as an entirely rational subject freed from these all too human impulses.
This brings me to my third opposition. There is surely an affective dimension to the philosophical process, running alongside the rational one, and this is surely the case even in the kind of academic environments where adversarial philosophy is the standard. I think the impact of this affective dimension on the quality and diversity of the ideas shared deserves more recognition than it gets. Where Williamson does acknowledge the role of affect, he considers how the more ‘unsavoury’ affects such as competitiveness, rivalry, and ambition can be ‘harnessed to play a constructive role’ in philosophy. I would like to consider another affective response stoked in the philosophical arena. When challenged in relation to our ideas, rather than this firing us up and fuelling our thinking through fantasies of crushing a rival, it may simply upset us and close us down rather than open up potential spaces for creativity. An environment is which buzz words include ‘criticism’, ‘opposition’, ‘objection’, and ‘refutation’ may not be conducive to philosophy’s purported search for wisdom.
Williamson does not discuss the role of wisdom in philosophy although he is certainly resistant to modern self-help inflected philosophies that may well claim wisdom as their goal. But the differing goals of knowledge and wisdom force us to accept an unavoidable pragmatic element in philosophy, as a philosophy in the service of science is likely to look very different to a philosophy in service to freedom or solidarity or God or political emancipation (to give but a few central goals that have driven philosophers over history).
We now come to my final opposition between academic and community philosophy. In the community philosophy organization I’m part of, we run discussion groups and talks open to the public. Sometimes we have guest speakers who know a lot about their topic, other times members of the society put a bit of time aside to learn about a philosopher or a movement or even just a single idea, and disseminate it to the group so we can have a discussion about it. Inevitably some people know more than others, and some are passionate about one aspect of philosophy and haven’t given much thought to anything else. On a practical level, sharing your ideas with people who think it is their job to find flaws in them when you’re only doing it as a hobby would likely put a whole host of people off, but there are other, more philosophical, reasons why we might look for other ways of doing philosophy in this context.
When practicing philosophy in this setting what becomes very clear, very quickly is just how diverse people’s minds are, despite sharing a capacity for reasoning. Some take time to process what they’re hearing; others are quick-talking and articulate; some are invested in the response; others simply curious; some struggle to answer questions on the spot but given a couple of minutes can come up with a really elegant response. We are not fighting to be considered right but are trying to think together so as to work out how best to think about the issue at hand.
What this rests upon is an implicit acknowledgment of the situatedness of knowledge – there is no God’s eye view to many of the questions that we ask. And this is especially true for many of the questions that draw people to philosophy in the first place, e.g. those related to how to live well, how to be a good person etc. When we are trying to make ideas work for us and integrate them into our lives, we needn’t attach ourselves to them so tightly that even on being presented with better evidence we feel the need to cling to and defend them. Furthermore, having recognized that our knowledge is contingent and situated, and thereby having adopted a humble position as a basic philosophical attitude, we are free to, without shame, change our minds. Pride is a very powerful human drive, and I don’t doubt that in the course of many an adversarial exchange, academic philosophers have been too embarrassed to say, ‘I hadn’t thought about that, yes you’re absolutely right’, something that happens frequently in the non-adversarial domain.
Williamson clearly wishes to clarify the optimal conditions for intellectual exchange to flourish. But this has to depend upon the philosopher’s goal, and we do not need to fully accept Nietzsche’s idea that philosophies are simply the personal confession/involuntary memoir of its author in order to acknowledge a pluralism in philosophy, even if not a chronic one. Rigour may be typically demonstrated through successful bouts of adversarial debate, but there are other goals and other ways. And these are likely to be just as welcome in academic philosophy as in community philosophy.
Amanda McBride is on the Board of the Newcastle Philosophy Society. Her favourite philosopher is William James and she considers herself a pragmatist in his tradition.
Amanda rightly contrasts the needs of academic philosophy with those of community philosophy, where people are ‘only doing it as a hobby’. Still, people with a hobby usually want to do it as well as they can. Her description incidentally shows much common ground between the two practices. Community philosophers ‘are trying to think together so as to work out how best to think about the issue at hand’; so too in the long run are members of the community of academic philosophers. Her community philosophers frequently say ‘I hadn’t thought about that, yes you’re absolutely right’ in response to objections, so objections are frequent in community philosophy as well as the academic version. People are often drawn into community philosophy by questions about ‘how to live well, how to be a good person’ and so on. To ask such questions for the sake of it, with no interest in applying the answers to one’s own life, would be academic in the negative sense. But if, like many community philosophers, one does hope to apply the answers in living one’s life, they had better not be wrong answers, for applying those could wreck one’s life, or the lives of others. Although there are many different ways of living well and being a good person, there are also many different ways of living badly and being a bad person. Criticizing bad answers to such philosophical questions can make a practical difference, not just a theoretical one.
Amanda contrasts knowledge, as the goal of academic philosophy, with wisdom, as the goal of community philosophy. The two are not very far apart. The people to ask for advice are the wise (if you know who they are), because they are more likely to know what to do.
Harshness and aggression are no more productive in academic philosophy than in community philosophy. But they are easily confused with clarity. The clearer a criticism, the more it helps one to learn from it, even though the process of remaking one’s comfort zone is often painful—for philosophers of all kinds.
As Amanda hints, the ideal of ‘the genuine philosopher . . . as an entirely rational subject freed from . . . all too human impulses’ is sheer fantasy. It has never tempted me. Many of our feelings, far from obstructing rationality, are its human form. Even in the most abstract studies, elegant hypotheses give pleasure, arguments dragging us down into a mire provoke disgust. A key motivation is curiosity, the appetite for knowledge, which we share with many non-human animals.
Teachers at schools and universities would agree with Amanda that an unsupportive atmosphere often blocks learning, and that what helps one person can hinder another. There is no easy solution. Low self-confidence makes you give up in despair before you have properly tried to understand something new; high self-confidence makes you think you know it all already. A useful starting-point may be that while asking philosophical questions is easy, giving them good answers is incredibly hard for all of us, in both academic and non-academic communities.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett has said that thought experiments have provided the most memorable passages in the history of philosophy. Not formal proofs. Only very few people can recall the premises and conclusion of some important logical syllogism. But many, many more will have heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave or the innocent bystander on the tracks near a runaway trolley or maybe even the child called Mary who was locked away in her black and white room while she learned “everything there is to know about the colour red.”
Why do we remember these? Because they are art. They are stories that evoke strong emotional responses. They have memorable characters who are tied up in some conflict. And we’re not sure how, or even if, they’ll be able to get out of it. But if they are art, why do we get to use them in philosophy? Why do they count for arguments of reason too? How come, as Timothy Williamson asks in Doing Philosophy, “philosophers get away with just sitting in their armchairs and imagining it all?”
The reason is that our imagination is an incredible tool that has been honed to a fine edge over billions of years of evolution. Evolution is usually characterised as a series of trials and errors, but ones that are done blindly by Mother Nature. And until very recently, that’s how all life on Earth adapted and survived. But now that we know about this, we humans can conduct those trials and errors with a bit of wise foresight and consciousness. Scientists carefully plan their trials and errors all the time, but there are some places where it’s impossible for scientists to go. As Williamson says:
“Imagination is especially useful when trial and error is too risky. … Imagining is [also] our most basic way of learning about hypothetical possibilities. … Only the dumbest animals would not think about [these]. … Thought experimentation is just a slightly more elaborate, careful, and reflective version of that process, in the service of some theoretical investigation. Without it, human thought would be severely impoverished.”
Williamson is right. Over thousands of years, some of the best thinkers in history have churned out mountains of these trials and errors of the imagination, and they have the power to fundamentally change the way we navigate the world. They’ve certainly changed me.
I’m a writer, and I try to write fiction and philosophy. Like all writers, though, I’ve heard the advice that you have to “write what you know.” But Socrates said, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” Ernest Hemingway once described his own process by saying, “All you have to do is write one true sentence.” But we hear all the time now that we live in a “post-truth” world. So how do we reconcile these bits of philosophy with the conventional advice to a writer?
The answer I found came from philosophical thought experiments. A few years ago, I came across Julian Baggini’s book The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten and 99 other Thought Experiments. Since I’m always looking to test out my ideas, I decided to go through them all, one-by-one, for the next two years or so on my website. Many of the thought experiments taught me many valuable lessons, but there were three in particular that helped me arrive at an answer to the simple question of how to write “true” sentences.
Zeno's paradox: How can anything move at all?
As this is only a short piece, I’ll just point out that the first one, Zeno’s paradox, provided an excellent reminder that the universe is always moving and changing. And the second thought experiment, about Descartes’ Evil Demon, drove home the point that we cannot stop the universe, and more importantly, we cannot see into the future. And so this makes us doubt all knowledge. That’s an ancient position in philosophy known as scepticism, which Williamson acknowledges in his book, but dismisses rather quickly by simply saying, “Sceptics will be only too pleased to exploit [their] power to drag you into the sceptical pit with them. You had best be careful whom you talk to.”
But that brings us to the third thought experiment, the Gettier problem, which I think helps us see how we can talk to these sceptics, and deal with them just fine. The Gettier problem looks at the concept of knowledge, which, ever since Plato, has been defined in the West as justified true belief (the so-called JTB theory of knowledge). But Edmund Gettier managed to overturn that dominant definition with just a short two-page paper published in 1963. Gettier’s examples are notoriously boring — they aren’t good art — which is possibly why this hasn’t reached a wider audience, but the version that Baggini used to illustrate it is much better, so I’ll use that one to introduce it.
Baggini tells us about a woman called Naomi who was at a coffee shop when she noticed a really unusual man behind her drop a really unusual keychain. She didn’t talk to him, but he was just one of those people that makes a deep impression. The very next day, Naomi was walking down the street when she witnessed a tragic accident — a car killed a pedestrian, and it turned out to be the very same man! The police interviewed Naomi to get some help identifying the body, and she told them about the coffee shop and the odd keychain, both of which turned out to be true. A week later, however, Naomi was back in the coffee shop again when she turned around and screamed. She saw the very same man fumbling with the very same keychain. He quickly calmed her down though, and said that this had been happening a lot lately, ever since his twin brother had been killed last week.
This might sound innocent, but Naomi is an example of someone who had good justifications for her beliefs, and those beliefs turned out to be true. But this was only because she was lucky. She might just as easily have seen the twin brother during one of her first two encounters, and then her knowledge would have been wrong. The problem for philosophers is that we never seem to have enough facts to justify our knowledge as being true. The JTB theory of knowledge collapses, not because our justifications aren’t robust and durable, but because Zeno’s Paradox and Descartes’ Evil Demon showed us there is no such thing as Truth, at least not in any way that we can know it. (Note: this is an epistemological claim about what we can know, not an ontological claim about what can be.) This might sound like a really scary admission. But all good scientists demonstrate this when they tell us that their discoveries are only ever provisional, that they could be overturned with any new observations. These scientists are using an evolutionary epistemology. To them, knowledge can only ever be justified beliefs that are currently surviving our best tests. No number of scientific observations will prove that statement, but with the help of a few carefully constructed and creatively designed thought experiments, I think we can confidently arrive at that conclusion. So, there may not be “truth,” and as an author I may not be able to write “true sentences.” But we can all tinker around and experiment with trial and error to try to think and write things that survive. That’s the best we can do with all of our thought experiments — both the artistic ones, and the reasoned ones. I think this is great news because it means authors and philosophers will never run out of work. This is also why Williamson’s book isn’t called How Philosophy is Done. Philosophy is not, and seemingly never could be, a finished product — it’s an ongoing verb. And that’s why I highly recommend picking up one of the many collections of thought experiments that are out there. They’re a great way to sit back and enjoy a bit of fiction, and an even better way to keep doing philosophy. Ed Gibney is a writer and evolutionary philosopher who blogs about his beliefs and the fiction it inspires at evphil.com.
Although he is too polite to say it, Edward thinks that Doing Philosophy is unfair to skepticism. He quotes this passage: ‘Sceptics will be only too pleased to exploit [their] power to drag you into the sceptical pit with them. You had best be careful whom you talk to’. Actually, those comments are aimed at someone who allows the sceptic to set the rules of the game, by agreeing to suspend any belief which they cannot convince their conversational partner to share. Officially, sceptics refuse to rely on most of their cognitive apparatus, so why treat them as if they were good judges of your beliefs?
Edward takes thought experiments to pack a sceptical punch: ‘Zeno’s Paradox and Descartes’ Evil Demon showed us there is no such thing as Truth, at least not in any way that we can know it’. Descartes himself intended no such conclusion: he used scepticism only to clear the ground for a supposed reconstruction of our knowledge on foundations of certainty. Zeno of Elea may have intended his paradoxes of motion to show that reality is one, not many, but that is not the same as showing that truth is none.
Of course, a thought experiment may show something other than the moral its originator intended, but does anything show that ‘there is no such thing as Truth’? I am not sure why Edward italicizes ‘Truth’ and spells it with an upper-case ‘T’. Perhaps he just means that truth is OK, but we shouldn’t get too pretentious about it. If so, I agree. Aristotle’s straightforward explanation goes to the heart of the matter: ‘To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true.’ For example, either Queen Victoria was Jack the Ripper or she was not; if she was, then it is true that she was, and if she was not, then it is true that she was not. Either way, something is true, whether or not we know it. Neither Zeno’s paradoxes nor Descartes’ Evil Demon casts any doubt on that.
Edward’s fallback sceptical position is that although there may be truths, we cannot know them. However, he also says that thought experiments ‘showed us’ his conclusion, in which case it is true and we know it. That way, contradiction lies. Knowing that you know nothing entails both knowing something and knowing nothing, so it is impossible.
More promising is Edward’s proposal, perhaps inspired by Quine, of evolutionary epistemology. It gives no encouragement to scepticism about truth or knowledge. As I emphasize in the book, for animals knowing truths about their environment is literally a matter of life and death. The leopard needs to know whether there is an impala nearby; the impala needs to know whether there is a leopard nearby. Neither of them can refute the sceptic, but who cares? By realistic standards, they still know.
My aim in this essay is to respond to the spirit rather than the content of Timothy Williamson’s Doing Philosophy by offering my own answer to one of the key questions that motivates his book: what are philosophers trying to achieve? I would like to start with a simple question: what constitutes a philosopher? At one end of the spectrum, the philosopher is a member of an exclusive club for only the most incredible minds, a tradition of thinkers stretching from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Nietzsche. At the other end, the philosopher is anyone who has ever questioned, contemplated or queried the world set before them. I consider the latter definition more appropriate to my vision of what constitutes a philosopher because it is more able to accommodate the fact that in our modern world philosophy takes on many and diverse forms. Those I call ‘neo-philosophers’ include all those debating and discussing online, thinking critically, questioning and answering on a multitude topics on an expanse of forums and chat rooms, daring to discuss and project their own thoughts rather than succumbing to the confusions generated by our technological age. They must be considered philosophers even while they may not self-identify as one. Neo-philosophers exchange ideas and debate on websites just as the Ancient Greeks did in their academies. Philosophy in 2018 takes place in Facebook comment boxes, Quora chat rooms and countless other websites, and it is my intention to consider these neo-philosophers when discussing what philosophers are trying to achieve. Of course not all web exchanges are philosophical – far from it! What distinguishes the neo-philosopher from countless others exchanging ideas on the web is their search for enlightenment. But enlightenment is not just one thing so I would like to distinguish ‘internal’ enlightenment from ‘social’ enlightenment. Internal enlightenment refers not only to the enlightenment of oneself but also one’s peer group, with one famous example of this being the Socratic dialogue in which Socrates aims to enlighten his fellow Athenians through philosophical discussion. In the process of internal enlightenment, the philosopher must attempt to make sense of the world around them by exposing themselves to and exchanging as many ideas as possible, and in this way discovering and formulating theories based upon their individual experiences and worldliness. In short, internal enlightenment is a process of becoming independent in thought through questioning and exposure to other people and other ideas. For Immanuel Kant, enlightenment was liberation from a state of immaturity, ignorance and error. Kant’s vision of enlightenment emerges from the 17th/18th century revolution in thought known as ‘The Enlightenment’ in which philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza courageously broke away from the stranglehold of Church doctrine, questioning it with their focus on (sceptical) doubt, reason and logic as the foundational tools for modern philosophy. For these philosophers, doubt, reason and logic serve as both tools and weapons: tools for fuelling the thought and debate which is crucial for the formulation and exchange of ideas, and weapons for refuting the deceit of a dogmatic authority.
Internal enlightenment is Kantian in spirit, aiming for liberation of thought and action from the control and heavy-handed influence of others. The requisite awareness of one’s environment, the appreciation that people steal, that the media lies, and that not all intentions are pure, plunge the philosopher deep into the reaches of human consciousness. This awareness is necessary for liberty of thought and action.
Although internal enlightenment and social enlightenment cannot be neatly distinguished from each other, social enlightenment is usually consequential to a philosopher (or small group of philosophers) achieving some degree of internal enlightenment. It occurs when a theory or idea becomes refined, developed and critically examined so that the philosopher(s) in question finds it necessary for the idea to be spread to society at large for discussion, debate and contemplation.
When a philosopher tries to achieve social enlightenment, they will generally believe wholeheartedly in their theory and believe it is in society’s best interests to be exposed to it. Social enlightenment is for the good of society, whereas internal enlightenment is for the philosopher and their small group of followers (i.e. for an elite). Social enlightenment did not occur on a large scale during ‘The Enlightenment’ due to huge class and literacy gaps. Theories were refined within upper-class circles and among intellectuals but not widely enough to consider it as true social enlightenment. We must look to the twentieth century for the period in which true social enlightenment finally emerged, driven
Kant's famous essay 'What is Enlightenment?'
by both the move towards mass secularisation and the development of technologies which enable people to access information from a huge array of sources. The neo-philosopher is the long-delayed result of internal enlightenment and subsequent social enlightenment.
Despite this, we don’t need to look far to see that doubt, reason and logic have not yet reached large elements of society. People remain all too willing to accept uncritically information that is unfounded, in 2018 from disreputable news networks as in 1718 from unscrupulous priests. This highlights the difficulty in achieving social enlightenment in comparison to internal enlightenment, as ignorance and an innate resistance to change and rationality can hinder its progress. Withdrawal from society to pursue internal enlightenment may be the preferred option for the neo-philosopher; and yet despite the infinitely greater challenges it presents, the prestige and benefit to society also make the pursuit of social enlightenment a worthy goal. To save one’s soul or to save one’s society? This is the neo-philosopher’s dilemma.
Hisham El Edrissi is an A-level student at Heaton Manor School. He plans to study philosophy at university.
Hisham’s contemporary neo-philosophers do their philosophy on the web. He portrays them as the mass progeny of a tiny eighteenth century elite of Enlightenment philosophers. I wonder whether the contrast is quite that stark. The French Revolution, with its public festivals of Rationality, was in some way an Enlightenment event, though of course many other factors were also in play. The same goes for the American Revolution. Both revolutions involved far more of society than just a small elite of intellectuals. Although the eighteenth century lacked electronic media, books and pamphlets circulated widely. Then, as now, groups of many different kinds gathered to discuss ideas face to face.
Nor has deference to authority been straightforwardly replaced by independence of thought among the neo-philosophers, over the last three hundred years. The authority of Christian churches has declined, while deference to the authority of modern science has increased. Although reason and evidence play a far greater role in science than in religion, most of us have to take the results of modern science on trust, because we are in no position to assess for ourselves the evidence and calculations on which they are based. We have some indirect confirmation in the success of current technology, but it covers only a limited part of science. Such trust in science is more reasonable than trust in religion, but we should not pretend to be operating as entirely independent thinkers. Even scientists have to trust the technicians who do much of the work for their experiments, and other scientists with complementary areas of expertise.
Hisham presents the large unenlightened elements of society as not yet having learned to doubt. But many of them do doubt, perhaps too much. Scepticism about climate change is widespread amongst Trump voters; it goes with declining trust in the expertise of scientists. Many Brexit voters distrusted the expertise of economists. More generally, in ‘post-truth’ politics, lots of people refuse to defer to experts. In this atmosphere of epistemological confusion, they believe whatever website suits their prejudices. They are thinking independently of traditional authorities, but not in a good way. Doubt is a two-edged sword, which can easily wound its advocates. Unfortunately, the Enlightenment left us no adequate way to calibrate scepticism.
Hisham’s neo-philosopher’s dilemma is between internal enlightenment for the few and social enlightenment for the many. But are they mutually exclusive? Philosophers interested only in tweeting their insights will have no insights to tweet. To speak with genuine authority, philosophy must achieve genuine knowledge, not already available elsewhere. That requires philosophical expertise, and the application of methods like those discussed in Doing Philosophy. It takes more than a Facebook account. Of course, one can reasonably demand that some specialist philosophers spend some time explaining, in terms accessible to the general public, what academic philosophy is up to, what progress it has made, and what it has to say about matters of urgent general concern, just as some academic scientists do. Let’s hope we can get the general public to listen.
Timothy Williamson is Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. His latest book is Doing Philosophy: From Common Curiosity to Logical Reasoning.
From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 1 ('Doing Philosophy').