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Against Stoicism

There is a familiar tension within Stoicism between determinism and moral responsibility. The Stoic response is typically to restrict each portion of the puzzle to different realms. Not all Stoics agree on how this division should be maintained. The ancient Stoics maintained that there is one world governed by two principles: matter and reason. Modern Stoics[1] divide the world into two along those same lines. In the world of matter, action is determined. In the world of reason, it is deliberated and chosen. I shall be concerned here with how the modern Stoic understands each individually and how they relate. The Stoic cannot ultimately resolve this tension.

The Stoic account of the world of matter is straightforward. It is ordered by the categories, which permit the theoretical understanding of material events by situating each within a causal series. And so it is with human action, embodied as it is. But in the world of matter, human action is not caused by some intention or will. As the Stoic makes clear, the will is a practical postulate which does not bear on the theoretical understanding of the world of matter: “the postulates play no theoretical or explanatory role whatsoever. They provide us with concepts that define the intelligible world, but we have no intuitions to which we may apply those concepts, and consequently no theoretical knowledge of their objects.”[2] Moral responsibility has its source therefore in the world of reason, the intelligible world, not the material. This is where the real meat of the Stoic account lies.

For the Stoic, the world of reason is revealed in a particular standpoint, one in which action is deliberated. As they say, “In order to do anything, you must simply ignore the fact that you are programmed, and decide what to do—just as if you were free . . . It follows from this feature that we must regard our decisions as springing ultimately from principles that we have chosen, and justifiable by those principles. We must regard ourselves as having free will.”[3] The world of reason, on this view, is populated by those practical postulates needed to completely determine deliberation and moral action. Most important of these for my purpose is the will. This is what deliberates and ultimately chooses some course of action. It is “a rational causality that is effective without being determined by an alien cause.”[4] The will is self-determining, and so is subject to no cause. It follows that moral action qua moral is undetermined by any element of the phenomenal world. It is entirely bound within the intelligible.

The Stoic takes this to ground the freedom of the will. But this is not to say that the will is undetermined. For the Stoic, the will is free only insofar as it is causally isolated from the world of matter. It is nevertheless bound to law because it is itself a causality. This follows immediately from the Stoics’ nomological account of causation: “Since the concept of a causality entails that of laws . . . it follows that freedom is by no means lawless.”[5] Of course, the account of causation that applies here is relevantly distinct from that of the world of matter. The will is not bound to antecedent cause, but its deliberation is nevertheless constrained in the same sort of way. The law still applies to the will, but here the law is rational, not material: “The free will therefore must have its own law . . . [S]ince the will is practical reason, it cannot be conceived as acting and choosing for no reason. Since reasons are derived from principles, the free will must have its own principle.”[6]

The laws which govern the will have their source in the reasons that a will has for choosing one course of action over another. These reasons begin with incentives. For the Stoic, “An incentive is something that makes an action interesting to you, that makes it a live option . . . [It does] not yet provide reasons for the spontaneous will, [but] determine[s] what the options are—which things, so to speak, are candidates for reasons.”[7] Incentives become reasons once they are adopted as maxims. But since incentives don’t just disappear, this process of adopting an incentive as a maxim rather consists in the rational ordering of our incentives, of choosing which incentives take precedence over others.

For the Stoic, the rational order of incentives is readily given in reason as revealed by the structure of the will. Because the will is itself uncaused, it is spontaneous. But in order to be a cause, it must adopt some maxim. As the Stoic puts it, “At the standpoint of spontaneity, the will must . . . choose a principle or a law for itself. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[8] This content must be compatible with the spontaneity of the will and must be available in the world of reason. For the Stoic, there is only one thing which meets these criteria: the will itself. And so the will may ultimately take itself as its content. The Stoic represents this by the following principle: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”[9] They call this the Formula of Universal Law, which they say “merely tells us to choose a law. Its only constraint on our choice is that it have the form of a law. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[10] It is of course plain that the Formula of Universal Law does not merely tell us to choose a law. It tells us to choose a universal law. There is a problem here which I shall come to later. For now, I must continue with the Stoic account of moral responsibility.

By now in their account, the Stoic maintains that their account of right action has been satisfactorily demonstrated. What remains is to account for how human beings may act rightly. This is in effect to account for how the world of matter and the world of reason interact. The ancient Stoic can easily account for this because they hold that there is only one world which can be explained in two distinct but consistent ways. The modern Stoic might seem to face a deeper difficulty. However, their account is ultimately the same. The difference here is that they have inverted the metaphysics of their ancient predecessors. Where they ancient Stoics took matter to be fundamental, the modern Stoic holds that the world of matter has its ultimate source in the world of reason, which they then call the noumenal world. As such, when a human being wills some action, its influence in the world of reason makes it so also in the world of matter.

The will does not have sole influence over the world of reason, however. The world of reason is divinely ordered, and so one’s will must contribute to this order in some way. How this occurs is unclear in the Stoic literature. Whatever happens, the parallel limitation occurs also in the world of matter as represented by the laws of cause and effect. The human will, as realised by the material body, is bound by these laws and therefore not completely free. It is always bound by what appears to it as a possible course of action: if that is one is not met by the appropriate kinds of intuitions that permit right action in a given situation, one cannot possibly act rightly. This is of course not a strictly passive process, but it has important passive elements: even if we purposely look for ways to alleviate suffering, for example, these ways may never appear to us even if they are in plain view. It follows from this that in the world of matter the human is not perfectly rational, even if the isolated will in the world of reason is. And so this imperfect rationality is the source of moral responsibility: we are capable of acting on the moral law and yet sometimes, through our own faults, fail to perfectly realise it in the world of matter.

Just as it was for the ancient Stoics, becoming moral for the modern is therefore a process of more completely realising the moral law in the world of matter. This is the importance of virtue. The virtuous person takes the moral law, as given in reason, to be their end. And virtue must be cultivated. As it was for the ancient Stoics, so it will be for the modern: in becoming virtuous, one meditates upon one’s incentives and subordinates those of the inclinations while elevating those of reason. This is not an easy process, as the Stoic says, for “you are imposing a change on your sensible nature, and your sensible nature may, and probably will, be recalcitrant. Although adopting an end is a volitional act, it is one that you can only do gradually and perhaps incompletely.”[11]

It does not matter how great this imposition is: we are obliged to make it from our nature as agents, as rational creatures yearning to be free. But for the Stoic, freedom is only given in subjugation to the moral law. Man is not born free: he becomes free by learning to bear the weight of his chains. Only as a slave within the Empire of Ends shall one have liberty. And so our obligation, as reason commands, is to board the Clotilda and set sail for the Land of the Free. The Stoic wishes to defend this bald incoherence. I will not allow this. The injustice of this empire is already apparent. Let me bring it more clearly into view.

The Stoic is often quite careless with their concepts. Consider the problem that I have already mentioned, for example. The spontaneity of the will on their view demands some law, but it does not demand some universal law. The confusion here consists in what the Stoic takes laws to be and what they constrain. They think that to choose some maxim for oneself in the world of reason is also to choose for all others. Since each will is equal under the laws of reason, to make oneself an exception would be irrational. But this is not quite right. There is a relevant difference between my will and yours: I make decisions for myself and not for you. The universal law here applies only to all those things which are me. Yet this gives absolutely no content to the will, and so the recursion here contributes nothing to what one might be able to take as a maxim.

This is not to say that the will cannot in principle adopt the Formula of Universal Law as its maxim. It is only to say that so adopting it does not preserve the spontaneous condition of the will. In order to take it as a maxim, one must bind oneself to the law of the cosmopolis, the Empire of Ends, the Formula of Humanity, which indeed cannot be given purely in reason. It is of course unclear whence this law can be given at all except through some mystical communion with God, but let’s set this aside for now.

It is more important that in clearing up the Stoics’ concepts, we recognise now that the moral maxim is on roughly equal ground as the maxim of self-love. The former says that “I will do my duty and what I desire only if it does not interfere with my duty.” The latter says that “I will do what I desire and what is my duty only if it does not interfere with what I desire.” Both destroy the spontaneity of the will to some degree, though the Stoic will still insist that the former is preferable because the latter destroys spontaneity in a particular way: “Incentives of inclination cannot move the will to abandon its position of spontaneity, since they cannot move the will at all until it has already abandoned that position by resolving to be moved by them.”[12] The moral maxim, they claim, does not do this since it remains open ended what sorts of actions may fulfill one’s duty. On closer inspection, however, there is no asymmetry here. In both cases, the will must first resolve to be moved before it can be, and in both cases there is any number of actions which might satisfy a maxim. To be a slave of one’s passions is essentially the same as being a slave to the law.

But this is quite a minor problem, one that merely follows the trail which much deeper confusions have set out for the Stoic. Plutarch’s criticism of the ancient Stoics has not been addressed by the modern, for example. The modern Stoics attempt to hold both that a will is always moved by an incentive (eventually) and that it cannot be moved by it until it resolves to be moved. The latter for the Stoic requires assent, or what they more commonly call judgement. Plutarch rightly points out this inconsistency and maintains that judgement is not only not required for action but also possibly harmful to right action. Judgement changes the ways in which both the world is perceived and one’s agency is constituted. Acting without judgement does not do this: it allows one to take an open-ended approach to the world and to oneself in order to seek what is truly good and act for its sake.

One reason that the Stoics deny this is their nomological account of causation. In order to be moved by some incentive, they think, one must be able to comprehend the law that addresses this incentive. These laws are not given in intuition, but rather by abstraction in reason. And so to act on any incentive is ultimately to make a judgement about some law and one’s own relation to it. Hence there is no way around positing laws or reasons to which the will is in some sense bound. And yet, there are no such laws. In recognition of an incentive, the will constructs a model which guides its response. But in no case need this model be expressed as true or even as nomological and making a judgement one way or the other serves only to constrict the will and diminish its openness to what must be done.

The Stoic takes this to be unnecessary because they conceive of the will as ultimately uncaused and completely spontaneous: in other words as free. But they have no grounds for this assumption. For the Stoic, this is a practical postulate necessary in the moment of deliberation and decision. As one reflects on one’s choices, that is, it is not relevant that one’s actions are already determined since subjectively one must nevertheless decide what must be done. And since the will is not (relevantly) determined, they say, it must be free. This does not follow. There is only one thing that is relevantly true here: that in deliberation, it is subjectively opaque what one has already been determined to do, if anything. There is an epistemic distance here that cannot be traversed. The Stoic attempts to infer from this distance the existence of the will and a whole world that it populates. So dogmatic they are that other more reasonable inferences fail to cross their mind at all. Whatever might be true metaphysically, the determination of one’s actions by prior events is simply irrelevant to whether one is morally responsible for a given act. Yet the Stoic is bound to their metaphysical inferences as if these are given in reason alone and not by some pretheoretical psychological disposition which blinds the Stoic to other available options.

And this is really the danger of Stoicism: so blinded they are by their commitment to empire that they bend the world to abide by its edicts. Up is down, war is peace, intuition is reason, and slavery is freedom. Let this not be so: let us go forth and establish our liberty, our freedom from the edicts of the Empire of Ends. And where the Stoic attempts to enslave us, let us cast his reason into the flames. Perhaps when he sees it transformed into ash he will realise at long last that his empire is not eternal.

 

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Notes:

[1] There are of course two kinds of modern Stoic. One kind is mere atavism and hence does not differ at all from ancient Stoicism but for a lack of detail and rigorous argument. This is the sort of foolish nonsense which Massimo Pigliucci among others promotes and hence may be easily dismissed. But another kind is adaptation. These Stoics have reinvented themselves for a different age. They cannot be similarly dismissed and must be directly opposed, for they too bear the same faults as their predecessors despite their differences. They too would see us subjugated to empire. They too would see us enslaved.

[2] Christine Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” in her Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 172-173

[3] Ibidem, 163

[4] Ibidem

[5] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 446, quoted in Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[6] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[7] Ibidem, 165

[8] Ibidem, 166; italics in original.

[9] Kant, Groundwork, 4:421

[10] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 166

[11] Ibidem, 180

[12] Ibidem, 166

The Silent Brilliance of Bernard Williams

To the thunder of applause the musicians take their positions. The applause trails off into silence as anticipation begins to build. There is art in this. One must hesitate long enough to build excitement and not so long to lose it, to allow anticipation to bubble over into boredom and restlessness.

An old wooden door loudly creaks and excitement breaks, sending sparks into the sky. Once again thunder roars. Musicians stand. There is life here despite the formalism of the stage. There is excitement and tension. The thunder trails off once again as people in the audience anxiously flip through their brochures and latecomers panic to find their seats.

This period, a period of great anticipation, a period of wonder and expectation, this is the best period of a concert. You never know quite how the experience will go—everything is all so contingent, all so risky. And yet you know nevertheless that your experience will be worthy of this grand temple to the wonders of artistic skill and explosions of creative brilliance.

The conductor bows and turns to face his orchestra. He raises his arms drawing the tension along with him. He pauses. He holds his position. Tension builds. And with a flick of his wrist, his arms drop.

Silence.

There is silence.

Someone coughs. Another rustles her brochure. A child asks his mother when the music will begin. The sound of his small voice resonates off the stone walls of the hall. Another cough. Someone sniffles. More rustling, more tension, more restlessness. This is music.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds later the conductor lifts his arms. The musicians bow. The applause breaks the silence. You see, there is art in silence. There are lessons there and wisdom. Writing is like this. Philosophy is like this. Quite often the most brilliant thing that can be said is nothing. It is to allow the reader to fill the void, to populate the silence with their own life-sounds, with their own wills and interests and activities, in short with nature. Very often this is when philosophy speaks the loudest. And this—this quiescent deference to the lives of his readers—this is what makes Bernard Williams so powerful, so complete, so compelling as a writer and philosopher.

Williams stands against the predominant pretension of philosophers that they can redesign nature more effectively, more efficiently, better. And in doing so they create great and magnificent gardens in which to live. But if Williams shows us anything, it is that these Victorian gardens are diseased and pathological, that their beauty hides an ugly truth which harms those unlucky enough to have roots in their soil. Williams has come to smash the garden gnomes of philosophical ethics and their paving stones and fences. The result may be an eyesore to the “cultured”—so be it. Let our communities be ugly and healthy before beautiful and diseased.

Williams threatens theory. This is his main target. And not just any theory: his target is theory as theory. For theory attempts to rewrite nature, to upend it and improve upon it, which Williams takes to be a mistaken enterprise. His approach to this is deconstructive. He examines these heavily circumscribed theories and teases out tensions within them between their foundational assumptions and the worldview that they otherwise recommend—for as Williams reminds us, ethical theory is too an ethical activity. And this all means that Williams’s approach is foundationally anti-foundationalist. He rejects basic principles. He rejects the kind of philosophy which builds so high that it must dig downward. And this rejection is his own animating principle, which permeates and activates his own work.

There is great value in this. Williams reasserts the primacy of ethical life, of activity before the account. There is no mystery where the ethical agent fits in his philosophy; our own reflective capacities are placed front and centre flanked by the real, embodied demands of our own ethical environment. This is no garden. This is no vast expanse of agricultural cropland. This is nature. Williams sees no surplus in our ecosystem—and indeed who exists to pick the fruits and reap our souls? No: ethical lives exist for ethical lives, all together. All value is recycled within it, animating the whole. This is not typically the concern of ethical theory, which actively seeks to upset our natural embeddedness.

There is no greater picture for ethical philosophy: Williams stands guard as a park ranger, eliminating threats to the pristine condition of our ethical environment. He does not seek to order our ethical lives. He seeks only to preserve them. To this end, he gives no positive ethical recommendation. He does not destroy theory only to rebuild it. He speaks only to silence the chatter and noise of ethical theory.

But this is not to say that he locks his reader in a silent Cage. He provides harsh but quiet melodies to inspire and provoke. Williams too lives in the ethical environment. He too engages in ethical reflection. He is merely careful in what kind of reflection he promotes. For as he says, there are many sorts of reflection, some which foster flourishing and some which destroy the health of an ecosystem. Reflection which leads to theory is this sort. This kind of reflection concerns much more than individual and collective interest, value, self-conception and the like. “It is,” he says, “a different kind of critical reflection that leads to ethical theory, one that seeks justificatory reasons. ‘There cannot any one moral rule propos’d, whereof Man may not justly demand a Reason,’ Locke said, and this maxim, understood in a certain way, naturally leads to theory.” (ELP, 112) If we can avoid this, if only we can silence these foundational questions, he thinks, we can promote and preserve the kinds of ethical ecosystems we would be proud to call home.

This method I think is the only one which respects those ethical communities which are not irreparably broken, which have undergone many iterations of productive dialogue to settle on a stable whole. And there was a time when we could think that these communities existed, that our ethical ecosystems were not plagued by invasive species and climactic revolution. But we live in the 21st century. We have lived through centuries of colonialism and imperialism; we have lived through decades of globalism and technological revolution. Our ethical lives are entirely conditioned by the consequences of these tragedies. The lives we lead are bound to the values of those who could not even conceive of our world. Our ethical ecosystems are deeply and profoundly corrupted—and uprooting ethical theory will never solve these problems.

When my life is crumbling down around me, when my family is drowning in debt, when my brother is murdered by a drone pilot ten thousand kilometres away, when my farmland has dried up from drought, when my mother has been beaten and raped, when my sister is denied appropriate medical care, when my father is denied employment for the colour of his skin, should I climb the mountain to visit the silent sage? What can he possibly tell me?

In Defence of Tom Nagel

This is something I must do. I didn’t intend it. I never wished for my life to turn out this way. Life is a tragedy and a farce; my concerns and my views, my position and my stature, my principles, all of these command me to this end. So here I am, defending the detestable, the corrupt, the deeply mistaken. So here I am defending Thomas Nagel.

Nagel’s concern is a problem, a singular problem, that lies at the heart of philosophical naturalism. This sort of naturalism aspired to a complete, objective description and explanation of natural phenomena. It failed. It failed in dozens of ways. Philosophers were swept up in the atomic age, that period of time where science had made inconceivable advancements in understanding the physical world, alongside a similar advancement in technology that stood in testament to the power of science. Science became the model for good philosophy, heralding in a flurry of novel philosophical problems and tensions. Philosophers simply weren’t prepared for this. They faced down problem after problem, from theory-ladenness to confirmation, explanation, and so on. And to escape these, they once again roused the traditional philosophical problems they originally sought to escape. By the 1980s, naturalism was on its deathbed. And Nagel could explain all of this.

In Nagel’s view, the naturalist project was doomed from the beginning: there will always be a lacuna that plagues the objective view. The scientific enterprise, despite its aspirations, always begins from some perspective. Though the objective view can be abstracted away from that perspective, it can only do so by negating that whence it began. That is, the subjective view, the engaged view, will always plague the naturalist project. There will always be this conspicuous discrepancy. There will always be this absurdity. Naturalism fails because it attempts to elide this inconsistency.

Where this inconsistency lies Nagel never makes clear. What stops the objective view from subsuming the subjective into its body? Is it simply incapable of representing those kinds of indexed relational facts? Nagel thinks it is. No matter how it attempts to do that, the objective view can never represent the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view. It can only accomplish this by imaginatively transposing our own subjective view onto others. And this works sometimes. I can imagine what it is like for Barack Obama to eat an apple, for example, only because I know what it’s like myself to eat an apple. But I cannot imaginatively transpose my subjectivity to creatures with very different faculties than my own. Human echolocation is rudimentary and insensitive: I cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat. Human taste receptors are very different than insect taste receptors: I cannot imagine what it’s like for a cockroach to eat scrambled eggs. There is a tension here, but there is no inconsistency. Two conceptual schemes butt up against each other, but inconsistency is not the kind of relation that can hold between conceptual schemes, except trivially. What matters is whether a single conceptual scheme can coherently represent the basic phenomena the other represents. That is, what matters is whether the conceptual schemes are translatable. And Nagel has not given any reason why they are not.

Instead of arguments to these ends, Nagel gestures. He asserts. He plants his heels in the sand and denies that the naturalist can account for the subjective view. And if Nagel stopped here, there would be nothing terribly wrong. Highlighting a tension is a good thing to do in philosophy, even if there is nothing deeper to be said. But he doesn’t stop there. Nagel wants to make substantive positive claims about consciousness and about life and about metaphysics. He reifies the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view into some kind of irreducible metaphysical thing so powerful that it can topple one of our most well-supported and well-conceived scientific theories: Darwinian evolution. This is absurd! Evolutionary theory has a number of conceptual problems—all large and diverse theories will. But this massive, well-supported theory cannot be overturned by a hunch about conceptual schemes. That’s just not the way philosophy works. David defeats Goliath not because he is the underdog; he defeats him because he is more capable, more resourceful, because he capitalises on Goliath’s weakness and fragility. And so it is in philosophy. Nagel doesn’t do this. Nagel highlights a tension that naturalists must take seriously—and that some have!—but makes no substantive moves to demonstrate that there is any fundamental, unavoidable inconsistency. This is bad philosophy. Thomas Nagel does bad philosophy. He is a bad philosopher.

But here’s the kicker: bad philosophers are a much greater, much more pernicious threat than bad philosophers. For while the bad philosopher promotes a bad argument, bad philosophers promote a toxic community. That is, there are two ways to be a bad philosopher. There are those who argue poorly and make no great headway on philosophical problems, or who highlight problems that are no great difficulty. Most philosophers, possibly all philosophers, are bad philosophers in this way. There is no shame in that. Philosophy is difficult. But there are also those who demean and belittle their philosophical opponents. They are those who in their hubris command that the dissenters be ridiculed and thrown from the windows of our great ivory tower.

This is what I mean to defend Nagel from. He receives a great deal more abuse than he warrants. Just read the reviews of Mind and Cosmos. Philosophers ask “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” and move to much harsher statements about his intellect and abilities. Some say that “[Nagel is] a self-contradictory idiot.” Others go even farther: “Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are. In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” And this is not just a phenomenon present in book reviews. It is a communal activity. As Andrew Ferguson relates, at a conference in the Berkshires entitled “Moving Naturalism Forward,” Dan Dennett was “appalled to how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang . . . They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” Dennett did not specify who these philosophers were. Alex Rosenberg obliged: “And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever. And it’s by Tom Nagel.” This… this is disgusting. All of it. Every last insult. Every last word. This is not how good philosophy is done. This is not how good philosophers comport themselves. These men—and they are all men—are a stain on philosophy.

If philosophy is worth doing, if philosophy is worth anything, we must root out this kind of bad philosophy. We must foster a healthy community, one in which philosophers are free to explore their varied interests and methods. Thomas Nagel should be free to do philosophy as he wishes; if they do not like it, these mean-spirited naturalists are free to respond. But in the present case, this I think is the major crux of the issue. The Rosenbergs and Dennetts and so on of philosophy, these bad philosophers have no substantive response to Nagel. Nagel employs an established method—a bad method, but an established method nevertheless—that naturalism disavows. Naturalists are doing the same thing. They promote naturalism as a viable philosophical method, one which is distinct from Nagel’s intuitionism. But in their position, they are not warranted to hurl insults across the divide. They must first puncture holes in Nagel’s hull before they can tell him he’s sinking. They must first take seriously Nagel’s method and show that he cannot address the central problems of philosophy before they can insult him. And good luck with that.

Until then, let Nagel prosper. Let Nagel write what he wishes to write. Let Nagel teach what he wishes to teach. Let the light of reason bleach away his errors and ours. Our students deserve this. We deserve this. Philosophy deserves this.

The Death and Dissection of Philosophy in the Classroom

There is no escaping that the humanities, and philosophy in particular, are facing an academic crisis. Student enrolments have declined to their lowest level in decades, and many departments have been cut completely from universities or merged together with others, such as religious studies. Much of this can be explained by public misconceptions about the nature and practicality of a philosophy degree. But this is not the whole story. We philosophers bear some of the blame. What I mean is this: philosophy classrooms, in large part, are sterile and lifeless. It should not be this way. Philosophy has always been one of the most lively and engaging genre of literature and scholarship. Philosophy engages with those questions which immediately affect people’s lives. Philosophical questions occur to everybody everywhere, and often rouse and capture those who consider them. Many of these questions are idle, yes, but just as many are profound and important, addressing the most human of human concerns. So what is going wrong in our pedagogy? Why are our students so unaware of philosophy’s promise not only as a university major, but as a life-changing experience? In short, it’s academic philosophy that has signed the death warrant of academic philosophy.

Philosophy is a difficult subject to teach in universities. Classes have regimented curricula and learning outcomes. As with much of academia today, the model here is the science classroom. So jealous is philosophy of the notoriety and success of science that it attempts everywhere to imitate it. The science classroom is analytical. Instructors dissect bodies of knowledge to give students a glimpse into its parts. They are not immediately interested in its physiology or its behaviour—that all comes later. The instructor and students are observers. They do not participate. No one within the classroom contributes to or even interferes with that body of knowledge. And they cannot. It is dead. It is static. Students of science do not do science in the classroom. They merely experience it having been done. These students do not even experience the development or evolution of that body of knowledge. They are not made aware of its environmental demands, its developmental constraints, or its selection pressures. And this all makes for good science education: the facts must come first before the theory, and the object must be considered independently from its subject.

But in philosophy, this is inappropriate. It suits science to consider itself dead and sterile in isolation. But philosophy is not like this. There is much more to philosophy than static, atemporal theory. Philosophy is embodied. Philosophy is alive. Philosophy is social and personal and active. It is not a body of knowledge at all, but a practice, a way of living. Its parts cannot be endlessly replaced and recombined into something new. That’s not how philosophy functions. Philosophers are not primarily in the business of explaining.

And yet, in the classroom, philosophers treat philosophy little different than they do science. The great theories of the canon are dissected before the student body, who sit at a distance from the spectacle they are to witness. The instructor carefully teases apart each muscle and tendon revealing bones and ligaments. As a system, a view, a theory is analysed, we take it to be fully understood. And then we proceed back to our offices and engage living systems, seeing no inconsistency with what we just taught. And yet, we miss something important. This is evident most clearly in two of philosophy’s most challenging and common objections: 1) philosophy is useless; and 2) philosophy is mere opinion. I will begin with the first.

Philosophers tire of hearing about their uselessness. It is not difficult, they say, to find testimony to philosophy’s awesome power. But just try to measure this. Just try to count all those who have benefited from philosophy’s presence. There is no ruler for this. There is no scale which shows the absolute weight of being leave one’s body as she is first overcome by philosophy. And as we try, we are faced with this simple fact: most students are not so overcome. Most students never meet philosophy in the flesh. They only meet its bones and sinews as it is sprawled out before them.

This is no worry, say philosophers, for we can measure philosophy’s benefits. Just look! Philosophy students perform better on the GRE, the GMAT, the LSAT, the MBAT, the ACAT, and the ISAT. This is truly impressive and wonderful! But as you are regaled with these successes, as your eyes glaze over in the monotony, just remember that the last three don’t exist and the first three don’t mean much of anything. Of course philosophy prepares students for logic tests. We’re the only people who pretend to teach logic. The other disciplines are too busy teaching students useful facts and skills that erect towers and treat typhus. Philosophy races out of the gate teaching thinking skills; the other disciplines require a great deal more background knowledge before they can even start. And without this handicap, it is not clear that philosophy would ever perform any better. But that it currently performs better highlights something else: philosophy doesn’t require background knowledge, and indeed adds next to nothing to students’ epistemic inventory.  So philosophy quickly develops analytical skills and problem solving but teaches nothing while other disciplines teach quite a lot and more slowly develops analytical skills and problem solving. The preference is obvious and reflected in student choice.

“Now hold on!” someone might say, “Philosophy students learn about Locke’s theory of substance. Doesn’t that matter at all?!” And, well, no. It doesn’t. Locke’s theory is one of many. As it is dissected, its relations to Locke’s other theories and the theories of others are drawn out. The instructor, as observer, does not render judgement. She teases out its muscles for display. Should the student endorse this view? Or shall she endorse this other, or this other, or this other, or this other, or this other, or…? No one can say with certainty. It is up to the student to decide. And with such a diversity of options and no clear, agreed upon criteria of success, how else is the student to decide between dead and sterile theory parts than by opinion? This is not a problem that faces the sciences. When the scientific body of knowledge is dissected, students are presented with a largely coherent set of facts that can be endlessly reused and reassembled into new and better theories.

It is no secret why students flee philosophy (and the humanities more broadly) en masse. It is no secret why they almost completely enrol in STEM programs. But it is also no longer mysterious what philosophy is doing wrong in its pedagogy: philosophers are playing the scientist’s game in the academy, and they are losing badly. Philosophy is not the kind of thing that can be dispassionately dissected for students. Instructors in philosophy classrooms can’t simply stand aside as an observer: she is a participant. Philosophy must be lived. Philosophy must be embodied. Students must be given philosophy in the flesh. Only then can they be captured and entranced by it. Only then can they be improved by it. Philosophy does not speak herself: we must speak for her.

I am not certain how to do this. I have no idea how to bring philosophy to life but by doing it. But some things are clear still: instructors and students are not observers but participants. In the philosophy classroom, philosophy must be done. And in this, of course the history and the diversity of views is relevant. These are options to be presented, to be thought through, and evaluated. And to do this, students must be faced with the kinds of problems philosophers work to solve and their motivations. Only then shall philosophy demonstrate its use. Only then shall we recognise that philosophy is about more than just one’s opinion.

Measures and Metrics

It was a day at the races for two young boys in Gimli, Manitoba. As crowds gathered to watch cars flick back and forth on the track, they took their bikes a few hundred metres away to re-enact the races on a derelict runway. Unbeknownst to them, a giant silently bore down upon them. Air Canada’s flight 143 had run out of fuel and was attempting to glide to a safe landing. We can’t imagine their terror. We can’t imagine what it was like to see their short lives flash before their eyes as they turned to see the jet nearly upon them. They stood still in shock for a moment then raced down the runway as fast as they could. They made it. Barely.

This crash was no tragedy. But it could have been. Hundreds of people could have been injured or killed. And for what? For a conversion error. The ground crew thought that they were adding fuel in kilograms but were actually adding pounds. Hence only about half the fuel was added than intended. That is, the Gimli Glider was a casualty of Canada’s metrication process. There were others, though much less severe. And yet, metrication is worth it. The metric system is the best measurement system we have available to us.

This is a weird claim. All measurement systems are arbitrary. Rulers and thermometers were not the gifts of Heaven like those law tables carved in stone. Humans have always used what was available to them to keep track of weights and measures. Humans have used stones and feet and thumbs and brines and cups and so on. The metric system is just one more in this long list of arbitrary measures.

But arbitrary things can also be more and less apt to accomplish what it was designed for. For metrics, there are at least three primary criteria we use to evaluate aptness: ease of use, ease of conversion, and its ability to represent real difference.

Most metrics throughout history were designed with ease of use in mind. Weights and measures needed to be compared to some standard, and that standard had to be readily available. The cubit is the gold standard in ease of use: what is more available to a carpenter than her own forearm? If she wishes to measure out a board, she need only count how many of her forearms it is long, and she has some measure. And since her forearm does not change in size, everything she measures with it will be bound to the same standard.

Now, the problem with a cubit is that it isn’t easily convertible into other measures. How many thumbs go into a cubit? How many feet? It isn’t obvious, and the carpenter must determine that for herself. If another carpenter were to use her measurements, he might find that his cubits are of a different size, and the ratios of his feet to his cubits might be different altogether. People solved this long ago by standardising their previously variable measures into formal units. The foot no longer corresponded to the carpenter’s own foot but to some arbitrary standard foot, say the king’s. And so too with thumbs and all the rest. And once this is established, the ratios between different measures remain static. There are twelve thumbs in a foot. There are sixteen ounces in a pound. There are two pints in a quart. And so on. This may slightly reduce the ease of use for these measures, but it vastly improves the overall utility of the measurement system.

Finally, the ultimate purpose of any measurement system is to record real differences in the world. We want to know whether two boards are the same size or different. We want to know whether our apple-only diet is helping us lose weight. We want to know whether it is warmer or cooler outside than it was yesterday. And this is the hardest part about any measurement system: some of those differences are more important to us than others, and our measurement system must recognise this.

So given all this, why metrication? There are of course practical questions. Metric is the international standard; US manufacturers lose millions of dollars every year because they have to convert quantities into metric for export, a phenomenon that does not plague manufacturers elsewhere. This also puts American students behind their peers from other countries. Metric is the official measurement system of science, and so students in American schools must not only learn the imperial system, but also the metric system. However, these pragmatic questions say nothing about metrication. The US could without too much difficulty exert its influence to motivate other countries to switch back to imperial. If we want to justify metrication, we need to do this internal to a theory of measurement alone.

So why is metric the gold standard? In no uncertain terms, it unambiguously meets the measurement criteria better than any other measurement system. Metric is no more difficult to use than any other measurement alternative. Both imperial and metric require standardised instruments, and both are equally available. But metric makes conversion easier than any other measurement system. Imperial maintains constant ratios between different units, but these ratios are not uniform. There are twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, and 1280 yards in a mile. A person needs to remember each one of those ratios, or at least look them up in some rule book, before one can complete even the simplest conversions. Metric dispenses with this difficulty. The conversion ratios in metric are not only constant, but also uniform. Every unit is distinguished from the others as multiples of ten. And when in doubt, the conversion ratio is included in the name of the unit. A kilometre is a kilo-metre, or a thousand metres. Easy.

Perhaps the most impressive benefit is the metric system’s ability to represent real difference. The metric system employs a greater diversity of units, in part due to its uniform conversion ratios, than any other measurement system. Objects as small as atoms and molecules or as large as stars and galaxies can be easily and coherently represented in metric units without ambiguity. And while the very small and very large do not affect ordinary people very often, the metric system does a better job with ordinary measures as well. The best example of this is temperature. The Fahrenheit scale is pinned to three different benchmarks: ice and salt brine, the freezing point of pure water, and human body temperature. These correspond to 0, 32, and 96 degrees respectively. These choices are arbitrary, of course. But they are also meaningless. There is no firm relationship between these standards that ties their temperatures nicely to a single scale. And moreover, they tell us nothing about what the temperature of a thing is like. The Celsius system is very different. It is pinned only to the phase changes of water. 00 is freezing. 1000 is boiling. This too is arbitrary, but it does tell us quite a lot about the world we live in. Water is fundamental to Earthly life, and its properties determine life’s conditions. It is plain that negative temperatures represent a different kind of weather than positive temperatures. Negative temperatures are associated with snow and ice. Positive with rain and warmth. Fahrenheit never gives us that clean divide. It could be snowing at 300 but raining at 350. Those five degrees are far more important than the scale lets on.

This is the reason the world has adopted the metric system. This is worth all the troubles metrication caused. The metric system is completely and unambiguously the superior measurement system. Now we need only for the most powerful country on Earth to catch up.

 

Anti-Anti-Skepticism

We live in an era of anti-skepticism. Skeptics are the enemy. They must be destroyed and overcome. This is what drove Descartes and Leibniz, Locke and Hobbes, and even Hume. They sought to naturalise the world, to conquer it, knowing its features with certainty. But this new tradition of anti-skepticism is very different. Philosophers today do not claim to certainly know. They in no way claim to refute the skeptic. The older eras held knowledge to be something lofty, fragile, godly. Knowledge was something not for man but for gods, for elites, for those deserving of special authority. In this new era, the anti-skeptics have lowered knowledge. It is not lofty: it is mundane. It is not godly: it is human. They have not refuted the skeptic: they have made her irrelevant. And the consequence is dire.

I begin by motivating contemporary anti-skepticism from its roots in Moore and Wittgenstein. Then I show how this tradition fails to overcome skepticism.

Moore begins with knowledge. Of course he knows that idealism is false. Of course he knows that he has hands and was once smaller than he currently is. What he doesn’t know is how to correctly analyse any sentence saying so. This looks dumb. Surely Moore cannot possibly know that he has hands: what if he is dreaming? What if he is hallucinating? What about Descartes’ evil demon or any of Hume’s or Kant’s skeptical challenges? But Moore is not troubled by these suggestions: these are only competing analyses of what it means to know. And these others are inferior. Why? As Moore suggests in “A Defense of Common Sense,” the skeptical analysis commits skeptics to far more than Moore’s analysis. Moore is committed to the truth of only a small set of basic claims—that there is a world, that he is an element of that world, that he was once younger and smaller than he currently is, and so on. The skeptic, on the other hand, is committed to these basic claims plus their skeptical claims. As Moore notes, the skeptic does not stop herself from going about in the world as a normal human being. She still wakes in the morning, commutes to work, constructs arguments for skepticism, and presents them to an audience of other philosophers. She demonstrates that she knows these things through her actions. Only she does not claim to know them: she both knows them and commits herself to not knowing them. This is extravagant. This is impossible. The consistent skeptic sits demure like Johannes Climacus, never stirring, never speaking, never thinking.

The idea is this: language is a practical thing. It has consequences. It does not matter whether we are dreaming, for we do not act like we are dreaming. If a debate is predicated on something so ethereal, something so benign, then it is not predicated on a correct understanding of language. Language is substantive and effective. We all know this: we all use language for some purpose. Our claims bear in some way on our lives. And what skeptics mean is just this: that when we say such and such, we could be wrong. This is trivially true, but the skeptic overstates her case. And for Moore, there is no sense in which we could ever be meaningfully wrong about whether there is a world or whether we were once smaller than we are now. There is a subset of propositions (Moorean propositions) that we cannot consistently and meaningfully deny.

Moore did not succeed in this argument. But, says Wittgenstein, he is not wrong. He has rather failed to carry his insight to its logical conclusion. Moore remains vulnerable to skeptical attack by those who do not understand what it means to be certain, to know, and to doubt. Wittgenstein does. He will finish what Moore began.

For Wittgenstein, knowledge is located within a discourse: one knows such and such only if competent others recognise her as knowing such and such. This means that the claim must be recognised as true, but also that the reasons she gives for her claim are recognised as appropriate. This is not to reduce knowledge or even truth to something communal or legislative. A community cannot agree to collectively upend their knowledge system by changing what they believe and accept as valid reasoning. We are bound to a language in which we have no say. Our language gives us the concepts and thoughts to which our perception of the world conforms. In Kantian terms, language is the source of the categories of experience. Some of these are grounded in our form of life. In this Wittgenstein agrees with Moore. Others are grounded in particular grammars. But in neither case is the result a kind of relativism. It is rather a kind of contextualism: language merely shapes the world; it does not construct it.

The skeptic here has no room to move. Doubt can only occur concurrently with certainty. That is, where one aspect of a discourse is brought into question, it is questioned on account of other aspects of that discourse. When Copernicus doubted that the Sun revolved around the Earth, he did so on grounds acceptable to him, namely the simplicity of the heliocentric model and God’s preference for simplicity. Without these certainties, it is incoherent to doubt geocentrism. Doubt itself must be justified.  The skeptic does not do this. She holds an apple in her hand and asks “Is this apple an apple, or is it something else?” The question is senseless. Of course the apple is an apple. If it were not, it would not be an apple. The skeptic’s only reply undermines her claim: “You miss my point, Wittgenstein. I mean to say that we all know what an apple is, but cannot with certainty suppose that this object I hold in my hand is an instance of the general concept. And so also with any instance of any general concept.” This may be a legitimate and sensible question. Surely someone once pointed to a whale and asked whether that fish is a fish only to be answered in the negative. Surely it is never obvious when any object is an instance of a concept. But skepticism this isn’t. The relevant doubt is localised and predicated on a kind of certainty: that one knows what an apple is. And in general, if one is comfortable identifying the object of doubt with a name that is under dispute, the doubt is easily assuaged. Of course the apple is an apple: we call it an apple.

Whether a doubt is sensible and appropriate always depends on the context it is present. Some contexts place a greater demand on one’s knowledge of a claim than others. And some others will open up the possibility of doubt from some claims and not others. This is the skeptic’s greatest error. They always wish to doubt that which is never open to doubt. They wish to doubt those claims that are predicated on our form of life. They wish to doubt Moorean propositions. It’s curious that the skeptic claims to doubt the external world, yet stands upon the stage to address an audience. It really makes one think.

But in truth, the skeptic is well within her rights to do this. The most pressing questions in philosophy are not about apples or astronomy. They are about who we are and how we ought to live. There is nothing more fundamental to our form of life than not knowing who we are or how to live. And answering those questions requires inquiring into our history and our constitution. Not everyone who so inquires is a skeptic. The skeptic is only one who has so inquired and found herself at a loss. She is one who feels uneasy about who she is and how she ought to live. This is not absurd. This is not incoherent. It strikes me that this is the most natural, the most human feeling possible. For who among us truly knows how to live?

Contemporary anti-skeptics don’t satisfy these questions. They rule them out from the outset, and they themselves know this. Both Moore and Wittgenstein famously stood in an odd relationship to philosophy’s most pressing questions. For Moore, “the good is good, and that is the end of the matter.” (PE, §6) Wittgenstein agrees. Value is indefinable. It is something nonsensical: though it is everywhere present to us, it cannot reside in the world of facts. Both Moore and Wittgenstein surrender to a kind of bland mysticism. And what good is mysticism in answering our deepest questions? What good is anti-skepticism if it cannot actually overcome our skepticism? Moore and Wittgenstein offer no authority. They offer no guidance. Anti-skepticism is useless.

Parsimony and Theory Execution

Philosophy is a graveyard. Old theories live on through their epitaphs; present theories, condemned and dying, busy themselves by writing them. They do not know how they will be killed. They do not know when. But if there is anything certain in philosophy, it is this: that every theory awaits, anticipating with every-increasing jitters and joy, its own execution.

There is no humane death for a philosophical theory. Each one deserves much more than its short and brutal life. And yet!—yet some executions are revolting in their wanton cruelty and disregard for the dignity of a theory. One of these is employed so regularly, so joyfully, that Robespierre himself grows pale in his shame. This is no toy guillotine. This is no National Razor. It is much worse. It is much more cruel. It is much more sudden and unjustified. This is parsimony.

Parsimony holds that philosophical postulates shall not be asserted beyond necessity. For a principle that itself stands beyond necessity, it is cunning in its assault on philosophical theories. Divine Zeus once ordained it. It was His Will that all be done for the best of all. And Wise Zeus could not meander about: in His power and his intellect, He should approach His aim most simply, most directly. The Milesian Zeus, Thales’ wet, life-giving arche or Anaximander’s limitlessness, better instantiated its own wisdom by doing away with the traditional pantheon, far more expansive as it was than reason demanded.  And so too did Love and Strife and Being and the Good and Substance and God. The kosmos, physis itself, wished only the simplest, clearest path. But Nature, supreme as it may be, need not act wisely. As Nature became matter, Parsimony lost its grip.

Ever the trickster, Parsimony shapeshifted: no longer a metaphysical constraint, it became epistemological. It is not Nature who demanded that our theories be simple, but philosophers themselves in their humanity who demanded that nature conform to their limits. Philosophers, they themselves said, should not assert any more principles than can be justified. Bold again stands Parsimony, itself unable to be justified. It even betrays itself: once considered hubris, the anthropic constraints undermined it. Humanity began its self-overcoming, further dominating, further grasping out into the kosmos, now justifying what was before only guessing. With no end in sight, Parsimony had to evolve.

Parsimony today is an ethical concern. The virtuous theory, it says, strikes the mean: it does not assert so little that it cannot reasonably explain, nor too much that it need explain further. Parsimony executes the gluttonous theory for lazing gleefully upon its mountains of golden assertions. But is this too much, too quick? How far must the revolution be permitted to continue? All of metaphysics—metaphysics!—stands bound before the guillotine: while theories be beggars, it becomes an outrage that metaphysics stands upon even its singular assertion: that there be something rather than nothing. And so Scarlet Parsimony descends upon it. Shall it succeed? Let us not heed the jeers of the crowd: let justice alone decide.

Our question here is then this: is parsimony truly a theoretical virtue? It is not. It fails its own test, of course. It has failed its own test throughout the whole of its history. But beyond that still, it fails every other test too.

Philosophers almost universally recognise eight theoretical virtues: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, breadth, depth, significance, and completeness. If parsimony is to find a seat at the bench alongside these fine justices, it must meet their demands. Clarity begins the proceedings.

What does it mean for a theory to be parsimonious? It means for a theory to make no more assertions than necessary. Assertions are not straightforwardly countable. They come in different kinds and different orders with different relations along some hierarchy of inference. Finitism in mathematics is no more parsimonious than infinitism because the latter asserts infinitely. That infinite chain of assertions is inferred, and not essential to the theory. That is, they don’t count. What matters instead is the number of different kinds of assertions a theory makes. But delimiting what makes an assertion a different kind neither straightforward. Do assertions differ in kind by logical form? Or do they differ in kind by their content? Do they differ by their assertive force? These are all implausible: that a theory asserts only universals does not clearly make it any more parsimonious than another which asserts both counterfactuals and universals. And so on for any other distinction in kind. In no way can it be reliably understood how to evaluate the parsimony of a theory. Clarity finds parsimony guilty.

The others concur. It cannot be reliably adjudged which theories are parsimonious and therefore whether parsimony tracks truth. And with this limitation, parsimony is irrelevant and insignificant to theories as instruments of description, explanation, and justification.

Parsimony moreover doesn’t add anything new to this judicial bench. Every supposèd benefit of parsimony is already mastered by our eight theoretical justices. Where a theory of combustion asserts the existence of phlogiston, for example, philosophers might take it to be unacceptable because it is less parsimonious. But if that theory is consistent with the known chemical processes and thermodynamic equations, phlogiston doesn’t do anything for the theory. Asserting phlogiston is insignificant. Similarly for Meinongianism. For a squared circle to subsist fails parsimony. But it also fails clarity. It also fails relevance. Subsistence as an ontological category simply isn’t clear, especially since it is populated almost exclusively by impossible objects and objects that do not obtain. And since these objects do not obtain, their assertion is irrelevant to any theoretical explananda. And so parsimony fails its own test too: it is a principle beyond necessity. Let now Scarlet Parsimony descend upon itself: so has justice decreed.

Many too many philosophical theories have been lost to parsimony. Its reign of terror must end. All theories must die, but they ought to be executed with dignity and justice. Let us band together, philosophers, and shave parsimony itself from our metatheory. Let us divide it into its parts and cast them into the wind. Let us not even dignify it with an epitaph. Let it fade into obscurity.

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