August 20, 2012

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

On Attributing Philosophical Errors to the Great Dead Philosophers

Eric Schwitzgebel (author of this fascinating paper on introspection) has a blog post up defending "uncharitable and superficial history of philosophy." At New APPS, Catarina Dutilh Novaes responds, arguing that we should be critical, but not superficial. Now what Schwitzgebel says he is arguing against is "excessive charity." We should all agree that there is such a thing as excessive charity in interpretation, and of course it's bad. (If it were good, it wouldn't be correctly described as 'excessive'.) The question is, at what point does interpretive charity become excessive? I take it part of Dutilh Novaes' point is that there is a place for sympathetic exposition, and that place is before criticism. This, I think, is absolutely correct: we need first to really understand a view, and then criticize it. However, there is more to be said here, since the fundamental question is really about the sympathetic exposition stage. It does frequently happen that we historians read our favorite historical figures and say that they couldn't possibly have really meant anything so ridiculous as what they appear to have said, and it's certainly true that we sometimes (especially when dealing with our favorites) go too far with this, in a way that doesn't take the text seriously and let the philosophers say what they said. Nevertheless, I think that this line of thought, which claims that a certain view or argument is too absurd to be what the philosopher really meant, is often correct. What I want to do here is offer some defense of this claim, and also some thoughts on how to distinguish the cases where this kind of interpretive charity is appropriate from the cases where it is not.

Let me start with a claim that might prove controversial: there is such a thing as philosophical expertise, and great philosophers have it in a very high degree. Now, we are all aware that there are problems about the 'canon' of Great Dead Philosophers. I'm not saying that any one of the canonical Great Dead Philosophers have greater philosophical expertise than any non-canonical figure. I'm saying instead that thinkers who truly are great philosophers have a lot of philosophical expertise. The 'canon' may be mistaken about who the Great Dead Philosophers really are.

What exactly is involved in philosophical expertise? That question is more difficult. One thing it surely involves is the ability to see the logical consequences of propositions. Seeing such consequences requires both logic and conceptual analysis, so these will be among the activities at which someone who has philosophical expertise will be skilled.

Now here is my main claim: to the degree that a certain individual is truly a great philosopher (has a lot of philosophical expertise), we should be resistant to the attribution to that individual of philosophical errors, where a 'philosophical error' is a mistake which indicates lack of philosophical expertise. This is an instance of a more general claim, which seems to me to be obviously true: the more expertise of a particular sort an individual has, the less likely it is that that individual should make a mistake with respect to the domain of that expertise. So the more some individual deserves to be classified as one of the Great Dead Philosophers (or Great Living Philosophers, for that matter), the less plausible the attribution of a philosophical error to that individual will be.

Now, we should note that all of this is a matter of degree. One of Schwitzgebel's main points is that human beings in general tend to be bad at logic. This might be right. My claim is just that there is some variation in how bad at logic we are, and truly great philosophers are much better at logic (and whatever other important philosophical skills there are) than the rest of us. More concretely, what I'm saying is that the claim that Berkeley has made a philosophical error is (prior to the examination of the particular text in which the alleged error occurs, and the examination of the surrounding philosophical issues) less plausible than the claim that I have made a philosophical error, since Berkeley is better at philosophy than I am. We should, of course, also account for the severity and/or obviousness of the error in question, and how deeply the thinker seems to have thought about the particular issues involved, and a host of other questions like this, but the level of philosophical expertise of the individual alleged to have made the error is surely a relevant factor.

There are two remaining questions which I will try to answer in the remainder of this post. First, what sorts of mistakes are, and are not, philosophical errors? Second, is there not a problematic circularity here? Our evidence for believing that an individual is a great philosopher will consist mostly of the observation that she or he wrote quite a lot of philosophy while making relatively few philosophical errors (or at least few serious/obvious ones), and we then use the fact that that individual is a great philosopher as a bit of evidence against the claim that she or he has made philosophical errors. That sounds bad, but I'll argue that it's not.

On the first question, I have only vaguely gestured at what philosophical expertise might be, and I then defined 'philosophical error' in terms of it. I don't have a handy definition of philosophical expertise, so what I'm going to do is make my definitions slightly less vague by listing some things that I think are philosophical errors, and some that are not. The following then are, I take it, philosophical errors:

  • Having inconsistent beliefs (at the same time)

  • Making inconsistent assertions (in the same work, or works written in the same period)

  • Attacking strawmen

  • Giving arguments that don't support their conclusions in the way they are claimed/intended to (deductively or inductively)

The following, I take it, are not philosophical errors, either because they are not errors at all, or else because they are failures of a sort that philosophical expertise does not protect one from:
  • Being mistaken in one's philosophical conclusions

  • Changing one's mind (for good reasons)

  • Accepting assumptions common in one's context but no longer common today as fundamental premises

  • Having false, but subjectively reasonable, empirical beliefs

  • Misunderstanding (even culpably) non-philosophical subject matters

The first item might be surprising. I include it because I believe that philosophical questions are so difficult that no level of philosophical expertise (or any other kind of expertise) attainable by human beings is sufficient to protect one from coming to some false conclusions about them. Of course, if philosophical expertise is good for anything at all, then it should be somewhat helpful in moving one toward the right answers, but the whole enterprise is so difficult that I don't think we should ever treat it as unlikely that someone's conclusions might be wrong. This is especially true since the other items on the list can lead even the greatest of philosophers to start from the wrong premises.

It should be clear that on my view the kind of charity we ought to exercise toward the Great Dead Philosophers does not involve interpreting them in a way that makes them right; it only involves interpreting them not to make certain sorts of mistakes (or at least to make them less often than the rest of us). Note also that, on this view, quite a lot of contextual research is required to know whether a particular interpretation would involve attributing a philosophical error: we must know whether the view attacked is really a strawman, or whether perhaps the argument might be directed at someone other than the obvious (to us) target. We must also know whether certain assumptions were widespread at the time, and whether certain beliefs would be subjectively reasonable for someone in the philosopher's epistemic position. Also, it seems to me that there are actually different skills involved in the avoidance of different philosophical errors, so that philosophical expertise is not monolithic. This gives rise to the possibility that a philosopher may be great in some respects but not others. For instance, I think everyone must acknowledge that in the Essay Locke sometimes make contradictory assertions, and I agree with Schwitzgebel that philosophy is a public, communal activity so that saying something contradictory is a genuinely philosophical failing, regardless of what one meant to say. However, proponents of Locke's philosophical greatness try to explain away these assertions in a way that avoids attributing contradictory beliefs (at the same time) to Locke.

This brings us to the evaluation of particular individuals as, to some degree, great philosophers. It seems to me that, in the end, one must make a holistic judgment as to the plausibility of the claim that this particular philosopher could make this particular error. Now, a 'holistic judgment' is difficult to differentiate from a hunch or 'gut feeling,' so there is a real danger that we will just develop attachments to our favorite philosophers (and perhaps hostility to other philosophers) and this will become the basis for our attributing, or refusing to attribute, philosophical errors. However, I don't think this is the whole story. Part of the practice of history of philosophy as a discipline is just this: someone finds something that looks like a philosophical error in a Great Dead Philosopher. Then, we see if it can be explained away, either by claiming that it isn't really an error at all (in the context), or by claiming that the philosopher doesn't really endorse that view or argument. These attempts at explaining away can be more or less credible, and more or less closely related to the text. The more apparent problems there are, and the more ingenuity is required in explaining them away, the more reason we have to revise our evaluation of the philosopher and attribute more philosophical errors to him or her. Interpretation is a messy business, and there is no quick and easy answer to the question of when philosophical errors should be attributed to (someone who is reputed to be) one of the Great Dead Philosophers, but, as with other interpretive questions, there are a number of factors which can be weighed publicly, so that we don't come to a standstill when one person insists that Descartes has made an error, and another insists that Descartes was too great a philosopher to have made said error. This is all part of the enterprise of interpretation, and it's the hard work we have to do in order to determine what level of charity to exercise.

(cross-posted at The Mod Squad)

Posted by Kenny at August 20, 2012 2:31 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:


Interesting post, Kenny. I've often witnessed what I think is excessive charity among Thomists for their great hero.

But I wonder what you would think of Moore's behavior (do you consider him among the greats?) in Principia. He's constantly charging Bemtham, Mill, Sidgwick, et al. (surely some of the greats) with failings of the first kind. Do you think Moore is out of line here?

Posted by: Chad McIntosh at August 23, 2012 7:41 AM

Hi Chad,

It's been a while since I read Moore, so I don't remember in detail the remarks you are referring to. However, I'd put the 'naturalistic fallacy' (so-called) among "assumptions common in one's context" for Bentham and Mill (despite Hume coming in between). As far as the inconsistencies Moore charges people with, philosophers do often have subtly inconsistent beliefs, and again a judgment has to be made as to how likely it is that this philosopher would commit this error.

Charitable and/or contextual interpretation also just wasn't a big thing in early analytic philosophy, so at least when we are talking about Moore and Russell and friends (and we could even go as late as Quine) I don't think we should consider interpretation of historical philosophers as part of 'philosophical expertise.' In other words, it's not surprising if Moore makes interpretive mistakes. After all, Russell - surely on of the Great Dead Philosophers - is a notoriously superficial interpreter.

Posted by: Kenny at August 23, 2012 9:14 AM

Post a comment

Return to