My Response to a Critique of Paul Graham’s ‘How to Do Philosophy’

Thank you for your thoughtful critique of Paul Graham’s ‘How to Do Philosophy’. Although his blog post was probably not intended as a comprehensive argument, it does contain the kernels of a more sophisticated view than the one you are opposing. Without putting words in his mouth, may I (for the sake of balance) draw on some of his remarks to construct a fuller argument along the same lines?

I would suggest that the main problem with philosophy is what Graham calls ‘the singularity’. According to Graham, the following are (I would suggest, key) features of the singularity:

1) “If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students. Till one knows better, it’s hard to distinguish something that’s hard to understand because the writer was unclear in his own mind from something like a mathematical proof that’s hard to understand because the ideas it represents are hard to understand.”

2) “When things are hard to understand, people who suspect they’re nonsense generally keep quiet. There’s no way to prove a text is meaningless.”

3) “And so instead of denouncing philosophy, most people who suspected it was a waste of time just studied other things.”

4) “Because philosophy’s flaws turned away the sort of people who might have corrected them, they tended to be self-perpetuating.”

Virtually all academic disciplines rely on a system of peer-review to counter cognitive and personal biases, that may otherwise distort a scholar’s perception of whether he or she is making sense. All teaching philosophers have read student essays that are so riddled with vagueness, ambiguities and contradictions, it’s difficult to tell if the authors really knew what they meant. When asked specific questions about what they meant, these students often end up giving equally mystifying answers. Hence review and guidance by suitably qualified professionals. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, cognitive and personal biases don’t just affect individuals. Such biases can also infect an entire discipline, especially if they are tolerated or even transmitted via authority figures in that discipline. I’m sure many of us have sat through a seminar (often in a subject called ‘[fill in the blank] Studies’) where we are quite sure that no one is making much sense, but everyone is ‘talking’ and nodding along happily. On such occasions, we may wonder why the facilitator or one of the participants isn’t jumping in to ask “Err, what are we talking about, really?”. This very scenario was played out in the infamous Sokal Affair that Graham footnoted (well worth googling, if you’re unfamiliar with it).

But why should they jump in? The facilitator gets a good salary, the participants have paid huge tuition fees, the coffee is delicious, the company pleasant, and everyone loves affirmation. As Graham pointed out, anyone who doesn’t like it has probably already left, leaving only the converted. The same pattern is found in esoteric mystery or ‘new age’ cults, where features 1) to 4) of the singularity are put to work in the service of the cult leaders’ delusions and/or bank balance. The literature of such cults often reads like a metaphysics textbook; they too have ‘seminars’ where members earnestly ‘discuss’ the canonical texts and nod their heads.

Some philosophers may object that, surely, all disciplines are vulnerable to institutionalised bias and conformity; not just philosophy and its adjuncts. Really? Let’s take some concrete examples. Is it possible that doctors are simply spouting ‘hot air’ in medical school? Or engineers are just ‘playing with words’ in engineering college? Not really. The reason we can confidently give that answer is because of something Graham mentions; his much-derided appeal to ‘usefulness’. The jargon of doctors and engineers has to ‘work’ within a chain of causation, to produce results that would be highly improbable if the respective disciplines were ‘playing fast and loose’ with language.

Doctors perform heart surgery, engineers build airliners. They have to use language to collaborate in doing so; not only within their respective disciplines but across numerous epistemic communities. Non-sense doesn’t survive very long under such conditions. There has to be a high degree of semantic consistency and determinacy in the relevant discourses, or very few of us would survive heart surgery or flying. Of course, there are highly theoretical corners of every discipline that may harbour non-sense (for example, String Theory in physics). But guess what, those corners look a lot like philosophy.

It cannot be overly stressed that our subjective conviction that we (and others) are making sense is a very poor guide to whether we are really making sense. If we are to have real grounds for that conviction, we must be able to identify structural checks and balances, that mitigate the effects of cognitive bias and institutionalised conformity upon the discourse in question. Peer review isn’t enough.

Of course, philosophy imparts useful skills and even (occasional) knowledge, but an activity that is largely meaningless can often do so incidentally. One could learn from just about any activity, even building a staircase to nowhere. The fact that some philosophers have been influential is not a testament to the meaningfulness of philosophical discourse as a whole. After all, many lawyers are influential intellectuals, but not in their capacity as legal experts. Philosophers, like lawyers, are often good at reasoning, argumentation and rhetoric generally. But the combination of all these skills are insufficient to underwrite the meaningfulness of philosophical discourse. Given the limits of this medium, readers are welcome to google me for more detailed writings on this issue.


[further reply]

I agree with you that useful insights and even wisdom can be gleaned from philosophical writings (and from many non-philosophical texts too). As they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The key question is whether the philosophical method is a more efficient way to arrive at such insights (compared to say, reading literary masterpieces, history books, works of social science, or even the biographies of famous people). I would suggest that relative to the size of its literature as a whole, philosophy is somewhat sparse in the practical wisdom it offers. As one of your commentators mentioned “while I often find myself endeavouring to understand the philosophers like Zizek, it usually turns out to require more effort than the utility I gain from the understanding I draw from their theories”. Of course, it may be objected that the wisdom-to-words ratio of fiction, history, social science or biography is equally imbalanced. Unfortunately, that doesn’t give philosophy any special advantage. At best, it would be just as good a source of practical wisdom as those other disciplines.

I think your comparison of philosophy with art is very apt. Like art, the value of philosophy is very much in the eye of the beholder. But again, how does this give philosophy an edge over art, or psychotherapy, or meditation, or the disciplines mentioned above; in terms of being a superior path to truth or practical wisdom? If philosophy doesn’t have a systematic way of arriving at insights, then any wisdom it produces would be incidental, rather than being a product of the philosophical method. Some (perhaps more ‘continental’) philosophers would be happy characterising their discipline as a form of artistic or literary expression. However, many (especially in the ‘analytic’ school) would regard such a characterisation as unbecoming of the ‘queen of the sciences’.

It’s true, as you mentioned, that philosophers often criticise each other. But the key question is, do they criticise the philosophical method itself (in particular, its purely discursive approach)? For professional philosophers, doing so would be cutting off the branch they’re sitting on. As Graham mentioned, those who disagree that fundamentally usually just leave, depriving philosophy of genuinely radical internal critics (and the views of outsiders are generally dismissed as lacking in ‘expertise’. I myself have been so dismissed many times, for having ‘only’ a BA in philosophy). Esoteric religious thinkers have many heated debates too, but it doesn’t say much for the meaningfulness of what they’re talking about. All in all, I have no quarrel with your statement that the methods of philosophy “are not scientific methods; they have more in common with art”. I’m just not optimistic that the majority of philosophers would agree with you.