Virtue Epistemology and Journalistic Objectivity

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Reporters briefing at Guantanamo. License: Public domain, Source: Wikipedia

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of PublishingPublishing Research QuarterlyThe Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of  Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.

The journalistic principle of ‘objectivity’ is often presented as at best flawed, and at worst, ideological.  This article outlines the various criticisms, and argues that they stem from a misleadingly reductive view of journalistic objectivity, as a fixed set of ‘action imperatives’ or rules of conduct.  The article goes on to argue that journalistic objectivity should be viewed as a ‘virtue imperative’ that calls for the cultivation of a particular attitude, one that may be illustrated but not exhaustively defined by rules of conduct.  Such a view provides a fresh and promising approach to the common criticisms of journalistic objectivity.  

Journalistic norms of objectivity and impartiality arose in the early 20th Century, when they were formalised in codes of practice such as the ‘canons’ of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).  The ASNE code defines impartiality as “sound practice [which] makes clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion”, adding that “new reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind” (Allan, 1997: 308).  ‘Impartiality’ is often included in the journalistic concept of ‘objectivity’, which has the added connotation of focusing on incontrovertible, mind-independent and scientifically verifiable facts (Dunlevy, 1998: 120).  In practice, the terms ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ are often used interchangeably by journalists, to refer to notions of balance, fairness, lack of bias, accuracy and neutrality in news production (Dunlevy, 1998: 120).  In this article, ‘objectivity’ will be used as a collective term for these notions, unless otherwise stated. 

Two schools of thought have developed regarding the status of journalistic objectivity.  One which may be called the ‘conservative school’ regards objectivity as a legitimate norm (Berry, 2005; Lichtenberg, 2000), though some members argue that the concept has been mis-applied (Gauthier, 1993), or over-emphasised at the expense of other values such as ‘watchdog journalism’ (Cunningham, 2003).  The other ‘revisionist’ school contends that objectivity is a myth that inhibits critical enquiry and legitimates existing structures of power (Overholser, 2004; Rosen, 1993; Schudson, 1978).  

The conservative-revisionist split stems from a fundamental difference in epistemologies.  Codes of journalistic objectivity emerged in the West at the height of the positivist movement in the Sciences, and such codes reflected the positivist ideals of separation between ‘fact’ and ‘value’, between the ‘objective’ realm of mind-independent reality and the ‘subjective’ domain of preferences, prejudices and emotions (Schudson, 1978: 73-74).  Revisionists tend to accuse conservatives of holding on to an outdated and misleading positivist epistemology.  The argument is summed up by Rosen in the following terms:

…we must consider the intellectual problem of distinguishing something called information from something called opinion, of distinguishing facts from values. Almost the entire history of 20th Century thought in the human sciences has tended to work against these separations.  In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that journalism is the last refuge of objectivity as an epistemology. (1993)

It is argued that the conservative school views reality as constituted by empirically verifiable ‘facts’, and ignores the role of less tangible social phenomena (such as ideologies or political-economic structures) in shaping facts.  The conservative-revisionist divide is illustrated by Lichtenberg’s discussion of differences in British, American and Belgian coverage of elections in Ireland.  Arguing from a conservative perspective, Lichtenberg contends that the issues raised by such differences “go beyond the question of objectivity, but they do not subvert objectivity” because the differences are of interpretation rather than “facts” (2000: 247).  Revisionists would argue that interpretations are constitutive of facts, and under the influence of positivism, Lichtenberg draws too sharp a distinction between the two.

To the revisionist, the primary carrier of meaning is the ‘message’ as a whole, with all its implications and connotations (including what it leaves out), not merely (as the positivist would have it) the empirically verifiable elements of the message.  The revisionist regards the positivist fact/value, denotation/connotation and objective/subjective divisions as at best highly misleading and at worse, ideological.  Such divisions may be viewed as ideological because they support a façade of ‘objective truth’ made up of empirically verifiable facts, while concealing the manipulation of facts or the shaping of concepts to convey certain connotations and promote certain ‘values’, at the expense of other equally valid perspectives.

‘Objectivity’ is deemed ideological because in seeking out ‘verifiable’ facts and ‘reliable’ sources, journalism ends up favouring the powerful and privileged, who have the material, intellectual and cultural capital to legitimate their views as ‘reality’ or ‘mainstream’ and thereby protect newsmen from charges of bias (Lichtenberg, 2000: 239-240; Rosen, 2005; Tuchman, 1972: 676).  On the other hand, journalists’ attempts at ‘balance’ may lead them to give equal coverage to opposing views, even if it means giving undue prominence to a fringe minority at the expense of the broad middle ground, or neglecting to analyse the ambiguities that lie between the extremes (Lichtenberg, 2000: 251; Rosen, 1993).  For example, it may be argued that attempts by journalists at ‘impartial’ coverage of the War on Terror neglects the complex issues of Middle East politics, in favour of an ‘us versus them’ dichotomy that misleads more than it informs.  Revisionists would argue that journalists should look beyond the ‘facts’ to the message, and consider if it perpetuates a stereotype or retards social, economic or political progress.  Rosen (2000) argues that journalists should promote democracy rather than objectivity, while Overholser (2004) contends that journalists should jettison objectivity in favour of transparency and accountability. 

Conservatives would reply that journalistic objectivity does not rule out reflexive and critical reporting, as equally important aspects of good journalism.  Though a conservative, Lichtenberg agrees with revisionists that “we should not underestimate the significance of [the] ‘meaning construction’ function of the mass media” (2000: 247).  However, conservatives would argue that values and facts are mutually constitutive, that “disagreement about…matters of ‘interpretation’ will in turn depend partly on…facts” (Lichtenberg, 2000: 247).  Without the presumption of an accessible objective reality, interpretive disagreements would be irresoluble through rational dialogue alone. 

Parties to such disagreements could only resolve their differences by arational means such as the direct or subtle use of force.  Revisionism would be a slippery slope towards a radical relativism that undermines the value of journalism itself, other than as a tool of ‘epistemic violence’ (Foucault 1980).  Conservatives would argue that principles of objectivity create a valuable space for rational dialogue, offering opportunities for the non-coercive and democratic resolution of differences.  Objectivity does not demand neutrality between opposing views, if one view has the preponderance of reason and evidence behind it (Lichtenberg, 2000: 243-242, 251).  Principles of journalistic objectivity can play an important role in sustaining progress towards the kind of democratic and transparent ‘public sphere’ that revisionists claim to be seeking, while a ‘free market of ideas’ that neglects objectivity may retard such progress. 

Habermas (1989) conceived of the public sphere as a space between the state, with its top-down apparatus of control and domination, and the private sphere of individuals pursuing their narrow social and economic interests.  The public sphere consists of arenas for political debate among ordinary citizens, such as associations and clubs, as well as the media that contribute to these debates, such as newspapers and magazines.  The public sphere distills the private interests of citizens into expressions of ‘public opinion’ which tend to oppose the authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies of the state, thereby helping to protect and enhance democratic freedoms.  Habermas argues that since the late 19th century, there has been a ‘refeudalisation’ of the public sphere as it came to be increasingly dominated by powerful state and corporate interests, to the detriment of democratic citizen participation. 

It may be argued that values of journalistic objectivity help to mitigate the effects of refeudalisation, because such values preserve the editorial freedom of journalists against the increasing concentration of media ownership, provided  such values are shared by readers and contributors. Having said that, the ‘public sphere’ argument for journalistic objectivity raises difficulties as soon as its practical aspects are considered.  Habermas has been criticised for idealising the public sphere as a forum for free and democratic discussion, when it has always been a domain of competing interests in which many voices were marginalised (Kellner, 2004: 7).  Media consumption tends to be politically polarised, contrary to the potrayal of the public sphere as a forum for informed and balanced debate.  An American audience survey in 2004 found that “Republicans have become more distrustful of virtually all major media outlets over the past four years”, with the exception of right-wing outlets such as Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh radio show, which attract rising Republican audiences (Pew, 2004: 1). 

Some may contend that in a ‘public sphere’ of competing interests and partisan audiences, objectivity is an over-rated virtue.  Given the divisions in the public sphere, who will enforce the rules of objectivity, and whose rules will prevail?  Revisionists are mainly concerned about the subtle framing of news, a practice that easily bypasses (and may subvert) any attempt at enforcing objectivity.  For example, Martin Gilens (1999) observes that 62% of pictures of the poor in American news magazines and 65% on American television news are of African-Americans, although they make up only 29% of the American poor.  His findings demonstrate how systematic bias, reinforced by institutional racism, can pervade the mass media.  It is difficult to envisage how such biases could be filtered out by any code of journalistic objectivity, and how the interpretation of such codes could itself be free from charges of bias. 

Conservatives would reply that there can never be an exhaustive code of journalistic objectivity that ‘interprets itself’, but the content and interpretation of such codes are themselves subject to negotiation and debate within the public sphere.  Accusations of ‘bias’ presuppose standards of objectivity.  Ideals of objectivity, however vaguely understood, are important touchstones for guiding democratic decision-making.  Vague concepts are not always devoid of meaning or utility (Wittgenstein, 1968), and it is often easier to build consensus around a vague principle than a precise one.  It may be argued that the unattainability (or even impossibility) of a ‘perfectly objective’ point of view does not rule out the desirability of principles of journalistic objectivity.  ‘Perfect democracy’ is a tenuous concept and a practically unattainable goal, but democratic principles play a key role in guiding political discourse and processes.  

Some recent work in ethics may help to demonstrate how vague ideals can play a concrete and instrumental role in regulating public life.  The ‘virtue ethics’ approach argues that detailed codes of conduct can often be distilled into relatively vague ‘virtue imperatives’.  A virtue imperative calls for the exercise of broad character traits (virtues), rather than the performance of specific acts (Athanassoulis, 2004; Hursthouse, 2003).  ‘Objectivity’ can be understood as a virtue imperative that calls for the exercise of virtues such as intellectual courage, thoroughness, reflexivity, critical thinking and fairmindedness (Baehr, 2004). 

The main advantage of a virtue ethics approach is that it side-steps the debate on the political or epistemic value of objectivity, by arguing that journalistic objectivity is primarily an extension of everyday morality.  Like everyone else, journalists are expected to exercise objectivity by default.  Objectivity can only be suspended in limited circumstances that are clearly marked out, such as works of fiction or art.  Otherwise, individuals could exempt themselves at will from the demands of objectivity, undermining it as a social norm.  Virtue ethics is less concerned with whether the journalist has faithfully reproduced an external reality, than whether he or she has exercised objectivity as a character trait.  As a result, a virtue ethics perspective allows for a wide range of mutually conflicting but equally ‘objective’ (qua virtue) voices in the media.

From a virtue ethics perspective, the various failings of ‘objectivity’ cited by revisionists (such as the hollowness of strategic rituals, the tendency to legitimate the status quo, and distortions caused by attempts at ‘balanced reporting’) stem from a reductive view of objectivity, as a fixed set of procedures rather than a virtue imperative.  It may be argued that revisionists are not attacking objectivity at all, but a pervasive stereotype of objectivity that is really the opposite of the virtue.  A further advantage of the virtue ethics approach is that it allows conservatives to defend objectivity without defending positivism. 

Virtue-based epistemology is able to accommodate the revisionist argument that reality is (at least to some extent) socially constructed.  However, virtue epistemologists would argue that the social construction of reality is not an arbitrary process, but is governed by virtue imperatives such as objectivity (Baehr, 2004).  The exercise of virtues such as objectivity tends to produce consensus among practitioners, while vices such as pride, impatience, arrogance and carelessness contribute to disagreement.  Virtue theorists would agree with revisionists that objectivity (like any virtue) cannot be exhaustively defined or enforced through codes of conduct.  Virtues are mainly fostered through mentoring and practice, and indirectly through the creation of conditions in which they can flourish (Athanassoulis, 2004). 

The virtue ethics perspective shifts the emphasis away from top-down regulation of journalistic objectivity (with the attendant problems of bias) towards a broader approach that includes familiarising journalism students with the ideals of objectivity through examples and case studies, fostering diversity in media ownership and access, and legislating to curb the worse abuses such as hidden advertising.  Disagreements are bound to arise on what constitutes objective reporting in particular cases, but the virtue ethicist would argue that such disagreements are best settled by referring to broad virtues and vices than to a rigid formula which cannot capture the full sense of ‘objectivity’, and is itself open to dispute. 

The virtue-based approach to journalistic ethics is in early stages of development, but already has its detractors.  Christians, Ferre and Fackler (1993) argue that virtue ethics places too much emphasis on agency, and ignores the structural constraints on journalists.  They point out that “institutions and systemic structures reduce the choices of virtuous people and therefore limit their impact” (1993: 79).  The same criticism is made by Levy (2004), in the light of psychological findings that structural factors rather than ‘character traits’ explain much of the difference in ethical behaviour between individuals.  However, these are criticisms of virtue ethics as a theory of moral motivation, rather than as a way of operationalising moral concepts like ‘objectivity’. 

A virtue ethics approach need not rule out an essential role for structural factors in shaping and sustaining character traits, but would argue that institutional constraints cannot be identified, negotiated and criticised without recourse to the moral vocabulary of virtue imperatives.  For example, institutional structures are often criticised as ‘tempting vice’ or having a ‘corrupting effect on character’.  Institutional reform is often successfully carried out through the replacement of key individuals within the institution, a method that recognises the symbiotic relationship between structure and agency.  Virtue ethics strikes a realistic balance between structural and institutional factors on the one hand and individual autonomy and responsibility on the other.  Virtue ethics can inform critiques of the institutions and structures that limit objectivity by suppressing autonomous virtue-based reasoning in favour of rigid rules of conduct. 

Re-framing objectivity as a virtue imperative allows journalists to go beyond strategic rituals and simplistic notions of ‘balance’, without falling into either skeptical relativism or rigid dogmatism.  By presenting journalistic objectivity as an extension of everyday morality, virtue ethics counters the view that the principle is merely a ‘professional’ norm and therefore not a moral issue.  Although the implications of the virtue-based approach for journalistic ethics are yet to be fully explored, it represents a potentially fruitful departure from the standard arguments in the conservative-revisionist debate on journalistic objectivity. 


Allan, Stuart (1997). ‘News and the Public Sphere: Towards a History of Objectivity and Impartiality.’ M Bromley and T O’Malley (Eds.) A Journalism Reader. London and New York: Routledge. 

Athanassoulis, N. (2004). ‘Virtue Ethics.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, consulted 10 Sept 2005: <;.

Baehr, J. S. (2004). ‘Virtue Epistemology.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, consulted 10 Sept 2005: <;.

Berry, S. J. (2005). ‘Why Objectivity Still Matters.’ Nieman Reports 59(2): 15-17. 

Christians, C. G., Ferrâe, J. P., & Fackler, M. (1993). Good News : Social Ethics and the Press. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cunningham, B (2003). ‘Re-thinking Objectivity’, Columbia Journalism Review 42 (2): 24.

Dunlevy, M. (1998). ‘Objectivity’ pp. 119-40 in M Breen (eds) Journalism Theory and Practice. Paddington, NSW: Macleay Press.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge. Edited and Translated by C.Gordon. Brighton: Harvester Press.

Gauthier, G. (1993, January 1). ‘In Defence of a Supposedly Outdated Notion: The Range of Application of Journalistic Objectivity.’ Canadian Journal of Communication [Online], 18(4), consulted 9 Sept 2005: <;. 

Gilens, M. (1999). ‘The Black Poor and the ‘Liberal Press’. ISPS Journal  2, consulted 9 Sept 2005: <;.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere : An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hursthouse, R. (2003). ‘Virtue Ethics.’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, consulted 10 Sept 2005: <;.

Kellner D. (2004). Habermas, the Public Sphere, and Democracy: A Critical Intervention. Consulted 9 Sept 2005: < /essays/habermaspublicspheredemocracy.pdf>.

Levy, N. (2004). ‘Good Character: Too Little, Too Late.’ Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 19(2), 108-118.

Lichtenberg, J. (1992). ‘In Defence of Objectivity.’ pp. 216-231 in J. Curran and M. Gurevitch (eds) Mass Media and Society. London: Edward Arnold. 

Overholser, G. (2004). ‘The Inadequacy of Objectivity as a Touchstone.’ Nieman Reports 58(4): 53

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. (2004). News Audiences Increasingly Politicized. Washington D. C.: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Rosen, J. (1993). ‘Beyond Objectivity (Neutral Journalism Should be Transformed to Include a Pro-Active Policy Toward Perpetuating Democracy).’ Nieman Reports 47(4):48-53.

Sanders, K. (2003). Ethics & Journalism. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Schudson, M. (1978). Discovering the News : A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books.

Tuchman, G. (1972). ‘Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity.’ American Journal of Sociology 77. pp 660-679. 

Wittgenstein, L. (1968). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Rule-Following and Heuristics in Ethics


Image: Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text. Source – Wikimedia

A problem with many philosophical approaches to ethics is their assumption that moral decision-making is just a matter of consistently applying rules, such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative or the Utilitarian ‘principle of equal consideration of interests’. When we examine how we actually decide what to do, the conscious application of rules is not what we see. All decisions have multiple moral dimensions, and are therefore ‘moral decisions’. Even choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice-cream has ethical implications, such as the relative benefit or harm to cocoa and vanilla farmers. It follows that we make hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘moral decisions’ a day, if only by default. And each decision is subject to a range of ethical considerations and rules. In the ice-cream example, apart from the farmers, what about the environment? Should I even have ice-cream, would yogurt be healthier? It goes on and on. Yet on most days, no explicit principle comes to our minds as we make decisions.

This is not to suggest that rules don’t play a part in ethics. But so do heuristics, habits of mind that allow us to make quick decisions in real time that will hopefully, in aggregate, maximize returns across all relevant moral considerations and norms. The reason why no rule comes to our minds when we act in most cases is because we are often attempting to maximize returns across a range of moral demands, each with its own set of rules. For example, to be a good mother, daughter, employer, friend and citizen all at once. We don’t usually have time to consciously reflect on every relevant rule as we act. Over time, heuristics become ingrained in our culture and our consciences. Should I give to the poor in my town or to strangers 1,000 miles away? Perhaps in an ideal world I should compare the relative needs of anyone I could possibly help, weighing all relevant moral concerns, but I don’t have time for that. So in general, we help those near us. But at the mall, someone asks me for a donation for disaster victims 1,000 miles away. I give her money because as a rule of thumb, we try to help anyone who asks us for help face-to-face. These heuristic norms cannot be fully captured by any set of strict rules, even though they may include strict rules (such as the taboo on incest in many societies).

Heuristics are far from ideal, but we don’t make decisions in ideal circumstances. Often, heuristics ossify. They are hard habits to change personally and culturally, when no longer relevant to changing circumstances. But they do reflect some semblance of accumulated collective wisdom (mixed in with foolishness) that no single person can untangle without losing some valuable threads. That has not stopped philosophers from trying, but there will always be a gap between any theoretical system of rules and the habits of thought that inform our consciences through individual and collective experience. This is why moral philosophers cannot even agree with one another, because they can always pick out flaws in each other’s moral theories when applied to specific examples. The lack of consensus in moral philosophy dampens the claim of some philosophers to ‘moral expertise’ (on the strength of their philosophical qualifications). Whatever they mean by that term, it does not entail that we can unreflectively entrust our ethical decision-making to them as we would our lives to a doctor. It would be imprudent to seek treatment in a hospital where the doctors can never agree on a diagnosis. In that sense, philosophers cannot relieve us of the burden of individual responsibility for our actions and the justifications we give for them.

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of PublishingPublishing Research QuarterlyThe Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of  Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.

What if We All Know the Good?

Image: ‘Leviathan’: Ink drawing on manuscript by Thomas Hobbes. Click here for credit

Some disciplines have a ‘blind spot’, assumptions that go largely unquestioned because they justify the existence of the discipline. For philosophical ethics, that blind spot is the assumption of moral ignorance, that there are circumstances in which we do not know the right thing to do. Moral ignorance is not ignorance of relevant facts, such as not knowing that a piano is falling as you walk under it. That kind of factual ignorance is not the mainstay of ethics, which is concerned with which decision is the right one if all relevant facts are known.

So the question arises, is there moral ignorance? Barring insanity, immaturity, or factual ignorance of the sort that would render the actor less culpable, is there some kind of theoretical ignorance that justifies the task of philosophical ethics? It turns out that the existence of moral ignorance is far from obvious. 

Some would reply that if there is no moral ignorance, in what sense can we improve on someone else’s moral beliefs, or for that matter, our own? If I believe that eating meat is unethical for everyone, do I therefore believe that meat-eaters are ignorant of something that I know? If I don’t believe they are ignorant, then in what sense are they in error?

Some may argue that meat-eaters are ignorant of the conditions of animal slaughter. In other words, meat-eaters lack the experiential knowledge that might cause them to go vegan after visiting a slaughterhouse, for instance. This is a dangerous argument, because experience goes both ways. For example, slaughterhouse workers can become desensitized to the routine violence of their workplace, and many have no qualms eating meat. Taking drugs or joining a cult could impair our ability to objectively judge the merits of either activity.

An alternative, though unpopular, proposal is that barring the usual exceptions such as lack of mental capacity, we all know right from wrong, and it is the same rights and wrongs for all of us. This view is not as outlandish as it seems. One oft-mentioned objection is that differences between cultures makes it unlikely that we all share the same morality. However, if we believe an act is wrong but want to do it anyway, we often make excuses to make it seem right to us. If one person can make excuses, so can a group, or an entire culture. After all, it is easier to make a wrong seem right if everyone else agrees it is right.

If moral principles are innate and universal, then culture plays no part in inventing them, only in reinforcing, ignoring or subverting them in ways that can vary between cultures, as between persons. Some may object to this kind of universalism on the grounds that it does not offer a recipe for resolving moral disputes. Well, neither does moral philosophy.

In reality, such disputes are resolved (if at all) pragmatically, either through formal mechanisms such as legislatures and committees, or if all else fails, through violence. More attention is usually paid to the facts surrounding the dispute, or to the preponderance of power, than to abstract ethical theories. So in terms of dispute-resolving capacity, the assumption of either moral ignorance or cultural relativism has no advantage over assuming that the moral code is the same for, and known to, everyone despite rationalizations to the contrary.

One advantage of the idea that moral principles are universal and innate is that it allows us to make moral claims across cultures. Otherwise, there’s always the excuse of cultural difference, and why should those differences be marked by national boundaries? There are cultural differences within nation-states, between neighborhoods in the same city, even between families. Unless we can make a distinction between morality and culture, then both are reduced to the art of ‘getting along’, and historically that usually ends up favoring those who know how to exploit the dark side of the art.

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of  Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.


The Observer Effect: Why Science Can’t Explain Everything


Image credit: click here for details

You’ve probably heard these claims umpteen times: “Everything originated in the Big Bang” or “We all evolved from a primeval soup”. A more careful scientist would avoid making such universal claims, because of the observer effect.

What is the observer effect? Much misunderstanding can be avoided by distinguishing between the pragmatic value of a theory and the veracity of that theory. Most scientific theories are considered ‘true’ based on their pragmatic value, the fact that they make accurate predictions and help us get things done (forecast the weather, launch rockets, etc). For such theories (judged on their pragmatic value), skepticism about the general reliability of our cognitive apparatus, à la Descarte, is not an issue. Even if we are all brains in a vat, such theories would still be valid within the realm of human experience (e.g. Newton’s Laws can still apply in the experience of a brain in a vat, even if they don’t apply outside the vat).

It’s a different ball-game when you’re judging a theory on its veracity, whether it tells us what the world is ‘really’ like in the absence of observers. Take the claim “We all evolved from a primeval soup.” “We”, of course, refers to us as observers. A more cautious scientist would qualify that by saying “Our bodies …” instead. The problem with “we” is that it also refers to consciousness, and that runs into the observer effect. We cannot observe how consciousness works, we can only observe the objects of consciousness.

Imagine if we’re all born wearing goggles that affect our vision, and we can’t take the goggles off. Can we explain how the goggles work if we don’t know whether (and if so, how) they affect our vision? See the problem? Scientific theories can’t account for the way consciousness affects our observations, so the claim that such theories can explain the origin or function of “everything” or an unqualified “us” is unwarranted. Such a claim rests on the unsupported assumption that what we observe as “everything” or “us” really is everything or us.

This kind of observer effect is only a problem for the veracity of scientific theories. It is not a problem for the pragmatic value, if any, of such theories (e.g. atomic theory has practical applications within human experience). So the veracity of naturalistic evolutionary theories or atomic theories, for example, is very much in question. The only theories that both claim veracity and are theoretically immune to the observer effect are those that do not rely on empirical verification (i.e. are a priori). Such theories are either mathematical, logical, philosophical or religious.

To sum up: From a pragmatic point of view, yes, our cognitive faculties are generally reliable. On the question of their general veracity, all bets are off as far as science goes. However, most of the time, only the pragmatic implications of our theories, perceptions and memories matter to us. Your decision to have eggs for breakfast doesn’t rest on whether you believe the eggs ‘really’ exist in some metaphysical sense. Having said that, if you had metaphysical beliefs about how things ‘really’ are, those beliefs may affect your everyday decisions. They add an extra dimension to the purely pragmatic considerations that would otherwise solely motivate us.

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.


The Meaning of ‘Art’

800px-view_along_park27s_fifth_avenue_is_being_painted_in_oils_-_nara_-_545603Click for image attribution

The question of the meaning of ‘art’ illustrates the deleterious influence of ‘family resemblance’ as a theory of meaning. I have argued elsewhere that there are no ‘family resemblance concepts’, so ‘art’ cannot be such a concept. But the idea of ‘art’ as such a concept pervades the contemporary art scene, and has a real practical effect on what is accepted as ‘art’.

This is not to suggest that the meaning of ‘art’ has thereby changed radically. Rather, many art practitioners are engaged in a form of ‘double-think’ in which they know what art really is, but for ideological or socio-economic reasons, are second-guessing themselves into accepting faux-art as ‘art’.

I think we can identify at least one necessary property of art. Art has to have lasting aesthetic value. By that, I mean that we think it’s worthwhile to contemplate the same work of art not just once or twice, but repeatedly over long periods (ideally, for ever).

Why else would we have the same work of art in our home or a museum for decades? It serves no other purpose than to be contemplated (unless it’s purely decorative, in which case it’s like a flowery curtain, not there to be contemplated but rather, to beautify the place. We don’t exhibit flowery curtains in art museums, unless they’re worth contemplating, of course. And art doesn’t have to be beautiful).

But in virtue of what does a work of art have lasting aesthetic value? Many art critics assume that it is the work of art itself that has the lasting value, but this can’t be true. After all, a painting is just paint on canvas, how fascinating can that possibly be? What’s the point of looking at the same arrangement of paint over and over for decades?

Even if we transfer the locus of value to the idea expressed by the painting, it still falls flat. A painting of an apple just expresses the idea of an apple, not all that interesting even if it’s a moody apple. There’s only so much that can be expressed by a work of art, it’s not enough to warrant lasting aesthetic value.

So I would suggest that the lasting value has to lie elsewhere, in the juxtaposition of the work of art against its surroundings. It is not the expressive richness of the work of art that gives it lasting aesthetic value (some great art is very simple). Rather, it is the fact that the artwork is a fixed point in a lived experience that is otherwise in flux.

That is why we contemplate a work of art, we stop and look (or listen, etc). We don’t just glance in passing, we stop for it. That’s why a Japanese tea ceremony is a work of art, because we stop for that (and not just for the tea). But why stop just to contemplate art?

I think it’s because art reminds us of something valuable, that we constantly forget. That’s why we keep returning to the same work of art, not because it reveals something new each time, but because it reveals the same thing each time. The same thing, that we constantly forget (and here, there are parallels between art and philosophy. I don’t think it’s coincidental that we also stop and contemplate in religious observances).

What absorbs us is not the artwork per se but the fact that it’s somehow anomalous or aberrant, in a way that draws our attention to considerations not directly represented by the work. That is why a simple artwork can be complex. It represents little, but it points to a lot. Its lasting value lies in its power to repeatedly remind us of something that gets lost in the day-to-day, or is suppressed in thought.

If all this is true, then it follows that our lived experience is drawing our attention away from what is really worth focusing on (hence the art). The existence of art testifies to the inauthenticity of our lived experience, the fact that we’re alienated from what really matters.

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.

My reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s ‘Does Philosophy Matter?’

This is in reply to Does Philosophy Matter?, a blog post by  Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, originally published at the OUP Blog. As I’ve argued elsewhere, much of analytic philosophy is semantically indeterminate. But in order to realize that, we have to step back from the trees, the minutiae of philosophical arguments; and look at the woods, the socio-psychological flaws of any purely theoretical discipline; where peer-review is the sole arbiter of whether the relevant discourse is making sense.

Such an arrangement has a tendency to degenerate into a mutual admiration society (notwithstanding some, largely arbitrary, internal disagreements on what is admirable). It’s not the same with the sciences (apart from purely theoretical fringes like, arguably, string theory), because they have to make predictions that the non-expert can often easily test and to some extent, understand the theory behind (e.g. that the boiling point of water changes with altitude, because of differences in air pressure).

In the applied sciences, such predictions are operationalized in artifacts (radios, cars, etc) which demonstrate that the relevant disciplines are not just ‘playing with words’ or ‘spouting hot air’. Scientists rarely acknowledge the fact, but the non-expert public is heavily involved in keeping nonsense out of the sciences, effectively acting as a second, informal, layer of intellectual scrutiny after peer review. Not so in philosophy, where you have to be an ‘expert’ (i.e, a member of the mutual admiration society) for your opinion to count.

As Sinnott-Armstrong pointed out, “philosophers talk only to their own kind and not even to all philosophers.” He goes on to attribute the public’s negative perception of philosophy to a lack of ‘outreach’ by philosophers. Perhaps it is possible for the right kind of public-relations to raise the image of philosophy in the community at large, but such an effort cannot rescue the discipline from the more serious problem of semantic indeterminacy.

Even if all of philosophy was conducted in plain and simple English (or everyday German, French, etc), the non-expert would still not be able to determine which philosophical arguments ‘work’ without detailed knowledge of the overarching debate, the sort of knowledge that only expert philosophers have (though even with that knowledge, the experts can’t agree on the soundness of most philosophical arguments!). So the lay public can never really act as that second layer of scrutiny for philosophy, the layer that actually underwrites the semantic consistency of scientific discourse.

In the case of science, you don’t have to be an expert to know that scientists aren’t generally talking nonsense, because it’s obvious even to a 12-year-old that the relevant disciplines cannot get away with much semantic inconsistency, vagueness or vacuity when launching a satellite or doing open-heart surgery. A high degree of semantic consistency is required to repeatedly pull off such sophisticated demonstrations of predictive power, particularly involving complex multi-disciplinary coordination (as is usually the case in science).

Such transparent demonstrations of technical know-how are not available to philosophy. So the public (and for that matter, philosophers) are really in the dark as to whether much of philosophy actually makes sense (the problem doesn’t lie with jargon per se, the use of ‘everyday’ language does not guarantee that the language is always used in the ‘everyday’ sense; i.e. a philosophical context is not straightforwardly an ‘everyday’ context).

There are genuine philosophical problems, and the philosophical impulse is perhaps integral to what makes us human, but philosophy cannot be called a body of ‘knowledge’ (except in the sense of historical knowledge of what philosophers have said, along with a handful of substantive arguments that most philosophers agree are sound, excluding trivial logical syllogisms and the like). It is an activity that some people feel compelled to engage in, perhaps for important reasons, but like another such activity, art, there’s no methodology for measuring ‘progress’, for cumulatively gathering ‘facts’ the way that scientists gather data.

Philosophers may well see the world differently from having done philosophy, but the same is true of artists when doing art. To call that kind of shift in perspective ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ or ‘wisdom’ is a bit of a stretch (and would smack of pretension if claimed by an artist). If philosophy’s semantic indeterminacy is not widely recognized, there is also a risk that any confusion in its discourse may be exported into other domains such as ethics or public policy, via the activities of philosophers (in a philosophical capacity) as ‘experts’ in the public sphere. Having said that, philosophers have as much right as anyone else to contribute to public life; but apart from the intellectual qualities imparted by sound scholarly training, a philosophy qualification does not grant ‘expertise’ in any domain of knowledge outside the textual history of philosophy.

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.

The Family Resemblance Fallacy


Image source: Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 – by Brocken Inaglory – Click here for details


Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that some concepts apply by virtue of a ‘family resemblance’, rather than a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. A family resemblance concept has an open-ended set of identifying properties, such that a) not all the properties need be instantiated for the concept to apply, and b) the properties do not form an exhaustive list (but may be added or subtracted in different contexts). In Philosophical Investigations, he cites as candidates the concepts ‘language’, ‘game’ and ‘number’:

Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, – but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language” (§65).

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ ” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! (§66).

I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances“; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family … And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres (§67).

‘Family resemblance’ is one of the few technical ideas in philosophy that has successfully crossed over into other disciplines, such as art theory, literary studies, psychology, law and political science; as well as into ‘middle-brow’ discourse generally. By now, the notion is so well-entrenched that hardly anyone would think of questioning its applicability to a wide range of concepts, such as ‘art’, ‘justice’ and ‘mind’ (and some would argue, to all concepts).

The popularity of this approach is understandable. The concepts which are claimed to be of the family resemblance type are often difficult (if not impossible) to define. The family resemblance model does away with the need for a definition, thus obviating a number of thorny philosophical problems; on the grounds that questions such as ‘What is Art?’ or ‘What is Justice?’ are seeking a definition where none is necessary. Family resemblance also offers a simple solution to the Sorites Paradox, as in the question ‘How many grains make a heap?’ If ‘heap’ is a family resemblance concept, then there is no fixed number of grains that make a heap, anymore than there are a fixed number of legs that make a table.

Politics is another reason for widespread acceptance of the family resemblance theory. If any definition of a family resemblance concept is necessarily partial, and therefore selective, then the possibility arises that the selection may be politically weighted. For example, if ‘female’ is a family resemblance term, then it can be argued that definitions of ‘female’ often include traits that serve the purpose of naturalizing and legitimizing patriachy. Feminists can then counter these patriarchal definitions by emphasizing a different set of traits as ‘feminine’, including adding and subtracting traits to change the concept altogether (or even doing away with the concept, in favor of a variety of gender categories as in ‘LGBTQIA’).

The family resemblance paradigm offers a philosophical justification for the strategy of moving semantic goalposts to bolster the position of underprivileged classes, a practice that is the bread-and-butter of critical studies and post-modern thought in general. Another reason for the popularity of the family resemblance idea is its intuitive appeal. After all, even mundane concepts like ‘chair’ defy definition into a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. It seems obvious that no set of such conditions could possibly allow us to pick out all and only chairs, let alone more nebulous objects such as games.

However, there is a major problem with the family resemblance approach. In essence, the problem is that everything resembles everything else, and everything is different from everything else. Proponents of the family resemblance theory would be quick to reply that there are degrees of resemblance; that tables resemble each other more than they do cats, for example.

But where is the evidence that our recognition of these ‘degrees of resemblance’ is logically prior to our understanding the concepts ‘table’ and ‘cat’? In other words, do we group tables together because they resemble each other, or do we view tables as resembling each other because we have already picked out certain relations as being ones of ‘resemblance’ (and ‘difference’) when comparing tables (and contrasting them with other things which we have already categorized in other ways)? After all, cats and tables do resemble each other in many respects, but we don’t usually regard those respects as relevant.

Some may respond by echoing Wittgenstein, “Look! Can’t you just see the resemblances (and differences)?” Oddly enough, this was an approach that Wittgenstein himself criticized in the Investigations, outside his remarks on family resemblance; for example, when he dismissed the argument that criteria for ‘absolute identity’ can be derived from the perfect identity that a thing has with itself.

For identity we seem to have an infallible paradigm: namely, in the identity of a thing with itself. I feel like saying: “Here at any rate, there can’t be different interpretations. If someone sees a thing, he sees identity, too.” Then are two things the same when they are what one thing is? And how am I to apply what the one thing shows me to the case of two things? (§215).

Wittgenstein argued that the inference from everything being identical with itself to the existence of criteria for ‘absolute identity’ is a false move, an empty gesture. In making the move, one is misled by the grammar of the sentence ‘x is identical with itself’, into thinking the sentence is logically equivalent to ‘x is identical to y’ where x and y are two spatio-temporally separate things. The truth of the former statement does not rest on criteria of ‘absolute identity’ by which x is compared with itself, so no such criteria can be carried over to verify the truth of the latter statement. The sentence ‘x is identical with itself’ certainly describes a paradigm case of identity, but offers no formula by which degrees of identity may be measured off from that paradigm.

“A thing is identical with itself.” — There is no finer example of a useless sentence, which nevertheless is connected with a certain play of the imagination. It is as if in our imagination we put a thing into its own shape and saw that it fitted. (§216)

One may be tempted to reply, “Look! Can’t you just see that x is absolutely identical to itself?” The problem lies not in what we see, but in the conclusions drawn from what we see; as in the unwarranted move from a) the observation that things falling under the same concept resemble each other, to b) the conclusion that things fall under the same concept because they resemble each other.

Some supporters of the family resemblance paradigm may reply that even non-human animals, with no capacity for language, seem to be able to identify things by similarity. Surely, this shows that the ability to group objects by similarity is pre-linguistic, and therefore likely proto-linguistic?

This argument from animal behavior is a non-starter, because it takes a human language-user to tell you that a non-language-using non-human animal (or for that matter, a human baby) is ‘grouping things by similarity’. A pig hunting for truffles does not view itself as ‘grouping truffles by similarity of scent’, it is merely acting on instinct. When we say that non-human (non-language-using) animals are ‘picking out objects by similarity’, we are really using the expression anthropomorphically, ascribing the traits of a language-user to a non-language-using creature. Nothing in the behavior of non-language-using non-humans supports the view that self-consciously grouping things by similarity is pre-linguistic, let alone proto-linguistic. It takes language to knowingly ‘group things together by similarity’ or to ascribe the behavior to someone else.

So did similarities and the related ‘grouping behavior’ exist before language, or does the language faculty divide the world into (and identify certain activities as ‘grouping’) things which are ‘similar’ and ‘different’, based on criteria which are not themselves grounded in similarity and difference? It’s a chicken-or-egg question, but appealing to ‘family resemblance’ does not settle the question one way or the other.

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.

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.

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.

I am not a Logical Positivist

On the charge that I am simply regurgitating logical positivism, I plead ‘not guilty’. Logical positivism succumbed to ‘death by a thousand qualifications’ because it attempted to sharply define semantic meaningfulness (including the analytic-synthetic distinction), a project that proved impossible.  I was careful to avoid that mistake in my book, which was an extended version of a peer-reviewed philosophy paper ( If I had been simply channelling logical positivism, I’m sure the reviewers would have picked that up. Instead of defining semantic meaningfulness, I gave a relatively non-contentious example of semantically indeterminate ‘discourse’ (the ‘language’ of the tribe in Chapter 2), then argued that the features which made that discourse semantically indeterminate also apply to philosophy. I did briefly mention that the tribe’s ‘language’ lacked semantics, but this was not an attempt to draw a sharp distinction between semantics and pragmatics. After all, instrumental music lacks semantics (in the linguistic sense that includes indexicality and generativity, etc) but could be said to have some pragmatics. The distinction still holds, albeit not in the artificial way defined by the logical positivists.

I am not arguing for a sharp distinction between meaningful and meaningless discourse (as in logical positivism). Rather, I am positing a phenomenon of ‘creeping semantic vacuity’, where the semantic meaningfulness of a non-instrumental discourse becomes increasingly indeterminate as the length of the discourse increases. Although philosophy (in general) is one of its purest examples, creeping semantic vacuity is not a phenomenon unique to that discipline (and its corollaries in the purely discursive parts of cultural, literary, social, critical or political theory). The same phenomenon is found in the more esoteric religious or ‘spiritual’ discourses; and quite possibly, even in the more theoretical branches of science (for example, string theory in quantum physics). Nor is this a phenomenon that I can take credit for identifying, it is one that has been intuitively acknowledged for hundreds (if not thousands) of years; under such labels as ‘ivory tower syndrome’ and ‘scholasticism’. Arthur Brittan made broadly similar charges against social theory in his paper ‘Sociology as a Private Language’ in Poetics Today (1983).

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.