Philosophers Are Not Moral Experts

My article in the Washington Examiner:


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


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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. Theories that attempt to explain the origin or complete workings of the human cognitive apparatus (such as naturalistic theories of biological evolution or the origin of the universe, and even atomic theory; all of which purport to account for human cognitive functions among other things) are often claimed to have veracity, alongside any pragmatic value they hold. 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 possibly distort 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 distort 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 of our full cognitive faculties (which includes consciousness) is unwarranted. Such a claim rests on the unsupported assumption that what we observe of how our cognitive faculties work is how our cognitive faculties really work.

This kind of observer effect is only a problem for the veracity of theories that purport to explain the origin or functioning of the human cognitive faculties as a whole (I call them ‘global 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, and all other global theories, is very much in question. The only global theories that are immune to the observer effect are those that do not rely on empirical verification (i.e. are a priori). Such theories are either philosophical or religious (and there is no consensus on either front).

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’

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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


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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.

The Objection From Public Influence

Many have argued that philosophical discourse is semantically determinate because philosophy has been influential in the public sphere (e.g., Marx, J. S. Mill, or Peter Singer’s views on animal rights). But is it philosophy that is influential, or the philosopher as rhetorician? After all, there are many equally influential public intellectuals who are not philosophers, and most philosophers have no influence at all in the public sphere. So the argument, from philosophers’ public influence to the semantic determinacy of philosophy as a discipline, is inconclusive. By analogy, the language of the legal profession is pretty much incomprehensible to the layperson, but many lawyers are influential public figures. Clearly, they have not gained influence by swaying public opinion with complex legal arguments. Rather, lawyers, like philosophers, are good at arguing generally. It is not so much access to a specialised body of knowledge that gives lawyers and philosophers impact in the public sphere. Rather, it is the logical, rhetorical, analytical and argumentative skills that they have picked up in the course of doing Law or Philosophy. By the way, one can learn useful skills doing something that is not inherently useful (or generally meaningful).

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 ‘Straw Man’ Argument

Some philosophers would claim that I am attacking a straw man. They might say that philosophy has an admixture of empirical testing, for example in the new sub-discipline of ‘experimental philosophy’. I would reply that such a claim is in danger of falling between two stools. If philosophy has an element of empirical investigation, should it not be judged by the standards of science? If (as most philosophers claim) philosophy is distinct from science, then by what standards is the former to be judged? Philosophers do sometimes refer to empirical findings from physics, psychology or sociology; but they either do straightforward science with the data, or (more often) merely use it to set the context for a philosophical ‘problem’ (e.g. various experiments in psychology are used to illustrate the mind-body problem). Some philosophers may argue that scientists are also engaged in theoretical reflection, so why not philosophers? Yes, but scientists (unlike philosophers) test their theories experimentally.

When doing philosophy rather than science, what philosophers do largely fails to show that they are not essentially engaged in a priori or ‘armchair’ theorising (by the way, ‘experimental philosophy’ is not philosophy, but psychology applied to issues in philosophy). The criteria philosophers rely on are basically those of logic, grammar, and a priori or ‘armchair’ intuitions ‘tested’ in thought-experiments. Unfortunately, these criteria are insufficient to underwrite the semantic meaningfulness of philosophical discourse. Most philosophers agree that logical and grammatical consistency alone does not entail semantic consistency. There are a host of problems with the epistemic status of a priori intuitions; particularly as filtered through multiple thought-experiments in the course of a philosophical discussion. There is simply too much arbitrariness in the configuration and interpretation of thought-experiments to allow for a straightforward analogy with ‘real world’ experiments.

It doesn’t matter much if a philosopher is also an expert in another discipline. There are many such philosophers (some with double doctorates, in philosophy and something else). Unfortunately, their colleagues outside philosophy generally don’t pay much attention to them anyway. Because even multi-disciplinary philosophers still insist on studying philosophical problems. For example, a philosopher who is also a clinical psychologist may be interested in the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness or in personal identity, but such issues are not relevant to clinical psychology (psychoanalysts might be more interested in such problems; but psychoanalysis is methodologically similar to philosophy, in being largely discursive). When a philosopher’s views are of interest to say, a physicist, it is usually because the former is doing physics and not philosophy.

Why is this the case? I don’t think it’s because disciplines outside philosophy are ‘missing out’ and need to re-orientate their focus on philosophical issues in their subject-domains. Unfortunately, when a philosopher claims there are ‘philosophical problems’ in a subject outside philosophy, it’s usually because he brought the dilemmas with him. By and large, the problems do not have their source in subject-matters outside philosophy; but are the result of the philosophical method itself (in particular, its purely discursive approach; which engenders the sort of misunderstandings that fuel philosophical scepticism). That is why such problems are largely irrelevant to disciplines outside philosophy which do not share the same method (but are relevant to disciplines that do; such as literary, social or political theory, psychoanalysis and speculative theology). Having said that, it is true that specialisation in any subject brings a certain myopia, which could be mitigated by cross-disciplinary fertilization. But based on its track-record, philosophy has less to contribute and much more to benefit from that cross-fertilization, if philosophers can drop their aversion to empirical investigation.

Some may object that based on what I’ve said, I’m just another philosopher with a philosophical theory of my own; inspired by the ‘ordinary language’ school, represented by the likes of Gilbert Ryle and (later) Wittgenstein. I plead guilty to taking a broadly ‘ordinary language’ approach, but I’m not sure if one could call it ‘philosophy’ without misrepresenting philosophy in its characteristic form. After all, the ‘Wittgensteinean’ scepticism I espouse is one of the least popular versions of Wittgenstein in academic philosophy. It is the Wittgenstein that Paul Horwich refers to when he writes “the real cause of Wittgenstein’s unpopularity within departments of philosophy [is] his thoroughgoing rejection of the subject as traditionally and currently practiced; his insistence that it can’t give us the kind of knowledge generally regarded as its raison d’être”. I don’t think Wittgenstein is generally unpopular in philosophy departments, but the Wittgenstein Horwich is talking about certainly is.

Am I advocating ‘ordinary’ language-use as the arbiter of correct language-use in every case? The claim begs a definition of ‘ordinary language’, and given the inherent vagueness of most expressions, any proposed definition is likely to succumb to ‘death by a thousand qualifications’. In the absence of a definitive account of ‘ordinary language’, the strongest case that can be made for the ordinary language approach is a negative one; that the innovations in language-use introduced by philosophy are generally not an improvement on the original (even if the original is flawed, as everyday language-use often is; and is usually improved by a more subtle and nuanced use of language in context, rather than philosophical theory-building).

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.