Friday: Strategies of Complete Avoidance

It’s Friday and I’m avoiding grading some essays.  So here’s some required reading for you. First, a great newish group blog with Nick from Accursed Share, Taylor from Fractal Ontology and Naught Thought called Speculative Heresy that has served only to distract me this morning, but in the best way possible:

Speculative Heresy: (in their own words)

A website devoted to the exploration and discussion of the speculative heresies surrounding non-philosophy, speculative realism and transcendental materialism. Along with original commentary on the issues of speculative realism, we also aim to provide a central place from which to keep track of the evolving English speculative realist community. This includes conferences, articles, books, programs, and CFPs, along with any other notable events. If you have a relevant event which you would like to be featured on this blog, or want to reach us for any other reason, feel free to email us at: speculativeheresy [at]

As I’m neither much of a transcdental materialist or a speculative realist, I’ve been reading the posts on Laruelle with some interest because I have this suspicion that his Non-Philosophy verges either on nonsense or brilliance, but my reaction is always the same: “like, ok dude, take another bong hit.”  Speaking of bong hits, Carl over at Dead Voles has an interesting post called “What’s Left of Philosophy?”  and Kelty’s linked post on Savage Minds is worth checking out as well, if only for the ongoing cabaret of disciplinary boundaries the comments following the post continually reinact. 

Anyways, there is much vitriol directed towards this nebulous “experimental philosophy”:

In my little dreamworld the best thing this blog can do is cross-connect some questions and conversations that otherwise would miss each other. In that spirit please take a moment to visit Savage Minds, an excellent anthropology blog, to check out Chris Kelty’s post on experimental philosophy, a newish development that has some philosophers “exploring the possibility of actually talking to people.”

Here’s how Chris Kelty at Savage minds describes Experimental Philosophy (Appiah wrote about this a while back in the NY Times):

Apparently, making broad claims about “what a person would naturally think” have finally become so insupportable that even philosophers have started exploring the possibility of actually talking to people. Experiments measuring “folk beliefs” about whether our world is deterministic or not, or whether free will can exist if the world is deterministic, are intended to settle claims that begin “most people believe that…” Settling such claims is necessary in the domain of moral philosophy, because a concept like responsibility is fundamentally tied to what people do in “everyday” circumstances. If it is not possible to start from some kind of claim about whether (to say nothing of why) people make ascriptions of praise and blame in the same way, then, arguments about free will and moral responsibility start to seem like the proverbial and much-maligned mass and extension of angels living on pins.

Here’s Carl again:

Philosophy used to include everything, and in its self-conception still does. In the history of knowledge-formation, however, over the last few hundred years philosophy has been getting whittled down by the spinning off of the sciences, history, law, economics, sociology, anthropology, politics, psychology and so on into separate disciplines. Each of those has some practical field of competence about real human relations in the world; indeed, it could be said (and was, by a defender of philosophy on that thread who may or may not have grasped the irony) that any time philosophy identifies a field of potentially-practical study about humans, it gets spun off into a different discipline. Cognitive science as the practical spinoff of epistemology is a recent example.

(I am being kind to philosophy here. In the last hundred years at least the sub-disciplining of the human studies has had very little at all to do with conceptual innovations in philosophy, and the reverse is increasingly true.)

Perhaps.  Carl concludes by asking:

What’s left for philosophy as such? Old unanswerable questions, abstractions, speculation, and no practical applications that can’t be better addressed by one or more of the successor disciplines. A playground for nerds, geeks, and bores.

For the record, I’m a geek.  Ahem.   Now as a philosopher shouldn’t Carl’s quips towards the end upset my tender feelings?  What’s the big deal? Why all the fuss over turf?  Isn’t experimental philosophy simply philosophers with clipboards?  Or maybe flip top notebooks, very “I’m a reporter.”  The hysterical and paranoid responses (er…defenses of “philosophy”) seem to revolve around clipboard use (only for sociologists and antropolgists and maybe at times, historians) so one can’t be a philosphor and carry a clipboard (or flip top notebook).  Oh, and don’t forget the t-word (truth).  All in all, who gives a fuck about which field holds the most “practical applications” or “disciplinary cash value?”  I obviously don’t care about pragmatism because I have a PHD in Philosophy.  Come on, really, isn’t philosophy just like gardening anyway?  There are no philosophical advisors to presidents, nor does anyone care about anything that happens at the APA or SPEP.  At its best, philosophy produces productive questions, right?

10 thoughts on “Friday: Strategies of Complete Avoidance

  1. You are wicked smart.

    I too turn out to be a geek. And just wait until I turn my withering self-irony onto History, which is even more like gardening (and generally self-deluded about that) than Philosophy.

  2. See, the major problem I have with experimental philosophy (as least as I’ve seen it presented so far) is summed up in this sentence: “Experiments measuring “folk beliefs” about whether our world is deterministic or not, or whether free will can exist if the world is deterministic, are intended to settle claims that begin “most people believe that…””

    Since when did philosophy become a matter of justifying what most people believe?? If it’s simply what most people believe, let’s leave it to common sense. These studies about the issues of responsibility seem idiotic, to be a bit polemic. Isn’t morality supposed to be about some rational or non-commonsensical (perhaps even unattainable) idea of responsibility and not a common idea of how responsibility functions? One of the experimental philosophy studies I’ve read about was about whether and when a corporation can be considered responsible. But who cares what the average person thinks about this question – that’s not morality, that’s just a historical product of our own particular society. To take that data as suggesting anything about the nature of morality is believe a public opinion poll suggests anything about the nature of politics.

    I think experiments and empirical data are great for philosophy, but I’ve been completely disappointed with what I’ve seen of experimental philosophy so far.

  3. Nick, I have the same reaction – Kant has a lot to say about these common sense approaches and every time I read either Prolegomena opening sections of Intros to the first critique, I’m surprised at how really sarcastic and abusive he is.

    [Later] Isn’t this really just polling and opinion collection rather than philosophy? I see the issue here, of course, for example, when we talk about cognition – whose cognition is it? but going about asking “folks” about cognition and what they think about it is hardly a better way…

  4. I just hope one day Carl and I can share a clipboard, how cool would that be? Hello starts with a clipboard…

    [By the way, Carl, wicked awesome use of New England vernacular…thumbs up]

    I also share some of the same sentiments as Mikhail and Nick, but experimental philosophy seems to have some potential, at least in theory, it would seem to offer some interesting methodologies to produce some more interesting results for philosophical reflection, but it borders on market research rather than philosophy. And really, I’m not sure about such “mass justification.” Still though, it’s not going to destroy philosophy as we know it, and if it did, who cares, really, we’d just call it something else!

  5. Just to add, after looking at one of the papers (here), it seems like its own practitioners only want to claim that “the evidence is best seen as ammunition that may be used to advance a
    philosophical position.” Which is a suitably modest goal, but it still runs into all the problems of answering why should common sense be considered a valid source of evidence? I can see certain fields where it might be valid, but in something like morality or the nature of free will, common sense is more likely to be misleading than anything else. So, again, who cares what common sense says about these things?

    I think most of my frustration comes from believing that experimental philosophy is a good idea, but has just been carried out rather poorly so far…

  6. Yes, those are good points. I guess my question to such practitioners would be what precisely they mean by “common sense,” of course in the pop sense of the phrase it is nothing more than the gathering together of a bunch of generally held opinions/beliefs that are pretty well established or minimally, founded on some seemingly solid ground and which at the same time likes to spend its time mixing it up with some error, bigotry and preconceptions, all to be brought together as the “voice” of the “people.” Or some such. I think the crotchety Scholastics thought common sense was somewhat yucky, or more technically, from the Latin, the vulgaris of the mob, vulgar, from volgus, vulgus mob, common people etc. I take common sense to mean something like “uncritical” when compared to philosophical modes of thinking. Then again, philosophy is born out of a rather common sense question, why this rather than that, why something rather than nothing etc. So common sense would certainly have some value because perhaps it makes use of similar categories to structure the world, say, form, being, non-being, identity, difference etc., the difference being one makes use of these concepts rather critically while common sense does not. This though is still rather unhelpful, as you point out, in the field of morality, again, more like market research. And in the end, right, who cares?

  7. I think I sort of semi-care, maybe? “Common sense” is certainly uncritical because it sorts of assumes its point of reference, right? We all agree that more money and free time is better – and since we all do think this way, there’s really no real way to question not simply this very opinion but the way it is formed, the way it is affirmed and promoted – out of the window go not just critical thinking, criticism, psychoanalysis (right? with its surface “I think I’m just not sure about myself” and depth “Your mother was a whore” stuff), and many other forms of humanities (history, art etc etc). I think it’s basically prescriptive vs. descriptive problem again – nothing wrong with “modest goals” but what are they goals of? curiosity? market research? although I brought up Kant above kind of pretentiously, but I do think that his approach is very sharp because it shows a kind of philosophical struggle with common sense philosophies (dogmatic or skeptical) – Kant’s perspective strikes me more and more as a sort of more radical than that of the assumed radicals like Derrida who is more Kantian in his “best” philosophical moments than he (or his disciples) are willing to admit – sorry, just wanted to plug in my own “see, I know things too” response here…

    In any case, when I first saw the phrase “experimental philosophy” I thought it was stuff like the things that young philologists in Moscow/Petersburg used to do in the 70s – there were these informal clubs where one of the activities was a kind of improvisational philosophizing: after a short talk a topic was selected, then everyone wrote some quick notes on the spot and presented their ideas with a follow-up discussion – mostly, of course, it was a kind of conversation stimulation, especially without any other means to access the contemporary thought in the prohibitive Soviet academia, but it does strike me as a kind of “philosophical experimentation” – not with “common sense” but with ideas…

  8. I think you’re right about Kant here. Take freedom, for instance. While it may be a letdown after slogging through all those pages of the Critique that Kant can’t seem to demonstrate freedom it does make sense that well, we should just go on and think of ourselves as free–this seems to be Kant in line with common sense, e.g. I choose to act, which makes a difference in how I’m actually going to act. Yet, if we take out our clipboards and start asking people about such things I just don’t think it’s so helpful–unless we’re I don’t know, psychological functionalists, determinists or something. Ultimately, Kant’s move to develop, maintain and distinguish between an empirical realism (somewhat commonsensical) and transcendental idealism does tend to sharpen things up I think. Or at least recast the way we might approach such questions, no?

  9. Freedom is a good example, and I think Kant’s approach is rather innovative in that willingness to let it all hang in suspense, so to speak – “Look, you can’t know whether you are free or not, because this is what knowledge is and this is how it is possible.” But what I find even more counter-commonsensical is his stuff about so-called “hard sciences” – I’ve tried to use Prolegomena in a class once and it wasn’t fun for students, but the first couple of parts where he talks about how math or natural science is possible are pretty out there. I mean to say something like – Math is precise not because it describes reality in a precise way, but because it comes from the same place as reality itself, concepts of understanding or that physics is describing reality, but not of the physical things, only of appearances as they appear to the same concepts of understanding – common sense then said – “Berkeley!” common sense today says – “Kant therefore must respect and agree” – but let me get off my favorite topic here with this: Kant is non-read today in a way because he is so clearly part of the canon, everyone’s looking for that new fresh edgy philosophy or non-philosophy but he’s full of things in Kant that, despite Kantian dogmatism, can still blow anyone out of the water.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s