4. Some Inadequate Defences

In this section, I discuss some anti-sceptical defences of philosophy I have encountered.  The defences are individually and collectively unsatisfactory.  Each defence captures something important, and collectively they may justify pursuing philosophy.  However, they do not show that we can regard philosophy as producing the right sort of value—true answers to philosophical questions.  It is not necessary to go into much depth with these defences, because it can be shown rather quickly that they are not the right type of defence.

Recall that the agnostic about philosophical issues is considering pursuing philosophy with the goal of getting true answers to philosophical questions.  This outsider sees the degree of dissensus and thinks to herself, ‘At most one of these theories for any given issues is correct.  It’s possible that if I study philosophy, I will produce a new theory that competes with these others.  Each of these philosophers thinks her own theory is more likely to be true than her competitors’ theories.  I realize that if I study philosophy, I will come to think that way about whatever theories I come to accept as well.  However, from my standpoint now, I have to regard each of the competing theories as something like equally likely to be true, or perhaps likely to be true in proportion to how many good philosophers accept the theory. It’s possible none of them are true.  If so, then much more likely than not, I will end up accepting a false theory.  So, I should remain an outsider and an agnostic.’  The general problem with the defences listed below is that even if they give this outsider good reasons to study philosophy and to accept doctrines rather than be agnostic, these defences do not give the right kind of reason.  I.e., they do not giveproper epistemic defences of philosophy.  Some of the other defences fail because they rest on bad arguments, even if are attempts at proper epistemic defences.

A. The Argument Undermines Itself .  There is a facile defence: The Argument against Philosophy undermines itself.  The general position that philosophy is irrational fails to pass self-inspection. ‘Philosophy is irrational’ is a philosophical position.  If philosophy is irrational, so is the view that philosophy is irrational.  If philosophical argumentation never establishes any position, then the anti-philosophy position cannot be justified by philosophical argumentation.  The Argument against Philosophy refutes the Argument against Philosophy.  Even if this defence works, it is embarrassing if this is the best defence philosophy has.  Yet, it is not obvious that the defence succeeds.  It may just be that all philosophy is unreliable except anti-philosophy philosophy.

The outsider sceptic’s position is that philosophical methodology is unlikely to bring her to the truth about philosophical questions.  One might argue that the sceptic used philosophical reasoning to arrive at this conclusion, and so the sceptic cannot consistently be a sceptic. However, it may just be that a small set of philosophical issues is answered and that philosophical methodology works reliably on a small set of issues, i.e., just in the areas needed to make the sceptic’s argument.  For instance, perhaps the sceptic needs probability, an account of the notion of an epistemic peer, some notion of reliability, and not much else.

B. Disunity of Science.  One could argue that science is less unified than commonly thought.  Thomas Kuhn claims that the appearance of unity is largely a myth propagated by ahistorical science textbooks.[^5] It may also be that philosophy only appears to have more disagreement to us philosophers because we are most familiar with philosophy.  If we were better informed, we would realize that there is just as extensive disagreement in biology and physics over fundamental issues as there is in philosophy.  This approach may deflate science, making philosophy seem less inferior in comparison, but it does not show us that philosophy is truth-tracking.  Our truth-seeking outsider is not impressed.  Also, deflating science also improves the comparative position of astrology, phrenology, and creationism.

C. Lists of Accomplishments .  Another type of defence is that offered by Wilbur Urban, former president of the American Philosophical Association.  In 1925, Urban attempted to validate the rationality and progressiveness of philosophy by listing its recent accomplishments.[^6] Urban’s list looks strange.  Much of it is hard to understand, so it is unclear whether the claims of progress are worth much.  The clearer items are problematic.  For one, he claims that philosophy has made progress because there is no movement back toward Kant.  However, eighty years later, we see numerous defenders of forms of transcendental idealism, Kantian constructivism, and the like.  He also claims that philosophers have shown that value cannot be reduced to something else and that evolution cannot fully explain values.  However, eighty years of neo-naturalist metaethics and sociobiology shows that this claim is not obviously true.  Though I agree with Urban, I have many epistemic peers who disagree.  Third, he cites the growth of logic as a formal discipline.  This is one of philosophy’s major accomplishments, but it is not clear that this helps.  Formal logic may have less disagreement than other fields, but it is also the place where philosophy comes closest to being mathematics.

Any list will be contentious.  Probably, if I were to make a list of philosophy’s recent accomplishments, it would seem esoteric, strange, irrelevant, wrong, and/or silly to philosophers eighty years from now.

The outsider remains unimpressed.  She can look at such lists and ask, do we yet know what right action is, what justification is, what knowledge is, what justice is, and so on?  There remains extensive disagreement over these fundamental issues, and she remains worried that philosophy is unlikely to deliver her the truth.

D. Progress as Destruction. [^7]   Some philosophers defend philosophy by saying that our work at least shows what theories are false.  For instance, Gettier demolished the justified true belief analysis of knowledge.  Quine, Putnam, and others eradicated logical positivism. Gödel showed us thatPrincipia Mathematica did not axiomatise arithmetic.  If this is progress toward truth, it must be progress by elimination.

Refuting inadequate past theories clears the path for good answers, but does not thereby give us good answers.  (Even negative ‘progress’ tends to be reversed, as once dead doctrines, such as Ross' moral theory, are resurrected, albeit in better forms.[^8] )  Often, there are potentially infinite numbers of possible theories in any sub-field.  So, even if over the past 2500 years of philosophy, we have managed to show that a few thousand theories are inadequate, that does not show us we are any closer to the truth.  On the other hand, suppose there are a finite number of theories.  If so, permanently refuting a theory increases the probability one will accept the correct theory.  In this case, the agnostic might have reason to pursue philosophy, but only if enough theories had been or could refuted that she were more likely than not going to accept the true one.  But this is not the case.

Additionally, this defence does not explain philosophers’ actual behaviour.  Suppose philosophy is progressive because it can show, at least, which theories are false, and the point is to arrive at the truth though elimination.  This would justify constructing, debating, examining, and attacking theories, but notaccepting a theory.  It would not give the agnostic reason to believe anything.

E. Consensus Just Around the Corner.  One could concede that current dissensus shows that philosophical methods are ineffective, but then assert that philosophy could become effective in the future. Philosophers use the wrong methods.  We need to continue working until we discover the right methods.  Then agreement will follow.  Indeed, we could even take agreement as a sign that we have discovered the right methods.

The natural sciences began making progress when a change in methods was adopted.  Scientists dropped the Aristotelian paradigm; i.e., they began doing extensive ‘artificial’ experiments rather than just making observations.  Also, they accepted mathematics as a tool for modelling nature.  Could there be similar methodological revolutions for philosophy?

Philosophers have made this claim before and tried to introduce new methods. Hobbes argued that progress could be made and agreement would be possible if philosophers would just start with clearly stated, sensible definitions.  David Hume called theTreatise an attempt to introduce empirical methods into philosophy.  Kant’s Copernican Revolution meant to resolve the rationalist-empiricist debates by exposing an unnoticed, mistaken common assumption.  Thus, seeking consensus by finding the right methods has been tried and has not yet worked.  After twenty five hundred years, the claim that consensus is going to appear once we get the right methods is implausible.

We are more inclined to think disagreement is a permanent fixture.  In fact, it seems that widespread philosophical consensus is more likely to come from irrationality and intellectual corruption than from honest inquiry.  The very best philosophers throughout history have produced radically different doctrines.  (Part of what makes philosophers great is that they do an excellent job defending novel doctrines.)  Thus, it seems that we should not expect convergence as philosophers become more rational.  On the contrary, our best philosophers tend to diverge rather than converge.

F. Philosophy as Maieutic . Philosophy gives birth to new fields. Philosophers invented economics, political science, sociology, physics, biology, etc.  If we take a realist view of theories in these fields, then philosophy is indirectly truth-tracking, as it produces other fields that find the truth.

However, there are two worries with this sort of defence.  First, even if it is an epistemic defence of philosophy, it is not a proper epistemic defence.  We want philosophy to find answers to philosophical questions, such as whether God exists, what the nature of knowledge is, what is right and wrong, and so on.  There is a view that philosophy is the field of residual speculation, and perhaps over time philosophy will self-destruct as it gives birth to special sciences capable of answering its questions.  However, arguably, there is a common core of questions that cannot be made non-philosophical.  (This point is, of course, subject to contention.) Though, looking backward, we can see how some questions were mistakenly treated as philosophical, this does not give us good reason to think that all questions will one day be turned over to other fields.  So, insofar as we legitimately believe that there will always be philosophical questions, the maieutic defence of philosophy is not enough.

Worse, the birth rate appears to be dropping.  Philosophy is not founding new fields as often as it used to.  At least when viewed in isolation, the maieutic defence suggests that pretty soon we should stop practicing philosophy, because the expected utility (in terms of founding new fields) is too low.

G.Developing Critical Thinking Skills .  Another unsatisfactory defence of philosophy is the claim that it develops critical thinking skills and various intellectual virtues.  No doubt philosophy does foster such virtues, but the defence is still unsatisfactory because it is an aretaic rather than a proper epistemic defence.  That philosophy develops such skills is an excellent reason for undergraduates planning to work in other fields to major in it.   Still, the outsider sceptic is not impressed, as this defence not explain how applying philosophical skills to philosophical questions reliably generates true answers.  In addition, this aretaic defence is somewhat embarrassing, in that it does not do much to differentiate philosophy from playing logic games or Sudoku.