From Professional Vocabularies and the Ethics of Terminology to Presentational Polymorphism: A Conversation about Otto Paans’s “The Pre-Structured Professional Philosopher.”

A conversation between Z, Otto Paans, Boethius, and L_E

(Originally published 19 February 2016, Re-edited February 2018)

Z: OP’s essay, “The Pre-Structured Professional Philosopher,” leads in many fascinating directions, and has correspondingly many important implications.

But before I get down to that, I want to quote, between the rows of asterisks directly below, a few pages of a highly APP-relevant, prescient, and characteristically beautifully-written, jargon-free essay by Susan Haack from the late 2000s, “The Meaning of Pragmatism: The Ethics of Terminology and the Language of Philosophy,” Teorema, 28 (2009): 9–29, at pp. 20–23.


Peirce observes that:

[i]t is good economy for philosophy to provide itself with a vocabulary so outlandish that loose thinkers shall not be tempted to borrow its words. … Kant’s adjectives “objective” and “subjective” proved not to be barbarous enough, by half, to retain their usefulness in philosophy… . The first rule of good taste in writing is to use words whose meanings will not be misunderstood; and if a reader does not know the meaning of the words, it is infinitely better that he should know he does not know it (2.223, 1903).

A little later, he describes the rules he has decided to follow: e.g., to use anglicized forms of scholastic philosophical terminology where appropriate; to invent technical terms for philosophical conceptions that differ subtly from those for which suitable terms already exist; to introduce new systems of expressions when new conceptual connections are discovered; and to consider himself no less bound than others are to use a symbol he has introduced in the sense he gave it (2.226, 1903). It would be a fascinating exercise to track Peirce’s own philosophical neologisms to see how well they conform with these precepts; but my present concern is, rather, to explore the relevance of these ideas to the language of philosophy today.


In the language of contemporary philosophy one can find both examples of the kind of enrichment and evolution of meaning that Peirce envisages, and examples of the kinds of impoverishment and devolution of meaning that I described above; but, sad to say, it’s much easier to come up with the latter than the former. Indeed, in some ways the language of philosophy now seems more like the language of politics, advertising, or public relations than the languages of the natural sciences. One has only to think of the fate of the word “pragmatism,” sketched in the first section of this paper; for by now this much-abused word has taken on so many different and incompatible connotations that its meaning seems to have dissipated almost beyond recovery. In fact, the analogy with public-relations talk is especially poignant here: for — no doubt because pragmatism is the only philosophical tradition native to the United States — the labels “pragmatist” and “pragmatism” seem to carry a certain cachet that makes them especially appealing to some would-be kidnappers (and also, doubtless, a suspicion of brash Americanism that may have made pragmatism especially objectionable to some critics).

“Objective” and “subjective” are in worse shape, probably, even than when Peirce complained about them. Popper’s seductive but misleading title, “Objective Knowledge,” seems to have succeeded in persuading many readers that he has — well, a theory of objective knowledge; when in fact his epistemology is really a kind of closet skepticism. “Objective knowledge,” in Popper’s sense, is never justified, may not be true, and need not be believed. (Of course, “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” is no less misleading, given that a key thesis of this book is that there is no logic of scientific discovery.) Words like “relativism” and “realism” have become so fragmented and confused in meaning that they are barely usable. Quine made “epistemology naturalized” seem enormously attractive in part by running together the modestly reformist idea that epistemology cannot be conducted wholly a priori with the more ambitious idea that psychology might explain the concept of evidence, or evolutionary biology resolve that part of the problem of induction that makes sense, and this in turn with the outright revolutionary idea that epistemological projects are simply misconceived, and should be abandoned in favor of the sciences of cognition. Then there’s Rorty, who not only runs together epistemological with meta-epistemological meanings of “foundationalism,” but compounds the confusion by describing his own conversationalist position — apparently for no better reason than that it repudiates “foundationalism” — as “coherentist”; and who seems to specialize in a kind of content-stripping, reducing such key epistemological terms as “inquiry” and “justification” to conversational Ersatzen.

And by now, even in its most straightforward epistemological use, “foundationalism” (which used to refer to theories of epistemic justification positing a distinction of basic versus derived beliefs and one-directional relations of support) is sometimes used in a way that is both broader and narrower, to apply to any and every theory which allows experiential input; and “coherentism” (which used to apply to theories according to which epistemic justification is a matter solely of the coherence of a person’s belief-set) is sometimes twisted in one direction, to accommodate any purely doxastic theory, whether or not it requires coherence, and sometimes twisted in the opposite direction, to accommodate any theory that allows mutual support, whether or not it is purely doxastic. And “reliabilism” (which once meant “theory which explains epistemic justification in terms of truth-ratios”) is now sometimes applied to any epistemological account that acknowledges any place for truth.

“Veritism,” which apparently refers to the bare claim that social practices of belief-formation should be judged by the truth-ratios they produce, looks like nothing so much as a snazzy brand label (and, perhaps, also a way of ducking the many serious difficulties into which reliabilism ran). And the phrase “social epistemology” has proven so seductive that some speak of “using social epistemology” to resolve this or that problem — as if there were a well-established body of theory to which the phrase referred; which, I’m afraid, there is not. In short, over just a few decades, the vocabulary of epistemology has become less and less discriminating, more and more inadequate to make essential distinctions. Specialists in other areas of philosophy will no doubt think of other examples.

In fact, sometimes it seems almost as if philosophers are deliberately doing exactly what Peirce urged them to avoid: instead of devising technical words outlandish enough to discourage “loose thinkers” from borrowing them, deliberately seeking attractive labels for their positions in hopes of drawing followers to their camp; instead of using “words whose meanings will not be misunderstood,” choosing terminology obscure enough to convey an aura of profundity; and, instead of acknowledging that, if readers don’t understand the technical terminology used, it is better they know they don’t, preferring to write in such a way that readers think they are following when they aren’t.

Why is this? After all, if we really wanted philosophy to advance, wouldn’t we do everything we could to rid ourselves of ambiguous, obscure, or misleading terminology — which really is an obstacle to progress in inquiry? Absolutely. “As fast as the students of any branch of philosophy educate themselves to a genuine scientific love of truth” (2.225, 1903), they have an incentive to devise a good terminology. But, painful as it is to admit, we all know that we don’t always want to figure something out as thoroughly as possible — at least, not as much as we want to publish something that will enable us to land a tenure-track job, or to get tenure or a raise or a promotion or a grant, or to become rich and famous. And, of course, if that’s what you want, then ambiguous or confusing or obscure terminology might well be advantageous, and “vocables which have … such sweetness or charms as might tempt loose thinkers to abuse them” might be exactly what best serves your purposes.

In our times, the problem is not so much “seminary philosophy” as what I will call (echoing Peirce’s “studying in a literary spirit”) “studying in an academic spirit.” Peirce writes that:

… thinking … may serve to amuse us…, and among dilettanti it is not rare to find those who have so perverted thought to the purposes of pleasure that it seems to vex them to think that the questions upon which they delight to exercise it may ever finally get settled (5.396, 1878).

In such circles, he continues, any positive resolution of a problem “is met with ill-concealed dislike.” “This,” he observes, “is the very debauchery of thought.” Indeed. But isn’t it almost exactly what goes on, much of the time, in philosophy journals today? (I say “almost” exactly, rather than “exactly,” only because today perverting thought to the purposes of profit is commoner, probably, than perverting thought to the purposes of pleasure.)

I speak of “studying in an academic spirit” in part, of course, because contemporary philosophical writing is seldom “literary” in the usual sense; on the contrary, much of it is abominably awkward, heavy-handed, self-important — or else timid and bland. In fact, given philosophers’ readiness to adopt the superficial trappings of the special sciences — the technical terminology, the peer-review system, the culture of grants-and-research projects, the names-dates-and-page numbers reference system, even the practice of using the date of the most recent rather than the original edition — the phrase “pseudo-scientific” might come to mind. But then, mimicking the mores of the natural sciences is much easier than resisting the perverse incentives of an academic ethos that positively discourages that “genuine scientific love of truth.” It’s a real shame.


Many of Haack’s ideas in this very cool paper were predelineated in her Evidence and Inquiry (1993, 2009), whose second-edition Forward can be found here.

Now back to OP’s essay, in the light of Haack’s Peirce-inspired ideas about “the ethics of terminology.”

I think it’s interesting to note that in the early years of the APA, a sub-committee was set up to normalize philosophical vocabulary and usage for professional philosophers. Of course, like the builders of the tower of Babel, the work of the committee was never completed.

But ironically, what North American philosophers couldn’t do in the early
20th century, they achieved in the 2nd half of the 20th century, by effectively imposing a very narrow, technical professional vocabulary via more subtle, implicit processes of graduate school socialization, journal refereeing and publication-standards, etc.

I remember, particularly, in the mid-to-late 1980s, when the term ‘supervenience’ suddenly became a necessary part of every “serious” graduate student’s philosophical vocabulary. But supervenience deals entirely in extrinsic modal relations, and almost invariably is construed as asymmetric because of its close associations with reductive or non-reductive physicalism.

So in that particular case, significant progress on (e.g.) the mind-body problem was seriously impeded by having to use the term ‘supervenience’ in all “serious” discussions of the mind-body problem, especially if you wanted to have your work published in the mainstream journals or at the major presses, thereby having to frame the metaphysics of mental and physical properties in terms that made it virtually impossible to conceive that the mental and the physical might have two-way or symmetric, non-extrinsic, mutually constitutive modal relations. This was particularly the case in discussions of emergence, which were, and still are, totally locked into a supervenience framework….

OP: I think Z is right when he says that especially in debates on philosophy of mind, free will and metaphysics, the introduction of technical terminology and technical terms has had a tremendous impact on the direction of the debates that followed.

More generally, I liked especially what he said about the introduction
of (technical) terms. That observation provides an interesting take on the
issues of language use and rigor: one could as it were write a history of newly introduced terms/buzzwords and trace their influence on subsequent debates. Examples are terms like (as Z mentioned) ‘supervenience, ‘emergent properties’ or ‘mental states/brain states coupling’. It seems to me that these terms and connections are implicitly accepted, and then continue to frame the subsequent debates. The interesting thing here is why some (technical) terms are so quickly accepted while others that might be just as valid don’t gain acceptance. I can understand that philosophers get enthusiastic when a new concept or notion allows them to think in new directions or to overcome prior conceptual limitations. However, it seems to me that just the usefulness of any concept can hardly be the sole justification for its acceptance. The danger of concepts and notions that quickly colonize the space for debate is simply that they can lead critical inquiry in a certain direction that might be entirely wrong.

Up to a point, all philosophy runs this risk — we might be wrong in many areas of inquiry. However, recognizing this risk should serve as a reminder to be cautious and critical. Instead of holding on to a certain technical vocabulary at the expense of other options, real philosophy should keep a genuine open mind when it comes to accepting new concepts or ideas. Precisely at this point, professional philosophy seems to do the most damage: it stifles promising debates in an early stage under the guise of “rigorous inquiry.”

L_E: Besides all the reasons outlined in the essay, I also think that one of the primary reasons behind the overuse of technical rigorous language in philosophy is that philosophers are somewhat envious of the prestige that scientists have in society. It is simply taken for granted that the more we mirror the practices of scientists, the more intellectually sophisticated philosophy will be. But this is obviously mistaken, for, as OP points out, this is something that is merely assumed and not argued for. (Susan Haack raises a similar point here,

APP is Not Alone 4: “The Fragmentation of Philosophy, The Road to Reintegration” (AC.EDU Re-Post)

in relation to specialization: we simply assume that if specialization was good for the sciences, then this will also be the case in philosophy).

In sum, my point is that perhaps the problems that OP raises in connection to the relation between philosophy and technical language owe a great deal to more wide cultural values characteristic of our society, such as the idea that if something is scientific, or scientific-like, then it’s worth pursuing and/or funding.

Now, a more metaphysically/epistemologically inclined question is whether OP thinks that our everyday language doesn’t have some ideological function as well (e.g., some feminist groups believe this to be effectively the case). If so, then how can we escape the problems that he raises? A related and somewhat constructive/positive question is what kind of language, if any, is the best to philosophize?

I’m inclined to think that philosophy should be pluralist in this respect, but this raises interesting metaphysical and epistemological issues, such as how we can speak to each other in this pluralistic universe. In other words, plurality of language is desired, but this should come alongside an attempt to understand each other. In this respect, I think that technical languages are somewhat helpful: they enhance communication to a certain extent, but how to reconcile this slight positive aspect with all the bad effects raised in the paper is something that I find really puzzling.

OP: Lots of considerations and interesting points you made here. I suppose that there is a relationship between the belief in a malleable society (predominant in both the US and Europe in the decades following the Second World War) and our attitudes towards science. This belief led into the attitude of trusting science and engineering to solve a variety of problems — even if the problem had not to do with science or engineering at all. Maybe this attitude is nowadays reflected in the desire to adopt methods in philosophy that look scientific. The scientific method has as it were become synonymous with success.

Furthermore, I suppose language has some ideological components to it. However, I prefer to be careful with this thought. My worry is always about how much explanation this thought has to do in any theory of language. Personally, I think some feminist groups have pushed this idea beyond all reasonable boundaries. If you really wish to, it is possible to see ideology in every expression. That does not automatically mean that it is there — I think it is possible to project one’s own presuppositions on every statement.

Naturally, as you say, this introduces the thorny problem of which language/medium is suited best for philosophy. If we consider a medium that does not use words for expression (for example music or painting), we see that it can be used to convey a variety of messages and emotions. As such, it is a language of its own. The interesting thing is that it also tends to develop vocabularies — whether that is due to the organization of artistic disciplines or whether it is innate in the structure of language of itself. In that respect, I think every language itself is already pluralistic. I would say that the question is on how to use the language in order to philosophize. Being overly technical, poetic or casual is not always helpful, and worse, it is no guarantee for being right.

That being said, I would like to defend the virtue of clarity here. Being clear about what is a fact, what is an opinion, and what one infers, ideally allows the reader to trace back all the steps of the argument. As such, he can reconstruct the argument himself, and decide on what points he does or does not agree. This procedure allows him to form his own opinion, without having to take the argument “on faith.” I am rather skeptical about the possibility to overcome the limitations of language completely. There might be no ideal language for philosophy, but I think that does not undermine the search for it.

Boethius: I’m also in broad agreement with OP’s worries expressed there: Our specialized vocabulary and styles can be limiting both to innovation and to what winds up in print. That really needs to be kept in mind more. I also agree that a style/vocabulary combination can get confused to be both necessary and sufficient for being real philosophy (and science, apparently!), when it seems it’s neither.

I guess I have two further observations.

First, we probably should grant that excessive precision can have diminishing returns, and may in fact undermine the range of further inquiry. But I wish I could say what the limits are. We might find long after the fact that a batch of papers on some topic went overboard with precision — the dispute didn’t go anywhere or was counterproductive. But how do you tell, when confronted with a case of hyper-precision, that it’s too much? Being aware that it could be too much is good, and you can see that it’s too much if you’re aware of some larger philosophical issue that’s getting lost or ignored, but I wonder whether there are any general principles on precision. Ugh, I’m asking for us to get precise on precision.

Second, while I very much want to be charitable to philosophy delivered in a different style and vocabulary than which I’m comfortable, I wish I could know where being charitable runs out and calling something “bullshit” begins. Take the examples in the Dawkins article OP cites. When I see stuff like that, I wonder whether they’re just making shit up (which is one kind of Frankfurtian reckless-disregard-for-the-truth-type bullshit) or whether they’re genuinely thinking they have something insightful to offer, but have deluded themselves (which would be a somewhat different kind of bullshit, maybe quite unintentional). Either way, the emperor seems to have no clothes, as Dawkins puts it (and Timothy Williamson in an interview I saw a long while ago).

But now a worry I’ve had for a long time: For some cases, I can’t tell. And in order to tell, you would have to get conversant on the vocabulary, the style, and the background, and then make some kind of reasoned judgment as to whether what you have is (a) philosophy to take seriously, (b) bad/sloppy philosophy that’s unproductive to bother with, or © bullshit. (I guess if you’re new to that subfield (or maybe not!), there’s the possibility of (d) something written by a computer program.)

Given what OP points out, we can at least say this: Something isn’t automatically not in category (a) if it doesn’t use the “right” vocabulary or it isn’t written in the “right” style. We really need to accept this. Still, as for the first observation, I wonder what the general principles are here. I don’t know where to start, but they would be useful to explore by way of considering some kind of reconciliation amongst all the different factions in contemporary philosophy. Note that such reconciliation might well involve some general agreement that some of what’s counted as philosophy is bullshit.

Z: Like you, Boethius, I so totally wish I could say more precisely what the limits of adequate precision are, and what the line between real philosophy in non-standard or unorthodox formats/media vs. bullshit is.

In one of my posts a month or two ago, I try to distinguish between (1) minimal rigor (= attentiveness to reasons and the need for justification, minimal logical consequence and consistency, minimal clarity and distinctness, etc.) and (2) fetishized rigor (= needless, non-illuminating, hyper-specialized, “insider-wink-wink,” obfuscating formalization).

Suppose that’s a defensible distinction. Then, at least, one could throw out anything that fell below the minimal standard as one kind of bullshit (incoherent bullshit–number 1 bullshit), and anything that went over into fetishized rigor, as another kind of bullshit (abstruse or recondite or scholastic bullshit–number 2 bullshit). And then of course there would be degrees, and mixed texts: e.g., some real philosophy plus some number-1 bullshit, like, say, Deleuze’s work.

I must frankly say, moreover, that Williamson should check to see whether he’s fully dressed too. I concede that Williamson is a very, very smart guy. But he fetishizes rigor in almost everything he writes, hence his work has a needlessly high level of number 2 bullshit. Olivia Newton John memorably said “let’s get physical.” Williamson in effect says: “let’s get technical,” and the tone of his writing is, well, pretty intellectually arrogant and logical-puritanical.

Also, I think there’s one other kind of bullshit, number-3 bullshit, that I’ll dub “dogmatic bullshit,” which simply repeats some ideological commitment, without any attempt at justification, as if it were God’s (or Science’s, or the State-in-Itself’s) own truth.

Scientism is a perfect example of that–hence much of Dawkins’s stuff, Dennett’s stuff, and Sam Harris’s stuff is pure number-3 bullshit.

Another criterion might be whether the philosophical work in question could be charitably reconstructed in minimally rigorous format–the sort of thing we do (or in my case, used to do) for our students all the time, you know, 10 basic points in simple non-technical language–even if that “boring” reconstruction sliced out all the amazing presentational material that conveys essentially non-conceptual insights.

But to recover the essentially non-conceptual insights somewhat, one could use parallels with different kinds of works–poetry, music, film, paintings, religious texts, etc, etc–to try to evoke similar insights.

And as an overall criterion of whether the text/work in question is, on the whole, real philosophy or bullshit, I think one would have to ask whether it significantly advances, or interestingly reaffirms, or anyhow non-trivially supports, our basic insights into, or understanding of, the human condition, and ourselves, and our surrounding natural and/or sociocultural/political world(s), in some way(s), and if so, then precisely which way(s). If not, then it’s (mostly or essentially) one or another of the basic kinds of bullshit.

Boethius: The Williamson interview I mentioned is here–

In watching it again just now, Williamson might add that a good indicator of category-1 bullshit is a hostility to considering objections. Your “attentiveness to reasons and justification” etc. would include considering objections, and if one insists on ignoring or dismissing them, that’s to insist the emperor has clothes. In the interview, Williamson might be putting a more positive slant on the demeanor of analytic philosophers than is the reality, and perhaps a more negative slant on the demeanor of non-analytic ones than is the reality, but we could still say this: In general, going out of your way to avoid considering objections is a sign of bullshit.

For a criterion like this, I wonder how it would get satisfied in nonstandard formats. In a dialogue form, that’s easy. In works not employing prose, that’s tough — so tough, in fact, that it’s easy to see why we arrived at the standard practice of writing papers. Example: Is Arthur Lipsett’s 21–87 a piece of philosophy?

I had to watch the thing five times to get what seemed to be the point. I might be able to put together a rational reconstruction of what’s going on. I’m not sure it would be an argument though — for it seems to be, and is discussed as, a commentary or some “musing” on humanity’s relationship with technology. I also have no idea how to reconstruct (find!) any objections being considered. It seems to fail some criteria we’ve been discussing. But the film might get called philosophy in some circles. Is it philosophy, non-philosophy, or philosophy of some other kind? And if it’s philosophy of some other kind, where “musing” can count as philosophy, does it get a pass on the bullshit-criterion about being attentive to objections?

Maybe we could try a view where there’s more to the philosophical product than the paper, poem, novel, film, or other artwork. Suppose we could interview Lipsett, we raise objections to whether his picture of humanity is accurate, and he dodges the objections. We can infer “bullshit.” But instead, he could reply carefully and charitably to our concerns, offer reasoned replies, etc., and that would seem to move the piece toward philosophy. So there’s an ontology of philosophy to consider if we’re going to expand what counts as a product of philosophy. I wonder how far that might go.

Z: On the issue of the ontology of works of philosophy, I think that some part of that is addressed by

What is a Work of Philosophy?

On the issue of the criteria for telling whether polymorphic works are real/good philosophy, or not, as I mentioned above, I was thinking that a necessary condition would be that its argument-content can be summarized in “boring” clear and distinct 10-basic-point prose, which would put it above the line of number-1 bullshit.

But as I was also saying, that can’t be sufficient for works whose content isn’t wholly conceptual, and on the contrary whose content is instead at least partially (or even mostly) essentially non-conceptual, and whose form/style conveys some deep non-conceptual insights that simply can’t be summarized as an argument in a “boring” way.

But what would count as a criterion for deciding whether any work of philosophy or conveyed some deep insights in these ways, or was just bullshit?

In order to make any headway here, I think we’d also have to add a few more bullshit categories, e.g., pretentious bullshit (number-4 bullshit), maudlin bullshit (number-5 bullshit), and cheesy/corny bullshit (number-6 bullshit).

Beyond that, the only thing I’ve been able to come up with is comparing the polymorphic work, in those dimensions that are essentially non-conceptual, with essentially non-conceptual aspects of authentically great works of art–poetry, music, painting, film, etc., etc., and seeing whether the work somehow conveyed a similar aesthetic impact, or evoked similar feelings, and also avoided numbers 4, 5, and 6 bullshit, or not.

For example, when I was totally into Plato and also studying Greek tragedy, as an undergraduate, I remember being blown away by the similarity of aesthetic impact on me of certain passages in Plato’s dialogues and of certain passages in Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides….

Ditto for certain passages in Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche on the one hand, and certain passages in Dostoevsky and Kafka on the other.

Ditto for certain passages in the Tractatus on the one hand, and on the other certain passages in Rilke and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky again, and Mondrian’s color-grid paintings from the 20s, e.g.,

And so-on.

L_E: I’d only add that one of the primary uses use of technical language is to enhance communication, and as such, it should be evaluated to the extent that it helps philosophers communicating their ideas to each other. So, like Z, I think that the best way to evaluate such cases is to look at the function of technical languages in a certain debate. If they make things more obscure than clear, then this is a sign that something is wrong.

Of course this is all fallible, but I think that the best way deal with these difficulties is to have sensible (but fallible) criteria than some clear-cut way to separate things.

OP: I like the “taxonomy of bullshit” approach in order to get precise on precision. Like Boethius, the true worry for me is how we can decide whether a work is innovative or not. Given my skepticism towards the “optimistic theory of knowledge,” there is no guarantee we would recognize the truth if we found it. As many contributions elsewhere on this blog show, sticking to fetishized rigor will not automatically guide one to the truth (or even understanding) either. The example of Deleuze as a mixture of real philosophy with number-I bullshit is particularly helpful here. I must admit that I have a soft spot for many of Deleuze’s ideas, but dislike his writing style (I think that it didn’t get any better when he started collaborating with Felix Guattari either). In Deleuze’s work it is quite hard to see what is innovative and what can be safely classified as bullshit. As a consequence, it is hard to see where he really struggles to get new ideas across that push the possibilities of expression in normal language. The standard postmodernist defense (‘See, this proves just that all language is opaque and open to interpretation, because you are projecting your own prejudices into the text etc.’) seems tiresome to me. If we know that texts are open to interpretation, can we just start doing with some real philosophy, keeping in mind that we are less than perfect?

To complicate things further, what counts for one philosopher as a critique is for another philosopher just beside the point. Schopenhauer’s critique of Hegel’s writing style might for some Hegelians be just missing the point: yes, Hegel wrote dense, difficult texts, but the real thinking that was going on should be criticized, not just the writing style or Hegel’s lack of expository talent. Those that lean towards Schopenhauer’s attitude might hold that if philosophical ideas are expressed in an incomprehensible manner, they were probably not well developed to start with.

There might be a further distinction to be made here: between incomprehensibility and incoherence — as Z already hinted at with his taxonomy of bullshit. For example, I am not particularly good at formal logic, and many texts that heavily rely on detailed logical analysis remain largely incomprehensible to me — however, that does not mean they are incoherent. It is simply my own limitation that prevents me from fully grasping their argumentative structure. Incoherence on the other hand has little to do with the abilities of the reader. I could study more formal logic to understand it more in-depth, and the texts that formerly seemed impenetrable can suddenly be understood. I think incoherent texts do not allow for such strategy –they cannot be made coherent by more detailed study.

Z: One final thing that occurs to me is this “moral” to OP’s story:

I think contemporary philosophers should be trying very hard to formulate philosophy in all different kinds of written genres and styles, and in different media, in order to avoid getting locked into professional vocabularies that covertly include false unargued presuppositions about their subject matter, covertly lock them inside excessively narrow conceptual boxes, or covertly fixate them on bad philosophical pictures.

This is what I call “the thesis of presentational polymorphism in works of philosophy,” as worked out in the post I mentioned above, i.e.,

What is a Work of Philosophy?

With this thought in mind, I just read the latest issue of the new Journal of the American Philosophical Association, whose official remit is to be cool, open-minded, unorthodox, etc., etc., and was initially surprised and pleased to see a paper called “What’s It Like to be a BIV? A Dialogue,” by Michael Veber.

As advertised, it’s a dialogue, amusingly written in slacker-dude style, and it does make the interesting point that the debate about BIV skepticism can be methodologically mirror-imaged in a world in which everyone is convinced they’re brains-in-vats, and the new “skeptic” is trying to raise the worry that they might be “brains in skulls.” So that says something about the whole enterprise of philosophical skepticism vs. replies to skepticism.

On the whole, it’s a very good article in comparison with much or most of what’s currently being published in the leading professional journals.

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that for all its philosophical virtues and stylistic unorthodoxy, nevertheless, right from the get-go, the author’s highly uncritical usage of the all-too-familiar technical term “brains in vats” (BIVs) and its mirror-coinage “brains in skulls” (BISs) had absolutely locked the whole discussion into a binary Cartesian/physicalist picture of the mind: Cartesian dualism vs. Cartesian materialism, and no awareness whatsoever of serious metaphysical or epistemic alternatives.

In fact, if minds like ours are essentially embodied, then both BIVs and BISs are strongly metaphysically impossible, and any sort of “BIV skepticism” or “BIS skepticism” is premised on a strongly metaphysically impossible presupposition, and never gets off the ground.

It would be like trying to get us worried about the “skeptical” possibility that we were hatched out of eggs (after all, no one can actually remember that far back in their own lives), and therefore we might all really be birds, or platypuses, or whatever.

My general point is just that actually meeting the demands of the thesis of presentational polymorphism in works of philosophy, so that we break out of the mind-prisons of professional vocabularies, is not a trivial task, and much, much more than merely using a non-standard format (e.g., dialogue) and a non-standard style (e.g., slacker-dude talk).…

OP: I share Z’s worries here. There is no escape from any mind-prison if the basic coordinates and premises of philosophical discussions remain intact, while just the style of presentation changes. On the other hand, I am quite pleased to see that people start experimenting with different formats. (Also, good to see that the dialogue as philosophical presentation is coming back — Hume had already tremendous fun with dialogues — there is no reason why we shouldn’t).

There might be a parallel with arts practice here: an artist might spend considerable time experimenting with different media and setups of his artistic project. Some of his experiments serve to explore the possibilities an artistic medium offers, while others serve to test the best way to present a work to the public. In many cases, experiments, expected outcomes and setups co-evolve.

Artists in general distinguish between a finished work and the experiments that lead up to it. In more experimental settings, the artistic process and final product are presented side-by-side. Such a presentation is polymorphic in nature — it allows the viewer to appreciate and explore the artwork from different angles and perspectives.

In philosophy, the line between (thought) experiment and final theory seems even more blurred. Maybe we could even say that there is no such thing as a finished theory in philosophy… I suppose my point is that experimentation is best presented as a method for improved understanding. It is a practice that is geared towards a further goal. I am all in favor of philosophizing in different media — whether visual, audiovisual, sculptural or textual, as long as these approaches genuinely broaden our horizon, instead of repeating an old discussion in a new format.

That being said, it would be nice to see whether presenting the same discussion in two different formats would be understood structurally different. Bernard Williams tested this approach already in his paper “The Self and the Future” (1972). Williams did not use different media, but presented his core argument in two different ways. His objection to philosophizing with the aid of thought experiments was that the style of presentation could easily influence the intuitions of the reader, thus allowing the author to ‘coach’ his readers in a certain direction. Merely changing the format of the presentation will not be enough to escape from the coordinates already set by professional philosophy. On the other hand, thinking a new, polymorphic yet coherent set of approaches for doing real philosophy cannot be expected to be easy, since one has to think outside an existing hegemony of ideas.



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 26 February 2018

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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