The Limits of Philosophy: Its Disenchantment and A Case for Epistemic Humility, #1.

Mr Nemo
14 min readFeb 12, 2024

By Joseph Wayne Smith

(Philosophy Talk, 2016)

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Introduction

2. Example 1: Analytic Philosophy

3. Example 2: Materialism or Physicalism and Naturalism

4. Example 3: Skepticism and the Limits of Philosophy

5. Conclusion: Where To Now, Philosophy?

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The essay that follows will be published in five installments, one per section: this is the first installment.

But you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of the essay, including the REFERENCES, by scrolling down to the bottom of this post and clicking on the Download tab.

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The Limits of Philosophy: Its Disenchantment and A Case for Epistemic Humility

Conflict over the attention space is a fundamental fact about intellectuals. It follows that intellectuals produce multiple competing views of reality. And this disagreement will go on in the future, as long as intellectual networks exist. (Colins, 1998: p. 876)

This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy. (Wittgenstein, 1969: p. 61e).

There is simply no avoiding the conclusion that the human race is mad. There are scarcely any human beings who do not have some lunatic beliefs or other to which they attach great importance. People are mostly sane enough, of course, in the affairs of common life: the getting of food, shelter, and so on. But the moment they attempt any depth of generality of thought, they go mad almost infallibly. The vast majority, of course, adopt the local religious madness as naturally as they adopt the local dress. But the most powerful minds will, equally infallibly, fall into the worship of some intelligent and dangerous lunatic. (Stove, 1991: p. 184)

W.C. Fields once said that scientists have discovered that the universe is composed of three elements: oxygen, nitrogen and horse manure. Philosophers have not neglected this third element in their quest for a general description of the universe. (Sorensen, 1991: p. 184).

1. Introduction

My aim in this essay is to present a general philosophical argument for the position of epistemic humility, or to use in a modified sense a term that I’ve used in my environmental and ecological research on the limits to growth, philosophical limitationism (Smith & Positano, 2010; Catton & Dunlap, 1980).

In general, as Rae Langton puts it, “[t]here are inevitable constraints on what we can know, inevitable limits on what we can become acquainted with” (Langton, 1998: p. 2). Relatedly and relevantly, Richard Routley (later, Sylvan) said this about the notions of limits and limits to knowledge:

From the perspective of modernity, classical … thought … [was] preoccupied with the notion of limits,” limits to the size of cities and states, limits on wealth and poverty, limits to avoid both excess and insufficiency, and limits to knowledge; thus, for example, Aristotle’s view that a universal (science of) science is impossible. The classical preoccupation was “replaced by a modern preoccupation with freedom as a progressive liberation of man from all traditional and natural limits,” and a modern view of unrestricted progress, of unlimited opportunities for humans, and of unimpeded domination of nature. Impressive advances in science and technology encouraged the (erroneous) idea that limits could be removed, an idea reinforced by theoretical presumptions as to the solvability of every problem, and the availability of a method — “the” scientific method — by which everything could be known.

Recently these modern assumptions have been challenged, and subjected to serious criticism. Several limitations have become very conspicuous, especially a range of ecological constraints upon “progress,” but also theoretical limitations upon technological advance and upon problem resolution. A further limitation of theoretical importance is that upon knowledge and upon scientific method (Routley, 2010, 108).

Along similar lines, Stanley Rosen has also said:

Whereas it is impossible to know “everything” we do know the method by which anything whatsoever can be known. Such is the [rather, a] claim, implicit or explicit, which underlies the origin of modern and much of contemporary philosophy. (Rosen, 1974, 173).

All that, however, is neither unchallengeable nor unchallenged by other philosophers.

Robert Fogelin in his book, Walking the Tightrope of Reason, argues that philosophy has not yet given a satisfactory response to the skeptical challenge, of the justification of purported knowledge claims, and that “it is highly unlikely that an adequate response will ever be forthcoming” (Fogelin, 2003: pp. 13–14). Philosophical reasoning produces “Gestalt changes, globally different and incompatible ways of appreciating the same set of facts” (Fogelin, 2003: p. 64). Thus, referring to the example of legal reasoning, “two people can apprehend the same legal situation in radically different ways,” thereby producing “the unsettling feeling that legal decisions are wholly baseless” (Fogelin, 2003: p. 64). Likewise for philosophical propositions, he believes.

Some philosophers argue that there are no people (Stone, 2005); other philosophers debate the question of whether ordinary objects like ecosystems, economies, tables, or chairs exist (van Inwagen, 1981; Olson, 1995; Elder, 2000; Lowe, 2005). Why suppose that in addition to the elementary particles, fields, and entities of physics, that ordinary objects such as tables or the atmosphere exist? Isn’t such an assumption metaphysically extravagant, violating standards of simplicity (Cornman, 1974; Noren, 1975; Holman, 1979; Nelson, 1982)? And what about the fact, or seeming fact, that we — or the philosophers who ponder such matters — are ourselves or themselves ordinary objects, hence our or their own reasoning does not exist (Lowe, 2005; Heil, 2005; Korman, 2007)? What does this imply about their reasoning: does it undercut itself, like someone sawing off the branch of the tree in which they’re sitting (Malcolm, 1968; Jordon, 1969; Synder, 1972; Hasker, 1973; Baker, 1989; Cling, 1989; Reppert, 1991; Contessa, 2014)?

Correspondingly, Jeffrey Grupp has argued in support of the position of mereological nihilism, i.e., the view that there are “no items that have parts” (Grupp, 2006: p. 245). So the only items that exist are partless fundamental mental quantum particles. As he puts it:

Only partless fundamental particles exist (electrons, quarks etc.): they do not compose any composite objects, and thus empirical reality does not exist. (Grupp, 2006: p. 246)

Quantum objects are not able to constitute macroscopic objects “or any objects whatsoever” (Grupp, 2006: p. 246). Therefore, “material constitution is an illusion, and thus everyday ordinary empirical-material reality is some sort of dream” (Grupp, 2006: p. 246). A dream? A dream by whom? Presumably by a dreamer, a subjectively experiencing agent, unless dreams are ontologically free-wheeling entities. Since ordinary matter, having extension, and being located in space, does not exist, then consciousness (i.e., that which must dream), is “identical to, the quantum abstract atoms themselves” (Grupp, 2006, 381). That is all metaphysically breathtaking, but we can ask the quantum emperor with no clothes, if there are no things, like experimental apparatuses, an experimental set-up, how exactly do “we” (presumably being quantum atoms) know that quantum mechanics is “true,” rather than any other cosmic hypothesis, such as a world made of metaphysical fairies? Why accept any of these speculations?

According to W.V.O. Quine, the only things that exist are mathematical sets which do not even contain individual objects (Quine, 1981: pp. 17–18). Reflecting upon this, Hans-Johann Glock says:

Such extraordinary claims lend at least prima facie support to the idea that philosophy cannot contribute directly to the investigation of reality by other disciplines. Philosophers are good at arguing, analyzing, interpreting and preaching; but about reality they tend to know even less than ordinary mortals. (Glock, 2002: pp. 236–237)

This also shows that Analytic philosophy is not as Peter Unger proposes, “empty,” or “concretely insubstantial” (Unger, 2014), but on the contrary, at least as far of contemporary Analytic metaphysics goes, is more likely to be absurd than “empty.”

In their editors’ preface to the book, The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis?, Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal state that “the philosophical community today is marked by the absence of agreement about its own purpose and identity” (Cohen & Dascal, 1989: p. xi). However, this state of discord about the disagreement of the philosophers has been observed since the birth of philosophy. Thus, Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570–475 BC) wrote:

No man knows, or ever will know, the truth about the Gods and about everything I speak of. Even if he should chance to speak the complete truth, yet he himself knows it not. But all may have their opinion. (Rescher, 1985: p. 3)

Sextus Empiricus (2nd Century AD), a physician and skeptical philosopher, asserted in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism:

That nothing is self-evident is plain, they the skeptics say, from the controversy which exists amongst the natural philosophers regarding, I imagine, all things, both sensibles and intelligibles; which controversy admits of no settlement because we can neither employ a sensible nor an intelligible criterion, since whatever criterion we may adopt is controverted and therefore discredited. (Rescher, 1985: p. 3)

And in the 18th century, David Hume said this about philosophy:

Principles taken upon trust, consequences lamely deduced from them, want of coherence in the parts, and of evidence in the whole, these are everywhere to be met with in the systems of the most eminent philosophers, and seems to have drawn disgrace upon philosophy itself … [e]ven the rabble without doors may judge from the noise and clamour, which they hear, that all goes not well within. There is nothing which is not the subject of debate, and in which men of learning are not of contrary opinions. The most trivial question escapes not our controversy, and in the most momentous we are not able to give any certain decisions. (Hume, 1960: p. xvii-xviii)

Bertrand Russell, one of the great 20th century philosophers and mathematical logicians, observed that “philosophy, from the earliest times, has made greater claims, and achieved fewer results, than any other branch of learning” (Russell, 1972: p. 13). And even more recently, George N. Schlesinger said this about the problem of the absence of any substantial body of “knowledge” in philosophy:

It is easy to refer to facts which seem to provide grounds for these misgivings. In the context of virtually every topic, for instance, in which philosophers have taken an interest we shall find some thinker adopting a diametrically opposed position to the one occupied by another, while the majority of their fellows disagreeing with them both. One school of philosophy, for example, has declared particulars — as opposed to the eternal universals — to be transient and insubstantial, while another holds that universals, have no real existence at all, and it would require many pages to summarize all the intermediate views that have also been championed on this venerable issue. Nor does it as a rule require two thousand years for such proliferation of disparate attitudes on a given question to develop. On the question of inductive reasoning, to take a well-known case, one opinion holds that it can be justified, another it can be vindicated only, while according to a third opinion it can be neither justified nor vindicated. Then it should be mentioned that there are also those who proclaimed the whole issue to be a pseudo-problem, believing induction not to be in the need of any justification whatever. Then finally there are not a few who insist that the problem of induction is neither real nor pseudo; it simply does not exist, no sentient being ever employed any such thing. It was more than 21 centuries ago, at a time when relevant material was comparatively infinitesimal that Cicero declared “There is nothing so absurd, but some philosopher has said it.” One shudders to think what scorching words he would feel impelled to utter if he were alive today. (Schlesinger, 1988: p. 282)

Naturally enough, there has been considerable debate among philosophers about the problem of the alleged lack of progress of philosophy in the light of the problem of perennial philosophical disputes (Johnstone Jr, 1959; Passmore, 1961; Kekes, 1980; Fogelin, 1985; Ricoeur, 1985; Marcus, 1985; Nielsen, 1987; Urbaniec, 1988; Cahoone, 1995; Double, 1996; Ellis, 2001; Nichols et al., 2003; Elga, 2007; Christensen, 2007, 2009; Plant, 2012; Feltz & Cokely, 2013; Christensen & Lackey, 2013; Machuca ed., 2013; Rotondo, 2015; Loncar, 2016). For some thinkers, especially, so-called “postmodern” theorists, this problem and others shows the limits or even “the end” of conventional Western philosophy (Rorty, 1979, 1982; Young, 1984; Baynes et al., 1987; Churchill, 1989; Suber, 1993; Passmore, 1996; Shackel 2005; Cherry, ed., 2006). Aron Edidin calls this the “tragic view of philosophy”:

The Tragic View of Philosophy shares the natural view of philosophical claims as determinately true or false but sees little prospect of our ever discovering which are which. The big questions that philosophers explore have right answers, but we’ll never know which they are. We are, to torture a metaphor, fated to stumble blindly through dark tunnels, each in her own favored direction, and should one of us accidentally stumble upon the treasure that we seek, she’ll have no reason to believe that it’s not just another lump of clay. (Edidin, 1991: p. 50)

Edidin goes on to say that “pessimism about the likelihood of future philosophical consensus” is based on “persistence of philosophical disagreement in the face of the evidence discovered in the last twenty-five hundred years” (Edidin, 1991, 57). Gary Gutting, after undertaking a critical survey of a number of influential pieces of philosophizing by “big names,” i.e., leaders in the field, concludes that philosophers are not successful in their quest to rationally justify their views by way of argument, either deductive or non-deductive (Gutting, 1982: p. 327). Anglo-American philosophy is concerned with, as most contemporary professional academic practitioners would admit, the questioning of all assumptions, and is the discipline where everything stands open to critical examination and challenge (Schlagel, 2003: pp. 131–132). As J.J.C. Smart has pointed out:

One trouble with philosophy is that philosophers are willing to question everything, not only the premises of their arguments but the very canons of right reasoning and the methodology of argument. If this is not a recipe for circularity of argument and irresolvable dispute, what is? (Smart, 1993: p. 7)

According to Nicholas Rescher in The Strife of Systems, different philosophical systems represent differences in cognitive values: “differences in normative orientation toward the data afforded by our experience of the world” (Rescher, 1985: p. 120). He called his position, “Orientational Pluralism.” “Cognitive values” include consistency, simplicity/economy, explanatory adequacy comprehensiveness and so on. Consequently, for mutually incompatible philosophical theses T and ~T (i.e., not T) arguments can be given “substantial prima facie cogency” (Rescher, 1985: p. 122). What this means, is that the fact that a reasonable case can be made out for one philosophical question, does not mean that an “equally reasonable case” cannot be produced for another incompatible answer to the same question. Philosophers differ in the cognitive values they accept and these cognitive values are used to choose cognitive theories. Consequently “schools of thought” are inevitable, because

where alternative standards for appropriate problem resolutions are available, alternative resolutions must be expected. (Rescher, 1985: p. 123)

Furthermore, consensus cannot be obtained in philosophy, because philosophical problems “always admit of diverse solutions, and philosophical argumentation, being normative in nature, admits of different results” (Rescher, 1985: p. 125).

Elsewhere, I have argued that Rescher’s metaphilosophy results in a form of relativism, that is the doctrine that all alternative positions are equally “good,” “true,” or “justified” (Smith, 1985). While there is only one “correct” solution to a philosophical problem, from an orientational perspective there is no such thing as a “correct” answer to a philosophical problem. All that is possible is to establish optimal tenability against some pre-established probative-value orientation. The same applies to the concept of philosophical truth. I argued that Rescher’s position is self-referentially inconsistent, because there is an anti-Orientational Pluralism position ~OP, according to which Orientational Pluralism is “correct” within its own value framework, but which also implies that Orientational Pluralism is objectively false or incorrect. Rescher responded to this criticism in The Strife of Systems (Rescher, 1985: pp. 184–185). There he argued, after formalizing my argument, that “relativistic pluralism” only asserts the tenability of an opposing thesis A, not the (relativist) truth of A. The maintainability, not the acceptability of A is all that is claimed, so that all Orientational Pluralism “countenances as defensible positions that do not reciprocate” (Rescher, 1985: p. 185). Yet if this diluted claim is all that Orientational Pluralism proposes, then the position is not only uncontroversial, but also uninteresting. Since most philosophical claims are advanced by intelligent and competent academic professionals, the claims are almost certainly to be tenable, i.e., of prima facieplausibility. Orientational Pluralism seems to claim more.

Timm Triplett, in his essay “Rescher’s Metaphilosophy,” has written that for the relativist there are no rational grounds of choice between different perspectives and this seems to be exactly the situation Rescher’s orientational pluralism would leave us in: truth and rationality within a perspective, but no grounds for rational choice among perspectives. (Triplett, 1999: p. 222)

Triplett then goes on to say:

It seems to me then that Rescher has simply adopted a standard relativism with respect to cognitive values. He might well accept this assessment, but argue that this is a limited relativism because it applies only to adjudication among competing cognitive values, whereas pure relativists see every position as rationally indifferent with respect to every other. But this does not in fact make a difference between Rescher and the relativists in terms of the results achieved. Cognitive values are such fundamental features of a person’s or culture’s world view that it is difficult to see how Rescher could avoid the most implausible implications of relativism, according to which one has to concede that even the most seemingly intellectually outrageous or ethically monstrous beliefs are outrageous or monstrous only from certain perspectives. For Rescher offers no clear and useful criteria regarding cognitive values that would allow us to reject some sets of values. Thus, there are no grounds for rejecting that set of cognitive values which regards the literal statements of the Bible, or the words of a guru, as (to select from among Rescher’s “Sampler of Cognitive Values”) “significant, central, illuminating, weighty, fundamental, and urgent” and everything that is in disagreement as “insignificant, peripheral, unhelpful, trivial, surface and negligible.” “God is my measure of truth”, some say. And for others, it is the words of Jim Jones or the leader of the disastrous Heaven’s Gate Cult. (Triplett, 1999: p. 222)

The metaphysical image following from the Orientational Pluralism position is that of a Big Parade of philosophical systems and proposed solutions rolling on and on through time, undefeated and unrejected.

Another similar approach is offered by in Skeptical Essays by Benson Mates, who writes that philosophical problems are meaningful, but unsolvable, because cogent arguments can be presented on both sides of the debate, endlessly (Mates, 1981). But if this is so, then cogent arguments can also be advanced against Mates’s own position — as well as for it. This could leave us in a situation of indeterminacy about the acceptability of his metaphilosophy, and thus a prima facie reason for rejecting Mates’ position as well.

I argued in The Progress of Rationality of Philosophy as a Cognitive Enterprise (Smith,1988), that the history of philosophy is more accurately seen like a graveyard of systems of thinkers that have been destroyed by critical arguments. As a pastime, over the last few years, I have either read, or skimmed, hundreds of philosophical articles published since 1988, the year of publication of The Progress of Rationality of Philosophy as a Cognitive Enterprise. It is clear from examining this representative sample of philosophical literature that there is substantial agreement between philosophers, even champions of particular systems and “isms,” about outstanding problems confronting such systems and “isms,” such as the failure of logical positivism, for example (Marcus, 1985). Modern philosophy, because of its great critical power, has undermined almost all philosophical positions. The hyper-rationality of philosophy is like a universal solvent, dissolving every conceptual container that it encounters.

[In the next section,] I will now briefly discuss two examples of philosophy’s self-stultification: Anglo-American Analytic philosophy, and the programs of materialism or physicalism and naturalism. As a third example of philosophical limits, I’ll also consider metaphilosophical skepticism and rationality skepticism.

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Mr Nemo

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