The Limits of Philosophy: Its Disenchantment and A Case for Epistemic Humility, #2.

Mr Nemo
5 min readFeb 19, 2024

By Joseph Wayne Smith

(Philosophy Talk, 2016)



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?


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

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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).

2. Example 1: Analytic Philosophy

As Nicholas Rescher has argued, somewhat at variance with his own Orientational Pluralism by virtue of his making a seemingly objectivist claim, Analytic philosophy itself has now collapsed “unraveling from within” (Rescher, 2001: p. 114). Analytic philosophy held that understanding the nature of the world was to be achieved through understanding the nature of thought and the nature of thought was revealed by analysis of its expression in language (Dummett, 1993: p. 154). Colin McGinn says that Analytic philosophy

is premised on the assumption that the nature of certain objective facts is coded into the concepts we bring to those facts, so that philosophical truth is to be ascertained quite differently from other kinds of truth — as it were, by gazing into the conceptual mirror in which reality is reflected. This is actually… a very surprising and radical idea… for why should certain parts of reality, and not others, be thus coded? (McGinn, 1993: pp. 24–25)

This is a very good challenge indeed to Analytic philosophy as defined here: can it be shown by an analysis of language that the nature of the world is reflected in language? Influential works argue that this challenge cannot be met (Rorty, 1979). Even if this fundamental problem could be resolved, there are many other problems confronting Analytic philosophy (Wang, 1986). In particular, the methodology of Analytic philosophy and conceptual analysis often makes use of “intuitions,” beliefs about the correct use of language (Jackson, 1998), but the reliance on intuitions to supply counter-examples, has itself been subjected to a sustained critique (DePaul & Ramsey, eds, 1998; Weinberg, 2001; Cappelen, 2012; Musgrave, 2014; Deutsch, 2015). A concise argument illustrating the problems facing the philosophical use of intuitions to supply counter-examples — which I’ll discuss further later in this essay — has been given by Richard Miller:

Modern Analytical philosophers often deny that they rely exclusively on intuitions, but in fact the vast majority of objections to proposed analyses do take the form of complaints that our intuitions show that the analysis fails to match the existing concept. The conflict among sophisticated practitioners of conceptual analysis thus often comes down to disputes over which intuitions are to be disregarded and which are to be given centrality. But what are the criteria by which we measure centrality and importance? About this crucial point there is no consensus. Needless to say, many philosophers are distressed by the whole situation. Hilary Putnam, like many others, has written disparagingly of the current state of philosophical intuitions: “Of course, if our intuitions are ways of thinking that have real weight in our lives whether that weight be practical or spiritual, then I can see why we should regard them as important. But the intuitions [of contemporary philosophers] seem to me very far from having either practical or spiritual significance (Putnam, 1992, 139).” (Miller, 2000, 233)

Along similar lines, the method of counter-examples faces an analogous problem, as George Schlesinger points out:

No philosophical thesis can be expected to be confirmed or disconfirmed by any conceivable experiment. The method of counterexamples is of course widely practiced in philosophical polemics but with radically less firm results than in mathematics. Essentially, it is infected by the infirmities so characteristic to all philosophical discourse. Because of the amorphousness that permeates the whole discipline, one of the difficulties is that there is almost always room for disagreement as to whether a purported counterexample is a genuine instance of the subject matter under discussion. Suppose, for example, someone concluding as a result of an argument he constructed, that in general condition C is a sufficient and necessary condition for a person to know that p. Further, suppose, that his opponent produces a counterexample illustrating a situation where I seem to know that p, even though condition C has not been fulfilled. This in most cases will not have to be the end of the story, since the advocate of the original thesis has the option to maintain that in the situation depicted by his adversary, I cannot in fact be said to possess a genuine knowledge that p. Decisive results cannot be produced with the method of counterexamples simply because the question of what constitutes an instance of knowledge, or for that matter an instance of freely willed act, or of a correct value judgment, and so on, is itself disputable. (Schlesinger, 1988, 284)

Therefore, the problem described by the critics of Analytic philosophy is that its fundamental methodologies fail to be supported by the machinery within the paradigm, so that Analytic philosophy fails in its own terms. Of course, that is but one criticism that can be made among many, as Robert Hanna has exhaustively worked out, but as I see it, it is alone sufficient to question the Analytic philosophy research program (Hanna, 2021, 2022).




Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 19 February 2024

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Mr Nemo

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