The Limits of Philosophy: Its Disenchantment and A Case for Epistemic Humility, #5.

Mr Nemo
25 min readMar 11, 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 has been published in five installments, one per section; this is the fifth and final 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).

5. Conclusion: Where To Now, Philosophy?

The argument I’ve presented above would seem to indicate that philosophy cannot be a guide to the truth, or even approximate truth, about reality, for many reasons, not forgetting the issue of even getting to first base and deciding what counts as “truth,” namely, the problem of the criterion. We have seen how major philosophical research programs, such as physicalism, and analytic philosophy itself have ultimately failed, just as programs before them, such as logical positivism, came aground and were intellectually ship wrecked. Does this mean that philosophy is therefore bankrupt, in all its forms, and should therefore be abandoned? Or given this failure, should the intellectual bar be lowered instead? The short answer is no, because the very act of proposing the bankruptcy of philosophy, is itself a philosophical thesis, and puts one back upon the “wheel” of philosophy (Smith, 1988).

Instead of embracing skepticism, we should boldly proclaim that the traditional quest to defeat skepticism, and thereby put human knowledge on a secure footing, as traditionally conceived, as Descartes hoped, should be discarded. Nor for that matter can justification be divorced from a cultural context; it is not unreasonable to accept as defeasible most widely-held common sense beliefs, such as the existence of the external world, and consciousness, unless shown with compelling evidence and argument to be delusional. We have to start somewhere, so why not start with what is at hand, and then sort that out further if necessary?

Moreover, Clifford’s principle, that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” or argument (Clifford, 1879; Fogelin, 1994, 114–115), should be rejected, since a strict application of this hyper-rationalism leads to justification skepticism. As Marcus Arvan pointed out in “Has Contemporary Philosophy Over-Fetishized Rigor?,” the giants of past philosophy, like Kant, were not concerned with rigor for rigor’s sake, but instead were concerned with formulating a new “big picture,” and thereby charting a worldview that presents a revolutionary vision of existing problems (Arvan, 2012). The same point can be made about all the past greats of Western philosophy, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Rousseau, Hegel, and so on. It is highly unlikely that their work would be accepted for publication if it had been done in the context of contemporary professional academic philosophy, and sent to any Anglo-American Analytic philosophy journal, or peer reviewed by mainstream academic publishers. Arvan quotes a passage from Simon Blackburn’s review of Davidson’s Truth and Predication:

Philosophers think of themselves as the guardians of reason, intent beyond other men upon care and accuracy, on following the argument wherever it leads, spotting flaws, rejecting fallacies, insisting on standards. This is how we justify ourselves as educators, and as respectable voices within the academy, or even in public life. But there is a yawning chasm between self-image and practice, and in fact it is a great mistake to think that philosophers ever gain their followings by means of compelling arguments. The truth is the reverse, that when the historical moment is right people fall in love with the conclusions, and any blemish in the argument is quickly forgiven: the most outright fallacy becomes beatified as a bold and imaginative train of thought, obscurity actually befits a deep original exploration of dim and unfamiliar interconnexions, arguments that nobody can follow at all become a brilliant roller-coaster ride towards a shift in the vocabulary, a reformulation of the problem space. Follow the star, and the raw edges will easily be tidied up later. (Arvan, 2012)

Arvan then concludes that the over-emphasis on rigor can dull and suppress creative and revolutionary thought:

But now what fosters revolutionary thought in a philosopher? Not, I think, an emphasis on rigor. Rigor and Revolutionary Thought, it seems to me, inherently pull in opposite directions. The more rigorous an argument is — the more of a “sure thing” its premises are — the less revolutionary it is apt to be. Rigor narrows the way we think about things. Rigor tells us: “If you can’t justify each of your premises to an intelligent, skeptical reader, your argument is a non-starter.” Yet, again, how many Great Works of philosophy actually satisfy this stricture of Rigor? I wager: not many. (Arvan, 2012)

In other words, valorizing rigor yields philosophical rigor mortis. But since we are inevitably committed to some kind of philosophy if we are to continue living (and even the people in the night clubs pursuing sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, have a “philosophy” of sorts, hedonism), one worthy choice would be to opt for a life-shaping philosophy, as proposed by Hanna, which rejects the intellectual imperialism of professional academic Western philosophy, with its careerism, conformity, coercive authoritarianism, dogmatism, esotericism and hyper-specialization, and hyper-rationalism, because such a discipline is “fundamentally theoretically, emotionally, morally, and/or socio-politically at odds with the rest of humanity” (Hanna, 2022: p. 49), and replacing that crisis-ridden, self-stultifying philosophical paradigm with a realistically optimist dignitarian humanist alternative (Hanna, 2020). This essay has offered further reasons for abandoning that received paradigm of philosophy and making that radical replacement.

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