Whereof we know nothing, pass over in silence

In recent months, and for the first time, I’ve been embarrassed to be a philosopher. Consequently, I’ve been hanging out with academics in other disciplines and keeping my background quiet. I had always assumed that philosopher was a noble vocation and the peak of intellectual achievement. Enough has happened lately to make me doubt this.

Philosophy has a problem and that problem is hubris. Philosophers pride themselves on their argumentative skills. They should have a better than average grasp of logic and a high capacity for understanding. Understanding of what? That is part of the problem. Philosophical skills are, in theory, general and transferable, so we can apply our techniques to any possible question. So far, so good.

Yet this can also generate hubris. Philosophical hubris is the belief that because of having general philosophical skills and mastery of reason and argument one is thereby qualified to pronounce on any subject whatsoever, even matters one knows very little about. Why read the literature and respect the existing traditions when one can take a razor-sharp philosopher’s scalpel to the problem and dissect it conceptually? One doesn’t need knowledge of a discipline when one can figure it all out a priori. One doesn’t need to engage with previous thinkers. Indeed, one shows one’s true genius more by ignoring and disrespecting what has come before.

Of course, I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past. I’ve written on philosophy of biology and philosophy of physics when I have no training in either biology or physics. In my defence, I’ve always tried to approach those subjects with a humble attitude and at least looked at what other philosophers of science have said. What I find difficult and problematic is when a philosopher wades in on some topic that has newly gained their attention and tries to pronounce based on First Principles, purposefully ignoring all prior work, even where it concerns an entire academic discipline. Failure is then inevitable, since it is likely that we repeat prior mistakes of other thinkers, overlook the breakthroughs that are already established in that field, or conclude something proudly that has long been known and argued in detail better elsewhere. The latter is likely the best we can hope. More probable is that we say something that was already, after due examination, dismissed for good reason. We repeat old mistakes.

Philosophers should not feel in a position to pronounce on anything that takes their fancy, and especially not matters with a long academic history. We should reject this hubris. Famously, the oracle at Delphi declared Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, supposedly because he knew that he knew nothing. For this, and other reasons, Socrates was my first philosophical hero. I’ve since had others besides but what I like about this version of Socrates is the humility. Contemporary publishers and journal editors like confident, controversial and categorical claims since they make a good read and provoke responses. But being provocative is not an automatic good in the current climate. Instead, I think it in the longer-term interest of our discipline to rediscover that Socratic philosophy of humility. A first step is to accept that whereof we know nothing, we should pass over in silence. This, I believe, is the way to rebuild the credibility and respectability philosophy once had.

6 Comments

  1. Why does an academic history of x imply that you need to know all of that history to have a considered view of x? If so, does this apply only to philosophers?

    On that note, why is this problem unique to philosophers and not to, basically, all academics (c.f., physicists proclaiming that philosophy of physics is useless)?

    How is this not just a general appeal to humility, something philosophers have long argued for, and not an attack on philosophy or philosophers in general?

    Honestly, this just reads like some philosopher upset you so you decided to lash out against all philosophers.

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  2. I actually disagree with you on this. I think it’s fine to pronounce on subjects you know nothing about, as long as you do it (as you say above) in a spirit of humility. I have two reasons for this, both connected.

    The first reason is that people with expert training who pronounce on other topics will, no doubt, not only make some mistakes, but probably make some howlers. That’s ok, though, because there is a non-negligible chance that having this norm–the norm that it’s ok to “epistemically trespass” (as Nathan Ballantyne dubbed it), at least if done in the right spirit–will also bring fresh insights to a subject.

    The second reason is that it seems to me that knowledge production, right now, is quite siloed, to the point where we have hyper-specialization and a lack of an overview. Yet there is no reason to think that these silos (or at least: not all of them) are natural kinds; and if you have a social norm that inveighs strongly against epistemic trespassing, then you have fewer protections against disciplinary capture (i.e., the state of affairs when one cadre manages to run a discipline), not to mention more ritualized disciplinary norms that go less challenged.

    Last, many of the claims I’ve made above are ones I made without research. I didn’t try to publish them in a peer-reviewed journal. Is it OK to at least make them in a blog post, though? (It may seem like a snarky question, but it matters! It’s another way of asking: what is the scope of the norm against epistemic trespassing?)

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  3. “Philosophical skills are, in theory, general and transferable, so we can apply our techniques to any possible question.”

    Not even in theory, though, I would venture. Even our hero Socrates pursued only questions about things found important by his fellow citizens: justice (and the other virtues), knowledge (what it is, how we get it, whether it can be passed on), reality versus appearance (seeking the good versus seeking what only appears to be good versus only appearing to seek the good), etc.

    Hubris, I humbly submit, does not come from applying general and transferable philosophical techniques to topics of which we should recognize we lack a prior understanding.

    It comes from thinking there is such thing as general and transferable philosophical techniques.

    The Socratic dialectic is laughably out of place in trying to come to know about cooking or speech-making or nursing, for example, all of which call, rather, for something more like apprenticeship.

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