Interview with Susan Haack

I’ve been interested in getting a female philosopher onto Freethought Blogs, someone who actively blogs the subject and is keen to join us as an atheist activist. The general reception to my idea has been “there aren’t any of those.” There are women who are philosophers (full on, with Ph.D.s and publications and the whole nine yards), but none who actively blog on philosophy and identify openly as atheists or even new atheists (meaning: willing to openly take on religion, fervently and without quarter).

By all means, if you know anyone like that, tell me about them at once. In the meantime, I decided I’d go exploring, starting by collecting interviews with my favorite women in philosophy today. So at least women in philosophy can have a voice here and you can learn about them and their work. Of course I’ll be asking if any of them might be interested in blogging with us, but I don’t expect that. But I am also asking them if they know any women who might fit our bill, especially up and coming women in philosophy who are opinionated and outspoken and don’t care who they piss off.

In the meantime, here is the first in the series, my interview with Susan Haack, one of my favorite epistemologists and philosophers of science. Currently a professor of philosophy and law at U. Miami, Dr. Haack is best known for such works as Evidence and Inquiry and Defending Science—Within Reason (for more see her official cv). I will be asking many of the same questions of others in future months. And in this case as in every, we don’t agree on everything, but we agree on a lot!

Interview with Susan Haack

R.C.: Why did you choose a career in philosophy?—and I don’t mean as a teacher, but as a philosopher, actually doing philosophy?

S.H: After mulling over this question for quite some time, I concluded that it’s impossible even to say when I became a philosopher, let alone why. I vaguely remember reading what must have been my first philosophy book, Richard Robinson’s An Atheist’s Values;[1] but I’m not sure that, at the time, I fully grasped that this was a philosophy book, and it didn’t leave a very strong impression. Anyway, when I went to Oxford to study politics, philosophy, and economics it was, initially, the “politics” part that most appealed to me. But somewhere down the line, despite encouragement from my politics tutor to pursue that subject, philosophy took over. I suspected, in some intuitive way, that political history, fascinating as I then found it, would eventually pall, but that philosophy would be of enduring interest. (I now think that, luckily, I was right on both scores.)

I am reminded here of Peirce’s observation that “real [intellectual] power … is not born in a man; it has to be worked out”[2] (“or in a woman,” I would add). He’s right; and I think this explains why I really can’t identify a point at which I transmuted from good student to capable teacher to real philosopher: it was a gradual process that is, I hope, still ongoing. Now I think of Sinclair Lewis’s Dr. Gottlieb, reflecting that being a scientist is not just a different kind of job, but “a very complicated tangle of emotions.”[3] I think this is no less true of being a philosopher; and that this explains why I really can’t articulate why philosophy turned out to be my calling. And now I think of Nietzsche: “[i]n his heart every man knows very well that … no imaginable chance will for a second time gather together in a unity so strangely variegated an assortment as he is”[4] (“or than she is,” I would add). Indeed; and I think this explains why, though perhaps I could list a few factors—a somewhat solitary childhood as a short-sighted only child, a maternal grandmother who had me help her with all the word-puzzles in the newspaper, an inspiring high-school history teacher, the strenuous philosophical workouts Elizabeth Anscombe gave me over inedible college lunches after she arrived in Cambridge, my reading in the classical pragmatist tradition, etc., etc.—I can’t begin to sketch the whole picture.

But let me go back to Arrowsmith for a moment. This novel of Lewis’s is a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress for scientists: Martin Arrowsmith stumbles from one career disaster to another—as country doctor, as public health officer, in a successful surgical clinic, and as medical scientist in a prestigious research institute—until finally, after all the temptations and travails, all the frustrations and failures, on the last page of the book he says: “I feel as if I’m really beginning to work now.” And now I see why I have been deliberately avoiding the phrase “a career in philosophy”: because, like Martin, I have had to learn that, in my business as in his, doing what is needed for short-term career success is likely to pull against doing that real work.

And I’m also uncomfortable with your distinction between teaching philosophy and, as you say, “actually doing it”; because I often find that, as I teach my philosophy classes and am prodded by students’ questions, I have figured out something, or managed to articulate something, that eluded me before. For example, it was a naive question from a graduate student—“Dr. Haack, what is relativism? I know Dr. Siegel is against it, but I don’t know what it is”—that prompted me to develop the table of varieties of relativism found in my “Reflections on Relativism” (1996),[5] then to identify the specific forms defended by Quine, by Goodman, by Kuhn, by Putnam, etc., and then to show that not all forms of relativism are mistaken, nor are all the mistaken forms self-defeating.

R.C.: That’s a very good point. Teaching has been a help to me as well, in formulating my views. It’s true. The questions students ask are often sparks that ignite progress in our thought. Well worth remembering that! What still interests me, though, is what drives us to do that, and publish it, rather than just teaching it. Because I think we need more women doing philosophy, taking charge of the conversation, making real progress in the field, and I’d like to inspire more women to do that. So I’m interested in what will.

Sometimes people see philosophy as just a college thing, something you teach, and not something you do, that can actually change how people think, and that can help us understand ourselves and our world better than we otherwise would. Which is why I think more people should study philosophy. But also, I (personally) think more women should pursue philosophy as a career. We need more gender parity in that department (an issue for me that we’ll talk about more in a moment, but here I’m just expressing my own views). With that mission in mind, I want to know how to answer questions like “Why should I become a philosopher rather than a psychologist or biologist or doctor or engineer or lawyer or hospital administrator or particle physicist.. [etc.].” Obviously for most people the answer will be “I shouldn’t.” But I think there are some people out there (men and women) for whom there is an answer why they should, they just haven’t thought about it, so they end up doing something else. And philosophy suffers.

And on that subject, of what might inspire someone to become a philosopher, one of the things someone should always think about when deciding what to do with her future is what her accomplishments may be. Which naturally leads me to my next question. Your work has inspired and influenced me as a philosopher, and I think it has made a significant impact on the field. But you are even closer to all this than I am. What work do you think most represents you as a philosopher, and why?

S.H. : Again, not an easy question, because I have been working for many years now, and my interests have grown broader as time has passed.

Deviant Logic (1974)[6] and Philosophy of Logics (1978)[7]—both still in print after decades, and the latter in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Croatian, Korean, and Chinese translations—are the products of my early, more technical work. I’ve rarely given lectures anywhere—and I have given hundreds over the years—where someone didn’t tell me they’d been brought up on Philosophy of Logics; and a few years ago I was thrilled to give a lecture entitled “Philosophy of Logics after Thirty Years” at the University of Valparaíso, Chile—where the book had been used since the beginning—in which I explained how I would write the book differently if I wrote it today. My work in this area continues, most recently in the form of a series of papers on truth,[8] and another series on the role, and the limits, of formalism.[9] This work in philosophy of logic and language represents my longstanding concern with the power, and the limitations, of formal methods.

Then there’s Evidence and Inquiry (1993; 2nd ed. 2009),[10] which not only offers very detailed analyses of the difficulties in foundationalism and coherentism, and in the confusing varieties of epistemological naturalism and of reliabilism, along with a no-holds-barred critique of Richard Rorty’s (and Stephen Stich’s) anti-epistemological Vulgar Pragmatism, but also, most importantly, the detailed development of a whole new theory, foundherentism, intermediate between the traditional rivals. I believe this new theory manages to combine insights from foundationalism with insights from coherentism, while avoiding the errors of these rival families of theory. This was the book that won me a place—alongside Thales, Plato, Confucius, Kant, etc.—in Peter J. King’s book, 100 Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. It was also a book that sparked the interest of thoughtful scientists and legal scholars, many of them especially intrigued by the crossword analogy that informed my developing theory; and brought me a treasured letter from economist Robert Heilbroner complimenting me on my writing—a real compliment coming from someone who wrote so wonderfully well.

When King’s book appeared, my Defending Science—Within Reason (2003)[11] had only just come out; but in my estimation, anyway, this is quite as good a book as E&I. As in E&I I developed an original approach to epistemology, so in Defending Science I developed an original approach to philosophy of science: a new understanding of the nature and structure of the evidence with respect to scientific claims; a new understanding of the underlying procedures used by all serious empirical inquirers, and then of the overlay—a vast variety of “helps” to such inquiry, always evolving and often local to this or that field—developed by scientists over centuries of work. The Innocent Realism I had gradually been developing over the years then provided the metaphysical underpinnings of this account of the scientific enterprise. As this book evolved, I learned enough molecular biology to illustrate my arguments in detail (and to prompt a biologist colleague to comment that he hadn’t realized I’d been a biology major in college!). And I included chapters on the relation of the natural and the social sciences, and the relation of the sciences to literature, to religion, and to the law. Some of the philosophy-of-science crowd were upset because, instead of discussing their work, I drew on older thinkers such as Thomas Huxley and Percy Bridgman; but a whole raft of working scientists have told me they have found this book genuinely illuminating—as I had hoped. These two books, Evidence and Inquiry and Defending Science, represent many years of reflection on questions about human beings’ cognitive capacities and limitations, and on the relations of mind and world.

Defending Science transcends familiar disciplinary boundaries; but it was not the first book of mine to do so, nor would it be the last. Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (1998)[12] includes some papers I wrote in response to the many invitations I received, after E&I, to comment on feminist epistemology, affirmative action, multiculturalism etc., etc., and others I wrote in response to Rorty’s efforts to kidnap the label “pragmatism” for the shifting kaleidoscope of his own anti-philosophical post-modern farrago. Among the latter is a “conversation” between him and Peirce compiled entirely from their own words —subsequently performed, with my participation, both in English and in Spanish.[13] And Putting Philosophy to Work (2008)[14] includes (as the cover announces) “Essays on Science, Religion, Law, Literature, and Life.”

It was my work in epistemology that first got me interested in the law, where there are many hard questions about evidence and proof needing attention: for example, whether our adversarial procedure is a good way of arriving at the truth, and whether exclusionary rules of evidence can possibly be justified epistemologically. I began, in a 2004 paper entitled “Epistemology Legalized,”[15] by tackling these issues; and this was followed by a whole series of papers on how the U.S. legal system handles scientific evidence, perhaps the most influential of which has been “Irreconcilable Differences? The Troubled Marriage of Science and Law” (2009).[16]

In almost all my work readers will see the influence of the classical pragmatists—Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead; and the same is true of my recent work in legal philosophy, where I have learned a good deal from Oliver Wendell Holmes. Regrettably, pragmatism has been no less grossly misunderstood by legal scholars than it has by philosophers; but I hope that such papers of mine as “On Legal Pragmatism” (2005)[17] and “The Pluralistic Universe of Law” (2008)[18] have helped not only to dispel the misunderstandings, but also to begin developing a viable and realistic understanding of legal systems, their functions, and their evolution. These variously trans-disciplinary efforts represent my work on issues where philosophy engages closely with issues of concern to all thoughtful citizens.

And now, just as I thought I had finished answering this question, I recall something I read long ago in the Times Literary Supplement, where a poet said that somehow the work of hers that lingered most in her mind was the work she really didn’t want to do, because it seemed just too hard. And in that category I would mention a trio of my papers: “The Best Man for the Job may be a Woman” (1998),[19] my reflections on preferential hiring of women in our profession, a paper so candid that a referee wanted it suppressed from Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate, and no reviewer of the book ventured even to mention it—until finally, almost a decade later, Israeli philosopher Iddo Landau would write an appreciative, but challenging, commentary;[20] “Preposterism and Its Consequences” (1996),[21] on the disastrous effects of the culture of grants-and-research-projects then spreading to the humanities; and “Out of Step” (2011)[22] a recent, no-less-radioactive piece, this one on the erosion of academic ethics. All these were agony to write, requiring me to look at my own career in uncomfortable ways, and to speak candidly on matters where candor is rarely heard; but I believe they represent something of the power of thinking things through, and the value of plain speech.

R.C.: Awesome. Thank you for that survey. I was already a fan, and I hadn’t even realized how extensive and important your work has been. One item in particular caught my attention. I often tell people that Martha Nussbaum’s treatise on why prostitution should be legalized (whether we approve of it or not) is a masterpiece on that subject, a must-read, with all her genius and wit, addressing and destroying every objection, even naming names (“Whether from Reason or Prejudice”; interested readers can find it in Sex and Social Justice). Brilliant. But now you remind me to mention that I think the same of your treatise on affirmative action (“The Best Man for the Job May be a Woman”). It’s even funnier. And more reflective. And just as brilliant, thorough, and every bit as much a must read on the subject. A lot of your work is like that. What are you working on now? And why that?

S.H.: I just answered a whole other set of questions for a volume of interviews with significant philosophers of law, to be published in Portuguese. And, as usual, there’s more than one project underway: over the next few months, for example, I must put the finishing touches on a paper about proof of causation in mass torts, and prepare talks on legal epistemology (for presentation in Brazil) and on forensic science (for presentation in Colombia)—and then write up the lecture I gave earlier this year on “The Pluralistic Universe of Innocent Realism” for publication in German. And there always seems to be proof-reading of one kind or another, or a translation into one language or another, needing to be checked

For the somewhat longer term, I’m pondering over some issues about precision that grew out of an idea I expressed a few years ago in a paper on partial truth:[23] that there are (at least) two different but equally valuable kinds of precision, the logical and the poetic. I’m also thinking about the differences between scientific philosophy, in Peirce’s sense, and the scientistic philosophy of which we see so much today.

And the long-range project—well begun, but not as yet half-done—is to write a book on legal pragmatism; a book, that is, applying the insights of the classical pragmatist tradition in philosophy to an understanding of the law. Part of the challenge is to overcome the gross misunderstandings of pragmatism that have infected legal scholarship, as they have philosophy; another part, to avoid the excessive abstraction of analytic legal philosophy, and articulate an account that illuminates real legal phenomena.

Why these projects? For the usual reason: they’re interesting and, I hope, hard enough to be really challenging, but not so hard I’m sure they’ll kill me.

R.C.: Groovy. Slight change of tack now (although this does touch on things you discussed in your essay on affirmative action). In the process of becoming a philosopher, and now in being a philosopher, have you met with any particular difficulties or annoyances because you are a woman?

S.H.: In 1998 I wrote in “The Best Man”: “I recall, about a quarter century ago now, a job interview at which the chairman opened the proceedings by assuring me that he had nothing against the employment of married women, he thought they might be quite good for the women students. I told him—vamping it up just a little—that actually I hoped to be good for the men (too). And that, naturally, was that. Was I the best person for the job? I don’t know. But I could tell you a dozen such stories; and I’m pretty sure that at least once, yes, I was.”[24] Eventually I landed a temporary job, at a tiny salary, in a woman’s college in Cambridge. And a few years later, after finally obtaining a real, tenure-track position, I would learn that a senior member of the department where I earned my Ph.D. had commiserated with my new chairman: “poor X, forced to appoint on grounds of merit.”[25] Poor X, indeed.

Of course, this was my experience seeking an academic position a quarter-century before, in the U.K.; but as I also observed, by the time I wrote “The Best Man,” after decades of affirmative action in U.S. universities, “attitudes to women in the academy now seem less thoughtlessly dismissive than they once were, more uneasily ambivalent: an edgy combination of the overtly indulgent and the covertly hostile.”[26]

But I’m also sure that many of the “difficulties and annoyances” of my life in philosophy have arisen, not simply because I’m a woman, but because of other characteristics of mine—though I suspect people find some of these particularly hard to take in a woman. For one thing, I’m very independent: rather than follow philosophical fads and fashions, I pursue questions I believe are important, and tackle them in the ways that seem most likely to yield results; I am beholden to no clique or citation cartel; I put no stock in the ranking of philosophy graduate programs over which my colleagues obsess; I accept no research or travel funds from my university; I avoid publishing in journals that insist on taking all the rights to my work; etc., etc. Naturally, this independence comes at a price; but it also earns me the freedom to do the best work I can, without self-censorship, and to communicate with a much wider audience than the usual “niche literature” does—as witnessed by two recent e-mails, one asking permission to translate a legal-philosophy paper of mine into Turkish, and another, from Egypt, expressing “appreciation and respect” for my work in philosophy of science. Many people, I suspect—though not themselves willing to pay the price such independence demands—resent what it allows me to achieve.

Now I recall the occasion when a (female) faculty member at another university, disapproving of my old-fashioned style of feminism, had—or so I was told—encouraged graduate students to stay away from my lectures; but one of those who attended anyway shyly presented me with a plain brown-paper package that turned out to contain a copy of Helmut Schoek’s book, Envy,[27] inscribed “to Susan Haack—you are inspiring!” Hmm …

One recurring “annoyance” (to say the least) is that my work is sometimes “borrowed” without proper acknowledgment; and that I’m quite often criticized for things I simply didn’t say. Maybe this has something to do with my being a woman, or more likely with my being a threateningly independent woman; but other factors, I suspect, are more important—the excessive pressure to publish, for example. I also notice that, quite often, those with whom I (know I) have had such problems probably believe themselves to be in a stronger position, professionally, than I. In this context, I think of Professor Y, who first sent me a paper in which, claiming that I thought truth epistemologically irrelevant, he set me up as representing the opposition to his view; and then, after I politely corrected this (gross) misconception, sent me a revised version of his paper in which I was co-opted as an ally of his own view of the epistemological role of truth—a view that I had criticized in painstaking detail. And then there was Prof. Z, who, when I pointed out that he had borrowed large chunks of a chapter of E&I without proper acknowledgment, replied that, yes, he had once had a copy of this book, but he’d lost it! (Silly me: I’d thought dogs only ate students’ homework … .)

But I try not to dwell on the “difficulties and annoyances” I have had to deal with—whatever their cause—which would be a waste of a short life. There are more important things to think about, such as the next issue I might be able to make headway with; and more important things to try to fix, such as the alarming erosion of the academic ethos generally, and the sad decline in our profession in particular.

5. R.C.: I agree. But women who might be thinking about getting into philosophy, or who are already starting out in it, could really benefit from all the intel they can get on what they might have to face and how to prepare for it and defeat it. I think advance scouts like you can be a valuable resource that way. We also see these issues raised and discussed in places like the Being a Woman in Philosophy blog run by the Women in Philosophy Task Force at MIT, which exposes and confronts a lot of surprising difficulties women still face in the field. Some quite shocking to me. I can see how some of that would actually drive a lot of women out or away from philosophy. And yet I think half the solution is, ironically, getting more women in the field. Do you think more women should pursue advanced degrees in philosophy? What would you tell women that might inspire them to do that?

S.H.: I feel deep unease about the way this question focuses on getting more women into the profession. I think this is the wrong goal entirely. The aim should be to get the most thoughtful, creative, discriminating, honest, philosophically constructive people into the profession; and—essential to achieving this goal—to prevent such irrelevant factors as a person’s sex (or race) from distorting our judgment of the quality of his or her mind. If only we could achieve this, artificial attempts to create “diversity” would be unnecessary. But instead, as I wrote in a 1999 paper, “Staying for an Answer,” “[a]s the stress on the interests of this or that class or category of person has waxed, our appreciation of individual differences has waned … .”[28] This is a real shame.

So, if I had to answer “yes” or “no” to the first part of this question, I’d have to say “no”; and I won’t answer the second part at all, since it presupposes a positive answer to the first part.

That said, I will add that I do my best to help the truly talented and dedicated who decide to go ahead; but that at present I wouldn’t rush to encourage anyone—male, female, white, black, green, or purple!—to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy. Rather, if a student I believe has real potential wants to pursue such a degree, I feel obliged to warn him or her that in many graduate programs they will find that students are indulged with over-praise and inflated grades, and at the same time exploited as TAs and research assistants—but are not very seriously or thoroughly educated; that many of those who begin a Ph.D. in philosophy won’t finish; that many of those who do finish won’t ever find a tenure-track position; and that most of those who do land a tenure-track job will find themselves teaching large undergraduate classes in far-from-“prestigious” institutions. Moreover, I feel I must add that at the moment our profession seems to be ever-more hermetic and cliquish, and that the confident, quick, and shallow seem often to fare better, professionally, than more tentative and perhaps slower, but deeper thinkers.

R.C.: Well said. I quite agree with all of that–except only one thing perhaps. Personally, I think there are things that could change (in the culture of colleges and possibly high schools and our broader culture generally), which would have the effect of getting more women in the field (just as is being done in respect to mathematics–many of whose sexist cultural barriers are discussed in my favorite math book by Danica McKellar, Math Doesn’t Suck). And I do believe this would be a good thing–not least in diluting a lot of the chauvinism that still permeates academic philosophy departments, but also in preventing the brain drain you are also against: if we want “the truly talented and dedicated” to pursue it, we ought not to be driving them away (much less disproportionately by sex).

Even so, it is important to state all you do to anyone who might be contemplating getting in the field. Those negatives need to be kept in mind. Although I think they aren’t wholly inevitable, since even a non-prestigious teaching job permits a lot of time to produce real work (I know published philosophers who actually prefer community college appointments for that very reason), and someone can make use of at least an M.A. in philosophy to publish on philosophy in the context of other careers (novelist, lawyer, working in cognitive science or other sciences). And I have the radical idea that a woman with a Ph.D. in philosophy could work full time as an independent researcher supported by her husband–or wife (I have a similar arrangement with my wife, I split my time between housework and researching and writing philosophy and history, while she brings home the bacon and has no domestic responsibilities). And as for the rest, forewarned is forearmed.

But those are just my own radical thoughts on the matter.

Is there any other advice you would give to women already aspiring to be philosophers?

As should be obvious by now, I would strenuously resist the presuppositions of this question, too. Perhaps this is the place to say explicitly that, as I wrote in “After my Own Heart” (2001),[29] the kind of feminism that appeals to me places the stress on what all of us, regardless of sex, have in common as human beings, and on the vitally important differences between one individual and another. This is why your hypothetical generic-woman-aspiring-to-be-a-philosopher strikes me a distraction at best.

In line with this, what advice I would give a student already aspiring to be a philosopher would depend on the individual student: on his or her abilities, his or her circumstances, his or her aspirations, etc.

That said, I will add one other thing: that trying to make a philosophy department less unappealing to women—as, perhaps under pressure from above, mine seems to be doing—by putting on courses in feminist philosophy strikes me as appallingly condescending (though I am almost amused to see that it apparently takes, not one, but two senior male professors to teach such a course!). Thinking of all the truly serious women students I have had, and how varied their talents, from logic to history of philosophy to philosophy of language, metaphysics, and philosophy of literature, I am saddened to think how glacially slow our progress seems to be towards acknowledging the simple fact that, just like men, women are all different, and, as Dorothy Sayers put it many decades ago, shouldn’t be expected “to toddle along all in a flock, like sheep.”[30]

R.C: Amen. I find it rather embarrassing that “women like feminist philosophy, that will get them in” is really the premise their going with there. I would sooner think that adding courses in the philosophy of emotion, sex, and social justice would be much more successful at that (if we assume there is a gender difference in such interest–and there might be, whether cultural or biological) and at the same time would valuably expand the interests of men, in directions they genuinely ought to be expanded.

But certainly getting women excited about all of it (epistemology, free will, metaphysics, metaethics, logic, theology or atheology, etc.) should rather be the goal, as it ought to be the goal of getting everyone excited about those things regardless of gender. I’m reminded of how high school teaches subjects in such a way as to kill any excitement for the subject a student might have been inspired to have (in my main field, history, especially). I see that as the main battleground for changing who gets excited about pursuing graduate studies (or even undergraduate majors) in philosophy. But again, that’s just my own soap box.

Although one barrier I often meet in pursuing this agenda is that I’m frequently told philosophy, and thus philosophers are useless. So why ever be one? Or as the more radical critics will ask, why even have them teach, much less waste student tuition money paying them to publish? I’m interested in how working philosophers address these kinds of claims. Do you see philosophers as “useful” to society? In what ways?

S.H. In Book V of the Republic, Plato distinguishes the sophists who advertize themselves as philosophers, but aren’t really, from the (much rarer) genuine article. Similarly, I would begin by distinguishing those who make their living as professors of philosophy from the (much rarer) real philosophers—by no means all of whom are in philosophy departments, or indeed in the academy.

As I wrote in “Professing Philosophy” (2007), “while some worthwhile philosophy is the work of professional philosophers, some is the work of professors of physics, law, literature, and so forth, and some the work of writers, journalists, and so on.” “The ideal,” I continued, “is to combine breadth and depth, richness and rigor. But some worthwhile philosophical work is specialized, technical, or scholarly; some is broad and speculative. Some focuses on topics quite distant from public issues of the day; some tackles them directly. Some offers clean, rigorous abstractions; some provides richly detailed descriptions. Some is presented in a dry, precise, explicit, emotionally neutral way; some in a resonant, vivid, engaged and engaging style.”[31]

(Real) philosophy is, by my lights, a form of inquiry; and aims, like all inquiry, at true answers to the questions within its scope. It is part of the whole tapestry of human culture and, I would say, valuable as such. Being “useful to society” (whatever, exactly, that might amount to, and whether it is envisaged as something realized in the short term, or over the long haul) is not the goal.

This is not to deny, however, that sometimes philosophical reflection contributes, more or less indirectly, to the good of society: from the role of Locke’s philosophy in shaping U.S. political institutions, to the role in the history of computing of Peirce’s idea that a logic machine might be built using, not mechanical, but electrical connections.[32] My work on the legal handling of scientific evidence, I believe, has had some influence for the good; and I dare to hope that maybe, someday, my reflections on affirmative action might prompt consideration of alternative policies, and that my thoughts on academic ethics might be a “message in a bottle” to others put there who really care about the work we do and the environment in which we do it.

R.C.: Amen again. I would add that I think philosophy benefits the individual’s understanding of themselves and the world, which benefits society by making them a more thoughtful and informed citizen and neighbor (and by collectively improving each individual’s pursuit of happiness). And professional philosophers can (in fact, in my opinion, ought to) help them do all that. If they care to. That they often don’t is one of my own peeves with the field today.

I also think one of the biggest effects of this kind of philosophical reasoning is what it does as far as correcting and perfecting our worldview. Insofar as religion often causes interminable problems, humanistic atheism is to me a step toward a better society (a step, not the whole step). And philosophy is needed to make the case for that, and to build a positive worldview on the foundations left over once we get rid of all our superstitions (that’s the aim of my book Sense and Goodness without God, for example). Do you identify as an atheist, or with any particular religion or world-view?

S.H.: I’m not quite sure what “identify as” means here. If I were asked to describe myself, or my philosophical approach or views, “atheist” would be pretty far down the list. Still, in a paper I am proof-reading just now (originally presented at a big conference on the history of religion) I describe myself as “not a religious person, but a cheerful atheist.”[33] And in Defending Science, writing at some length on the relation of science and religion,[34] I made it clear that the currently-accepted scientific picture of the world and our place in it, though fallible and likely to be revised in at least some respects as science advances, seems to me far better-warranted than a theological pictured of human beings as the Chosen Creatures.

I am not, however, like so many, an evangelical atheist. I will tell anyone who asks what my views are; but I’m not inclined to try to dissuade religious people from their convictions—in fact, I’m repelled by evangelism, whether for religion or against it, and allergic to atheism-adopted-with-religious-fervor. I’m especially disturbed by the recently popular (and disagreeably self-congratulatory) idea that atheists are somehow smarter than religious people—not true, in my experience: I know plenty of thoughtful and intelligent religious people, and plenty of shallow and none-too-bright atheists.

And in the course of my work on religion and the U.S. Constitution[35] (originally prompted by the Kitzmiller case),[36] I found myself writing that it’s important to remember that the religious impulse has deep roots in human nature, and that people’s religious beliefs, however weird they may seem to me, really matter to them; so that it matters to all of us, religious and non-religious alike, to sustain the balance of the First Amendment: allowing citizens the free exercise of their religious beliefs, whatever they may be, and at the same time preventing the state from imposing any religion, or lack of it, on its citizens. (No doubt that’s why too zealously religious politicians make me nervous; and so do fervid atheists who, making the opposite mistake, take a candidate’s attitude to stem-cell research, say, or to the teaching of evolution, as the only, or necessarily the most important, issue about his or her qualifications for office.)

R.C.: I concur. I describe myself as a cheerful atheist as well. And freedom of religion (and of thought generally) is necessary to allow people to explore possibilities and test and correct them over time. We have to be free to explore the information space. What if, after all, some particular religion turns out to be true? We cannot suppress considering that–precisely because that is what would prevent us discovering it. We can’t trust in atheism if we are not free to ask or discover whether it’s wrong. I’m also a fan of (safe and responsible) social and cultural experimentation. Religion (as one form of worldview exploration) will be a part of that.

Of course, my readers will know that I disagree with you on the matter of atheist evangelism (I think it’s as important as science evangelism, democracy evangelism, equal rights evangelism, etc., even , in fact, philosophy evangelism), but then by that I don’t mean dogmatic zeal or latent fascism, just promoting and stumping for the idea and defending it against detractors. It has to be honest, reasonable, and respectful of human liberty.

But taking all this back to my interest in the importance of building defensible and credible worldviews, and philosophy’s role in that, I’d like to ask a rather different question. In Philosophy in Crisis, published in 2001, Prof. Mario Bunge argued that philosophy is failing as a field. This prompts me to ask, specifically why philosophers are no longer building worldviews. Shouldn’t they be? Would you consider doing it someday?

S.H.: I had begun to express concern about the condition of professional philosophy well before 2001;[37] and I’m sorry to say that our profession seems to me in even worse shape now than it did then. It has become terribly hermetic and self-absorbed; bogged down in pretentious and pseudo-technical jargon; in the thrall of those dreadful “rankings”; and splintered into narrow specialisms and—even worse—cliques identified, not by a specialty, but by a shared view on a specialized issue. A friend of mine put it in a nutshell when she described professional philosophy as “in a nose-dive.”

The reasons for the over-specialization are no doubt very complicated. But one relevant factor, I’m sure, is departmental rankings by area; and another is the ever-increasing pressure to publish, now extending even to graduate students. And behind this, there’s that ever-growing class of professional university administrators who have long ago put their academic work on permanent hold and, unable to judge a person’s work themselves, can only rely on surrogate measures like rankings, “productivity,” grant money brought in, citations, and such. Inevitably, many professors and would-be professors soon internalize the same distorted values; and many soon realize that a relatively easy way to publish a lot, fast, is to associate yourself with some clique, to join a citation cartel, to split your work into minimally publishable units, and of course to repeat yourself.

This fragmentation is counter-productive, because philosophical questions so often spill over from one “area” into others. But I don’t believe the solution is for everyone in philosophy to try to develop his or her comprehensive “world-view”—a proposal that strikes me as most likely to produce a lot of pretentious and self-important rubbish. No: the solution is for people to learn to disregard the boundaries of this or that artificial “area” (or, indeed, this or that discipline) and simply follow the questions they are trying to answer wherever they lead.

The difficulty, of course, is that doing this may well be contrary to one’s professional interests—in, as Mill would say, the vulgar sense of “interests.” Nevertheless, this is what I have long done. Only a few weeks ago, for example, at a conference in Bonn on the “New Realism,” I found myself describing my work over the least decades as a huge but still only partially-completed crossword, in which the metaphysical entries characterizing my Innocent Realism intersect with many others in philosophy of language, the philosophy of the natural sciences, the philosophy of the social sciences, and the philosophy of law—and was struck by the way new interconnections came into view as I prepared my talk.

R.C: Indeed, that’s one of the reasons I’ve loved your work over the years. And I’ve had the same impressions of the “nose dive” the field is taking, as your friend aptly put it.

As to the other concern, of worldview building being “most likely to produce a lot of pretentious and self-important rubbish,” on the one hand, in my opinion, that’s what the field already consists of, so it wouldn’t be a net loss; whereas, though most philosophy even now is “pretentious and self-important rubbish,” a percentage of quality and important work nevertheless emerges from it (yours, for example). It’s a lot like television and film in that way: if it wasn’t for the 99% rubbish, we wouldn’t have the 1% brilliance. I even think one of the differences between science and philosophy is that 99% of the bad ideas scientists have they never publish (recall, I think, Einstein, who said something like that for every right idea he had, he had entertained a hundred wrong ones); most philosophers, not being able to tell the difference, publish it all. So I think if they started turning their attention to worldview building we’d see the same, and we would be able to make use of (and build upon or perfect) the 1% that was actually not rubbish.

For example, I think you could, in principle, “connect all the dots” that you are already seeing, interconnecting all your work, and spell it out systematically as the complete, coherent worldview it already is. The parts of it you are less sure of or haven’t worked out you can state as such, and argue are areas that further progress is needed on, and others could take up that torch, while yet others test and correct any of the rest. A collaborative effort on making progress toward the most honestly defensible worldview is thus achievable, even amidst a sea of rubbish alternatives.

But philosophers would have to want to do that. And yet philosophers aren’t even defending any standard of progress in their field. To touch on this, let me ask a naive question. I assume anyone committed to logic should agree that a conclusion reached by logically valid argument from premisses whose truth is highly probable should be agreed upon as probably the correct conclusion. Shouldn’t there be a website that catalogs philosophical progress of this kind as “established philosophy” so philosophers can build on that?

S.H: Goodness—what a tangle! I hardly know where to begin …

Let me start with the one point on which I think I agree with you—at least, if I understand the rather curious first sentence of your question correctly: that philosophy doesn’t seem to be making progress in anything like the way the natural sciences have done. Of course, this is hardly a new thought; more than a century ago Peirce was hoping aloud that, while in his day metaphysics was a “puny, rickety, and scrofulous science,”[38] a time might come when it became more like the special sciences, in which each can stand on others’ shoulders—so that philosophy could finally make progress.[39] But that day seems, if anything, even further off now than when Peirce wrote—think, for example, of the way dusty old problems get recycled by each new generation that has to publish something, as with the recent revival of Gettier-ology.

That said, I’m afraid your diagnosis of the problem, and your proposed solution, strike me as completely wrong-headed. To be sure, the conclusion of a deductively valid argument with true premises is true; that’s what “valid” means. But what you say—that the conclusion of a deductively valid argument with premises that are (in some unspecified sense) probably true should be agreed upon as probably true, doesn’t follow from this, but introduces a whole raft of unacknowledged epistemological complications. And, more importantly, the idea that philosophical arguments are, or should be, simple deductions is a gross over-simplification.

As Peirce wrote in his justly celebrated critique of Cartesianism, philosophical arguments should form, not a chain, which can be no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable of many fibers, some of which will hold even if others fail.[40] This was a crucially important insight. Moreover, I would add (as Peirce was well aware), serious philosophical work often requires inventing new terminology, for example to escape false dichotomies; and is often a matter less of arguments than of painstaking articulation of ideas—requiring constant checking for mutual consistency, to be sure, but also constant checking for faithfulness to the phenomena.

As for the suggestion that a website cataloguing philosophical progress might help solve the problem—well, to say that I very much doubt it would be putting it mildly. Think about it: who, exactly, would determine what problems have been resolved, and on what basis? What, exactly, would ensure that philosophers then build on these purportedly established claims, rather than contest them? Etc., etc. No; this is at best a very superficial response to a very deep problem, and likely to do more harm than good.

If philosophy is ever to get beyond those seemingly endless, fruitless disputes, it will require far more of us than this—a radical change in the culture of our profession. Constructive philosophical work is, at least usually, harder and slower than scoring points off some else’s mistakes; and the present culture, with its pressing demands for more and faster results, systematically undervalues this kind of work.

I can only suggest some relatively small changes that might, cumulatively, do some good. Maybe we should start by dumping those hundreds of “critical thinking” books, with their over-emphasis on identifying fallacies, and encouraging teachers and students to read John Locke’s extraordinary essay on The Conduct of the Understanding[41]—which all of us should probably re-read every year or so anyway, so we never forget its remarkable insights into human cognitive weaknesses: for example, that marvelous passage about those who read only one kind of book, and talk only to one kind of person, and so enjoy “a pretty traffic with known correspondents in some little creek,” but never venture into “the great ocean of knowledge.”[42] We could encourage students, when they see a problem with something they read, to ask themselves whether it could be fixed; and when they learn something from what they read, to ask themselves whether it might be applied elsewhere—and make a habit of doing the same thing ourselves.

The difficulty, of course, is that this too may run contrary to one’s professional interests, in the vulgar sense. Nevertheless, this is what I tried to do, for example, in developing the foundherentism of E&I, accommodating the strong points of both foundationalism and coherentism but avoiding their weaknesses; in developing the Critical Common-sensist philosophy of Defending Science, acknowledging that scientific inquiry is a rational enterprise, but also that true rationality requires a kind of cognitive flexibility that cannot be captured in formal-logical models of scientific reasoning; and again in developing my Innocent Realism, where I try to accommodate the grains of truth in various anti-realist positions—and to keep my own, modest metaphysical claims free of unnecessary and indefensible epistemological accretions.

R.C.: All well said. I was next going to ask if you see anything about the way philosophy is done today that could be changed for the better, but I already know what you’ll say.

S.H.: Asked and answered!

R.C.: Indeed! I have other thoughts on this matter but I’m still working them out, and I’m eager to hear other opinions on the subject. Thanks for offering yours. And thank you for this delightful interview. I enjoyed it immensely. I would only want to say to my readers that no one entertaining the thought of becoming a philosopher should be intimidated by Dr. Haack’s remarkable abilities and achievements. You don’t need to be anywhere near this awesome to make valuable and worthy contributions to the field!


[1] Richard Robinson, An Atheist’s Values (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964).

[2] C. S. Peirce, letter to Francis Russell, January 1, 1909, in Carolyn Eisele, ed., The New Elements of Mathematics (The Hague: Mouton, 1976), vol. 4, p.977.

[3] Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith (1925) (New York: Signet Classics, 1998), p. 278.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator” (1874), in Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 125-94, p.127.

[5] “Reflections on Relativism: From Momentous Tautology to Seductive Contradiction” (1996), reprinted in Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 149-66.

[6] Deviant Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1974); 2nd expanded ed., Deviant Logic, Fuzzy Logic: Beyond the Formalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[7] Philosophy of Logics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

[8] “The Unity of Truth and the Plurality of Truths” (2005), reprinted in Putting Philosophy to Work: Inquiry and its Place in Culture (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008), 25-36; “The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXXIII, 2008: 20-35; “Nothing Fancy: Some Simple Truths about Truth in the Law” (forthcoming, in Spanish translation, in Jorge Cerdio, ed., Derecho y Verdad [Madrid: Marcial Pons]).

[9] “Formal Philosophy? A Plea for Pluralism” (2005), in Putting Philosophy to Work (note 8 above), 223-42; “On Logic in the Law: ‘Something, but not All,’” Ratio Juris, 20.1, 2007: 1-31; “The Growth of Meaning and the Limits of Formalism, in Science and Law,” Análisis Filosófico, XXIX.1, 2009: 5-29.

[10] Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); 2nd, expanded ed., Evidence and Inquiry: A Pragmatist Reconstruction of Epistemology (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009).

[11] Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003).

[12] Note 5 above.

[13] “‘We pragmatists …’: Peirce and Rorty in Conversation” (1997), reprinted in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (note 5 above), 31-47. Performed in English as after-dinner entertainment at a meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, and in Spanish at the University of Granada, Spain.

[14] Note 8 above.

[15] “Epistemology Legalized: Or, Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” American Journal of Jurisprudence, 49, 2004: 43-61.

[16] “Irreconcilable Differences: The Uneasy Marriage of Science and Law,” Law and Contemporary Problems, 72.1, 2009: 1-24.

[17] “On Legal Pragmatism: Where Does ‘The Path of the Law’ Lead Us?”, American Journal of Jurisprudence, 50, 2005: 71-105.

[18] “The Pluralistic Universe of Law: Towards a Neo-Classical Legal Pragmatism,” Ratio Juris, 21.4, 2008: 453-80.

[19] “The Best Man for the Job may be a Woman, and Other Alien Thoughts on Affirmative Action” (2008), reprinted in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (note 5 above), 167-87.

[20] Iddo Landau, “Haack on Preferential Hiring,” in Cornelis de Waal, ed., Susan Haack: A Lady of Distinctions (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 298-305.

[21] “Preposterism and Its Consequences” (1996), reprinted in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (note 5 above), 188-208.

[22] “Out of Step: Academic Ethics in a Preposterous Environment” (forthcoming in the paperback edition of Putting Philosophy to Work (note 8 above)).

[23] “The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth” (note 8 above).

[24] “The Best Man for the Job may be a Woman” (note 19 above), p.168.

[25] Id., p.172.

[26] Ibid. (When I wrote this, the word “edgy” wasn’t used, as it sometimes now is, in a favorable sense—or, if it was, I wasn’t aware of it.)

[27] Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour (1966) (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1987).

[28] “Staying for an Answer” (1999), reprinted in Putting Philosophy to Work (note 8 above), 25-37.

[29] “After My Own Heart: Dorothy Sayers’s Feminism” (2001), reprinted in Putting Philosophy to Work (note 8 above), 209-217.

[30] Dorothy L. Sayers, “Are Women Human?” (1938), in Sayers, Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-One Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947), 129-41, p.138.

[31] “Professing Philosophy: Response to James Gouinlock,” in de Waal, ed., Susan Haack (note 20 above), 329-32, p.329.

[32] Peirce, letter to Alan Marquand, December 30, 1886, in Writings of Charles S. Peirce:A Chronological Edition, edited by members of the Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982-present), 5:421-3.

[33] “Cracks in the Wall, a Bulge Under the Carpet: The Singular Story of Religion, Evolution, and the U.S. Constitution,” forthcoming in Wayne Law Review.

[34] Defending Science—Within Reason (note 11 above), chapter 10.

[35] Note 33 above.

[36] Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F.Supp.2d 707 (M.D. Penn. 2005).

[37] In Manifesto (note 5 above).

[38] Peirce, Collected Papers, eds,. Hartshorne, Charles, Paul Weiss, and (volumes 7 and 8 ) Arthur Burks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-58), 6.6 (c.1903). [References to the Collected Papers are by volume and paragraph number.]

[39] Id., 5.413 (1905).

[40] Collected Papers (note 37 above), 5.265; Writings (note 32 above), 2:213 (1868).

[41] John Locke, The Conduct of the Understanding, in Posthumous works of Mr. John Locke (London: A. and J. Churchill, 1706), 1-137.

[42] Id., pp.9-10.


  1. says

    “Arrowsmith”: Thought for a moment there we had a rocker… :)

    Try to get Elaine Pagels. She is still Christian, I assume, but is very open minded, especially about gnosticism, which is the way out of Christian mythology.

  2. says

    I haven’t read this in full, yet, but yay! Haack is one of my favorite philosophical authors, and Philosophy of Logic has a prized place on my bookshelf. (OK, truth to tell, it’s tucked away in a box, somewhere. But carefully so tucked.)

  3. Roo Bookaroo says

    Very interesting and refreshing interview with Susan Haack. A discovery to those who don’t know much about her.

    “Peirce’s observation that “real [intellectual] power … is not born in a man; it has to be worked out” is a most important observation. Critical thinking is not a spontaneous propensity of the human mind. It has to be cultivated, trained and honed. It is belief and bias that are more immediate and prevalent, and spontaneous products of the brain.

    This is what the Ancient Greek philosophers discovered and systematized.

    Remember the famous episode (in “Cosmos”) of Carl Sagan on the Ionian Greeks of the 6th century BC, who were the pioneers of skepticism towards the established religious beliefs of the times, and founding rationalism and science. Who can forget Sagan’s voice extolling the miracle of the discovery of rational and critical thinking by those pioneers?

    Closer to us, the effort to overcome beliefs with science and critical thinking was dramatically expanded with the invention of printing and the consequent development of the Enlightenment. But the universal success of critical thinking cannot be taken for granted, in spite of the visions and hopes of our new Age of rationality.

    Critical thinking is like a mental muscle that has to be trained and practiced. It needs teachers, schools, universities, and a favorable climate of freedom of expression. It needs debates and controversies. And its functioning cannot be assumed as a given. Beliefs, superstitions and biases are the natural responses of the human mind, and still the major forces in the spontaneous use of the brain in all cultures all over the planet.

    See a modern examination of this duality in Daniel Kahneman’s work “Thinking Fast, and Slow” (2011).

    Belief and bias are modes of “fast” thinking, skepticism and critical thinking are excruciatingly “slow” modes.

    This is again another explanation of why the “Age of reason” will never triumph as a general suppression of superstition, religious beliefs, and biases. They will never be extirpated, as they are natural and immediate modes of thinking.

    Susan Haack says: “the kind of feminism that appeals to me places the stress on what all of us, regardless of sex, have in common as human beings, and on the vitally important differences between one individual and another. This is why your hypothetical generic-woman-aspiring-to-be-a-philosopher strikes me a distraction at best… I am saddened to think how glacially slow our progress seems to be towards acknowledging the simple fact that, just like men, women are all different, and, as Dorothy Sayers put it many decades ago, shouldn’t be expected “to toddle along all in a flock, like sheep.”

    No doubt, she’s more than right: Women are different individuals. Look at Susan Haack versus D.M. Murdock. Reason versus fantastic beliefs. The contrast is striking.

    Still, the ideal of focusing only on what “all of us…have in common as human beings”, making abstraction of all other particulars, such as, in this case, erasing the difference in sex is illusory — one of the great tenets of the fallacy of imposing PC ideology on the working of the brain.

    The “human being” as such doesn’t exist. This is an abstraction conceived by the Enlightenment, in its fight agains the rules of gods. Only physical persons do exist. Those are the characteristics immediately perceived in encountering another “human being”: sex, age, ethnic markers, native environment, then friendly or hostile intentions, face, hair, dress, language, religious beliefs etc…Those are vital components of social recognition and vital to our survival.

    The dream of erasing the social and biological particularities of life is the goal of political correctness, but it is a self-imposed illusion, a modern form of ideology trying to enforce an abstraction as another primary, immediate belief.

    But the abstraction of the modern “human being” remains in fact the product of a long chain of rational thinking that cannot of itself erase the immediate modes of brain functions. It may with the help of sanctions and enforcement control behavior, and play a big role in political and legal theorizing, but it will not become a spontaneous belief of “fast thinking”.

    So, sex, age, language, native origins do remain a factor in the formation of the self. Even John Locke would have to admit it.

    And so, of course, Susan Haack does give us an excellent reminder to refresh our acquaintance with John Locke’s ” Of the Conduct of the Understanding”, and perhaps to review the whole life of John Locke as well.

    “I am not, however, like so many, an evangelical atheist… I’m not inclined to try to dissuade religious people from their convictions—in fact, I’m repelled by evangelism, whether for religion or against it, and allergic to atheism-adopted-with-religious-fervor.”

    I am suspicious of Susan Haack’s equating “fervor” exclusively with religious zeal.

    Fervor is an emotional force that can be used for many pursuits. Religion is not necessarily the only one. But it does remain one of its most visible expressions.

    Enthusiasm and novelty can incite”fervor”. Fervor can become a synonym of passion and infatuation. it can be a style of communication, of teaching.

    Again, I suspect an illusion in tagging all fervor as “evangelism”. It’s a bit like Christian believers denouncing atheism and agnosticism as another form of “religion”. Again it’s the illusion of trying to erase differences, here between the existence of a belief and its non-existence. This is nothing more than linguistic legerdemain.

    There is certainly space for indifference in between opposing fervors, and a distaste of any kind of “fervor”.
    In this case Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and his fervor for the Ionians is not exactly for Susan Haack. She would not have fallen in love with Voltaire either, in his unrelenting fighting against the Christian Church’s intolerance and obscurantism.

    Indifference, or middle-of-the-road standing, is a stance easy to adopt nowadays because we are benefiting from the fervor of the Greek Ionians, and of all the Enlightenment thinkers who had to be on the front line for the cause of critical thinking and rationality, against the grip of superstition and the tyranny of the Christian churches.

    “I’m especially disturbed by the recently popular (and disagreeably self-congratulatory) idea that atheists are somehow smarter than religious people—not true, in my experience: I know plenty of thoughtful and intelligent religious people, and plenty of shallow and none-too-bright atheists.”

    It’s hard to disagree with Susan Haack on that one. The preposterous attempt to use “Brights” as a new name for atheists was self-defeating, if not plain absurd. There are a few other ways to express one’s ideological bent. I find “skepticism” a very good one, at least for myself.

    • says

      Ms. Daisy: Fine is arguing against the scientific establishment, and only against a few very specific claims in it, not the whole of gender differentiation biology. So let’s not misrepresent that. She does not in fact rebut the point Roo was making. But Fine does rebut extreme, exaggerated, careless, and “pop” versions of it. That is an important difference.

      Fine does not even challenge the well-established fact that sex hormones cause physical and neurophysical differences in behavior and perception, for example. And the resulting or related structural differences in the brain are likewise well established and unarguable. Against it “Fine presents no original science but assiduously takes to task those who do, at least where the work seems to show brain gender” (Farrelly). But that practice has its own utility, and Fine does us a service in that respect.

      There are certainly many problems and valid criticisms to be made of much of the gender differentiation literature (both methodological and ideological). And Fine’s more cautious conclusion is correct: we ought to exercise considerable caution when linking neural and hormonal sex differences to “accomplishments” or “abilities,” and any science on this question needs to be more rigorous and intelligent than it has been. But Fine confuses that fact with there being no evidence whatever of biological gender differences in the brain, or in behavior, or personality, or even ability. And that’s simply a fallacy. It’s certainly not science.

      The biggest refutation of Fine’s less cautious thesis is the existence of transgenderism, and its demonstrable association with observable differences in brain structure, and its resulting differences in feelings, interests, and perceptions.

      For an unmistakable analogy, on average women differ in strength from men, and men naturally build muscle faster and more easily than women, and this is biological, not cultural. Thus, men and women do differ in abilities as a result of biology. However, this does not justify the sexist assumption that all women are physically weaker than all men or that no woman can become substantially stronger, with the same effort, than she would be otherwise. I discuss this analogy in detail in my blog Are Women Just Stupid? (where I take on the sexist assumption that the answer is yes).

      To carry that analogy over to the brain, it is undeniable that on average women feel some emotions differently (sometimes more readily or strongly) than men, and that this has a biological cause (both hormonal and in terms of brain structure). The obvious example: sexual libido. This varies just like bodily strength (and thus “average” does not mean “all”), but its distribution in any population differs to a measurable degree by gender and this has been solidly linked to biological differences in brain structure and body chemistry. Many other differences occur, from how vision is processed to how emotions are felt, when someone undergoes hormone replacement therapy and changes their body chemistry to that of their cross-sex gender (changes that therefore cannot be explained as cultural constructs but are unmistakably biological). Those differences will not be a product of brain structure, but we know some differences are (gender dysphoria has identifiable correlations with differences in brain structure that precede hormone replacement therapy, although they have a hormonal cause at stages of fetal development affecting brain construction).

      So just as Fine argues that we shouldn’t take the scientific claims of cognitive gender differences to any extremes, so we should not take Fine’s criticisms to the opposite extreme.

  4. Ariel says

    A real gem! I didn’t expect to see this on ftb. When I was a student (yeah, that was some time ago!) both “Philosophy of Logics” and “Deviant Logic” were primary references for us. It’s sooo nice to see Susan Haack in excellent form, always ready to swim against the current :-) There is a lot that I find congenial in what she says; but for this night (it’s half past midnight here, guys, and I’m a bit drunk!!) I choose that one:

    If I were asked to describe myself, or my philosophical approach or views, “atheist” would be pretty far down the list.

    Exactly so.

    • Andrew says

      Many years ago, when I was a clueless undergrad wasting my opportunities in the Warwick University Philosophy department, I briefly met Susan Haack.

      A tutor had given out two different times for the submission of an essay. I stumbled into the department at the crack of noon, to find the submissions box padlocked – that was the technology of the time.

      In a panic, I threw myself on the mercy of the departmental administrators who replied:

      “You’ll have to see [dramatic pause] Professor Haack!” Further pleading before her formidable (to me) gaze got my essay accepted.

      Perhaps it says something about the department that I’d never heard of her before that day and never saw her again. What she was teaching I never knew. I may have to do some catching-up.

  5. Laurence says

    One of my mentors at my undergraduate university studied with Haack at Miami and edited a book with her on pragmatism.

    • says

      Cool. I had a similar problem with the Kitzmiller ruling (although, like Haack, I found it otherwise spot on). I had long been advocating a different solution, but that decision led me to articulate in more detail my original demarcation principle (not between science and nonscience, but between natural and supernatural, which the Kitzmiller decision conflates) in Defining the Supernatural. This then led to an article in Free Inquiry making the case in print, and my work on this has influenced other scientists and philosophers who cite or defend my position in their own publications (e.g. Yonatan Fishman in a 2007 article for Science & Education, also responding to Kitzmiller). I understand how the courts are constrained by precedents on issues like this (the Kitzmiller demarcation principle is built out of prior rulings, not independent philosophical reasoning, and to an extent the judge had no choice in that respect), but I do hope we can get this one changed–for the reasons I lay out in my intro to Defining the Supernatural.

  6. says

    Haack (ever since I read her contribution in _The Flight from Science and Reason_) has been on my read-list. Interesting to see Bunge’s _Philosophy in Crisis_ mentioned too. I’ve been trying to figure out my response to that for the 10+ years since it made its rather provocative claims.

    I wonder what Haack would say to the idea of a hypothetical piece of software I’ve contemplated for years now: a world view builder. Some *good* way to represent views metaphilosophically. This is because one of Bunge’s complaints can be read as saying that we have all these little papers about problems, and even if we are convinced that (say) someone has gotten it right, how do we check it against a big picture? Now, Bunge (and in a different way, Haack) are realists – they think one should try, asymptotically, to do this. I have no idea how to start such a project – which I thought also would be good for students.

    Incidentally, the “systems building” stuff is so foreign to some contemporaries that they miss its point in otherwise perceptive works. Peter Simons’ classic of mereology, _Parts_, misses one advantage of Bunge’s mereology because he fails to see how it takes part in a system. In this case, it allows proving of a very basic conservation law. A filling in of another “crossword entry” in Haack’s metaphor. (It is interesting to finally hear where that comes from!)

    • says

      I do have ideas of how to start such a project. And I may do so in a few years (when I have no other projects). I’ve already got much of the project plan written.

      I have no idea how to write system-coherence-testing software, though. I was expecting to use the only one of those that we already have in operation: humans trained in vetting logical syllogisms.

      But if you have something more concrete in mind, let’s talk.

  7. says

    i just rewatched your you tube thing about ACTS. it should be required at every divinity school in the country. ancient history is not only about jesus contra (ALL OF THEM). he is (to me) the least interesting figure of the first century.

  8. says

    Possible interviewee, and even blogger (although I don’t know enough about her work to vouch for it): Indian philosopher (and biologist) Meera Nanda. She’s done a lot of work criticizing Hindu fundamentalism in India, and connected it to the uses of science-denying postmodernist philosophy. Worth looking into, maybe. (She’s mentioned positively — albeit with heavy qualifiers attached — in Elizabeth Anderson’s essay “How Not to Criticize Feminist Epistemology: a Review of Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology”, which is where I saw her name, and thought that she might be worth looking into.)

    • says

      Funny you should mention that. I read and blurbed her latest book for her and was planning to blog it next month. Asking her for an interview is a good idea. I’ll do that.

  9. Loren Petrich says

    Susan Haack has also written about “the six signs of scientism”:

    1. The honorific use of “science” and its cognates
    2. Inappropriately borrowed scientific trappings
    3. Preoccupation with “the problem of demarcation”
    4. The quest for “scientific method”
    5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope
    6. Denigrating the non-scientific
    Susan Haack – Six Signs of Scientism – YouTube

    Some of what she describes seems like what Richard Feynman had called “cargo cult science”. What might she herself think of that label?

    On the demarcation problem, I prefer to avoid it and think of pseudoscience as failed science or seriously flawed science.