Interview with Elizabeth Anderson

This is the next in my series of interviews with my favorite women in philosophy (see the intro to my interview with Susan Haack for why I am running this series and how you can help me). Some won’t appear…my favorite female philosopher of all time is Philippa Foot, who is sadly deceased (and thus unavailable for interview), and a close second is Martha Nussbaum, who as a practicing Jew does not count herself an atheist and so declined to be interviewed for this project.

Today I’m speaking with Elizabeth Anderson, who is the John Rawls Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is best known for her book Value in Ethics and Economics (Harvard 1993), which challenges the notion that all goods can be commodified (i.e. regarded as fungibly equivalent to money) and sees what follows when we abandon that notion; and most recently for her strong defense of reasonable affirmative action policies in The Imperative of Integration (Princeton 2010) [for more see her cv].

I agree a bit less with Anderson than with Haack, at least on some issues (I do agree with her on a lot of things, too, and in this interview, I agree with nearly everything), but her work has been important in making the best non-straw-man case for views different from my own, and has actually changed and improved my own views in result. In this respect she reminds me of A.J. Ayer, who helped me structure much of my thought, and it was precisely in answering (or improving on) him that led me to my current views (in his case, regarding epistemology and semantics; in Anderson’s case, with regard to ethics, value theory, and politics). I am thus not a logical positivist, but I’m a much better philosopher for having taken the best of them seriously. So, too, Anderson.


Interview with Elizabeth Anderson

R.C.: Thank you so much for taking the time and agreeing to this interview for FreethoughtBlogs. As a philosopher myself, I often encounter the attitude that philosophers are useless to society, not important, they don’t even do anything except dress up opinions in academic language, that philosophy is a career dead-end or a waste of potential (“Why didn’t you become a doctor or a physicist or at least a lawyer something?”). I have my own way of responding to that. But I’m curious about yours. There’s a lot of pain and labor and sacrifice and expense to get all the way to completing a Ph.D., so we have to be really driven by something! So why did you pursue a career in philosophy? And I don’t mean as a teacher, but as a philosopher, actually doing philosophy, not just teaching it.

E.A.: I originally wanted to be an economist. I was entranced by the libertarian model of rational individuals freely cooperating in the market in ways that redound to the advantage of all. Economic theories of markets seemed to show the way. Ironically, given its reputation, philosophy brought me down to earth. Or, more specifically, Amartya Sen’s work at the intersection of economics and philosophy. His deft deconstruction of the concept of “preference” in economics, which demonstrated a raft of ambiguities that blocked the standard inference from “P chose A when B was available” to “P is better off with A than B,” led me to think that critical philosophical methods could yield important normative insights into the workings of social institutions and practices that pure economic modeling would not.

I’ve always been fascinated by big ideas—such as freedom, justice, and equality—but troubled by the simplistic ways people try to translate those ideas into practice. My mission as a philosopher is to develop ways of thinking about how to realize those ideas in ways that are true to the complexities of social life. Against the view that philosophy is useless, John Maynard Keynes once said “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.” While I wouldn’t go as far as “little else,” Keynes was right that philosophical ideas are a force to be reckoned with.

R.C.: I agree. I’ve often made the point in my writing and speeches, that we all rely on philosophical assumptions, about nearly everything, in nearly every decision we make–whether we are aware of it or not. So we ought to be aware of it, and test those assumptions for validity or merit. Which entails doing philosophy! And once you get started on that, you find there is a lot to do.

But we each get more done on some things than others, and we can’t all master everything. Which means philosophy, just like science or history, has to be a collective effort. Which brings me to my next question. Of all your work (books and articles), what do you think most represents you and sets you apart as a philosopher? And why that?

E.A.: My latest book, The Imperative of Integration (Princeton University Press, 2010), best shows what I am up to. It’s a demonstration of how to carry out a pragmatist social philosophy for the present day. Dewey argued that moral and political judgments were of a piece with scientific judgments: they are subject to testing in experience. The fundamental test of any moral or political claim is to live in accordance with it and see if we can live with the results. Does it solve our problems, or at least make headway on them? This requires, first off, a diagnosis of what our problems are. Moral and political philosophy therefore must, from the very start, closely engage the social sciences. This requires [in turn] that social scientific inquiry be shaped by our moral and political concerns.

A lot of ink has been spilled over how to do this at a very abstract methodological level. But for a pragmatist, the proof is in the pudding. One must put the methodology through its paces through engagement with actual cases. In my book, I focus on the problem of systematic group inequality: the fact that enduring lines of socioeconomic and political advantage and disadvantage tend to track boundaries of group identity–by race, gender, ethnicity, religion, language, caste, class—identities that differ from society to society but tend to fall into typical patterns. I show how group segregation is the linchpin of group inequality, demonstrate how this works in the case of black-white inequality in the U.S., and show how racial integration is needed to overcome unjust race-based disadvantage and also make our society more democratic. Close engagement with empirical work in the social sciences is the hallmark of my method. Philosophers tend to put way too much stock in the a priori. We need to go out and study the world if we are to have a hope of shaping normative concepts suitable to it.

R.C.: Right on. I wholeheartedly agree. That’s exactly how all philosophy should be done. And why science should be more informed and driven by philosophy, to help pursue better answers to philosophical questions. Ditto for political theory and practice. In my first book I argued (among other things) that political philosophy, and actual policy, must be evidence-based, not ideology-based. So we’re definitely on the same page. And your analysis of the different kinds of affirmative action and their relative merits (morally and in practice) is the best of its kind. What are you working on now? And why that?

E.A.: I’m working on a history of egalitarianism, from the Levellers to the present. I’m casting it as the critical and experimental thought and practice of egalitarian social movements, such as radical abolitionism, feminism, socialism, and democracy. Egalitarians have always been very sharp about what they are against, which is social hierarchies of subordination, stigmatization, and marginalization. They aim to replace these hierarchies with social relations of equality. But what would a society of equals look like? That’s always been contested, and many experiments have been tried. Some have failed (think of socialist communes), others have engendered huge improvements in the human condition (think of social insurance). It’s another way to develop a pragmatist political philosophy.

[This] also functions as a critique of contemporary egalitarian theorizing, much of which has lost touch with the normative impulses behind egalitarian social movements and replaced them with wholly abstract notions of cosmic justice. Now some philosophers, such as Derek Parfit and Larry Temkin, imagine that egalitarianism is the view that equal distributions of goods across individuals, even if they live on different planets and have no causal interactions or even knowledge of each other, are intrinsically good. This has nothing to do with anything any egalitarian in the history of egalitarianism ever cared about. It’s time to get back to issues worth caring about. I started to articulate what those issues are for egalitarians in “What is the Point of Equality?” in Ethics 109 (1999): 287-337, and a series of papers following that one. Doing history is another way to vindicate that project.

R.C.: I’ll keep an eye out for that. It definitely touches on areas I’m interested in. I’m concerned about egalitarian extremism, but also interested in gathering together the egalitarian ideas that are valid. It sounds like your next book will be required reading there.

Related to the question of integration and egalitarianism is an issue I raised in my interview with Haack, inspired by my own observations, and even more so by the revelations of the Being a Woman in Philosophy blog, a project of the Women in Philosophy Task Force at MIT: the treatment of women in philosophy, even driving them away from it. As a major proponent of integration policies, this sounds like this would be right in your wheelhouse. My next few questions relate to that.

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?

E.A.: My first permanent academic position was at the University of Michigan, where I have remained. I was the only woman in my department when I joined it in 1987. At least 3 women prior to me had either been denied tenure or left when the handwriting was on the wall. One of my colleagues took me out to lunch on my very first day of work, to explain that the Department wasn’t sexist, it was just that my predecessors weren’t any good. Then he handed me his draft of a nasty review of a book by a female philosopher in his field whose reputation already outshone his. It concluded that many people have claimed that women didn’t have the talent to be good philosophers, and this book offered no counterexample to that claim. (Another of my colleagues persuaded him to drop that last sentence, something that may have protected him but not me from damage.)

It wasn’t just him. Several of my colleagues at the time were resistant to any suggestions that the lack of women in the department, and their failure to flourish there, was of any concern. The merest suggestion that this was a concern—coming, for example, from the Dean’s office—would send them into an aggressive-defensive posture, where the basic reaction was to construe such suggestions as vile personal attacks on their character, to be rejected with outrage. Time and again, the focus of discussion in department meetings and other conversations turned away from how women in the department were doing to the infinitely more important issue of how the men’s egos were being unjustly wounded by anyone raising the subject.

I wasn’t much of a feminist when I started at UM. But these highly unconstructive and narcissistic responses led me to read a lot of feminist theory as well as social psychology. It also led me to build connections with scholars in Women’s Studies. For many female academics, Women’s Studies was and is a spectacular refuge, a wonderfully lively, sharp, witty and wise group of scholars where one knows one is always welcome and appreciated, where one can simply focus on ideas without the adolescent sparring and jockeying so common to philosophy and academia more generally, and without the sullen resentfulness of those who imagine that an invitation to share a concern is a scurrilous personal accusation.

It’s hard to recognize quality in an atmosphere of sullen resentfulness, even on the part of those who don’t personally feel that way, but who sympathize somewhat with those who do. Affirmative action in such contexts is undertaken with a guilty conscience, where the guilt is not over a history of exclusion but over what feels like lowering standards to let women in. That attitude doesn’t do women any favors. It’s remarkable how much people continue to trust their judgments of quality even when experiments show time and again how unreliable they are. It’s even more remarkable when one considers that the opacity and cognitive biases of the mind are central themes in the canon of 17th and 18th c. philosophy, which every philosopher has read.

I am happy to report that things have improved dramatically. The presence of a critical mass of women enables everyone to recognize quality in female applicants, and to successfully cultivate their talent when they are hired. Offers to women have long since become a matter of course, enthusiastic, and guilt-free. That was the point of affirmative action all along. I explain all this in my book [The Imperative of Integration], complete with the relevant cognitive and social psychology, for those who want to understand what affirmative action is really about, rather than the dysfunctional guilty version that so many tend to confuse with the real thing.

R.C.: Do you think more women should pursue advanced degrees in philosophy? And what would you tell women that might inspire them to do that?

E.A.: Philosophy is still way behind most other fields with respect to attracting women. A majority of undergraduate majors in psychology, the life sciences, and most of the humanities are women. Half of all math majors nationwide are women. Yet only about 1/3 of philosophy majors are women. None of the standard stereotypes about biologically-based cognitive differences between men and women can explain this.

Reputation and marketing may have something to do with this. Jacquelynne Eccles, a psychologist at my university, is one of the leading investigators of why girls disproportionately drop out of the academic tracks leading to STEM fields as early as 9th grade. She has found that girls tend to find engineering unattractive when it is represented as an opportunity for geeks to tinker with cool hi-tech toys and games. They are much more likely to pursue it when it is represented as an opportunity to develop technology that helps people.  It would be worth investigating whether philosophy also suffers from a reputation that drives women away. In fact, there are many, many different routes into philosophy. We should explore and highlight routes that would attract more women.

R.C.: What advice would you give to women already aspiring to be philosophers?

E.A.: Find or create a community of scholars where you are unequivocally welcome, where you can let down your guard and just focus on ideas and not on how you are performing before others (a self-conscious stance that tends to degrade confidence and performance). Have the courage of your curiosity and follow it where it leads: there is nothing like the joy of discovery to keep one going. Read up on how bias works so you are prepared to recognize and deal with it.

R.C.: That’s a good point. It’s important to be aware of the cognitive biases science has confirmed in us, not just so we can guard against or compensate for them in ourselves, but also so we can detect when others are falling victim to them. And we should keep that in mind even when making choices of where to study. I’m thinking of great resources like Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) and The End of Diversity as We Know It. And of course the literature you cite in Integration.

I’d like to jump back now to my opening subject and explore the future of philosophy in general. Do you see philosophers as “useful” to society? In what ways?

E.A.: Philosophical questions arise from reflection on the tensions and contradictions latent in ordinary thought and practice. Once we notice them, there is no going back. Questions demand answers. One reflection leads to another. We find ourselves doing philosophy just as we find ourselves deliberating—because carrying on unreflectively is no longer an option. This is most evident for moral and political philosophy, where we must make moral and political judgments all the time.

But philosophical concerns arise in all the other disciplines. Think of how the social sciences wrestle with the obvious importance of values and human interests in their research. Or the metaphysical issues of social ontology: do races really exist? Epistemological concerns arise also in everyday life. I was once on a jury in which we had to think about what reasonable doubt meant in weighing evidence. If one could reasonably doubt each piece of evidence taken in isolation, did that mean we should toss out each doubtful piece one by one and never consider it again, as the defense wanted us to do, or should reasonable doubt be judged against the totality of the evidence? We took the correct Bayesian approach, which was to judge the totality of the evidence–but not before discussing the matter.

Even moral and political philosophy looks useless if we do not take the right timeframe. Recall Keynes’s claim that ideas rule the world. While there is a lot of truth to this, we must keep in mind that it can take a very long time for an idea to triumph. Consider sovereignty. For centuries, unaccountability was considered an essential feature of sovereigns. The monarch, Burke insisted, was “perfectly irresponsible” —meaning that he answered to no one, that he didn’t have to justify his actions, however arbitrary, to his subjects. That’s subjects, not citizens. Now, the only people who think this are dictators. The citizens over whom they rule certainly don’t believe it. Just look at the Arab Spring. Now, we think those who run the government are public servants.

This understanding, where the people are the principals, and government officeholders the agents, is a complete reversal of the relations of governors to people from that of the bulk of human history. We also think sovereignty is limited by human rights. This understanding is also global, certainly not exclusively or even primarily Western. The most forceful advocates of universal human rights have always been those who were denied them. But the idea of universal human rights is a deeply philosophical idea, cultivated for centuries by philosophers before coming to fruition.

R.C.: That’s a good point. The notion of human rights was already being explored by Stoic philosophers before the rise of the Roman Empire (as I point out in Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy), and became somewhat codified in various ways in Roman law even under the Empire, before it started to become increasingly ignored. Then it was picked up again in various ways later on.

Yet ironically, the Roman Empire is when the idea of sovereignty you refer to did its first switcheroo. Greco-Roman political philosophy advocated the modern view you mention: that rulers are agents of the people, and accountable to them. The notion of an emperor above the law only evolved over the imperial period and became more or less tacit by the end of the Roman crisis (arguably by adopting a then-Eastern model of sovereignty, in which the ruler was a stand-in for God, and chosen by God, which is also, incidentally, the model advocated throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New). This notion was then picked up wholeheartedly by Christians thereafter. It took a really long time to revive the earlier ideas of sovereignty, longer to make them a reality.

There’s a story there. And it’s a story of ideas. And of the arguments for and against them. And that’s philosophy. Even if it’s all going on among the commons and not the academic elite, or even if the academic elite are just articulating and giving structure and sense to the philosophy of the commons. It’s philosophy all the same.

But there are still naysayers, who would say that that isn’t really philosophy, it’s just thinking out loud. Is philosophy just “dressing up opinions in academic language”? If not, then what is it?

E.A.: Some psychologists tell us that people will not change their minds on the basis of arguments, but rather will come up with arguments to justify whatever opinions they already hold. This is the source of the view that philosophy, which is all about argumentation, is inert, useless, and pretentious.

It is true that at the individual level, on-the-spot fundamental belief change in response to the force of argument alone is rare. That is the wrong model to take of how philosophical argumentation is supposed to work, however. There are really three points to make here.

First, recall my point above about timescales. Philosophers take the long view. In science, too, this is how reason works when the most fundamental issues are at stake. Thomas Kuhn famously remarked that new paradigms triumph not by changing minds, but by changing generations. The old guard is too hidebound, having staked their careers in a stagnant paradigm. The next generation is not just irrationally taking on new opinions, however, but rightly sees genuine prospects for advance in the new ways of thinking. The changing of the guard tracks a progress of reason.

From a pragmatist point of view this is only to be expected. Not only is habit change difficult and costly, but the most important reasons one can have for adopting a new view are ex post, demonstrated through the fruits of acting in accordance with that view. So it takes time for new views to be vindicated. Even within the lifetimes of individuals we can see significant changes of moral view. People do mature, wise up, with life experience. Disillusionment with one’s former ideals in light of one’s experiences in acting in accordance with them is not uncommon. Once we get away from thinking that a priori reasoning is the touchstone of philosophical argumentation we can abandon the presumption that belief change upon confrontation with arguments ought to be immediate.

Second, rationality is more a feature of collectives than of individuals. Individuals are stubborn and biased, but [just] get the organization of collective inquiry right, and the group is far wiser than the sum of its members. The march of reason is manifested on a larger scale than the individual taken in isolation.

Third, fundamental philosophical ideas like “democracy” always start off underspecified. Arguments and justifications invariably advance particular specifications of the big ideas, and commit people to developing and exploring those specifications, which get sharper through layers of objection and reply. Kuhn called this process “normal science” but the same kind of argument-induced within-paradigm change works in philosophy generally. At this level, argumentation is powerful even for individuals on short timescales.

R.C.: Thanks for that. Those three points are spot on. I hadn’t thought of it so clearly before. Hey. That’s even a demonstration of your every principle! You just did some philosophy that sharpened nebulous ideas in my mind, made them clear and numerable. And now I’ll be spreading that meme wherever I have occasion to. And through those who pick it up from me, others will be infected by it in turn. It’s reasonable to suspect the butterfly just flapped its wings. And so begins the slow march of change. Or if not now, then eventually, with some idea or other. Throw enough darts at the board and one is eventually going to hit. But none will ever hit if none get thrown.

Speaking of big ideas and long-term change, though, I have to ask now what many readers at Freethought Blogs will want to know. Do you identify as an atheist, or with any particular religion or worldview?

E.A.: Despite my last name I am considered Jewish under Jewish religious law because my mother is Jewish. There is a distinguished Jewish intellectual tradition of atheism coming out of Spinoza, who is one of the great moral and intellectual heroes of modern philosophy. I was raised Unitarian, another religion that imposes no confessional requirements on its members, and that also has a distinguished freethinking tradition.

A consequence of such an upbringing is that instead of accepting theism uncritically as a default presumption, or because of overwhelming social pressure to do so (as in evangelical Protestant churches, where there is an expected answer to the question “are you saved”?), I was free to demand a positive reason to believe. Dispassionate investigation finds no such reason. Indeed I have found overwhelming reason to believe that there is no God, especially not the God of the Bible. Those curious to know my reasons are welcome to read “If God is Dead, is Everything Permitted?,” in Louise Antony, ed., Philosophers without Gods (Oxford University Press, 2007), reprinted in Christopher Hitchens, ed., The Portable Atheist (DaCapo Press/Perseus Books, 2007).

R.C.: Knowing that thousands of atheists are reading this–in fact you have an audience of thousands of them at this very moment–what do you most want to say to them? (And hey, it can be encouragement, advice, or criticism, anything.)

E.A.: We atheists are living in the midst of a tremendous revival of politicized religious enthusiasm, and a reconfiguration of religious coalitions in which denominations that were once enemies—such as evangelical Protestants and Catholics—are now allied. It is a telling fact about the U.S. today that voters report a greater willingness to vote for a Muslim than an atheist for President, despite the anti-Muslim rhetoric pervading the political scene. Atheists will survive this. Far more dangerous is the adoption of an essentially religious, dogmatic, anti-scientific epistemology for politics generally. When the overwhelming scientific evidence for global warming is rejected on the basis of a reading of Noah’s covenant with God, in which God supposedly promised humans that he would never again destroy the earth, humanity itself is in big trouble.

There is a vital practical question of how to respond to this. Atheists are divided between a militant, in-your-face critique of religious belief on rational and scientific grounds, and a conciliatory approach, which tries to persuade the religious that science is not threatening their faith, so they should come on board the scientific project.

At its most extreme, the conciliatory approach leads to Stephen Jay Gould’s view of science and religion as having “nonoverlapping magisteria,” with science having authority over facts, and religion having authority over values. I find this view repugnant. Religious authorities have no authority whatsoever over moral and political values. American religious faiths today, and orthodox and fundamentalist faiths worldwide, insofar as they speak about these values, are dominated by a toxic brew of classism, militarism, nationalism, patriarchy, homophobia, and obsession with sexual repression. There is nothing remotely moral or just in any of this. The revelation of the Catholic Church’s worldwide conspiracy to protect thousands of child rapists in its ranks for decades reveals the consequences of moral deference to organized religion. In any event, Gould’s view is a complete nonstarter for the religious themselves, who reject the idea that religion makes no ontological claims.

On the other hand, so-called “militant” atheism, while intellectually far more rigorous and satisfying, may be counterproductive in the short run. Given the urgency of getting people on board the scientific project, it is not necessarily a good strategy to stress the atheistic implications of contemporary science. We atheists need a deeper understanding of the social and political psychology of religious faith in the modern day to figure out the most effective response.

R.C.: Yes. To harken back to your methodological point earlier, we do need some real, evidence-based, sociological research here.

But just so my readers are aware, my view is that confrontational atheism is the only strategy available. Because there is no getting the cat back into the bag. We could not hide the fact that science discredits all religions, even if we were disingenuous or unscrupulous enough to try. Religion is in fact the primary barrier to accepting science. Conciliation is not going to get past that–unless it aims to convert people to more liberal versions of their creeds, which outsiders can never do (so that’s a fool’s errand as far as I can see). I also have seen the critique of religion (when honest, accurate, and well articulated) work. That is, I know a lot of people who have left the faith, or softened their faith, when persistently confronted with it. I know of no one who left religion without it (just those who never had religion to begin with).

But I also think we need a more practical second wing, a positive atheism or social goods wing, that builds and promotes the benefits of atheism and a godless community, making both more attractive, and their good works more visible (a really good book to read on this point is Sikivu Hutchinson’s Moral Combat).

But again, those are just working hypotheses. It would be nice to have some scientists working this question. (I do try to nudge young future scientists to do that, wherever I meet them.)

The intellectual part of the positive atheism program, however, is one I myself have embarked upon, that of building credible, useful godless worldviews that can do all the work that religious worldviews claim to, only with empirical, rational and non-dogmatic elements and foundations. Which brings me back to my concern over the future of philosophy.

In 2001 Mario Bunge wrote a book called Philosophy in Crisis, in which he outlined ten ways philosophy was failing as a field, ten ways in which philosophy had lost its way. His basic point was that philosophy used to be more relevant to the common man, more engaged with the real world, and more interested in making progress in its conclusions. Before I read that book I had come to some of the same conclusions on my own, and I have since read some other things making similar points, and I’ve heard the same from others both inside and outside the field. So I’m always curious what professional philosophers think about this.

Not all of Bunge’s complaints are of equal worry or true of all philosophers. But some of them do seem to be worrying trends that have sapped the relevance out of philosophy for most of the public. It would be too much to talk about them all. So I’ll just pick two of the five or so that I find most important…

E.A.: I don’t know Bunge’s work. But it reminds me of Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy, which was a call to philosophers to work on problems arising in real life, rather than pure a priori speculation about matters that can never make a difference.

R.C. Right. One of Bunge’s points, though, was that philosophers are no longer building worldviews. Instead, it seems like all we have are isolated specialists, who don’t do any work in establishing the foundations even for their specialty. Aristotle wrote on epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and politics and sought to integrate them all into a coherent system, so that each could rest on the foundation of the other, and if they couldn’t, he knew he had to adjust one or the other. Other philosophical schools then built their own systems and debated whether theirs was closer to the truth than his. But no one does this anymore.

When I wrote Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (AuthorHouse 2005) it was to fill this gap, presenting and defending a complete worldview, covering all five Aristotelian categories and showing how they were interrelated and built on the facts so far ascertained by the sciences. It bothers me that no other book in the modern era did what that book does, nor has any book since. So my (very ambitious) questions about this are: Why are philosophers no longer doing this? Shouldn’t they be?

E.A.: Like all the other disciplines, philosophy has gotten specialized. There is just too much to know to fit into a single picture. Even though Dewey was the last completely comprehensive philosopher, in the sense of someone who wrote book-length treatises on every single subfield of philosophy, offering a unified view of the whole, I don’t think he would necessarily regret the downfall of comprehensive systematic philosophy. From a pragmatist perspective, I don’t find this regrettable either. I find contemporary philosophy of science, for example, at its best and most illuminating when it is focusing in on specific theories, findings, methods, and practices in particular sciences, rather than offering up completely general theories of laws of nature, for example.

R.C.: I agree there’s merit in that. But, again to my readers, I don’t think one can be done without the other. All those specialized, focused studies rest on a foundation of assumptions in all the other areas of philosophy (epistemology generally, overall metaphysics, metaethics, political assumptions, aesthetic assumptions). Personally, I think it can’t tend to any good if they are left unexamined and no one even asks whether the system of assumptions they are resting on is even coherent, much less true. I also think what people need is a comprehensive and coherent worldview, into which they can fit (and make sense of) all those more particular results. Because lacking that, they pull to religion, the only business currently selling that product.

But as I said to Dr. Haack, that’s my own soap box to stand on and drum to beat.

Which relates to another concern of mine. Bunge’s second most worrying point (to me, at least) was that philosophers aren’t defending any standard of progress in their field. I would assume anyone committed to logic should agree that a conclusion reached by logically valid argument from premises whose truth is highly probable should be agreed upon as most probably the correct conclusion. For example, it can be proven that “free will” can be defined in various ways, and that on some of those definitions, given present scientific facts, “free will” almost certainly exists, and on others it almost certainly does not (and only new scientific evidence could change either conclusion).

So my next questions are: Shouldn’t conclusions reached by logically valid argument, from premises that are agreed to be very probably true, be considered by all philosophers as resolved? Couldn’t we just catalogue all this progress as “established philosophy” so philosophers can build on that, rather than having to reinvent the wheel over and over again? Or is there no such thing as progress in philosophy?

E.A.: The former President of the University of Michigan, James Duderstadt (an engineer), once suggested a similar project for the humanities generally. Why not get all the top Shakespeare scholars together at a conference to work out the definitive interpretation of Hamlet once and for all, and put the results online? That would put an end to all the academic squabbling and make the humanities genuinely progressive disciplines with an accumulation of knowledge over time.

I think you can see where this is headed. In any interpretive discipline, results can never be final because we are always coming at the subject from different angles, which partially constitute the object of knowledge itself. Every generation, each individual reader even, brings a somewhat different set of concerns and orientations, problems and conceptual frameworks, to bear on the object of study. This is why it is always possible to read the classics afresh and find new insights in them.

Philosophers pretend that this is not so for our discipline. We are all trained to write as if from nowhere, in an impersonal voice, as if asserting claims that are true in all possible worlds. This is part of our obsession with the a priori. In reality we are all responding to problems and questions that are not eternal, but inevitably reflect engagement with historically and culturally contingent configurations of concepts, methods, analytical tools, and real-world problems. The particular ways we abstract from our present predicament always leave their traces in the abstractions themselves.

Thus, when I teach the history of political philosophy, I put the theories in historical context. We read Hobbes’ Leviathan in the context of Behemoth, Hobbes’ account of the causes of the English Civil War. We read Rousseau’s Social Contract in the context of the constitutional crisis of Geneva in his day. We read Mill’s The Subjection of Women in the context of the common law of coverture, which denied married women any standing as legal persons independent of their husbands. Dozens of puzzles about these works are solved once we put them in historical context. So even when we think we are asking the same question as Plato was asking, in reality we are reconceiving what the question is really about. Plato’s question, “What is justice?” simply isn’t the same as our question today, although we like to suppose otherwise. That, plus new tools, leads to different answers.

We should not despair of this, but frankly acknowledge what the philosophical voice refuses whenever it pretends to sketch a view from nowhere. Philosophy is immeasurably more lively, interesting, illuminating, and useful when it starts from the particulars of our current self-understandings and predicaments and engages questions arising from everyday life and practice.

R.C.: I certainly agree with that. But I believe there are also universals underlying the particulars. There is, in other words, a relevant sense in which Hobbes (for example) was either right or wrong, his premises being either true or false, his inferences from them being either logically valid or not. That’s entirely apart from his historical context, or the particularity of his concerns and answers, which are all still valid facts to take into account. Even science must always deal with the historically-bound particular (there is no universal vaccine, no universal car engine, no universal chemical; new planets, new species cannot be deduced from physical laws, you just have to keep looking for them; etc.) yet still lays a foundation for them in general laws (the frameworks of astronomy, biology, chemistry, etc.).

That’s why I’d say philosophy differs from literature. There can be infinitely many things you can get out of literature, and therefore infinitely many ways to use or interpret (for example) Shakespeare, which are all mutually compatible (they can all simultaneously be true without contradiction). This is not the case in philosophy. Or science. Or even history. Although history can permit more possibilities to be argued, for lack of data to pin down which one is definitively true. Nevertheless, even history as a field makes progress by establishing or ruling out possibilities and the relative degrees of evidence supporting each. Its methods become more advanced. In most areas it builds an ever-larger foundation of well-established facts and pursues further inquiry by resting on those foundations. And so on.

Philosophy has within it subjects as data-poor as history, but also subjects nearly as data-rich as science (as you yourself note, philosophy should even be building on the foundations of science). And yet if even history makes measurable progress in its understanding, I must conclude, so should philosophy.

You might have something to say about that, though.

E.A.: I agree with you that there is progress in philosophy in the way you define it. Hobbes thought governments with divided sovereignty (say, between legislative and executive branches) were inherently unstable. We now know how to design constitutions like this that support highly stable governments. Hobbes was wrong, and our knowledge of this is certainly progress. I’m less persuaded that this marks such a stark contrast with literature. It is possible to rule out some interpretations of literary works with a high degree of confidence. But because interpretive elements are inescapable in philosophy, literature, and indeed all of the human sciences, that still leaves us with a lot of room to play with.

R.C.: Agreed. Which, of course, I think should be treated exactly as such: just as in history, for example, wherever there really is a lot of room to play with, then certainty ought not be claimed. Philosophers should be humbler in those cases than often they are. But you certainly agree with me there. Now let me ask you what your own soap box is. Do you yourself see anything about the way philosophy is done today that could be changed for the better?

E.A.: As I have been saying, philosophy today puts way too much stock in the a priori. It wasn’t always so. This is the historical legacy of the evolution of the academic disciplines. As so many disciplines—psychology, economics, sociology, linguistics—split off from philosophy, philosophers were left trying to stake out a territory of their own, and basically decided it was that part of the domain of the a priori that mathematics had not already claimed. The effects of this have been mostly baleful. There are important countercurrents to this: feminist philosophy, social epistemology, experimental philosophy, and philosophy of science (when practiced as it normally is today, in close engagement with particular scientific theories) offer vital alternatives.

R.C.: Amen to all that.


  1. says

    (Sorry, I still haven’t figured out the HTML here.)

    Richard, you wrote:

    “I often encounter the attitude that philosophers are useless to society, not important, they don’t even do anything except dress up opinions in academic language, that philosophy is a career dead-end or a waste of potential”

    All true in many cases, don’t you think?

    “There’s a lot of pain and labor and sacrifice and expense to get all the way to completing a Ph.D., so we have to be really driven by something!

    Surely one does not have to have a PhD — nor be addicted to pain, labor, sacrifice or expense — to be a philosopher?

    Conversely, must everyone who has a PhD in philosophy be considered a philosopher? I tend to subscribe to some — not all — of Schopenhauer’s sentiments about Professorenphilosophie fuer Philosophieprofessoren being something distinct from and distinctly inferior to the genuine article. But I, like he, suffered some bitter failure in academia, and so in my case as in his some room must be given to the possibility of sour grapes.

    • says

      I agree with you somewhat. There are a lot of crap philosophers in the field; and historically many good ones without Ph.D.’s.

      But the latter still undergo a lot of “pain, labor, sacrifice or expense” to become experts in what they reach conclusions in (most especially those who become full fledged philosophers, writing authoritatively on all five main branches of philosophy). Thus even when we include people who get parallel degrees (my Ph.D. is in history of philosophy) or equivalent educational careers (Aristotle and Hume devoted most of their lives to philosophy and related disciplines, as has Eliezar Yudkowsky), nothing changes as far as my point and my question in the review.

      As to the former, that relates to my last questions in the review: philosophy has developed no real standard of progress (and thus no real standard of quality or competence or contribution). Philosophy Ph.D.’s can thus be used as covers for bad thinking (much like the use Behe has put to his Ph.D. in biochemistry). But that does not mean all philosophy Ph.D.’s are so used. As the cv’s of Haack and Andersen well prove.

      I have long agreed with your general point, though.

      Take history as a field. That requires considerable expert training to be competent at it, because you need a slew of skills and background knowledge and field-specific methods that take years to develop. I outline this point in detail in chapter two of my book Proving History. Philosophy, however, only requires one skill (a good command of logic and a developed habit for spotting logical fallacies) and can then build on as much background knowledge you then work to acquire (e.g. if you only study one subject by thoroughly reading up on it, as long as you satisfy the first condition, you can be a good philosopher in that one subject). It is thus easier, in principle, to be a good philosopher, than a good [anything else academic]. But ironically, many a Ph.D. in philosophy doesn’t really even have that one skill they need down pat, or they learned it but make no good use of it; and many ignore the need of acquiring or even using extensive background knowledge (both Andersen and Haack complained of this, as in the past have I).

      So I would say good philosophers are few among the many; but today, most of the good ones will have Ph.D.’s in philosophy or a closely related field (history of philosophy; logic; rhetoric; a theoretical science or two; etc.); and that is still the best way to become a good philosopher, as long as you take seriously what it means to become a good philosopher (and by that I don’t just mean giving it lip service or claiming to have satisfied the conditions it requires).

  2. says

    Elizabeth Anderson says:

    “Atheists are divided between a militant, in-your-face critique of religious belief on rational and scientific grounds, and a conciliatory approach, which tries to persuade the religious that science is not threatening their faith, so they should come on board the scientific project.”

    There is another approach: to refuse to debate religion with believers, on the grounds that — well, that religious faith is absurd, and has been thoroughly refuted for centuries (if not for millennia, with the acceptance of sensible conclusions being interrupted and driven underground by Christianity and Islam, and those religions’ refusal to debate their belief in any meaningful way), and that arguments which apologists bring do not rise to a level of seriousness which would make them worthy of comment.

    Or to use Richard’s term, the subject has been resolved. To continue to debate with apologists is worse than re-inventing the wheel over and over: it is running on their hamster wheels, keeping their sails full of wind.

    We don’t debate the merits of human sacrifice, although, if James Frazer was right, most or all of our ancestors used to practice it. Philosophers no longer spend much time entertaining the validity of astrology and alchemy in debate. All of those things have been relegated to the past of academic debate. And yet so many atheists insist that religious nonsense must be debated.

    Well, not me.

    • says

      Non-engagement is a losing strategy. It surrenders the market in souls to the liars and lunatics: if only they are selling, only their product is getting bought. Lies and errors must be countered, publicly and persistently. That is the only way such things are suppressed, and the public (especially future generations) inoculated against them. And since I have seen aggressive atheism (i.e. out, open, active, non-silent atheism) deconvert many, I know it works. And finally, all issues of public policy and public morality run into the wall called religion. Progress requires tearing down that wall. There is no other option.

    • says

      Perhaps you misunderstood me. I’m not silent. I’m not talking about an Epicurean withdrawal into an ivory tower. Not at all. I talk about religion plenty, and about the problems it causes. I’m out, I’m open, I’m making as much noise as I can. I just don’t debate religion with believers, no more than I debate astrology with astrologers. I mock, I deride, I accuse, I denounce, I warn. I don’t debate, though. I believe the debate is over, and they lost, and I say so.

    • says

      This blog post of mine may make my position clearer. I’m not surrendering any territory to the theologians. I’m just refusing to concede that there’s any substance, depth, subtlety or complexity to theology. (That’s just one more religious myth, perhaps one of the more effective and tenacious ones.) And therefore no need for any responses any more involved than Twain’s “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

  3. pa says

    This is a great interview and highlights many current concerns in the field of philosophy, particularly concerning the status of women (and minorities).
    The review is great, except when Carrier is talking.
    I’ll always know Carrier as the self-publishing online “philosopher” who published his “tour de force” in philosophy before understanding, for instance, the technical meaning of validity and soundness that intro students learn.

    But in any case, the problem with the interview is that I don’t think it is generally good form when interviewing famous academics to constantly talk about your own views and reference your own books (particularly when they are self-published).

    • says

      This blog is for my readers. Who want to know where I agree or disagree with the person I am interviewing and how they influenced me as a philosopher. And why I am asking the questions I am. Where I publish has nothing whatsoever to do with that. Or anything, really.

  4. says

    You write

    Shouldn’t conclusions reached by logically valid argument, from premises that are agreed to be very probably true, be considered by all philosophers as resolved?

    Surely, if this was the case, Newtonian mechanics would still be the state of the art! In principle the probability for the premises can go to 1, but that still doesn’t make the matter closed. Don’t forget that the probability can not be divorced from the underlying model within which it is calculated.

    Sometimes something comes along that requires to revise that underlying model. As Edwin Jaynes was fond of pointing out, this is when probability theory (and by extension, logic) is at its most powerful. As he once beautifully wrote, while complaining about people too keen to find reasons not to accept Bayes’ theorem:

    To reject a Bayesian calculation because it has given us an incorrect prediction is like disconnecting a fire alarm because that annoying bell keeps ringing.

    • says

      Certainly. I don’t expect anything to be closed, not in science or history, or philosophy. But philosophers won’t even follow Newton’s methods: he formed logical syllogisms that were valid and whose premises were observably true. Scientists thus accepted his conclusions until they found some of the premises were false and in need of revision. That’s how science works. It’s how philosophy should work, too.

  5. Roo Bookaroo says

    Philosophy is wonderful if you can use it as a mental training tool for other things than just teaching a course in a school or college.

    Another serious reason why not just women, but men as well, should think twice before embarking on the pursuit of a PhD in philosophy: Where will it bring you 5 or 10 years down the line?

    Is it worth getting a Phil PhD, just to find oneself making long dissertations on astro-theology online as its justification and use?

    Do we know how many Phil. PhD are granted each year in the country? And how many are actually employed all through the US in a philosophy-related job?
    If we had the statistics concerning philosophy PhDs granted each year in the US, are there any follow-up on their occupations 5, 10, 15 years later, as such statistics have been established for law-school graduates?

    Here we are speaking about realities, the Sitz im Leben for Phil. PhDs.
    This is the higher criticism related to the textual criticism of this article.

    • says

      First, what one’s degree is in is not that important. Otherwise there would be no such things as degrees in medieval Icelandic literature or Shakespearean studies. Any college degree can be leveraged into almost any career. My wife has a theater arts degree and became an accountant. Most employers really don’t give a shit what your degree was in. They just care that you can read, write, study, discipline yourself, and do all the other stuff required to get a four year degree at a modern school. That college degrees aren’t getting people jobs has more to do with the fucked economy than the employment value of a college degree.

      Second, philosophy Ph.D.s have many career options that even use their degree. Lawyer and author, for example.

      Third, economics are not the sole arbiter of your life goals or human worth. If you want to be a philosopher, you want to contribute to human knowledge and understanding (as well as your own). You aren’t looking to get rich. That’s the whole point: doing philosophy is for many people an end in itself. Their future income is largely irrelevant.

      Indeed, I think serious but unemployed philosophers should take this fact itself seriously and stop assuming they need a high paying job or professorship or have to live in an expensive place. Philosophy can be done from nearly anywhere. And you can get by on basic part time work, if you are frugal and smart about where and how you live. Or find a patron or partner.

      Philosophy is about philosophy. Not making money.

  6. says

    Just wanted to say that, between the Haack and Anderson interviews, I’m tremendously enjoying & benefiting from this series so far. Excellent stuff. Keep it up!

  7. Theodoric says

    Too bad Nussbaum declined. Her views on legal philosophy, especially human nature and social justice, are very interesting and potentially quite useful, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t completely agree with them.

    But hey, we can’t force people to self-identify as atheists. That’d be completely besides the point and counter-productive.

  8. pacem appellant says

    Awesome interview series! It’s always bothered me that women aren’t well represented in philosophy, and these exemplars more than disprove the notion that women can’t philosophize. If she’s not already on the docket, can I request an interveiw with a heroine of mine? Andrea Weisberger. Her “Suffering Belief” is still a go-to book for me, and was instrumental in helping me articulate what kind of atheist I was and what sort of moral underpinnings it entailed back when I still didn’t know if I wanted to attach the label of “atheist” to me.

    • says

      That’s a good idea. I am much less familiar with Weisberger’s work, and she’s been kind of out of the game for a while, but I’ll email her about the possibility of being interviewed for my series.