Job Seeker Solidarity: Shine Theory for Graduate Students

So the academic job market season is coming, and job seekers are busy preparing their applications. This year I and several of my close friends and colleagues are polishing our CVs and girding our loins for the coming storm. I won’t try to offer detailed advice about the application process—it’s not the role of this blog, and it’s done better elsewhere than I could do here. But I thought I’d write about a policy that I and some of my friends have adopted.

Shine TheoryOur policy might be described as an analogue of Shine Theory. Shine Theory is a term coined by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow. Friedman writes that women often perceive themselves as in competition with each other, and treat their interactions as zero-sum situations. Friedman urges her fellow women to resist the inclination to give in to this pattern, and instead to celebrate each other’s accomplishments. “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” Minimally, Shine Theory demands that women not throw each other under the bus when they feel under pressure.

Now, I don’t want to appropriate Shine Theory from women. But I do think Friedman’s call for solidarity between women can be a model for graduate students in philosophy. We are relatively powerless in academia, and we feel some of the specific pressures that Friedman describes. Most importantly, we face rough competition for jobs. So let’s just call the grad student analogue “job seeker solidarity.”

How does job seeker solidarity work? Just as Ann claims happens among women, graduate students often fear that the job market is a zero-sum game. At the end of the season, only one person will get a particular job, and if there are only X jobs then only X applicants will get jobs. In recent years, there have been several times as many applicants as jobs. Unlike many of the cases Friedman describes, the job seeker situation is both zero-sum and demonstrably dire. (Professor Carolyn Dicey Jennings estimates that in a year fewer than 30% of graduate student job seekers get placed at all, and fewer than 20% get permanent jobs.)

But that doesn’t mean that you and your close colleagues can’t all win out. (I beg indulgence if this sounds selfish—it is at least less selfish than a policy of “Every job seeker for herself.”) It’s not the case that there is just one job, and that if Joe gets that job everyone else is unemployed. In the best case scenario (for me), my friends and I will all be among the successful job-seekers. After all, I want my friends to get jobs, too. I want to meet up with them at conferences and cite their papers and grumble for decades about why they’re wrong about something. We each maximize our chances of success if we share advice and encouragement with each other. And we make the emotional mayhem of the job market more bearable if we share in each other’s (rare) triumphs and (inevitable) defeats.

Even though most of us graduate students have feared that a colleague’s success on the job market implies our failure, my colleagues and I help keep each other on track. We alert each other to promising job postings, even though that means we will compete against each other for those jobs. We remind each other of deadlines. We edit each other’s dossiers. We share tips and discuss strategies. We don’t hoard advice. We talk each other up to scholars at other universities. (And we do this most for those of our colleagues who face extra challenges as women, people of color, or trans* philosophers.) In general we do our best to make each other the strongest applicants we can be.

[Thanks to Eimear O’C and Rhona T for recommending Call Your Girlfriend, Friedman and Sow’s podcast, which is where I first learned about Shine Theory (and many other wonderful and frightful things).]

The Impartiality Contract

I’ll be teaching my social philosophy course again this summer, which takes a turn through some very controversial issues—the justification of rights, oppression, racism, sexism, linguistic privilege, theories of punishment, &c. So I am thinking of beginning the term with a clarification of my policies about impartiality. In particular, I abide by the following two principles:

I will not be impartial in my presentation of material. A philosophy class is not a venue for indoctrination, but I make no promise that I will present material in an impartial manner. My selection of topics is meant to stimulate my students, but not to present every side of an issue. I will not always disclose my views on a topic, but I will not always refrain from doing so, either. There are several reasons for this.

For one, I don’t think every ‘side’ of the issues we cover deserves a defense in the classroom. I don’t think that Nazis or people who deny the value of logic or reason need their arguments aired clearly and respectfully in every class where they might be relevant, and if I do defend their arguments for the sake of a discussion I won’t do it with an impression of earnestness. So some viewpoints will be left out or marginalized because I don’t think they’re worth considering. That’s not to say we won’t discuss immoral viewpoints or bad arguments—not at all!—but I am trying to teach my students to think well, and I won’t present the bad as if it were good.

Relatedly, I want my classroom to be a particular kind of safe space (insofar as I can make that the case in a classroom). Making my own views clear on certain matters will, I hope, bring some comfort to some students, and make it clear what they can expect from me in one-on-one or confidential conversations.

For another thing, it’s just bad pedagogy to aim for impartiality. I have to make a decision about how to make the material comprehensible in the short time that we have, and some viewpoints and complications will be glossed over. That’s for the benefit of my students (philosophical education involves raising ladders that can be thrown away once they’ve been climbed, right?). So some viewpoints will be left out not because they’re unworthy of serious consideration, but because we have limited time and effort in the course of the term or because of pedagogical demands.

Finally, I don’t think it’s possible to be perfectly ‘impartial’ about any complex topic without specifying a sphere of common opinion or a metric for partiality, which is heavy weather. Ultimately, when considering which viewpoints to address I consider my educational objectives—what content I think my students should be exposed to, which skills I want them to develop, what I want the tone of the classroom to be, and to some extent of course what I think of as right and wrong. That being said…

I will not punish you for the substance of your views. I will impose no sanctions—in classroom policies or in my grading—for holding certain beliefs. That’s right. If one of my students is a literal Nazi and says so, believes that allegiance to an ethnically pure state is paramount and that impure people should be interned or killed, and if they defend these views from a place of conscience, it will not affect their grade and I will not remove them from class. More topically, I won’t dock someone’s grade for being a libertarian or even a white supremacist.

In fact, dissent from the views presented—mine or those of the authors and thinkers I assign—is very important for a philosophy class to work. So I positively encourage productive dissent. This can come in at least two forms: students might disagree with a view or argument under discussion, and even if they don’t disagree they might explore objections. If a student disagrees with a view under discussion, she should test her reasons against those of others. If a student doesn’t understand a view or argument under discussion, considering objections and opposing viewpoints will help her to improve her understanding.

That being said, it’s not the case that anything goes. I will remove students from the classroom if they are repeatedly disrespectful of their classmates, or if they express their views in a way that is cruel or hurtful. So even if a student is a conscientious white supremacist, I the use of slurs or dehumanizing language is still, of course, inappropriate (the mention of such expressions is allowed, with special care).

Furthermore, I expect my students to become familiar with the views and arguments presented in the lectures and readings. A student who does not believe in structural oppression must still be familiar with assigned readings by Iris Marion Young, and must engage with them thoughtfully and charitably.

I have generally followed these guidelines whenever I’ve taught—though in most classes I am very circumspect about expressing my own views. But I think it is probably worthwhile to make these policies explicit at the beginning of the semester. I’ve discovered in the past that some of my students were unsure about the extent to which they were permitted to express disagreement with the lecturer or the readings, and I think these two principles set the stage for critical thinking and lively discussion. The first principle, that I will not be impartial regarding to the subject matter of the class, will probably irk students but it will help to encourage them to question the readings and what I say. The second principle, that I will not sanction students for their views, gives express permission to think out loud and to express their questions and skepticism. Of course, students don’t take in what I say just because I’ve said it. But I have a hunch that discussing these two policies together might help us all to start off the term on the right foot. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.

By the way: in my last post I mentioned Adam Ragusea’s discussions of journalistic objectivity and impartiality in his podcast The Pub. The discussions spanned segments over several weeks, but the latest episode of The Pub is a recap of all that material. So if you’re interested, it’s all in one place now [Edit: the episode has finally been posted]. Ragusea is not a philosopher, but I think his discussion reflects precisely the kind of sensitivity to abstract distinctions that we philosophers should be encouraging outside the discipline. Listen if you’re a true nerd!

Agreeing and Disagreeing with Help from Objectivity

Adam Ragusea

Adam Ragusea, journalizing. Photo: Mercer University.

People sometimes describe questions as ‘philosophical’ as a way of saying that they don’t matter, but I often find that philosophical questions matter quite a lot (and not just questions of ethics or morality)—it’s just that the contexts where they matter are often not obvious. I’ve been reminded of this a few times recently by Adam Ragusea’s excellent podcast The Pub, about issues in North American public media. In February and March, Ragusea made a big to-do about the value of journalistic objectivity, and distinguishing that value from journalistic impartiality. Now, distinguishing objectivity from impartiality is a very philosophical task—it’s abstract, and doing it well requires being handy with niggling matters of logic and conceptual analysis. But whether one takes objectivity (or impartiality, or neither) as a guide to journalistic practice should matter to everyone who is affected by the news media.

When he got around to trying to define objectivity, Ragusea said that “An argument based on facts is objective. An argument based on ideology—or, heaven forbid, ‘belief’—is non-objective” (ep. 7). I think I see what Ragusea is getting at, but I wouldn’t want to put it quite that way, myself. In part for the kinds of reasons pointed out by Justin McBrayer in his much-read NYT column on facts vs. beliefs in the common core curriculum. For example, coming to “believe” a fact-based claim does not make it subjective. But I think Ragusea is using a notion of fact here that makes sense for journalism—a state of affairs that can be confirmed using journalistic methods like consulting sources, records, or experts. But for many purposes, the universe of facts is larger. So I’d like to say a little about how what is objective or subjective can vary with context, and why it matters. (There is, of course, a lot of philosophy about objectivity already that I won’t engage with here. If you’re interested there are some free resources here, here, and here.)

What is objectivity? Roughly put, I think the core notion of objectivity is this. You’ve got a bunch of things (let’s call them “discursive critters”) like sentences, claims, objects, properties, whatever. And they have what philosophers call “semantic values” or “outputs.” For example, sentences, claims, judgments, &c. can be either true or false; those are their semantic outputs. Objects can be real or not. Properties can apply or not. Standards of evaluation sort things into ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ or ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than other things.

When these critters are subjective, you can only figure out what the outputs are when they’re “for” or “to” someone. So subjective claims are true or false only for some person (a subject), not absolutely. Whether something is real or not ‘to’ someone is also subjective. The most straightforwardly subjective matters are preferences or how things seem. Thus, one might say Star Trek is better than Star Wars to me to mean I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars, while withholding any general commitment about which is better, independently of one’s preferences. Or, Joe might say The Eiffel Tower looks taller than the Tokyo Tower to me. What makes this true is just how things look to Joe, not which structure is actually taller.

The Tokyo Tower

Does it seem taller than the Eiffel Tower to you? Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

These discursive critters are objective, on the other hand, when their outputs are determined without being “for” or “to” someone. A claim that is either true or false period, no matter what anyone thinks, is objective. It is also objective whether something is real or not, so long as we’re not talking about whether it seems real to this person or that person. If I say The Tokyo Tower is objectively taller than the Eiffel Tower, I mean it in such a way that its being true or false does not depend on what anyone thinks. If I say Star Trek is objectively better than Star Wars, I must be assuming some standard of evaluation such that the quality of science fiction franchises can be compared to each other, but that standard is not one that changes from person to person.

Some standards of evaluation will change from person to person—a standard like whatever makes me cry more will rank Star Trek higher for Helen if it makes her cry more, but will rank lower for Ryan if it does not make him cry as much as Star Wars does. This “most crying” standard is subjective, because it varies between people. Different things make different people cry more. But many evaluative standards are objective. For example, objective standards might include having a higher number of self-described fans, or grossing more in box office and advertising sales. Or they might involve cinematic or narrative qualities that are harder to quantify or agree on. Just because a standard is difficult to measure or quantify doesn’t mean that it is subjective.

Why does it matter? It’s fair and good to ask, when these distinctions have been made, what use the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity have. Basically: assuming we can identify which claims are objective in this sense, what good does it do us? I think that talk about what is objective and what is subjective serves mainly to sort out what kinds of disagreement are appropriate. For matters that are objective, we can disagree about what the semantic outputs are for everybody. So we can argue about whether claims are true or false, or whether objects are real, or whether properties apply to something. Generally speaking it’s better to believe true claims, believe in real things, and apply properties to things they apply to. For matters that are subjective, however, we can only disagree about what the outputs are ‘for’ or ‘to’ people. We can disagree about whether the Eiffel Tower seems taller than the Tokyo Tower to Joe, or to the average person, but not whether it seems taller to no subject.

One thing that concerns me about most objective/subjective talk is that statements that a question is “subjective” (or often: “just subjective”) often seems to indicate that a speaker thinks a question of truth or reality can’t really be sorted out. So if Helen and Ryan are arguing about whether Star Trek or Star Wars is better, and someone tells them “You know, though, it’s all just subjective, really,” that’s a way of saying that there’s no point in continuing to disagree. And I don’t think that’s usually right. (Put another way: the language of objectivity and subjectivity is a bit of metadiscursive technology, and technology can be misused!)

Three kinds of disagreement. It helps to sort out different kinds of disagreements. For the moment, there are three kinds of disagreement that interest me. First, there are mere differences of taste. Perhaps Helen likes Star Trek more than Star Wars, and Ryan has the opposite preference. Helen and Ryan might report their respective preferences to each other and leave it at that. Second, there are disagreements where one person tries to get another to see things her way. So Helen might try to convince Ryan that he, like her, should prefer Star Trek, and give various reasons for him to see one as better than the other. You might call these see-it-my-way arguments. Third, there are disagreements about (what you might call) facts, where substantive differences of opinion mean that at most one party can be right. Claiming that a matter is objective often means that it belongs in the third category of disagreement. And often, when someone claims that a matter is subjective they intend to place it in the first category. If I want to get Helen and Ryan to stop arguing, I might say “Well, you know, it’s all subjective.” But Helen and Ryan can still disagree in the second fashion—where Helen tries to get Ryan to see things her way—even they disagree about a subjective matter. And many times, apparently subjective questions admit of the third kind of disagreement as well.

Three kinds of disagreement:
1) differences of taste
2) see-it-my-way disagreement
3) disagreement about the facts

If Helen and Ryan are at a polite dinner party where none of the other guests care much for science fiction, their disagreement might be disruptive. If their elaborate appeals to finer aspects of storytelling are tedious for the other guests, perhaps they should treat their disagreement in the first way and leave the matter alone. If Helen and Ryan are trying to help a friend get into science fiction, though, and they want to agree on a recommendation, it might be appropriate for them to treat the disagreement in the second fashion and try to get the way they see things to match up. Finally, if Helen and Ryan are on an award committee, it might be best for them to treat their disagreement in the third way, and try to convince the other of the more objective merits of each sci-fi franchise.

Different universes of facts. Now, questions about which media franchises are better are not usually super-important, and it may not seem important to figure out when such questions are subjective or objective. But there are other contexts where it matters a good deal more. And I think it’s important in those contexts to be aware that there are different universes of objective facts. For example, there are journalistic facts—those that can be fact-checked and reported. I suspect that journalistic facts are for the most part just facts that can be corroborated by witnesses, by documentation, or by experts (at least for American journalism. In many European countries, ideological reporting is not frowned upon the same way). I think Adam Ragusea had such a standard in mind when he said that questions about ideology are outside of the realm of facts.

Perhaps in politics, where ideologies are expected to clash, only non-ideological facts are considered political facts. However, there is still a difference between the journalistic and the political case. It is plausibly a breach of journalistic objectivity to advocate for seeing things in a particular ideological light, whereas politicians can argue in this way with each other and to the public. So whereas straightforward journalism should treat ideological disagreement as differences of taste (the first kind of disagreement above), politicians can make see-it-my-way arguments (the second kind of disagreement above).

And in other contexts there are still more facts. Political theorists and philosophers argue about which political ideologies are better, and they don’t take themselves to be arguing about something ‘merely’ subjective. Furthermore, they’re not even trying to get others to see things their way, like politicians in speeches. They use various arguments to try to figure out which views are right. And analytic philosophers tend to think that all kinds of things are objective: political views, moral claims, aesthetic judgments, and many more. Probably because analytic philosophers are accustomed to seeking the truth about these matters, and settling their disagreements with arguments. So in different contexts—journalism, politics in practice, and political theory—ideological facts can be treated like differences of taste, see-it-my-way disagreements, or disagreements about facts. They run the full spectrum from fully subjective disagreements where something is only true to someone and no one way is clearly better than another, to see-it-my-way disagreements where something is only true to someone but some ways of looking at matters are better, to objective disagreements where there is a truth independent of any person’s perspective.

I'm pretty sure the use of this image here counts as Fair Use under U.S. copyright law. Thanks to Adam Ragusea for educating me on that. Check out episode 11 of The Pub.

If this didn’t make you cry then I don’t know you or the darkness in your heart.

The moral I want to draw here is that the way people use terms like objective changes with context, according to what people agree on and what kinds of things people can see themselves coming to agreement on. And I think people’s instincts about what’s subjective or objective tends to shift according to the way they engage with different subject matters. Now, these are just conjectures on my part and they should be tested empirically (can I get a collaborator on that?). But what I suspect is this: someone who just consumes movies and television for entertainment is likely to think that whether a film is good or not is subjective. People who make or criticize films for a living, though, are probably more likely to think that there are some objective facts about films that make them better or worse. Most people probably think whether something is funny is subjective, but a lot of comedians and some comedy critics think there are facts about what’s funny and what isn’t (although they probably concede that whether someone enjoys a joke is subjective). A lot of folks in the West think that matters of politics or morality—or philosophy—are subjective, whereas people who sort out political or moral (or philosophical) questions for a living are probably more likely to think that they’re objective. Myself, I’m tempted to call anything ‘objective’ so long as it can be treated objectively in some context, any context. That goes for claims about justice, about values, about aesthetics, and even humor (though it’s important to relate those claims back to objective standards of evaluation). But perhaps that’s just because I’m a philosopher.

I worry that people often think something is objective or subjective absolutely, so that if political ideologies are treated as subjective at a dinner party, they’re subjective period. I think when we give into this thought, we give up on the possibility of learning a lot of things. Some of those things, like what makes humor work, or whether Star Trek really is better than Star Wars, are interesting. But others, like what justice is and what it is for something to be right or wrong, are also important and we shouldn’t be quick to give up on the idea of objective truth, just because agreement can be hard to reach. As a parting observation: I know a number of folks who are interested in social justice, and are wary of talk about “objectivity.” They tend to think that calls for objectivity are ruses to recenter discussions around the perspective of privilege. I do agree that this often happens, but I think that’s a rhetorical problem, not a philosophical problem. I think that giving up on objectivity because of that is throwing out the baby with the dishwater. (Similar things might be said about tone-policing. I think it’s nice to be civil and polite, other things being equal, but even J.S. Mill, ultra-privileged boy extraordinary, knew that calls for civility in discussions of justice served more often to cut off productive discussion than to facilitate it. See the last paragraph of On Liberty, Chapter II.) Real objectivity is important, especially regarding social justice. The existence of structural oppression is, I would argue, real and important and objective. It matters in part because whether it’s real is not a matter of perspective or opinion, even though it is controversial. It’s like climate change or poverty; it’s real for everybody whether you believe in it or not. A little bit of sloppy philosophy goes a long way toward obscuring the truth.

Thanks to Joe McCaffrey for indulging me as I nattered on about this for weeks, and for helping me shape up my thoughts. Joe does not endorse the content of this post in any way. (But that’s just his opinion.)

Why Study Philosophy?

The term has recently begun here in Pittsburgh, which means I’m teaching again. The last few semesters I’ve begun the term with a quick spiel for my students about why to study philosophy, which I thought I’d share here.

A lot of people have the impression that philosophy is a useless discipline. (Even, sometimes, famous educators). I’m going to avoid a digression for now about what it means for a discipline to be “useless” and the various misconceptions about philosophy that come into play here. Instead I’ll just discuss one way of thinking about the value of philosophy education.

There are different kinds of questions that, for one reason or another in your life, you may want to answer. The most straightforward kinds of question, from an answer-finding perspective, are questions that (a) have definite answers, and (b) have universally agreed-upon methods for finding those answers. For example, questions of arithmetic are like this. What is 128+64? In school we’re taught an algorithm for working out the answers to such questions (remember to carry the 2). Not all of these questions are easy to answer, though. A trickier question is “What is the value of π?” We may never be able to give the full answer to that question, but we can calculate the value of π to a fairly extraordinary degree of precision. Many questions in science are also like this. (Many are not but that’s a conversation for another time.) One might ask, “When did Tyrannosaurus rex live?” That’s not a question we can answer with a pen and a napkin, but we can examine fossils and the places we find them and, with some creative reasoning and background knowledge, make progress on answering questions about facts.

Straightforward questions:
What is the sum of 128 and 64?
What is the value of π?
When did Tyrannosaurus rex live?
Under what conditions would the Mackinac Bridge collapse?

A second kind of question is one that has no definite answer. For example, “What is the best kind of ice cream?” This might have no answer because perhaps all there is to being better ice cream is being preferred, and people have different preferences. Or there might be no correct ordering of ice-cream features such that one could determine which is best. Or there might be better ice creams for different circumstances.

Questions without definite answers:
What is the best kind of ice cream?
Does the top stop spinning after the end of Inception?

However, there is a third kind of question, questions that have definite answers but no universally agreed-upon methods for determining the answers. For example, we might wonder whether, if the Federal Reserve were to raise interest rates this month, the unemployment rate would go up, go down, or stay the same. There is an answer to this question; there is a fact about what would happen, at least in a particular circumstance. But economists often can’t agree on the answers to these questions. They have a bunch of different models that predict different things and take different factors into account, and they argue with each other about which one is right, or right for a particular set of circumstances.

Nevertheless, just because there isn’t a universally agreed-upon method for determining an answer doesn’t mean we can’t know the answer. It doesn’t mean some answers aren’t better than others. And it definitely doesn’t mean that there is no right answer. What it means is that in order to sort the better answers from the worse, we have to rely on the method of last resort: evaluating arguments and reasons.

Well-posed philosophical questions are questions of this third kind. They have answers, but there is no agreed-upon method for determining what the answers are. In addition, classic philosophical questions of the sort discussed in intro philosophy classes also often concern very abstract or general matters. They are determinate enough that students can engage with them, appealing to familiar considerations, but general enough that there are few guides to success other than clear reasoning. Philosophers have to be comfortable with a greater degree of ambiguity and uncertainty in their subject matter. The quality of the arguments can always be questioned—the premises may not be true, the principles of reasoning may not be reliable, the terms in which they’re expressed can be misunderstood and reinterpreted.

Some classic philosophical questions:
Is all knowledge ultimately grounded in sense experience?
Is all value ultimately grounded in pleasure and pain?
Does free will require that you could have done otherwise?

So the familiar philosophical topics from intro courses have two interesting features: (1) they can only be answered by the method of last resort, evaluating arguments and reasons unsupplemented by other more specific methods, and (2) they involve a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity. Both features can be extremely frustrating, but philosophical inquiry and discussion requires that we be as clear as we can in spite of the difficulty. I think that philosophical engagement can be very valuable in education precisely because it involves practice confronting these frustrating circumstances. Philosophy helps us practice sorting good arguments from bad, and being comfortable with uncertainty.

There are a lot of important questions that share these features with philosophical questions. Questions in macroeconomics, for one, on which the welfare of millions of people may depend. These are important skills in contemporary society, in professional and personal life. And they are also important civic skills in democratic societies.

Of course, I’m not saying that everyone should be a philosopher. A society in which everybody is a professional thinker sounds terrible to me, and would probably not be a very prosperous society. However, I do like the sound of a society in which everybody has some training and practice with the kinds of intellectual difficulty raised in philosophical thinking. And in a democratic society, where voters have important responsibilities to look after their collective welfare, I think some philosophical education does some good for everybody. That’s why I tell my students they should study some philosophy in school.

Metadiscursive Technology: Distinctions, Continua, Phase Spaces

In an earlier post I discussed the notion of metadiscursive technology: we use concepts to make sense of the world and do things in it, and bits of metadiscursive technology are the concepts that help us understand how we do this. In this post I’d like to talk about three ways of carving up possibilities (three categories of ways to draw categories): distinctions, spectra or continua, and phase spaces. I’ll be drawing on examples having to do primarily with gender and sexuality, since they’re pretty easy to understand but also surprisingly complicated.

But I should briefly say two things, before I get into the examples. First, this post is a little meta (getting meta is another important philosophical activity). I’m going to be talking about ways of categorizing possibilities. People usually adopt ways of categorizing things without thinking about which way to use; they just use a way. But I’m going to talking about these ways as objects. If you like you can call the different ways models, or schemes, or theories. Personally I prefer “model” because it seems natural for there to be lots of different models that are useful for different contexts. People are more likely to think that with theories and schemes, one of them has to be better than the rest. Second, I am no expert on gender and sexuality. I owe some thanks to @zaranosaur for constructive feedback. Obviously any remaining problems are my responsibility. If I’ve spoken wrongly here, or missed something important, I hope some charitable soul will correct me and I will strive to own any mistakes I make, and to learn gracefully.

First, the distinction is one of the most important tools a philosopher has. A distinction is a contrast between two or more categories in a space of relevant possibilities, or a contrast between two ways of categorizing. For example, one might distinguish between men and women, or between people who are gay and people who are straight. Both of these distinctions help us carve up spaces of possibilities—here the space of genders, or the space of sexual preferences. (As a side note, though, “sexual preference” may be a bad label because while sex is an important part of being gay or straight, it is not the only part and it may be misleading or problematic to make it seem like the most important part.) One might also distinguish between the space of gender and the space of sexual preference. For example, if we’re trying to figure out who is sending mysterious love notes to Vijay, we might (problematically) consider several women who know him. But since not everyone is straight, we should distinguish between the gender of potential admirers and their sexual preferences. Those are different ways of dividing the space of possible admirers, and we should probably consider both if we want to determine the identity of Vijay’s secret admirer.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Three distinctions. The third distinguishes between the first distinction and the second.

A dichotomy is a special kind of distinction that divides the entire space of relevant possibilities into two non-overlapping categories. A distinction may only partially divide the space of possibilities, or may not be exclusive. For example, the distinction between gay and straight partially divides the possibilities for sexual preferences. But it’s problematic to think of the gay/straight distinction as a dichotomy, because there are other possibilities for sexual preference. Some people are bisexual, and are neither gay nor straight. Or, instead of distinguishing between gay and straight people, we could have distinguished between people who are attracted to men and people who are attracted to women. That’s also a distinction that’s not a dichotomy, but this time it’s because there are people who fit both descriptions, not because there are people who fit neither. If we wanted we could think of sexual preference as a trichotomy, which is like a dichotomy but with three categories instead of two.

Figure 2.

Figure 2. Two examples of distinctions that are not dichotomies. (A) The gay-straight distinction is not a dichotomy because there is a third possibility. This situation might be represented as a trichotomy. (B) This is not a dichotomy because there is a non-empty intersection between the categories.

However, many people like to think of sexual preference as a continuum or a spectrum, with attraction to same-gendered partners on one pole and attraction to other-gendered partners on the other. On the continuum model of sexual preference, people are not simply gay or bi or straight, but can be anywhere on a continuous scale from very gay to very straight, with people who are very bi falling nearer the middle.

Figure 3.

Figure 3. A continuum, rendered in doge for easy consumption.

Sometimes, especially when it comes to the politics of gender and sexuality, people like to say that dichotomies are terrible and that we should think of things as continua. Sometimes that’s a very helpful thing to say. But continua aren’t the be-all, end-all of discursive technologies for categorization; sometimes things are more complicated, and sometimes continua aren’t inclusive enough. For example, in addition to the variation captured by the continuum in Figure 3, there are people who identify as asexual, and do not experience sexual attraction to men or women. That possibility is not represented on the continuum above. However, since many asexual people do still experience romantic attraction, we may find it worthwhile to revise our understanding of sexual preference (perhaps there’s an important distinction to be made! I leave it as an exercise to the reader).

Moreover, a continuum only varies along one dimension. That is, a continuum is only the appropriate discursive technology if the relevant possibilities can be placed in order, along a single line. If placing things in a single line doesn’t help you with what you’re doing, you may need to consider more than one dimension of variation. To capture multiple dimensions of variation, you need what I call a phase space by loose analogy with a notion from math and physics (in this post I’ll ignore worthwhile complications of the phase-space framework, like attractors). Phase spaces are also tools for making sense of a space of possibilities, but are more complex than distinctions or continua because they simultaneously incorporate multiple dimensions. For example, think of Vijay and his secret admirer. We said above that we needed to take into account two factors: the sexual preference of his admirer, and their gender. We can’t explain preference or gender in terms of the other, so we can construct a phase space that takes those factors into account. If we keep the assumptions that sexual preference is a spectrum, and that we can distinguish between men and women, it might look like this.

Figure 4.

Figure 4. A simple Vijay-fancier model. This is a phase space composed of a continuum and a distinction. The bluer areas indicate regions more likely to contain Vijay’s secret admirer.

There are some well-known contexts where people play with simple phase spaces. For example, people sometimes talk of the political spectrum from conservative to liberal, but sometimes economic and social dimensions are distinguished as here. There’s also a two-dimensional model for categorizing Scotch whisky. Blogger Jonathon Owen proposes a two-dimensional phase space for understanding linguistic prescriptivism and descriptivism. All of these phase spaces are constructed of orthogonal continua, like a Cartesian plane. Those are the easiest to visualize, but phase spaces can be constructed of any number of independent dimensions. The philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith defends a three-dimensional model of populations where one corner of the phase space represents the populations most amenable to Darwinian description. And the space of colors is often represented as non-Cartesian three-dimensional space (see here for a discussion).

For an example of a more complex phase space, we can consider the fact that gender identification does not always agree with biological sex. We could represent that situation by constructing two distinctions in different dimensions, like so:

Figure 5.

Figure 5. Sex and gender as a phase space composed of two orthogonal distinctions.

And if we wanted to highlight more of the relations between these categories, we might look at Monica Helms’ four-dimensional model, which separates gender expression, gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual attraction as independent dimensions. These are fairly good models for some relations between sex and gender, but they’re both incomplete. The simple model in Figure 5 represents gender and sex as simple categories, which can be a problematic idealization. First off, there is biological sex—male vs. female—but there are also bodies that do not quite fit into either category. For example, there is a great variety conditions such as Klinefelter syndrome, XXYY syndrome, various forms of hermaphroditism and others that complicate categorization by biological sex (these papers by Anne Fausto-Sterling are a little old but include a concise discussion of some intersexual variation and Western history). So the distinction between female and male is not a dichotomy. Maybe we could imagine the female-male space as a continuum, but given the variety of non-binary conditions it might pay sometimes to have a more complex view of sex. If we’re interested in genetics, we could plot number of X chromosomes and number of Y chromosomes independently, but if we’re interested in manifestations, complications, and other factors we may find it more helpful to categorize the variety some other way.

Second, the gender distinction between men and women is also not a dichotomy; there are other gender identities that people adopt. The model above accommodates cisgendered and transgendered identities. But there are other trans* identities, including agender, gender fluid, genderqueer, and more (this fact was reported in even the most uninspiring news outlets recently because of Facebook. There are a few glossaries floating around now, including this one). Some of these gender identities involve combinations of femininity and masculinity; some involve refusal to identify either as a woman or a man; some involve opposition to the gender binary altogether; some adopt different binaries. Given the richness of identities here, their variation cannot be completely captured by plotting them along a continuum between femininity and masculinity. Rather, it might be better to plot femininity and masculinity as separate dimensions, and discomfort with traditional gender categories as a third. But femininity and masculinity are complex constructs, each traditionally bringing together numerous features including social and familial roles, power dynamics, tastes and interests, &c. Depending on what kinds of variation we’re interested in, we might find it useful to distinguish several of these as well. So inclusive schemes for categorizing sex and gender involve making many, many distinctions that track many more than three independent dimensions. Perhaps the space could be represented more compactly by identifying a small number of dimensions and locating the various categories and their regions of overlap within that space, but that task would be the work of an expert who knows more than I do about trans* identities.

Now recall our simple phase-space model of Vijay’s potential admirers, the Vijay-fancier model. That model relied on the assumption that we could treat gender as a dichotomy. That might be a safe assumption under some circumstances—perhaps all of the people who might have written the notes to Vijay are transgendered or cisgendered. Nevertheless, we could strive to be more inclusive of other trans* people and replace the man/woman dichotomy in the model with a more complex categorization of gender. However, the continuum conception of sexual preference also presupposes a gender dichotomy, so we might also want to revise that dimension of the Vijay-fancier model. A model like that would be a very serious piece of conceptual technology. And as I hope is evident, the activity of categorization need not be restrictive or oppressive. By engaging earnestly with variation and maintaining an open mind about the choice of models for categorization, the activity can be legitimating to those who might normally feel left out. Perhaps particularly with gender, sex, and sexuality, a refusal to think openly about categories often cedes too much ground to traditional (in these cases, also oppressive) models of categorization.

I don’t mean to suggest that phase spaces are always best and distinctions or dichotomies always worse. Different technologies are suited to different tasks. If you’ve misplaced your glasses and you’re trying to find them, you might distinguish between places you’ve been since you last had them and places you haven’t been, and only look in the places that belong to the first category. If you’re not entirely sure which places belong to which category, then you might complicate the way you think about the situation. For example, you might order places along a spectrum according to how confident you are that you’ve been there since you last had your glasses. You might think of the situation in more complicated terms—as a phase space—if there are other factors. For example, if you think someone might have taken your glasses (with either good or bad intentions).

I trust these examples show that doing things with concepts—even just distinguishing between related categories—can get really complicated really quickly. It often pays to use the simplest model that suits your present purpose, as with the case where you’re looking for your glasses. This is why I say that the distinction is one of the philosopher’s most important metadiscursive tools, even though it’s the simplest technology I discussed here. Even math and logic, where clarity is prized very highly, are full of conceptual complications. Consider the distinction between the integers and the real numbers, or between cardinals and ordinals. In logic there are many different logical systems, and logicians must learn to categorize rules and proofs across those different systems. The philosopher Mark Wilson (disclosure: one of my academic advisors) has written extensive discussions of the conceptual complexities in math and physics. He populates his writing with vivid metaphors like atlases and Riemann surfaces to help his readers make intuitive sense of these structures (There is an unwieldy but excellent book, though Robert Brandom [disclosure: my supervisor] has a fairly compact overview). It’s an important philosophical skill to learn how to comfortably handle this kind of conceptual complexity. A lot of the work of professional philosophers involves sorting through complicated spaces of possibility and devising ways to make sense of them. But complications like these arise in every subject and in many aspects of everyday life. Perhaps sometime soon you’ll find yourself puzzled by how to draw categories, and you might ask yourself: Have I made the right distinctions? Have I inappropriately assumed dichotomies? How many independent dimensions of variation are relevant to my purposes? Am I using the best conceptual model I can? Then you’ll be availing yourself of metadiscursive technologies.


EDIT: While I strove to avoid ‘splainer vibes, &c. in this post, I now feel a more strenuous qualification is called for. Especially since in the end it’s a rather dispassionate and decentering treatment of some extremely sensitive issues, and nobody likes a scumbag analytic philosopher. I’m a straight, well-educated, American cis man, so I’ve got no shortage of privilege to check. As I tried to make clear throughout the post, there’s nothing about sex/gender/preference that I say first or best; I try to be a well-informed citizen and ally but I’m not an expert on these issues.

There are two reasons I used these examples, anyway. First, in the years since I started making these points about metadiscursive technology in conversations with colleagues, these examples always came easily to mind. I think they’re good illustrations of my main points, and I’ve tried not to say anything wrong or insensitive. Second, I didn’t think it’d be dismissive to use facts about the complexity of gender and sex in order to make a different point (though of course thinking doesn’t make it so). I had three reasons for thinking this. For one, my discussion on this blog isn’t hijacking anyone else’s conversation-in-progress. Next, while I’m a pluralist about models I claim that the less complex models have the twin vices of empirical inadequacy and social/political insensitivity. When I made a small apology for simple models in appropriate situations, I did not reach back for the sex and gender examples. And last, I hoped that using these examples in an unrelated context was an appropriate act as an ally, who can’t speak from first-hand experience. You’re not much of an ally if you’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing that you don’t even try to do your part to normalize inclusive talk and thought about marginalized identities. Anyway, those are my reasons and I earnestly hope they’re good enough.

Philosophy as Logical Anthropology

This is the last part of my wee methodological mini-manifesto. In the first part, I claimed that philosophy isn’t all about argument. In the second part, I argued that the method of philosophy, insofar as there is such a thing, is the method of inquiry. This time I am going to talk about one thing that some philosophers do, and what I do.

Part of my dissertation is on what people sometimes call the “metaphysics” of cognition. In that part, I’m trying to figure out what sort of a thing cognition is. Is it stuff, like brains? Or activities, like hearing and deciding? Or is cognition like a program on a computer? And whatever it is, what precisely makes it cognition and not something similar, but that isn’t cognition (like a dead brain, or what a microphone does, or like your web browser)? But I think of my work as a kind of “critical metaphysics” in the Kantian tradition. One of the better-known doctrines in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is what he calls the “Copernican revolution in philosophy.” He claims that metaphysical knowledge, such as it is, is not really about the ultimate structure of reality, but the structure of our own concepts. So metaphysical claims about space and time are not really facts about the world, truly and independently of us, but facts about the basic ways we organize our own experience. I don’t think Kant is totally right about all of that (I’m not an idealist in quite the way he is), but that’s mostly how I think of what I do. My work won’t tell us what cognition really is, but if I’m right I’ll have learned something about how cognitive scientists think about the world, and what we learn from their research (after Sellars: how it is that their bailiwick fits into the countryside of science and understanding).

Click for more illustrations of unusual words by The Project Twins.

Gotta make knowledge somehow.

I think of what I do as a sort of logical anthropology. (The expression is a little awkward, but I took to it. Besides, I recently discovered that “philosophical anthropology” is already taken by a continental research program, and “rational anthropology,” well… it just sounds too “post-Enlightenment atheist” to me.) Sociologists and anthropologists are interested in describing various human practices and social structures, perhaps especially with an eye toward making comparisons across different communities, or attending to power dynamics and forms of organization and so on. What philosophers (some of them) do is examine human practices with an eye toward their rationality. For example, epistemologists are interested in characterizing and evaluating our evidential practices in general, philosophers of science are interested in scientific practices like explanation and theory-construction, philosophers of action and ethicists are interested in various features of our deliberative practices and practices of evaluating actions and holding people responsible. So like anthropologists, these philosophers are interested in human practices. But unlike most anthropologists, the philosophers are not interested primarily in things like power dynamics or the diversity of cultural practices (though they’re interesting)—philosophers are especially interested in practices that involve reasoning, and whether and why these practices make sense.

(My view here turns out, predictably, to have been anticipated somewhat. For example, the idea of logical anthropology has some affinity with George Graham and Terry Horgan’s notion of “ideological inquiry,” and Katrin Flikschuh’s notion of “philosophical field work.” But my view differs from these others on some details, and was worked out independently with different aims and different cases in mind. Nevertheless, I suspect all three views spring from the same post-Kantian place. I guess it’s the Zeitgeist. Sorry, journal access is required to read the linked articles.)

I think that logical anthropology is important, but when I talk about my project (which I think is similar, insofar as it is logical anthropology, to a lot of other philosophical projects) I get criticism from two sides. The first side is what might be described as the side of analytic metaphysics (or “speculative” metaphysics of the kind Kant didn’t like). I was once asked by some philosophers, “Why bother figuring out what scientists think cognition is? Why not just figure out what it really is?” More generally, one might suppose that it is a better use of time to figure out how things really are, rather than what experts who aren’t trained in philosophy seem to think but don’t tend to say out loud. After all, reconstructing what is implicit in scientific (or other) practices and making it explicit seems to be a roundabout way of figuring out how things really are, and the scientists might not be right, anyway.

There is a weaker reply and a stronger reply to these worries. The weaker reply is that science is an expensive and complicated enterprise, involving a lot of money and time and effort and a lot of people and technology. Similarly, we humans are deeply invested in our everyday practical and epistemic practices. Surely, given that we spend so much time and energy on these things, there should be some interest in being clear about how they work and what their presuppositions are. But this reply doesn’t vindicate logical anthropology as a way of doing metaphysics, or learning about how the world is (rather than how we do things). The stronger reply is that the scientific enterprise is our best effort to figure out how the world is, and that our everyday practices of learning and inferring and acting reflect the priorities and limitations we actually live with. Doing logical anthropology is a good way to learn about the world while taking advantage of our existing knowledge, and avoiding the philosopher’s temptation to simplify and generalize too much. Logical anthropology isn’t a roundabout route to understanding; it’s a route that takes seriously the fact that we can learn by examining practices that have already emerged to learn about the things we philosophers might want to learn about.

Click for more illustrations of unusual words by The Project Twins.


Philosophers should be vigilant against ultracrepidarianism, or giving opinions when we don’t know what we’re talking about. I think there is always at least a worry that when you don’t pay enough attention to what people are actually doing, and then you criticize them, you find they are doing a poor job of what you wish they were doing instead of a good job of what they mean to be doing.

The second direction I get criticism from is experimental philosophy. Experimental philosophers collect data, often from surveys that catalogue intuitions, in order to answer philosophical questions while avoiding the ideological prejudices of philosophers (who are trained in very particular ways, and who tend to be overwhelmingly white, male, and cisgendered to boot). Experimental philosophers ask, “If you’re so interested in what scientists think, why not ask them and collect data? Why go through this rigmarole of rational reconstruction?” The reason to go through the rigmarole, I think, is that people are often not self-conscious about the details of their practice. For example, the English you speak has an intricate grammar, but if asked you’d be hard-pressed to be clear about what its rules are. I don’t particularly mean when to use ‘who’ versus ‘whom’ (most modern speakers always use ‘who’), but e.g. when is it natural to use ‘do’ (or ‘did’ or ‘doing,’ &c.) in a sentence? In this and other matters, competent speakers follow complicated rules of which they’re unaware. Similar considerations apply to epistemology and decision-making, and to a host of other practices in which we participate regularly. I talk to scientists whenever I can, and I think it is fantastic that philosophers of science are starting to attach themselves to laboratories in order to observe the messy details of science being made. My own research involves reading between the lines in a lot of articles by scientists. And while surveys and direct questioning may sometimes get us the answers we’re looking for in logical anthropology, they often won’t.

To be clear, I don’t refrain from trusting scientists’ views on what they do because I think they are stupid (I don’t). It’s just not their job to do what I do. Epistemologists who study experience don’t have to think laypeople are stupid for knowing things based on experience but not having an epistemological theory, and philosophers of action don’t have to think laypeople are stupid for acting without having a theory of action. Linguists and philosophers of language don’t think that most people are stupid for not being able to describe the syntax of their own language, or for not having a theory of meaning. It’s enough for scientists that they can just do science, and talk about it with their similarly-trained peers, and sometimes explain it in simple terms to the public. I’m interested in saying clearly what scientists do, and explaining it to other inquirers. (That is, if I may, I’m interested in making it explicit.) And sometimes logical anthropology is important because making things explicit allows us to see that something is amiss, and criticize the practices we describe.

Sometimes I think this criticism is entirely appropriate, and it’s not always ultracrepidarian of philosophers to criticize scientists. For example, I think there is something rotten in the state of consciousness science (though the same goes for a lot of philosophy of consciousness). Even science that is mostly in good shape requires conceptual maintenance to run smoothly. Biologists with different specializations often mean different things by “gene,” and even the concept of concept is complicated and troubled, so that researchers talk past each other and stumble into false disagreements. But the best of these philosophers’ criticisms of science take logical anthropology as their starting point. That is, they begin by paying attention to the practices of sciences, and then inquire as to whether the practices make sense by the lights of the scientists themselves. These projects don’t involve speculating about how world is independently of what scientists do and think, and they also aren’t made by soliciting the opinions of scientists. The kind of useful criticism offered here is based on attention to how scientists go about their business.

But I don’t want to claim that philosophy, or logical anthropology, or critical metaphysics has to result in criticism in order to be valuable. Edouard Machery argues in his book Doing without Concepts (I linked to the précis above) that cognitive scientists investigate at least three different kinds of cognitive structure that are all called “concepts,” that the result is confusion and false disagreement, and that we’d be better off using three different words instead. But suppose things were different, and cognitive scientists didn’t get confused about this. Maybe the scientists avoid confusion without knowing how they do it. Or maybe although the researchers who investigate concepts can keep everything straight, researchers in other areas get confused when they hear about research on concepts. It would still be worthwhile, I think, for philosophers to investigate and describe the practices of those scientists, either in order to explain their practices to others or in order to learn something about the rational organization of scientific institutions, or perhaps for some other reason.

While not all philosophers are engaged in kinds of logical anthropology, I think that a lot of us do something like this (although I think few of us think of our work this way). I think it’s a valuable kind of research for philosophers to do—our training makes us suited to it, and not a lot of other researchers do work like this, and it reveals an interesting dimension of human activity that, sometimes, allows us to better understand what we do, and why it does or doesn’t make sense given the world that we live in. At any rate, this I how I think of my own work and its value. And, I suppose, trying to describe logical anthropology as a philosophical project is itself a kind of logical anthropology of philosophy. The main goal I have with Explicit Content is to say clearly what I think philosophers do, in order to explain it to non-philosophers and to induce discussion about whether our practices are good ones (and, of course, whether I’ve even gotten it right in the first place). I think we’ll be better off for some explicit discussion of these things, so I hope you readers will let me know what you think.

Metadicursive Technology: Claims, Views, Arguments

This is the first post in what will be an ongoing series about what I like to call “philosophical technology” or, sometimes, “metadiscursive” or “metaconceptual technology” (since it’s not relevant only to philosophers). I said last time that the method of philosophy is just the method of inquiry, but in practice a lot of philosophy these days involves a lot of attention to the way we use words or concepts (more on that next time). Since that’s a thing that philosophers do, we need to have some conceptual resources for talking about ways of talking, or for thinking about ways of thinking. I like to refer to these resources as bits of technology to emphasize the fact that developing these resources requires some ingenuity and effort, that using them effectively involves a bit of training, and that they can be developed or improved over time. I like to emphasize that last part because, like a lot of philosophical work, progress in metadiscursive technology tends to become invisible once it’s been made.

Some bits of philosophical technology are pretty well-known to most everyone—distinctions, objections, counterexamples—though most people don’t think about them explicitly or as bits of technology for getting around. Introductory philosophy classes often cover some simple metadiscursive technology. Perhaps most commonly arguments, soundness and validity for arguments, and necessary and sufficient conditions. More specialized philosophy classes will often also cover such things as the analytic/synthetic distinction, and the difference between a priori and a posteriori or empirical knowledge (and whether and how those bits of technology are useful, or even make sense, is a subject of controversy among philosophers). Some classes will cover modality (roughly: necessity, possibility, and related notions) which comes in various forms—alethic, epistemic, practical, and others. All of these notions are examples of what I’m calling metadiscursive technology, tools that philosophers use to think clearly about the ways we reason. I won’t retread over all this well-worn territory here on Explicit Content, but I suppose I would if I were to write a big, heavy philosophy textbook or a philosophical field guide (that sounds fun, doesn’t it?). But I will talk about some other bits of technology that aren’t as commonly discussed, and that I’ve got something to say about.

To start off, though, I’m going to talk about something pretty basic: the difference between a claim, a view, and an argument. Although it’s simple it trips up a lot of students writing their first philosophy papers. And you might also think there has been progress here, since in the Greek of Plato’s time there was just one word, logos, which was used to describe each of these three things (as well as “word” and “sentence” and “speech.” But not “story.”). Because this stuff is so basic, the main body of the post may be kind of boring to anyone with some experience with philosophy, but in the interest of making things explicit I’m going to write on anyway.

First, a claim is the sort of thing that is expressed by a declarative sentence. A lot of what philosophers do is examine claims, and eventually commit themselves to affirming some of them, and denying others. (If you both affirm and deny the same claim then you’ve got a contradiction on your hands, and almost everybody thinks that’s bad.) “The mind is a nonphysical substance” and “Free will is not compatible with determinism” are claims that some philosophers have made. Claims are the sorts of things that can be true or false, or plausible or implausible. Some claims have become important enough that they get their own names. The second claim above is called incompatibilism. Another named claim is hedonism, which is the claim that “The only thing that is good for its own sake is pleasure, and the only thing that is bad for its own sake is pain.” Claims get more complicated when you consider that there can be claims about claims, and claims about arguments, and so on. For example someone might claim that “Hedonism is false,” or that “Incompatibilism is true because the consequence argument is sound.” But although consideration of claims is a necessary part of philosophy, the job of the philosopher doesn’t stop there.

Views are collections of claims that are supposed to be coherent. Views, like claims, can be true or false (though it’s more common to say they are right or wrong), and sometimes have names. Often a view is supposed to explain various things. For example, an old view called machine functionalism was supposed to explain why humans and octopuses can have the same mental states, like pain, where the view called mind-brain identity theory could not. Incompatible views may still share claims. For example, libertarianism and hard determinism are names for views about free will. Both the libertarian and the hard determinist believe in the claim that “Free will is not compatible with determinism,” but the libertarian is committed to the claim “We have free will,” and denies the claim “Determinism is true.” The hard determinist takes the opposite attitudes toward those other claims.

Views are often associated with the particular philosophers who explain them, like Ruth Garrett Millikan’s teleosemantics (roughly a view that meanings of words or thoughts, like biological functions, are determined by their causal history according to a process of natural selection). But popular views often fragment. Now teleofunctionalism is a word for a family of related views, like Millikan’s and Karen Neander’s. There is a folk caricature of philosophy that it consists in the elaboration of lots of different views, and that philosophers are people who know about lots of views and prefer some of them. But views are not the dominant currency of contemporary analytic philosophy, either.

The main business of philosophy involves giving and evaluating arguments. Arguments are what I focus on most when I teach philosophy, and there are a few different ways to describe them. The slogan that I’ve been using lately is that an argument is a reasoned defense of a claim. On this view (see what I did there?), arguments consist of two parts: a claim, called the conclusion, that the argument is supposed to support, and a reason that supports the conclusion. Philosophers use arguments to support claims (where the claim is the conclusion) and views (where the various claims that make up the view are conclusions, usually of different arguments). And just like there can be claims about claims, there can be arguments about arguments. For example, criticisms or objections about arguments are arguments about arguments (they are arguments that some other argument is bad). Opinion essays and most papers for classes are structured around a main argument (and usually contain other arguments). The conclusion of the main argument is what you call a “thesis” when you’re learning to write in school.

If arguments are reasoned defenses of claims, then you see that they are not bare statements of claims, and not disputes or questions or problems. Philosophilcal controversies, like the “mind-body problem” or the “problem of personal identity,” are not arguments in this sense because they do not have conclusions and they do not provide reasons. People make arguments for various views that resolve these controversies in different ways, but philosophers do not usually call the controversies themselves “arguments” (it gets confusing quickly).

Monty Python on arguments.

The most common way to model arguments in the analytic tradition is based on the form of a deductive inference in classical logic, or a syllogism in Aristotelian logic. Either way, the reason is made up of claims called premises that, if they are arranged right, support the conclusion through some rule or combination of rules (but rules are not just like more premises, as Lewis Carroll demonstrates in a well-known story). I say that logic models arguments, rather than saying that logic expresses arguments, since most philosophical arguments are given in the form of reasons, not in the form of logical deductions. But modeling arguments with logic can be very useful for determining whether the argument is good, and determining how an argument might be weak (undergraduates take note). Philosophers sometimes model their own arguments in logical form, and often model arguments in order to make clear objections to them.

It’s important to note that arguments cannot be true or false. Conclusions or premises, since they are also claims, can be true or false, but arguments have more complicated ways of being good or bad. Arguments can be valid or invalid, or cogent or not cogent, or sound or unsound, and so on. It would be tedious to explain what all these terms mean here (that’s taught in most introductory philosophy or logic classes, at least as they apply to deductive arguments, and perhaps inductive arguments). Basically, though, an argument is bad if it doesn’t give you a good enough reason to believe its conclusion, and the ways that reasons are bad are different and more complicated than being false.

There are at least three main ways to criticize arguments in philosophy. First, one can claim that the premises or presuppositions of the argument are untrue. That doesn’t make the argument “untrue,” and it doesn’t mean that the conclusion is false, it’s just one way that an argument might not give you reason to believe its conclusion. A second way to criticize an argument is to say that the reason doesn’t support the conclusion, regardless of whether its presuppositions are true. A simple example:

Edinburgh is in Scotland.
Humans often wear clothes.
Therefore, George Clooney is famous.

The premises and the conclusion are all true, but the premises don’t support the conclusion. They don’t give you reason to believe it. (However, this does not always make an argument invalid in classical logic… another reason to say that logic only models arguments.) A third way to criticize an argument is to claim that we have an independent reason to believe that the conclusion is false, and that this reason is better than the reason given in the argument. (But undergrads should note that it’s tricky to make a good paper out of a criticism like that unless you also figure out what specifically was wrong with the first argument, and explain it clearly.)

That’s a very brief and introductory pass at arguments, but arguments are complicated creatures and it can be difficult to understand all the ins and outs of how they work, especially when they are complicated or abstract (that’s why philosophy is hard). Or when they are about things that are difficult to think about clearly. But we deal with them all the time in life, whenever we are considering what to believe or what we should do. Whenever we consider what our reasons are, and whether they are good enough for believing or doing something, we are reflecting critically on arguments (even if we’re not doing it very clearly or explicitly). Even if not all philosophy is about arguments, critical examination of arguments is a central activity of philosophers, especially analytic philosophers. And while most disciplines do the same thing a lot of the time, philosophers are often the ones that are most concerned with developing the metadiscursive technology for doing so with self-conscious clarity and precision.

In fact, I think the skills of using basic metadiscursive technology are the most important things to teach in an introductory philosophy class, where many or most of the students do not intend to major in philosophy. Sure, it can be fun for some students to learn a bunch of views about free will or personal identity or ethics, but the most valuable and transferable skills for liberal arts students are the ones that are learned from sustained attention to arguments, and for the complicated ways of supporting and evaluating claims, arguments, and views.