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.)


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.

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.