Mastery-based Grading (for Moderates)

Last week I gave a short presentation on teaching to a group of faculty at my institution. I decided to talk about an experimental assessment method I’ve been thinking about privately for the last three-and-a-half years (ever since a post at In Socrates’ Wake stirred me from my dogmatic slumber). Next semester I’ll have my first really good opportunity to implement this method. It seemed like the sort of thing worth sharing here, even though I haven’t tested it yet.

Awkward things about traditional grading. I don’t think I’m alone in hating grading. I like reading good student work, but judging it is taxing.Students may think about their grades a lot, but very few of us got into teaching in order to pass judgment on people. And whenever I’m disappointed by an assignment, I ask myself if I taught well enough, if I made my expectations clear enough, if it would be unfair of me to judge the work harshly. Grading has various functions, though, and two obvious ones in particular: to motivate students to do the work (assuming they want good grades), and to serve as a signal of student quality to folks who weren’t in the class and didn’t assess them. Normally this is done by finding a weighted average of each student’s work over the course of the semester. Maybe later assignments count more, or assignments more central to the purpose of the course (like exams and papers) count more.

There are two drawbacks to this “average performance” model. One is that grades provide poor feedback. By the time a student has a grade, they’re stuck with it even if they improve later, and there is little external motivation for them to improve unless another assessment is coming up later that evaluates them for the same knowledge or skills. Instructors usually use other methods to provide feedback (e.g. comments), but those methods don’t motivate the way grades do. A second drawback is what might be called the “improvement problem” (described ages ago by Mark Lance at NewAPPS). Imagine Student A who performs pretty well throughout the semester. Student A may have taken similar courses before, or may be unusually sharp, or may have been better-than-usually prepared for the class. Student A gets an A–. Student B, on the other hand, struggles early in the semester but perseveres until things fall into place and by the end of the term she is outperforming Student A. Nevertheless, Student B gets a B because of her weak early performance. Something just seems a bit unfair about that.

The improvement problem

The improvement problem, illustrated.

Mastery-based assessment. There are a lot of ways to address the improvement problem. One strategy is called “mastery-based grading” or “mastery-based assessment,” inspired by martial arts (earning successive colored belts) or video games (passing successive levels). In particular, Ann Cahill and Stephen Bloch-Schulman developed an ingenious design for a critical thinking course based on the martial arts metaphor. I won’t describe it here, but you can read about it yourself (I recommend it). The problem with Cahill and Bloch-Schulman’s model is that it seems difficult to adapt to certain kinds of courses—it requires students to work individually at their own pace instead of together. The result is that students cover a topic at different times during the semester, and don’t collaborate. It sounds like a great way to teach their course, but I also want students to work with and learn from each other. (In fact I am contractually obliged to teach that way.)

Moderate mastery-based assessment. So my plan is to water down the Cahill and Bloch-Schulman model enough to get most of its benefits without its drawbacks, drawing significantly on a suggestion by Dustin Locke. I have a scaffolded sequence of main papers throughout the semester, each of which focuses on specific analytical skills and builds on the skills assessed in previous assignments:

  • Paper 1: precise description of a topic or view (200 words on the topic of the week)
  • Paper 2: exposition of an argument from the reading (300 words on the topic of the week)
  • Paper 3: Like paper 2 plus an original objection (600 words on the topic of the week)
  • Final paper: Like paper 3 plus a discussion of material from outside of class (3500 words on any topic from the semester)

Now, this sequence works for philosophy courses, but for other kinds of courses one could use a sequence of different skills, or use different kinds of assessments (e.g. tests or creative projects). None of this is particularly new. The “mastery-based” twist is to allow students to turn in the papers when they choose, and as many times as they choose. Only the last grade they receive on each assignment counts toward their final grade for the course. That way, I can hold them to high standards without being overly harsh or punishing them for being unprepared for the course, since they can try again and replace their previous grades.

I may be fooling myself, but I don’t think this plan will leave me buried alive under a mountain of grading, at least in a small-ish course. First of all, each paper but the last is quite short. I have pedagogical reasons for this—it makes the assignments seem less intimidating, and encourages students to focus on the target skill instead of panicking or getting distracted by the mechanics of writing. But also it’s easier to grade a lot of short papers with clear objectives. Second, students cannot regress in the sequence. They must take each step in the sequence seriously, moving on only when they’re satisfied. It also prevents strategic thinkers from massaging their grades and the end of the term by turning in a bunch of short papers. Third, students can only submit one paper a week. This encourages them to invest in each attempt (respecting my time as a grader). It also forces them to choose new topics for each re-attempt, so that they have to practice their analytical skills in a new context. Only for the final paper can re-attempts be revisions of earlier work.

The benefits of moderation. My hope is that this assessment model improves on the problems of the “average performance” model. Grades provide better motivating feedback since they contribute to the final grade, but can be improved if the student chooses to re-attempt the assignment. This model also softens the impact of the improvement problem (though not as well as Cahill and Bloch-Schulman’s more radical model).

And importantly for me, the model is flexible enough to work in courses on diverse topics, and varied uses of classroom time. In particular, I can reserve most of class time for lectures, group work, and discussion as in a traditional philosophy course. I can also have students work together through weekly topics on the syllabus, while they work on their analytical skills at their own pace through the written assignments.

Of course, it’s possible for an extremely driven and well-prepared student to finish all her papers within the first four weeks of the term. I think that’s fine—if she’s that over-prepared she can finish early and spend more time on her other courses. There are other reasons for her to read and come class each week. Another worry that’s been expressed to me is that this plan might contribute to grade inflation. Again, I’m not worried. I think it’ll be easier for me to hold my students to higher standards this way. If they all earn As by the end of the term, they’ll each have earned it.

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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.

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.

Ultracrepidarian

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.

The Method of Philosophy Is the Method of Inquiry

In my earlier post on the method of philosophy I made several negative claims: the method of philosophy is not based on intuitions or reflective equilibrium, it’s not random speculating, and it’s also not just about arguments. Today I’m going to motivate a little maxim that I’ve been mumbling to myself for a few years: that the method of philosophy is the method of inquiry.

What do I mean by ‘inquiry’? By ‘inquiry,’ I mean something like the deliberate project of understanding the world (including ourselves) better. Sometimes this is done in order to accomplish a specific goal, like curing polio or building bridges, and sometimes it’s not. I take it that building the Large Hadron Collider and looking for the Higgs boson is an example of the latter kind, although there have been highly practical discoveries along the way and this was always a part of the plan. At its best moments, the academy (I don’t mean the Academy, but academia, the worldwide system of universities and other institutions of higher learning) is an institution dedicated to furthering inquiry and disseminating the resulting understanding to students and others. I am tempted to think of inquiry as a distinctively human project (as far as we know). I don’t think that when a cat figures out how to use door handles it’s performing inquiry, but maybe we can say it’s a special kind of cat-inquiry as long as we recognize the differences between cat-inquiry and human inquiry. For example, the understanding gained from cat-inquiry does not tend to be disseminated among other cats, whereas human inquiry is a deeply social project.

It’s important, especially when we take into account the humanities and not just the sciences, that inquiry is about understanding of some sort, and not just truth or knowledge, narrowly construed. As I understand it, a lot of humanistic scholarship is concerned not with the articulation and justification of true claims, but of promoting a variety of ways of understanding things (texts, events, social structures). And honestly, that sort of thing goes on in science, as well. The psychological and linguistic literature, for example, are full of discussions that encourage readers (colleagues) to think about the mind or about language in a particular way. That is a lot of the force of, for example, theoretical discussions on embodied cognition, or descriptivism in linguistics.

(Another story I like to tell is that “philosophy” comes from the Greek, meaning love of wisdom, but that a lot of analytic philosophy seems rhetorically fixated on knowledge, scientific and otherwise, rather than some broader conception of human intellectual capacities.)

I believe that the method of philosophy is just the method of inquiry—that the acceptable methods in philosophical work are any and all of the acceptable methods in inquiry in general. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll talk a little bit about philosophy as a scientific discipline, and then about philosophy as a humanistic or perennial discipline.

Aperture Science: Safety First!

The method of science. Image: Valve

Philosophy and scientific inquiry. Despite what you may have heard, philosophy and science are pretty tight. This is true in at least two ways. For one, a lot of contemporary analytic philosophy draws on empirical premises to make arguments. Hilary Kornblith is a good avatar for this practice in epistemology. Kornblith uses results in psychology and cognitive science to defend a particular picture of how we come to know things, and what our limitations are. This is also very true in my own specialty, philosophy of cognitive science. For example, Andy Clark draws on a variety of scientific results to argue for a picture of how humans and other cognitive subjects are embedded in the world (review), and Jesse Prinz draws on a lot of literature to argue for a particular view of emotion (review). Some philosophers even run their own experiments. So this kind of philosophy is not, whatever its faults may be, out of touch with science, and it does not claim to produce a priori knowledge (knowledge we can acquire without experience). But there is a second way that philosophy and science are closely related: scientific inquiry is based on philosophical methods like argument and conceptual clarification. The heart of any scientific article is an argument where the results of experiments or studies are presented as premises. The construction of scientific theories and models involves systematizing information from such arguments and refining the concepts of the theory so that knowledge can be represented perspicuously. In fact, you could say that scientific methods are a special case of philosophical methods.

Now, I am not claiming here that philosophy is better than scientific disciplines. I am just saying that, at bottom, we are all doing the same kind of thing. Craig Skinner (an interesting fellow) argued online last year that one function of philosophy as a discipline is to be a source for the ‘budding off’ of other disciplines, like the sciences. This is an interesting notion, but the ‘budding off’ activity makes more sense if there is at bottom a continuity between philosophical inquiry and other kinds of inquiry.

The tree of knowledge flowers and fades.

The perennial aspect of philosophy. A lot of contemporary analytic philosophy is on board with scientific inquiry, broadly construed. It sees itself as dedicated to the project of uncovering and justifying new knowledge and understanding through argument and reasoned speculation, just as science does. However, there is another dimension to some philosophy, which I am tempted to call the “perennial” side to philosophy (with apologies to Leibniz and Sellars and others, who meant different things by “perennial philosophy.” They meant philosophy about God and other eternal things, but I mean the philosophy that comes back year after year). Philosophy in its perennial mode engages with topics that are not suited to being settled once and for all, but that require repeated engagement. I think some ethics is like this—society changes, which means that the same ethical principles need to be worked out and again and again, but in new circumstances. This gives rise to topics like medical ethics, nanoethics, and ethical debate over privacy issues in the world of big data. I know less about humanistic inquiry than I do about science, but I suspect that this sort of effort to keep our understanding up to date with new developments, and to update our understanding of old developments, is of a piece with scholarship in the humanities. And there is an important perennial dimension to philosophy instruction. Even if no progress were made in philosophical research, I think it would valuable to help successive crops of students to question Cartesian dualism and free will libertarianism.

I also think that this is the sort of picture of philosophy that the later Wittgenstein had in mind when he defended his “therapeutic” conception of philosophy (the most famous remarks are probably §§115–128). Wittgenstein claimed that philosophy clears up the linguistic confusions that we encounter in life. I wouldn’t go so far as Wittgenstein here, but I think it is a part of philosophical inquiry to devise methods for getting around logical space without getting lost, and techniques for finding our way if we have. The perennial vision of philosophy is also championed by Richard Rorty. In a notorious discussion of Derrida’s work (“Philosophy as a Kind of Writing”), he criticizes the analytic philosopher’s “Kantian” conception of inquiry as narrowly knowledge-producing, and suggests instead that philosophers think of themselves as commentators in a great and interminable conversation about how to live.

Now, thinkers like Wittgenstein and Rorty have earned their share of stigma from more mainstream analytic philosophers. There are plenty in the analytic tradition who are uncomfortable with the perennial function of any inquiry, let alone of their own discipline, and respond by writing off their perennially-oriented peers as non-philosophers, or as not truly a part of the analytic tradition. There are several figures, especially at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Chicago, and Harvard, who get this treatment. I am not claiming here that Wittgenstein and Rorty are right about philosophy. After all, my own research is of the more scientific kind described above (though it is Wittgensteinian in other ways). But I do think that they are not wrong about what they and many others do, and I think it’s cheap to reply by insisting that what they do is not really philosophy.

Bradley Garrett, self-portrait atop the Forth Rail Bridge

The synoptic vision of Sellars’ philosopher. Image: Bradley Garrett.

So what is philosophy? All this is to say that philosophy’s methods include those of other areas of inquiry. Sometimes philosophy uses the scientific method. Sometimes science uses philosophical methods. Sometimes philosophy functions to apply old views to new situations. Sometimes in philosophy we reimagine the old and familiar from a new perspective. So if there is any method to philosophy, I think it’s just the method of inquiry in general. Philosophers adopt a broad range of methods for understanding the world, and those methods seem to include, well, all of them.

But I think in the end this is an ecumenical conclusion (I like my conclusions ecumenical). If the project of philosophy is, at its broadest, just the project of inquiry, then that sits well with a lot of other things people have said about philosophy. It sits well with Plato’s old line that “Philosophy begins in wonder,” since the ultimate end of philosophy is to promote understanding. It also plays nice with the other claims of Plato’s Socrates, that philosophy is the means to the examined life, since a better understanding about how to live well is a special case of inquiry, and perhaps the most important one. My conclusion explains the central importance of argument to Plato’s Socrates, but also the importance of critical examination of assumptions and the development of tools for navigating logical space. My conclusion also sits well with Skinner’s suggestion that philosophy is a source for other disciplines to “bud off” from, since other disciplines represent more specialized approaches to inquiry.

Finally, I think my conclusions is a happy companion to Sellars’ famous dictum that “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Sellars continues that philosophy is distinguished from the special disciplines in that philosophers aim to keep track of the big picture (“It is therefore the ‘eye on the whole’ which distinguishes the philosophical enterprise”). I would say that that’s a nice regulative ideal, and it is something I try to do, but I doubt it’s a necessary condition. A lot of philosophers specialize quite narrowly, who are still philosophers. And people of many professions sometimes address philosophical concerns without necessarily reflecting on how their “bailiwick fits into the countryside as a whole.”

If this is right, though, there is a question left outstanding. What does that mean for the subject matter of philosophy? Surely if “leftovers” is too narrow a characterization, then “everything” is too broad! Not everything is philosophy, but I am not sure how to limit the subject matter because anything could be philosophy. Consider that Plato’s prescriptions about policy and social architecture belong to philosophy. Aristotle’s early biology is philosophy (even if it’s not great). Newton was a natural philosopher. Really, it’s one of the most frustrating things about philosophy that potentially anything can be relevant to anything. As a philosopher of cognitive science, I feel like I should know so much more than a human being ever could. I’ve got to manage my time and effort, of course, and it’s hubris to think that one person can be an expert in everything, or even (these days) in very many things at all. But I don’t think I can write off any sphere of human knowledge as clearly irrelevant to philosophy or even to my project. I never really get to say “That’s work for another department,” unless I mean that I just don’t have the skills or the time or the funding to look into it. But I never meant to claim that it’s my job to know everything (what a wonderful and terrible job that would be!). But any technique that anybody uses to understand the world better is a technique I could potentially find a use for in my line of work.

Philosophy Isn’t All about Arguments

One of the most obvious questions one can ask about philosophical methodology is “Well, what is the method of philosophy?” If you’ve got an answer to that question in your pocket, it will help you to judge whether something is a bit of philosophy or not, and whether a bit of philosophy is a good one or a bad one. By comparison, one might suggest at a first pass that the method of science is essentially empirical: you have a question about what the world is like, and then you go check the world with a controlled experiment and find out. (That’s a potentially dangerous simplification, but it is a common thought and dealing with it is a topic for another day.) A similar caricature of the philosophical method is that a philosopher, ideally an old white dude with a long beard, sits in an overstuffed armchair stroking his facial hair. He takes his ‘intuitions’ about cases as data, and tries to make them systematic (perhaps through some kind of reflective equilibrium). That might describe the method certain patches of philosophy (except, not the part where the philosopher has to be white or male or bearded, or the part where it’s done alone). But intuitions (e.g. about what is just, or what is moral, or what counts as knowledge) don’t play the same role in all of philosophy, particularly not in philosophy of science. Consider a famous, big question in philosophy of science: realism vs. anti-realism about science. Roughly, that dispute is about whether we should believe that things like electrons and the strong force are real, or whether they’re just useful fictions that we use for predicting observations and building bridges. Arguments about scientific realism do not usually turn on accounting for our intuitions about what is real and making them systematic and discovering whether electrons belong inside or outside; they usually rely on claims about how evidence and explanation work, and how they apply to the interpretation of scientific theories and models.

So what can we say about the philosophical method? As in so many things, you can’t go too wrong starting with Plato. Plato has Socrates say somewhere that “Philosophy begins in wonder.” A lot of people seem to like that expression, and it might be true. But—my weird and enduring love for Plato notwithstanding—it doesn’t do much for me. A more articulate suggestion in Plato is that philosophy (sometimes ‘dialectic’) is the ‘examination’ part of the examined life. It is the investigation of your reasons for thinking what you think and for doing what you do, and the policy of offering those reasons up for criticism by others. I like this a little more, and it’s the kind of story I tend to take into the classroom when I teach. Generally speaking, I think Plato’s dialogues are full of great lessons about philosophical methodology. But this Platonic story is very personal. It’s about how philosophy fits into an individual life. If that were what philosophy as an academic discipline were about, it would mean that philosophers are ipso facto stupendously self-involved, or nosy, or both. Now, an enterprise whereby the participants investigate their reasons and those of their peers sounds like an interesting club, but it’s not a story about a respectable academic discipline. An academic discipline should do something for people other than those who participate in it.

A nearby suggestion, though, is that philosophy is about evaluating reasons as such. I once heard a story from Professor James Shaw that he sometimes tells his undergraduate classes. I like this story. Shaw says that the method of philosophy is described by something called the “science of argumentation,” which is presumably a generic variation on formal logic. (“Argument” here, as in most philosophical contexts, means a reasoned defense of a claim, not a verbal fight.) On Shaw’s suggestion as I understand it, philosophical training involves acquiring special knowledge of the forms of argumentation, with a focus on which ones are conducive to preserving truth, and expertise in clarifying and evaluating arguments as such. That’s the method. The content of philosophy is what he calls “leftovers.” On this view philosophy is about whatever is left unclaimed by the other disciplines (this can’t be all that philosophy is and Shaw knows that perfectly well, but it’s still a cute thought). “Leftovers” sound unsavory at first but they’re not, because there are a lot of interesting topics that can’t be adequately treated by the methods of other disciplines—Shaw’s examples were the mind-body problem, the problem of free will, the problem of personal identity, and whether death is harmful. The reason philosophy gets all the leftovers is that if you don’t have more specialized ways to discover knowledge on a topic, the science of argumentation is all you’ve got left!

I really like Shaw’s story, although I have two worries about it: philosophy isn’t just about leftovers, and its method isn’t just the science of argumentation. (But don’t tell my students I said that.) Philosophy can’t be leftovers because a lot of philosophy covers topics that are well covered by other disciplines: philosophers study language (especially semantics), but that’s now the turf of linguists as well. Philosophers butt heads with neuroscientists and social scientists about the will, responsibility, politics, epistemology, memory, concepts, and other topics. Philosophers get to keep the mind-body problem, probably, but frankly the computer scientists think that they do a better job and the philosophers have dropped the ball on that topic and let it languish since the 1970s. Moreover, there are the subdisciplines of philosophy called the philosophies of the sciences: subdisciplines like philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of nanoscience and, of course, philosophy of cognitive science. In all of these subdisciplines, philosophy takes on subject matter that is precisely the subject matter of other disciplines.

Concerning the method of philosophy, I’m pretty sure that it’s something like the standard line in analytic philosophy (the tradition in which I’m trained) that the method consists in attention to argument. Speculation without argument shouldn’t be dignified with the name ‘philosophy.’ In contrast to the standard line, there seems to be a view among the layfolk that philosophy consists in unconstrained speculation about abstract questions. On this view, the general form of a philosophical discussion is something like this:

JONES: “Hey, dude, what about if X?”
SMITH: “Sure man. But wait, what about if Y though?”

The thought is that philosophy consists in producing random suggestions, and philosophical expertise involves knowing what all those suggestions have been. Maybe this is why, when you tell someone at a party or on an airplane that you study philosophy, you quickly get the question “Which philosopher do you follow?” When it comes to teaching, I try to make a little show of insisting on the standard line, and disabusing my students of this layfolk cartoon. I think that this policy pushes my undergrads the right way. But I also think that the standard line goes too far, and that there is something right about the cartoon picture.

Even in analytic philosophy, good work does a lot of things apart from describing argument. For example, good work sometimes describes the range of possible ways of thinking about a topic. As we sometimes say, it maps out the “logical space.” This involves making distinctions, which is a crucial piece of philosophical technology. The standard line would hold that making distinctions is useful only insofar as it cleans up your definitions, and thereby improves an argument that features those definitions. It is, after all, implausible that argumentation is all there is to philosophy; there are at least other things one must do in order to argue effectively. For example, understanding arguments in texts, defining one’s terms, and anticipating counterarguments. What the standard line holds is not that argumentation is all there is to philosophy, but that argumentation is fundamental. All other activities belong to philosophy insofar as they help with the activity of articulating good arguments. But I’ve often walked away from philosophical discussions or from reading a paper with a distinction that was more memorable than the argument. Now, distinctions are wonderful pieces of philosophical technology. After all, the ability to make the right distinctions is a conceptual skill that you can take into new puzzles and new situations. Distinctions and other tools for navigating “logical space” without getting lost or overwhelmed are often more widely applicable than a grasp of particular arguments and counterarguments. For example, one set of distinctions familiar to most who have taken introductory philosophy is the standard tree for categorizing views about free will (below). That tree gives you a way of beginning to carve up the space of views about free will, and allows you to distinguish between two very different kinds of view that allow for free will (libertarianism and compatibilism). I would guess that most students remember that tree better than they remember, say, the consequence argument.

standard views about free will

Another activity of philosophers, and one that is harnessed by the folk picture, is the articulation of possibilities that have not been thought of or put clearly before. In particular, I mean identifying unnoticed assumptions and discarding them. There are complications here… at some level of generality, there is probably nothing new under the sun anymore (sorry, undergrad essay writers, I just about promise you didn’t think of it first). And novelty is not interesting for its own sake, anyway. But I’ve heard a few people say that one of the most important activities of the humanities and social sciences in general is to “unmask ideologies,” which I think is a way of talking about identifying and often discarding tacit assumptions. According to Robert Brandom, this is more or less the basic shape of Hegel’s method and the form of most of John McDowell’s discussions. McDowell can probably be accommodated straightforwardly by the standard line, since his writing is structured around arguments, but the writing of Hegel and of many continental thinkers is a tougher case. If one insists that everything in philosophy must be in the service of an argument, then those writers will be considered egregiously inarticulate (that may be a just criticism of Hegel, but not of e.g. Nietzsche). And it’s petulant and problematic to simply insist that they are not true philosophers.

This exploratory side of philosophical activity is easy to miss in the analytic tradition because most papers are organized around arguments, even when they include other kinds of intellectual work. However, that’s not universally true even in the analytic tradition. For example, it is possible to find arguments in Wittgenstein, but it’s difficult in most of the Tractatus, and many of the most memorable parts of his later work are not well-described as arguments. Wittgenstein’s fans in philosophy often quote him like scripture: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things”; “Nothing is hidden”; “Light dawns gradually over the whole.” This tendency infuriates some of Wittgenstein’s critics, who see him as a crackpot guru and not a philosopher (“Where are the arguments?”). I would venture that a lot of the power of Wittgenstein’s work comes from his ability to get you to think about things a certain way. Perhaps the same can be said of many of the famous thinkers in the continental tradition. I might say that Plato has a similar effect, even though his dialogues are full of arguments (after all, many of them are unconvincing on their face). A lot of the most compelling bits in Plato are the myths and stories he tells—the cave in Republic, the chariot in Phaedrus, or Aristophanes’ myth of the origin of love in Symposium. But the truth is that even though Wittgenstein and Plato have plenty of fans in the analytic tradition, analytic philosophers often avoid admitting that they are compelled by anything but sound argumentation.

So what is the method of philosophy? My opinion is that the method of philosophy just is the method of inquiry, but explaining that claim and arguing for it would require more space than I want to take up today. I’ll stop for now with a negative conclusion: attention to argument is extremely important in philosophy, but I don’t think that argumentation is the foundational activity of philosophy.