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).

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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.

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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.

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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.