Q:I'm not really taking them at face value because I honestly have no idea what's going on. All of this is pretty much outside the scope of what I do, and Leiter is a complete unknown to me! Canada's philosophy departments seem to keep to themselves so I'm just diving in through the channels I follow. I have never heard of this Buffet. hahah
I’m a regular reader of Leiter’s blog, so while I am biased in that respect, I also am familiar with his views. Despite Cogburn’s idea that SR isn’t continental or analytic in any substantive sense, I think Harman is guilty of what Leiter calls ‘party-line continentalism:’ he’s just as provincial about his preferred brand of philosophy as he accuses the analytic philosophers of being. I’ll let Leiter speak for himself for more on this point:
I am not an “analytic.” I do not even know what that means. I can certainly tell you the basics of Quine and Kripke, though I’ve read relatively little David Lewis; I think metaethics deals with important philosophical problems, but find most Anglophone normative theory embarrassing; I could give you a short lecture on the Gettier problem and the responses to it, but I think “analytic metaphysics” is a seriously wrong turn in the field and ignore it. I can also tell you the basics about Habermas, though I am not a fan and much prefer Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse; I think Derrida is a charlatan, and am sorry to see Foucault, whom I think is the most interesting diagnostician of the ‘iron cage’ of modernity since Weber, associated with him so often; I agree with Deleuze that phenomenology is our “modern scholasticism,” but have a soft spot for Sartre. I enjoy Hume and Nietzsche, Spinoza and Marx, but haven’t much affection for Leibniz or Hegel.
I am interested in philosophy and philosophical problems that crop up in various traditions, but often have an interest and existence that transcends them. But why is it so important to cabin me off as an “analytic” in contrast to the “Continentals” (who are then, wholly bizarrely, equated with Postmodernists by our commenter)? Who are these “Continentals”? If I have written extensively on Nietzsche, occasionally on Marx and Foucault; if I have taught Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, Adorno, and Horkheimer with some frequency; if I have co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, and I am not a “Continental,” then who is?
This is what I meant when I said Harman was being wholly unfair about Leiter. I’m increasingly in sympathy with Leiter’s views about the distinction being less important than we think, and as he notes in the interview, it’s used by people on both sides of the divide to allow themselves to ignore relevant scholarship on the issues they’re working on. That being said, I have more familiarity with and tend to prefer the style of those writers considered ‘analytic,’ because I think they tend to be clearer. But I also agree with Cogburn in that I am a non-naturalist (like Parfit) and also am ‘anti-anti-metaphysics.’ But given that Parfit’s views support my own, and Parfit is most assuredly considered an ‘analytic,’ I don’t think Cogburn gets it right when he tries to cast analytic philosophy as uniformly sharing naturalist and anti-metaphysical views.
Nigel Warburton interviews Brian Leiter on the Analytic/Continental Distinction.
Q:Have a good suggestion for a good book of first-principles and morality? I'm somewhat at a loss right now... for whatever reason.
ETHICS: Perhaps my favorite area of philosophy, or at least the one I’m best at.
Well, the major work to look at in contemporary ethics is Derek Parfit’s On What Matters. It’s a game-changer: Vol. 1 covers normative ethics, offering a sophisticated argument for why the three main moral theories (deontology, consequentialism, and contractualism) collapse into a form of rule consequentialism (which Parfit calls the Triple Theory). I haven’t read these arguments, but Parfit’s writing is perhaps the clearest and most accessible philosophy I have ever read. The work is also incredibly influential and I doubt that much work in moral philosophy can go without at least addressing his comments.
I’ve read most of Vol. 2, which covers meta-ethics. The main thrust of the work is an argument against various forms of ethical naturalism. Parfit also covers other meta-ethical views like non-cognitivism. I think it establishes the best and clearest form of moral realism we can hope for. It is a very hit-or-miss type of work: some people just feel the pull of naturalist intuitions too strongly to agree with Parfit’s argument. But dueling intuitions aside, Parfit does an excellent job of responding to the properly philosophical objections from Humeans and everywhere else.
FULL DISCLOSURE (and also bragging, if it really is full disclosure): Parfit was my professor during the second half of my ethics seminar last semester.
One thing to keep in mind is that the bulk of work in value theory and moral philosophy right now is around the idea of a reason: the fundamental moral category is an irreducibly normative sense of practical reason. You simply have a reason to do certain things, based on a proper understanding of the facts of the case. Other moral categories (good/bad, rights, obligations, etc) are derivative of reasons. Jeff McMahan, for example, defines a right as a prima facie reason not to do something, but it can be (ultima facie) outweighed by other considerations (e.g. a man who is threatening many lives thereby loses his own right to not be killed in the face of the stronger reasons deriving from the other lives, on McMahan’s view). Part of what value theory does is weigh these reasons against one another; other value theorists discuss the relationship between virtues and reasons, and so on. You can read more about reasons in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1st 3 results). It’s a helpful term to familiarize yourself with.
If you’re looking for a broad historical & contemporary overview, I might recommend Darwall’s Philosophical Ethics. I read parts of it, and it was generally well-written and clear, but I can’t speak to how accurate the exegetical work on historical figures is. Depending on the work you’d like to do, it might be better to have a book that familiarizes you with the views of major writers like Aristotle, Mill, or Nietzsche.
But generally speaking, you can almost always find top-notch overviews of very famous philosophers’ work on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I really can’t recommend it highly enough as a resource: articles written by top scholars in that particular area, with huge bibliographies for further reading and suggestions of related articles. The writing is as sharp and clear as any reference work should be.
I hope this helps.
ADDENDUM: I also think it’s good to familiarize yourself with these works (consequentialism in particular) because it’s useful to think outside of the language of rights. Rights and similar terms seem to be treated as the only legitimate language in which to express irreducibly normative claims these days- this is deeply problematic.
- ‘Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ philosophies have become not too different, especially in recent years, and why is everyone so against trying to approach an even wider breadth of knowledge?
- If you’re going to rely on polemics and attack the other one out of some implicit privilege you give to one of them its seems pretty childish, see: Leiter and Babich
- Dismissing whole schools of thought based on style, popular opinion, or personal taste will not help you figure anything out. It will make you sound quite reactionary, to be honest.
- Not that many ‘Continentals’ have an antipathy for science, this is usually extended by “scholars”
- Yes it is possible to be interested in science and read the ‘Continentals’
- ‘Analytics’ are not ONLY concerned with propositional logic neither are they all Cartesians extending rationality and mechanism out over everything
- I’m tired of these stupid fucking polemics
“The Continental tradition contains most of the great, truly synoptic, European thought of the past 200 years. That is why…whereas analytic philosophy has proved of little or no interest to the humanities other than itself, the impact of Continental philosophy has been enormous. But there is also a great deal of (mostly French) humbug in the Continental tradition. This is why there is a powerful need for philosophers equipped with analytic methodology to work within…the Continental tradition—to sort the gold from the humbug.” -Julian Young
The stories on the What is it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy? blog are rather upsetting for me to read, because of how much I admire the work that philosophers do. There is a massive disconnect from the professionalism with which they approach their work and the toxic environments that philosophers often create, either directly or indirectly, in the departments they call home. While no institution in our society is immune from the problems of gender discrimination, seeing just how bad it is for women in the field gives me quite a bit of pause, especially given my professional aspirations. I am somewhat glad, however, that such stories are being collected and made visible, so men like myself can see outside of their privilege. I am also relieved that my own department seems to be taking quite the initiative on making things better. This survey is very exhaustive, and addresses many important concerns with a great degree of detail (concerns which, unfortunately, are less likely to occur to me because of my isolation from them). I think this survey can serve as a template in addressing problems- not just for other philosophy departments, but with the necessary changes, for any segment of academia.
Nevertheless, the topic of truth-relativism is important. We want to know- it’s an age-old question: can truth be perspective-dependent? It would be nice to have some new response, or account of this age-old metaphysical question. It’s not what people mean when they often slip into truth-relativism talk in the humanities, but it’s hard for me, prima facie, to see, the case that the work people like [Mark] Richard do isn’t important. Aren’t undergrads going to come to the university and wonder “oh, isn’t truth-relativism self-defeating, because, you know, what about the doctrine of truth-relativism itself?” That’s a question that’s going to occur to an undergrad. To not have people addressing that question, regardless of how it interacts with the social sciences, would seem to me to be problematic.
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair… Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people… the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
Accepting Humean Supervenience severely constrains one’s ontological resources and correspondingly poses a daunting set of metaphysical challenges. Given only a patterned set of local qualities arrayed through space-time, one must derive laws, causes, truth conditions for counterfactuals, a direction of time, dispositions, objective chances, and so on. Lewis set his hand to these projects, and many more have followed. There is enough work here to sustain a large cadre of philosophers for many generations.
The Humean project is very seductive: one is given a delimited set of resources and set the task of expressing truth conditions for some class of propositions in those terms. To win the game is to get the truth conditions to come out in a way that is, largely, intuitively correct. Proposed solutions can be counter-exampled, counter-examples can be reinterpreted, intuitions can be bartered off against each other. If a proposed analysis fails, there is always hope that one more widget, one extra subordinate clause, can set things right again. No end of cleverness can be deployed on offense and defense.
Tim Maudlin, The Metaphysics within Physics, Introduction (p.2)
Here Maudlin bemoans the ‘idealism’ of many metaphysicians and philosophers of physics (the primary target being David Lewis) who are the ne plus ultra of reductionists: those who seek to reduce even physical theory to a more fundamental element: patterns among universals or qualities. On their view, even the tiniest subatomic particles can be dispensed with, as they are not the fundamental components of reality.
I think Maudlin’s remarks find analogues in the social sciences. My frustration, in my studies of philosophy of social science, is the tendency in two ways towards reductionism. One the one hand, we find philosophers of social science influenced by the analytic tradition reducing social existence to a collection of facts about individuals, and reducing their capacity for decision-making to a neatly quantifiable ‘bounded rationality.’ The project is seductive for many of the same reasons as Humean Supervenience: behavior can be neatly modeled, psychological surveys are relevant only when quantifiable, and arguments can be deployed in favor of this or that set of constraints on rationality. The quantitative reigns supreme over the qualitative, forestalling the possibility of critical thinking. Philosophers can occupy themselves from the armchair with the tools of game theory.
On the other hand, we have those influenced by the continental tradition, and post-structuralism in particular, doing an entirely different kind of reductionism: discursive. Every social relation can be analyzed purely in terms of the linguistic practice that surrounds (or, they often say ‘constitutes’) it. The project is also easy to conduct from the armchair: a preferred theorist’s ideas can be introduced to explain a particular phenomenon, phenomenology takes the place of interpretive understanding, problematic beliefs can be written off as ideology, textual analysis comes to the front of practice in social science. The primary task becomes deconstruction of existing research rather than the undertaking of new observations and analysis. Quantitative data is ignored, and ever more sophisticated ‘Theory’ takes the place of interpretive understanding.
I think both have unhelpfully abandoned empiricism. My frustration is not with philosophy simpliciter: I think the toolkit of philosophy of social science (and in particular, the clarity offered by an analytic approach) has a lot to contribute in understanding the best way to conduct social science research. But it must remember that philosophy of social science must be of social science rather than for it: philosophy can never usurp the role of empirical research, or needlessly reduce the tools available to social scientists. As Maudlin later says, “Let the others subsist on the thin gruel of minimalist metaphysics: I’ll take my ontology mit Schlag.” Correspondingly, a more generous ontology for the social sciences requires a more sophisticated understanding for philosophers of social science. As many philosophers have started to examine social phenomena more carefully (Goldman’s work on social epistemology, Searle’s analysis of social institutions), I think that they’re up to the task. Much of the work I would like to do in my career involves clarifying exactly these kinds of issues.
Q:What would you say the purposes of normative or meta-ethics are?
Normative ethics should figure out the best way of conceptualizing the problems that applied ethics needs to solve. It should address questions like the non-identity problem, the repugnant conclusion, and what kind of disposition we should adopt in our day to day affairs. For me, the deontology vs. consequentialism debate is settled, with the latter being the clear winner. Normative ethics needs to address other problems in a systematic way.
Meta-ethics should lay the philosophical foundation for the questions that normative ethics addresses. It should answer questions like “what does it mean when we ought to do something?” or “do normative statements express truths?” or “do our reasons derive only from our desires?” I think Derek Parfit more or less settles the majority of these questions in his latest book On What Matters, though undoubtedly there remain points of contention.
Applied ethics is a challenge for many reasons, the foremost of which is that there is a big gap between getting someone to believe something and convincing someone to act in a certain way. I think many philosophers don’t address it as much because they want to be as sure as possible that they have the answers to the meta and normative questions right before calling for their implementation. I personally think Parfit’s views on consequentialism demand large-scale, radical political action to effectively implement, but you’d never hear him call for that. Nevertheless, moral philosophy is making progress. Clear majorities of academic philosophers favor forms of moral realism, and the recent turn towards the examination of social phenomena in analytic philosophy (social epistemology, externalism, analytic feminism) means that, with the right kind of work, we can more effectively bridge the gap between moral philosophy and solving social problems.