Is there expertise within philosophy?

A quick case for “No”: in philosophy we aim to think for ourselves, and as such we do not — and we should not — rely on the authority of another philosopher in coming to a conclusion.

I am very tempted by this quick case. But I have a certain uneasiness about it. People in other disciplines regularly defer to their within-disipline colleagues, on matters where they regard their within-discipline colleagues as having relevant expertise. In so doing they recognize the importance of shared knowledge (or at least well-justified belief) regarding the common world they and their colleagues inhabit. I worry that if we deny that there is expertise within philosophy — that is, if we deny the sort of thing that would justify one philosopher in reaching a philosophical conclusion on the basis of accepting what one of her philosopher-colleagues told her — this reflects an attitude that rejects the very idea that one philosopher could have (and be seen by others to have) more philosophical knowledge than another. Such an attitude might be based on the view that there is no knowledge to be had in our discipline in the first place (a depressing thought); or else on the view that within philosophy no one can lay claim to the sort of knowledge/justified belief required by expertise (but what is it about our discipline and its subject-matter that precludes this?).

And yet: the practice of accepting a philosophical claim merely because philosopher X (known to be sharp) said so strikes me as deeply unphilosophical. (Possible exception: results in logic and the more formal parts of philosophy.)

Anyway, this is a worry I’ve been having since giving a paper on a related topic at the first Midwest Epistemology Workshop.


Comments

Is there expertise within philosophy? — 19 Comments

  1. It is possible to think about philosophical “expertise” as pertaining to one’s capacity to formulate striking and original conclusions, without thereby becoming an authority to which others – lesser “experts” – ought to (tend to) defer in their own conclusions.

    The reason I use scare quotes is that perhaps it is better to speak of philosophical “skill” rather than philosophical “expertise”. If that is so, then to say that Professor X is a better philosopher is to say that Professor X is more skilled at philosophy, and not that Professor X merits deference simply in virtue of being recognized as being philosophically superior by the one considering whether to defer to X on a given issue.

    In this sense, philosophical “expertise” may be more naturally comparable to the artist’s or artisan’s “skill”, rather than the kind of “expertise” attributed to scientists and guides. This is, at least prima facie, compatible with a broad spectrum of views about reality and extent of philosophical knowledge.

  2. I suspect that we defer to some degree in the same fashion that our colleagues in other disciplines do. That is, we are likely to defer to our colleagues who work in subfields other than our own. If I want the lay of the land with regards to a particular dispute in ethics the first place I’m headed is to my ethicist colleague’s office. In similar fashion I trust the Heideggerians with respect to what Heidegger meant.

    Further, it seems were often inclined to trust the opinions of our philosophical friends in a disagreement where we don’t take ourselves to be experts. Say that philosophers vI and L have a dispute that is beyond my level of expertise, but I know that vI and I agree about a lot of other philosophical issues that are within my reach. It seems reasonable to trust vI’s judgment in the disputed case, though I have some worries about confirmation bias.

  3. Pavel,

    The point you make is fair enough. However, it appears to give up on a key point I was hoping might be preserved, namely, that philosophy, like other disciplines aiming at truth, can have its experts (like those disciplines themselves do). My overarching worry is that ours is not a form of inquiry the success of which is measured in terms of our reliability in attaining truth; the appeal to an analogy with artistic skill does nothing to diminish that worry.

  4. Nor should it. However, I did, at the end of my post, try to suggest that perhaps the worry is independent from the question of whether the expertise distinction between philosophy and other disciplines that you have suggested is genuine. Not having experts in a discipline might not be incompatible with the discipline’s (or at least individual practitioners) aiming at truth. At least, not unless you make other, substantial, presuppositions.

    Perhaps you think that there is a deep connection between presence of experts and aiming at truth. If that is the case, I would be really interested to hear more about what this connection could be.

  5. Couldn’t a particular philosopher have a high level of expertise in that she simply understands all the relevant issues surrounding a question, and the different resolutions which philosophers offer for those issues?

    Matthew mentions asking his ethicist friend to catch him up on a particular issue–this knowledge or ability certainly seems like some sort of expertise. But it would go too far to say that one should “trust” a colleaugue’s opinion on a matter, if trusting his opinion means deferring to his judgment of an issue, or his resolution of an issue. It seems the expert should know a lot about the field, but that does not mean that this expert will come down on the right side of the fence regarding the issues. It seems the best course of action is to use one’s colleauges to acquaint one with the relevant issues, and perhaps to point us in the right direction of relevant literature. To give the expert the benefit of the doubt by agreeing with her opinion without good arguments and evidence seems a poor route to choose.

  6. Regarding Matthew: getting testimony from a colleague about what so-and-so said, or about the historical context of a philosopher’s writing, strikes me as relatively unproblematic. But as R.C. says in the above post, it is a different matter entirely when it comes to acquiring beliefs about substantive matters of philosophy. I can only speak for myself: this is not a way that I acquire beliefs on matters of philosophy. (Contrast: working physicists will take the say-so of their recognized expert colleagues on substantive matters of physics.)

    Pavel: I agree that the speculated non-existence of experts does not prove, or even offer strong evidence for, the claim that we philosophers aren’t aiming at truth in our inquiries. But it does call for further explanation: assuming we do aim at truth, why don’t we have experts? (Is is something about the sort of truths we aim at? about our inability to acquire knowledge of these truths? etc.) It might help assuage the worry to have other clear examples of truth-directed inquiry where there are no experts. (I do know that some folks have wondered about the possibility of testimony on matters of ethics and aesthetics. This has obvious bearing on the present issue.)

  7. Sandy,

    Isn’t the distinction between arguing and telling relevant here? Arguing that p (presenting an argument to the conclusion that p) is a way of getting an audience to believe that p that is very different from telling the audience that p (or, if you will, testifying that p). Testifying that p involves intending the audience to believe that p on my authority, arguing that p involves intending the audience to believe that p on the basis of the audience’s own assessment of the cogency of the argument.

    My intuition is that, beyond the kinds of cases already mentioned (testimony concerning historical issues, concerning what the relevant questions in a field are, etc.), we shouldn’t believe philosophical conclusions on the basis of testimony. We shouldn’t believe that determinism is true, for example, on the authority of a well respected philosopher. In this sense, philosophy is different from many other fields where it’s perfectly legitimate to believe something at issue in the field on the authority of an established practitioner.

    This means that a certain kind of expertise, that relevant to testimony, is irrelevant for philosophy. We might deem someone an expert in the practice of philosophy, as Pavel suggests, and we might even deem someone an expert in the sense of someone who is in a position to give us particularly good and convincing arguments concerning some field, but we shouldn’t treat philosophers as experts in the sense relevant to testimony. It’s an interesting question why exactly this is so, and I think you’re absolutely right that this is related to issues about moral or aesthetic testimony, but I suspect it has something to do with the way in which the kind of kowledge we are after in philosophy involves a kind of understanding. This understanding can be acquired from appreciating the argument someone has given, but it can’t be acquired by simply taking her word for it.

  8. Ben,

    You are exactly right about the sorts of question I am asking: is there expertise in philosophy of the sort relevant to testifying on philosophical matters, and if not,why not? Perhaps it is (as you suggest) because we aim at understanding, rather than knowledge. I wonder what other options there are.

  9. I am inclined towards the simpler answer that the kinds of claims in question here are just not ones that anyone counts as knowing. For most philosophical questions, we just have _very_ little evidence one way or the other, and our discipline is thus _very_ good at eking arguments out of these evidential tidbits. It’s something that can be done better or worse, but perhaps even at its best, it is rare for it to give us conclusions that are sufficiently justified to count as knowledge.

    Here’s a relevant question that this suggests: can we get testimonial _justification_ in philosophy? Sandy framed the initial post in terms of knowledge or justified belief, but it seems to me that we can sometimes get justification for a philosophical claim from another’s say-so, even if we cannot get knowledge that way. (Putting aside the logic and history sorts of cases, that is.)

  10. I am inclined towards the simpler answer that the kinds of claims in question here are just not ones that anyone counts as knowing. For most philosophical questions, we just have _very_ little evidence one way or the other, and our discipline is thus _very_ good at eking arguments out of these evidential tidbits. It’s something that can be done better or worse, but perhaps even at its best, it is rare for it to give us conclusions that are sufficiently justified to count as knowledge.

    Here’s a relevant question that this suggests: can we get testimonial _justification_ in philosophy? Sandy framed the initial post in terms of knowledge or justified belief, but it seems to me that we can sometimes get justification for a philosophical claim from another’s say-so, even if we cannot get knowledge that way. (Putting aside the logic and history sorts of cases, that is.)

  11. One reason expert testimony does not have the place in philosophy that it does in other disciplines is, I take it, the following. Philosopher A cannot use Philosopher B’s authority as support in defending the proposition in question from challenges from a third party, as one can do in other disciplines as long as one’s reliance on the expert is appropriate to the latter’s expertise.

    Of course, this just raises the further question concerning the source of this difference. One suggestion that might reassure those who are disconcerted by the possibility that philosophy does not aim at truth is that this difference might have as much to do with the following two factors:
    (i) one does not demonstrate philosophical competence by accepting things on the authority of one’s philosophical superiors, and
    (ii) philosophy does not have an agreed-upon body of knowledge (unlike most sciences) and so no agreed upon hierarchies of expertise (rather than agreed upon hierarchies of skill).

  12. I think there is expertise in philosophy, but it falls in between ‘Here is what Heidegger said’ and ‘Causal determinism is true’. When I go to Tim Williamson for the lay of the land in vagueness, or to David Chalmers on phenomenal consciousness, often I accept their opinion on matters of this form:

    Such-and-such an argument A is plausible yet faces the following roadblock B…

    Such-and-such a view C looks promising, but Lewis has shown that it requires certain thesis D in area X to be true…

    Such-and-such a view E has recently been shown to be the ontological correlate of such-and-such other view F…

    I will defer to their judgment on matters such as these to this extent: if I want to do any work on A, I will make sure I see how it fares with B, if I want to evaluate C, I will examine how it’s affected by D, when evaluating E I will pay close attention to F.

    These may be pretty substantive restrictions. Even so, I don’t think any of this really answers Sandy’s question!

    I want to know: when I think of so-and-so as being a true philosophical expert on X (e.g., Williamson on vagueness), do I also think that he has a better chance than I do (I admit I’m nowhere near an expert on X) at having true opinions on the big questions on X? If not, then what good, exactly, is his legitimate expertise on smaller matters (e.g., whether X is a good objection to Y)?

  13. Nathan: I haven’t yet seen this paper, thanks for the reference. A little while back (right after he heard my talk at the Midwest Epistemology Workshop) Richard Fumerton sent me a paper with a very similar title (“You can’t trust a philosopher”). It seems that we have a very low image of our colleagues’ opinions.

    Jonathan W’s question is a nice one: granting that we can’t get testimonial knowledge through another philosopher’s testimony on a matter of philosophical substance, can we at least get (testimonially) justified belief? Perhaps; I’m not so sure. I confess, though, that I think about things from the perspective of reliabilism about justification, my doubts on the present issue arise out of my doubts regarding whether any one of us is relevantly reliable. That was the thesis of the paper I gave at the MEW. I would like it, though, if I am wrong about this. Bryan’s post also raises this very issue from what seems like a similarly skeptical perspective.

    Pavel: I am inclined to agree with you on (i) and (ii). It is worth appreciating, though, that one doesn’t demonstrate one’s competence in physics by accepting the relevant authority’s say-so either, yet it is still widely done. So insofar as my original worry goes, (ii) may offer more insight than (i) regarding the relevant difference between philosophy and the other disciplines.

  14. Sandy,

    This is concerning your remark that “one doesn’t demonstrate one’s competence in physics by accepting the relevant authority’s say-so either, yet it is still widely done”… Accepting the relevant authority certainly does not demonstrate competence, but there is the following further distinction to be made. One’s competence as a physicist (or an historian) is in part constituted by being able to pick the right authorities COMPETENTLY before one defers to them. There is no parallel in philosophy.

  15. I recall an exchange with a colleague some years ago who was pushing a line about inconsistent possible worlds. The details don’t matter. It is enough to say that I was against the whole idea. “What’s the point?”, I cried, “this isn’t just a game, like bridge!” His reply, as you might guess, was a studied “Why not?”

    Well, here is why not. Sometimes philosophical questions are clarified to a point where they stop being mere puzzles and become (part of) genuine modes of inquiry. This is the ‘incubator for sciences’ picture of philosophy, which is what drew me to the subject in the first place.

    On this view I would say that there is expertise in philosophy, and deference to expertise works not so much in accepting p because Jones does, but recognizing that Jones has a good grasp of the subject and that his position on p is worth serious study. I am going to learn something about the subject from reading Jones, that’s why I bother to study him rather than spend my free time on someone else.

    It also explains some matters of taste. Vagueness was mentioned, so I’ll use that as an example. The philosophical vagueness literature is very interesting and instructive, but in my view there is more meat to be found in Pawlak’s theory of rough sets. It is nice to have examples that tuck the formal machinery behind the curtains, but to understand vagueness is to understand issues surrounding decomposition and fusion operations for approximated entities. Getting a grip on those issues gets you most of the way to getting a grip on vagueness.

    And there are people in philosophy who understand things like this very well—experts, I’d call them.

  16. Gregory,

    I tend to agree that, at least in the more formal areas of philosophy (and here I include logic, including non-standard logics) there is expertise, and this is no more surprising than is the claim that there is expertise (in the sense characterized above) in mathematics. One continues to wonder, though, whether there are examples in regions of philosophy that are (for lack of a better way to put it) less formalized than the example you give.

  17. Political philosophy strikes me as a good candidate, for instance. I don’t find it odd to say of someone that she is an expert in political philosophy.

    On the other hand, and perhaps this is to turn your question around, I don’t know that I understand what analytic philosophy is unless it is understood as a kind of formal discipline: X-phi aside, philosophy is not primarily concerned with experimental methods, nor is it primarily concerned with interpretation, since we take pains to distinguish the history of philosophy. What’s left? Philosophy as a kind of performance art?

  18. Pingback: Philosophical Expertise, Again » Certain Doubts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *