Philosophical Expertise, Again

As part of our Northwestern Epistemology brownbag series, Juan Comesana (Arizona) was in Evanston yesterday giving a talk, and in it he raised an issue I have been wondering about as well: the nature and existence of philosophical expertise.  (I speak for myself, though much of what follows is in the spirit of Juan’s excellent discussion.)

It is uncontroversial (I think!) that philosophers as a group, and most philosophers as individuals, make a good deal of false philosophical claims.  This suggests that if there is such a thing as philosophical expertise, it is not to be understood interms of our epistemic competence w.r.t. the philosophical claims we make.  (I tried my hand at arguing for something in this vicinity in “Reliabilism in Philosophy,” Phil Studies 142: 105-117, available in pre-published form here.)

What, then, might the nature of philosophical expertise be?  I have some ideas here but, prompted by Juan to think again about this issue, I’d be interested to hear what others think.


Philosophical Expertise, Again — 58 Comments

  1. You are philosophically expert to the extent that you competently (A) direct your thinking, or the discussion, toward important philosophical questions or away from unimportant ones, or (B) direct your thinking, or the discussion, toward (substantive and, as far as possible, detailed) true answers, or away from false ones, on important philosophical questions.

    This allows for many of us to be expert (to some extent) even if most of us don’t give true answers to the important questions. We could still ask the right questions, direct ourselves away from bad questions, or root out false answers. Directing ourselves to true answers might also include methodological innovations, whose application in generating true answers takes further work.

  2. It occurred to me that it might be good to broaden it out from “true answers” to, in Zagzebski’s terminology, “cognitive contact with reality.” That would allow for non-propositional, nevertheless cognitive, forms of achievement on the important questions. Perhaps understanding and wisdom are like this, and those definitely shouldn’t take a backseat to true answers or beliefs.

  3. In both cases, John, it seems to me that your invocation of “philosophical questions” begs the question. Sandy’s question, surely, what does it mean to “be able” to answer (or, I suppose, address) a philosophical question.

  4. Thanks John. Some initial thoughts.

    On post 1: I really like the point about asking the right questions, avoiding the wrong ones. I do worry, though, whether your additional condition (B) might be too restrictive. I am inclined to think it possible that someone should be a great philosopher (and one we’d be inclined to regard an expert, if such there be) even though she points us away from the truth. Some examples: the philosopher in question imagines interesting possibilities none of us envisaged before, which has the effect that we now have more options to choose from, and which might then make it harder to see which option is right (assuming one is). Or perhaps she makes it clear that a widely-endorsed theory is based on grounds that are weaker than people recognize (which, though her claim here might be true, it might lead philosophers away from the theory in question — and yet for all that the theory might be true). Or perhaps she makes novel distinctions that are significant (even as those who follow her in making these distinction might actually be lead away from the truth).

    On 2: I see the point to Zagzebski’s terminology, and the importance of wisdom and understanding, though both of these still strike me as truth-implicating, so I’m not entirely sure how far this move gets us.

    I wonder whether there are NON-EPISTEMIC aspects to philosophical expertise. (Perhaps such a point should not be raised on the world’s leading EPISTEMOLOGY blog…)

  5. I forgot to add an important caveat, about the sort of expertise I have in mind, and the sort I don’t.

    Here’s one I don’t have in mind. You might be regarded an expert on some philosophical topic if you can reliably represent the various accounts/theories on the topic, the virtues and drawbacks of each theory, etc. So when Fox News wants to get a philosopher to weigh in on the topic they might call you the local expert. OK, but this strikes me as an uninteresting sense of expertise in philosophy.

    Another uninteresting sense: you might be regarded as a philosophical expert regarding some famous long-dead philosopher when you are able to rationally reconstruct that philosopher’s views, situate them historically, identify contemporary discussions, and so forth. (We might call you a scholar regarding the work of the philosopher in question.)

    But in neither of these cases is this the sort of expertise I have in mind. I am interested in what we might call first-order philosophical expertise: expertise on the philosophical subject-matter itself. (If memory serves Bryan Frances made distinctions like this in an earlier thread of a discussion on a topic in this vicinity.)

    I don’t assume that there IS philosophical expertise beyond these relatively uninteresting types of case; I am raising it for discussion.

  6. Thomas,

    I don’t see how it begs the question (or, more generally, fails to be informative). After all, philosophical expertise must relate to philosophical topics!

    Perhaps the worry is that what counts as a philosophical question or topic — and especially what counts as an important one — would require some amount of philosophical expertise to begin with?


    Technically I don’t think B is too restrictive, because it’s just a disjunct, providing another way to achieve expertise. But I do see the wisdom in not restricting our account to the overall actual consequences of a thinker’s contributions. So perhaps I should just add: [C] directly gives true answers, or directly refutes false answers, to important questions, or [D] directly gives answers to questions relevant to giving true answers, or refuting false answers, to the important questions.

    I think C and D can handle the philosopher who (i) “imagines interesting possibilities none of us envisaged before,” or (ii) “makes it clear that a widely-endorsed theory is based on grounds that are weaker than people recognize,” or (iii) “makes novel distinctions that are significant.”

    D handles (i) and (iii). So long as the possibilities and distinctions are relevant or significant, then she has helped answer the important question, “What possibilities or distinctions are relevant to answering this question?” C handles (ii), provided we understand “refute” broadly to include the sort of undermining or weakening you envision.

  7. Perhaps philosophical expertise (PE, ’cause I’m not typing that again) is not necessarily a matter of true answers, since it was a worry about the frequent appearance of false answers that prompted all this, but perhaps a methodological issue. It likely involves being able to reliably flag as interesting those questions which do, in fact, display great complexity and difficulty, as well as relevance to matters of serious concern (sweeping in John’s “interesting philosophical questions” criterion).

    I think, though, that it also likely involves the ability to fruitfully apply rigorous philosophical method to good result. That may sound vague, but it cashes out to “other things being properly placed, it yields a true answer.” It doesn’t tie PE to true answers though, because it could be that for certain issues we just don’t know enough about the relevant empirical cases, there hasn’t been sufficiently clear resolution of important subproblems, etc. in order for proper PE to *in fact* yield a true answer.

    This allows us to claim that people who are patently wrong on various issues still have good PE, whether those people are modern colleagues or respected figures in the history of philosophy. It allows allows that good PE can show differential rates of success (“true answers” I guess) on different questions because of other, contingent factors (complexity of the relevant empirical cases, exact structure of the problems involved, etc.).

    But what do I know? (sorry, couldn’t resist an epistemology joke)

  8. John, yes, that’s my point too. But I think my worry is that your answer is like saying legal expertise is the ability to identify and solve (important) legal problems. We’re still entitled to ask what kind of problem that is, and it’s the answer to that question that we’re really after. If you could reword the answer so that second instance of “legal” (or, in our case, “philosophical”) was a description rather than an adjective it would be more informative. All experts are experts in relation to a complex of problems (legal, clinical, political, etc.); defining their expertise amounts to characterizing the kinds of problems they solve.

  9. My answer (short version): Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down. The nature of philosophical expertise is conceptual notation.

    Frege’s Begriffsschrift is of course the most explicit example. But he did not claim to invent philosophy; he simply found one way of expressing it. In my view, the later Wittgenstein’s “perspicuous presentation” (übersichtliche Darstellung), although a very different technique, was a development of the same expertise (he got the phrase from Frege too).

    Philosophers are conceptual notaries. I normally contrast this with poetic “expertise”: poetry is the art of writing emotions down. Emotional notation (Ergriffsschrift).

    Philosophers are experts at noting (paying attention to and drawing attention to) concepts. One way of understanding concepts is, of course, Frege’s. Concepts are “functions” that yield truth or falsity as values when they take an object as an argument. So philosophical expertise is an ability to characterize the (truth-) functional relationships among propositions. Not, as Sandy has already pointed out, the ability to assert true propositions (which is presumably something scientists do).

    This is necessarily a simplification of philosophical expertise. But I would argue that any complexity must be introduced by a more complex definition of “concept” (and perhaps “notation”). Not by taking us beyond the art of conceptual notation (however broadly understood) and into some other business.

    Having trouble thinking? Get a philosopher to show you your concepts.

  10. Thomas,

    You’re still entitled to ask the further question, that’s for sure, and asking the further question might be very sensible, but that’s very far from suggesting that they’re really the same thing, or that the original characterization is either circular or uninformative.

    Beyond that, I’m certain that explaining expertise in X goes beyond merely describing X-problems. “The problem of curing ailments and promoting health.” Did I just explain the nature of medical expertise? Not even close.

    One thought about your positive proposal. It leaves out the work of philosophers who aim to reveal the nature of knowledge, rather than the concept of knowledge, or more generally, the nature of X, rather than the concept of X. (I think Hilary Kornblith is doing philosophy.)

    Also, Socrates didn’t write! 😉

  11. Nor did Archimedes have access to a particle accelerator. Expertise requires mastery of different techniques/technologies at different times. I don’t think we would take a philosopher that didn’t write seriously as an expert today. That said, I agree that there is a sense of “noting” a concept that is possible without writing. To do it expertly today, I’d insist, you’d have to be able to put it writing.

    “Revealing the nature of” something sounds to me like “discovering the truth about” it. I agree with Sandy that that can’t be the right way to define philosophical expertise. There is a natural (pardon the pun!) slide from philosophy to science at work there. Kornblith may be doing a variety of things only some of which are conceptual and therefore philosophical.

    Finally, if I ask, “What is the nature of medical expertise?” surely “addressing or discussing important medical concerns” is a less informative (and more circular) answer than “curing ailments and promoting health”. And the reason for that is simply that the first answer re-uses the adjective that the question (I was assuming) is trying to get us to unpack.

  12. I was joking when I mentioned Socrates.

    I still see no merit to the charge of circularity, for reasons I’ve already explained. Using the adjective ‘philosophical’ is not sufficient to render an answer to a question about philosophical expertise circular.

  13. Sorry for being so dry about it. I did get it. I just also wanted to stress the idea that expertise will be historically contingent and related to dominant techniques/technologies. Also, the fact that philosophy is today a written competence is actually a substantial part of the answer to Sandy’s question. At least IMHO.

    You’ve out-tersed me on the circularity issue. It wasn’t meant as a “charge”, though. Mainly, I wanted to know if your proposal could be unpacked a bit by defining “philosophical”. Reading my comment again, though, I see how it might have come off as a judgment. Sorry about that.

  14. In my view, the pressing question about philosophical expertise is whether there is a sort of philosophical expertise whose status as expertise does not depend on our “getting it right,” or on our satisfying any condition that is ultimately explicated in terms of our or someone else’s “getting it right,” on philosophical matters.

    Call a condition “directly epistemic” if its satisfaction requires that (often enough) the subject makes true judgments on the matter at hand. (I’m an unabashed externalist in matters epistemological…) Call a condition “indirectly epistemic” if its satisfaction requires that (often enough) the subject makes judgments that, if not true, put her or others in her community “closer to the truth” than other prevailing theories are. And call a condition “relevantly epistemic” iff it is directly epistemic or indirectly epistemic. (I don’t pretend that these are clearly characterized notions, but they will have to do.) What I am wondering is whether philosophical expertise is always a matter of satisfying relevantly epistemic conditions with respect to philosophical subject-matter. (The claim in question would be that satisfying some such set is necessary and sufficient for the manifestation of philosophical expertise.) I am inclined to doubt this. (Or rather: I am inclined to think that if this claim is true, then there is no such thing as philosophical expertise.)

    John, in your disjunctive conditions (A)-(D), taken from your two comments above, conditions (B)-(D) are relevantly epistemic in my sense. Now if there is such a thing as philosophical expertise that is not to be understood in terms of the satisfaction of some relevantly epistemic conditions, I wonder whether your (A) covers the range of such cases. This isn’t obvious to me.

    So: (1) are there forms of philosophical expertise that are not to be understood in terms of the satisfaction of relevantly epistemic conditions? (2) If there are, can all such cases be understood in terms of the satisfaction of (A)? (My comment above, to the effect that your condition (B) is too narrow, was a sloppy way of expressing my guess that the answer to (1) is affirmative and the answer to (2) is negative.)

  15. Pingback: What Is Philosophical Expertise? « profundus ignarus

  16. It seems to me that philosophical expertise involves, not knowledge of the philosophical subject matter (does philosophy of mind fulfill any relevantly epistemic conditions with regard to facts about the mind?), but rather the ability to organize and categorize claims, perhaps adding what might be the proper means of assessing such claims. This is something like my undergraduate professor’s definition of philosophy as ‘thinking hard and well’. I think this is similar to Thomas’s comments above, sans the requirement of writing.

  17. Sandy,

    I think expertise need not be understood in terms of the satisfaction of epistemically relevant conditions. Indeed, I’d say the same with scientific expertise.

    But then again, if we make the reading of ‘indirect’ weak enough, maybe all expertise has to do with epistemically relevant conditions.

    I think this is a good question: how is philosophical expertise different from scientific expertise?

    Of course, for many philosophers philosophy is not much like science at all, and is more akin to various forms of literature (say). I think people on this blog tend to think of the portion of philosophy geared towards something like truth or accuracy. But that’s not inevitable.

  18. Apropos Bryan’s comment, it might be useful to think of inquiry (for lack of a better term) as having 3 coordinates, ‘experimental’, ‘formal’, and ‘interpretive’, on analogy to the RGB additive model for color.

    There are disciplines which are canonical forms of each: biochemistry (experimental), mathematics (formal), poetry (interpretive), but most disciplines are a mixture, and indeed factions within fields are often rooted in disagreements over methods.

    Questions of expertise will then depend upon where on the ‘inquiry wheel’ you think philosophy falls. I think philosophy is primarily a formal discipline, which is not to say that it is (or should necessarily be) a technical one; historians tend to emphasize interpretive skills, and this too seems important; Experimental philosophers have a case for including this dimension, too, despite their tendency as insurgents to exaggerate that case.

    Does it make sense to say that someone is an expert at interpretation? ‘Expert’ might be the wrong term, which is not to say that there is no such thing as highly skilled scholars whose scholarship concerns interpretation. Are experimentalists experts? Yes, of a sort, but (ironically) there is very often quite a lot of intuition that goes into this skill. One develops a feeling for a subject through experimentation, much like a good mechanic will develop a feeling for the machines of his trade.

  19. Sandy,

    I wouldn’t want to claim that A would cover all such non-epistemically relevant cases.

    What do you think about methodological innovations that don’t, in themselves, put anyone closer to the truth (e.g. Frege’s logic)? At least, they don’t put us closer to the truth in the most obvious sense of giving a more accurate answer to a question. At most it would seem that they “better position us” to answer some questions. Would this qualify as indirectly epistemic?

    I’m mildly curious about your (conditional) skepticism toward the possibility of relevantly-epistemic expertise. Presumably some of us have competently gotten it right (or: better approximated the truth) at least some of the time. On those occasions, doesn’t the philosopher manifest expertise? This could be true even if she doesn’t manifest it often enough to count as an expert. But from a disciplinary perspective, I think we’re okay so long as we perform expertly on enough occasions, even if we produce no experts.

  20. Gregory: Intersting suggestion (10/24 7:18 a.m.) I’ll have to think about this one some more.

    John: Your question about methodological innovations (10/26, 9:18 a.m.) is a nice one. I see two questions here: can the development of such innovations manifest a kind of expertise, and if so, is that kind of expertise indirectly epistemic? My two cents follow.

    To the first, I am somewhat unsure what to say. On the one hand, I am inclined to say that if the innovations were introduced with certain philosophical applications in mind (as was arguably the case with Frege’s development of logic, if you count his interests in the foundations of arithmetic as a philosophical application), then these innovations do, or at any rate can, manifest philosophical expertise. However imagine that an innovation aimed at something entirely non-philosophical happens to have fruitful application to matters of philosophy. In that case even if the innovation might manifest expertise of some sort or other, I not entirely sure whether to regard the expertise as philosophical. (Imagine a certain drug being discovered as a byproduct of a series of experiments aimed at finding a cure for cancer, where the drug is actually effective in treating some disease unrelated to cancer, and which no one had in mind. Did this discovery manifest expertise regarding the treatment of that disease? Intuitively, no. Then again, maybe this isn’t the best analogy.)

    On the second question, regarding whether such a methodological innovation can be considered indirectly epistemic: I guess I was thinking that it would (although this might not exhaust the value of the innovation). The idea of an indirectly epistemic condition is one whose value is to be understood in terms of the twin aims of truth-acquisition and error-avoidance. Insofar as the methodological innovation puts us in that position — and I think Frege’s logic does this — it is indirectly epistemic.

    My skepticism towards the possibility of relevantly-epistemic expertise is best summarized in the paper I mentioned in the original post. In a nutshell: performing expertly, where this is understood to involve an epistemic form of expertise, is a matter of producing justified verdicts on the matter(s) at hand. Insofar as one is a reliabilist, as I am, the question is whether the verdicts are reliable. Insofar as we understand this to pose a question about the reliability of the process-types involved in the reaching of the verdicts, there are various reasons why one might be skeptical; these I present in the paper. Of course, one can address this whole matter without my reliabilist assumptions; I mention this in the conclusion of the paper, though don’t have much to say about it.

  21. To expand a bit: one type of philosophical activity involves teasing out consequences. Suppose Mr. Big defends X, which many agree rests on an uncontroversial A and a contentious B. However, You point out that Big has weak grounds for A because of his stubborn commitment to C, which has the weird consequence of strengthening his use of B. We can imagine a contribution of this form.

    One might engage Big on his own terms, or change methods on him. (Imagine the titles: “The Bayesian case against Big”; “Big’s C and S5”, and so on.) Given all of this, it might be the case that neither A, B, nor C, is remotely true.

    Even so, we could (i) recognize Your expertise in identifying what follows from what within Big’s thesis, and (ii) benefit epistemically from learning about the interconnections of A, B, and C, variously modeled, even if we regard every constituent claim as wildly untrue.

  22. I agree with Eric that such a critique of Mr. Big would display philosophical expertise.

    Interestingly, it may do so even if Mr. Big is not, properly speaking, a philosophical expert. He may, for example, be a neurologist or a physicist.

    Moreover, perhaps the critique would not even have to attribute a “philosophical” position (X) to Mr. Big. A philosopher could expertly “tease out the consequences” of an empirical position.

    Here, again, I would argue that the philosopher’s area of expertise pertains to the conceptual relationships in Mr. Big’s defence of X.

  23. Although I agree with Thomas’s idea that there are similarities between philosophy and the sciences, one important difference between the two is that a science, like neurology, comes with a whopping load of background knowledge which constrains problems much more tightly than a typical philosophical problem.

    Indeed, one of the things philosophers routinely do is to swap out loose sketches for background constraints…think of the philosophy of mind, for instance, to stick with the brain theme. This ability to juggle not just concepts, but ways to represent and reason about those concepts, is what makes philosophy more of a formal discipline than anything else.

  24. I didn’t mean to suggest an analogy between philosophy and science. What I meant was that the teasing out of consequences does not have to begin with a philosophical position (X) held by a philosophical bigshot. Starting with a scientific position, however, does not make philosophy part of science. I think my view here is essentially Wittgensteinian.

    Philosophy doesn’t have to confine itself to the consequences of scientific claims, of course; it may deal with religion, politics and the arts was well. Even sports, I suppose.

    In fact, I think the retreat to “ways to represent and reason about those concepts” may be where things get weird, perhaps circular. It may be that concepts cannot be represented as such (only as objects–of, say, the history of ideas). The attempt to do so constitutes a kind of philosophical “trobars clus”, a closed form, a sort of ironic esoteric display, through which philosophers help each other keep their style sharp. These exercises cannot, however, IMHO, display the “nature” of philosophical expertise, which is revealed only in actual applications.

  25. I constructed my ‘answer’ by reading only the first lines of the comments in this series. It provides me with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek version of what philosophers do…


    “I have a recent paper on the more narrow question…”


    “it seems to me that your invocation of “philosophical questions” begs the question.”


    “Perhaps philosophical expertise (PE, ’cause I’m not typing that again)”


    “Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down.”


    “Nor did Archimedes have access to a particle accelerator.”


    “Another typo! I meant “trobar clus””

    it seems to me that philosophy is the art of *something* that seems most of all characterized by talking in a certain (mostly opaque) way.

  26. Hi, interesting, this ties in with something I’m arguing about over email right now …

    OK, my view is that what philosophy is about is *teaching us how to get started investigating subject-matters that we are now very bad at investigating*.

    I’ll refrain from extensively selling the view, but the tie with Sandy’s excellent question is clear: the irrelevance to whether someone is a good philosopher of whether the doctrines propounded in his or her papers are false makes it quite evident that the aim of philosophy is not to search for the truth.

    Moreover, the explicit elevation of a non-concern with whether someone has gotten to the truth as itself a criterion of philosophical expertise suggests that the aim of philosophy is something incompatible with a dogmatic stance. Dogmatism interferes with creativity and a skeptical attitude toward one’s own creative products (“rigor”, if you will). It also makes conversations go worse; and conversations in turn help to offload creativity and skepticism. This blend of creativity and skepticism is the mark of teaching us how to get investigation started: creativity is needed because we have no idea what to do; skepticism is needed because nipping silly ideas in the bud saves greater effort once they have become entrenched.

  27. “the irrelevance to whether someone is a good philosopher of whether the doctrines propounded in his or her papers are false makes it quite evident that the aim of philosophy is not to search for the truth.”

    Why is that? Whether a player’s team wins has no bearing on whether she’s a good player, but the aim of her playing is, nevertheless, to make her team win. It’s just that other factors can block winning, maybe every time.

    Similarly, an excellent philosopher may get everything wrong, because truth is hard even for the best. But that doesn’t mean she’s not trying, at least, to get things right, or that that’s not the aim of her enterprise.

    What makes her excellent, then, is that she’s great at trying to win, to get things right. That means, maybe, she’s relentless, insightful, reasonable, logical, careful but also creatively perceptive at times…all qualities that help you get the truth about the phenomena of interest to philosophers (though they’re rarely enough).

  28. I suppose that philosophical expertise consists of a cluster of competencies including the capacity to recognize conceptual options, the capacity to recognize inconsistencies, the ability to recognize entailments, and the capacity to express these things clearly in speech or writing. There are, presumably, lots more, and I imagine there are numerous subsets of them that would be sufficient for philosophical expertise.

  29. What philosophical expertise consists in (if anything) depends upon what sort of cognitive enterprise philosophy is. And here’s a provocative quote from C.I. Lewis about the latter issue:

    “everyone can be his own philosopher, because in philosophy we investigate what we already know. It is not the business of philosophy, as it is of the natural sciences, to add to the sum total of phenomena with which men are acquainted. Philosophy is concerned with what is already familiar. To know in the sense of familiarity and to comprehend in clear ideas are, of course, quite different matters. …Just this business of bringing to clear consciousness and expressing coherently the principles which are implicitly intended in our dealing with the familiar, is the distinctively philosophical enterprise.” (C.I. Lewis, “Mind and the World Order”, page 3.)

  30. I thought I’d register disagreement with the initial claim that “philosophers as a group, and most philosophers as individuals, make a good deal of false philosophical claims.” This claim seems plausible to me only as long as I include mediocre or bad philosophers within the sample group. It’s a bit like the claim that archers completely miss their target a good deal of the time. This claim also seems true as long as I include mediocre or bad archers in the group I am thinking about, but it’s not true of the good ones.

    In having discussions like these, one ought to be sensitive to the fact that terms like “philosopher”, “archer”, “author”, “poet”, “pianist”, “architect”, etc. have a use on which people who are merely attempting the art in question are counted as belonging to the extension of the term. But in asking what counts as expertise, we of course shouldn’t consider the behavior of the unsuccessful practitioners of the art, but only that of the successful ones (Plato has made this kind of observation ad nauseam). And once I think about successful philosophers, the claim that they “make a good deal of false philosophical claims” strikes me as false.

    Otherwise, I pretty much agree with John Turri’s initial characterization of philosophical expertise. To be a philosopher, you have to select the questions about which you think by their intrinsic importance, and you have to aim at truth (and nothing else) in answering these questions. Moreover, to qualify as a philosopher you have to be actually quite good at hitting the truth. Since the skills and character traits that are required to do these things are difficult to acquire, consistently successful practitioners of philosophy are unsurprisingly very rare.

  31. Does not philosophical expertise consist in understanding problems not addressed in other fields as well as various solutions, e.g. problems of universals, free will, consciousness, meaning, morality, knowledge, etc?

    Maybe I’m naive or I’m totally missing something here, but I can’t see any problem with this simple proposal?

  32. I like Lewis’s definition of “the philosopohical enterprise” as “this business of bringing to clear consciousness and expressing coherently the principles which are implicitly intended in our dealing with the familiar”. I think it amounts to “conceptual notation” in the broad sense of “noticing concepts” that I was talking about above. Note also Frege’s remark from the introduction to the Begriffsschrift: “the task of philosophy is to break the domination of words over the human mind”. Though that puts it in more forceful terms, what is “the familiar” but the domination of the mind by words?

    I also like the “each his own philosopher” point. Of course, that might at first seem to undermine expertise. But there is, I think, an expert way of assisting others in noticing the concepts that make their world a familiar place to them. Again, I think my approach here is a lot like Wittgenstein’s.

  33. I like the idea of philosophy as incubator for the sciences (broadly construed), but, agreeing with Jeff, I’d resist the claim that truth is irrelevant to the enterprise. My only point with Big was that the search for truth can be helped along by dealing with a tangle of falsehoods, and that a considerable amount of expertise may be required to do so. I take this to challenge Sandy’s claim in the original post:

    This suggests that if there is such a thing as philosophical expertise, it is not to be understood interms of our epistemic competence w.r.t. the philosophical claims we make.

    unless you wish to include the logical or perhaps causal claims about the structure of a philosophical thesis. (The buck has to stop somewhere.)

    In reply to the interesting C.I. Lewis quote, there is a nice remark that Krister Segerberg attributes to Rich Thomason. Thomason remarked that the only real advantages that we have on the greatest philosophers of the past ages are the new tools that we have at our disposal. It is hard imaging improving on Aristotle without resorting to methods that simply were not available to him. Segerberg captures this idea in a slogan: “To go beyond a great philosopher, go beyond his methods!”

    Or: we didn’t get the light bulb from thinking harder about candles!

  34. “this business of bringing to clear consciousness and expressing coherently the principles which are implicitly intended in our dealing with the familiar”

    This might be a part of philosophy, and a big part of philosophy at the time of C.I. Lewis – but does not begin to capture the contribution of D.K. Lewis, the metaphysics of hyperspace, etc.

    When asked about what philosophy is, didn’t Moore point to his bookshelf? And why should not philosophical expertise consist simply in understanding what’s on our bookshelves – which is pretty close to the proposal I gave above?

  35. @JeffH: so the excellent philosopher with all false views just had a big string of bad luck, like the excellent shortstop whose double-play grounders keep dinging off stray chipmunks. what are the chipmunks for philosophy?

    a bit more literally, the rules of games build in normalcy conditions; players attempt to render conditions normal in playing. abnormal conditions turn off ordinary evaluative practice.

    philosophy isn’t like this. interruptions like 4-4 loads, the raising of infants, and nervous breakdowns don’t render the conditions in which one does philosophy abnormal: rather, they prevent one from doing philosophy adequately at all. Indeed, since philosophy is an ordinary life activity rather than a game, nothing could even count as setting the normal conditions.

  36. Philosophical expertise, if I may, depends on what one thinks philosophy capable of doing. The expertise will be cashed out from one’s meta-philosophical commitments. I might take a stab at it, and say that those that regard philosophy as either conceptual analysis or leading to truth in the arguments made for complex problems actually have a deprived view of philosophy. What about those questions and thinkers that interrupt us, provoking our lives in some fashion?

    Philosophy describes our lived experience, and if it doesn’t relate to our concrete lived experience, then such expertise (no matter how erudite) cannot have an intellectual purpose for the conception that philosophy relates to how we find ourselves situated.

    Philosophical expertise just might be the skill set that interruption and provocation manifest when we confront our lived experience. These skill sets, I would argue, may be any set of tools to make sense of our lives.

  37. @Edward: Perhaps you have a “deprived” view of conceptual analysis. I would argue that the moment of conceptual awareness is profoundly interruptive. “Noticing a concept” (my proposal for “philosophical expertise”) involves, precisely, interrupting the inertia of our everyday interpretations of lived experience.

  38. Very interesting post and comments. I guess I agree with Benj that it is irrelevant to whether someone is a good philosopher whether his claims are true or false. On the other hand, I guess I think that getting at the truth is plainly a goal of philosophy -I have a hard time thinking what it would be to *do* philosophy if it didn’t include trying to get it right about something. As Sandy reminds us, however (and this should really be obvious), philosophers as a whole get it wrong just as often as they get it right.

    But what I really wanted to say is this: in this thread (and in his paper more explicitly) Sandy seems to think that you have to be a reliabilist to be puzzled by this. I disagree. If philosophers as a whole are getting it wrong at least as often as they are getting it right, that should give every philosopher pause regardless of his metaepistemological commitments.

  39. On the question of “truth”, I would put it this way: there is no such thing as a philosophical truth but there is something like philosophical correctness. Philosophers have been “getting it right” without “telling the truth”. Truth is just getting the facts right.

    The simple form of philosophical correctness is the valid deduction of a false conclusion from false premises. There is some “rightness” in such a deduction, and I think philosophical expertise is trying to be right only in that way. It does not require any special access to the truth.

  40. Juan, I don’t think you HAVE to be a reliabilist to be puzzled by the nature of philosophical expertise; rather I think that it’s SUFFICIENT that you are a reliabilist to be puzzled by this. I do think that reliabilists may have a more direct route to the puzzlement, since if reliabilism is true, then a philosopher need not be aware of her own unreliability, or the unreliability of others in the philosophical community, in order for her philosophical judgments to be downgraded epistemically. (It suffices that she is unreliable in these judgments.) This said, it could well be that non-reliabilist epistemological assessments will downgrade her judgments as well, perhaps even in circumstances in which she herself is unaware of (or does not believe in) this unreliability. I don’t take a stand on this.

  41. Thomas,

    If I may ask, conceptual analysis is usually practiced under the rubric of establishing the necessary and sufficient conditions in order to have a clear concise definition of something. Such an analysis usually carries the weight of ordinary language philosophy. You’ve said in liking Lewis definition of philosophical expertise, you think of philosophical expertise as the “business of bringing to clear consciousness and expressing coherently the principles which are implicitly intended in our dealing with the familiar.” If this is your way of proceeding, then you won’t break enough. You won’t remove away a lot of the junk that hermeneutics and phenomenology would cause as a rupture. You will just further reify the implicit intended senses without first really seeing what is going on (Think of eidetic seeing in Husserl, Ideas 1, section 3.)

  42. Hi Juan,

    I had a question about the claim, “it is irrelevant to whether someone is a good philosopher whether his claims are true or false.”

    Here’s one sense in which that might be true: getting it (usually) right is not a necessary condition on being a good philosopher.

    The more natural sense of ‘irrelevant’, though, would have it that getting it right doesn’t contribute to someone’s quality as a philosopher. Do you mean it in this sense? I have a harder time believing this. Take two otherwise similar philosopher, R and W, where R always gets it right, and W always gets it wrong (on philosophical questions). Isn’t R a better philosopher than W?

    When I say “otherwise similar,” I mean they ask the same questions, use the same methods, try just as hard, etc. Perhaps their difference lies in what they find intuitively plausible on a couple fundamental questions.

  43. Sandy,

    If reliabilism is true (and the fact that philosophers get it wrong almost as often as they get it right means that their beliefs are unreliably produced, something which is by no means obvious), then both reliabilist and non-reliabilist philosophers are in trouble in the sense that their beliefs are unjustified. To be puzzled, though, they would have to find out about this unreliability. Once they do, it once again doesn’t matter whether you are a reliabilist or not. In short: to be puzzled, you have to know about the unreliability, and known unreliability is bad news whether you are a reliabilist or not.

  44. John,

    “Take two otherwise similar philosopher, R and W, where R always gets it right, and W always gets it wrong (on philosophical questions). Isn’t R a better philosopher than W?”

    I’m inclined to answer “No”, because the fact that R got it right is not attributable to him -and you cannot stipulate that it is without violating the ceteris paribus clause, I would argue.

  45. Edward, I didn’t mean to suggest that Lewis’s sentence exhausted my approach. But I will stick to my guns on the “conceptual” nature of philosophical expertise. (You’re right that there are some approaches to conceptual analysis that don’t accomplish enough … but then again, all philosophers can’t succeed in every way). Husserl has many useful things to say, but I think in all cases he’s refining what it might mean to make explicit the implicit order of experience (and how one might accomplish).

    John, I think the “irrelevance” (to philosophical expertise) of getting the answer “right” can be captured by asking whether it “matters” whether, say, Jason Stanley or Keith DeRose are right about the role of context in knowledge ascriptions. There is *no reason* to think that the better philosopher will be the one that is right about contextualism. Not even if we assume they are trying equally hard.

  46. Juan,

    There’s a cognitive basis for the attribution in each case.

    R reasons:
    1. P iff Q.
    2. P.
    3. So Q.

    W reasons:
    1. P iff Q.
    2. ~P.
    3. So ~Q.

    They disagree on Q because they have a fundamental disagreement on P.

    That’s cognitive, right?

  47. John,

    We are getting into complex issues regarding disagreement here, but I’ll say this much: if R’s getting it right regarding P is a cognitive achievement of R, then the difference between R and W is traceable to this cognitive difference, and not the result of R getting it right. (What I want to say regarding actual cases is that neither R nor W are justified in their conclusions, but that is where we get into the complex issues.)

  48. Juan,

    “If R’s getting it right regarding P is a cognitive achievement of R, then the difference between R and W is traceable to this cognitive difference, and not the result of R getting it right.”

    But R’s cognitive achievement partly consists in his getting right. So how can his getting it right be irrelevant?

  49. John,

    What I meant is: “if R’s coming to believe P …” etc. Again, what I really think is that neither keeping on believing that P (or not P) nor getting it right with respect to P (or not P) is an achievement in the circumstances.

  50. Hi Sandy: Interesting ideas. Some thoughts by Ramsey about philosophy that might be relevant for the previous discussion:

    “We are driven to philosophize because we do not know clearly what we mean; the question is always `What do I mean by x?’ And only very occasionally can we settle this without reflecting on meaning. But it is not only an obstacle, this necessity of dealing with meaning; it is doubtless an essential clue to the truth. If we neglect it I feel we may get into the absurd position of the child in the following dialogue: `Say breakfast’ `Can’t’ `What can’t you say’ `Can’t say breakfast’.” (Philosophy, page 6, Philosophical Papers).

    Ramsey asked some of these fundamental questions. For example, `What do I mean by the notion of probability? ‘ Or `What do I mean by the notion of number?’ The answers required the creation of new technical devices and many branches of science (the decision sciences, for example) still see these achievements as part of our basic expertise in these areas. Being aware of Ramsey’s response to his foundational question seems today as well part of the basic equipment of any philosopher interested in the nature of probability.

    By the same token, although papers like `Truth and Probability’ were truly revolutionary, they were not created `ex nihilo’. They built on scientific and philosophical ideas. For example, `Truth and Probability’ reacts to Keynes’ answer to the same foundational question and at the same time it is inspired by it.

    The technical devices created to respond to basic philosophical questions are in many cases very powerful and they permit to see beyond the limits of natural language. So,
    there is always the temptation to organize inquiry around them. Perhaps this is the dark side of formal philosophy. Ramsey also noticed this in `Philosophy’:

    “The chief danger to our philosophy, apart from laziness and woolliness, is scholasticism, the essence of which is treating what is vague as it were precise and trying to fit it into an exact logical category.” (Philosophy, page 7, Philosophical Papers).

  51. Pingback: What is Philosophical Expertise? « Philosophy On The Mesa

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