Turning philosophy upside down

by Neil Rickert

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, but it is a hard one to address.  As luck would have it, there’s a recent post at the New York Times site by Paul Horwich, which might help (h/t Sean Wilson):

As part of that post, Horwich gives the following as an account of what philosophy is about:

Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on — and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?

That seems about right, in the sense that it fits much of what is published by academic philosophers.

Horwich goes on to express what he takes to have been Wittgenstein’s view of this:

If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.

I think that’s mostly right.  But I am not as pessimistic as Wittgenstein (and Horwich).  As I see it, the difficulty is not in what philosophers attempt to study, but in their methodology.  And that’s what I would want to see turned upside down.

The methods of philosophy seem to be based on taking a design stance.  Philosophers look at the world that we see, and wonder about how to design it.  And, if they could design such a world, that would help us understand that world.  But what Horwich describes a “embarrassing failure after over 2000 years” may suggest that the design stance is not working.

We see an example of this in epistemology, where philosophers traditionally define knowledge to be “justified true belief”.  But that’s pretty much an a priori declaration, a presupposition, on the nature of knowledge.  The design stance needs such presuppositions in order to specify what must be designed.  But what if those presuppositions are a poor fit to the world that we have?  That’s a possibility that seems to be mostly ignored.

My alternative “upside down” approach is to look at what evolved.  If we are capable of having knowledge, then that capability is something that has evolved.  If we can look at what conditions might have led to such evolution, then we might come up with a better understanding of the nature of knowledge, the kind of understanding that could not be achieved by an a priori declaration as to what knowledge is.

That evolutionary approach is how I have been studying such questions.  I happen to think that this does lead to something that should be of interest to philosophers.  However, it will be very different from what they have traditionally studied.

I’ll be saying more about this in future posts.


3 Responses to “Turning philosophy upside down”

  1. Hi Neil.

    Like Wittgenstein I put a lot of emphasis on the “battle against the bewitchment of our intellect by our language”, and I have a Wittgensteinian view of language. But I think there are often substantive questions to be settled after the linguistic fog has been lifted. I think Wittgenstein may seem more quietist about philosophy than he was, because he defined “philosophy” very narrowly. He is reported to have said of some traditionally philosophical questions, “That’s science, not philosophy.”

    Actually, there are two planks to my approach to philosophy. I combine a Wittgensteinian approach with a “naturalized” approach. Some people might say these are opposed, but I think they complement each other. My “naturalized” approach may be similar to your “evolutionary” one, though I think “evolutionary” is too limiting. We can look at the way things are now, without necessarily always needing to know how they got to be this way. And cultural causes are relevant, as well as evolutionary ones. Culture is particularly relevant to understanding language, and we can understand quite a lot about language despite knowing next to nothing about the evolution of our language faculty.

    With regard to “justified true belief”, I think that’s a reasonable definition of knowledge, as long as we understand that it’s only an approximation, and that there is no “true” definition to approximate to. And giving this definition is by no means the last word in explaining the nature of knowledge. It’s just a useful clarification of the meaning. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

    At another level, I would describe knowledge as information accumulated by truth-conducive causal processes. The knowledge we have now is the result of a truth-conducive process stretching all the way back to the start of evolution. Evolution by natural selection is a “truth”-conducive process by which a lineage accumulates information or “knowledge” of how to thrive in a given environment. At some point organisms evolved who could accumulate information during their own lifetimes, and not just in their lineage. This needn’t involve a brain. Any change of state that is both a response to the environment and consequently conducive to successful interaction with the environment can be considered an accumulation of information. As an example (though not from early evolution) consider a sun tan. That could be considered information about how much sun we’ve been exposed to and which parts of the body have been exposed. In this case it’s the physiology of tanning which is truth-conducive: it tells the truth (more or less) about our exposure to the sun. Anyway, with time much more complex systems evolved for accumulating information, namely brains. But our brains don’t accumulate knowledge (or learn) starting from a blank slate. Through our genome they inherit some starting knowledge that was accumulated by our evolutionary lineage.

    We may feel reluctant to use words like “knowledge”, “learn” and “truth” with regard to some of these forms of information. But I want to emphasise the continuity. There is no sharp demarcation between information and knowledge. (I use this to help undermine the traditional distinction between “a priori” and “a posteriori” knowledge, but I won’t say any more about that now.)

    So here I have given a largely evolutionary account. But on some questions evolutionary considerations would play a much smaller role.


    • Thanks for your comments.

      I rather like the later Wittgenstein, though I do not find him easy to read.

      The reason that I don’t find “evolutionary” too limiting, is that I am willing to abuse the term as needed. Just about any term can be too limiting, unless we are willing to stretch the limits.

      At another level, I would describe knowledge as information accumulated by truth-conducive causal processes.

      I don’t much care for that.

      Wittgenstein used the metaphor of the language game. As an analogy, let’s think of a ball game. Having balls flying around does not make for much of a ball game. We also need skilled players.

      I see the same with respect to information. We need skilled players in the information game. We can’t manage with the information alone. So I see knowledge as our abilities at effectively using information (which includes both consuming information and generating information). I see belief, at least as mostly used by philosophy, as referring to the information. So, to me, knowledge and belief are complementary. You cannot have one without the other.



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