1. People like me, who have been trying to do philosophy for more than forty years, do in due course learn, if they’re lucky, how to do what they’ve been trying to do: that is, they do learn how to do philosophy. But although I’ve learned how to do philosophy, nobody ever told me how do it, and, so far as I would guess, nobody will have told you how to do it, or is likely to tell you how to do it in the future. The most charitable explanation of that fact, the fact, that is, that nobody tells philosophy students how to do philosophy, is that it is impossible to explain to anybody how philosophy is to be done. The only way to teach people how to do it is by letting them watch, and listen, and imitate. The least charitable explanation of the self-same fact, the fact that we don’t teach you how to do philosophy, is that those of us who have learned how to do it struggled so hard to get where we now are that we’re now selfishly reluctant to give you some of the fruit of our struggle for free: we think you, too, should suffer. Probably there’s some truth in each explanation.--G.A. Cohen "How to Do Political Philosophy" 225. [Edited by Mike Otsuka]
I am unsure if Cohen would have wished for these remarks to appear in print, but I am pleased Mike Otsuka included them in his edition. There is much in this short essay to ruminate on, and I hope to return to it again before long.
Once upon a time, Cohen teaches, professional (analytic) philosophers* were not trained in method. These days there are handbooks to philosophical method (edited by leading philosophers), even one on the methods (note the plural) in analytical political theory (which I am toying with buying). So, it may become hard to imagine to some readers what analytic philosophy was like in the days when its methods were not articulated yet. The previous sentence is deliberately equivocal between the scandalous thought that in earlier times [A] analytic philosophy was free of methods and the equally scandalous thought (the one G.A. Cohen entertains and considers plausibly true) that [B] the methods were kept quiet. Cohen adds to B the further rationalization/explanation [B*] that people may have thought -- perhaps because they repeatedly read the Meno or Protagoras -- the methods of philosophy cannot be explicitly taught/said, but have to be shown via example/exemplars.
Before I say more about [A-B-B*] and [C] the more sadistic-survivor-syndrom interpretation [recall "those of us who have learned how to do it struggled so hard to get where we now are that...we think you, too, should suffer"] as well as its close cousin [C*] the ungenerous interpretation ["we’re now selfishly reluctant to give you some of the fruit of our struggle for free"], it is worth marking three features of Cohen's position (and again, for all I know he may well have not wished to publish this). First he is surprisingly immodest in his willingness to assert that he is now a proper exemplar who has "learned how to do philosophy." (I am not suggesting he is wrong.) Second, in the paper, he associates philosophy primarily with arguments. Much of his initial, primary advice is about how to think of one's arguments and what to aim for in them. In fact, these two features of Cohen are connected, in a sense, because what Cohen wishes to promote, it seems, is an understanding of philosophy as a kind of hyper-self-consciousness about the nature, aims, targets, and status of one's argument. (That is, the connection is not one of entailment; but Cohen seems to suggest that because he is in control of argument he can have a proper estimation of his own status.)**
And, third, it is a bit odd that if Cohen thinks philosophical method is about argument that (a) it was not taught and (b) that it would be all that difficult to teach. (That's compatible with few getting good at it.) I actually think this shows that the focus on argument is a bit of a red herring. For, Cohen also allows that
Sometimes one senses that a consideration has some sort of bearing on a controversy...and it is nevertheless worthwhile bringing the consideration forward, if only because it may provoke a discussion that leads to a clearer idea of the polemical significance of the consideration, that is, into which box(es) in our matrix it falls. One should aspire to clarity, but one should not avoid possible insight for the sake of avoiding unclarity. A bad way never to make a mistake is to shut up and say nothing. (226)
I am not suggesting Cohen is defending here the worth of argument-free insight, but he does seem to think that acquiring a certain amount of clarity and insight may be worth the price of argumentative muddle. I think Cohen is, in fact, rather skeptical about what arguments can achieve because he is extremely aware that what grounds (forgive the property metaphors) the occupation of philosophical territory is the commitment to a "point of view" (232) as "obvious." (It's not that arguments for these point of views don't exist; they do exist and can be refined and clarified greatly.) In this essay, Cohen does not say much more, I think, about how one comes to find oneself to occupy a philosophical territory, so we'll leave it at that. (One senses it's not so much Carnapian voluntarism as it is to be explained, if there is one, in an emotional commitment to certain values as non-relinquish-able.)
I do want to close with two alternative suggestions. I think the most charitable explanation of that fact that the methods of philosophy were not taught is that, to restate, [A] analytic philosophy was free of methods. (This is different from the claim that [D] the methods of (early to middle) analytical philosophy were not unified.) Now, I am aware that, at various point early analytic philosophers certainly discussed the methods of sciences; they also often claimed to be following a "method of analysis" or a methodized "logical analysis" or a "method of rational reconstruction."++ And their writings are full of proposals (for others) to follow some method or another, but it's by no means obvious that there was a method. (There are, rather, lots of attempts at articulating some method or another; recall my exchange with Dennett and his response on analysis; and also this post on the Strawson-Carnap exchange) .) To say that there was no method is not a criticism.
But it does lead me to the most uncharitable explanation of the silence over method: (recall) [E] it is a form of boundary policing. Under such a regime, outsiders are permanently mystified about the rules of the game because they don't know what move to make to acquire standing. [To put this in terms of a bad joke: insiders have Wittgenstein to explain the game to them; outsiders get bullied.] Obviously, the least charitable explanation need not be true. But there are plenty of incentives that are compatible with the truth.
If the least charitable explanation has some truth then it's a good thing that philosophy is being methodized. Of course, it need not follow that following philosophical method teaches you how to do philosophy.
*It's my sense that what are now known as Continental philosophers did learn how to talk about method, but it's unclear they were encouraged to follow a method. <--This sentence is not meant facetiously.
**You may think my remarks on these two features are far-fetched. But Cohen explicitly mentions anti-exemplars, including a "colleague" who had a "propensity to aggressive intellectual blindness" (and is presented as an awful teacher) as well as those "seasoned professionals" who "can make huge mistakes;" (these mistakes are not about validity.)
+I do think it is suspicious that so many people say that argument is intrinsic to philosophy. By this I do not hearken back to the days that philosophers tried to emulate wise exemplars. For, I can easily imagine a nearby possible world in which philosophers give up on glorifying argument and propose that their own practice is fundamentally about conceptual clarification and innovation or the exploration of fine-grained distinctions (in the search of truth, etc.).
++I think Carnap's principle of tolerance is a reflection of the fact that method does not determine the rational reconstruction. But about that some other time.