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Kate Norlock

I disagree with the main contention, that philosophy should decouple from the pursuit of truth. If I've learned anything from scholarship in implicit bias, I've learned this: Philosophers are wrong, quite wrong, in a truth-dependent way, that they are transparently rational, objective, as they confidently stride around making their grand armchair claims correctly. This isn't a problem with the commitment to truth. This is a problem with a commitment to an interest in seeing oneself as right and good, which is not true and which is, instead, false. Philosophers, the persons, should decouple their pursuits from their self-images as smart right people. Pursue the truth, colleagues. Don't be so invested in your reflection.

Eric Schliesser

Kate, your logic is impeccable.

Kaija Mortensen

I'd like to understand Eric's post (and Kate's comment) better by distinguishing between at least two different ways in which philosophers pursue the truth: (1) Philosophers formulate philosophical questions (questions that arise out of tensions between inconsistent beliefs/experiences) and develop and test possible answers/solutions/resolutions to those questions. (2) Philosophers examine their own methods of inquiry to see whether or not they are truth-conducive.

If I understand Eric correctly, he argues that we should decouple (2) from pursuit of truth because "our focus on truth gives us a (tacit) status quo bias". This leaves open the possibility that he and Kate agree that pursuit of truth is not problematic (at least not for the same reasons) in task (1). If I understand Kate correctly, she argues that pursuit of truth in task (1) is sidelined/warped when we hyper-focus on task (2) rather than pursuing (2) only in the service of (1). I'd like to understand both points more thoroughly, so I look forward to continued discussion in this comment thread.

Bharath Vallabha

Eric, I would like to first say that I enjoy and admire your blog writing. In your blog voice you seem to have your finger on the pulse of something important, and thanks for following that pulse publically.

That said, I am not sure about philosophy (professional or not) decoupling from the concept of truth. How would doing that help with, for example, increasing the number of black academic philosophers? It is not as if black philosophers don't care about truth. Or is it that when black philosophers care about truth they are unwittingly limiting their own progress in the profession? That seems hard to believe.

I would think it is impossible for people on the margins to forgo the concept of truth, because they would then lose the only way available to them to show that they speak not just with a marginal voice, but with a universal voice. So if people within the power structures forgo the concept of truth, they actually make it hard for people on the margins to show their universal voice and so their marginalness is tacitly reaffirmed.

Eric Schliesser

Kaija, I like your formulation in (1; except for the 'test' stuff), but that's because it is focused on discovering tensions/inconsistencies in our experiences. Alas, that's not how I more regularly hear philosophy conceived; rather it gets presented as a discipline that inquires into what is (the truth). I much prefer to think of philosophy as the discipline that reflects on what could (and should) be.
I should let Kate speak for herself on the other part of your comment(s)!

Eric Schliesser

Bharath, thank you for your kind comments.
First, I did not mean to be speaking to what works in reform projects (of the sort that Samir Chopra recommends). (As I put it in the post: ("This is not to deny that one can reform some of the institutions and make them more inclusive/just (etc.).)
Second, I am not suggesting that everybody should forgo the concept of truth--rather I am suggesting that professional philosophy should do it in its self-understanding. I certainly do not wish to be advising or speaking on behalf of "people on the margins!"
I hope that helps

Kaija Mortensen

Eric: I, too, much prefer to think of philosophy as the discipline that reflects on what could (and should) be. You assert that professional philosophy should forgo the concept of truth in its self understanding. Could you please say more about how conceiving of ourselves as pursuing the truth enforces a (tacit) status-quo bias? How does conceiving of ourselves as pursuing the truth prevent us from being self-critical?

Eric Schliesser

It's a fair demand Kaija.
On the first: I think the methods we have available within philosophy and social science are not fully capable of evaluating alternative institutions that we might inhabit--rather they take existing institutions (tacitly) for granted. (I blog more regularly about this in my philosophy of economics and the political economy of science contexts.)
I am not claiming that pursuing the truth prevents us from being self-critical an sich; rather the self-criticism tends to stop short of calling the basic institutions into question.
But I agree that all of this demands much more elaboration--some of which in progress during the last few years at NewAPPS and now at D&I.


i don't think you need to be persuaded by nietzsche re what the will to truth is, to be persuaded by his middle-period ('meditations' to 'gay science') insistence upon seriously asking about the value of truth. and the broad extension he tends to give to 'history' at some points, like in 'utility and liability of history for life' (as if any properly contemporary pursuit of knowledge will have accepted that the things to be known are phenomena with histories, and that potentially all phenomena, thus belonging to 'history', become relevant to such a voracious appetite for knowledge as modern universities have), at least leaves room for the elaboration of a kind of affective economy of knowledge-pursuit, with different modes of being, different individual and social uses for knowledge (figured in the 'monumental', 'antiquarian', and 'critical' modes of doing history).

eric, i am more curious about the alternative which you describe and then name 'conceptual legislation'. is there not just as much, or more, of a problem of authority there as there is one of truth? (why not instead, for like purposes, call it 'conceptual authorship'? a poesis for thinking.)

Eric Schliesser

Whatever problem I might have with the classical ideal of truth, it's not a problem of authority.
I will have to reflect on your other comments.

Bharath Vallabha

Eric, you seem to be saying the following. When professional philosophers think what they are doing is pursuing truth, they become oblivious to certain institutional structures they are a part of. This is because the self-understanding of pursuing truth creates a self-image that because one is pursuing truth one is not driven by issues of power, vanity, historical privilages, etc. So the way to become better aware of these institutional structures is to give up the self-understanding of pursuing truth.

Perhaps this point applies generally. If a person in a relationship think they are acting out of love, and if they also assume that acting out of love is the opposite of trying to control one's partner, then their affirmations of love can actually become a way to suppressing in oneself and in the relationship facts of the power dynamics in the relationship.

In the relationship case, would the way to become self-aware of the power dynamics and so be open to new possibilities be to forgo the self-understanding of loving each other? Seems not. Creating new possibilities is hard and draining, and it requires a joint self-understanding which can withstand the difficulties. Love is such a self-understanding in relationships. I think truth as a self-understanding of philosophy works similarly. It can bring and hold people together, even when the differences between philosophers threaten to break the connections which bind them.

What is to be avoided is not, as a generality, truth as a self-understanding of philosophy. But rather an indiscriminate use of such a self-understanding, which stifles conversations of bringing out differences. The philosopher who, when feeling threatened by change, keeps repeating "but we all care about truth" is like the person in the relationship, who when confronted by his partner, keeps saying, "but we love each other". Of course, they might love each other, just as all philosophers might care about truth. But sometimes it is better to show the self-understanding by being willing to change, than to keep saying the self-understanding as a way to protect oneself from the change.


sorry, i was thinking instead that many of the issues having to do with (especially professional, insitutionalized) philosophy's relation to the world vis-a-vis truth have parallel instances vis-a-vis authority. not that there is some clear problem of authority to be had with the classical ideal of truth. and since you work so much on political economy, etc. i should specify, i'm thinking mostly of something like 'the authority of reason', the authority with which the philosopher speaks (which if i gather correctly you would have read about specifically in abe stone's paper on the meno?).

Eric Schliesser

Bharath, I like your attempt at characterizing my stance. But I am not persuaded by your response.
Relationships takes place within an institutional context (law, religion, the economy); these constrain the option-space for any individual pair (trio, etc.) such that it is convenient short-hand and just to talk about individual effort and outlook when trying to repair/fix/deepen (etc.) the relationship. If you want to take all of that for granted, sure.
So, I don't think that truth necessarily brings philosophers together--that depends on incentives and institutional context (and other norms, practices). I see little evidence for the claim that truth is even likely to bring philosophers together.

Eric Schliesser

I have little anxiety over the authority (of reason) or with which I speak.

Bharath Vallabha

Eric, yes, law, economy, religion, etc. are the contexts in which a relationship takes places. And yes, love is not one more context, as if it can be set along side these institutional contexts. That is the mistake of the person who responds to the partner, "but we love each other", as if the abundance of love can make up for, say, disparities in the relationship. Instead, love is the commitment of the people in the relationship to continually rethink and be open to change regarding the material and social contexts of the relationship.

I think truth works similarly in a professional context. When, say, a professor is talking to a grad student, they are engaged in the pursuit of truth not independent of the context of the power dynamics they are within, as if pursuing truth is a special kind of social context which is independent of and makes up for the obvious disparities in their social situations. Rather, the pursuit of truth is their shared commitment to rethink their social and material contexts. So when there is real openness to change on both sides, what they do together can rightly be called pursuing the truth.

The main obstacle to institutional change in academia is the feeling that all this social equality stuff is orthogonal to the main day job of finding truth, which it is assumed requires keep on keeping on with most of the established procedures. I think change requires changing this way of thinking of truth, which basically is an institutionalized way of letting people off the hook. This is how I hear your claim that you see "little evidence for the claim that truth is likely to bring philosophers together." Yes, if truth is interpreted as something orthogonal to social change. Though truth can bring people together if the intrinsic connection between truth and social change is better appreciated.

Eric Schliesser

Well, Bharath, my claim is, in part, (in your terminology) that the incentives and norms that exist in professional philosophy prevent better appreciation of a connection between truth and social change. So, it seems strange to say that we need a changing the way of thinking of truth if you don't have a way to block the existing incentives and norms.
Given that I do not see how to block those, I am offering an alternative approach.

Bharath Vallabha

Eric, that's an interesting point. Definitely any attempt at institutional change has to deal with the incentive structures and norms, or at least cannot ignore that.

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Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


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