« Taxation, Transparency, and Technocracy (Piketty) | Main | Isn't that something?! »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Jeremy Allen

"to let the machinery of the give and take come to a halt when we are faced with a stutter or a mere expression of discomfort."

Do you mean to say that we allow this too often? The current construction suggests we do not allow it often enough. Am I reading this correctly?

Eric Schliesser

I meant to suggest we do not allow it often enough.

Jeremy Allen

I took "the machinery of give and take" to mean conversation. I took "to let [conversation] come to a halt when we are faced with a stutter" to mean that sometimes in philosophical conversation we discount or interrupt a speaker who verbally stumbles, thus cutting off the valuable conversation and thereby eliminating the speaker's contribution to the creation of a new concept. On this reading, I though you would be suggesting that we should not allow these kinds of interruptions and that we should more often let speakers speak even when they stumble. Have I misunderstood what you mean?



Thanks for this characteristically thoughtful post. How would you respond to the objection that the moral benefit of creating concepts 'to name what was previously unacknowledged' (to use a general formulation for your much richer characterisation) is not a primary reason for doing (at least most types of) philosophy, though it may be a valuable side-effect. The relevant primary reason is simply to enable or facilitate acknowledgement of what is. This may be ethically valuable, to the extent that it contributes to knowledge or understanding, but that is both distinct from your claim here and entirely generic to all activities aimed at enhancing knowledge/understanding.

Thanks a lot.


Eric Schliesser

Thank you for your kind words, Riz!
I do not want to rule out the possibility that the moral conception of philosophy that I advocate is best furthered within the division of intellectual labor as a side-effect by encouraging a lot of philosophers to focus primarily on what is without regard to other reasons.
Obviously, a detailed response to your question/challenge would take a lot of space (part of me feels that all my blogs are attempts in some way to meet this challenge!), but let me just note that not all facts or existences are alike. Nearly all philosophical activity presuppose some evaluative judgments about salience and what matters--and my approach piggybacks on this fact. (We recognize symptoms of this, too, in the heated animosities between philosophical traditions.) While I am open to the idea that we value knowledge/understandings as ends and treat them as trumping reasons for many purposes, we are willing to prioritize them becomes they fit in evaluative commitments we have (about the good life, social utility, the beautiful, the evolutionary value of truth, etc.). Do you have suggestions?

Eric Schliesser

Yes, Jeremy, I am suggesting that we should be more receptive to speakers when they stumble, stutter, or wish us to pause.

Aaron Alvarez

I really enjoyed your post. I assumed badly that the amoral focus was a byproduct of how philosophy is operationalized. I assumed that the particular implementation of philosophy in conjunction with other fields was where the ethical happened. I could easily see how that falls into just building from certain things. In your view then, should philosophy be more like linguistics where the ethical is part of the very project itself? For example, the choice to to record a certain phonology over another is an openly ethical? The similarity being that the linguist carves out the space for an object as part of an ethical decision. If so is philosophy carving that ethical space from within itself or only outside of itself, that is in other fields?

Eric Schliesser

Thank you for your kind words. I think others are in a better position to comment on what we philosophers can learn from the practices in linguistics.


Thanks for your response, Eric.

I take you to be arguing that (A) what we philosophise about is guided, at least in important part, by our moral commitments; (B) an important task of philosophy is to create concepts for the hitherto unacknowledged; and (C) being able to acknowledge allows us in a morally valuable way to examine, discuss, and perhaps challenge.

Grant that (A) and (C) may be, or perhaps are, morally engaged enterprises. What about the creation of concepts at (B)? This stage of the process is and ought to be morally neutral, the argument would run, since it is guided not by moral worth but solely by considerations of accuracy. What matters here is that the invented concepts enable us correctly to refer to what is. Only once this is done can we engage morally with what has been uncovered, and the more accurate our understanding, the more fruitful would be our subsequent moral assessment. And since (B) is a core philosophical activity, philosophy at its core is non-moral in this important respect.

Here, with apologies, is the lengthy statement of my motivation. My primary interest is in the philosophy of law. Legal positivism, which probably dominates Anglophone legal philosophy, is usually understood as insisting that (I) whether a proposition is a true proposition of law ultimately depends solely on social facts, such as the formal enactment of a statute and the expressed attitudes of legal officials; and less commonly, (II) one need not (or perhaps should not) engage in moral reasoning in order to do legal philosophy.

One strategy for denying (II) in particular, associated with John Finnis, is to note, along the lines you mention in your response, that evaluative judgements, of significance or relevance, are necessary as to which social facts ought to be fed into 'doing legal philosophy', and in particular, into the process of creating theories of the nature of law. Law is characteristically regarded by those subject to it as normative, i.e. reason-giving. The central case of taking the law as normative is to take it as at least presumptively entailing moral obligations. The legal philosopher's judgements of relevance or importance must account for this central case. In other words, a key feature of (the central case of) law requiring explanation is its presumptive ability morally to obligate. Thus, legal philosophy must engage in moral reasoning in order to vindicate and explain (central-case) law's presumptive moral obligatoriness.

There are several legal positivist lines of response to this type of argument. On one, a positivist may happily concede that all the standard theoretical virtues (simplicity, consistency, etc.), implicated in legal philosophy as much as in any other area of enquiry, require evaluation, but point out that this is not moral evaluation. The positivist may also concede that legal subjects regard the law as normative, that some may regard it as morally obligating, and that these are important phenomena in need of explanation by an adequate theory of law. The positivist insists only that such a theory may be constructed without the philosopher having to pronounce on the conditions under which legal subjects' beliefs about the law's moral obligatoriness would be true. Since only this final step would require deploying moral reasoning, such reasoning is not involved in the doing of legal philosophy.

Importantly, the legal positivist usually goes on to emphasise that she is not denying the importance of moral reasoning. In particular, one would often need to decide whether the law was morally virtuous or worthless, whether it in fact morally obligated, was morally inert, or even required disobedience. But this moral evaluation could only be undertaken once it had been determined what the law was, and at the risk of confusion, that prior stage of enquiry -- the doing of core legal philosophy -- could, and arguably must, be undertaken in a morally detached manner.

Against this background, I wonder to what extent, if any, there is a parallel between the Finnisian approach and your 'piggybacking' strategy, and in turn between the positivist response and the query I have put to you.

Apologies again for the length of this comment.


Eric Schliesser

Thank you for your elaboration (about your motives) and precise restatement of my proposal. I wouldn't want to insist that (B) is always suffused with moral commitments. Sometimes aesthetic considerations, say, are more motivational. I also do not want to deny that sometimes an argument is developed and the only interest involves a profound curiosity in seeing where it leads. But, yes, I would resist carving (B) out as a value-free zone.

I'll have to think more about the legal philosophy dialectic. (I teach Hobbes, Locke, Hume regularly, but that is obviously not a full preparation for the issues you raise!) So, what follows is preliminary, although, perhaps surprisingly enough, I am sympathetic to the idea that we should not conflate legal authority/normativity with moral authority/normativity (so I have natural fondness for (II), although not as an absolute prohibition). (I once blogged about this: http://www.newappsblog.com/2011/07/on-the-coherence-of-moral-relativism-or-how-boghossian-makes-life-easy-for-himself.html.)

With regard to your (I)&(II), I think I would stress something subtly different from Finnis's argument (but he may do so, too). That is, (I) is vulnerable because the idea of 'social facts' as a value-free zone is worth questioning. We can take social facts to be value free for certain purposes, but their enduring existence often involve non-trivial evaluative commitments; this is made visible in times of (political) revolution or rapid (technological) change.

I can see why there are disciplinary and practical reasons for bracketing the introduction of moral reasoning; such reasons may well be valid/useful in legal philosophy. But I also suspect that there are also tacit social ontologies (with accompanying tacit social hierarchies) at work in such bracketing about the conditions that generate social facts; and you were right to see my post (which concerns itself with philosophical practice in the face of imposition of authority) as suspicious of those tacit ontologies.

These issues come up in the philosophy of social science, too (I even have one paper on the fact-value distinction in economics), but I have to admit that I find the issues very difficult to disentangle.

Enzo Rossi

Can I play devil's advocate? You note that your view here is conditional on us wanting philosophy to be professional. Now there's a lot to be said for that, insofar as it allows to follow the general and long overdue tendency to implement anti-discrimination best practices and so on. But I fear that with professionalisation comes managerialism, to put it extremely crudely. There's something politically and intellectually good about the idea of a self-regulating community of scholars, even though that self-regulation has often led to abuse. It seems to me that effective self-regulation requires fewer rules and lots of good judgment. I worry that if we accept the idea of codified professional rules then we are also asking for arbiters to enforce them, and there we open a door beloved of university management, as it won't take long for those enforcers to also become legislators, or be the instruments of non-academic legislators. Before we know it we'll be asked to turn up in suits, 9-5, Mo-Fri, if you'll allow a hyperbolic slippery slope argument. I suppose this is a version of Locke's "polecats and foxes" objection to Hobbes (never thought I'd defend the former against the latter!). So the challenge is this: can we be professional and self-regulating?

Eric Schliesser

I am not advocating codified rules (to be 'ticked off' by the manager/lawyers); I would like to see our peers to take the "self-regulating community" a bit more seriously. But the fact is that most of us are academics so some modest professionalism is just part of our job.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

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


Blog powered by Typepad