There's learned philosophers but not philosophical experts

by JamesCole2 min read29th Jan 201217 comments


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It seems to me that the notion of expertise can only apply to fields in which there is an established body of knowledge. By that I mean fields in which we have (empirical) grounds for believing our knowledge is at least an approximation or heading in the right direction. Physics or genetics or how to fix cars are examples of such fields. You can be an expert in physics.

Philosophy seems different. What makes philosophy interesting is that it's about things we don't understand well. In philosophy we're not even sure that existing approaches to problems are heading in the right direction.

Philosophy is pretty much by definition about things we don't understand well. Once a philosophical topic is understood it ceases to be part of philosophy, and becomes part of another field like physics, biology, economics, etc. (or alternatively, the problem may be dissolved and seen as a kind of misunderstanding.)

I would say the kind of knowledge that exists in the field of philosophy is more of ways of describing problems, or particular arguments for or against a view of problems. It's more like a discussion.

You can be an expert in the different positions about a philosophical problem, but I would distinguish this from the idea that someone can be an expert on a philosophical subject.

For example, someone can be an expert on the various problems and arguments associated with consciousness, but I don't think anyone can claim to be an expert on consciousness (at least the hard problem of consciousness) because we just don't understand it.

So rather than saying there are experts in philosophy I would say that there are people who are very learned in philosophy.

Why does this distinction matter?

When there isn't established knowledge, we're less certain that existing approaches are correct. The fact that an existing approach hasn't been able to solve a problem for long time may mean that it's the wrong approach. It is more likely in philosophy that someone who comes from outside of the field, who isn't well versed in the existing approaches, can add something of use to the table. The fact that they aren't familiar with existing arguments may even be a virtue.

If there aren't philosophical experts, then there aren't experts to challenge.

Yet it seems to me that philosophy seems to hold greater reverence for 'experts' than most other fields.

What do you think?


[I originally posted this to reddit/r/philosophy but -- to my surprise, since it is somewhat critical of how philosophy is done -- it didn't generate any comments.]


17 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:39 PM
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[-][anonymous]10y 16

Isn't that what Wittgenstein and Quine were saying?

Not necessarily a contradiction but here is slightly different take on it:

Scientists sometimes deceive themsevles into thinking that philosophical ideas are only, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard, objective triumphs of science, and that they themselves are immune to the confusions that philosophers devote their lives to dissolving. But there is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.

-Daniel Dennett

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

--John Maynard Keynes

Reading such quotes, I don't understand how Moldbug and others can decry their "progressivist" opponents as a sinister and secretive world-spanning stand-alone complex. It's just a few middle-aged men (they're neither old nor young when they deploy their key works), and, lately, women, gently guiding history insofar as it can be guided, speaking quite clearly about their capabilities and intentions. Is this power structure necessarily so awful?

I've heard Dennett say much the same thing as the original post, and thought you were going to quote as such. He sees the interesting work to be found at the edges of science and technology, where people are still trying to formulate decent questions.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Yes he is of the view that neuroscience, evolutionary theory etc. can cast light on philosophical questions. But I don't think the quote contradicts that position, just that "Scientists" sometimes do not recognise that they do in fact construct their theories on a philosophical foundation.

I didn't intend what I said to contradict your statement - just elaborate along the same lines.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Sorry, misinterpreted. I guess I was anticipating a more skeptical answer, since Dennett critique philosophers more often than he critique scientists - as you put it "decent questions".

I expect that if you were to poll philosophers as to what they are expert at, they would say evaluating the validity/inductive strength of arguments (but not necessarily the truth of the premises of said arguments). If not, it would probably be something along the lines of being able to reproduce and interpret the arguments of other philosophers.

Those are both good suggestions. I would add facility with generating imagined stories, thought experiments, and counter-examples.

an established body of knowledge. By that I mean fields in which we have (empirical) grounds for believing our knowledge is at least an approximation or heading in the right direction.

There are set theory experts, but no empirical data on the subject.

Most of the usefulness of these experts comes from their knowledge of discovered facts like "axiom system X implies theorem Y about sets", not statements like "axiom system X is the truth about sets"

But lots of philosophy is also conditional in character: if you accept commitments x, y, and z, then you should also accept commitment w -- or your position will be inconsistent or pragmatically incoherent or some such. And anyway, being conditional does not mean that mathematics has empirical content. It is not an empirical claim that the Pythagorean theorem follows from Euclid's axioms (or some suitable formalization of them). So, Larks' complaint still seems right to me: a field of inquiry need not have empirical content in order to have experts.

You are (mostly) using "expertise" as being about mastering a body of knowledge, where usages in the psychological literature I have seen have used it as much or more to mean mastering a set of skills. In which case there definitely can be "philosophical experts".

[-][anonymous]10y 0

What sort of skills does philosophy involve?

Disciplined reasoning. The arguments may be, and often are, flawed, but they are explicit and checkable. And if you don't think this is a skill, and one that takes a lot of practice, then you need to try it yourself.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

No, that sounds plausible enough. Though I suppose it can't be the only philosophical skill. After all, the question of whether or not disciplined reasoning is a philosophical skill could only be a philosophical question. And if we suggested that we could only address or answer that question by way of disciplined reasoning then we would be begging the question. Yet we must be competent to answer that question, given that we have the answer. So there must be other skills, I suppose. If this is so, won't we find ourselves with an infinite number of philosophical skills?

I don't really agree with that.

To start with, the fields of every discipline are similar to an evolutionary tree. They branch out from ancestor fields and, even in Physics or Biology, can disappear without leaving any descendants. I think that the argument used that once a philosophical problem is solved it closes the field is simply a question of defining the entire field as that particular problem.

Fields are usually hierarchically organised, with subfields within fields. In addition, even if you can say that all problems in an entire field are solved, the way they were solved can be considered to constitute the field itself as each solution can help in other areas or other problems.

Examples in Physics, my field, are many, but I think that one in philosophy could be more relevant. For instance, I have no problems in identifying a philosopher who is an expert in philosophy of science. Even if this particular problem would be solved, I believe that someone who knew everything about it and how it was solved could also be called such.