Friday, August 5, 2011

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Philosophical Conclusions

In what has become a widely-discussed piece in the New York Times (among philosophers, anyway), Stanley Fish says,

In short, the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical (as seminars, academic journals, and conferences are), and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them. The fact that you might give one set of answers rather than another to standard philosophical questions will say nothing about how you will behave when something other than a point of philosophy is in dispute.

For one thing, I think this is somewhat of an overstatement. I've had students tell me that my ethics classes, in particular, have affected their thinking in what they saw as behaviorally significant ways. I've had students tell me that discussions of animal cruelty have caused them to adopt vegetarianism, or at least to moderate their meat-eating or to seek out less cruel alternatives. I've had students tell me that discussions of abortion have caused them to see a complicated (and interesting) set of issues where before they saw an easily-resolved black-and-white issue with a bunch of moral monsters on the other side, and that this would cause them to be more sympathetic and nicer to people with whom they disagree. I've had students tell me that discussions of Rachels & Rachels on cultural relativism or Socrates on the divine command theory have caused them to seriously rethink their initial confidence in these moral outlooks (even if they didn't ultimately reject them).

Now, I don't see it as my role to try to talk people out of stuff like eating meat, conservative positions on abortion, cultural relativism, or divine command theory. I see it as my role to try to talk people into having more thoughtful views on these things. It is one thing, for example, to be pro-life because you believe that life begins at the moment of conception and that anyone who disagrees is depraved and that anyone who would act on that disagreement is a cold-blooded murderer; it is another to believe that abortion is wrong, but whether it is wrong depends on when personhood, not life, begins, and that reasonable people disagree about when that is and whether the status of the fetus is relevant at all. I think that's a significant change; I think that this change is likely to result in behavioral differences where the rubber meets the road; and I think that's a victory for philosophy.

Fish is, of course, addressing Paul Boghossian's recent discussion of cultural relativism. Fish says, "When it’s not the game of philosophy that is being played, but some other — energy policy, trade policy, debt reduction, military strategy, domestic life — grand philosophical theses like “there are no moral absolutes” or “yes there are” will at best be rhetorical flourishes; they will not be genuine currency or do any decisive work. Believing or disbelieving in moral absolutes is a philosophical position, not a recipe for living." In this way he (seems to) argue that there is a clear and important sense in which the results of philosophical reflections (or, at least, those concerning moral absolutes versus moral relativism) do not matter.

My experience in the classroom suggests a different lesson. It seems to me that people who cultural accept relativism typically do this without thinking carefully about what the view says or what its moral implications are. It seems to me that when certain counterintuitive implications are brought to their attention, they typically realize that they do not accept them, and that they did not in fact accept relativism in the first place. They might (initially) describe themselves as cultural relativists and they might claim to accept the central thesis of relativism, but on reflection they don't accept any of its consequences and they think the main argument for the view is badly mistaken. They were just trying to be nice, and they thought that adopting cultural relativism was the nice thing to do. In my experience, it is unusual for people (even people who describe themselves as cultural relativists) to deny that there are moral absolutes (even if, in certain contexts, they would say they do), and this is why you don't normally have to say that there are moral absolutes, and why you don't normally get anywhere when you do. It's not that the conclusion didn't travel; it's that the conclusion traveled without everybody noticing and is there already. Philosophical conclusions travel incognito.

We saw something like this here in the late spring/early summer. In a very long comment thread, a commenter persistently argued that philosophy, unlike empirical science, doesn't generate genuine knowledge (or something like that), but would persistently and at every turn defend this thesis by making reference to what were clearly non-empirical philosophical theses that were essential to the position.

And finally, if Fish is really right that philosophical conclusions don't travel, isn't that more of a criticism of the people in whom they fail to travel than the philosophical conclusions themselves?

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Doesn't your experience in the PHILOSOPHY classroom just make Fish's point for him--Fish claims that philosophical conclusions only matter to philosophical discussions, not much else. If that's so, then it's little wonder that philosophical conclusions in the classroom matter in philosophical discussions in the classroom. If your counterexamples out of the classroom extend no further than that a few kids take the abortion debate a bit more seriously or wonder whether they should eat burgers, well, that's pretty weak, in my opinion (not for you! just for philosophy). Fish can be a bit of a bonehead, so I think that explains lots of the dismissiveness, but a more sober consideration of his basic claim just has to be correct. As Hume explained long ago, and as contemporary psychology, x-phi, behavorial econ, etc., more and more confirm, by far we hold most of our beliefs out of custom, tradition, habit and (probably) genes, and so it would just be shocking if, in the face of all that, a semester of philosophical reasoning made any measurable difference at all.

Mr. Zero said...

Doesn't your experience in the PHILOSOPHY classroom just make Fish's point for him

I don't see how. The point was, what happens in the philosophy classroom changes people's attitudes in subtle but significant ways. These changes in attitude can result in subtle but significant changes in behavior. The fact that these changes take place in the philosophy classroom does not make Fish's point. What would make Fish's point is if these changes stay in the philosophy classroom.

And I see my students outside the classroom. I live in the same town as them. We bump into each other.

I admit that it's hard to measure this stuff, and this difficulty interferes with my ability to know that the attitudinal and behavioral changes are genuinely taking place. But it interfere's in exactly the same way with Fish's ability to know that they are not.

I realize that the research shows that there are a lot of other things that are relevant and which compete with philosophical reflection in creating behavior. But that doesn't mean that philosophical reflection plays no role.

And when a student tells me that he's a vegetarian because of my class, that suggests that the conclusions have made it out the classroom door.

Euthyphronics said...

Zero, in this Facebook age, I wish I had a line-item like, so I could use it on your last paragraph. (Although I'm sympathetic to the whole thing).

J.R. said...

Anon 9:33

Keep in mind that while customs, traditions, habits, etc. all play important roles in our behaviors and attitudes, all three of these have likely been influenced by philosophical reflection. In order for conclusions to travel they need not directly influence arbitrary philosophy student x in random philosophy class y; they don't need to change the behavior of any given person engaged in philosophical discussion.

Think about how the historical landscape has been shaped by philosophical thought. While Aristotle was certainly a polymath whose influence wasn't merely philosophical, his philosophical thought held a monopoly for quite some time. The founders of the U.S. were influenced by philosophy and philosophical conclusions. Many current political advocates have been influenced by Rawls (thereby influenced by Kant), and on the other side Nozick. Peter Singer kicked off the animal rights movement in the 70s. These are but a few examples.

There are of course many instances where philosophical conclusions do travel directly, but it seems a bit myopic to think that the only way philosophical conclusions travel is by influencing our behavior directly after conversation and reflection. There is a broader historical picture.

Bones said...

Great thoughts. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Over 2,000 years of wars seem to suggest that philosophical commitments do have traction outside of the classroom.

KateNorlock said...

Yes: To generalize about thousands of philosophers is transparently foolish. Unlike Fish, I actually profess philosophy, in writing and in the classroom, and I have lost count of (1) the number of times I reflected on my own publicly presented commitments to make decisions in my life, (2) and the number of students who told me during and long after classes with me that something in a philosophy text changed their lives.

I’m not saying all professors and students of philosophy experience this, for I’m not a fool like Fish. But he said no philosopher finds their conclusions “make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them.” So all I need is one counterexample, and in fact, I have met many counterexamples. Even the controversial folks like Peter Singer, about whom one can argue as to whether or not he lives all the way up to his professed ideals, demonstrably lives in such a way that his conclusions have at least “made their way into” his non-philosophical life.

I always wondered why my husband couldn't stand Fish. Heh. Lesson learned.

Anonymous said...

This is the best post I've read on this blog in at least a year. Couldn't agree with you more (on all of it).

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your take on Fish, but I disagree that injecting the notion of personhood into the abortion discussion is a net gain for thoughtful consideration of the issue. (And while argument from authority is the weakest kind, Bernard Williams thought this too.)This is not at all to say that your students became, on the whole, less thoughtful on the issue.

Anonymous said...

There are so many issues to consider here it is hard to know where to begin. There is an (uninteresting) sense in which Fish is right, and an (interesting) sense in which he is wrong. Start with the first. He is certainly right that one won't find appeal to broad philosophical theses explicitly in Washington policy discussions and whatnot. Philosophical views don't typically drive first-order claims about particular issues in such contexts, except among very intellectual people who have worked through some of them. But this issue is a straw man. Nobody claims that the extremely broad claims philosophers discuss (say, about moral relativism in seminars) are intended to directly drive everyday decision-making-policy conversations. Fish has picked an arbitrary criteria to measure the value of philosophy and there is no reason to accept his choice here. It is also worth noting that other subjects people consider worthwhile wouldn't satisfy this measure either (e.g., quantum physics, advanced linguistics, and debates about punctuated evolution). It hardly follows that seminars on physics, linguistics, etc. have no relevance to the real world.

Where Fish is wrong is that it appears abstract philosophical discussions enter everyday society in myriad ways. The question whether philosophy travels is ultimately an empirical question and should be evaluated as such. Here is some empirical evidence: (1) Elites that participate in Washington are educated about them, and this influences the discussion sometimes; (2) thousands of students are educated into them in colleges across the country and report being affected; (3) philosophers like P. Singer write books like "Animal Liberation" and start social movements about animal rights (were his seminars irrelevant?); (4) the new atheists write best selling books that are widely read throughout society on best seller lists, and explicitly refer to broad philosophical theses (e.g., Dawkins explicity thanks A.C. Graying and D. Dennett for help with his book); (5) the American revolution make use of Hume and Locke in founding its basic principles, etc. etc. The claim that philosophy doesn't travel does not stand up to a broader range of examples.

Anonymous said...

There are philosophers who are public intellectuals. Unfortunately few are in the U.S. and more are in Europe and Canada (and none are Americans living in Canada--sorry Kate). Philosophers can and some do directly participate in social and political movements. Some actually hold public office (ever heard of Dan Kemmis, Harvard PhD in Philosophy and former mayor of Missoula MT?). Most won't be bothered though.

Anonymous said...

Fish needs only to go to a seminar on semantics in linguistics to see that philosophy travels.