Philosophy as the great naïveté
Jason Stanley interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Jason Stanley is a multi-groove philosopher at Rutgers. He translated some Frege with Richard Heck. He wrote a cool book Knowledge and Practical Interests and last year a brain-boning book Know How that lames the virtue epistemology and ethics tradition started way back with the Ancient Greeks. He thinks philosophy is perpetual crisis. For many he is to philosophy what Ocarina of Time is to video games.
3:AM: You have strong views about philosophy in general, in particular the public perception of its place in the academic curriculum. You wrote a piece ‘The Crisis of Philosophy’ where you said that in America at least the place of philosophy in the humantities was unclear. You’ve been engaged in a number of high profile defences of the subject, from the New York Times to the rousing debate with Carlin Romano. Can you say why you think there’s a suspicion of philosophy, and a kind of crisis and why you defend the important place of philosophy in our culture?
Jason Stanley: There has always been a suspicion of philosophy, dating back to Socrates. The talk of “crisis” falsely suggests that there is something new about the issue of the relevance of philosophical work. Hannah Arendt is right when she describes as unavoidable the question, “How can anything relevant for the world we live in arise out of so resultless an enterprise?” There is also no new crisis in the discipline. Philosophy itself is and ought to be in continual crisis.
There are areas of philosophy that have obvious relevance for the world we live in. For example, it’s obvious that Doug Husak‘s work has extrinsic value – he uses philosophical reasoning to criticize the prison industrial complex, the great moral failing of our country. But ethics and philosophy of law are not my areas. I have spent my life thinking about knowledge, representation, and intelligent action, and I hold out the perhaps naïve hope that a greater understanding of the capacities that make humans distinctive in the world will end up having relevance beyond simply an expanded self-understanding.
I’m also engaging in philosophy when I write about the value of philosophy. There is a grand tradition of skepticism about my field – Hume and even more clearly Nietzschze come to mind. It’s sad that there are no current sophisticated defenders of that tradition with whom to engage, because it’s healthy for philosophers to be forced to defend the worldly relevance of what they are doing. The fact that I work on questions that do not have obvious extrinsic value makes the intellectual challenge more formidable. But I think that my philosophical work is better because I take this intellectual challenge seriously.
That said, I do think the estrangement between philosophy and our fellow humanities takes a particular form right now. There has been genuine progress in neighboring areas in the humanities. The progress has come through the realization of how much of the traditional humanities was done from a specific empowered, privileged perspective, either a white European male perspective, or from the perspective of the state and not its inhabitants, and the realization of how taking such a perspective skewed the work. Think, for example, of the time in the 1960s when it became clear to historians, via belated recognition of the work of Du Bois, that historical research on the Reconstruction era in the south was largely inaccurate, and the inaccuracies were due to underlying racial biases of the historians. In almost every humanities discipline, there are examples like this – cases in which it was realized that biased perspectives resulted in shoddy and inaccurate work or scholarship. The recognition of the pervasive nature of implicit (or explicit) bias in perspective, and the recognition that such bias impedes truth-seeking enterprises was an important moment in intellectual culture. But it left the discipline of philosophy relatively untouched. That has created an even wider than usual gulf between the rest of the humanities and philosophy.
Finally, as I emphasized in my Inside Higher Education piece, there is an additional difference between philosophy and the humanities, one that is less profound but nevertheless equally divisive. Our fellow humanists write about novelists and artists and musicians. In contrast, the intellectual life of most philosophers is closer to that of novelists and artists and musicians than people who study novelists and artists. There is great naïveté in the ambition to write the great American novel, naïveté that is mirrored in the ambition to solve some of the long-standing philosophical questions once and for all. It’s utterly natural to view someone who is trying to write the great American novel, or is trying to explain once and for all how autonomous action is possible, as not only naïve but also ignorant (of the greatest of Melville, or the greatness of Kant). So there really is a cultural divide between the vast majority of humanists and the majority of philosophers.
3:AM: One of the things that will support your defence of philosophy is getting more people to see what you and your peers are doing. It’s sometimes difficult for those outside the discipline to get a grip on the geography of what’s going on that’s important at the moment. Eric Schwitzgebel‘s just posted on his blog about how there can be philosophy of more or less anything, even dating, which kind of makes the point about how difficult it is to know where to look. Philosophy of language is perhaps where you are best situated so perhaps you could give a broad outline of what the main issues are in that domain at the moment. I love your comment about your piece on philosophy of language in the 20th Century for Routledge where you say, “I attempt to summarize philosophy of language in the Twentieth Century. It’s a completely absurd task, and I fail miserably.” We’ll take another failure if its as good as that one!
JS: Let me begin by responding to your points about the relative accessibility of philosophical work. Even topics the significance of which is obvious to the lay public involve arguments that will stretch the patience of the lay public. For example, the significance of the topic of consciousness is very easy for the lay public to understand. But the best work on even this topic involves stretches of reasoning that are dauntingly complex. The conclusions David Chalmers‘ draws from his views are accessible and sexy to the public. But the views of content he has that support these conclusions are deep, complex, and subtle. They are certainly not accessible to the lay public. It’s the arguments he gives that make him a great philosopher, rather than the accessibility of his conclusions.
As Peter Ludlow emphasized in his comments at the Philosophical Progress conference at Harvard, philosophers need to introduce terminology that may not have pre-established usage. A successful definition carves up conceptual space the right way. This makes philosophical work, like mathematical work, terminologically heavy. Mathematical progress depends in part on arriving at the right sort of definitions – what Frege in The Foundations of Arithmetic called “fruitful definitions” (the example Frege gives is that of the continuity of a function). Philosophical progress is no different. Both mathematics and philosophy are difficult to access, because they are terminology heavy in similar ways.
Philosophy of language is particularly close to mathematics in this regard, because of how close it is to mathematical logic. As I emphasized in my piece on philosophy of language in the 20th century, philosophy of language has made so many advances because of the advances in logic in the late 19th and early 20th century. Developments in logic, and in particular model-theoretic semantics, gave impetus to the discipline, and its sibling empirical discipline in linguistics, formal semantics. Right now, there is a large body of researchers sprawled across philosophy, linguistics, and computer science (and perhaps psychology as well) working on similar topics. For example, if you take Rutgers as an example, the leading program in philosophy of language in the world, you see that our semantics research group has active faculty members in linguistics, computer science, and philosophy. I would describe the principal goal of all of our work, as with my own research in the philosophy of language, to be devoted to figuring out how much of linguistic interpretation is due to convention, and how much is due to general knowledge about the world.
There was a trend in the philosophy of language starting in the 1970s to argue that what appeared to be due to linguistic conventions was in fact due to knowledge about the world and general reasoning. Probably, this divorced philosophical work on linguistic representation from thought about representation elsewhere in the humanities, where theorists were looking for symbol-like representational systems everywhere. Philosophy of language instead was devoted to emphasizing how little conventionality played a role in linguistic communication. As I have also pointed out in the essay you mention, this was the result of quite accidental sociological features of the discipline – because of the titanic influence of Saul Kripke‘s work, in the 1970s and the 1980s the focus of the discipline was on defending the view that proper names that had the same reference, such as “Mark Twain” and “Samuel Clemens”, had the same conventional meaning. A lot of energy in the discipline was devoted to defending this thesis. There was interesting work done here, but also some stagnation. There was a sort of template for writing a philosophy of language paper for several decades – start with an interesting phenomenon that seems to reveal complex conventionality (like the difference in meaning between “Mark Twain” and “Samuel Clemens”, or the fact that “Every beer is in the fridge” can convey different things in different contexts), and argue that really the symbol system itself gives us very little guidance in interpretation. This really isolated the philosophy of language from many disciplines – both the humanities at large, and linguistic semantics, and even formal pragmatics in linguistics, where people were interested precisely in investigating the special features of the symbolic system.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, a group of philosophers of language with training in linguistics started to reverse the trend, and focus on the special, quirky properties of symbolic systems. As a result, philosophy of language has emerged from its relative isolation. Because the focus in philosophy of language was for so long on arguing what the symbolic system didn’t do, there was a lot of catching up to do. A lot of the interesting topics and developments, such as research into the meaning of questions, had moved into linguistic semantics, where it was a bit divorced from philosophical concerns. Now, there is a great deal of excitement in the field, as people have realized that there is so much more complexity to linguistic meaning that we had realized. Philosophers such as Elizabeth Camp have started to see that there is a case to be made that phenomena that seemed obviously not conventional in nature, such as sarcasm, might be conventional after all. The discovery by Andy Egan, John Hawthorne, and Brian Weatherson that epistemic modals – terms like “might” as they occur in a sentence like “It might be raining outside now” (said by someone ignorant of the weather) – behave in ways very different than standard models of meaning would predict have led to the thought that a new model of meaning might be required. Motivated by the complex properties of very simple words, philosophers and linguistic semanticists have started to formulate new theories of content, giving new life to old programs such as expressivism. So it’s a very exciting time in the philosophy of language, and has been for about a dozen years.
For a long time, philosophers of language had thought that there was nothing foundational to be learned anymore from detailed work on particular constructions in language. We have now learned that this is false. Thinking intensely about the meaning of words like “might” or “if”, or the relation between the meaning of questions and declarative sentences, has led to really interesting discoveries. We are at the beginning, rather than at the end, of inquiry into the complex properties of the distinctive representational system that is natural language.
3:AM: Now one of the subjects that you keep returning to is Ryle‘s distinction between knowing that and knowing how. Before you tell us about your argument which I believe is to say that knowing how is a species of knowing that, can you say what’s at stake here. I think sometimes one of the problems for outsiders is that they don’t pick up on the large and important issues that the detailed arguments are then engaged in sorting out.
JS: There are two ways to look at my new book. The first is that I am using a defense of thesis that knowing how to do something is knowledge of a truth to shed light on the notion of knowledge. The second is that I am using a defense of the thesis that knowing how to do something is knowledge of a truth to shed light on the nature of knowledge how and related notions such as skill.
Philosophy, and indeed broader intellectual culture, is in the grip of a false conception of factual knowledge, one that is antithetical to much recent work in epistemology. Once one has the correct externalist conception of knowledge, a dichotomy between practical and theoretical knowledge starts to look dubious. To use an example Robert Stalnaker suggested to me, think of my knowledge that the code to an alarm is 17-32-14. I may not be able to tell you what the combination is – I just can type into the alarm pad. The knowledge resides, so to speak, in my fingers. But it’s still propositional knowledge – I know that the code to the alarm is 17-32-14, I just can’t tell you. One reason the conclusions of Know How matter is that they free us from a constraining and misleading picture of propositional knowledge.
A second reason the conclusions of Know How matter is that they shed light on how much of skilled action is due to learning information about the world. Knowledge how to do something is a large part (or maybe all of) skill. I can only be skilled at basketball if I know how to play basketball. If I am right that knowledge of how to do something amounts to learning a truth, then we learn that skilled action requires learning something about the world. Even if I’m right, the question is open as to how much of the acquisition of a skill is acquiring information about the world. Does knowledge exhaust skill, or is skill knowledge together with something else? What about improvements in skill? Does that amount to additional knowledge about the world? There are a whole set of questions and positions about the notion of skill that are opened up here.
It is of the utmost importance for philosophy to gain greater clarity on what is involved in acquiring a skill, since skill and competence plays such a central role in so many philosophical projects. For example, virtue epistemologists hold that propositional knowledge relies on skills – think of the appeal to competence in the work of, for example, Ernest Sosa. The appeal to skill in Sosa’s work has a reductive character – knowledge requires competence, and competence itself does not presuppose knowledge. It is important that competence does not presuppose knowledge, since competence, for the virtue epistemologist, halts the regress of justification. If knowledge how is propositional knowledge, many if not all versions of virtue epistemology are imperiled.
There are many other uses of the notion of skill in philosophy that will need to be rethought if the conclusions of my book are correct. Philosophers have typically assumed that knowing how and skill are not propositional knowledge states, and used these notions in their theories. Generally, the pattern of argument is to establish some connection between the target notion to be analyzed – be it linguistic understanding, virtue, knowledge, or perception – and knowing how. The assumption that knowing how is a non-propositional state is then brought in to solve some kind of problem, e.g. to halt a regress, or to provide a reductive, non-factual basis for something. There are projects in epistemology, in ethics, in philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language that have this character. In general, if I’m right, all of these philosophical projects have to be rethought.
The topic of the relation between knowing how to do something and factual knowledge is not local to philosophy. It has been picked up by many disciplines. For example, it is a label for a distinction in artificial intelligence, and is thought to mirror a fundamental distinction in cognitive neuroscience, between procedural and declarative knowledge. My book takes up all of these issues. For example, in chapter 7, I argue that the cognitive neuroscientific discussion of declarative knowledge is muddled. And obviously, many disciplines care about the notion of skill. The thesis of my book bears on all of this work.
3:AM: Another area of interest is that of the role of context in making meaning. Your book of essays, Langauge in Context contains a treasure trove of your thoughts on this area. Again, though, I wonder if you could just lay out why this is an important issue outside of philosophy before we look at some of your arguments?
JS: My work in the philosophy of language is devoted to preserving a certain view of linguistic representation. Think of a basic non-linguistic act of communication, such as a tap on the shoulder or a kick under the table. We do not interpret what is communicated by such acts by applying highly specific rules to structured representations. Interpreting such acts does not involve much convention. Instead, we rely on our general knowledge about the world, together with facts about the context in which the act is performed. Prima facie, linguistic communication is different. With linguistic communication, we rely on conventions governing the representations we employ. But there is a lot of reliance on general world knowledge and facts about the context of use even in linguistic communication. So the context-dependence of what is communicated by an utterance of a sentence provides an argument that linguistic communication and non-linguistic communication are not so different after all. The purpose of my work on context is to save the prima facie distinction between linguistic communication and non-linguistic communication, in the face of this kind of challenge. In contrast to non-linguistic communication, I argue that the role knowledge of context plays in linguistic understanding, and production, is limited to a few conventional sources. In short, the goal of this work is to preserve a theoretically significant distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic communication.
All of my philosophical interests coalesce around explaining the properties that make humans distinctive. My work in philosophy of language is part of this project. Sophisticated language use is one of the properties that is distinctive of our species. This strongly suggests that it involves a distinctive kind of representational mechanism. This gives me confidence to pursue the difficult details of accounting for the fact that, like non-linguistic communication, it relies on knowledge of facts about the context of use.
I tend to assume in this work that linguistic communication is distinctive in being the application of highly specific (and conventional) rules to structured representations. I tend to assume, for example, that pictorial representation works differently. But the work of Gabriel Greenberg, now a professor of philosophy at UCLA, has shed some doubt in my mind about the distinctiveness claim. He mounts a good case that at least some kinds of pictorial representation involves many of the same features as linguistic representation.
3:AM: You won a top prize for your book Knowledge and Practical Interests. There you claim that my knowing something is dependent on my practical interests. So knowledge turns out to be dependent on how much it matters! This is counter-intuitive – and so exactly what I want from my philosophers! So could you explain this position and why you argue what you do?
JS: My two books about knowledge are connected. Both take on the distinction between the practical and the theoretical. In my first book, I argue that there isn’t the kind of sharp divide between practical and theoretical reasoning that we learned there was in our introductory philosophy classes (when we, for example, discussed Pascal‘s Wager). In my second book, I take on the distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge. Both books are in the service of explaining the value of knowledge by connecting knowledge to action.
My specific argument for the stakes-sensitivity of knowledge, the thesis that whether or not you know something at a time is dependent upon how much the knowledge matters to you at that time, has to do with the connections between knowledge and action. For example, if I am right, then if you know something, you can act on it. But whether you can permissibly act on something depends on what is at stake – whether I can act on my belief that there are nuts in my salad depends upon whether I have a fatal allergy to nuts. It is via the connection to action that knowledge gains its dependence on what is at stake.
I deny that the thesis is counter-intuitive. It’s commonsensical to think that if what’s at issue really matters, you need to do more work in order to know something. Knowing that a country poses a threat to the United States requires a huge amount of investigation, if what is at stake is the decision to go to war.
3:AM: Another area that you have intervened in is that of intention in action. There’s been a lot of recent interest in this subject through the book of Essays on Anscombe’s Intention last year. It seems as if you take issue with those philosophers who argue for a notion of direct knowledge/action that is incompatible with causation (i.e. those who move away from Davidson’s interpretation. I guess McDowell is the parade case?). It’s something you write about in a dispute with
JS: My 2005 debate with Jennifer Hornsby is but one chapter in my overall project of emphasizing the centrality of factual knowledge, properly understood. Hornsby argues that knowledge of meaning is not factual knowledge, but something else, practical knowledge. I argue, against her, that knowledge of meaning is indeed factual knowledge. Again, the significance of this debate is that it bears on the nature of factual knowledge, and the nature of skill. Knowledge of meaning is just one of the battlegrounds in the larger war about whether factual knowledge is what gives us the capacities that make us distinctively human.
3:AM: I think we can see that you are wrestling with core issues that are not orthogonal to the deep, eternal and traditional philosophical questions. We are living in hugely complex times and troubling ones too. The financial crisis, mass inequality, war, eco doom – there’s a hell of a lot out there that seems we need philosophical thinking. What do you think will be the dominant themes, contributions and discoveries of philosophy in the next decade? Where are your interests going next?
JS: I can’t predict where philosophy is going next. Probably that question has as much to do with accidental sociological features of the discipline than anything else. I have been consistently working on a general picture of knowledge and agency for many years now, and increasingly find myself isolated from the hive mind in philosophy.
I have been working for about twelve years on my book on knowing how – which I started as a joint project with Timothy Williamson. I took time out from this project to write my first book (which, as I’ve said, is related). My own work over the next several years will be devoted to exploring some of the consequences of my work, both within philosophy, for the projects of virtue epistemology and virtue ethics, and also the cognitive sciences. For example, I want to continue the research I started in cognitive neuroscience, and in general track the notion of skill across the various disciplines that study it.
However, I am easily distractible. This is why I have published on so many different topics (of course my extensive project in philosophy of language is not connected to my main work in epistemology and action theory). I expect I will continue to do research on a wide variety of topics not directly related to my central philosophical life project. I’m also interested in certain topics in philosophy of language that relate to politics, such as the nature of propaganda (as in my recent New York Times piece). I have been thinking a lot lately of how politicians and their handlers use the special features of our symbolic system to manipulate us. It’s an interesting enough topic that I can imagine eventually writing something substantial on it.
3:AM: And finally, are there things outside of philosophy itself – such as the arts, novels and so on, that you find a source of inspiration and help. So has there been something you read that has helped shape your perspective on the issues you brood on?
JS: The issues I brood about and the literature I read when I’m not absorbed in philosophy have exclusively to do with man’s inhumanity to man. I’m not yet sure whether philosophy is my refuge, or where I think I will ultimately find the explanation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 31st, 2012.