What philosophers think

progressPhilosophy is often accused of “not making progress,” a statement usually accompanied by an implied — and sometimes overt — sharp contrast with science, which obviously makes progress.

In a forthcoming book for Chicago Press I suggest that it is actually significantly more difficult than one would think to make precise sense of the idea of progress even in science (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, of course!). But for now I have explored a specific aspect of the charge that philosophy doesn’t make progress, in two essays that appeared recently at The Philosophers’ Magazine online.

The suggestion put forth by critics of philosophical inquiry is that philosophers — unlike scientists — cannot agree on the answer to certain questions within their own field of expertise, which must mean that there is no answer to those questions, or at the very least that philosophers are incapable of settling on the best one.

But the model of progress in philosophy I put forth in the forthcoming Chicago volume is that philosophy (and math, and logic) work differently from science (and from each other) when it comes to the whole idea of “making progress.” Specifically, I suggest that philosophy is in the business of exploring a conceptual (as opposed to an empirical, as in the case of science) landscape whose parameters are determined by the specific question at hand. Within that landscape, “progress” can mean two things: either the discovery (or invention) of a new “peak,” corresponding to a good framework to think about the question under examination, or the refinement over time of an already discovered/invented peak.

This sounds pretty abstract, so let me give you a specific example. Suppose the question under examination is: what is the best way to think about ethics, or to resolve ethical issues? Progress here has been made by philosophers in both of the above senses: on the one hand, they have identified a number of possible coherent answers (“peaks” in the conceptual landscape defined by the question), including virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, ethics of care, communitarianism, and a number of others. On the other hand, they have then refined their understanding of each of these peaks: in virtue ethics, we can be Aristotelian or Stoic, for instance; utilitarians can follow the early version proposed by Bentham, the more refined one put forth by Mill, or some of the more recent ones, such as Peter Singer’s. All of this, I submit, should count as progress.

But, and here is the rub as well as the point of the two TPM articles mentioned above, conceptual spaces can — and generally do — yield more than one viable peak, and sometimes (indeed, often) it just isn’t the case that one peak is “higher” (more fit, to use an evolutionary metaphor) than another one. And this is different from the case in science, where — presumably — there is just one world out there and therefore just one correct answer to how it works (regardless of whether our theories about and empirical access to that world are in fact good enough to find such an answer).

For instance, if the question is whether or not there are subatomic particles that make up atoms’ nuclei, then there is a definite and correct answer (yes, we call them quarks). But if the question is what is the best way to think about ethics, one can argue that virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism are all acceptable answers, each with its pros and cons. (And the same goes for sub-types within each peak: e.g., Aristotelian vs Stoic virtue ethics.)

Therefore, it is not surprising that philosophers hold a number of contrasting opinions on crucial issues regarding their field of expertise. But they don’t hold a large variety of opinions, nor are these opinions all weighed equally within the community — as one would expect if my model of progress in philosophy is correct.

The first TPM essay sets up the background just summarized above and then uses an interesting paper by David Bourget and David Chalmers that actually quantifies the agreement or lack thereof among professional philosophers on a number of philosophical questions. Here are some examples:

  • 71% of respondents thought that a priori knowledge is possible, while only 18% didn’t think so (the remainder falls under the usual heterogeneous category of “other”). There is a clear majority here, despite ongoing discussions on the subject.
  • One of the most lopsided outcomes of the survey concerns what epistemic attitude is more reasonable to hold about the existence and characteristics of the external world: 82% of respondents qualified themselves as realists, followed by only 5% skeptics and 4% idealists.
  • Physicalism is dominant in philosophy of mind (57%), while cognitivism seems to be the preferred way to go concerning moral judgment (66%).

The second essay uses the same Bourget-Chalmers paper to look at the correlation structure within the data, for instance:

  • If a philosopher is a moral realist, she is also likely to be an objectivist about aesthetic value. Interestingly, moral realists also tend to be realists in philosophy of science, and Platonists about abstract objects. It is perfectly sensible to reject moral realism in meta-ethics (44% of philosophers do), but — if one is a moral realist — then one probably should also consistently embrace realism in other areas of philosophy as well, which is exactly what happens according to the data.
  • In philosophy of science, realism (i.e., the idea that scientific theories describe ontologically “thick” unobservables out there, like electrons) beats anti-realism (i.e., the view that scientific theories are empirically adequate, but that they do not commit us to any strong ontology), by a large margin, 75% to 12%, which is consistent with my own view (I’m a philosopher of science!) that, although anti-realists do have good arguments, the preponderance of considerations clearly favors realism.
  • If a philosopher finds kinship with Aristotle, she is also probably a virtue ethicist, according to the data.
  • In political philosophy, if John Rawls is your guy, you are more likely to be a communitarian.

And so forth. So at the very least one can confidently conclude (empirical data in hand!) that  the popular view that when philosophers disagree on something, there will be n+1 opinions being put forth about whatever subject matter, where n is the number of philosophers opining about it, is simply false. And that’s because philosophers do make progress in rejecting bad ideas, keeping good ones, and then refining them as far as it is possible.

33 thoughts on “What philosophers think

  1. labnut

    The quite wide divergence of beliefs among philosophers brings to mind the following quotation from a recent Ethicist column:

    One definition of a philosopher is someone who thinks that what goes without saying goes even better with saying.

    This is the one result I find really interesting:

    11. Laws of nature: non-Humean 57.1%; Humean 24.7%; other 18.2%.

    I would love to see how practicing physicists answer the question.

    I think it is time we had an in depth discussion of that subject, especially considering that science is your forté.

    The other interesting point was that philosophers mostly identified with Hume and Aristotle:

    Hume 139 Aristotle 118


  2. brodix


    I’ve been reminded lately of a Yogi Berra quote by the news surrounding his death;
    “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

    Possibly one of the reasons most philosophers remain buried in academic philosophy departments and the public opinion is they don’t have much to add is the fact the world appears to be going “to hell in a hand basket” and philosophers are arguing the finer points of increasingly abstract models of morality, ethics, realism, Aristotle, Hume, etc.

    Where is the grand vision? Do they even understand the idea of a larger vision of humanity? Are we destined to the last top predators of a collapsing ecosystem, or could humanity transition to being the central nervous system of a planetary organism? In some of the conversations at Scientia Salon, some commentators held up “New Age thinking” to ridicule, but there are those in that field still willing to address such issues, while academic philosophy shows all the sense of adventure of an old dog, curled up by the fire and gnawing on a few old bones.
    Personally I’ve trying to make a number of arguments here, to stir up debate and at most seem to only ruffle some feathers.
    Rather than dig up them, I’ll raise another point: In concern of the imminent collapse of the the world credit system, for which throwing additional trillions of unsupported debt will at best only kick the can down the road a few more months or years, I’ve been arguing on other forums that we treat money as commodified hope, but it functions as a voucher system, so the manufacture and storage of extreme excesses of this notational wealth only creates a financial time bomb. Necessarily it should be taxed back out of the system, not borrowed and this would cause people to invest directly into more public spaces for which most save, such as housing, healthcare, kids, education, etc. Not storing abstractions in a bank. Yet as to be expected, it draws very little debate. Economics was called the “worldly philosophy” in an earlier age, but now it’s been reduced to little more than another field of math.

    So from a member of the great unwashed, who might be one to say that philosophy has been reduced to plastering the minor holes of various intellectual niches, I would ask, just what does it have to offer a world in very obvious need of some further insight?


  3. Massimo Post author


    “The quite wide divergence of beliefs among philosophers”

    Actually, my point is that the divergence isn’t quite wide at all. I argue that philosophers tend to gravitate toward 2-3 positions within each particular topic. Those positions are rationally defensible, and often there isn’t any sense in asking which one is “true.”

    “Laws of nature: non-Humean 57.1%; Humean 24.7%; other 18.2%. I would love to see how practicing physicists answer the question”

    I would guess non-Humean. And that would be a very interesting debate to have with a physicist. Know anyone who might be interested?


    “Possibly one of the reasons most philosophers remain buried in academic philosophy departments and the public opinion is they don’t have much to add is the fact the world appears to be going “to hell in a hand basket” and philosophers are arguing the finer points of increasingly abstract models”

    But I’ve argued that exactly the same can be said for pretty much any academic discipline, including the sciences. So why single out philosophy?

    “I would ask, just what does it have to offer a world in very obvious need of some further insight?”

    Philosophy books are chockfull of insight into the human condition. Whether that insight is taken to heart by others is an entirely different question. Philosophers are a bit like the Cassandra of Homeric tradition: she knew what was going to happen, but the gods cursed her with being ignored by others, until it was too late.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. SocraticGadfly

    To use another metaphor, Massimo, it sounds like you’re talking about defining “working spaces” as being what philosophy, versus the sciences, do.

    That said, per discussion here and elsewhere on matters Wittgensteinian, part of that “working space” delimning is vocabulary, etc. You biologists all agree on what a chloroplast is, per one of your two hats. And, there’s not a fuzzy boundary between chloroplast and non-chloroplast But, you philosophers don’t all agree on exact boundaries of a number of issues. And, per the second half of the second piece, there’s not a multi-variate approach to “is that a chloroplast or not.”


  5. SocraticGadfly

    On ethics, it’s interesting, but encouraging to me, that the largest “following” in ethical thought is NOT one of the three main schools, but the “other,” which at 32 percent, would be 6 percentage points above deontology.

    And, deflationary theories of truth remind me muchly of Raymond Smullyan’s classic, “An Epistemological Nightmare”: http://www.scribd.com/doc/225286109/Raymond-Smullyan-An-Epistemological-Nightmare#scribd (I have a modicum of sympathy, at least, with the deflationary idea, at least as being the sword of Alexander to cut a Gordian knot.)


  6. labnut

    encouraging to me, that the largest “following” in ethical thought is NOT one of the three main schools, but the “other,” which at 32 percent, would be 6 percentage points above deontology.

    I find it far more encouraging that the two well formed schools of ethical thought(deontology and virtue ethics) together make up 44.1%, a good 12% above ‘other’. ‘Other’ would seem to be just a grab bag of miscellany.

    Practical ethical thought works differently. It is usually a mixed mode form of decision making that cascades from deontological considerations to virtue and finally to consequences. In practice no ethically informed person is a pure deontologist, virtue ethicist or consequentialist.

    And then the nature of our ethical thought changes during our life time. As children we are consequentialists. As we get older we perceive a world of regulations and we become deontologists. Adults later grow into wisdom and they become virtue ethicists. Here I am talking about our primary mode of ethical thinking and not the mixed mode we often resort to when confronted with an ethical quandary.

    The transition from childhood consequentialism, to deontology and finally virtue ethics reflects our growth in ethical wisdom. Sadly many people never make this transition in ethical growth and thus remain stuck in their primitive, childhood form of consequentialism.


  7. labnut

    Well, no, “other” would be a pragmatic, anti-system-building approach to ethics. Which is why I’m heartened.

    Do we know that or is this how ‘you‘ would interpret ‘other’? In that case why would we not expect equally diverse interpretations from other philosophers?

    Finally, why should ‘a pragmatic, anti-system-building approach to ethics‘ be better or preferable? In whose eyes?


  8. SocraticGadfly

    Preferable in the eyes of not just me, but others who prefer not to be locked into a single system.

    I think that, given there are only three normally identified schools of ethics, other readers who would interpret ethics would readily agree that “other” is an anti-systems approach. I think it’s a reasonable assumption from there that the majority of said readers would consider that pragmatic. In previous posts here and at Sci Sal, I’ve specifically delineated how I see it as pragmatic.

    As for “better”? People like me — but not just me — who think not being too locked into one philosophical approach allows for more mental freedom and flexibility to approach such issues.


  9. Massimo Post author


    I think it’s fair to interpret “others” here as including pragmatic approaches, but also ethics of care and similar feminist-inspired approaches, communitarianism, and so forth. So a far smaller percentage of “others” will in the end count toward the approach you favor.

    While I am sensitive to your fear of being “locked” into a particular system, you don’t seem to give sufficient weight — I think — to the opposite danger, inherent in any form of pragmatism: that it eventually devolves into an “anything goes” or an “anything I like goes” sort of approach.

    That’s why I am exploring Stoicism as a philosophical system, which to me means it is flexible, not to be followed as if it were a religion.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. SocraticGadfly

    I do give some credence to what you mention in the second paragraph, Massimo. I would be best described, myself, as blending elements of virtue ethics and consequentialism. I think that, in general, the whole idea of flourishing can be put into a consequentialist framework.

    As you know, my biggest objection to consequentialism is far different than Labnut’s; it’s the quasi-empiricist objection that we can’t really have a “view from nowhere” and thus can’t really map out what the longer-term, or wider-space-distributed, consequences actually will be.

    As for the first paragraph, and without meaning to slight them, is it not better in some ways to view them as, say (and you know I like analogies!) to particular sets of “gloves” with which to handle a particular traditional school of ethics? (In other words, if I’m into Goddess worship, I could be a feminist deontologist, or even without that, if “advance the principles of feminism” becomes a rule for me, then I could still be a feminist deontologist; but, if promoting my flourishing, but with a particular emphasis on feminist definitions of what flourishing involves, then I’m a feminist Aristotelean. So on and so forth.

    This, in turn, gets back to my system building. It’s not so much that systems are wrong, it’s that in the “weaker” sense of pragmatism per the paragraph above, fewer people are thoroughgoing systemeticians than they might think of themselves.

    Look at fundamentalist Christianity. It’s often selective (as I said in my first piece at Dan’s new site) in just what it considers “fundamental.”


  11. labnut

    a form of pragmatism is to use the cascading ethical decision making system I described. Consider this problem from the recent Ethicist column of the NY Times:

    My husband’s sister died recently, after a short, unhappy life. In her will, she asked that her ashes be scattered in the ocean near a place she lived during one of the brief happy times of her adult life. Instead, my mother-in-law interred the ashes in a family plot near her home, saying that she needed a focal point for her grief. I realize that life is for the living, and none of us believe that my sister-in-law is watching the proceedings from on high. But I nevertheless feel viscerally appalled by this cavalier contravention of her last wishes. Am I right to be upset? Do we have ethical obligations to the dead?

    Step 1
    Examine this through the lens of deontology.
    Did this break a clear ethical prescription, law or regulation? No law was broken, no clear ethical prescription was broken and no promises were broken. Since the question is unresolved proceed to step 2.

    Step 2
    Examine this through the lens of virtue ethics.
    This is more tricky. Which virtues apply? Kindness, consideration and fairness to the mother-in-law? Forgiveness, understanding and tolerance of her behaviour? Respect for the last wishes of the dead? Honouring a dead person’s wishes is an important means of grief resolution where we find completion. Our own sense of integrity demands that we honour a dead person’s wishes where reasonable and practicable. Since the event has already taken place, a Stoic would at this stage say that she should distance herself from her emotions, understand them and relinquish them. Wisdom might at this stage suggest a middle path, scatter some of the ashes and inter some of them, thus meeting both needs.

    If, at this point the matter is still unresolved in your mind, go to Step 3.

    Step 3.
    Examine this through the lens of consequentialism.
    What were the adverse consequences? What were the beneficial consequences? The consequences for the mother-in-law were conducive to her flourishing. The consequences for the writer was that she was viscerally appalled. Were there broader consequences, for example for friends and extended family? Which consequences matter more?

    By now the three step cascading process will have ensured that the problem was examined in its three dimensional entirety and the final choice can be made in confidence. Sometimes it is beneficial to add a fourth step and examine the problem from a rights and justice perspective.

    I am not claiming my analysis is complete or the best one. I have said only to illustrate the method, that one can take a cascading approach to resolving ethical problems that is both principled and pragmatic. This approach avoids the dangers of relativism that Massimo pointed out.


  12. SocraticGadfly

    Actually, Labnut, other than not being likely to use deontology very much as a starting point, that’s kind of what I do. That said, per my previous comment to Massimo, I think we handle all of these ethical systems with our own particular “gloves.”

    Otherwise, “relativism,” or “situational ethics” or similar, are not necessarily wrong.


  13. brodix

    Massimo, labnut, Socratic,

    It would seem to me that a large part of the problem is approaching ethics from the sociological context to which it is most applicable, rather than as the consequence of evolutionary complexity from which it rises. Ie, addressing the effects, rather than the causes.

    It is a simple, blunt fact that good and bad are the basic binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. Consequently even the most fundamental organisms distinguish between them as a matter of course and any functioning society needs a basic cultural agreement as to a general ethical framework.

    What makes this approach interesting and ultimately necessary is to get beyond the basic view that ones particular preferences, both individually and collectively, are universal, but still fundamentally necessary to function in the world.

    That there will be basic conflicts as a matter of course. Not only between cultures and even within cultures, but even within one’s own self. Such as between appetites and ones better judgement. If we want to really get people to examine their own beliefs and not simply bury all rationality in emotional outbursts, it would help to understand what the situation really is, not just play Dear Abby with the particulars.

    The age of expansion, from “go forth and multiply,” to “go west, young man,” is finally coming to an end. The youth of humanity is over. Now it is balance and maturity we have to master.


    I certainly agree voices of reason are usually drowned out by both emotions rising up and the imperatives of authority pressing down. Yet that simply make it a challenge for those trying to see the light. Power goes to those most effective at leveraging forces greater than themselves.

    Suffice to say, no alternative economic model stands a chance of being heard in the increasing din of the propaganda supporting the current dynamic. Unless of course, it were to implode, explode, or otherwise crash. In which case, the din of alternative models would be equally loud.

    So the question than becomes as to how to get hold of a megaphone.

    Now there are various other cultural foundations and beliefs that might well be more fragile than is currently realized and are far less politically defended, because of their supposed infallibility. If one were to topple one, or more of those, it would provide a useful megaphone to be heard on other, broader topics, such as economics.

    The task then becomes searching out those potential weak spots and finding ways to leverage them.


  14. brodix


    “So why single out philosophy?”


    It is the premise of philosophy to seek the truth. People want answers, not truths. Priests and politicians provide answers. Philosophers seek truths. Consequently lots of people can make a living as priests and politicians, but few as philosophers. And if you are actually good at it, you are more likely to get the cup of hemlock, than the gold watch.

    But on those occasions when everything does break down, only the truth matters.


  15. labnut

    Actually, Labnut, other than not being likely to use deontology very much as a starting point

    You probably do it all the time, without realising it. Remember the (coarse grained)distinction, deontology considers the act wrong, virtue the character and consequentialism the outcome. Some acts are obviously wrong to us and we immediately make that judgement, thus appealing to deontology. Some examples that come to mind – murder, armed robbery with violence, rape, etc. It is only when the wrong is not obvious that we think more deeply and consider character or outcomes. Every time you obey a law or regulation you are making obeisance to deontology.

    Consider the media ‘outrage’ over David Petraeus’ affair with his biographer, Broadwell. For some his adultery was obviously wrong, or he broke military regulations, i.e. appeals to deontology. A surprising number of commentators said that his sexual behaviour was his private business. They were making a (one sided) appeal to a rights/justice perspective. Others pointed to his deception, dishonesty and disloyalty, which was a virtue perspective and some pointed out that it was unwise to employ someone capable of deliberate, thoroughgoing dishonesty in a senior position. This was an appeal to consequentialism.

    A multi-step approach to ethics reveals all dimensions of the ethical problem.

    An important thing to note here is that we have been using the negative language of ‘wrongs’. Virtue ethics turns this on its head and talks about how we can strengthen the positive, desirable aspects of character. Virtue ethics is a positive, affirming approach to life.

    Otherwise, “relativism,” or “situational ethics” or similar, are not necessarily wrong.

    Whenever someone says this they are privileging themselves and are saying they are intelligent enough, wise enough and well intentioned enough to make the right ‘relative’ choices for that situation. I don’t know you personally but it is possible that this is true of you. I have made many wrong choices so it is not true of me. But here is the crucial question – is this true of all the people you know? Or even true of most of the people you know? What would happen to society if everyone felt free to flout the laws, precepts and norms of society according to their own particular understanding of the situation? Do you want to live in that kind of world?

    I am sure you don’t want to live in that kind of world. But nevertheless you demand freedoms for yourself that are unwise to grant to all. Is that equitable?

    There is an even deeper problem with your reasoning. It is built on the assumption that doing the right thing is simply a matter of knowing what the right thing is. This assumption is wrong. Usually we are torn between our needs/desires and our knowledge of what is right or good. A good ethical system is one of practices that reinforce our desire for good and enable us to withstand our malformed needs or desires.


  16. brodix


    Another way to think about this is the basic physics, in that as vital, dynamic beings, we are always pushing against something. Not just the rules and regulations of society that make it possible, but necessarily constrain and define our actions, but everything, from pushing against the ground and gravity, the air and friction as we walk. It is what we encounter that provides the feedback to make us real. If we were to live in a void, we would be as nebulous as that void.

    While we think we like things easy, it is the encounters which provide the most resistance that create the most memories. Think how easily we glide through pleasant weather, but often it is the extremes of heat, cold, storms, etc. that we most remember. As well as difficult financial times, compared to the easier times, when we are just rushing on to make the most of it and press further.

    Politically liberalism is usually about social expansion, while conservatism is about civil consolidation. So this creates lots of tension within societies, as the elements that either motivate or define us serve to push in opposite directions and produce the tension that is reality.

    So this is more of what has to be considered when putting morality and ethics into context.


  17. SocraticGadfly

    “Otherwise, “relativism,” or “situational ethics” or similar, are not necessarily wrong.”

    Whenever someone says this they are privileging themselves and are saying they are intelligent enough, wise enough and well intentioned enough to make the right ‘relative’ choices for that situation

    Erm, nowhere did I say I was making this as a statement about my own ethics rather than a general observation, which is what it was. Therefore, the rest of your comment after this, Labnut, was simply unfounded.

    I also didn’t say such things were necessarily right.

    And, I never said ethical actions were simply a matter of “knowing what is right,” either.


    But, as an actual, personal, counterexample to your claims? Abortion is one prominent issue where I actually use relatively little deontology. And I certainly don’t claim that my stances there are simply a matter of “knowing what is right.”

    (second sigh)


  18. Massimo Post author

    Hey guys, let’s avoid “sighs” and similar things that do not convey substance and could be taken as snarky or disrespectful to our interlocutor. This is, so far, an unmoderated site. Let’s keep it that way, right?


  19. davidlduffy

    In bioethics, at least, there is renewed interest in casuistry as the “everyday” way of thinking about moral matters (a la common law rather than wily Jesuits). One good paper, which I can’t find at the moment, convinced me that it will get stuck, in the same way as some virtue ethical approaches, when there is no obvious way to balance competing principles.


  20. SocraticGadfly

    And, a further note to Labnut:

    Even were ethical action a matter of simply “knowing what is right,” then acting, you seem to have a further oversimplifying assumption behind that.

    And that is that “knowing what is right” is usually a simply, hey presto matter, when it’s not.


  21. labnut

    In response to my comment about “relativism,” or “situational ethics” you said:

    Erm, nowhere did I say I was making this as a statement about my own ethics rather than a general observation, which is what it was.“, (followed by some exasperated expostulations) 🙂

    Time to take a breather and remember that we are talking to a master Stoic who expects that we distance ourselves from our emotions, take stock and search for the wise response.

    And so let’s search for a good understanding.

    You feel I have misinterpreted your stance. In that case the confusion can immediately be cleared up if you would explain what it is that you really believe and how it differs from “relativism,” or “situational ethics”.

    Considering some of your earlier remarks:

    Well, no, “other” would be a pragmatic, anti-system-building approach to ethics. Which is why I’m heartened.
    Preferable in the eyes of not just me
    As for “better”? People like me — but not just me

    I think it was fair and reasonable to make the inference that a ‘pragmatic, anti-system-building approach to ethics‘ is also your approach to ethics and not just a general observation.

    In an earlier comment Massimo interpreted, as I did, your ‘pragmatic, anti-system-building approach to ethics‘ as a form of moral relativism when he said:

    …the opposite danger, inherent in any form of pragmatism: that it eventually devolves into an “anything goes” or an “anything I like goes” sort of approach.

    You defended yourself against this remark by saying:

    I would be best described, myself, as blending elements of virtue ethics and consequentialism

    Without more information this statement is vague to the point of being uninformative, especially since it seems to be a contradiction of what you claimed earlier: a ‘pragmatic, anti-system-building approach to ethics‘. This can be seen when one considers that ‘blending elements of virtue ethics and consequentialism‘ in fact is a system building approach.

    stop making unwarranted assumptions about my ethical structures and trains of thought

    Given the unclear descriptions of your thinking and the apparent contradictions I made the best use of the limited material at hand.

    Naturally I believe you are the expert on your own beliefs and so I would be happy if you would clarify the confusion and explain what it is you really believe. That would remove the need for any assumptions.


  22. labnut

    you should go over to Massimo’s Stoicism page where he is discussing Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in book VII. In 7.4 Aurelius says

    4. In discourse thou must attend to what is said, and in every movement thou must observe what is doing. And in the one thou shouldst see immediately to what end it refers, but in the other watch carefully what is the thing signified.

    In other words communication contains a content channel and a signalling channel. In face to face communication, as Aurelius says, we must also be closely attentive to the signalling channel. In forums like this the normal signalling channel is absent so we do signalling by other means, by superimposing it on the content channel.

    It was with interest that I observed how you endeavoured to perform the signalling in the content channel. It is, in general, a clumsy business and loses most of its effect when one superimposes the signalling on the content, so it is better not to even try signalling.


  23. SocraticGadfly

    I’ve read the Meditations before. Have a copy. Have read snippets of it, and Epictetus, in Greek.

    The rest of your comments are duly noted. Especially given that this is a philosophy forum, I assumed that the “not necessarily” would be understood as “necessarily” usually is in the field of logic.

    As for the pragmatic? Yes, but in your first comment back, you chose to focus on me. And, per Massimo’s follow-up (and we’re excluding any overlap, per unexcluded middles, etc.), I noted I considered feminist ethics, etc., as primarily “modes of approach” rather than “schools of ethics.” (Still do.)

    As for “blending” itself being a system-building? Nope. It is prescriptive, true, but, given that it’s on a case-by-case basis for how the blending is to be done, it’s not itself systemic. If you think every prescriptive statement in life is systemic, well, I’ll beg to differ.


  24. brodix

    “convinced me that it will get stuck, in the same way as some virtue ethical approaches, when there is no obvious way to balance competing principles.”

    Maybe at some point, it might be useful to examine why ethics seems/is subjective, not just spend more eons banging our heads against the wall, insisting there has to be some absolute solution in there somewhere. It is interesting that even many of those who don’t believe in an absolute deity, still want an absolute basis for their moral structures.

    The fact remains, that what is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken and all the eloquent and nuanced debate in the history of the world is not going to change that.

    Then once there does become some actual logical acceptance and understanding, the debate can pick back up as to why ethics is as fundamentally necessary to a functioning society, as a skeleton is necessary to a functioning mammal, as well as why the inevitable conflicts are as natural and necessary as earthquakes and volcanos to the geology of the planet.

    Not to disturb any of those who wish to remain in the closed loop, but only a heads up to those who might be willing to go beyond it.


  25. Donald Lee

    The article reminded me of my favorite Heidegger quote. It also reminds me what philosophers and poets are for.:
    “Progress exists only in the realm of what is ultimately unimportant for human existence.”

    In context…
    Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason by Martin Heidegger Kant Lectures: page 1:

    Philosophy belongs to the most original of human endeavors. In this regard Kant remarks: “But these human endeavors turn in a constant circle, arriving again at a point where they have already been There upon materials now lying in the dust can perhaps be processed into a magnificent structure.” It is precisely these original human endeavors that have their constancy in never losing their questionable character and in thus returning to the same point and finding there their sole source of energy. They constancy of these endeavors does not consist in the continued regularity of advancing, in the sense of a so-called progress. Progress exists only in the realm of what is ultimately unimportant for human existence. And every clarification opens new abysses. Thus the stagnation and decline of philosophy do not mean not-going-forward-anymore; rather they point to having forgotten the center. Therefore every philosophical renewal is an awakening in returning to the same point.


  26. brodix

    “their constancy in never losing their questionable character and in thus returning to the same point and finding there their sole source of energy.”

    The arrow of time for the energy is toward those future events arising from it. The arrow of time for the order arising from these events is toward the past.

    The point at which a system is fully developed, is the point at which it has crested and is receding into the past.


  27. David Ottlinger (@DavidOttlinger)


    For what it may be worth, I have just sent a piece into the Electric Agora on this topic which explicitly contrasts with some of the things Massimo has said in the past (didnt read these pieces in time though). So it was funny to see this here just at this time.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Philip Thrift

    Making progress in computer science – programming language theory in particular – is also not the same as making progress in science (restricted to what’s assumed to be science above), but “science” is in the name “computer science”!


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