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On Clarity, Philosophical Preaching (and a hint of culture war issues)
When the story of Wiley's sacking of Goodin and subsequent resignations of board members first dribbled out, I suspect I was not the only one who went to the JPP home-page to figure out who is on the board (it’s not a kind of thing one keeps track of even when one works in the sub-field). I then noticed that the most recent issue of JPP contains a paper (by Mary Leng) with a sub-title, "On sex, gender, and the UK's Gender Recognition Act." So initially, I wondered whether this unfolding story was merely a continuation of the culture-war one that had consumed the philo-blogsphere a week before. (On the web-page of JPP Goodin is still listed alongside the editorial board and associate editors many of whom have resigned.) When it became clear that it was not (it involved publisher’s profit, editorial independence, journal slots, and prestige production, etc.), I felt surprisingly guilty relief to be spared another round of those culture war set of issues.
One dimension along which culture war issues regularly play out in contemporary professional philosophy is to what degree, if any, concerns over so-called inductive risk may constrain philosophical publication or activity. Even ardent consequentialists (who may well allow all kinds of restrictions on all kinds of speech in medical advertising or financial reporting) will not always grant the significance of such inductive risk either because they think philosophical speech is ipse facto harmless or because they think that the search for philosophical truth trumps possible downside risks of the enterprise (so, again, they presuppose such speech is kind of harmless).
While I am interested in this harm-free conception of philosophical speech below, I don't mean to suggest that everyone who rejects the role of inductive risk in professional philosophy today has to be a consequentialist. Some will do so on grounds of very expansive notions of academic freedom. Such people may well favor regulation of dangerous speech off-campus (say, of child pornography), but professorial research should be left unfettered. (When such arguments are not consequentialist in character they often end up having to appeal to the conscience of the expert and its special role in public reason formation.)
What's fascinating to me is that the very idea of the harmlessness of philosophical speech is relatively recent phenomenon historically or sub specie aeternitatis. For various Abrahamic religions much philosophical speech risked provoking/articulating heresies or sectarianism and was relatively strictly policed (by theology, by jurisprudence, or by magistrate, etc.). Even in pagan societies philosophical speech could be dangerous (and exile not uncommon—this is also notable among Chinese sages). Even Cicero has one of his characters speculate that "Epicurus does not believe in any gods, and that the statements which he made affirming the immortal gods were made to avert popular odium."
I used to think that the very idea that philosophical speech was harmless was a kind of effect of the partial victory of the Enlightenment in certain countries, one of the (foreseeable) side-effects of the rise of mutual toleration. But I increasingly doubt that toleration has been much practiced in the lands of Enlightenment (or an engine of liberalism) and, where it has, it's been the effect of seeing such speech as harmless or, which amounts to the same thing, ridiculous. And put like that we're on the familiar terrain of a certain kind of sober friend of analytic philosophy.
These melancholic reflections where prompted by reading H.H. Price's (1945) "The Inaugural Address: Clarity Is Not Enough." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes. (I was alerted to it by Ádám Tuboly after yesterday's post on clarity.) The lecture defends the idea that clarification just is analysis. The lecture's style evokes the great age of the philosophers known by their initials with scant explicit references to other philosophers that are evoked.
Price (1899 – 1984) wrote a fine book on Hume, and had some impact on philosophical discussion of perception. At one point he held The Wykeham Professorship in Logic at Oxford. O quam cito transit gloria mundi: (looking at you, Jason Stanley), he is mostly forgotten, even obscure now. I was pleased to learn from the Wikipedia entry that he had considerable interest in parapsychology and the afterlife. This made him less eccentric then than he might seem now. (As regular readers know I am reading Stebbing's (1939) Thinking to Some Purpose, and she is rather open-minded about the possibility of parapsychology. Sidgwick's contemporary stature has not suffered at all from his very considerable interest in such phenomena.)
I am by no means the first to consider the possibility that philosophy as practiced professionally by analytic philosophers might be thought trivial and, thus, harmless. We find an echo of it in Isaiah Berlin's famous inaugural lecture in which, as I noted before (recall), he mocks the "innocent and idyllic state" that ordinarily language philosophy would present to a Martian visitor. In context, it's not a compliment. (Of course, this feature of the lecture is ignored by people trying to use it as a starting point for their analysis of the concept(s) of freedom.) More polemical versions of this diagnosis can be found in Gellner's criticisms of ordinary language philosophy's trivializing tendency in which "everything remains as it." (Words and Things).
Anyway, Price's lecture concludes, in fact, with a plea for a certain kind of systematizing speculative metaphysics that devises "a conceptual scheme which brings out certain systematic relationships between the matters of fact we know already-including those queer and puzzling ones about which we know only a little." (p. 29) And Price advocates (acknowledging this might be thought “shocking”) for more tolerance for obscure utterances that point the way to important issues, but are obscure in virtue of the lack of an existing adequate terminology. Much of the lecture, however, explicitly tackles the charge that philosophy conceived as analysis is trivial and concerns itself with trivialities. It resists the temptation to answer (with a nod to a Hippocratic principle), 'and it is better that way.' But it does grant the charge.
Like all the great lectures of the age of initials, it is (despite a slightly different jargon from ours) very lucid, and I will quote the passage in which Price resists the temptation to allow philosophy a role in (what we might call) 'betterment.'
[A]lthough knowledge makes no difference to what is known, it may still make a very great difference to the knower. Likewise when one acquires a clear knowledge of something which one has previously known in a vague or confused manner, this it is true, makes no difference to the thing known. The principles of right action are what they are, whether we are muddled about them or clear about them. But if the "clarifying" moral philosopher enables us to get a clear knowledge of these principles, that may make a very great difference to us, though it makes no difference whatever to them. And the difference which it makes to us can hardly fail to affect our conduct. Certainly it will affect our judgments about other people's actions. We shall judge them more fairly and more charitably if we have learned to discriminate clearly between motive and intention, between rightness and conscientiouness, if we have learned to ask ourselves whether a man's duty depends on the facts as they are, or only on the facts as he believes them to be. And if we judge other people more fairly, our emotions towards them will be more appropriate, and our behaviour towards them more just. Similar results will follow if we sit down in a cool hour to judge our own actions, past or proposed (and everyone has cool hours sometimes). If we have a clear grasp of the distinctions I have mentioned, and a well-constructed terminology for formulating them, our emotions of self-approval and self-disapproval will be more appropriate to their object. These emotions cannot fail to affect our future conduct, and that conduct will in consequence be more likely to be right.
It is true, I think, that such an increase of clarity will not make us more conscientious. It will only make us more likely to do the things which are objectively right, and then only if we already have a desire to do what is right. If we have no conscience to begin with, and no desire to do what is right, the clarifying philosopher cannot give us these things. If " better " means " more likely to judge fairly and to act rightly," he can make us better men, provided always that we have some modicum of goodness to start with. But if " better" means " more conscientious," then he cannot make us better; and still less can he provide us with a conscience if we have none. (pp. 10-11)
What's really neat about the passage is that philosophy itself is treated as intrinsically inert and, any motivational pull it might have, as dependent on our desires, conscience, judgement, that is, our personality. With this kind of conception of philosophy, inductive risk never arises. In so far as the fruits of philosophical analysis are implicated in harms to others, we shouldn't hold these fruits accountable, but the people involved. (It’s not philosophical bullets that kill, but the person deploying them.) While ordinary language philosophy and pure conceptual analysis have become less popular, this meta-philosophical conception of philosophical praxis has won the day. And so for many the argument from inductive risk cannot get off the ground because it fails to understand properly the nature of philosophy.
In the passage quoted, Price is evoking a famous, controversial passage from Butler's Eleventh Sermon (one that generated continued reflection not just in the eighteenth century): "Let it be allowed, though virtue or moral rectitude does indeed consist in affection to and pursuit of what is right and good, as such; yet, that when we sit down in a cool hour, we can neither justify to ourselves this or any other pursuit, till we are convinced that it will be for our happiness, or at least not contrary to it."* In the reception of Butler, much of the controversy surrounds to what degree Butler slides into a species of Hobbism/egocentrism here, not to what degree morality is motivating. But of course, it does raise the worry that without the right psychological pull, virtue might fall short. One can do much worse than to read Darwall’s The British moralists and the internal'ought': 1640-1740 to learn how that worry plays out.
I mention this because it is quite clear that Price himself assumes a picture of moral psychology that is very different from Butler's. Whatever the exact details of Price's views, it's clear that his has a family resemblance to the Humean one familiar of twentieth century discussions of practical reasoning/reasons. In it, the right reasons by themselves lack sufficient motivational pull. (A recent reading of Elijah Millgram's (2015) The great endarkenment: Philosophy for an age of hyperspecialization has made me more attentive to the ways in which conceptions of analysis and moral psychology interact and shape each other in the analytic tradition.)
At this point one may well be tempted to argue that if one gives up the Humean -- billiard ball -- account of (practical) agency or the self, the inertness of philosophy's fruits cannot be assumed. I think that's right. And if a cool-hour, meta-philosophical discussion were possible in the midst of a culture-war controversy (which it is not), it would be possible to distinguish among those who disagreed over the nature of moral psychology and/or the nature of philosophy from those that disagreed about the substantive underlying moral and political issues. In reality, of course, the substantive moral and political disagreements will shape renewals or doubling down on meta-philosophical commitments.
I could stop here. But Price recognizes that there is an open question: "can any philosopher, however anti-analytical, make us more conscientious?" His response to this question is instructive: "One would suppose that this [making us more conscientious] is the function not of philosophers but of preachers, though certainly every preacher would be the better for a training in Moral Philosophy. Perhaps however the real point of the attacks on the clarificatory moral philosophers lies here." Now Price acknowledges that from Socrates onward in the past philosophers did take on the role of moralists. (The young Hume, perhaps, being the famous exception.) And he notes that it would good if there were a (normative) discipline of Eudaemonics; and he acknowledges that psychology as practiced will not meet this need. But he resists the call for moralism by philosophy:
I do not think however that Moral Philosophers can really be blamed for not being preachers ; unless the word "preacher" is a misleading name for an expert in Eudaemonics, as possibly it is sometimes. By all means let them preach if they feel a call to do so; but we cannot fairly impose it upon them as part of their job. Their job is to tell us what goodness is, not to make us good. I admit however that "preaching" in a wide sense of that term, is a very important social function. If our existing preachers are not listened to, owing to the widespread decay of religious belief among educated people, perhaps there is need of a special order of purely ethical preachers, like some of the Stoics of the Roman Imperial period, or the Confucian teachers of China. And I agree that such persons should have a philosophical training, though they should not necessarily be professional philosophers. (p. 14)
What's interesting about the passage is not that Price does not foresee the revival of normative ethical and political theory. But rather that he does think there is an occupational niche for philosophical informed preaching.
But in so doing, Price tacitly assumes a kind of principle of specialization -- he had just quoted the Republic so this is not wholly speculative -- that rules out the double-function of preaching, which he allows some significant social utility, for professional philosophers. My meta-philosophical observation on this is this: that the moment one foregoes the inertness or triviality of the fruits of philosophy, one cannot keep preaching or moralism out of the profession — and keep concerns over inductive risk at bay — and so, if there is a culture war, culture war disagreements within the profession are inevitable. Once triviality is lost, politics enter.
*Adam Smith loved the phrase 'cool hours' and uses it repeatedly in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.