September 1, 2022
What is the genetic fallacy? How do the analytic and continental philosophical traditions differ? What is the role and value of intuition in analytic philosophy? Is continental philosophy too poetic for its own good?
Alexander Prescott-Couch is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He is currently writing a book on genealogy that is under contract with Oxford University Press. His academic work has appeared in journals such as Noûs and Journal of Political Philosophy, and he contributes to a regular interview column in the ZeitMagazin. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @prescottcouch.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, a podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Al Prescott-Couch about the genetic fallacy, the importance of history, and the role of intuition and logic in philosophy.
SPENCER: Al, welcome.
AL: Thanks, Spencer and it's great to be here.
SPENCER: Today we're going to talk about two different themes in philosophy and how we come to understand the world. One being the role of history, like, does the history of something matter, or should we just be analyzing things today. And the second is this distinction between quantitative ways of looking at the world versus qualitative, and sort of different trade offs there. And so I'm really excited to dig into this with you to try to help the audience better understand how to approach knowing what's true. Sounds good?
AL: Sounds great.
SPENCER: All right. So let's start with the genetic fallacy. Could you tell us what is the genetic fallacy? Would you give an example? And then we can dig into to what extent it is really a fallacy.
AL: Sure. So the genetic fallacy is the purported mistaken inference from the historical origin of a thing to its value. And there are different versions of this supposed mistake, depending on what thing we're evaluating. So let me give some examples and let's take the example of belief. Let's say when someone says, "Well, you should dismiss worries about inflation because they're made by economists who are just shills for the rich." Here, what we're doing is we're starting from a premise about where inflation comes from; they come from pro-business economists and we're concluding that for that reason, these worries should be dismissed or not believed. So that's one variant, but there are other variants as well. So let's say we're talking about an artifact. When someone says something like, "This painting is bad, because it was made by a racist." Or when it comes to social policies, let's say when someone says, "Well, we should be suspicious of big infrastructure bills because they come from Democrats, — or let's say we're looking for the baggage of the past — or because Hitler was also a fan of infrastructure." So in these cases, what we're doing is we're using history to cast doubt on the value of something.
SPENCER: I was going to say, how would you relate this to an appeal to authority? Because it almost seems the way you're describing it is like an anti-appeal to authority. It's like because it's associated with a particular person, or particular viewpoint, we should discredit it.
AL: Yeah. So what appeals from authority and potentially fallacious genetic arguments have in common is that, first of all, they take as a premise a claim about the history of some belief. And then second, from that premise, they draw a conclusion about whether that belief is likely to be true. Now, as you rightly allude to, there is a certain difference in that in cases of appeals to authority, the history is supposed to validate the belief. Whereas in many arguments that reportedly commit the genetic fallacy, the history is supposed to undermine the belief. But the structure of reasoning is the same. We're using the source of a belief to figure out how likely it is that the belief is true. Consequently, these kinds of arguments tend to fail or succeed for the same reasons depending on whether or not the source is actually good evidence for whether the belief is true or false. That said, I should note that while every appeal to authority is a potentially fallacious genetic argument, the converse isn't true. That is: it's not the case that every genetic fallacy involves undermining the authority of the source of a belief. That's because there are some cases of the purported genetic fallacy that don't concern whether beliefs are true, but concern something else.
SPENCER: Got it. And then, I guess in other cases, it's not related. So could you give an example where the genetic fallacy is not authority related?
AL: Yeah, for example, let's think about the case of the painting. If you're saying that the painting is bad because it's coming from someone who's racist, it's not really that the person's racism is anything that gives them authority or doesn't give them authority. It's just another feature.
SPENCER: There's more like a moral contamination in that case that's why people do this.
AL: That's exactly right. In cases of authority, it depends on what authority we're talking about. But when it comes to beliefs, people are often thinking about so-called ‘epistemic authorities', that is, the people you have good reason to think are going to be reliable with respect to the claim that you're relying on them for.
SPENCER: So broadly, the genetic fallacy is saying that looking at the history or origin of something is not a valid form of argumentation. And I think you're gonna argue that actually it can be valid. So do you want to dig into that?
AL: Sure. So there are a lot of appeals to history that are going to be fallacious. Some of the ones that I mentioned earlier are probably good examples. However, there are many cases in which information about where something comes from is relevant to its value, so I'll go through a few of those. So one case is the sort that we have mentioned before, the case where whether or not you should hold a belief might depend on the reliability of the source from which you got the belief. So if my relatives and I are arguing about whether vaccines are safe depends on where we got our information. Did we get it from a reliable news source? Or did we get it from some crazy person on the internet? And that matters because the more or less reliable the source, then the more or less likely it is that the belief is true. Now, another case concerns commands. So, say someone tells me that I need to fork over some money. So whether or not I'm obliged to fork over the money might depend on the source of the command. Is it the state asking me to pay taxes? Is it some highway bandit trying to rob me suddenly? More interestingly, here, sometimes people think of moral rules as sets of commands. And so if we think that way, then whether we ought to obey moral rules might depend on where they came from. Did they come from God? Did they come from a reason or rational insight? Or are they rather some contingent product of cultural factors, maybe plus a bit of evolution. So the case of commands is different from the belief case because the reason to obey God's commands might not just be that he's a reliable indicator of moral truth, in the way that, say, scientists might be reliable indicators of scientific truths. But rather that what God commands makes certain rules into moral truths. So when someone asks, "Why do that?" And the answer is, "Well, because I say so." Sometimes that's a good answer, or it might be a good answer if the person saying so is God. There are some other reasons as well that history might matter. So for instance, when it comes to artifacts, like the painting, it might just be that there are some basic normative facts that history matters when it comes to the value of a thing. For instance, let's say I find a sketch at a local consignment store. The value of that sketch might depend on whether it was made by Picasso or made by my niece. And I mean not just the monetary value of the thing, but also its artistic value. So that is just a matter of some artifact where certain kinds of value might directly depend on historical pedigree, not just on what something is like in the present. Now a final thing is that there are cases in which historical origin provides me with evidence of what a thing is like now. So for instance, so as people appeal to the past, they're using the past as evidence for what something is like at the present. But what matters for evaluation is what the thing is like now, not in the past. So here, unlike the belief case, we might not be focusing on whether an idea is true, but on some other feature. For instance, we're thinking about how we should think about contemporary concern for human rights. So some historians argue that if we look at the origin of concern for human rights in the post war period, it arose in the context of the Cold War, where given rights served as a propaganda tool against the Soviet Union. In particular, a way to direct attention away from economic inequality in the west and towards various abuses in non-western states. So if you have that view that such a history might say, "Aha, this gives us reason to be suspicious about the current motivations of those who are preaching human rights, or gives us reason to be suspicious that maybe human rights is still serving as a tool for the interests of western powers." So here, it's not that human rights is contaminated by this history (although it might also be that), but it's rather that the history indicates that in the present, defenders of human rights might have dubious motives, or the focus on human rights might serve a bad function in geopolitics.
SPENCER: So maybe you could tell us a bit about what is the case for the genetic fallacy being a fallacy, and then what do you see as the flaws in that case?
AL: There are a few different reasons I think that genetic arguments are fallacious. One is the simple thought that genetic arguments might implicitly be trying to bridge the is-ought gap. So, for trying to infer from the factual historical origin of something to its present value, then we're drawing an inference from factual information to value claim that we're going from an is to an ought. So the genetic fallacy might be thought of as an instance of the is-ought fallacy. Now, the best response to this concern is to say, well, when it comes to historical arguments, we shouldn't think of them as making simple bad arguments that start from a single historical premise, and from that single premise infer a value claim. Rather, we should think of them as making more complex arguments that contain some set of suppressed premises. What it does in figuring out how historical information is relevant to things of value is to make explicit or reconstruct those premises so as to yield a cogent argument, kind of what a prudent, essential premise is to the historical claim. So let's take the example of ‘you should believe that vaccines are safe because the mainstream media says that they're safe'. So here the conclusion is a value claim; what we should believe about vaccines. We have a descriptive premise. The fact that the source of the potential belief is the mainstream media. So it might seem like we're committing some kind of fallacy, where we go from that scripted premise to the odd claim that we should believe certain things about vaccines. But the natural thought is that there's a suppressed premise in that reasoning that no one bothered to make explicit. So to make the argument better, we seek to add the premise that, first of all, the mainstream media is reliable with respect to the truth. And that we ought to believe sources that are reliable with respect to the truth. And so once we add those premises, we see that this is a perfectly cogent argument. I should also add that this example of vaccines brings out what I think is another reason that people sometimes think that genetic arguments are fallacious, which is, for example, whether vaccines are safe depends, most fundamentally, not on the media or anyone else's opinion, but on some more fundamental scientific facts. And so you might think that if the truth of that claim depends on these more fundamental scientific facts that then when we're discussing, say whether vaccines are safe, that we should be discussing what we think about those more fundamental facts, rather than just discussing other people's opinions about them, because otherwise, we can't really move forward with the conversation. However, this reason for rejecting genetic arguments is flawed because it depends on the assumption that we're able to effectively think through those more fundamental scientific facts. But given the fact that we lacked the relevant expertise, this isn't often feasible. And so the epistemically responsible thing to do is to rely on other people who know more than you. So basically, the failure to take genetic arguments seriously often involves failing to take seriously the division of intellectual labor.
SPENCER: Right. And it seems like in normal English speech, we often have these implicit assumptions, like, if a parent says to a child, "Do your homework." There might be an implicit "or I'm going to ground you," "or you're going to do badly." There's a lot of contextual cues, and background knowledge that might help you interpret what all the implicit assumptions are. But usually, I think people don't mean them as sort of formal logical statements as a philosopher might in a paper.
AL: That's totally right. You can communicate quite a lot of information by saying very little. And the way that you do that is via certain kinds of background assumptions about what people are trying to communicate on the basis of saying one thing, but communicating much more than that. There are also other ways in which the origin of something might be relevant to its present value. So in the case of artifacts, it might just be a simple fact that how valuable they are is dependent on their historical source in some way. That's often the case when we think of artworks. When we think, "Well, some particular sketch that I might find in a consignment store, if that was a sketch that was made by Picasso, as opposed to a sketch that was made by my niece, that's going to affect the value of that painting. Maybe not only its monetary value, but also its artistic value." So that's another way in which the historical source of something might affect its value. A final thing is simply that historical information about where that something comes from just might give you some information about its present features, and might be good evidence. So sometimes people are appealing to facts about the history of something, really what's going on is that they think the history has given you some evidence to what the thing is like now. And so what matters simply is now, but history is useful for that. So for example, let's say we're thinking about contemporary concern for human rights. So some historians say, "Well, if you look at where that contemporary concern for human rights came from, really, it arose in the context of the Cold War, and there was a lot of focus on human rights as a propaganda tool against the Soviet Union." And then what they say gives a reason to be suspicious about the current motivations of people who are preaching human rights. Or maybe that gives you reason to be suspicious of the (so to speak) functional role that human rights plays in international politics. So what history is doing is simply giving you evidence that says, "Well, back in the day, people were motivated in this way and that human rights discourse played this particular role, and so we have reason to think that maybe it serves that same role, or is motivated by those things now." So that's another role for history.
SPENCER: That's interesting. The way that I interpret this is that you've given three different types of information that the genetic fallacy relates to. One is evidence value. Sometimes knowing the history of something gives you evidence about the nature of that thing. Like, "Oh, this was said by scientists." And if you believe scientists, maybe that makes you more likely to believe this thing. The second is a psychological fact, which is that humans care about the history of things. We care about whether this was the original that was made 3000 years ago, or is this a replica or forgery or whatever. So humans care about history, and insofar as humans care about history that affects things in the real world, like the selling price of a piece of art. And the last one you talked about is motives. Like, if we know that something had a certain history, that may tell us about the motives with which that idea was created or spread. And then that might have bearing on what motives are being used to spread it, or even on whether it's a good idea or bad idea, because if it was promoted for bad reasons, for ill intentions, maybe that means it is more likely to actually be a harmful idea or something like that. Does that cover the three cases?
AL: Yeah, roughly speaking. The third one, I used the example of motives but it can be other things, too. It might be that you're using history to figure out not just what motivates something, but say what its effects are and then assume in the background. If you look at the history, you thought the effects of the thing were so and so in the past, and then that gives us reason to think that in the future or the present, the effects will be similar.
SPENCER: So that's using the past as test cases to make inference.
AL: That's exactly right. Yeah, it's just using the past as the evidence for how things are now.
SPENCER: I think this thing comes up with tribalism, where one way we tell what team someone's on and when we're being tribal is by what ideas they promote. If you have someone praise an action Donald Trump took, you might think, "Oh, that person is a Trump supporter." And lots of associations will come with that. But it could just be that they liked that one thing Trump did, and they might hate most of the things Trump did, and you just happen to hear them praising one small thing that he did today that they like. So I think because we tend to make all these inferences about someone's team based on what they seem to support and what ideas they push, that ends up leading to the history of who promoted those ideas as mattering a lot to people because they don't want to signal being on a team that they're not on or give the wrong impression about what team they're on.
AL: Let me respond this way. So one example of tribalism brought up is that historical connection often matters for identity. So for example, if you're thinking about the meaning of certain artifacts for people, often artifacts have a meaning for people in virtue of those artifacts having a certain historical connection either to them or to other people who they care about. So the way in which family heirlooms would be valuable to you in virtue of them being historically connected to your family. And so in that same way, that would be a little less political example of some similar phenomenon.
SPENCER: Right, and so there are lots of different ways that the history of an object might relate to that. One is like, "Oh, this was in my family." Others are like, "This tribe supports this, and so on." And so anytime identity gets wrapped up in the history of an object, that could be a reason for valid or invalid liking or disliking of that. So maybe in some cases that could be a genetic fallacy and in other cases, it might not be.
AL: Yeah, that's exactly right. Sometimes, when people are making bad inferences—the kind that you're mentioning—I guess what they're thinking is that the fact that you believe something, and the fact that some other person also believes that thing, or the fact that you got your belief from them, is good reason to think that you think other things that are similar to what they think. Or, that you're relying on them for other kinds of information or viewpoints or values. And that kind of inference, I would say, is not totally terrible, because if it is the case that you got that one thing from someone that makes it more likely that you may have gotten other things from them. So as a result, it's not totally bad reasoning, but obviously, it's very easy to over-generalize. And that's something that, obviously, we should be cautious about doing.
SPENCER: I suspect there's also a branding aspect to this, where some ideas can end up with a certain brand. Like, take the phrase ‘population control'. That sounds really sinister. But if you replace it with a different phrase, like ‘making birth control options widely available'. Your ‘population control' in a certain context might mean the same thing as ‘making birth control wildly available'. But one may have a really stark sinister connotation, and others might have, at least to many folks, have a more positive connotation. And so in terms of history, I feel like things get branded throughout history, which also affects our willingness to sort of be in favor of them or our tendency to be against them.
AL: Yeah. One thing, I'll just flag, that that example suggests, though, that there might be different motives behind these two different policies. And that might be something that matters to people.
SPENCER: Yeah, that's a good point.
AL: Because the point of the remark about population control is that it's depending basically on how some policy is described that might make you more pro or contra depending on whether you think that description connects that policy to some broader identity (that was the point of the example, right?). And so the thought is that there might be some fallacy there because you might think that the policy is identified with a certain party or certain political identity shouldn't be something that's relevant to whether you think it's a good policy, which is rather irrelevant. What makes a good policy are things like facts or various other factors. So that's why there's some fallacy involved in reasoning from the policy to the identities of people who tend to endorse it, to whether you should endorse it. — I should say one thing about that, though, it's not clear that that reasoning is always so bad because given that you might not be in the position to evaluate the policy yourself. And so you might reasonably use certain heuristics to do so. So for example, the fact that some policy is supported by a political party or political candidate who you think has dubious values or dubious motives might give you reason to think that the policy itself is either bad or it's going to be executed in an objectionable way. And that might give you a reason to oppose it. So due to the fact that you can't know everything about policy.
SPENCER: Do you think it's irrational that humans care about the history of an object? Like, you could have two paintings where even experts can't tell them apart. One is a modern forgery done really well and one is the original. And even an expert with really precise machinery can't even tell the difference. And so certainly, the visual experience of looking at the two of them is the same. And yet people really, really care about which one they're looking at. So I'm just wondering, is that irrational in your view? Or do you think that that can be justified?
AL: Not necessarily. It depends on what you think the object is for or what its meaning is. So for example, the case with things like family heirlooms. So, if it's my grandmother's necklace, I would certainly, as a matter of psychological fact, care a lot about whether or not if someone were to swap out that necklace for a qualitatively identical necklace. So is that irrational to care about? Well, I think not. The reason is that one thing that objects can do is connect you to the past or to other individuals in a certain way. The way that connection might run is through other people's interaction with those objects. And so it's not obvious that caring about those historical connections is irrational. It's those [connections] that people do care about.
SPENCER: Right. It's really a psychological fact that people care. Just an interesting question of, would an ideal mind care? Or is this some kind of funny quirk of the human brain? And maybe you can make the argument that knowing that your grandmother actually wears this necklace gives you a way of thinking about that object in a way that's more beneficial. Like, when you pick it up, you can think about the fact that she actually wore it. Or maybe a very similar looking object that she never wore serves less of that purpose. I guess you could still pick it up and say, "Oh, she wore a really similar object." But maybe that way of imagining is less compelling.
AL: I think the background assumption that you're making in thinking that it might be irrational to care about the historical connection between the objects and other people is something like, we use the object for certain experiences that you're going to have now or in the future. And so if you have another object that's quite qualitatively identical, and let's say you didn't know about the switch, then you would have the same experiences with that object. And so that's what the value of the object consist then. Namely, it's a means for giving you certain kinds of experiences, or evoking new kinds of thoughts. Then, it would be irrational to think it matters whether it's the real one or a fake one.
SPENCER: Right. And I would furthermore add, at least in some cases, the history doesn't leave any change in the object. It might cause scratches or things like that, but those are not the reason you value it. And you would add scratches to new objects. So, the idea that history affects the object seems a little bit magical thinking because other than scratches and things like that, it actually doesn't affect the makeup of the object. If you were to study the two objects, they're actually the same.
AL: In some ways, I agree with you. But the reason why you might think it's not magical thinking is because you might think that somebody might reject the idea that what makes the objects valuable is their ability to give you certain kinds of experiences or evoking certain kinds of thoughts. You might think, "Well, it's just a matter of normative fact: What might make it valuable is these historical connections that it has to others, for instance. And that's kind of bedrock."
SPENCER: Is that like a twining of a causal history? Like the fact that they interacted with this person's historical past?
AL: Yeah, exactly. So this way of thinking would be foreign if — in Philosophy, we call it ‘consequentialist way of thinking' — you think what ultimately matters are current and future states of affairs of various kinds. And so, if you have that assumption, then this other way of thinking would seem very mysterious, or might seem to involve some kind of magical thinking because you think that in order for the past to matter, it would have to matter by affecting the present or future. But the thought is that we could also just reject that assumption. That was the point I was trying to make.
SPENCER: Well, I think I might be putting my cards on the table by saying that I would prefer to go to a museum that had all replicas but had the coolest art in the world — like the replicas of the greatest art — rather than one that had to spend millions of dollars on their pieces of art, and therefore, had a much worse selection of art, but they were all real.
AL: That could be true, but also compatible with somebody who thought that the history nevertheless mattered because it's an open question about how much it matters. In the case you were just thinking about, you're comparing replicas that are better on certain other dimensions with originals that are worse on those dimensions. And so whether or not you should go to one or the other is going to be a function of those two different factors. On the one hand, the non-historical features of the objects but also historical features, so it could turn out that all things considered, you should go to the replica.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think that this suggests that I don't think about this the way most people do, because I think most people don't want to go to replicate museums.
AL: I was actually just at a museum last weekend. So a famous museum here in Munich, The Alte Pinakothek. And there's one hall of it which actually does have a number of historically interesting replicas. They're replicas by distributor artist, [inaudible]. He did have various kinds of famous Titian paintings, but they're all replicas. Now they have a certain historical value because [inaudible] himself is kind of a famous painter. It is like a hall of replicas, or at least most of the paintings are replicated in that hall.
SPENCER: So the secret to trick people into caring is you get famous painters to do the replicas, [Al laughs] and then they rub their magic famous painter juice on replicas.
AL: The thing is that their famous painter juice isn't as good as the even more famous painter juice of Titian. But you know, at least they got a little bit of that juice, I guess.
SPENCER: Yeah, that's so interesting. When I imagine my dream museum, I was thinking, well, now I would have replicas. But what you could do is have one of the paintings be real, and all the others replica, so you never know for sure that it's not real. And I feel like uncertainty is something interesting as well.
AL: Yeah, it's interesting. As a matter of psychological fact, it's hard to know if it would make people happier or less happy. I guess the optimistic take would be, because everyone has the potential opportunity to see the original, that makes everyone pleased. But of course the more pessimistic take is, because no one can be sure, then that actually makes no one's experiences good as would otherwise have been.
SPENCER: So changing topics. There's a big divide in philosophy that I think not that many people are aware of outside of the philosophy communities, which is the divide between analytic and continental philosophy. So I'm curious to have you explain this difference, a little bit about where it originated, and then I want to dig into some of the details with you like, what's different about these different ways of seeing the world.
AL: The history is actually interesting and slightly complex. Roughly, the story is that in the early 20th century, there were a set of philosophers who developed a new approach to philosophy. According to which, what philosophy was primarily concerned was the analysis of important key concepts. So hence, analytic philosophy. And the way to go about giving a precise analysis of these concepts was to use certain newly developed tools (in particular, symbolic logic), and to bring philosophy into dialogue with the sciences. So some of these philosophers were in England, particularly Bertrand Russell, or G. E. Moore, and then others were in Austria and Germany. So for example, Rudolf Carnap and Hans Reichenbach. Now at roughly the same time (the early 20th century), there was also an alternative way of doing philosophy. According to which, what philosophy was seen as aiming to do is not to analyze concepts or scientific theories, but rather to more effectively describe experience. And that was both everyday experience as well as more existentially important experiences, like angst or anxiety or our attitude towards death. And so this philosophy was called phenomenology, and its main proponents were Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger in Germany. So these two different types of philosophy, the analytical philosophers and these phenomenologists, coexisted and interacted somewhat, although not always on friendly terms. So for example, in 1932, Carnap wrote a scathing paper criticizing what he saw as Heidegger's obscurity and [inaudible]. And then what happened then was the rise of National Socialism. Many of the analytic philosophers who were generally left wing, some of whom were Jewish, had to flee the European continent today. They mostly went to the US. And that's when we had a real split between the analytical and the continental traditions. Nowadays, the term continental philosophy, as you just flag, is much broader than this Heideggerian phenomenology. Continental philosophy also includes many thinkers who were influenced by Heidegger, but took philosophy in a different direction, such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Michel Foucault. And the term has also been applied retrospectively to thinkers like Hegel and Nietzsche, who are seen as engaging with certain themes that interested people like Heidegger, Sartre and Foucault, as well as who wrote in a more literary somewhat more obscure or difficult style. Now, at the same token, analytic philosophy is also now much broader than just those philosophers who thought that philosophy should be about conceptual analysis. It also includes philosophers who were influenced by those philosophers and who also write in a similar style. So a style that prizes explicit argumentation and careful definition of terminology. So that's basically the main point of the history.
SPENCER: Seems like we have, on the one hand, different goals that they're pursuing. But on the other hand, different methods. Do you want to talk a little bit more about what they're really disagreeing on when it comes to methods?
AL: I think that the main disagreement when it comes to methods is about the significance of a certain style, which you might call ‘the objective style'. So this is a style of writing that is very direct. You try to lay out your reasoning as clearly as possible. When you employ unfamiliar terms, you try to define it as precisely as you can. And so, the analytical philosophers thought that style is of particular importance. Because philosophy should be in the business of clearing up certain unclear modes of thinking and rendering things that might be ambiguous or hazy to become more precise and more tractable by reason, so to speak. Whereas people in the more continental camp have a very different relationship to clarity. They tend to be suspicious of certain kinds of clarity, which, from their perspective, they see as seeming clarity but more in the grip of certain temporary assumptions. So the reason they think that is they think that we can make things seem clear, as if they employ certain concepts that are familiar, maybe from everyday life or from common ways of thinking. And what the author wants to do is try to break some of those common ways of thinking via the coining of unfamiliar terms or using sort of poetic turns to phrase. Instead, they think that those are crucial tools for enabling us to acquire certain insights that you can't really acquire if you're writing in this more direct and discursive manner.
SPENCER: So, is one way to think about this distinction that analytic philosophers were modeling the person (the other side that they're talking to) as a rational agent or like a Spock-like being and saying, "Here's my argument, here's my definition." Whereas maybe in continental philosophy, they're modeling the person on the other side as a psychological being that's influenced by culture and has these biases and they have to break through this conditioning to reach them and just laying out a logical argument is actually not necessarily going to be the way to make that impact.
AL: I think there's something to that. I think it's not just about communication. Like in the case of the analytical philosophers, they also might think that people, just as a matter of psychological fact, aren't particularly reasonable, or maybe they're not going to respond well to rational argumentation or that kind of thing. But they think that for you, yourself, to get clarity and to come to whatever insights that philosophy is able to give you, the best way of you, yourself, doing that is to try to be as clear and as precise as possible, to find all of your terms, and be very persnickety about reasoning.
SPENCER: So it's like how you, yourself, come to the correct conclusions. But then it's also how you communicate it to others?
AL: Yeah, that's right. This is another feature I didn't mention before. But analytical philosophy tends to be more collaborative. So there's a lot more sort of seeing philosophy as a discipline in the sense that there are certain questions that we might, in a sense, work on together on a collective level. Although each individual contribution might be fairly small, if there's a right dialogue amongst the parties, that helps us lead to some greater progress. Whereas philosophers often are a bit more individual. There's often more the sort of, I guess, unique voice or emphasis on a little bit less about working together to have incremental progress, and more about proposing certain grander visions or much more broader and more holistic ways of seeing things that might be somewhat idiosyncratic to particular individuals. So that's another way in which the two different traditions can be quite different. The way this relates to what you were just saying is that, in a certain sense, the analytical philosophers, I think as you were saying, are definitely concerned with effective communication with others. That's what I think they see as one of the core values to clarity that they espouse. Whereas the continental philosophers are a little bit more comfortable, I guess you could say, with ambiguity, idiosyncrasy, which might make it harder to collaborate at a disciplinary level, but which they think are crucial for providing certain insights you can't get any other way.
SPENCER: So to help the audience understand this division, can you just give a few of the most famous philosophers in each camp they would have likely heard of?
AL: Sure. So in the continental camp, as mentioned Heidegger, but then there are also a number of later thinkers influenced by Heidegger, particularly in France, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Moreover, when people talk about certain philosophical movements like existentialism, postmodernism, critical theory, those things are all in the continental camp. I should also mention somewhat confusingly, some of the most famous contemporary continental philosophers are actually in the US, such as Judith Butler. Now, analytic philosophers tend to be less famous. But some of the figures who might be known to your audience would be Bertrand Russell, or A. J. Ayer, or Karl Popper. More recently, people like Peter Singer, Derek Parfit, John Rawls, and David Chalmers are all analytic philosophers. And when it comes to movements, so logical positivism and effective altruism would be philosophical movements that are in the analytical camp. Now, historically, continental philosophers are more likely to be public intellectuals, which is why when people think of philosophy, they often think of people like Sartre or Foucault. But analytical philosophers have recently been playing a bigger role in the public sphere. So they might be catching up in terms of name recognition.
SPENCER: In terms of modern continental philosophers, would Zðizûek be an example?
AL: Yeah, Zðizûek would be a continental philosopher. I'm not particularly familiar with Zðizûek's writings, but some marks of continental philosophy are concerned with cultural themes through radical politics and being provocative as opposed to being more measured or commonsensical. And he locates himself within the continental tradition.
SPENCER: I've definitely done more reading of analytic philosophy than continental, but I've read some of both, and I think there's value in both of them. But some of my negative reactions from each of them are quite different from each other. On the continental side, I sometimes feel like I'm reading poetry or something, and I'm like, does this even have a coherent meaning? Or am I just supposed to take from it whatever I will? Like as soon as you read poetry and you don't even know if the writer had a very specific thing in mind, or if they were just giving a vibe. It's how continental philosophy feels to me, like 10 people could read and get taken away from all different things. And then on the analytic side, sometimes it feels to me that although they're trying to be really logical that they're sneaking in the non-logical parts. For example, the intuition is relied on quite a bit, but it's often not flagged very explicitly and sneaked into arguments. And so, actually there's some gap in the argument if you just don't buy the intuition of the philosopher. I'm curious to hear your reaction to these two critiques.
AL: Let's start with analytic philosophy first. So I do think it's true that analytic philosophers tend to rely on their intuitions, but I don't think that's necessarily a problem. As philosophy has to start from somewhere, and so a natural place to start would be intuitive judgments or your assumptions about what's true. You might think, "Well, where else should you start from? Should you start from what you think is false?"
SPENCER: Well, I guess what I would say about that is that continental philosophy probably uses intuition even more, it's just that it's obvious. Whereas, I feel like analytic philosophy probably uses it less. But the way it's using intuition feels like it's sneaking it in, like, "Oh, we're doing pure logic." But then there's this hidden intuition in there.
AL: Yeah, it's interesting that you say that, because it definitely goes against the self-perception of a lot of analytic philosophers. Analytic philosophers tend to pride themselves on making their assumptions explicit and not sneaking them in. So that, at least if you don't agree with what the analytic philosopher is saying, it's fairly easy to identify where the disagreement lies. And so, you can then move the conversation forward. In fact, a lot of analytic philosophers think of this as a comparative advantage over continental philosophy, which (as you alluded to) can sometimes seem more like people are giving off a vibe, and it's hard to disagree with the vibe. And if you don't agree with the vibe, it's hard to identify where you don't agree. So analytic philosophers see themselves as being better on that score. Interestingly, this term intuition, I think, is something that many analytic philosophers think is useful for exactly that, that is making assumptions explicit. Because you might think that the point of the term intuition is simply to label certain judgments of yours, where you're not going to provide any further justification or argument for them. This term can be confusing because sometimes when an analytic philosopher will say something intuitive — like say something like ‘slavery is wrong' — it's an intuition that people will appeal to sometimes. Sometimes what people will think is that, "Oh, what are analytic philosophers doing when they say that their judgment is intuitive is that they're saying it has some special source or some special justification, like we come to know it through intuition with the faculty of intuition." But in fact, I think what is often going on is that the term intuition has a different use. It's not being used to label the source of a belief or some special means by which we might justify it, but rather, is simply used to make explicit the fact that there's not any further argument that's going to be provided for that assumption. So when we say that slavery is intuitively wrong, what we're simply saying is that we're not going to provide any further justification or argument for the assumption that slavery is wrong. We're simply taking it as given.
SPENCER: Yeah, and I feel like the word ‘assumption' is a little tricky here. Because there's an assumption, as in mathematics, you might say, "Well, assuming that you're just dealing with functions of this type, then we can prove this theorem." That's not really what I mean here by ‘intuition'. I mean more like, you're doing a query to your intuitive mind. An example of this would be like, the famous "suppose you wake up and a violinist has been hooked up to your circulatory system, and you're keeping them alive." And then using that thought experiment as an intuition prompt to get people to think about abortion rights. And it's sort of pulling on an intuitive output of our system one thinking and using that to lead to some conclusion. And, argumentation is also using logic, but there seems to be that system one step of just generating some output from our subconscious that seems to be part of the argument. It's like being used on purpose in that case, but its validity is not necessarily being questioned, which worries me a bit.
AL: I think that there are two responses to this concern. First of all, when philosophers are prompting intuitions, it might be true that they are querying the intuitive mind. They're not necessarily blindingly trusting the intuitive mind. Rather, they're often interested in what might be some implicit forms of reasoning that the intuitive mind is using to generate particular results. Secondly, there's always the option of, on reflection, rejecting certain intuitions. So, I don't think it's the case that intuitions are treated as uncontestable in analytic philosophy. In the first case, I think it's useful to think about the case that you mentioned. This is the famous case of the violinist from Judy Thompson. — Just so that listeners understand what that case is and its function, I'll discuss the case first. So the case is that, imagine that you wake up, you've been kidnapped, and you've been attached to a famous violinist who needs to use your body to survive. And if it were the case that you were to detach yourself from the violinist, then the violinist would die. And fortunately, you learned that this only has to go on for nine months, because the violinist needs to recover. But if you detach yourself before those nine months in, the violinist will start to die. So that's the case. Judy Thompson thinks it's permissible for you to detach yourself from the violinist, allowing the violinist to die. And if that's right, then you might think analogously that abortion is permissible, even if it's the case that the fetus is a person, and it's the case that person has a right to life. So that's what the example is supposed to show in the context of debates about abortion. — Okay, so now you might be concerned. You might say, "Well, where's that intuition coming from? Why do we find that result intuitive, if we do find it intuitive?" Well, Thompson doesn't just stop there. What she says is, "Well, what might be generating that intuition?" And the thought is that, what's generating it is a broad general principle, namely that the right to life doesn't entail the right to use another's body to sustain your life. It's often assumed in discussions of abortion that you can move easily from the claim that something has a right to life to the claim that it has the right to use another's bodies to sustain its life. And the point of Thompson's example is to suggest that that inference is dubious. The way that the example functions that show that inference is dubious isn't just by the force of the example alone. It's because the example enables you to grasp something more abstract, namely that there's a difference between the right to life and the right to use another's body to sustain your life. So we're not just trusting the intuition in a blind way. Now, secondly, though, you might say, "Well, let's say we have some case judgment, and we do some thinking about it, we try to figure out what might be going to rationally generate that judgment. And we can't find anything. Well, it's always an option to just simply reject the case judgment. Moreover, you might have some positive story about what's generating those intuitions that might be debunking. For example, maybe a reason to think that the intuitions are the product of a certain well-known bias or are suspiciously convenient. Many times philosophers will reject certain intuitions on those grounds. So it's not the case, I think, that philosophy treats intuitions as uncontestable by any means.
SPENCER: I agree with you, and I'm not saying it's not fair game to point at that intuition and challenge it in analytic philosophy. And I think that's to the credit of analytic philosophy that allows moves like that. It's just that I think that these intuition based arguments get worked in maybe a lot more than is acknowledged. And oftentimes, my problems with the arguments are like in this usage of intuition. So Julia Galef, collected a bunch of really (this was many years ago) interesting quotes from philosophers talking about the role of intuition in philosophy. (And this is on her blog.) And so I'll just read a couple of those. I think they're interesting. This one is from George Buehler. It says, "It's safe to say that these intuitions and conclusions based on them determine the structure of contemporary debates in epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of logic, language, and mind. Clearly, it is our standard justificatory procedure to use intuitions as evidence or as reasons." Or another example here, Joel Pust said, "Contemporary analytic philosophy is based upon intuitions. Intuitions serve as the primary evidence in the analysis of knowledge to justify belief, right and wrong action, explanation, rational action, intentionality, consciousness, and a host of other properties of philosophical interest." So these are the kinds of things I'm pointing at. So at least some philosophers agree with me that these ended up actually playing a big role in analytic philosophy.
AL: Yeah. I agree that intuitions do play a role, but I don't think that that's a problem. Let me try to play a bit more offense than defense here. Philosophy deals with issues that are very hard to get a grip on using more familiar empirical methods. Or if you can't get a grip on them using empirical methods that are not obvious and that at least requires philosophical defense. So now, when we're dealing with these kinds of issues, often the best thing you can do is give arguments that you believe to be valid using assumptions that you believe to be true. Those assumptions you believe to be true are just your intuitions. Of course, you can question those assumptions and so on and so forth in the way that we just discussed. One thing I will also say is that sometimes when people reject intuitions they do so in an unprincipled and selective way. So it's good to note that intuitions can come at different levels of abstractions. For example, sometimes we're dealing with intuitions about concrete particular cases, like the violinist case that we talked about. But often, the intuitions that play a role in philosophical argument are going to be more abstract. Like, we talked about earlier when it comes to the difference between having a right to life and having the right to use someone's body to extend your life, or other kinds of abstract intuitions that you often get from a more consequentialist perspective. For instance, intuitions like, if you can do more good at no cost to yourself, you should do it. Or that your life is not worth any more than the life of another person from an objective point of view. So now, many people who are critics of intuitions have target intuitions about cases. But as far as I can tell, there's no reason to target those intuitions in particular, as opposed to the wider set.
SPENCER: Right, and again just to clarify, I have no problem with starting with premises and saying, "Here are the premises I'm working under. We're gonna assume these." That's no problem. What I have a much bigger problem with is when we treat our mind or system one intuitive mind as a black box. And then we assume that the output of that is a reliable starting place. So imagine, I had a neural net that I trained and I could give it philosophical propositions, and then it would give them a score of like, "Yes, that's a good proposition or not." And then I use this as the starting arguments. I just put a bunch of statements in here, and the ones that it said were reliable upon good score. I'm like, "Okay, well, the neural net says those are reliable. So let's start with those to reason from. Let's use those as our premises." I think people would say, "Well, that's a really weird way to say your premises based on what this neural net happened to output as being reliable." But to me, that's very much what we're doing a lot of times, except the neural net is like the neural net on our brain. Not the neural net, as in software, the neural net as in our neurons all hooked up together, like we're plugging these premises into our neural nets, like, "It seems reasonable," Or like, "Yeah, totally, that's true." And then we're like, "Okay, well, then we can start from there." But I don't think of the neural nets of our brains as being reliable for this sort of question. I think they're very reliable for things like, "Is there a table in front of me?" But not very reliable for things like, "Is this thing actual knowledge or not?" Or, "Is it bad to unplug this person because they were hooked up into me against my will?" or whatever.
AL: Whether or not we should be worried that our philosophical intuitions are systematically unreliable, I think will depend a bit on how we understand what philosophy is trying to do. So for example, if we think that what philosophical questions aim to do is help us understand the content of different concepts, we might be less concerned about our philosophical intuitions being unreliable, because if we hold certain views about what it is to possess concepts, we might think that we only possess those certain concepts if we knew how to apply them in particular cases. And then that's what philosophical intuitions are asking us to do. Now, that's it if you understand philosophy in a different way. If you understand what philosophy is doing not as trying to help us analyze our concepts, but rather try to figure out what things are like in the actual world, there is more of a concern for the reasons that you alluded to. And so at that point, people will often say something more defensive. They'll argue that, if you doubt philosophical intuitions, you'll also be committed to doubting intuitions in other domains where we don't often doubt them. So in mathematics, for example, or they'll say that a blanket doubting of philosophical intuitions would be self-undermining in some way. But that argument would have to be made.
SPENCER: Maybe using an example will help here. So it seems to be that there's a kind of reasoning that's used quite a bit in philosophy. It's something along the lines of like, I intuitively can tell that there's good people and bad people. So now starting with that as a premise that there's good people and bad people, let me do an analysis of what makes someone good. Or, intuitively, it feels like I know some things and I don't know other things. Therefore, you start with the assumption that some things are knowledge and some things are not. Like, I know some things and I don't know others. But to me, both of those cases are giving too much credit to the way it feels internally to what our system one is producing. The idea that there even is something that's knowledge and there is not is just a feeling we have that our system one produces. It's more about the architecture of our neural nets than it is about reality.
AL: Yeah, although I do think that at least when it comes to moral and political philosophy, the concern is a bit less that our intuitions are reflecting the random operations of our neural nets and more that they're reflecting some kind of folk opinion that's out there in society. So, if we think of the contrast between analytic and continental philosophy, I think continental philosophy is slightly less respectful of what you might call folk opinion. Whereas analytical philosophers often take folk opinion more seriously. And what they end up doing is just providing complex rationalizations for the common opinions out there in society, which is a slightly different concern than the unreliability concern, but also a concern.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's sort of funny though. I sort of agree with deferential to folk opinion, but not folk opinion of random people in the street, folk opinion of like, what it feels like inside of philosophers' mind or something. That's how I would put it. Because most of us are not going out and actually asking people what they think, right?
AL: There was a trend that is still ongoing, where some philosophers have been trying to do that so-called experimental philosophy. People are shocked by the results and people had to figure out what to do with those results and to see in cases where the philosophers' opinions are more idiosyncratic, and what to think about that. Those things strike me as important pieces of data to know because I think it's similar to the objection we're giving, but maybe something different, which is that there are certain kinds of intuitions that get entrenched to the discipline of philosophy, which humans have to have in order to play the game. And that can be a real problem, because then the people who select into the discipline are gonna be the ones who are more likely to have those intuitions. Because if you really reject a lot of them, then you realize that there's no point in playing this game. I don't have the tools to do it.
SPENCER: That's really interesting. Can you give an example of that?
AL: Yeah, there are a number of examples from epistemology and moral philosophy. I think the easiest to grasp are probably simple anti-consequentialist intuitions. So for instance, it's basically universally thought in philosophy that if an innocent person comes into the hospital, it'd be morally impermissible for a doctor to kill that person, even if the doctor knew that by killing the innocent person she will be able to save five others by redistributing the organs of the murdered person. So now, if you didn't share that intuition about that case, say you had some more simple utilitarian intuition, or you thought that your intuitions were distorted because the case assumes an unrealistic level of knowledge, I think you'd have a very difficult time really getting into the discipline. So you wouldn't find the questions that more philosophy asked that interesting or that puzzling. I think you'd have a hard time trying to publish. And so as a result, you're just more likely to be selected out of the discipline. So also, I'll add more generally, I think that you need to be pretty confident about your intuitions and that your intuitions need to be granular, if you really want to succeed. So for instance, if you're not confident about granular intuitions, it's hard to set up puzzles. It's hard to propose counter examples to purported principles. So I think there's also a selection effect, not just for content, but also for confidence and granularity.
SPENCER: Yeah, that's really interesting. It reminds me of a debate I was having with a philosopher where I was saying that I didn't think their view was compatible with evolution. This was about moral philosophy, and I was saying, "Well, I don't see how, given their view, we would have evolved to have the trait that they said we had." Like, how would evolution have produced it? And they basically thought about that for a while, and then they're like, "Well, if I'm wrong about this, then I can't play the philosophy game, and I love the philosophy game." And I was like [both laughing]...I think they're being honest.
AL: That is refreshingly honest.
SPENCER: So let's jump to continental philosophy a little bit.
AL: Alright, sounds good.
SPENCER: I think my biggest problem with continental philosophy is that sometimes it feels like it's being obscure on purpose. Like, there's ways you can talk that sort of are meaningless but sound profound. And sometimes I worry that it's trying to do that. Or, it's like poetry and everyone could have a different opinion of what it's saying. And maybe that makes it really fun for PhD students because they can endlessly debate what was really being said, but that's not great for figuring out what's true about the world. I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on those critiques of continental philosophy.
AL: So one thing to notice that there are different sources for obscurity in continental philosophy. One source is more at the sentence levels. So sometimes continental philosophers use particular turns of phrase that they'll be hard to understand in certain concepts that are new. It's just that at the sentence level, it's hard to understand what any particular sentence means. For example, some people think Hegel is like this, Heidegger is like this. There are other kinds of continental philosophers where there might not be much obscurity at the sentence level, but it can be hard to put things together. So you get a number of different claims. It's hard to see how they can add up to some more coherent view. Sometimes people think that Nietzsche is like that, for example. So when it comes to obscurity that's at the sentence level, which derives from the coining of concepts or certain kinds of more literary modes of writing. I think, what the continental philosophers will say that picks up on the discussion that we had earlier is that what they are trying to do is they're suspicious of many of the folk comments [?] we have, which structure our thinking. They think it's sometimes objectionable ways. And I think that to think things are right, we need to have some new sets of concepts, which are, although initially unfamiliar, might help break your reliance on certain kinds of common assumptions or ways of thinking that are embedded in the more everyday concepts that analytic philosophers are more likely to want to use. And so that creates a certain obscurity, because you need to learn a new idiolect, a new language. But say, the continental philosophers, there's a real purpose to that, which is that it really enables you to change your thinking in a way that you couldn't effectively change if you were to stick with our more everyday concepts. Now, of course, this thing comes up not just in philosophy, but in the broader public sphere sometimes, where people think that there's a lot of concern with, say, how you label a certain group or a certain political phenomenon. Or maybe you think, say, language is structured in a way, like say about gender for example, the fact that we have just two grammatical genders then suggests that we ought to organize gender in the social world in a binary way. And so people tend to think, "Well, we need to really change our language in some more radical way, because that's a crucial means for both enabling us to understand things better, and also to change society on the basis of that improved understanding. So that's all for the continental philosophers, I think, that you achieve via some of this stuff that also creates obscurity.
SPENCER: Does this include postmodernist ideas, like that much of language and culture is designed to continue existing power structures? And so, if you're working within those systems, you're often subconsciously biased in favor of the status quo and in favor of those in power?
AL: Yeah, I'm not really an expert on post-structuralism by any means or postmodernism, but I do think that does play a bit of a role, because there's this concern, exactly as you say, that what seems like clarity is actually just conformity to contemporary due to powerful assumptions. And then maybe it serves a background idea that the reason why those assumptions are common or seen powerful has to do with the fact that they serve the interests of deeply powerful individuals in society. And so that by resisting the use of those concepts, or by writing, and in more indirect or obscure ways, you thereby subvert that mode of power. So, I do think that that can play a role as well.
SPENCER: What would continental philosophers tend to say to the argument that different people could read their work and take away very different things from the same passage? Is that a problem for them? Or are they saying, "No, that's totally fine."
AL: I think that it might depend on the nature of the different readings. On the one hand, I think certain kinds of misreadings might really, really annoy them, particularly misreadings in which they feel like what they're saying is simulated to more every day ways of thinking, because then it seems like the whole purpose of coining these new terms and writing in this poetic way has been for naught. On the other hand, there might be the thought amongst them — I'm not sure if this is actually true but I'll just throw this out there — that just in the way that ambiguity can be an effective tool in the arts, so too it also might be philosophy because it might inspire a variety of different ways of reading, each of which might be of interest. And so if there are multiple ways of reading things, each of which seem interesting or yields insights, then that might be seen as an advantage because it just means that what they're doing has been, in a way, in which a less ambiguous, (more so to speak) constrained mode of communication, wouldn't have opened up the same insights.
SPENCER: It's interesting how ambiguity actually invites the listener or reader into being creative. Whereas, if you're super straightforward and logical, there's no creative action on the part of the person reading. And maybe something about involving them, the creative aspect, actually makes it more impactful for them because they're sort of generating something and they're not just passively observing.
AL: Yeah, I think that's right. Something that's also said is that you might think that the so to speak ‘division of labor' between writer and reader is a bit different in analytic and continental philosophy. In analytic philosophy, it's often thought that the person writing has to be doing a lot of the work in clearing up theories of potential confusions or making terms more precise or intelligible. Whereas the thought is that less of that work should be done by the writer and more should be done by the reader in the continental tradition. There could be different reasons to want to do that to divide up labor in the way that continentals might be dividing up labor. I think one has to do with something we just mentioned about potential increased fruitfulness of the theory — and by fruitfulness, I mean that it inspires more interesting stuff, if it's left a bit ambiguous — But another thing might be that you think it's important for people to think for themselves or think through things. It's like giving people a piece of the problem set or something, as opposed to giving them the answers. So sometimes, I think that certain ambiguities or certain modes of indirection might be thought to serve that function as well, to stimulate thought or reflection on the side of the reader. And that would be quite important.
SPENCER: I had this perspective shift on nonfiction books a number of years ago that, I think, helped me understand things better. Previously, I thought of a nonfiction book as a packet of content. And then I would say, "Oh, is that a good packet of content or not?" But there's another way of looking at it that can be helpful at times, which is not as a packet of content or information, but as an intervention. Like, someone reads the book and thinks, "Are they different afterwards?" And when you view it that way, you start realizing that there's things that are not really content or not really information that have a big difference on how much it affects people. And I think reading analytic philosophy tends to feel very dry and detached and unemotional. Whereas, reading continental philosophy tends to feel more emotional, more persuasive in a sense, more likely to shock you. And so I think it is useful having the frame of "What is information or content?" But I think taking this other frame for a moment of, "What is the effect of reading it?" I could certainly see the effect of continental philosophy on people being larger, on average, due to using all these other tools and not making it so detached and logical.
AL: Yeah, that's exactly right. And I think that's also something that many continental philosophers think is important and valuable in the way they do philosophy because if you're thinking about the pluses and minuses of these two different styles, the side of what I was describing as is more objective style, focus on precision, explicit argumentation, that's very good for analyzing contents, analyzing arguments, and seeing logical connections amongst different things that one might claim or think. But it's often less good at things like evoking imagination or imaginative engagement with something, or evoking emotion, or changing your perspective in certain ways to enable you to see things differently or find other things to be salient. And so these literary styles are often much better in those dimensions. And that way of doing philosophy can be more powerful, even if it's really less good at the dimension that enables you to as effectively analyze the argumentative structure of a particular set of thoughts.
SPENCER: There's a wild Kafka quote that I think is irrelevant here, which is, "We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief." [laughs] I feel like that's a very continental way of looking at the purpose of writing.
AL: Yeah, definitely. I think that's right. Because what people, I think, like about continental philosophy is it combines two different things. On the one hand, I think it feels like people who are doing it are talking about something that's important and matters a lot. And on the other hand, they're also saying things about those things that are revisionary of contemporary opinion, potentially, and so very different from our everyday thoughts about them. And so those two things together, I think, are what people like about it. There's some styles of analytic philosophy that can be quite revisionary, particularly for doing things like, say, metaphysics and analytic philosophy. People can come up with some theory, wacky views of things. But I think people think that those wacky views are interesting, but they don't really move you because they don't speak to deeply rooted human concerns. And so philosophy is comparatively more in touch with those things.
SPENCER: Right. And I think in analytic philosophy, if someone comes up with some clever new argument from a really crazy seeming idea, but they're like, "Oh yeah, because of this new argument, I think there's a 10% chance this idea is true." From your point of view in analytic philosophy, they should totally publish that because it's novel, and maybe it's true. We can't rule it out. Whereas I think continental philosophy would be more likely to say, "Well, nobody believes that. [laughs] What's the point?" It's like you should be talking about the things that people actually care about, and the things that people actually believe and think about, sort of like the big questions, and love and everything.
AL: Although philosophers often will say things that are quite visionary, maybe people wouldn't believe at least if you just ask them off the cuff. So if we're thinking of things like, "Is it a crucial function of schools not only to give people some information, but to discipline them into being submissive citizens?" (something that comes up in Foucault) It's a bold thought, right? If we were to pull people, would they take that as what the crucial functions of school are? Probably not.
SPENCER: I guess I mean something a little different. More like talking about schools was just something that's very relevant and important to people versus talking about some issue in metaphysics, where you would take two hours to even understand what it is you're talking about, right?
AL: Yeah, totally. The reason I just gave that example was I was actually thinking one of the comparative advantages of continental philosophy, potentially, was actually for people who are bolder and willing to suggest things with less argument than they would have to provide if they were doing analytic philosophy. And, of course, there are some downsides to that, because you're going to get a lot of bad speculative stuff. But you're also going to get things that are bigger and more important, if they're true. That could be a reason to take continental philosophy comparatively more seriously, because it feels like "Well, this hypothesis is not that likely to be true." It might be very important if it were true or for which it is partially true. And so that's a reason to focus my attention on that as opposed to, say, a view that's more well worked out. And I think it's more likely to be true at the beginning, but it just would be a little less interesting.
SPENCER: So before we wrap up, I want to say you've done an amazing job of really analyzing both continental and analytic in a fair way, I think, so much so that I don't think it's even clear whether you're on one side of the divide, or the other, or somewhere in the middle. So, where would you place your own work?
AL: Yes, I'm someone who works in an analytical style. But I'm interested in many continental themes and work on some continental figures. So much of my work is straight analytical philosophy. I've worked on things like causation, explanation, the use and justification of idealization within the social sciences. But a lot of that work is also informed by debates within the continental tradition about things like a connection between the social and the natural sciences, and whether or not there are some distinctive epistemic aims that social science has. Moreover, I also have some deep interest in certain figures in the continental tradition. So I've written a number of articles on Nietzsche, and I'm working on a book at the moment on genealogy.
SPENCER: Al this is really fun. Thank you so much for coming on.
AL: All right. Thank you so much, Spencer.
JOSH: Can you give a high level description of everything you do and why you do it?
SPENCER: That would be very difficult to do. But I'll give you a very vague description of what I do and why I do it. So vague description of what I do is, my goal is to try to improve our understanding of human psychology to really accelerate the science of psychology much further than it's been taken before, and then use that knowledge to benefit all of humanity. And then I do a lot of much more specific things that tie into this in different ways. So for example, we founded Mind Ease, which is an app for people with anxiety, and we're also building it out to help people with depression as well. And that's really trying to take ideas from psychology and bring them directly to people to help improve people's lives. Then we have Clearer Thinking and Clearer Thinking now offers more than 60 different free interactive learning modules covering a wide variety of topics related to psychology, trying to help you with decision making, goal setting and critical thinking, and so on and so forth. And so much of our work just in one way or another is about how we do better psychology and then how we bring psychology to people to make their lives better. And also I should say, not just through the direct benefits — yes, we want to benefit people directly with our work — but also through the second order effects of like, "Oh, if we can help them make better decisions, they can make better decisions on behalf of their employees if they run a company or their constituency if they're a politician and so on." So, we're trying to also get these sorts of societal benefits as well.
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