The Skeptic’s Therapy and Progress in Enquiry

I’m currently in the middle of Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire, and there’s really something to it. Even those of us who are well aware of cognitive biases and their power act, in our day to day lives, as though arguments can have an effect on others. Among our most intimate friends and family, we offer what we hope are words of wisdom that will help them on their way. It is quite possible to call forth a cynical explanation for this behavior, but surely we can think of some times when advice has been of genuine value—when we received the right argument, at the right time, in the right way, from the right person.

Modern movies and TV are full of the skillful therapist who, rather than prescribing medicine (for these tropes are artifacts of a Freudian era) uses arguments and explanation. Before the messianic shrink, the preacher held this cultural spot for a very long run. Of course, the preacher did not use something as profane as arguments—he reached into the heart of a suffering and lost soul and brought them to God. He acted as shepherd and led his flock to salvation. But in practice, as William James documented as a sympathetic witness,  the technique looks a lot like an argument—an argument about the story of the world and the cosmos, and your place in it.

Before the Christian preacher, there was eudaimonia, and the schools which argued on its behalf. This is the subject of Nussbaum’s book.

The section I’ve just finished deals with the Skeptics, a most peculiar school. Nussbaum focuses specifically on Sextus Empiricus; Julia Annas did the same in The Morality of Happiness.

His is a strange perspective. On the one hand, you can kind of see his argument. Beliefs, dogmatically held, are a source of stress and anxiety. Modern cognitive science provides evidence for these claims, made thousands of years ago. Sextus Empiricus describes the life of the Pyrrhic skeptic as devoted to doubt, to finding the equal and opposite argument to any cherished belief until all belief is suspended. Upon reaching this stage of suspension, you find ataraxia; tranquility, freedom from turmoil, peace of mind.

This is an interesting argument as far as it goes, but it doesn’t take sophisticated minds like Nussbaum’s or Annas’ to notice a rather large problem that looms here. By the very justifying of the Skeptic school as promoting the good life, he violates the first rule of skepticism—holding a belief! It may be a belief about the nature of suspending beliefs, but that does not make it any less of a belief! Attempts to salvage his specific argument from this paradox seem to me to be futile.

And yet, at the same time, there is something there. There is something to be said for suspension of belief, though not in the absolute sense described by Sextus. And rather than tactically finding the equal and opposite argument to every belief, perhaps “entering into” various rival beliefs as completely as possible is a healthy exercise, in general.

Progress in Enquiry

Enter Alasdair MacIntyre, with his theory of how to make progress in ethics.

MacIntyre has stated his theory in several places; most notably in Three Rival Forms of Moral Enquiry but also prominently in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

It goes like this: imagine you have two utterly incompatible ethical frameworks. Not antitheses, for that implies too deep a connection between them. In MacIntyre’s many histories he hones in on periods in which people become aware of rival perspectives and set to work discrediting them. Only the way they do it always relies on premises that only matter if you’ve already bought into their tradition of thought. So it’s never particularly persuasive to those whose perspective they’re criticizing.

The right approach, in MacIntyre’s point of view, is to get deep into the rival tradition of thought. Get so familiar with it that you could argue on its behalf just as well as its fiercest and most able proponents. You will then get to know something that is only really obvious from the inside—those problems that a tradition of thought faces which it does not appear to have the resources to overcome. In the Nietzschean genealogy, MacIntyre points out that there is no role for the genealogist within it; if everything is just cynical power relations mascarading as something else, then why exactly is the genealogist’s work solely taken to be credible?

The final step in this approach is to present the proponents of that tradition of thought with another—whether a preexisting one or some new synthesis—and point out how this tradition has the resources to overcome the problems of their perspective. What is crucial is that the problems identified are those which are taken to be problems by members of the tradition of thought itself; that it is recognized by them and diagnosed on the tradition’s own terms. MacIntyre here turns to an analogy with science—pointing out how impetus theory has certain unresolvable problems which Galileo overcame with a new theory. But it was more than merely “overcoming” the problems—it presented a whole new framework that made progress on impetus theory’s terms but also made it possible to make progress on its own terms.

I find this way of looking at ethical traditions of thought very appealing. It seems to me that one must take something like the Skeptic’s medicine before it is possible to pursue; you have to force yourself to suspend your allegiance to your beliefs, even if you cannot entirely shed them, in order to credibly dive into the rival system of thought.

Here, though, we come to a question—is this framework of familiarizing oneself with a tradition’s unresolvable problems, and presenting an alternate point of view in terms of overcoming those problems, itself a comparable framework? And if so, how would one disprove it? If we used the same procedure, that would appear to be begging the question—assuming what we’re setting out to defend. So how does MacIntyre account for the relationship of his theory of theories to its own content?

It seems to me that here we must concede that something far looser plays a role. MacIntyre’s theory is appealing because it seems to capture certain intuitions, and to be in line with a certain reading of history. But that sounds more like McCloskeyan persuasion than MacIntyrean rational conflict among rival points of view. And indeed, that is what I think it is. And even in MacIntyre’s framework, he acknowledges that it’s highly possible people within a tradition of thought will not acknowledge or even recognize that the alternative presented to them resolves the problems of their tradition more effectively than their current tradition does. MacIntyre views persuasion as non-rational, as manipulation even. But McCloskey views it as the foundation of human knowledge; we know by forming communities of rhetoric.

MacIntyre’s speaks of practical rationality as existing only within the boundaries of a tradition of thought, and this is exactly McCloskeys’ “communities of rhetoric”; but MacIntyre does not see things that way. He sees rationality as involving a procedure for being certain that you will resolve disagreements, something only possible among members of the same tradition of thought. For McCloskey, there is no “procedure” there is just a shared set of values and beliefs, as well as standards of evaluating and providing evidence. The loose and indeterminate nature of whether the superior tradition of thought will be recognized in MacIntyre’s framework inclines me to think that McCloskey is closer to the truth when she thinks in terms of rhetoric rather than rationality; or rather, when she characterizes rationality as defined by communities of rhetoric.

The McCloskeyan approach requires the Skeptic’s therapy no less than MacIntyre’s approach. For the greatest sin to McCloskey is to criticize without having done the work of familiarizing oneself with the conversation or literature which provides the crucial context for what is under discussion.

Suspension of belief, entering into rival points of view, finding solutions to unresolvable dilemmas, and rhetoric—these seem to me to be crucial tools for making progress in episteme; our theoretical knowledge.

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