So you’ve read your McCloskey and your MacIntyre, and you’ve overcome your first year philosophy student syndrome. You’ve resolved to try and understand a literature on its own terms before making a written critique of it, especially one you intend to get published in a journal. You already feel smugly virtuous about it.
Unfortunately for you, Garett Jones has decided to make an example of you.
“If this method is so great, give me a critique of Marxism,” he challenges you, “after all, they have quite a literature. We can’t just dismiss them because of the fall of the USSR; that’s hardly a peer-reviewed event.”
He is pushing your buttons, because he is cut from a similar libertarian cloth as you are, especially when it comes to Marxism. But you can’t back down now! So you grit your teeth and disappear into a black hole of Marx and Marxist prose.
Ages later, you crawl back out and hand Garett the first draft of your critique before collapsing into a heap on the floor. It was hard work, but you were able to highlight the truths that Marxists were better at identifying than most others, while still maintaining that the framework ought to be abandoned.
“Bravo,” Garett says with a small smile, “now, do creationism. I hear their literature dates back quite some time…”
You stare at him. Like Garett, you are a nonbeliever. But you do not have much interest in this debate. You suspect he knows this, but you refuse to show weakness. At least there are some religious writers who actually know how to write well, though the sheer volume of works you could potentially read is even more intimidatingly large than the last one.
But you see the task through, learning from the last one to be strategic. You focus around the goal of works claiming to be able to overturn the conclusions of evolutionary theory. After a much longer period than the first, you crawl out of your research hole, and stretch your trembling arm up to give Garett your paper.
“Very good, you made very efficient use of your time,” he praised, “now, I’ve found that there’s a surprisingly large literature on leprechauns. And not as a myth, but as purportedly real creatures. Could you debunk this literature for me?”
You stare at him, open mouthed, for a time, before crumpling up on the floor, defeated.
Trade-Offs, Heuristics, and Uncertainty
In the discussion with Garett, I was put in mind of Daniel Russell’s take on “all-things-considered” rationality as an ideal.
Take for instance the idea that ‘the rational person’ acts on all-things-considered judgments. As Davidson says, to accept such an ideal is to accept the rationality of all-things-considered judgments as a principle of one’s own; the charge that one has violated that principle cannot be met with the response, ‘So I have broken your rule; who says I should do things your way?’ By accepting the ideal, one has made the ‘rule’ or principle a principle to which one sees oneself as bound. But committing to making all-things-considered judgments is not the same as committing to the (rather queer) life-project of becoming the best maker of all-things-considered judgments there can be. That project, like every other, consumes resources and opportunities, and can no more be assumed to be a rational one than any other project can. That is a fact about practical rationality: when it comes to making all-things-considered judgments, at some point it is reasonable to stop considering, choose, and hope that the choice is one we can live with, or perhaps grow into. Indeed, trying to become persons who do consider all things before acting is something that we have all-things-considered reasons not to do.
As flawed humans with limited resources, we have to make trade-offs even of how much time and thought to invest in figuring out what the best trade-off is.
Similarly, if there really is a literature for everything, we cannot reasonably expect people to be as thorough as the MacIntyre and McCloskey method would demand in order to determine which can be dismissed entirely. Even for those literatures we do think are worthy of such a response, no one person is going to be able to read every single paper and work in it. This means selectivity, which introduces bias into the sample by definition.
But as with all-things-considered rationality, we must say that there is nothing in the ideal itself that says we must pursue this thoroughness as far as possible. The ideal in advancing is one of due diligence, and of giving the other side credit by default and having a healthy amount of intellectual humility.
But as Sam says, some literatures really are just philosophical circle-jerks. Some, like leprechaunology, should just be dismissed as rubbish without being thorough about it.
Garett says a few simple rules can help here, but I’m skeptical that’s the case. There are definitely heuristics that can help us economize on our scholarly time in this regard. But those heuristics are no more written into the fabric of the universe than human knowledge of any sort.
Consider the following scenario:
There’s a community of rhetoric that is just obviously full of garbage. Everyone KNOWS their literature is a bunch of pseudoscientific nonsense. But then one day you encounter a paper by someone you greatly respect who cites them favorably. Incredulous, you track down the cited papers and read them. To your surprise, you find them fairly reasonable, though you disagree with them. You dig deeper and deeper until you are reading the core texts of the literature, and you’re convinced of the value of their framework and central conclusions.
Question: have you just discovered an unfairly maligned but valuable literature, or have you just gone from being a reasonable person to being a crank?
Your answer will probably depend on what I say the literature in question is, which is precisely why I’m going to leave it unspecified.
My point? Nothing more than that it is impossible to judge these things “from the outside.” Sam’s advice for philosophy to become more empirical derives from the framework he is already inside of; a combination of the finite texts and lectures he’s absorbed in his lifetime as well as his judgment. Of course, his judgment of what texts to read in the first place was guided by inferences internal to an already existing conceptual scheme, and so on. There’s no end to the turtling here.
We do need mental shortcuts, and some literatures are more valuable than others, while some are just rubbish. But any shortcut will require substantial trade-offs, and it is my judgment, from where I stand in my conceptual scheme, that humility is a more valuable investment on the margin than additional reasons for people to be dismissive.
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