Big Ideas

The other night at dinner, Tim Schroeder asked me what exciting new philosophical ideas I’d heard recently. This was at the end of a long (and really very good) dinner with a few glasses of wine, so naturally I couldn’t think of anything. But it seems we should be able to answer a question like that.

Tim made it clear that by ‘recently’ he didn’t mean in like the last week, but in relatively recent times. So here is a list of interesting ideas and arguments that I know about (and to have to some extent incorporated into my thinking) that I didn’t know about in grad school, i.e. before 1998. The list will be naturally very lemming-focussed, without the mind part, because that’s what I mostly work on. Some of the ideas are important because they are more detailed, and more powerful, versions of familiar points, while some of them are still to be worked out in great detail. Most of them are ideas I learned from friends. I think that’s because it takes telling me something about 10 times before I get it, and only friends get that many opportunities to tell me the same thing. And the list isn’t in any particular order.

  1. Timothy Williamson’s safety arguments against luminosity and hence in favour of the idea that we shouldn’t treat our knowledge of mental properties as being in any way epistemologically privileged.
  2. Jeremy Fantl, John Hawthorne, Matthew McGrath and Jason Stanley’s idea that whether we have certain epistemological properties might depend on our practical interests.
  3. The idea, which I first got from Jim Pryor’s work, that what is hard about the sceptical paradoxes is deciding whether we know a priori or a posteriori that various sceptical hypotheses do not obtain, and building a plausible, systematic theory of a priori/a posteriori knowledge that validates our decision.
  4. The work that many philosophers and semanticists have done on showing how the relationship between context and (truth-conditional) content can be explained systematically. Obviously this work started well before 1998, and the highlights of it are now several decades old, but I think there has been a lot of progress, by (among others) Zoltan Szabo, Jeff King and Jason Stanley, in the last few years.
  5. Two ideas about relativism: John MacFarlane’s idea that we can formalise relativist semantics using a simple generalisation of Kaplan’s approach to contextualist semantics, and Andy Egan’s idea that if there are sentences that express de se beliefs, then the right semantics for them is relativist.
  6. Bob Stalnaker’s idea that rational behaviour in a game has to be interpretable as rational behaviour in the face of a decision problem for each player, and that various familiar approaches to game theory fail to satisfy this constraint. (I’m cheating a little here, since some of this material is from pre-1998. But not all of it is, so it makes the cut.)
  7. Ted Sider’s observation that most ordinary predicates denote maximal properties, and maximal properties are an important class of extrinsic properties.
  8. Adam Elga’s idea that taking seriously the idea that credences are de se attitudes not de dicto attitudes matters to decision theory. Ten years ago I would have said for sure that de se decision theory was just de dicto decision theory with a change in what counts as event. Now I’d merely say that hesitantly.
  1. Finally, two ideas about causation. David Lewis’s arguments, at the start of the long version of Causation as Influence, from the plurality of causal relations with which we are familiar to the need for a reductive accuont of causation. And Sarah McGrath’s arguments from the facts about causation as omission that this reductive account should reduce causal talk to, inter alia, normative talk.

I’m sure that if I worked on other areas I’d be talking about other ideas, but those are the ones that have had the most impact on me over the last few years. Indeed, many of my recent papers involve my trying to work out the consequences of these ideas.

So I started writing all this because I was worried about how much progress we were making in all of the flurry of philosophical activity that gets mentioned here. But I think the nine ideas I mentioned above are a fairly good amount of progress for a few years in a few subdisciplines of philosophy. And this is a long way from an exhaustive list.

What other new big ideas have come out of philosophical research in the last few years?

4 Replies to “Big Ideas”

  1. Here are three important papers that Stalnaker has done on this topic.

    “Knowledge, Belief, and Counterfactual Reasoning in Games.” In Cristina Bicchieri, Richard Jeffrey, and Brian Skyrms, eds., The Logic of Strategy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    “Belief Revision in Games: Forward and Backward Induction.” Mathematical Social Sciences (July 1998), 36(1):31-56.

    “Knowledge, Belief and Counterfactual Reasoning in Games.” Economics and Philosophy (October 1996), 12(2):133-163.

  2. Of course Brian can give a better response when he gets the chance, but since he’s APAing I’ll give one reference to start things off. In ‘The Skeptic and the Dogmatist’ (Nous 34 (2000): 517-49), Pryor gives a reconstruction of the sceptical argument that he thinks puts it in a form which allows us to appreciate its true force, which can be translated into an argument against perceptual justification (530), and which allows the various lines of resistance to be mapped out as denials of a particular compenent of the argument (531). One way to resist the argument, which Brian has been discussing a lot recently, is to hold ‘that we can know we’re not being deceived by an evil demon (and so on) on purely a priori or non-perceptual grounds.’ (Pryor 531) If one doesn’t like that direction, one has to pick another point out as the weak point in the argument and tell some plausible story about why it is in fact a weak point.

    So I’d start by looking at that paper, especially section 2.

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