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August 8th, 2008

Barstool Philosophy

One of the things that’s been a running thread through my recent thoughts about the epistemology of philosophy is that it is importantly a group activity. This is largely for prudential reasons. For those of us who aren’t Aristotle or Kant, by far the best way to regiment our philosophical thinking is subjecting it to the criticisms of others. That’s a substantial constraint; it means giving up points that can’t convince our peers. And sometimes that will have costs; we’ll be right and our peers wrong. Sometimes we might even know we’re right and they’re wrong. But as a rule one does better philosophy if one subjects oneself to this kind of constraint from the group.

Or so it seems to me. A thorough empirical investigation would be useful here, especially in terms of trying to figure our just what exceptions, if any, exist to this general principle. But given the relatively low quality of philosophy produced by most people who don’t regard themselves as being regulated by criticisms of their peers, I think it’s pretty clear the rule as a whole is a good one.

That all suggests that the metaphor of “armchair theorising” or “armchair philosophy” is very much mistaken. For armchairs are really places where one engages in solitary activities. And contemporary philosophy is a group activity par excellence.

So we need a new metaphor. “Conference room philosophy” sounds dreary even to me. “Coffeeshop philosophy” is better. But it might be better still to keep the idea of a seat. After all, most philosophy is done sitting down. I suggest “barstool philosophy”. I’m not convinced the best philosophy is done during/after drinking, but the image is pleasingly social at least!

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “Barstool Philosophy”

  1. Jonathan Ichikawa says:

    I certainly agree with the main thrust here. But this passage at least suggests something that sounds implausibly strong:

    That’s a substantial constraint; it means giving up points that can’t convince our peers. And sometimes that will have costs; we’ll be right and our peers wrong. Sometimes we might even know we’re right and they’re wrong. But as a rule one does better philosophy if one subjects oneself to this kind of constraint from the group.

    Do you really mean to suggest that we should subject ourselves to our peers even when we know we’re right and they’re wrong? (I’m assuming the kind of ‘subjecting’ you have in mind is not merely dialectical.) I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t continue to believe and make use of controversial theses if we know them to be true.

    Of course, often, upon encountering sufficient disagreement, it is no longer reasonable to continue to believe as we did before; if we were right to begin with, then when our peers come and (wrongly) tell us we’re wrong, this social event destroys our original knowledge. This kind of subjecting to peers sounds just right. But in the event that we continue to know, I should think we needn’t yield.

  2. peter55 says:

    It is worth recalling that the interest in algebraic representations of uncertainty which occurred suddenly in many places in Europe in the 1660s (and led to the subject we now call probability theory) coincided almost exactly with the diffusion through Europe of the first coffee houses.

  3. Brian Weatherson says:

    I do mean to suggest that even when we know p, if we can’t convince our peers of it, that should restrict what use we make of it.

    Of course, we shouldn’t regard who our peers are as fixed in stone. If some folks refuse to accept a thesis that’s clearly true, then we might stop regarding them as peers. But that’s a big step. I don’t think it’s just a matter of changing a list of names on your computer headed ‘peers’. I mean if we think it’s worthwhile to have conferences/reading groups largely based around people who agree with us, then there’s a sense that we’re taking the others not to be peers.

    But I don’t think we should really build too much on premises that a large number of our peers don’t accept. That way lies, in all probability, wasting a large amount of one’s career on a dead end.

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