Monday, March 17, 2008

The Argument from Disagreement, Part I

A standard complaint against philosophy is that it never really produces reliable knowledge. An indication of this is the historical disagreement of philosophers. The doctrine of any given philosopher is contradicted by some other philosopher; and that philosopher is in turn contradicted by yet another philosopher, and on and on. Plato says the pre-Socratics were wrong, Aristotle says Plato was wrong, Lucretius says that Aristotle was wrong, Descartes says that Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius were all wrong, Kant says that Descartes was wrong, and on and on. We can suppose that this process will continue indefinitely. At least we have no reason to think that it won’t. We can compare this history with that of the empirical sciences, which do issue in secure knowledge (at least compared with philosophy.) Even when science is contradicted (as Einstein contradicted Newton), the contradiction is only partial and by way of development. Einstein showed that Newton’s Laws are only approximately true, not that they are utterly false, which is the charge that philosophers regularly hurl at each other. Therefore we may conclude that philosophy consists of more or less idle speculation that can never result in secure knowledge. Or, when it does (as it has in the theorems of logic), its results have long since been absorbed by modern scientific thought. The philosophers of the past, then, are of merely historical interest. They have nothing of value to contribute to the ongoing understanding of ourselves and reality. Their history of ongoing disagreement proves that philosophy will never issue in secure knowledge.

The first thing to consider with respect to this “argument from disagreement” (for which I will use the shorthand AfD from here on) is that the data on which it is based is manifestly true. Historically, philosophers have directly and fundamentally contradicted each other. We should not make the mistake, however, of thinking that this is an observation peculiar to modernity. Philosophy was already old by the time of Socrates and the AfD was already a common indictment of philosophy. In fact, one of the charges against Socrates at his trial was that he engaged in clever verbal dialectics that never really established anything but just confused people, making the “weaker argument seem the stronger.” The AfD is a charge that accompanies philosophy like a shadow whenever it is practiced; it is co-existent with philosophy. This should lead us to suspect that the AfD may not be the unbiased conclusion from history that it supposes itself to be.

There is, in fact, something strange about the logic of the AfD. The significance of disagreement is itself something about which philosophers disagree; it follows from the AfD that we can therefore draw no secure conclusion from the fact of disagreement. The AfD undermines itself. The disagreement among philosophers means that we can’t draw conclusions from that disagreement anymore than we can draw any other philosophical conclusion.

Another curious feature of the AfD is its potentially self-fulfilling character. Suppose every philosopher in the world agreed with the doctrines of Aristotle. I could undermine the agreement by simply starting my own philosophical school for the express purpose of contradicting Aristotle. Even if my reasons for contradicting Aristotle were not good, I could point to the “fact of disagreement” as itself reason to doubt Aristotle.

This brings us to disagreement as an empirical fact. There is a distinction between simple disagreement and knowledgeable disagreement. Anyone can disagree with anyone simply by contradicting him. But such a “fact of disagreement” is meaningless unless there is a good reason that supports the disagreement. Disagreement with Aristotle is meaningful if the author of disagreement has mastered the philosophy of Aristotle such that his disagreement reflects a deep understanding of Aristotelian philosophy, and not merely his own degenerate understanding of Aristotle.

The thing about great philosophers like Aristotle and Kant is that they were great philosophers because of their unusual degree of intelligence, learning and insight. We should expect, then, that the mastery of a great philosopher is no easy task, one that might take a lifetime of study, if it is possible at all. Are Kant’s criticisms of classical philosophy knowledgeable criticisms? Did Kant understand Aristotle well-enough that he understood the meaning of Aristotelian philosophy better than did Aristotle? Or was Kant only refuting his limited understanding of Aristotle and not Aristotle in his full depth? The only way to decide this question is to understand both Kant and Aristotle sufficiently such that our conclusion is itself knowledgeable. In other words, the history of philosophical disagreement means nothing unless we have mastered the reasons for those disagreements, which means mastering the philosophers themselves.

Why is the AfD so attractive and why is it an eternal indictment of philosophy? The lure of the argument is that it offers the opportunity to dismiss philosophers without actually taking the trouble to understand them. Who wants to slog through Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Avicenna and Aquinas just to prove them wrong? What a relief to have an argument to hand that dismisses two thousand years of philosophy with a wave of the hand. The argument turns on the ancient sophistical trick of flattery. It offers up the history of philosophical disagreement to the judgment of the listener, with the implicit assumption that the listener is competent to judge the significance of that disagreement. It flatters the listener in his ignorance, rather than exposing that ignorance for what it is in the manner of the true philosopher, archetypically in Socrates (and we know what Socrates received for his trouble.) The irony (or maybe tragedy) of the AfD is that it works to cut off the listener from a genuine encounter with Socrates, the one philosopher who could reveal to the listener the sophistical fallacy behind the AfD.

More to come in Part II...


blog nerd said...

This was exactly why Heidegger said metaphysics should be abandoned in philosophy. Because metaphysical knowledge was the knowledge most prone to error and least likely to lend itself to empiric measurement.

Good post.

David T. said...

Well, I would disagree with Heidegger on that. Metaphysics may be frustrating, but it is inevitable.

What metaphysics can't produce is objective "results" that can be read-off like a scientific result. They can only be known by following the same path, putting in the same effort, as the metaphysicians.