Philosophy and the Man of Reason

This post ends with a real question.  Please do tell us about the view from your place. 

In my early days in feminist philosophy, a lot of women philosophers were talking about how Anglophone philosophy and philosophical writing was still dominated by theories and examples reflecting its monkish past.  That is, the conceptions of knowledge in general, knowledge of other minds, rationality and  decision-making all positioned their subjects as solitary, with little in the way of demands on their time, and with formal rules or formalizable procedures as the best guides to good outcomes.    

Philosopher’s fascination with the apriori encouraged some  to take such remarks as merely sociological objections to philosophical substance and, as such, close to irrelevant to their conclusions.  That view then provided them with a reason for not reading the actual arguments.  However, the feminist texts, once read, are much harder to dismiss.  Here one might cite  Jenny Lloyd’s The Man of Reason, Lorraine Code’s objection that Gettier was concerned with what is in fact a very restricted kind of knowledge, Helen Longino’s conception of science as social knowledge, and Annette Baier’s description of men’s moral philosophy as largely treating morality as like a system of traffic laws for self-assertors.  And many, many others.

Over thirty years later, the traditional conception is still robust in some quarters, but feminist thought has an unexpected ally in much in cognitive neuroscience and naturalized and  empirically informed philosophy.  While some cognitive psychologists, such as Marc Hauser, are still looking for inborn moral rules, the more dominant idea is that little in living a rational human life is accomplished by reason or rules alone.  John Doris, for example, has strong arguments against the idea that rational reflection could underlie human morality.**  And as for the demands on one’s time, real human beings evolved to make fast and accurate judgments; epistemically or methodologically downgrading or ignoring all the information carried by the reactions of instinct and the emotions, as  has been done for centuries in philosophy,  can be vastly impoverishing.  Thus Hume, who consigned the most important human mental operations to emotion and instinct, was long regarded as the arch-sceptic, until a losening of the grip of monkish intellectual virtues enabled us to see his genuinely constructive project.

Of course, one might want to, e.g., side with Kant over Hume, or Hauser over Doris and others; the point here is that the dialectic is much more open and congenial to strands in feminist thought that were once widely dismissed.

I and many other feminists can remember floating such ideas in earlier decades.  The  results were too often not pretty, though positioning the claims as naturalized philosophy could provide some protection.  However, as a close friend at a conference pointed out to me, now there are experiments and clinical findings, which  have  made a lot of difference.

Is the man of reason now just one among many on a the philosophical stage?  How does it look to you?

**As far as I know, this work is  not yet  in print.

Note:  Earlier entries on this blog have discussed aspects of the feminist challenges; see, for  example, here and here.

14 thoughts on “Philosophy and the Man of Reason

  1. One further coincidence between some feminist thought and more recent experimental work concerns the importance of society to the content and discovery of well grounded
    moral action.

  2. I work primarily in philosophy of math and science. Philosophy of science has generated some very profound alternatives to the approach of mainstream analytic epistemology — from both feminist (Longino) and non-feminist (Quine, Kuhn, Michael Friedman) quarters.

    No-one has a good epistemology for mathematics, and philosophers of math generally just vaguely gesture in the direction of mathematical logic whenever we’re asked just what, exactly, a proof is. Phil math is generally so far behind the times that, when I suggested in a graduate seminar two years ago that a social account of the production of mathematical knowledge could solve some important and long-standing problems, the professor just looked at me like I was insane.

  3. Noumena,

    I followed the link on your name and see you are a grad student. I think the social dimension of mathematcal research might be a great research topic, later if not now. You’ve got various starts of approaches in the people you’ve mentioned, and there are others.

  4. Thanks for the words of support. That’s actually the direction I’d like to take when I start working on my proposal next year. I know the local philosophers of science will like it; it’s the local philosophers of math that will probably give me some resistance.

  5. Off the top of my head: I wonder if starting with Wittgenstein’s arguments for the social realm needed by normativity and rule following (at least as some of us read him)would mollify them. going on to free associate: maybe you could get a mini-grant to go to NYC and talk to Kripke about it.


  6. Interesting. Though, I try to think for myself that you can go a thought too far when for example the cat doesn’t stop at the point it catches its tail.

    What I mean is, that questioning itself and philosophy are good things, but there is a point where everything leads necessarily to only one valid answer “I don’t know”.
    Everything else would just be a delusion of your own mind.

  7. Interesting, Ray. I tend to think that as a group philosophy professors are much more interested in questions than answers, but many factors push one to answers that are not really delusional.

  8. Personally, I don’t think people should stop questioning. But without answers life would be really unsatisfactory. Answers are like planks for a bridge, whereas questions are like the water floating through. Without water you don’t need bridges. If you’re not interested in answers you have no interest in deeper waters.

    Anyway, I think I drifted away from the subject.
    Man is what he learns to be.

  9. Thanks, Ray, for the comments. Maybe in the end the dichotomary “question vs. answer” isn’t going to capture what growing in wisdom amounts to. And getting wiser is certainly a worthy human goal.

  10. JJ: your name and avatar don´t work as links. Can’t you find out why that is? Mine works sometimes.

  11. Cantuesco, they don’t work because I haven’t linked them to anything.

    I did delete your experiements, as you suggested.

  12. I think philosophy would be less dualistic in the deepest sense of the word. Experience would have a more central and trusted position and there would be moderation in the amount of abstracted abstract abstraction. I think “rational” would have less of a central seat as a set of rules for thinking and philosophy would be far more insightful. I think as an example, we can use the writings of second wave feminists as an example. Their insights in a brief amount of time was at least partially revolutioning in the face of unbelievable social resitance.

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