“Does Philosophy Matter?”

Stanley Fish thinks not:

In short, the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical (as seminars, academic journals, and conferences are), and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them. The fact that you might give one set of answers rather than another to standard philosophical questions will say nothing about how you will behave when something other than a point of philosophy is in dispute.

He is specially addressing Paul Boghossian’s criticism of hin in an earlier NY Times article. His criticism seems to me to be sufficiently wrong to make one wonder if it was written in a fit of pique.

Why wrong? One way to show Fish is wrong is to provide counter-examples. So here are two:
1. If you accept much of virtue ethics and the accompanying that acting morally is not a matter of rule following, then how one educates children or students in right behavior changes.  It can’t be that teaching rules and punishing breaking the rules is the way to go.   Philippa Foot maintained at least at one stage we should teach moral behavior as a matter of what we do. We do not tell lies, we do give to the poor, and so on.

2. It is very difficult to see how one could accept Freudianism without some version of a theory of ideas. After all, Freud’s view is committed to a theory of causally active vehicles of contents knocking around in one’s unconscious. Hence, if one looks instead at those embodied cognition theories that avoid causally active inner contents, one’s view of how one explains others actions may well change. Since it is, it seems to me, a national pastime in the US to create accounts of others’ actions in terms of hidden desires, giving it up changes quite a bit.

What do you think?

12 thoughts on ““Does Philosophy Matter?”

  1. I completely agree. I suspect I’d find philosophy a lot less interesting and worth pursuing if I thought it was as insular a pursuit as Fish seems to think it is.

    Here’s another example in the spirit of the two you offer above. I suspect part of the reason the disagreement debate has been such a hot topic in recent epistemology is that it seems directly relevant to non-epistemological questions. If I come to accept an epistemological view according to which disagreement from epistemic peers (or superiors) ought to lead me to revise my views, I’m likely to end up changing not just my epistemological views, but my views on topics that are the subject of disagreement among experts in politics, economics, science, etc.

  2. Daniel, thanks! Nice example. I get the sense that as a group Philosophers are more than usually careful about which beliefs they officially take on.

    I wonder if there’s any data on the difference, if any, between philosophers, language scholars, engineers and historians on beliefs in conspiracy theories.

  3. I just wrote about an incident in which I had to make a difficult ethical decision – to take less money than I could have on a real estate deal. Everyone I talked to told me things like, “When it comes to that much money, you should throw ethics out the window.” The only person besides me who felt I had a moral obligation to take less money, was the other philosophy teacher at my school who said, “You know the right thing to do, the question is whether or not you’ll do it.” I think studying it and talking about it can’t help but affect behaviour.

  4. I’d like to believe in the utility of philosophy, as I was recently awarded a BA in philosophy, but I’m a bit conflicted. I do feel sympathetic to Fish’s conclusion in some ways. More importantly, the question needs to be clarified.

    It’s hard for me to sincerely believe that I can make lasting differences or subversive efforts within academia. In many cases, the academic system seems only to have effectual consequences when it is supporting the things I oppose. Of course, I became a feminist and a completely different person because of a good philosophy professor, so maybe I’m wrong.

    But does philosophy matter in other ways? I can say it does for me. Philosophy is how I orient myself toward the world. New ways of understanding philosophy to me means new ways of understanding myself and how to live. Can’t say what it’s role is for the majority of people, though.

  5. I’m going to have to go with the theory that Fish was in a fit of pique. To say this about thousands of philosophers is transparently foolish, a priori. (There is too great a burden of proof, on the author of a statement that our intellectual commitments don’t make their way into our daily lives, to be plausible. Also, he hasn’t phoned me and asked me.) Unlike Fish, I actually profess philosophy, in writing and in the classroom, and I have lost count of (1) the number of times I reflected on my own publicly presented commitments to make decisions in my life, (2) and the number of students who told me during and long after classes with me that something in a philosophy text changed their lives.

    I’m not saying all professors and students of philosophy experience this, for I’m not a fool like Fish. But he said no philosopher finds their conclusions “make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them.” So all I need is one counterexample, and in fact, I have met many counterexamples. Even the controversial folks like Peter Singer, about whom one can argue as to whether or not he lives ‘all the way up to’ his professed ideals, demonstrably lives in such a way that his conclusions have at least “made their way into” his non-philosophical life. And I’m not even counting the amazing philosophers I know who changed their diets, their wills, their relationships, their closeted (or not) status, and sundry other basic life choices on the basis of what they’d worked out in their “disquisitions.” Truly, there are those among us who walk the walk. See, for multiple examples, almost everyone mentioned under the “They Make It Easier” thread on this blog.

    I did not used to agree with those who suggest Stanley FIsh is overrated, but Fish is really persuading me to change my mind.

  6. I’m inclined to think Fish is right, contra some of the previous comments. And I think a generous reading would say that Fish is speaking in a sweeping way to get a point across (rhetorically), and is perfectly aware that some, perhaps even many, people affiliated with philosophy (as an academic discipline, an institution) translate their philosophical commitments to their wider engagement with the world. But his point (even if polemically offered) is that many people who produce academic philosophy take as self evident and thus never explain, or hand wave away with vague platitudes, the relationship between knowledge and, say, politics.

    Isn’t Fish right to point out that, in fact, much of our interaction with the world has nothing to do with reflecting on particular situations in light of first principles, or judging the cases at hand on the basis of something else? We (most people, I’m willing to believe) do not lead our lives (even professional philosophers) constantly obsessed with the problem of validity, or proper rule application, etc. I also don’t think Fish would deny that many of our philosophical insights, through academic training, will become reflexes that we deploy on a day to day basis, and will thus have purchase on the world in some way or another. But the point is that the way in which much of academic philosophy is conducted, and many of the habits which go into establishing a particular gesture or thought as “philosophical,” are simply not what we do when we do things.

    Particularly, I think he’s right to say that in the contexts of “ordinary, non-philosophical, deliberation” we don’t base our actions and gestures on a philosophical foundation. I don’t read him to mean that philosophy has no influence on our actions, but it’s not the *basis* of our actions, it is not the ground without which the action would be reduced to incomprehensibility, incoherence, arbitrariness. Philosophers might complain that we SHOULD base actions on some amount of philosophical reflection, but this (again) seems to assume (mistakenly, I take Fish to think) that our actions and gestures are somehow at base matters of epistemology, without which, again, they become meaningless. And I think Fish is right to point out that this is simply not true, and this doesn’t at all prevent us from making political commitments.

    So maybe what he means is not that Philosophy doesn’t matter… but that it doesn’t do the kind of heavy lifting that so much academic philosophy simply assumes it can when it is produced.

  7. Personally, I found the piece so bad, I could only read the first few paragraphs. (And I believe my reply to the person who sent me op-ed was, “Oh, bollocks!”) I think the thing that bothers me the most is that Fish appears to be the sort of person who’s seriously never considered the other side/s and the possibility that he may not be right. That kind of personality is dangerous in both theoretical and practical philosophy.

  8. I think Fish would have a VERY hard time working in and teaching literary theory/criticism if philosophy didn’t travel *somewhat* (how much and how well are separate questions).

    On the other hand, given how much [little] Nussbaum’s criticisms of his radical relativism seem to have affected him, perhaps we can see where the claim is coming from: philosophy travels, but is easy to ignore when you’re stubborn (and wrong).

  9. There are enough counterexamples to Fish to show that he is just wrong in his generalization. But there are many ways that philosophy could make a difference and there is opportunity for there to be a lot more of some of them.

    1) Having philosophical training can teach one to be a careful thinker, which can have good personal and civic outcomes. I think that much of this depends on whether or not one had one of those philosophy teachers who inspires. And kudos to people who do the hard work to be such teachers.
    2) Particular positions on central philosophical debates can support a consistent set everyday life choices. I don’t see very much of this, among professionals or students (I suspect that the folks here are not a representative sample).
    3) Philosophical work can have direct impact on policy, think about various kinds of applied ethics–philosophers on hospital ethics boards, or working with people who do the science or policy regarding environmental issues. I very much admire this work, but see it as being relatively marginalized in the profession.
    4) Philosophy that addresses more traditionally basic philosophical issues can create work that facilitates (3). But, much traditional philosophy doesn’t.
    5) …

    Finally, some philosophy doesn’t travel, so what? Some physics doesn’t travel, some historical work doesn’t travel, some literary work doesn’t travel, but surely there is intrinsic value in knowledge creation. I would be happy to see more socially relevant philosophy and more philosophy teachers who inspire, but I sure as heck don’t think that immediate social consequences are the only measure of the importance of the discipline.

  10. Such interesting comments. I know I won’t respond to all, and I hope the conversation stays open and develops.

    Kate, I agree that we do know from experience that many of us find our principles impact our practices. I’m not sure the numbers are so important. I was thinking of mathematicians, but as we’ve found out, work that seems completely without application can end up with important applications.

    Bets, I agree!

    Anonymous@4:56: I think we need to realize that he is contrasting philosophy to some other disciplines. I’m not sure what they are, but perhaps literary theory or history. Each of these may well fall under your version of Fish’s criticism, and that strongly suggests that you have not got what he is saying. He is talking about a contrast between philosophy and other some academic disciplines, and there’s some way he thinks philosophy is much worse off than the (too-often regarded as) useless humanities in general.

    Alpha, I’m glad you distinguished between (1) and (2), which is very important in this context. He is really focused on (2), and I’m surprised by your comment. It would be interesting to test empirically, and maybe even more to think how one might do that.

    I think feminist philosophy has made a major impact on my life, and I’ve been trying to think of ways in which it has that is relevant. Some concerns (1), because it encourages different expectations and habits of listening. I think a lot more of feminist philosophy’s effects show a problem with Fish’s approach. Philosophy does not have tight borderlines; I think a lot of what is important about feminist philosophy for me has an empirical twinge, but so does a lot of philosophy. Coming to understand that having good arguments from the start supposes a very problematic picture of how one gets insights impacts a lot of things, pedagogy among them; this is a thought coming both from Feminist Philosophy and psychology.

  11. I think Fish’s general claim appears obviously wrong even when restricted to the particular case of moral relativism. Surely, I would have thought, whether someone is a moral relativist can be expected to have an impact on the excuses they are willing to give and the excuses they are willing to accept. And this in turn on the practical attitudes and courses of action that make up their lives. And what goes for individuals also goes for large communities.

    Perhaps if relativism were a mere metaethical thesis with no first-order moral implications, it would have no practical impact. But I have my doubts that it is even possible to develop such a form of ‘purely academic’ moral relativism, much less that this is the only form relativism can take.

    Am I missing something?

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