There’s a way of thinking that I’ve encountered a number of times recently. One struck me quite dramatically at the Hume Society meeting; it was in an otherwise excellect paper. I’m inclined to think the way of thinking is fallacious, but I’m willing to believe I’m wrong.
The pattern of thought goes like this:
philosophical reflection reveals that a desireable trait has [or is constituted by the possession of] features X, Y and Z. So if we practice X, Y, Z we’ll become better people and have a better chance to succeed at goal G
[see comments one and two for the amendment.]I hope this can be discussed without discussing any particular instance. And anyone who feel indirectly targeting here, shouldn’t!
So let me try to give a silly example: We might say that Descartes shows us how to detach the mind from the senses and get clear and distinct ideas. This is a foundational move for those who want to be good mathematicians. So if we follow Descartes, we can become better mathematicians.
The problem that I want to focus on with this line of thought is the idea that philosophers are privy to the psychological conditions for the successful pursuit of human excellence. Maybe sometimes we get that right, but over the last 20-30 years the evidence has been mounting that uncovering the right psychological conditions that do lead to excellence is really not a matter simply of traditional philosophical expertise. We could use, for example, some studies of the effects of scepticism about the senses on budding mathematicians.
At the Hume conference, Sean Nichols gave a great paper about how Humean human moral reasoning is. I think it illustrates the role empirical work can have in some areas of enquiry, maybe particularly those attempting to understand how to achieve excellence.
But in any case, I’d love to know what others think.