Antics and Ontics

Colin McGinn appears to argue in today’s NY Times that the academic discipline of philosophy should change its name.  The name he prefers is  “ontics.”  Such a name would help us distinguish ourselves from the humanities and claim our rightful place as a science.  The main advantage seems to be two-fold:  All sort of useful people would take us more seriously, and It would be clear that unlike the humanities, philosophy is largely not concerned with human cculture.  No, seriously.  That’s what he says.  Of course, it could be antics, not ontics, that we’re seeing here.  I mean, does anyone really think the idea of a knowable perfectly objective reality utterly independent of human thought is a good starting point? 

Opppss!  Yes, of course they do.  See the last three of these five posts..  In fact, McGinn thinks that with the exception of aesthetics and ethics, no philosophy is concerned with human culture.  Presumably we can infer what he thinks feminist philosophy and critical race theory are not.  Ditto philosophy of science.  And so on.  But see for your self:

…  Someone might protest that we belong to the arts and humanities, not the sciences, and certainly we are currently so classified. But this is an error, semantically and substantively. The dictionary defines both “arts” and “humanities” as studies of “human culture”—hence like English literature or art history. But it is quite false that philosophy studies human culture, as opposed to nature (studied by the sciences); only aesthetics and maybe ethics fall under that heading. Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and so on deal not with human culture but with the natural world. We deal with the same things the sciences deal with — the world beyond human culture. To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities” is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human.

.. .The dictionary defines “philosophy” as “the study of the fundamental nature of reality, knowledge and existence.” We can simplify this definition by observing that all three cited areas are types of being: objective reality obviously is, but so is knowledge, and so also are meaning, consciousness, value and proof, for example. These are simply things that are.

So we study the fundamental nature of what is — being.

“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?

Searle on Lennon on Searle on Lennon

Some time back we puzzled about John Searle’s review of a recent book by Boghossian which contained an attack on a paper by Kathleen Lennon.  Though Searle had not, as it turns out, actually read the Lennon piece, it was a target and springboard for his attack  on everything other than a firm belief that one can have completely objective knowledge of a fully independent world.  You are a hard core metaphysical realist or (gasp!) a relativist!

Lennon kindly came to our discussion and we suggested she reply to Searle.  Her reply and Searle’s rejoiner are in the  latest NY Review of Books. 

Here are two telling passages from the exchange:


… my paper was instead addressing how rational assessment of knowledge claims is possible, if we accept the situatedness of knowledge seekers. It points out that feminists cannot be relativists for “feminist criticisms aimed to challenge and discredit the masculine accounts they critiqued, not simply to add a further perspective. This requires the possibility of rational encounters between the positions.”

One of the problems with Searle’s characterization of his supposed opponents is a running together of different positions. Those who argue that historical, social, and material locatedness constrain what we can discover and make sense of are accused of relativism … Yet those who argue that we are the source of the frameworks in terms of which we understand the world do not have to claim that we do this in a way unconstrained by an independent reality, even while accepting that such reality does not dictate to us the single best way of making sense of it.


She says, correctly, that I had not read her article. I was reviewing Boghossian’s book, not her article. I have now read the article with some care, and I believe it contains a deep inconsistency. In her letter to me she denies that she is a relativist, and insists that the passages she quotes from her original article support her denial of relativism. But the key sentence in her original article is this: Theories cannot be assessed by reference to universal norms. This is an astounding claim, because it denies that there are universal norms such as truth, evidence, consistency, rationality, and coherence, by which we can assess theories.

In her original Aristotelian Society article (Suppl vol 71) Lennon looks at how the conditions creating one’s perspective may be invisible to one.  Relatedly, it takes a particular cultural location to think that gender doesn’t matter, for example.  It is interesting in this regard to see Searle as believing something quite similar; namely, that perspective does not matter, since we can hold  the view from nowhere.

New York Review of Books: A shocking shame?

So the New York Review of Books sent its e-subscribers a cheery note:

Below you will find links to the first forty-nine posts published on the NYRblog since its inception last month. If you haven’t been following the blog, we invite you to visit, participate in the comments, and send us your thoughts. You can also follow the Review online via Facebook and Twitter , or through our RSS feed.

Sounds jolly, until you scroll down and notice that among those 49 bloggers are two, and only two, women writers.  The percentage isn’t immediately obvious because two articles are co-authored, but I make the percentage of women authors 4%.

That is remarkable.  That’s what the percentage of full professors in physics used to look like before NSF and others got going on correcting the situation.  Now women show up in all sorts of fields.  For goodness sakes, what is going on with the NYRB? 

Is there a kind of male intellectual approach that shows up across many disciplines and that the NYR particularly values?  It would be interesting to figure out if that is so and why.  For example, why would they ask John Searle to write on Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge, rather than some feminist philosopher who might have been more balanced?  Did they think of the topic as sort of a guys’  thing?  Or perhaps they don’t know any women working in the field, much like our colleagues?

There’s a lot of regret that there aren’t more public intellectuals that gets expressed when we profess woe at the state of public discourse.  Perhaps if women have more venues, the dearth would seem less.

In all fairness:  I haven’t counted up the occurrences of women authors in the published journal.  In addition, the NYRB responded to an earlier complaint of ours, so I assume such issues matter to them at least a bit.

Feminist Philosophy and Some Sort of Realism

I’ve  always thought of myself as a closet realist, maybe of a hard core metaphysical kind.  But after reading Searle on Boghossian in the latest New York Review of Books, I’m not so sure.  (I don’t know if the link will work without a subscription to the electronic edition.)

Just to clarify:  Many of us are social constructivists about gender; we think it is put in place by society, with its conventions, beliefs and systems of approval and disapproval, to put it roughly.  We might want to contrast gender with sex, and say that sex is more independent of social attitudes.  That’s a bit tricky, since there are supposed to be two sexes, while in fact there is much more continuity between the XY male and the YY female.  Still, we might well want to say that at least genes are really existing in the world.  If so, then we end up realists about genes.  We’ll count as social constructivists about some concepts, but we’re still believers in some objective reality.

John Searle reviews Paul Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge, and  it looks as though both are so convinced of the insanity of the thorough-going social constructivist views that they don’t think they have to explain what the other view says. has a ‘search inside’ function for the book; there seem to be no entries for ‘metaphysical realism’ and very few for ‘realism’.  It appears the book is contrasting social  constructivism with what is called “naive realism,” which doesn’t seem to be in need of explanation or defense.

This sort of attitude makes it all the more surprising that the spread of constructivism puzzles Searle and Boghossian.

So where does feminist philosophy come in?  They seem to think we’re social constructivists all the way down; we’d be inclined to say things  like, “Genes didn’t exist before  Watson and Crick.”  And that is because of remarks by feminists like this, a passage from Kathleen Lennon’s PAS, sv, 1997, p. 37:

Feminist epistemologists, in common with many other strands of contemporary epistemology, no longer regard knowledge as a neutral transparent reflection of an independently existing reality, with truth and falsity established by transcendent procedures of rational assessment. Rather, most accept that all knowledge is situated knowledge, reflecting the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context.

About this passage, Searle remarks:

But the point of the passage is to claim that most feminists reject the idea that knowledge reflects an independently existing reality; and the rhetorical flourishes in the passage, such as “transcendent procedures of rational assessment” and “neutral transparent reflection,” are designed to reinforce that point….It is a vision according to which all of our knowledge claims are radically contingent because of their historical and social circumstances. According to this vision, all of us think within particular sets of assumptions, and we always represent the world from a point of view, and this makes objective truth impossible. For someone who accepts this argument, the idea that there are scientific claims that are objective, universal, and established beyond a reasonable doubt seems not only inaccurate but positively oppressive. And for such people the very idea of an objectively existing, independent reality must be discredited.

It is, to say the least, interesting that Searle thinks certain phrases are used to discredit the realist, but at the same time we are given no account of what the realist is saying instead.  Well, except that there is a knowable objective reality, which actually looked pretty difficult to explain, last time I looked.**

In the meantime, anyone who knows what most feminist philosophers believe is VERY welcome to comments.  As are others, of course.


**This abstract from the Philosophers Index might give you an idea of the problems, if you haven’t looked at the literature:

The realism debate concerns the relationship of our beliefs, thoughts and language to the world or universe and, hence, involves a number of fundamental questions ranging from metaphysics through epistemology to semantics and philosophy of language. While a few philosophers take it as an inevitable feature of the debate and try to advance it by coping simultaneously with all those questions, a number of others insist that the approach of this kind leads merely to confusions and misunderstandings. They usually suggest that the metaphysical or ontological aspects of it should be kept separate from such epistemological and semantic issues as the possibility of absolute knowledge, the correspondence theory of truth, or the truth-conditional theory of meaning. In other words, there is such a thing as pure or simple metaphysical realism that may be endorsed and defended, or undermined and rejected. The aim of the paper is to raise some doubts about that metaphilosophical strategy, and to argue that the comprehensive approach to the realism debate, in which the metaphysical issues are combined with — at least — some epistemological matters, is not so much caused by confusions and misunderstandings, but forced, as it were, by its subject matter and the philosophical nature of the debate.

From: Szubka, Tadeusz,  in Malinowski, Jacek.(2006). Essays in Logic and Ontology (Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Volume 91). (pp. 301-316). New York: Rodopi NY.