Monday, September 12, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Philosophical Revolutions

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.


George writes,
Yeaux Breaux,I've been reading "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn recently (which I highly recommend by the way, he made up the word "paradigm" I mean how badass is that). Anyways, it got me thinking: have there been recent revolutions in philosophical thought recently? Do new ideas ever invalidate old ones, or do they just add to this huge ever-growing cluster of philosophical thought? Do philosophers' set of intellectual tools change over time, and what kind of things have metaphilosophers had to say about this kind of stuff? I don't feel like writing more questions to thoroughly cover the breadth of my mental void, but take this wherever you can.
Bro, I'm picking up what you're putting down. Kuhn is indeed a badass, and Structure is a great read. I'm on board here, and it's a fucking interesting question. So let's do this.

The short answers are "yes, yes, all the time". The middle of the 20th century was a huge period for revolutions in philosophy; bros were throwing conceptual haymakers left and right. Political philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, no subject was safe.

For much of the century in political philosophy, everyone was like, "Uh, democracy? Yeah, I guess... it maximizes utility somehow? Hmm." And then John Rawls rode through in '71 and was all, "NOPE. Democracy is fair! Fairness is justice! We all have equal rights to certain liberties! Inequality should benefit the least well off! Equality should be in opportunity, not possession! RAWLS, OUT!" and left everyone reeling. A Theory of Justice was like Christmas come early for embattled Kantians fighting off the utilitarian hordes, if for Christmas every year Santa punched J.S. Mill in the face. It was a revolutionary articulation of how a political system should be ordered, and it changed not only political philosophy but also moral philosophy for good. Even the second most revolutionary idea of that century in political philosophy, the anarcho-capitalism articulated in Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia, was just a long, drawn-out response to Rawls. Crazy.

Then back in '63, you had Edmund Gettier, who just completely blew up epistemology. You can read more about that revolution here, but a brief sketch: bro wrote a single three-page paper that overturned literally millennia of thinking. It's literally the only thing he's ever published. What an asshole. What a brilliant asshole.

And of course, there's the granddaddy of philosophical revolutions, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who caused not one but two furious uproars in philosophy. First, he wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was based on notes he took during WWI. He wasn't at a desk job, either. Bro was on the frontline with the Austrian military, fighting against the Russians for fuckssake, where he won a bunch of medals for bravery, and that whole time he was like, "Hmm... I wonder what the relationship between language and the world is. WAIT I'VE GOT IT." Cambridge gave him a Ph.D. for the Tractatus and he told G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell they didn't understand his work and that's okay. Maybe that doesn't mean anything to you, but Moore and Russell are huge fucking deals. You don't just tell them, don't worry about it guys, unless, apparently, you're Wittgenstein. Meanwhile, the logical positivist movement sprouted up around the Tractatus, taking seriously the idea that if you can't verify the truth of a proposition in the world, that proposition is meaningless. Wittgenstein was a force to be reckoned with, by all accounts, and it was going to take an incredible mind to overturn what he's come up with.

So then, along came Ludwig fucking Wittgenstein to tell that Wittgenstein asshole what's up. Wittgenstein wrote about three million words after the Tractatus, though he didn't publish any more books. After his death, his unpublished works were discovered, and set off an entirely different revolution in philosophy, the breadth of which I wish I had space to cover here. The flagship work of it all, Philosophical Investigations, devastated the idea that we could understand language through a simple logical framework, and hinted at just how many philosophical arguments arise out of simple linguistic disputes. (Spoiler alert: So many.) Some have found the Investigations convincing enough to leave philosophy; those of us still doing it post-Investigations have to take very seriously the idea that because people are messy things, philosophy is not as neat as we'd like it to be.

Nor do these examples exhaust all the revolutions that occurred in philosophy in the 20th century. Quine had a whole lot to say about how metaphysics can and should work, for example; Popper brought a whole new perspective to philosophy of science.  Sometimes, new ideas do indeed invalidate old ones; the starkest example is the aforementioned logical positivism, which relied on the verification criterion: if you can't verify it, it's meaningless. Which, of course, is problematic, because you can't verify that statement. Oh shit! But the intuitions behind it, to thoroughly reduce philosophy to the most meaningful elements of the world, is so appealing it had a lot of sway for a long time. Then you've got Gettier, who of course did away pretty much completely with the idea of the sufficiency of Justified True Belief. If you go further back, you've got Kant subjecting ontological arguments to the pretty devastating critique of 'being' as a property, and Hume put the hurt on any philosophy that relies on causal powers to work. However, because we don't have the sort of strong evidence we can rely on like the hard sciences that Kuhn discussed in his book, an idea that has been overturned isn't necessarily out forever, and often philosophers will attempt to partially recover useful ideas from the past - in fact, Rawls' Theory of Justice was a reworking of Kantian morality, and Alvin Plantinga, among others, has worked to find ways around Kant's critique of ontological arguments. We're constantly wrestling with what exactly we have in our toolkit, and this is just in the Western, analytic tradition. In the Continental tradition, Hegel's process of the dialectic has been incredibly influential as a way to understand shit. So yeah, our toolbox is always expanding, but never without a fight.

We're also constantly drawing new distinctions in order to clarify problems and to give new approaches to interesting questions. Kant's critique of ontological arguments consisted in, for the first time ever, drawing a distinction between properties of things and properties of properties; he said we had all missed that 'being' is the latter, and that was the mistake that led to the ontological argument.

So, there's a sketch, bro. Plenty of ideas - utilitarian justifications of democracy, logical positivism, Justified True Belief, and so on - gain the sort of entrenchment Kuhn warns the hard sciences of, and it takes revolutionary minds with fresh ideas to overturn them. Happens all the time in philosophy, maybe more often because of the whole thing about "no data needed".

Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did away with the idea that science proceeds in a neat, orderly fashion of advancement one experiment at a time.

A Theory of Justice is the book that changed the landscape of political philosophy forever. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement is Rawls' response to criticisms of his original theory.

You can read Gettier's original paper online: Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? Seriously, it's so short it hurts.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is also surprisingly short, but it is probably the densest philosophical text there is, and I don't recommend it for first-timers. Or, really, anyone who isn't seriously dedicated to logic or the history of philosophy. Philosophical Investigations is much more readable and, indeed, almost poetic. But don't be fooled; the ideas are as densely packed as ever. They're worth the effort to get to, but it's so much effort. So much effort, in fact, the text has so far rebuffed all of my attempts to summarize them. Let that sink in. So far, the text is too dense for me to summarize. I'm just saying. Tread lightly and respectfully.


  1. Why would someone leave philosophy just because one has got a coherent theory of the philosophy of language? It's not like figuring out the relationship between language and physical world is the key to everything.

  2. Great post, bro. This might be the best MM since the trolley problem

  3. Wow what a big asshole that Gettier, being all like "yeh im gonna write this absurdly short thingy that will just turn JTB upside down"
    (that was awesome)

  4. Minor point, bro: Nozick wasn't an anarcho-capitalist; he was a statist libertarian. Maybe my political philosophy bros can back me up on this, but I think he explicitly argues against anarchism.

    Otherwise, good shit.

  5. @3:05 - Nozick thought an ultra-minimal state would legitimately arise out of anarcho-capitalism, he didn't think we'd stay in the ancap state. So yes, he believes in a minimal state, but her relies on ancap to derive it.

  6. @Smirgel: Wittgenstein argued that philosophy is all about messing with words and trying to untangle those messes, so if you're convinced by that argument after you happened to be big into philosophy of mind, for example, then you may as well pack your bags and go the fuck home. Questions like "What is it like to be a bat?" turn out to be nonsensical and unanswerable when you consider the way in which the phrase "What is it like (for X) to be Y" is normally used.

  7. "...Then John Rawls rode through in '71 and was all, "NOPE. Democracy is fair! Fairness is justice! We all have equal rights to certain liberties! Inequality should benefit the least well off! Equality should be in opportunity, not possession! RAWLS, OUT!" and left everyone reeling. A Theory of Justice was like Christmas come early for embattled Kantians fighting off the utilitarian hordes, if for Christmas every year Santa punched J.S. Mill in the face..."

    I just spit out my coffee and I wasnt even drinking any. Possibly the best thing I've ever read.

  8. At the risk of speaking anachronistic, couldn't we consider the Classical, Medieval, and Modern periods in the History of Philosophy paradigms as well?

  9. The posing of questions to understand one's relationship with self, other, and the world relate abstractions to personal experience that when deeply internalized become a useful philosophy that evolves during one's life. Absent philosophy one is led by the external forces of cynicism and narcissism that are mitigated through the influence of the media.

    OK, jus’ kidin’

  10. Don't forget that paradigms in science are incommensurable. There's no way the great bros Aristotle and Newton (for example) could even make sense to each other, because they see different worlds. Paradigms change when one bro's theory gets more followers, and then that solidifies the fundamentals for the practice of normal science. Anyone not doing that isn't a scientist.

    So I don't think we could really say that philosophy moves through paradigms, in Kuhn's sense. You can still be a Platonist, and no one doubts that you're practicing "normal philosophy." But you can't be committed to Aristotelian dynamics of motion and also be practicing "normal science."

  11. What about the recent development in speculative realism that has started to change the face of realism and the way that we approach naturalism? if you are looking for something that will really blow your mind try picking up Meillassoux's 'After Finitude' or reading any of his papers recently published - also try reading Ian Hamilton Grants paper on slime mould! revolutionary stuff that has been written in the last few years changing how we look at correlations or contingency. Bro - these things are worth looking at.

  12. I didn't know Kuhn was Greek. Because, ya know, they were saying paradigm back then. παράδειγμα (paradeigma), as in patterns. μάθετε λίγα ελληνικά, ρε.

  13. Great stuff; I empathize with your feelings on Wittgenstein - worth it, but very hard.

    @Smirgel: It seems to me that boiling down what Wittgenstein was saying to just a relationship between the physical world and language is missing a lot. And, as phil bro said, there's a lot there, so I'll be brief.

    This is the reason I think someone would leave philosophy because of Wittgenstein:

    In the Tractatus and Investigations (really, in most of his work) a big part of what Wittgenstein was doing was trying to show the futility of the historical western pursuits of philosophy, that the most common and unresolved philosophical problems are all attempting the impossible - to find answers to nonsensical questions. In the Tractatus one of his key ideas is showing that one of the relations language has to the world is to draw limits to it by first showing the limits of knowledge. Just like for Kant, the world is conditioned by certain a priori elements (but Kant locates them in the mind while Wittgenstein shows them in language). For Wittgenstein, the logic of our language, the way we talk about things, is a priori and it reflects the way we know the world. Thoughts and propositions with sense (those that are logical) turn out to be empirical judgments that aren’t qualitatively valuable. The common problems of philosophy, those about morals, values, beauty, God, purpose, are all asking questions about things that are a priori outside our knowledge scope.

    Furthermore, in the Investigations, although people often try to highlight the differences between his earlier and later works, the reason behind the sweeping critique of philosophy is the same. This time he ditches the idea of a rigid logical formality that language is based on and shows that instead language is a social activity. We learn the meanings of words and phrases by learning the conventional ways to use them (the rules of our language games). Despite this difference in the way he conceives of language it is still an a priori condition of how we see the world.

    The importance of the fact that language is a priori is that philosophy and its problems are all attempts at getting outside the world and the way we think. Trying to define the ‘good life,’ to find life’s purpose, is what Wittgenstein calls bumping up against the limits of language. Our normal use of language tricks us into thinking that these are genuine questions with answers we could find. We can’t.

    The reason Wittgenstein advises us to steer clear of philosophy is because it makes us feel uncomfortable (what seems to me to be similar to existential angst) when we find these seemingly important questions but can’t find their answers. Wittgenstein describes his method as therapeutic because it attempts to get us to realize that what is causing us so much trouble is nothing at all; just ourselves getting tangled up in language. That is why I think someone would decide to leave philosophy on Wittgenstein’s persuasion.

    Again, there is a lot to Wittgenstein and I think what I’ve said may not be helpful if you’re not somewhat familiar with him. I at least found him very persuasive and even, as was his intention, therapeutic (when I wasn’t so stressed out trying to understand him). I highly recommend giving him some serious attention to anyone.

  14. Don't forget about Kripke's "naming and necessity," bros. Published in '80 (i think). That bro is the next Wittgenstein. He doesn't even have a Doctorate.

  15. What if we just redefine knowledge as "strong beliefs". When a belief becomes so strong, it ascends to the next level, knowledge.

    The main difference to the mind is that beliefs, are treated as probable, and fallible. But knowledge is treated as facts (until conflicts). Due to this treatment, the human mind can always fancy the idea that the belief is wrong. But if this piece of information has ascended to the knowledge level, the human mind would not (on its own accord, or spontaneously) entertain the idea of it being wrong. Subconsciously, it would simply be treated as a truism. (until conflicts). And when conflicts happen, the conflicting ideas are downgraded into beliefs until the matter is resolved.

    This is just how I look at this topic. But if knowledge are based on strong beliefs, that means no matter how strong a belief is, it is still not factual, and thus knowledge is fallible. I'm not sure what other people would think about the idea that knowledge is fallible. But personally I think that is fairly accurate, and representative of humankind's usage history with the term 'knowledge' and the "facts" (and mistakes) we have discovered so far.

  16. If we take the object of inquiry as human experience (what a fucking IF, of course), then we CAN verify the statement "if you can't verify it, it's meaningless" — we could go see if this statement itself or unverifiable statements are meaningful to humans! I think we'd see that unverifiable things can have meaning to people. The idea of objective meaning is the problem here. What the fuck is meaning if there isn't someone to subjectively experience it?

  17. philosophybro, you need to get some more respect for hume. that bro totally blew the shit out of the water. if you think he's just about causality, it's time to read again. for all of human history people thought they were some kind of magical ghosts with super powers that let them gain insight into 'the true nature of reality'. then hume comes along and he's just like 'LOLNOPE FUCKERS', you're all just animals who can do basic pattern recognition. you don't know shit. you seriously think you can talk about reality? reality is none of your fucking business, you can't even tell me why it fucking hurts when i punch you. all you know is that i keep punching you and it keeps fucking hurting.

    then kant came along with some super long book to confuse the fuck out of everybody in an attempt to get the slam down on hume and gain back his ghosty super powers of rationality, which was pretty lame considering hume was dead by then.

    but anyway, there's a happy ending, because from the mid 19th century we suddenly woke up to the fact that we are indeed just animals thanks to his high broness darwin. and then just a bit later einstein comes along and shows us that time and space aren't even anything like the fuck we were saying was 'a priori'. and THEN all of this quantum shit comes along and pretty much rapes the hell out of the idea that we can understand anything at all.

    so yes, get some more respect for the hume boom. it was the biggest ever.