Monday, October 26, 2015

What makes people good at philosophy?

This week we asked faculty of the Sacramento State Philosophy Department the following question:

Is there such a thing as philosophical aptitude, intelligence or ability? If so, what is it? If not, what accounts for one person being a better philosopher than another?

Here's what they said.

Thomas Pyne

I’m not sure whether the ‘aptitude, intelligence, or ability’ that characterize many of the philosophers I most admire is not in fact a disability – at least in other social situations.

The philosophers I most admire seem immune to intellectual fashion and common sense.

Common sense serves no purpose in philosophy, at least in metaphysics. After all, common sense is a metaphysics – and a dubious one, given its origins in meeting our survival needs rather than truth-tracking. Or it is the superseded metaphysics of 500 years ago.

It is very difficult to swim against the tide of intellectual fashion: What All the Top Men (Top Men!) Think. But if you’re going to be a philosopher, and not just a philosophicalizing careerist, you must. (While many philosophers think that they’re Bucking Received Wisdom, they’re often just aligning with a more ‘inner circle’ thread of it.)

What I find difficult to fathom is how it is that those philosophers who, while they understand the intellectual fashions of their time (all too well!), just don’t seem to feel the pressure at all: the Leibnizes, Wittgensteins, Roderick Chisolms, David Lewises, and Elizabeth Anscombes.

This inability to ‘get’ what other people intuitively get is why philosophers are so frequently torn apart by mobs or executed by the authorities.

It’s why no one will have sex with us.

Kevin Vandergriff

At a minimum, the goals of philosophy are conceptual clarification, the disentangling of complex questions, and the careful examination of alternative approaches. Rational argumentation is the major tool used to accomplish these goals. So, the better someone is at rational argumentation, the better a philosopher they will be.

 Now, if we wanted to measure whether someone is ‘better’ than someone else at rational argumentation, then I suppose we would have to try to identify what it is about our brains; our primary tool for rational argumentation; that best explains why someone is as skilled at rational argumentation as they are. No doubt intelligence, or aptitude is in the explanatory pool of competing explanations.

 Assuming intelligence is the best explanation for what makes someone as skilled at rational argumentation as they are, we still need a measuring apparatus for determining intelligence in the domain of rational argumentation. Here we can look to IQ tests, but it is controversial whether intelligence is one thing or many things. I tend to favor the view that intelligence is many things and I favor the following list of different intelligences:
Linguistic Intelligence
Logical and Mathematical Ability
Spatial Intelligence
Musical Intelligence
Bodily Kinesthetic Intelligence
Interpersonal Intelligence
Intrapersonal Intelligence
Naturalist Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence
I neither know how exactly philosophical intelligence as filtered through ones talent for rational argumentation fits into these categories, nor what different scores in each of these areas indicates about one’s own philosophical intelligence.

Daniel Gluch

I don’t believe in philosophical intelligence. However, I also don’t believe that intelligence and ability are the same thing. Often times what we consider intelligence is a mix of confidence and talkativeness, but that has little to do with one's ability to seek after truth.

There are a number of traits that make people able to do philosophy well. Everyone holds these traits in varying degrees and can get better or worse at them over time, which explains varying ability to do philosophy, both between different people and different time-slices of ourselves at one time or another.
  • Representing the argument/perspective of another in its best light, and that the truth may be found there. 
  • Acknowledging that your perspective may not be where the truth is.
  • Clearly presenting your argument in a manner that promotes its understanding, 
  • Looking at problems from new perspectives or paradigms.
While this is far from an exhaustive list, doing these well will undeniably make someone a good philosopher whether they practice analytic, continental, or unorthodox philosophy.

Vadim Keyser

Philosophers tussle with information. I don’t think this “intelligence” or “ability” is unique to philosophy. In fact, I’d argue that any discipline is about organizing and reorganizing information.

Philosophy places strong emphasis on the methods behind this “information process”. In fact, when you put away all of the philosophical perspectives, you still have the philosophical methodology, which is applicable to any discipline. When we do philosophy we re-create, re-structure, criticize, and generate information. These are all analytical skills. The methodological processes can go deeper (e.g., deductive and inductive systems). But these general skills make philosophy a careful, methodological discipline. I think that evaluating the quality of philosophical intelligence reduces to evaluating the level of analytical care taken in the methodological process.

A relevant question: When you have two philosophers side by side, how can you tell which one is a better philosopher? Simple: Have them argue and then ask a third philosopher; and then argue with that third philosopher. Continue ad infinitum.

Scott Merlino

Philosophically intelligent (PI) persons seek knowledge and are above average at acquiring it. Such people do this well by analyzing concepts and reasoning about specific issues in light of evidence and logical argument. PI is measurable, we could assess a person’s ability to frame and test arguments about specific issues by their correct use of inductive and deductive logic. The ability to make good judgments using logic, in my opinion, would be diagnostic of PI. By ‘diagnostic’ I mean whatever distinguishes PI from other forms of intelligence. PI is the above average ability and willingness in people who have it to apply deductive and inductive logic to problem-solving.

PI, like wisdom, is an effect not a cause. Factors contributing to PI are having an inquisitive personality, a disposition to seek truth, question authority and the status quo. Such people seek clarity in language and use evidence and argument rather than insight or revelation to resolve conceptual and practical issues. Is one born with PI or is it learned? Yes.

This account fails to include all and only philosophers. We should not seek to exclude the non-philosophically inclined among us who nevertheless have high PI. My description is biased towards analytical philosophy, one weakness is that some beloved philosophers won’t score well on the PI scale whom many of us would nevertheless want to call high PI individuals. Nietzsche and Sartre might come out much less philosophically intelligent than would Hume or Quine. The quality of their logical arguments distinguishes them.

Christina Bellon

Ability – that one is able to do x, entails one has the capacity or power to do x.

Aptitude – when doing x, one does x more or less proficiently, competently, effectively.

Inclination – willingness or disposition to do x.

I think there is something we might call philosophical ability for which humans demonstrate a range of aptitudes. I think this philosophical ability is the ability to think about thinking. More specifically, to think about others’ and one’s own thinking – to ask oneself, consider possible answers for, and evaluate these answers against the evidence in the world (inner and outer), “What do I believe and why do I believe it?” In other words, philosophical ability is a meta-ability. As cognition, it’s meta-cognitive. In this sense, logic is a system for thinking about thinking.

As with other capacities, the degree to which one is inclined to think philosophically, the comfort one has doing so, and the skill level one displays, are the result of several factors, not least of which include opportunity, encouragement, and practice. As with other capacities (perceptive, experiential, imaginative, linguistic, rhythmic, etc.), individuals display a range of inclination to cultivate it. Those who succeed in philosophy, just as those who succeed in dance or design, are likely those who have the right combination of aptitude and inclination to cultivate their respective ability.

Not everyone will match Kant or De Beauvoir, but everyone would benefit from a little more opportunity, encouragement, and practice doing philosophy… beginning in kindergarten.

Matthew Howery

Philosophy is the practice of humility in the face of our very existence and experiences. To the extent that we are willing to be wrong, willing to look at and carefully judge opposing viewpoints, and willing to follow where reason leads us, we are acting and living philosophically.

This love of wisdom is an active love. It is the active pursuit of wisdom and truth, often in direct opposition to some of our most strongly held beliefs. The humility of the philosopher allows us to never be too certain that we are correct in our assessment and understanding of the world. This same humility is that which allows us to approach others not like ourselves and listen to their stories, their values, and their experiences of the world.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, philosophy is the sharing of knowledge. The love of wisdom solely for oneself is indistinguishable from greed. The better philosopher is the individual who is willing to pass on what he or she has learned, to give the gift of Eudaimonia as well as the passion to pursue it to others. The extent to which we accomplish this humility and sharing is our philosophical ability.

Jonathan Chen

I have to disagree with Matthew that philosophy is a humbling experience.

First, I should say that philosophy is not for everyone (pity), and should be reserved for a superior class of individuals. It is quite obvious to me that the elite philosophers, including myself, are those holding esteemed positions at prestigious universities and who have published countless papers that only our fandom follows. As a half-human half-bologna race, we are enhanced only by our ability to forget the origin of philosophical inquiry (I can’t quite remember what this is because I have transcended such nonsense, but a layman once told me that philosophy begins with awe. She believed that philosophical ability should be a faculty of the heart, and that an eagerness to learn about the nature of our world was sufficient to becoming a philosopher. Ha! What a fool!).

We philosophers extend our research into fields so disconnected from humanity and its needs that our knowledge is no longer accessible to anyone besides other half-human half-bologna elitists. My sole purpose as a philosopher is to perpetuate this trend, and my contribution to humanity is no different. For my efforts, some of the laymen refer to me as the “armchair philosopher.” I’m not quite sure why they decided on this name for me, but given my superiority over them, I can only imagine it means, “Sovereign, beautiful sovereign!!”

Randy Mayes

Philosophers are people who are made uncomfortable by comfortableness. Their value to society is their ability to notice when we have become too satisfied with our beliefs and practices, and to provide us with a perspective from which they may be reasonably called into question. This is why Socrates remains- even for those who have little use for his views- the beau ideal of philosophical ability and intelligence.

What sort of person is this?

First, a good philosopher is more self-aware than the average human. This is what is required to be able to notice when his belief is comforting, when it feels familiar, when it satisfies his biases, when it makes it easier to get along with people he loves.

Second, a result of the first, a good philosopher is habitually skeptical of her own reasoning. She is constantly haunted by the sense that "this is too easy." Skill in reasoning is important in philosophy, but no moreso than in any other intellectual endeavor. Rationality is something else. It's the tendency to scrutinize the outputs of easy and comfortable modes of thinking. It's what Frederick Shane's Cognitive Reflection Test was designed to measure.

Third, as Tom Pyne observes, there is a kind of social and emotional retardation typical of philosophical intelligence: we are unembarrassed by the stupidity of our questions and the apparent impracticality of our concerns. In general, to be a good philosopher you can't care very much what people think about you at all, good or ill.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Meaning, happiness and the good life

Let's say you are a successful novelist. In fact, Wikipedia describes you as the author of an entire genre: the Philosopical Bodice Ripper, steamy romances that explore philosophical ideas with surprising depth and subtlety. It is a form you have entirely mastered, and it is earning you a tidy living. You have a devoted readership and you take real satisfaction in exposing the fans of romantic fiction to philosophy. Still, there is a part of you that wants more.

>>>Fast forward >>>

For the last five grueling years you have been working on the great American philosophical novel: The Rigid Designation. You care more intensely about this project than all of your previous work combined. But it is undeniably a source of enormous frustration and anxiety. You are working at the absolute limit of your creative potential and experiencing disappointment far more often and more intensely than success. You do not know if you can finish; and even if you do, you have no idea how it will be received.

One night, over a bottle of Glenlivet, you are waxing nostalgic about your previous life to your good friend Piotr, who has heard it all one too many times: Just toss that damned manuscript into the fire, delete the file, and go back to doing what what you do best!

And, perhaps surprisingly, you agree. You really would be a happier person if you were to do exactly as Piotr advised. Perhaps not immediately afterwards, but soon. You still feel that way the next morning as you log into your computer.

What do you do?


What do we want from life?

Well, lots of stuff, of course. But at a basic level, I say there are only two things: happiness and meaning.

What is happiness? Easy. Your life is happy to the extent that you are feeling good, both in it and about it. There are lots of different ways of feeling good: joy, hope, gratitude, contentment, elation, inspiration, affection, a panoply of sensual pleasures. They all count. Somehow.

What is meaning? Easy again. Your life has meaning to the extent that you are doing things you care about. Generally speaking, you care when you have a sense of purpose, commitment to personal goals, the wellbeing of family and friends, to discovery, to creation, to work, to serving a higher cause, like God or country.

Ok, clear enough so far, but not too interesting. Nobody denies that meaning and happiness are fine things, and we all agree that anyone with plenty of both is very lucky indeed.

But I said that meaning and happiness are basic. By this I mean that they are distinct ends. We desire them both, but we do not seek one simply as a means to achieving the other.

This is more interesting because it contradicts conventional wisdom, which is based on a strong and widely felt intuition that happiness is, almost by definition, the summum bonum of every self-interested person. According to this view, whatever we want in life (power, freedom, safety, love, respect, and meaning) we want because we believe it will contribute to our happiness.

Put differently, it is to deny the quite plausible view that the only reason we would ever want a more meaningful life is that we think we will be happier as a result. It is to assert that someone may rationally opt for a more meaningful life knowing full well that it will come at the expense of her personal happiness.

Now, in fact, many others disagree with the conventional view, but they typically need to play a wild card to say why. For example, one common way of arguing against it is to point to altruism: people willingly sacrifice their own happiness for the benefit of others. The problem with that gambit is that many of those we are trying to convince think of altruistic behavior either as an illusion, or as fundamentally irrational. I don’t, but I also don't want to get mired in the debate. So what I say here I mean to be understood strictly within the framework of rational self-interest.

Consider a related but slightly different implication of the conventional view:

No rational person would refuse to do something that would reduce the meaning in her life if she were convinced that doing so would result in greater personal happiness.

This is not really a strict implication of the view, as you might always have other options. But you get the gist; I won't complicate the thought with a bunch of qualifications.

This, I think, is more easily shown to be false. To see why, let's return to you.


Did you delete the file?

I don't know, but that is enough to make my point.

You might have. In this case, you would indeed be exchanging a more meaningful life for a happier one. That does not seem irrational and it is obviously consistent with the conventional view.

But, then again, you might not. You might have decided to keep toiling away in all your unhappiness and frustration, not in hope of some greater happiness to be achieved later, but simply because it is a more meaningful activity to you now. In this case you have expressed, contrary to the conventional view, a reflective preference for a less happy, but more meaningful life.

The Happiness Fundamentalist rejoins:

1. But if you decide to stay at it, it can only be because the thought of quitting makes you unhappy.

No. The thought of quitting does make you unhappy, but it is not an adequate explanation of your decision either way. For you sincerely believe this unhappiness would dissipate were you to return to your old life.

2. Well, then deciding to keep at it may be understandable, but it is surely irrational.

Maybe. But we'll need an argument. And we won't be listening if yours just stipulates that happiness is the only thing that truly matters. Because we think we just proved that it ain't.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, October 4, 2015

She ain’t no Rosa Parks

Conservative Christians would have us believe that Rowan County, KY, Clerk Kim Davis is the new Rosa Parks – the Rosa Parks for this century’s fight against the oppression of the faithful. Not only is she no Rosa Parks, she’s got much more in common with those Rosa Parks resisted. In both word and deed, but for the beard, Davis is more ayatollah than freedom rider.

Rosa Parks, for those who forgot, was an African American woman arrested for failing to give up her seat on a public transit bus to a white person. Second class citizen, pays her fare, must sit at the back, and sometimes give up her seat, standing with groceries, on tired feet, in case a white person wanted to sit. Not optional. Not “please give these seats to the disabled and elderly,” where any able young person who doesn’t is rightly judged a jerk. Rosa Parks – as a matter of law –suffered nowhere near ‘separate but equal’ service in the presence of whites. She defied the law which commanded her thus. She resisted the power of state officials to deny her equality. She rejected their abuse of authority to deny her a right equal to the whites to whom she had to yield. 

Kim Davis is no Rosa Parks. Davis is a public official, vested with the power of government to carry out vital functions for the people of Rowan County. Not for some of the people – ALL of the people. She is vested with authority to uphold county, state, and federal laws. Not some laws, at her discretion, which correspond with her personal convictions – ALL those laws. She is free to believe what she likes about gays and lesbians and homosexual marriage. The First Amendment enshrines this freedom for her as for every private citizen, as a matter of personal conscience. The First Amendment burdens government to ensure individuals are protected in the enjoyment of their civil liberties regardless of their faith or lack of it. It protects her and the people of Rowan County in the enjoyment of that same freedom. Among those civil liberties is the liberty to marry. Heterosexual residents of Rowan County have enjoyed that right for a while now. Homosexual residents of Rowan County are now able to enjoy that same civil liberty. Except for Kim Davis.

By denying same sex couples the issuance of marriage licenses, she uses the power of her office to deny them that liberty. The power to issue marriage licenses is a governmental power, not a personal power. It is an authority vested in the office, not in her person. It is a power subject to the county, state, and federal law. It is not her personal power to decide the nature of the law or the constitution. Her personal convictions are not the measure of the law. Her conduct as an official, vested with the authority of the government, is to ensure that the residents of Rowan County enjoy their civil liberties free from religious burden. Her use of this authority to enforce her personal convictions – religious or otherwise – should be rejected as resoundingly as was that of those who denied Rosa Parks.

Enter the new ayatollahs. America deeply identifies as a Christian country. Most of the citizenry identify as Christian. This leads some people – many in positions of governmental power – to believe that their faith should guide their actions, should be a basis for law and policy, and should be the basis for their discretionary use of their authority. Their faith. Creating and applying law accordingly. We must live according to their faith. Our enjoyment of our liberties, according to their faith. These are the new ayatollahs, American-style. They come professing individual rights, citing the constitution, claiming liberty for all, according to their faith. Their Jesus tells them that homosexuality is an abomination. But there’s another Jesus, who eats with the lepers and washes their dead, unafraid that his faith will be tainted by those whom he aids. That Jesus does not deny fish and bread to the hungry even as they are sinners. That Jesus bakes a wedding cake for a gay couple, unafraid that their choices define his own.

The founding constitutionalists were deeply religious. But they were near enough to the corrosive conjoining of religion with political power to recognize individual personal liberty required a strict separation of religious conviction from government authority. They crafted a nation in which it mattered not whether one had faith. Theirs was a vision wherein individuals enjoy equally the freedom to determine their own lives according to their private convictions. If it’s a Christian country, it’s also among the remarkably few to demand that religious conviction remain a matter of private conscience, not a directive of public policy. It matters not whether the entire citizenry enjoys the same faith. It matters only that county clerks, as with all public officials enacting governmental authority, not demand the rest of the citizenry conform to their conscience.

Some say Davis has a right not to be made to violate her faith. True. But she does not have a right to do it in her official capacity as county clerk. No one has a right to be a county clerk. She can adhere to and worship as she believes. In her official capacity as county clerk, it is her responsibility – yes, I said her RESPONSIBILITY – to ensure that the residents of Rowan County are not denied their civil liberties because of someone else’s – including her own – personal convictions to the contrary.

Issue the marriage licenses. That is her responsibility. And, if she cannot reconcile her conscience with her official duty, perhaps she should follow the example of Apostle Matthew who could no longer render unto Caesar, could no longer reconcile his duty as tax collector with his faith. The burden of his faith was his to bear, not his co-workers, not his fellow citizens, not the government to accommodate his public office to his private conscience.

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State