Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Moral Error Theory

A couple of years ago, Stephen Finlay published "The Error in the Error Theory," Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86 (2008): 347-69. There is now a response by Richard Joyce, "The Error in ‘The Error in the Error Theory'," Australasian Journal of Philosophy 89 (2011): 519-34, together with a reply by Finlay, "Errors Upon Errors: A Reply to Joyce," Australasian Journal of Philosophy 89 (2011): 535-47.


  1. And the history of philosophy grinds on...

  2. Yes, it does. But then what are the options? Either one claims to have found "the truth" and regards one's rival as utterly mistaken, or one keeps searching, or one abandons philosophical inquiry. Perhaps this inquiry is pointless, but it may still be somehow fun.

  3. That's the big question philosophers need to ask themselves, I think (and most do, at some point or another): what exactly do we think we're doing? What are the prospects of success or even progress? Etc.

    Thus, I would add a fourth option to your three. In addition to: proclaiming oneself the victor (regarding some first-order philosophical debate), continuing the investigation, or abandoning philosophy altogether, one can also opt to step back and engage in metaphilosophical (self-)critique.

  4. Yes, that may be regarded as a fourth option. But as far as I am concerned, I consider metaphilosophical self-critique as part of the second option. I mean, continuing the inquiry, when conceived of in a Pyrrhonian way, implies a certain kind of self-critique, one that is radical and open-minded. In this case, the object of the inquiry is not only first-order (philosophical) questions.

    By the way, I'm not sure that most philosophers or historians of philosophy do ask themselves that kind of question. I think that most take philosophy as a job like any other. They don't usually ask themselves "What precisely am I talking about? What the hell am I doing? Is all this utterly pointless?"

  5. I agree absolutely that metaphilosophical (self-)critique is properly thought of as a variant of 'continuing the investigation.' Still, just to reiterate, I think it deserves its own category -- perhaps an explicit sub-category -- given the important difference between, e.g., continuing a _present_ line of inquiry and stepping back to question that very line of inquiry.

    I'm frequently baffled by what I see as a lack of metaphilosophical self-awareness among philosophers. (Much of the time, I'm honestly not sure what exactly they take themselves to be doing!) So it's a little strange that I would claim that most do ask themselves metaphilosophical questions. I suppose I was trying to be generous (by my own lights) and imagine that _at some point_ they must have asked themselves these sorts of questions, if only to settle comfortably into a particular metaphilosophical position. But I suppose it's at least as likely that they simply bought into the metaphilosophical commitments of their teachers without ever questioning those commitments.

    It seems to me, though, that philosophers who seem least exercised by metaphilosophical questions are also the most likely to denounce alternative 'research programs' within philosophy. On some level, then, they must have a conception of what (they think) 'philosophy' (properly) is... (Though I'm not sure how to cash out 'on some level...')

  6. It seems to me that metaphilosopical (self-)critique usually requires, or is based on, a skeptical attitude. I mean, when you are disturbed by, or become aware of, so much philosophical disagreement (and here your initial comment on the history of philosophy is relevant) and you’re modest or cautious about your own ability to discover the truth, then you start questioning whether philosophical investigation makes any sense or is doomed to failure. When you’re a skeptic, you’re constantly calling into question or wondering about what you’re doing: your ideas, your arguments, your approach to the problems you’re dealing with. If this is at least to some extent correct, then one can understand why most philosophers and historians of philosophy lack metaphilosophical self-awareness. For they are quite sure about their own epistemic competences and believe that there is a fact of the matter about the disputed issues. They don’t even conceive of the possibility that there is no fact of the matter or that truth cannot be attained because they believe that skepticism (in one form or another) is patently absurd.

  7. I agree completely, as a psychological generalization, that a skeptical attitude and a penchant for engaging in metaphilosophical self-critique tend to go hand in hand. But is there a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum here? Does one tend to engage in metaphilosophical self-critique because one has a skeptical attitude, or vice versa? In the case of a naturally 'dogmatic' person, it seems to me that metaphilosophical self-critique is a good (perhaps the best) way to cure them of dogmatism. (Thus, I tend to understand Pyrrhonism in metaphilosophical terms.)

    In any event, it's still open to a 'dogmatic' philosopher to engage in metaphilosophical self-critique without entertaining skepticism about philosophy, which is why I'm so perplexed by what I see as the lack of metaphilosophical self-awareness among philosophers. So, for example, I think the early analytic philosophers had a more or less clear metaphilosophical self-conception. That self-conception gave rise to a practice that has somehow managed to survive the historical and philosophical demise of the commitments that underwrote it!

    (Perhaps, borrowing Nietzsche's image, it takes some time before the light of a dead star ceases to shine...)

  8. Yes, that’s true: we’re faced with the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum here. I don’t know what the right answer is, and I think that my previous post wasn’t clear enough. It seems to me that, if you do philosophy more or less seriously, at some point you’ll be struck by the “strife of the systems” (to use Rescher’s expression). This will have a profound effect on you provided you adopt an open-minded and modest attitude. Based on my experience, this effect will be, in a small number of cases, a state of aporia, which will lead you to skepticism. But in most cases, the effect will be caution, not skepticism. Now, my point was that the skeptic (of any sort, but particularly of the Pyrrhonian variety) will be constantly calling into question his own ideas, or thoughts, or even his own skeptical outlook. He will constantly be asking metaphilosophical questions.

    When you talk about early analytic philosophers, who do you have in mind, specifically? And what was their self-conception?