Simon Critchley's New York Times essay about "the philosopher" has now attracted over 600 comments.  I suspect a lot of them are from real live philosophers who don't care for the portrait:  "the philosopher" is unworldly, a faller into wells, a ponderer without time constraints, but somehow (for all that) an incendiary world-changer.   If we must caricature, let's at least get it right.

I think there's something to the idea that "the philosopher" is (among other things) a hyperrationalist.  To wit: take Anders Sandberg's discussion of squidophilia here. The average person just lets himself say "yuck" to the practice and doesn't dig any deeper.  Sandberg is very much "the philosopher" when he says "why, why, why?".  If he can't figure out why, he's prepared to accept squidophilia. 

There is a good point in the post: disgust is not reliable. You should be prepared to examine your "yuck" reactions.  Philosophers are right to insist on this.

But then what?  If you examine them, some will go away.  Fine.  Why act on reactions that are transient? Some will not go away, but you will take them much less seriously and so (reasonably) decide to quarantine them so they don't affect your judgment. But some yuck reactions are persistent, and don't want to be quarantined.  A hyperationalist doesn't like these either.  If you can't explain, you must abstain.  That's the basic idea.

I don't know about that. The suppression of "yuck" reactions contrasts sharply with the way philosophers treat their own "intuitions."  If you have a very strong intuition that the fat man can't be pushed in front of the trolley to save the five, that's "data"!  It's par for the course to take such reactions very, very seriously.

Why so little respect for gut reactions that are tinged by feeling (squidophilia, eww!), and so much respect for non-visceral intuitions (push fat guy, no)?  Equal rights for visceral intuitions!

I don't know why it's bad to mix it up with squid, but I suspect it's not all about squid. If someone were making love to a metronome or a box of cereal I'd be just as concerned.  Why, why, why?  Not sure, but I don't plan on abstaining from the reaction until I can explain it.

p.s.  Any thoughts evoked by the squiddie picture are entirely your responsibility.


Faust said...

I suspect a lot of them are from real live philosophers who don't care for the portrait: "the philosopher" is unworldly, a faller into wells, a ponderer without time constraints, but somehow (for all that) an incendiary world-changer.

Is that your intuition or did you do an empirical study?

(He asked mischievously).

Jean Kazez said...

Blush. I confess, it was a deduction. I saw a few comments like that, but was really just thinking there could be no other explanation for the huge number of comments. I figured the link from Leiter must have had an effect.

s. wallerstein said...

Some philosophers respect their gut reactions. Nietzsche, for example, is always talking about something (for example, an argument) that smells badly or a book, the New Testament, I believe, that he has to read with gloves on.

Faust said...

I'm not sure what a normal number of comments is, and I suspect you are right about Leiter's influence here, I know he has a strong following. But my cursory review of the comments showed a fair amount of enthusiasm. I offer an unsupported theory of my own: when a thread gets "hot" in a high profile public site (e.g. NYT) people who might not have weighed in otherwise get involved. So Leiter lights the fire, and then Chritchley's defenders jump in, and then passersby put in their two cents, and then...um. Win for philosophers?! Mission Accomplished!

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

I have wondered precisely the same thing -- especially when reading something arguing for a counterintuitive ethical conclusion (e.g. Singer on animals and charity), and then especially when reading that stuff with students, who do not suffer from the professional deformations of the analytic philosopher.

In particular, it seems somewhat strange to me that what psychologists call 'System 1' outputs (very roughly, what philosophers call intuitions) should serve as evidence for 'System 2' outputs (very roughly, the products of reasoning), because System 1 outputs are usually characterized in some way as non-rational.

But: I thought that pushing the fat guy from the bridge _does_ involve a visceral reaction (though not exactly of the 'eww, yuck' variety). This is (part of) why flipping the switch to save 5 is OK, but pushing the one heavy guy is not OK. (And there are those Josh Greene fMRI studies, which show that the parts of the brain associated with emotion light up more with the push-the fat-guy case than in the flip-the-switch case.)

Alastair Norcross said...

Hi Jean,
you're right that disgust reactions are probably not different in kind from the kind of "intuition" that tells you not to push the fat man. That's (one of the reasons) why we should reject the fat man intuition. There's a lot more to be said, of course. The disgust literature provides fine evolutionary stories about the role of disgust. It can be useful. But that doesn't make it a reliable indicator of moral truth. Likewise, there are perfectly good explanations of (some people's) intuitive reluctance to push the fat man. These explanations are part of a debunking story of those intuitions. It doesn't, of course, follow that everything that is characterized as an intuition loses its epistemic force. As the psychologists always say, more research is required.

Jean Kazez said...

Hi Alastair, One would like to know which intuitions have epistemic force and which don't...as I can't imagine an ethical theory getting off the ground without intuitions. Perhaps the case approach is especially suspect, but then I'm not quite sure why I ought be comfortable intuiting first principles either. There might be debunking stories available there, too. Hmm.

Alastair Norcross said...

Hi Jean, I'd like to know which intuitions have epistemic force too. Unger goes some way towards sorting that out in Living High. The situation right now, as far as I can tell, is that we have pretty decisive reasons to reject both disgust verdicts and the fat man type of intuitions. We don't have such reasons to reject first principle type intuitions (such as suffering is bad, happiness is good, Republicans are evil). We may acquire such reasons, but we don't yet have them.
And what do you have against sex with metronomes or cereal boxes?

Jean Kazez said...

"Sex with a metronome is an abomination worse than murder." --Immanuel Kant

Don't you know that passage? Cereal boxes, I don't know.

Ahh...I forgot that discussion of intuitions in Unger. Must have a look before I indulge myself in any more intuitions.

s. wallerstein said...

Alastair: It seems to me that you would need still another intuition to distinguish which intuitions have epistemic force and which don't. It might be easier just to listen to intuitions in general, unless an intuition contradicts or conflicts with an otherwise established principle.

Anonymous said...

What about hyper-hyper-rationalism? If someone keeps asking "why, why, why?" even in response to an answer to that question, perhaps as young children are wont to do, then it's easy to see why "adults" might get frustrated and dismiss the line of questioning as not serious.

Surely Critchley's point is just that one can take philosophy to be a kind of radical questioning in this sense, one without boundaries or constraints, and which ultimately threatens to divorce it from the norms of common sense and practicality. To ask what the point of such questioning is is simply to reintroduce the practical-rational constraint which the questioner refuses to be bound by.

One can object (as you do) that this isn't a very accurate picture of the practice of philosophy, but to dismiss it (as Leiter does) for being nonsense is to ignore a very real tradition within philosophy which sees it precisely in these radical terms.

Alastair Norcross said...

Jean, I'd forgotten that passage from Kant. As you know, I tend to focus on his condemnation of masturbation.

Amos, there is, in fact, quite a lot of evidence undermining the force of some intuitions. It isn't just a matter of using intuition to determine which intuitions to trust. And, of course, one of the problems with a general trust of intuitions is exactly that pretty much every intuition conflicts either with another intuition or an established principle

Now, something might hang on just what you include under the guise of intuition. For example, suppose I discover that scientists at BP have developed a chemical whose explicit purpose is to cause people to have the intuition that BP is the blameless victim of an unforeseeable accident. Further suppose that I discover that they have added this chemical to the water supply where I live. Now, lets say I have the intuition that BP is the blameless victim of an unforeseeable accident. Given what I have discovered about the chemical in the water supply, I would say that I now have reason not to trust my intuition. I wouldn't call this reason an intuition itself. Some of the evidence we have about the etiology of our intuitions is enough like this to count as reason, rather than intuition.

s. wallerstein said...

Alastair: In the case of BP, my moral intuition is that it is wrong to carry out activities which have the potential of causing serious environmental damage. Whether or not BP carried out such activities is a factual question, which has nothing to do with intuitions. Maybe I lack imagination or have been brainwashed, but my moral intuitions don't tend to contradict one another or conflict with my moral principles, although contradiction may occur at times. So I don't see that
contradiction between intuitions is a serious problem, as you claim it is, in my personal case, at least.

Anonymous said...

The choice of Simon Critchley as moderator of The Stone, a series of online New York Times articles by “contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless,” appears to have succeeded on the journalistic criterion that a series editor should stimulate discussion and interest. Critchley’s opening essay has elicited sneering animadversion from student and professional philosophers, some deserved criticism, and equally supportive commentary.

It also provoked Brian Leiter, author of the philosophy gossip blog, to launch a letter writing campaign to the public editor of the New York Times protesting the choice of Critchley. Leiter previously insulted Will Wilkinson for Wilkinson’s series of programs on Blogging Heads TV intended to bring philosophy and philosophers to a wider audience.

Leiter does not deign to comment on Critchley’s article, titled “What is a Philosopher?“. The online letter writing campaign, which made its way into the comment section of Critchley’s article, provided readers with further insight on the answer of the philosophy profession (or some of its more vocal members) to the question Critchley poses in the title.

Leiter remarks parenthetically that “When Michael Rosen [Harvard] and I edited The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, the idea of inviting Critchley never came up–how could it?” Will the idea of inviting Leiter to contribute to Critchley’s series ever come up? How could it? Perhaps Critchley could be forgiven for an apparent autobiographical reference, when he writes about “… those obsessed with maintaining the status quo.”

Alastair Norcross said...

Amos, you may be an exception, but I doubt it. If your intuitions don't lead to contradictions with other intuitions and principles, that may be because they have been educated by principles. In my own case, I no longer have the fat man kind of intuitions. In fact, almost all my intuitions are now in line with utilitarianism. My point was about the unreliability of untutored intuitions. Of course, if you can get your intuitions in line with utilitarianism they will obviously be reliable. :)

Alastair Norcross said...

And the BP thing was just an example. It was an illustration of the kind of evidence that could challenge an intuition without requiring another intuition. But I thought that was obvious.