Philosophy, In a Sense

It is philosophy’s unacknowledged secret that all of its claims are true in some sense and false in another. There is consequently no correct answer to any of the big philosophical questions. This is not because there’s no such thing as truth (in a sense there is) but because the answer will always be ‘in one sense yes, and in another no’: Do we have free will? Can one know anything for certain? Are there moral truths? Can machines think? Does the past exist? And, most importantly, is Die Hard a Christmas movie? and are Jaffa Cakes biscuits or cakes?

It’s no secret that we can artificially render any claim true by giving it a new sense (‘public school’ means private school etc.), but we cannot, à la Humpty Dumpty, re-define all words including those used in one’s redefinitions. While philosophers occasionally embark on such idiosyncratic semantic trails, most of them are working with pretty recognizable concepts. The trouble is that we nonetheless have significantly different conceptions of just about everything, from books and tables to art, love, and knowledge. The more abstract and philosophical our notions, the more likely we are to diverge on various points of detail, with no shared path to agreement.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that philosophy doesn’t progress towards knowledge in the sense that science does. The mystery is why it nevertheless continues to aspire to provide correct theories of the mind, free will, causation, or whatever. A plausible explanation is that different philosophers are naturally drawn towards different views and stances. They present arguments for these, objections to opposing views, responses to counter-examples, and so on. In so doing, they refine their positions to the points of greatest plausibility and least excitement (like the morning and evening stars, these are one and the same). Up to a point, this is all perfectly healthy. But the point is surpassed when we close our eyes to the fact that what we are actually up to is the systematic prioritizing of certain conceptions of other, equally legitimate, ones. The near-pathological use of the phrase ‘in a sense’ by academic philosophers serves as a constant reminder of this unconscious denial.

Philosophers should stop seeking to prove such things as whether moral facts exist or freedom is compatible with determinism, and focus instead on the different uses of the terms they employ. The problem is not that we are dealing with what W.B. Gallie called essentially contested concepts (whose ‘proper use of inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses’). Rather, it’s that some concepts and conceptions are more central, helpful, or important than others for particular purposes.

At a time in which book titles such as The Concept of Law and The Concept of Mind have long been replaced by ones like A Theory of Justice and From An Ontological Point of View, this polemic may seem like unjustified nostalgia for the age of ordinary language philosophy.

My point however, is not that we should abandon theoretical and metaphysical investigations and revert to mere linguistic or even purely conceptual ones. The first pair of books share an optimistic ‘The’ at the beginning of each of their respective titles. But there are usually two or more concepts of X at play, each open to different conceptions, all of which collectively feed incommensurable theories. Philosophy helps us to understand the ways in which questions about how things actually intermesh with conceptual questions. To make genuine progress, we must replace defences of standard philosophical positions with arguments for the importance of conceptualizing things one way over another.

The pluralism I am advocating here is not the post-truth plurality of alternate-facts. But we need to fight such dangerous trends with the right ammunition. While there are truths we must appeal to,philosophical debates on Truth and Realism between giants such as Dummett, Rorty, and Davidson are — in themselves — of little use here. We must not conflate that everyday sense of truth in which it is of utmost importance that we distinguish between fact and falsehood from those senses employed within metaphysical debates about the nature of reality. Elon Musk and others may get a cognitive buzz in suggesting that there is an extremely high probability that we are all living in a computer simulation, but it would be irresponsible nonsense to utter such thoughts within discussions of how to best address the problem of climate change.

By now, you will have doubtlessly formed the objection that I am committed to thinking that my own view is true in one sense and false in another. Dear reader, you are right to think that yours truly is so committed. But this is no objection, for it can but count as a confirmation of the view, understood in the right sense of course.

An edited version of this essay appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine.

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