The Sociology of Philosophy?



I was browsing through this year\’s Proceedings & Addresses of the APA this morning, and reading some of the addresses–particularly the ones by Sally Haslanger, Elizabeth Anderson, and Amelie Rorty–got me thinking about the sociology of philosophy: specifically, about whether people should start doing some kind of serious research on it. Let me explain why.

It sometimes feels (to me, at any rate) as though our discipline is blindly hurtling forward in space-time–hurtling from problem to problem, from fad to fad, etc.–without a great deal of reflection of how exactly we \”got here from there.\” As new problems, arguments, and thought-experiments are generated, old ones are set aside. The problems, arguments, examples–and indeed, philosophers!– that absolutely enthralled the discipline a few decades ago have, in many cases, been mostly set aside as yesterday\’s news. Think, for instance, of people like Quine or Davidson, or thought-experiments like Davidson\’s Swampman or Searle\’s Chinese Room. Although not entirely forgotten, the discipline seems to have largely moved on–and how couldn\’t it? After a couple of decades, article after article on the same names, the same problems, the same thought-experiments, etc., can get…well, rather tiresome.

All of which begs a rather obvious question: how does philosophy actually progress? There seems to be a tacit faith in some quarters that \”good arguments push philosophy forward\”–that is, that we got where we are now by good arguments winning out over bad ones. However, what, if anything, justifies this article of faith (to the extent that anyone holds it)? There are, after all, all kinds of sociological forces at work–social forces that include, but are no means restricted to, marginalization by race, gender, social class, culture, etc. To what extent are such social forces more responsible for \”philosophical progress\” than actual argumentation?

A recent study shows, in a particularly striking way, just how arbitrary–and contingent–a given group\’s judgments of \”quality\” can be. In the study I just linked to, a variety of independent \”online communities\” were constructed to determine the artistic quality of the same 48 sets of songs. In the study, what tended to happen in each group is that (1) some small number of people would initially be attracted some some song, (2) their being attracted to it would attract other people to it, and (3) the effect would snowball such that, in each group, there emerged a clear consensus of \”which songs are best\”. Yet, across different groups, the same snowball effect resulted in completely different collective judgments by the end of which songs were \”good.\” What ended up as the #1 best-rated song in one group ended up rated 42nd in another group.

Now, this is just one study, and it\’s not about philosophy. But still, the general phenomenon it presents is entirely plausible: namely, that \”how good\” a given piece of work is considered in a community can be largely the result of a snowball-effect set in motion by a small number of influential people who like stuff first, attract followers, whose followers attract followers, etc.–and where the result might have been entirely different if a few different people with different intuitions/preferences had set the entire system in motion.

Might something similar be responsible for \”progress\” in philosophy? Might it be the case that, instead of objectively good arguments winning out over bad ones, philosophy tends to progress mostly by largely-arbitrary snowball effects? For my part, I\’ve long worried that this may be the case.

Consider some of the most famous thought-experiments and arguments that have led philosophy of language and mind to where they are today: Kripke\’s Godel-Schmidt example (and other examples in Naming & Necessity), Putnam\’s Twin-Earth thought-experiment, and Davidson\’s Swampman Example. These examples/arguments pushed philosophy of language and mental content firmly in the direction of externalism. All of these examples led philosophers away from internalist accounts of linguistic content toward external-referential accounts (viz. the meaning of \’Godel\’ is not a description in the head–it\’s Godel!; the meaning of water isn\’t determined by some description in the head; \’water\’ refers, essentially, to H2O!). And, of course, this snowball led further: to the extended-mind hypothesis, etc.

As influential as these arguments/examples have been, could they actually be a sociological artifact rather than \”good arguments\”? When I was in graduate school, I found that my intuitions didn\’t fit at all with the intuitions that were dominating the discipline. I didn\’t find it intuitive at all to think that \’Godel\’ refers to one of Kripke\’s figures over the other. It seemed to me to depend entirely on the speaker\’s intention, and it has always seemed to me that different speakers might have quite different intentions. Similarly, it never seemed to me that \’water\’ continued to mean H2O on Twin-Earth–or, indeed, that \’water\’ rigidly designates H2O; that water is essentially H2O, etc. It didn\’t seem to me at all that Davidson\’s Swampman\’s mental states weren\’t about tables, chairs, or cars. It seemed entirely intuitive to me that Swampman\’s mental states are about tables, chairs, and cars, despite having no causal connection to them (I\’ve always favored a resemblance theory of representation over a causal one). So, there I was, sharing few of the dominant intuitions in philosophy of language or mind, and…what did I do? I felt like I was fighting a losing battle, and so I simply moved on: to a place where my intuitions seemed more welcome–moral and political philosophy.

Could it be, then, that this is how philosophy sometimes/often progresses: by largely arbitrary snowball-effects in which (A) a few thought-experiments/intuitions by a few famous people, (B) attract a few followers, which then (C) attract more followers, which then (D) marginalize people who do not share the dominant intuitions, thereby (E) leading the dominant class to conceive themselves as making progress on the basis of good arguments when, in reality, (F) the correct explanation of that \”progress\” is the aforementioned snowball effect (i.e. a self-reinforcing system of people with the \”right intuitions\” dominating/marginalizing those with \”the wrong intuitions\”)?

The answer is: I have no idea. It could be that philosophy tends to progress by good arguments winning out over bad ones. But I don\’t think we\’re entitled to assume this–at least not without doing some kind of serious sociology of philosophy, tracing out in a serious way how philosophy has tended to move forward. How might a sound sociology of philosophy be done? I\’m not exactly sure, but here are a few brief ideas. I think it might be helpful to catalogue, at any given point in time, how many people in the discipline find a given thought-experiment/intuition compelling. We might then examine whether the people–and groups–who advance a dominant intuition engage with people who do not share the intuition, and if so, how? Does the minority intuition get taken seriously in the literature, or is it mostly ignored and the \”debate\” coalesce mainly around people in with the dominant intuition talking to one another, marginalizing people (including members of historically marginalized groups) who contest the intuition?

Although this is only a very rough and brief proposal, it seems to me that some such inquiry–a new field, The Sociology of Philosophy–might be well worth pursuing. If we want to be confident that philosophy is actually progressing rather merely snowballing from one fad to another, we should try to study how it progresses. And that, it seems to me, requires something a bit new.


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