Common Sense, Copernicus, and Intuition in Philosophy

A quick observation about a trend in philosophical argumentation:

When a philosopher defends a view that seems to align with our immediate expectations, s/he will frequently raise something like the following, often in the introduction: this view aligns with common sense. And while it is possible for philosophy to overturn common sense, this is rare. Usually, common sense views are correct.

When a philosopher defends a view that seems counterintuitive, s/he will frequently raise something like the following point, often in the introduction: yes, this view runs counter to common sense. But sometimes radical shifts in thinking do occur, as in the Copernican revolution. It is a mistake to dismiss a view out of hand simply because it does not accord with common sense.

(I was recently reminded of the former attitude by Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments, and of the latter by Graham Priest’s In Contradiction, which, though it does not cite Copernicus, does cite scientific theories that were initially considered ‘outrageous’ and eventually accepted. I’m sure I have seen both before elsewhere.)

The two attitudes are not inconsistent. It is possible that both (1) it is rare for philosophy to overturn common sense; and (2) it is poor practice to dismiss arguments on account of their being counterintuitive. In fact, I suspect most would agree that both (1) and (2) are true.

Even so, the two attitudes do roughly pull in opposing directions. The stronger our belief in (1), the less serious we are likely to be about (2); and vice versa.

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A Summary of My Philosophical Questions

I’ve made some changes to the site to reflect my change in priorities and outlook over the past year or two. I also rewrote my ‘about‘ bit. I decided to make it mostly a summary of the philosophical questions and subject matter that are of interest to me and why. I’m happy with how it came out. There’s something very satisfying about laying down a statement of where I am intellectually at some specific time. It’s not comprehensive—notably lacking are my interests in regress and specificity in meanings, and in Hegel. But editing > comprehensiveness, so I’m going to leave those out. In any case, here’s the summary:

Philosophy of logic: People give me a weird look when I say that the philosophy of logic is my strongest philosophical passion. Maybe I can explain it this way: consider any belief you hold. It might even be a tricky belief, like that you don’t know anything for sure, or that your beliefs are not the sorts of things that can be put into words (nice try). Whatever this belief may be, and whether you realize it or not, it is constrained by some abstract, fundamental rules. Rules like if ‘A’ is true and ‘B’ is true, it follows that ‘A & B’ is true. You might think: what could possibly be interesting about such trivial observations? To my mind, there are two very interesting things about them. One is that when we codify all these trivial, almost stupidly obvious rules, we discover that they yield paradoxes.…

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Against Rorty on the Usefulness of Ontological Debates

Rorty ontology
Richard Rorty, cover of Contingency, irony, and solidarity.

I’m a big fan of Richard Rorty. His book Contingency, irony, and solidarity (CIS) was one of the books that led me to inquire into philosophy more rigorously (ironically enough — sorry Dick!).

But there’s something that’s always bugged me about Rorty. He uses pragmatist insights to label entire subjects “not useful”. The following quote was recently brought to my attention:

The question that matters to us pragmatists is not whether a vocabulary possess meaning or not, whether it raises real or unreal problems, but whether the resolution of that debate will have an effect in practice, whether it will be useful. We ask whether the vocabulary shared by the debaters is likely to have practical value. For the fundamental thesis of pragmatism is William James’ assertion that if a debate has no *practical* significance, then it has no *philosophical* significance.

So my objection to the “realism versus anti-realism debate” is not that the debtors are employing sentences that are devoid of meaning, nor that they are using terms that do not designate substantial properties. Rather, that the resolution of these debates will have no bearing on practice. I view debates of this sort as examples of sterile scholasticism. I regret that such a large part of English-language philosophy in the twentieth century was devoted to questions of this type.

— What’s the Use of Truth? (Richard Rorty)

(An aside: for all his insistence on deflating these debates, Rorty’s not always consistent in whether his position is deflationary about the debate or withinthe debate.…

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