Friday, August 17, 2012

In Defense of Uncharitable and Superficial History of Philosophy

Charity sounds like a good thing. And it sounds like a good thing when reading the history of philosophy. If a philosopher seems to be incoherent, or self-contradictory, or if the argument seems problematically gappy or to admit of obvious counterexamples, or if the philosopher seems to be saying something patently false, we should still try to put the best possible light on the work. We shouldn't take the text at face value but instead plunge deeper, looking for the real insight beneath the surface.

Okay, maybe sometimes we should do that. But I think most historians of philosophy and most enthusiasts for particular dead philosophers take charity much too far. There are reasons to prefer uncharitable and superficial readings.

One reason is that people are stupid. Or -- more accurately and politely -- people are remarkably poor at abstract thought about big philosophical issues. Even evaluating simple conditional claims about abstract matters is a substantial cognitive challenge for us, as revealed, for example, by our hideous performance on the Wason Selection Task, and as I found in my experience writing logical reasoning questions for the LSAT years ago. (Simple formula for a killer LSAT question: put together a conditional and a negation or two in ordinary language: "Only if interest rates don't decline will the Parliament be re-elected" vs. "The Parliament will not be re-elected unless interest rates don't rise" vs. etc.) Even philosophers are bad at this. Even Kant was a normal muddleheaded human in this regard, I daresay -- as one can see in his works when he comes down from his usual hard-to-evaluate abstractions to make concretely-evaluable claims about, e.g., the a priori necessity of 18th-century physics (oops!) or about the moral horrors of masturbation. So if a philosopher seems to be getting tangled up in her own abstract logic, that appearance is reasonably likely, I think, to reflect cognitive reality.

Another reason favoring uncharitableness and superficiality involves a certain sort of externalist or public view of what philosophy is. Philosophy is not, I submit, primarily a matter of private performances of profound insight. It is a public act of stringing together words and arguments. What is on the page is the philosophy, regardless of what the philosopher might have thought in his secret heart. So if what is on the page is nonsense or self-contradictory or plainly false, the philosophy itself is nonsense or self-contradictory or plainly false. In fact, without the structure enforced by committing one's views to words, philosophical thought tends to be amorphous and weak. Thus, especially in light of the first consideration above, it's a dubious conjecture that beneath the philosopher's surface incoherences are hidden diamond arguments, only poorly expressed. Philosophical thinking is for the most part, and at its best, an outward act of explicit writing or speaking before others.

A third reason to avoid excessive charity is this: What you think is plausible or obviously true might differ enormously from what other people, especially in different cultures and times, think is plausible or obviously true. The reader of philosophy risks hiding this from herself if she insists on de-radicalizing and commonsensifying the texts she encounters, transforming Hegel or Plotinus or Ibn Rushd or Laozi into some approximation of a 21st-century New Yorker. Much of the value of reading history is lost if we insist on turning a blind eye to what seems to us to be obviously crazy -- partly because what we currently think of as "crazy" might in the end be true and partly because, even if it's not true, it's a salutary and humbling exercise to appreciate the wide range of bizarre things that philosophers have believed across history.

I hereby resolve to remain, until further notice, a superficial and uncharitable reader of the history of philosophy!


Amod Lele said...

Eric, a contrary perspective of mine, though not directly addressed to your argument:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Cool, Amod. There's some truth in that too, of course. Thanks for the link!

Brandon said...

I think a slight difficulty with this argument is that the first and third reason given for uncharitable reading are also common reasons given for charitable reading! If, for instance, we take the first reason and apply it to ourselves as interpreters, then we get the conclusion that we as interpreters are also in gneral remarkably poor at abstract thought about big philosophical issues, and that the appearance of a philosopher getting tangled up in his own abstract logic could well be due to the reader's getting tangled up in it. And in some cases this will not just be possible but very likely; it's certainly possible for Leibniz, like anyone, to make a simple logical mistake, but in general it's going to be massively more likely that you just didn't understand his argument. That's a common kind of argument for charitable reading. And the fact that plausibilities are culturally conditioned is regularly given as a reason for charitable reading, as well.

Your second reason seems obviously false and incoherent, though; it links interpretation to assumptions about what people tend to think in their secret hearts, despite being a philosophical argument that interpretation shouldn't be based on what anyone might have thought in his secret heart. And it seems to contradict your third reason, which makes claims about what philosophers 'have thought in their secret hearts'. This is also not actually how people do any kind of philosophical interaction; we make concessions for the fact that people may have badly expressed themselves, or that our interpretations of even conversations may have been due to giving too much weight to particularities of wording. And it also seems to attribute to language a solidity it obviously doesn't have: there's no reason whatsoever to think that committing one's thought to words makes it less amorphous and weak; the list of fallacies and kinds of equivocation is quite as long as any list of cognitive failures you could put together. If it were true, though, it's not clear why it would be an argument for uncharitable reading, either; it's not as if public and written arguments can't be misread or misinterpreted, nor is it obvious that a principle of charity has to be formulated in terms of "what the philosopher might have thought in his secret heart," rather than in terms of getting the surface right in the first place.

But perhaps I'm reading uncharitably!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Brandon!

I agree with your first point to some extent, but I think we have a great advantage over those we are interpreting, despite our presumably lower philosophical talents overall: It is much easier to criticize than to create, and it is much easier to see the flaws in a thing from a distance than when you are deeply invested in it and it mirrors your own presuppositions. And I think one can decline to be charitable without being *sloppy*.

I'm not understanding your critique of my second point, I'm afraid, or how it contradicts my third.

You are probably right that my comment about the "secret heart" somewhat overdraws the point I am trying to make. But nonetheless: If Philosopher X says this, that, and the other thing follows, I mean here to be recommending that we be suspicious of heroic attempts to show how despite appearances the other thing does follow from this and that. *Light* interpolations, corrections, qualifications, and disambiguations are a different matter, especially if there is textual support for them elsewhere.

It's an empirical question whether expressing ideas in words tends to make them stronger and less amorphous. I suppose we just disagree on that question. The evidence from my own experience and from observing others seems to me unequivocal.

Badda Being said...

The ease of criticism over creation is only advantageous toward trivial consistency. Criticism is easy only if you are pointing out the obvious.

But if a critical reading surpasses triviality--if it lays waste to the obvious--wouldn't you call that creative?

Brandon said...

Hi, Eric,

I'm very inclined to disagree with your response on the first point: it is not, in fact, easier to criticize, as witnessed by how often people end up talking past each other, and how often people clearly overlook evidence in the text right in front of them. The same processes of reasoning -- and considerable creativity -- are required for good criticism. And I think you are again being selective in what you apply the point to: what you say about the arguments of people we are interpreting apply equally well to any of our own arguments, for exactly the same reasons, including our criticisms of their arguments. We do not have the distance on our own criticisms that your argument requires that we do.

There's no sharp line between light interpolations and heavier reconstructions; and serious consideration of historical context will always land you in the realm of heavier reconstruction at some point, where you have evidence that X is relevant to Y, but there are several possible ways it could be so. This happens regularly, in fact. If light interpolations and the like are allowed, they will sometimes make heavier reconstructions unavoidable.

I agree that the issue about whether words reduce amorphousness is empirical; but you seem clearly to be ignoring some of the evidence: unexpected ambiguities due to presentation, difficulties in communicating, differences in the use of words, the difficulty of expressing know-how accurately into words, the need to explain things to others more than once in different terms, and the like clearly show that words also introduce an amorphousness that did not always exist. There's no reason to think that 'amorphousness' is a single quality here; and the evidence is pretty clearly that putting things into words reduces some kinds and increases others. Also, your argument requires that we actually are capable of having a pretty good handle on what others think based on their words -- at least, I am assuming that your observation of the general amorphousness of the thought of others is not telepathic -- which, again, is inconsistent with your second reason, which depends on skepticism about how much we can actually know about what anyone is thinking, based on the evidence available. But your second reason simultaneously appeals to a considerable amount that could be known about what others are thinking and to a skeptical appeal about what we actually could, so it's incoherent, and should be set aside, anyway.

If the second reason is set aside, your argument really doesn't conclude to uncharitable reading, as far as I can see; it concludes to pessimism about philosophy -- you could equally state it as saying that even read charitably philosophers shouldn't be given much credit unless you can't avoid doing so. But this is a very different sort of claim.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Badda, I would agree with that! I think especially of Kripke on Wittgenstein or Strawson on Kant.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting push-back, Brandon. On your last point: I am indeed highly pessimistic about philosophy although not *absolutely* pessimistic. I think you're right that that's an important aspect of the picture.

On your other points: I don't (and didn't in the post) insist on sharp lines or exceptionless rules. It seems your objections saddle me with commitments of that sort. It's a matter of degree and tendency. On the empirical points, I suspect we are just going to have to disagree about where the weight of the evidence lies -- unless we can think of a way to test it experimentally. (Which might be fun!)

Paul Gowder said...

I wonder whether we might see this argument as pragmatically self-defeating, since if true it would warrant one to read it uncharitably... (after all, there's little in it that is specifically relevant to dead rather than living philosophers.)

Paul Gowder said...

(Even the last point, for example, might equally well be applied to contemporaries who might have radically different epistemic standpoints.)

Justin said...

One thing that strikes me as false is that an awful lot of charitable history of philosophy consists of re-radicalizing the history of philosophy. Plato or Kant as taught by my teachers was far less consistent with my initial preconceptions than a naive reading--that's not always true, as you see in the ways commentators take the sharp edges off of Hegel's absolute idealism, but I think it's often true.

Elliot said...

This might just be a semantic nitpick, but I don't think that all of the tendencies you mention deserve to be called 'charitable'. For instance, attempting to make philosopher X's views palatable by substantially revising them in ways that could be objectionable to X doesn't seem like charity to me. I think that the kind of 'heroic' reconstructions you mention should be distinguished from charity. Charity probably does involve accepting that X's considered view might not be exactly what appears on the page, but I don't think it follows from that that every attempt to bring X's views into coherence are genuinely charitable, since such a project could easily end up ascribing views to X that X wouldn't want to be associated with.

Catarina said...

Fwiw, I wrote a blog post commenting on this post (not having read the numerous comments here, admittedly):

Scott Bakker said...

The issue of Theoretical Incompetence is near and dear to my secret heart, Eric. I agree with Brandon that the arguments you give for doubting target texts are also arguments for doubting our own interpretative capacity. We pretty clearly seem to be hardwired to game ambiguities in competitor’s claims to our own argumentative advantage, and the problem with theory is that there’s so many ambiguities to game. Add to this the ‘counter-argument effect,’ the inclination to strengthen our commitments when confronted with cogent counter-arguments rather than weaken them, and you have a recipe for cognitive disaster - what we call ‘philosophy’!

Also like Brandon, I don’t find your second ‘Death of the Author’ argument all that convincing. All you have are the vehicles in any communicative exchange. I’m inclined to think the kinds of ‘guessing people’s intent’ games we play in daily life serve a variety of salutary functions–more than enough to warrant their application in reading dead white guys. All ‘mindreading’ exercises occur in the absence of minds: that’s what makes them interpretative. The bigger the absence, the less warrant our interpretations possess, but this just means we have to condition our epistemic commitments accordingly.

But I do think you’re right to problematize the concept of interpretative charity. Knowing that we are so prone to dupe ourselves should make us suspicious of our own interpretative judgements. Certainly we should assume the ‘Other Guy’ (first name, Always) is just as likely to be duping themselves, but this most certainly doesn’t license giving license to our own cognitive shortcomings (unless we really have no stake in the epistemic upshot of our claims). What it means is that ‘charity’ is by no means straightforward: the more credit you extend the other guy against your instincts, the more you shortchange yourself. And this is a tug a war that quickly becomes a hopeless tangle when you consider it, suffering all the same cognitive shortcomings, from a second order standpoint.

The fact is, once you accept the universality of Theoretical Incompetence it really becomes difficult to distinguish ‘uncharitable and superficial’ versus ‘charitable and profound.’ Given our penchant to confuse agreement for intelligence, the answer you get generally depends on who you ask. I once gave a reading of Nietzsche where I was told both by two different Nietzsche scholars!

And I would argue that it’s this situation I have just described that provides the most important warrant for charity: when everything is a muddle and you yourself are part of that muddle, it seems that suspending commitment as far as possible is more than warranted. And I would argue that there is precious little difference between doubting oneself and extending the ‘benefit of the doubt’ to others.

clasqm said...

I'll agree that searching for the "secret heart" of an author is unlikely to be a fruitful exercise. It appeals to that author's subjective experience, which is inaccessible information. I'd just like to add one small caveat before someone throws out the baby with the bathwater: this does not necessarily invalidate attempts to locate a thinker in his/her social/historical context. Lots of valuable studies remain to be done in that. Just be aware that you are not doing philosophy: you are doing history of philosophy or perhaps sociology of philosophy.

Of course if I was to do that for Eric's post here I would have to ask if this was not a peculiarly American problem reflecting the eternal battle between "original intent" and "loose constructionism" in that society ...


Daniel W said...

We're in a position to realize that rational stupidity is not always good for us. I think that's a reason to be optimistic.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

@ Paul: One thing I learned from John Searle in grad school and that is continually reinforced in my career as a blogger is that unless you are Kant most people read you uncharitably anyway, so you had better be prepared for it, and try to make sure that your central idea will shine through even for readers who are sloppy and hostile!

@ Justin and Elliot: "Charity" has a couple of meanings that I did not carefully distinguish and that seem relevant to your comments. One standard sense of "charity" in the literature on interpretation is something like "interpret your author's statements as true whenever possible". That sense of charity strains against re-radicalizing approaches (on the assuming that we tend to call "radical" what seems obviously false to us). Another sense of "charity" is "don't make the author look like an idiot". These can come apart!

@ clasqm: I more or less agree with that.

@ Catarina: Thanks for the very interesting post on NewAPPS! I have added a comment there.

@ Scott: I can't disagree with you too much on your main points. I suspect that you and I both are pretty close to the lowest bound of belief in human cognitive philosophical capacities that is consistent with not giving up on philosophy entirely. In a way, applying that pessimistic attitude to Kant's cognitive capacities too is the central point of this post.

Justin said...

If you'll tolerate reopening this after a week, I'm not so sure the versions of charity are all that far apart. Any philosopher worth their salt will make a lot of claims of the form "if p then q", so interpreting them to maximize the truth of what they say may mean giving them a valid or reasonable derivation of a ridiculous conclusion from a ridiculous starting point.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Justin, I'm always happy to chat about old posts! I agree that the versions of charity often in fact coincide -- one reason I wasn't too careful about it in the post, despite the fact that in some cases the two types can pull apart.