Jerry Fodor And Philosophical Practice

I wrote a short post on Facebook today, making note of the passing away of Jerry Fodor:

Much as I admired Fodor’s writing chops, I deplored the way he did philosophy. The stories of his ‘put-downs’ and sarcastic, ironic, ‘devastating’ objections, questions, or responses in seminars always left me feeling like this was not how I understood philosophy as a practice. The admiration all those around me extended to Fodor was a significant component in me feeling alienated from philosophy during graduate school. (It didn’t help that in the one and only paper I wrote on Fodor–in refuting his supposed critique of Quine‘s inscrutability of reference claim–I found him begging the question rather spectacularly.) I had no personal contact with him, so I cannot address that component of him; all I can say is that from a distance, he resembled too many other academic philosophers: very smart folk, but not people I felt I could work with or for, or converse with to figure out things together.

In response, a fellow philosopher wrote to me:

[H]onestly that was my impression of Fodor also….while I too didn’t ever even meet him in person, I thought much of his rhetoric was nasty and unfair, that he routinely caricatured positions of others and then sort of pranced around about how he had totally refuted them, and that he basically ignored criticism…he was very far from what I would take to be a model for the profession….I got the impression that pretty much every other philosopher he mentioned was just a foil – produce a sort of comic book version of them to show how much better his view was.

There has been plenty of praise for Fodor on social media, much of which made note of precisely the style I pointed out above, albeit in admiring tones. In their obit for FodorThe London Review of Books paid attention to similar issues:

Jerry Fodor, who died yesterday, wrote thirty pieces for the LRB….Many of them were on philosophy of mind…more often than not, lucidly explaining how the books under review had got it all wrong….His literary criticism included a withering review of a pair of ‘amply unsuccessful’ novels about apes; and he had this to say of Steven Pinker’s view of Hamlet in his demolition of psychological Darwinism:

And here [Pinker] is on why we like to read fiction: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’ Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

Unsurprisingly, this quote from Fodor was cited as a ‘sick burn’ on Twitter–as an example of his ‘genteel trash talk.’ But a second’s reading of Pinker, and of the response above by Fodor, shows that Fodor is again operating at his worst here. The paragraph cited is a deliberately obtuse and highly superficial reading of Pinker’s claim. Do we have to think about the specific events in Hamlet in order to ponder the ethical dilemmas that the play showcases for us? Is this why people have the emotional responses they do to Hamlet? Or is it because they are able to recognize and internalize the intractability of the issues that Hamlet raises? Do we need to specifically think about rings, dwarfs, and giants in order to specifically ponder the abstract problems that lie at the heart of the tale Fodor cites? Indeed, the many folks who have read these stories over the years seem–in their emotional responses–to have been perfectly capable of separating their concrete particulars from the concepts they traffic in. Fodor does not bother to offer a charitable reading of Pinker; he sets off immediately to scorn and ridicule. This kind of philosophy, and this kind of writing, earns plenty of applause from those who imagine philosophy to be a contact sport. But it does little to advance philosophical thinking on the issues at play.

On Congratulating A ‘Dropout’

A few years ago, I went out for dinner and drinks with some friends of mine at a Manhattan restaurant. As we placed our orders, I noticed my waiter looked familiar; he smiled, walked over, and said, “Hey professor, remember me? It’s D_; I took your Modern Philosophy class a couple of years ago.” Indeed, I did; I remembered him quite clearly as a budding comic book artist, someone who was normally quiet and reserved in class, but sometimes spoke up to offer a thoughtful comment or two. His facial expressions were often more eloquent; he frequently seemed to perk up in response to either the passages read out loud in class, or to the commentary I offered. (Truth be told, this form of feedback was highly gratifying; it often helped sustain me during our long class meetings at night.) D_ was also a thoughtful writer, keen to improve his writing, and to this end, often came to meet me in my office hours to discuss his papers. In any case, I asked him what he was up to now, fully expecting to hear a variant of the usual “I’ve got x more classes before I finish,” or “I graduated last year and am now doing y.” D_’s response was “Professor, your class changed my life; after I took it, I dropped out of college!”

My student did not offer me too elaborate an explanation of what influence my class had had on him, and given my social commitments, I could not press much further. He did say that he was now spending more time on what he really wanted to do; from my perspective, he seemed much happier than I had ever seen him before. I can only venture a guess as to what effect the content of our class–one devoted largely to sixteenth and seventeenth century metaphysics and epistemology–could have had on my student: I suspect that talking about these sorts of foundational issues might have broadened my student’s perspectives on his own life and his attendant scheme of priorities. Thinking critically in one domain can often prompt critical inquiry in others; perhaps my student had realized that he was in college for the wrong reasons; perhaps he was merely going through the motions, and that his true passions lay elsewhere. Perhaps the concentration on questions in my class that were never asked elsewhere in my student’s life had prompted him to examine further those unexamined verities in his life that were keeping him in college; the result of that inquiry might  have been to prompt him reorder his life’s priorities and make a bold decision to reconfigure how he lived it; perhaps he had realized that he had merely been molding himself into an ‘acceptable’ and ‘respectable’ form for the ‘real world.’ Perhaps philosophy had enabled the examined life and found it wanting in crucial regards. My student had made an existential choice in response.

After D_ made this pronouncement, I slapped him on the back and said, “Well done!” It’s not everyday that I congratulate a ‘drop-out.’ But D_ was sincere; and he had, like many others before him, showed that that term is far more pejorative than it needs to be. Alasdair Macintyre reportedly once said that “The point of a modern university education should be to ensure that it leaves the student entirely unfitted to the modern world.” There is a great deal to disagree with the way the modern world is structured and run; and too much of modern university education merely aids and abets those pathologies. I’m happy to have contributed, if only in the most minor of ways, to weakening one person’s allegiance to a way of life he had not chosen for himself, and had no further interest in pursuing.

The Inseparability Of The Form And Content Of Arguments

Is it more important for philosophers to argue well than it is to write well? Posed this way, the question sets up a false dichotomy for you cannot argue well without writing well. Logic is not identical with rhetoric, but the logical form of an argument cannot be neatly drawn apart from its rhetorical component. (Classical rhetoric has been insisting forever that we cannot separate form and content.) We define validity and soundness of an argument in formal semantic and syntactical terms; and unsurprisingly, those notions find their greatest traction when evaluating arguments expressed in formal languages. But philosophical disputation takes place using natural  languages; and arguments are made in order to persuade or convince or induce other changes in the epistemic make-up of our interlocutors.

We argue with someone, somewhere, in some time and context; we argue to achieve some end, whether moral, political, economic, legal. Any evaluation of the arguments we make must take these factors into consideration; without them at hand, our evaluations are sterile and pointless. (Why, after all, do we concern ourselves with notions of epistemic justice if not for the fact that some arguments are more likely to be ‘heard’ than others?) Fallacies abound in natural language arguments; correcting them is not just a matter of paying attention to the abstract logical form of the argument ‘underlying’ the sentences we have deployed; it is a matter too, or making sure we have chosen the right words, and deployed them appropriately in the correct context. To use an example from an older post, we reject a smoker’s argument that we should stop smoking on ad-hominem grounds, but the smoker really should have known better than to try to convince someone to quit while puffing away merrily and seemingly enjoying deep lungfuls of smoke. Good argument; terrible form. The same smoker would find a more receptive audience if he spoke with some feeling about how miserable his health has become over the years thanks to his smoking habit.

(On a related note, consider that when programmers evaluate ‘good code,’ they do so on the basis of not just the effective functionality of the code in accomplishing its task, which is a purely technical notion, but also on aesthetic notions: Is the code readable? Can it be modified easily? Is it ‘beautiful’? No programmer of any worth elides these notions in evaluative assessment of written code.)

There is a larger issue at play here. Philosophers do much more than just argue; sometimes they just point in a particular direction, or make us notice something that we had not seen before, or sometimes they clothe the world in a different form. These activities have little to do with arguing ‘correctly.’ They do, however, have a great deal to do with effective communication. Writing is one such form, so is speaking.

Note: The examples of great philosophers who are considered ‘terrible’ or ‘obscure’ writers–by some folks–does not diminish the point made here. Hegel and Heidegger–with due apologies to Hegel-and-Heidegger-philes–achieved their fame not just because of the quality or depth of the arguments they offered in their works but also because they wrote from particular locations, in particular times. (Some think they made terrible arguments, of course!) The sociology of philosophy has a great deal to say about these matters; more philosophers should pay attention to it.

Goethe On The ‘Inexhaustible’ Poet

In Marx’s Concept of Man, Erich Fromm credits Goethe as having “developed the idea of man’s productivity into a central point of his philosophical thinking….all decaying cultures are characterized by the tendency for pure subjectivity, while all progressive periods try to grasp the world as it is, by one’s own subjectivity, but not as separate from it.” Fromm then cites Goethe directly on the ‘poet’:

As long as he expresses only these few subjective sentences, he can not yet be called a poet, but as soon as he knows how to appropriate the world for himself, and to express it, he is a poet. Then he is inexhaustible, and can be ever new, while his purely subjective nature has exhausted itself and ceases to have anything to say….Man knows himself only inasmuch as he knows the world; he knows the world only within himself and he is aware of himself only within the world. Each new object truly recognized, opens up a new organ within ourselves.

The ‘purely subjective nature’ of man comes about because of a radical dissociation of man’s place in the world into a subject-object model and relationship; there is the world as object, and here is man, as subject. Man remains divorced, cast asunder; he can only view, and interact with, the world passively. It is finite, bounded, separate. When man sees the world as one of his own making, acting back on him to make him anew, he sees the world as the poet does, as one awaiting completion, because he himself is not complete; this world will, in its ongoing becoming, change him too. That ongoing, and yes, dialectical, relationship means that knowledge ceases to have limits; new depths become visible because there is no bottom here, other than that imposed by a static vision of an inert world awaiting discovery. Small wonder that Blake could see “a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower” and “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.” The world becomes an invented one; poets–and all those who encapsulate a ‘poetic vision’ in their being in this world–are inventors.

Goethe will not be studied in philosophy reading lists as a philosopher; we will insist on pigeonholing him as ‘only a poet’ or ‘artist’ or ‘dramatist.’ But he shows us here, quite clearly, that he is a philosopher; moreover, he tells us that philosophers are poets too–when they make us see this world anew. Perhaps by offering us an ‘insight,’ perhaps by using a ‘new language’ or ‘vocabulary.’ Science too, can do the same: its equations and wondrous panoply of unobservable objects show us one way in which it may conceive of the world in an entirely new scheme.

When we step back and observe the scene before us, we realize the triviality of the distinctions and boundaries we seek to impose on our knowledge–which is but another name for all those ways in which we interact with the world and continue to conceive it for ourselves–and see instead, its unity.

Women In Philosophy And Reconceptualizing Philosophical Method

This past Monday, on 20th April, Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, delivered the Philosophy Department’s annual Sprague and Taylor lecture at Brooklyn College. The title of her talk was ‘How Women Changed The Course of Philosophy’. Here is the abstract:

The story we tell about the development of early modern philosophy was invented by German Neo-Kantians about 150 years ago. Created to justify its proponents’ version of philosophy, it is a story that ignores the complications of seventeenth-century philosophy and its sources. In this lecture, Professor Christia Mercer uncovers the real story behind early modern rationalism and shows that many of its most original components have roots in the philosophical contributions made by women. [link added]

At one point during the talk, in referring to the contributions made by Julian of Norwich, Professor Mercer began by saying, “Julian does not offer an argument here, but rather an analysis…”. During the question and answer session, focusing on this remark, I offered some brief comments.

There is at the heart of philosophical practice, a fairly well-established and canonical notion of philosophical method: the construction of arguments, hopefully building up to a ‘system’, which are to be subjected to an examination for weaknesses. The successful arguments emerge from this crucible all the better for their trials. From this conception of philosophical method we may also derive a fundamentally adversarial conception of philosophical activity–when two philosophers meet, they are engaged in a form of intellectual conflict, with each attempting shore up the defenses of their own system and expose the deficits of the other. But perhaps philosophers could do more than just offer and refute arguments. Perhaps they could offer observations and insights that make us view the world in a different light; perhaps they could show how one thing relates to another; perhaps they could analyze a situation or a state of affairs, not in the destructive, decompositional sense, but instead, by way of showing us what has to come together, and how, to make the situation ‘hang together’; perhaps, as Wittgenstein is said to have done, they could ‘point’ and ‘lay things out for us to see.’

If understood in this way, then the business of ‘bringing more women into philosophy’ might not be just a matter of reaching out to women to ‘pull’ them in, but also of expanding our understanding of what philosophy is and how it is to be done so that its ambit will include women and the ways in which they might have been philosophers. (I could imagine, all too easily, responses along the following lines being made to some of Professor Mercer’s examples of philosophical work in the period she was discussing: Why is this philosophy? The reasons for the exclusion of women from philosophy would not just be the denial of educational opportunity or participation in philosophical institutions  but also a straightforward failure to recognize their intellectual contributions as being philosophy in the first place.) Such an understanding of philosophy and its methods and practices would, of course, bring it closer to literature and poetry as well.

Professor Mercer seemed to respond rather favorably to these remarks. I look forward to her forthcoming book on Anne Conway, in which some of the fascinating commentary she offered on reconceptualizing so-called ‘early modern rationalism’–by way of showing its dependence on bodily experience and affect–will surely be recapitulated.

Philosophical Silencing: A Follow-Up

In response to my post on an act of philosophical silencing, Wesley Buckwalter wrote the following comment (over at the NewAPPS blog, where I cross-posted):

As you know, I was the gentleman that made that remark in a private facebook thread with a close friend. If I recall correctly, people in that thread were asking about whether certain kinds of thought experiments were typically referred to as “Gettier Cases”. I said that they were, despite how inaccurate or uninformative it might be to do so, in part because of the alternative traditions you cite. I’m sorry you interpreted my remark as silencing my friends on facebook. Personally I believe that philosophers should abandon the notion of “Gettier cases” and that the practice of labeling thought experiments in this way should be discouraged. If you are interested, I have recently argued for this in two articles here ( and here (

Many thanks to Wesley for his clarification. His initial comment, which I cited, did not acknowledge the content of the other comment I had quoted, and neither did it mention the presence of “alternative traditions” as a reason for the stance that he takes in the first of the two papers he refers me to. Those papers, if I remember correctly, were not cited in the thread. So, in the comment he had initially made, it had seemed to me that the amendment offered by the first commenter had not been taken on board.(In the Gettier case paper, Wesley refers to the following article–Turri, John. 2012. In Gettier’s Wake. In S. Hetherington (Ed.) Epistemology: The Key Thinkers. Continuum Press–as citing the Indian philosopher Sriharsa as someone who has offered similar examples. I am obviously very glad to see such an acknowledgment made in a published work.)

Let me go on to say that the attitude I was interested in highlighting, even if not instantiated in this particular token, is an existent type. (As you can tell, I was trained as an Anglo-American analytical philosopher.) Which is why I was not interested in naming individuals but in pointing to the existence of an intellectual stance. To the commenter Chris, who thinks he was ‘misled’, let me direct the following question:  What were you misled about? That an unnamed individual indulged in silencing or that the silencing of academic conversations about alternative philosophical traditions exists in academic philosophy? Perhaps my excessive familiarity with such acts of silencing, thanks to twenty-three years of utter failure in provoking a conversation about Indian philosophy, led me to the kind of conclusions I drew. I don’t think the conclusion to be drawn in response to my original post is that all is good, there is nothing to see here, and that we should just move on.

I started studying philosophy twenty-three years ago. In that time, I’ve only managed to provoke conversations about alternative philosophical traditions with the following demographics: one graduate school friend of mine who asked me a few questions about Indian philosophy while we were drinking beers, one senior professor who teaches Buddhism (among other things), my dissertation adviser (an Indian) who is a practicing Buddhist, and the attendees at a conference on Eastern philosophy a few years ago. In that same period, I’ve initiated several conversations about Indian philosophy, and have had them all shot down with varying degrees of skepticism and disdain. My worst mistake was to try to talk about Buddhist theories of relational consciousness with the members of a class on consciousness who were going down the usual Nagel-Block-Rosenthal-Ramachandran-Churchland et al route.

I realized over the years that most people I talked to in philosophical academia conflated ‘Eastern philosophy’ with ‘mysticism’. In response, I would sometimes point to the ‘harder’ schools: Samkhya and Lokyata (or Carvaka). The latter, in particular, was materialist in its orientation; perhaps that would appeal to the hard-edged analytical types I hung out with, the ones so enamored of science? Sometimes I would try to talk about Nyaya;  you know, logic and inference, and all that good stuff that analytical types like and love? No dice. It never worked. I was perceived as either indulging in a kind of facile ‘We’ve done it all before!’–perhaps like someone invoking the glories of the Nubian empire in a modern conversation about technological and cultural achievements–or dragging in wishy-washy pale imitations of the real thing.  (Logic only started with Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, dontcha know?)

But, of course, those traditions were not the only ones so dismissed. Within ‘Western philosophy’ I have heard graduate students who had never read Foucault dismiss him as ‘useless’, describe feminist theory as fundamentally misguided, and the less said about critical race theory, the better.

A few weeks ago, I posted a photograph of an old family friend, a former professor of philosophy, with the following caption:

A photo of my brother and myself with Dr. Dhirendra Sharma, a man I deeply admire and respect. He is the author of _The Negative Dialectics: A Study of the Negative Dialecticism in Indian Philosophy_, _The Differentiation Theory of Meaning in Indian Logic_, a critic of India’s nuclear program back in the 1970s, (when he was writing about “appropriate technology”), an environmental activist working to preserve the Garhwal Himalayas, and going back further, an anti-Vietnam war activist when he had tenure at Michigan State. He is now in his 80s, fit as a fiddle, bright as ever. I aspire to his health and wisdom.

Posting that photograph reminded me of an incident that occurred during my thirtieth birthday. On that day, many of my graduate school friends showed up to help me celebrate. Some of us moved to my room to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. I then owned one of Professor Sharma’s books and I took it down from the shelves and thrust it toward one of my friends. Because it featured ‘meaning’ in its title, and because all of us, as analytical types, seemed suitably obeisant toward philosophy of language, I thought it might get someone interested in opening it and taking a look. Instead, it was contemptuously waved off, even when I desperately said that it invoked distinctions that were reminiscent of the Fregean distinction between sense and reference. No one accepted the book held out, and it remained unopened.

Silencing exists.

An Act Of Philosophical Silencing

A few months ago, I noticed an interesting and telling interaction between a group of academic philosophers. A Facebook friend posted a little note about how one of her students had written to her about having encountered a so-called “Gettier case” i.e., she had acquired a true belief for invalid reasons. In the email, the student described how he/she had been told the ‘right time’ by a broken clock. The brief discussion that broke out in response to my friend’s note featured a comment from someone noting that the broken clock example is originally due to Bertrand Russell. A little later, a participant in the discussion offered the following comment:

Even though the clock case is due to Russell, it’s worth noting that “Gettier” cases were present in Nyāya philosophy in India well before Russell, for instance in the work of Gaṅgeśa, circa 1325 CE. The example is of someone inferring that there is fire on a faraway mountain based on the presence of smoke (a standard case of inference in Indian philosophy), but the smoke is actually dust. As it turns out, though, there is a fire on the mountain. See the Tattva-cintā-maṇi or “Jewel of Reflection on the Truth of Epistemology.” [links added]

In response to this, one gentleman wrote:

[T]here are countless cases that are standardly referred to as gettier kinds despite author, radical diversity, historical inaccuracy

I found this response peculiar, and yet, interestingly revealing.

Naming a particular fact-pattern, one used in a standard pedagogical example, as a “Gettier case” is not an innocent act. It is fraught with significance. It attaches the name of a person, an individual philosopher, to an entire range of philosophical cases used to illustrate epistemological principles. That person, that philosopher, does not come unattached; his name brings in its train an entire philosophical tradition and serves to stamp its institutions and its personnel with the imprimatur of philosophical innovator, as worthwhile contributors to a hallowed–and well-established and recognized–tradition. Because of this naming process, in part, an entire area of philosophical work is marked off and stamped with a certain kind of ownership.

Of even more interest to me is the response I made note of. A philosophical discussion is underway, proceeding along familiar, well-worn lines. Names of well-known philosophers from well-known traditions roll off everyone’s lips. Then, an interjection is made: politely pointing out that the nomenclature in use has an etymology that is not always acknowledged. This reminder is provided, I repeat, politely. There is no snark, and pointers to references are provided for the interesting reader. It is the very model of a respectful academic contribution to a philosophical discussion; I dare say I’d call it a useful philosophical contribution for the interested scholar of philosophy.

The response to this contribution–the first one, before any welcoming acknowledgments can be made–is, roughly, to cease and desist. There’s a conversation going on; it’s following the usual well-worn path, and you’d like us to look elsewhere? The nerve. There is no acknowledgment of an alternative tradition.

This is what silencing looks like.

Addendum: In response to my post, Professor Alan Richardson of the University of British Columbia wrote to me saying:

I find it interesting that the stopped clock example, which Russell mentions in a sentence of his 1948 Human Knowledge (on p 154 of the 1948 Simon and Schuster edition) would have been known to Russell (indeed to have been derived by Russell, one imagines) from Lewis Carroll’s little 1898 essay “The Two Clocks.”

Here’s a version of the Carroll essay from the web. 

So, Russell’s example gets subsumed under “Gettier cases” and what I have to think is the inspiration for it (the Carroll essay) goes missing.  Yes, just another example of “the Matthew Effect” but given what your post was about, it seemed interesting enough.