Eastern APA 2017: Outsider Perspectives and Compatibilist Philosophy

By Nathan Eckstrand

Note: The Dewey Lecture was recorded by the APA Blog, and a transcript is forthcoming.  This is a summary of the main points of the speech.

This year’s Eastern APA Dewey Lecture was a humorous yet contemplative look back at the trajectory of philosophy in the English speaking world.  Given by William Lycan of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the lecture focused on several significant shifts that have conditioned who is in the field and how they can conduct themselves.  Though the speech was neither a celebration nor a lament of these developments, it did focus on how philosophy must remain engaged with the rest of society, despite the fact that this can lead to a certain amount of comical discomfort for all parties.  And this, in turn, requires philosophy to remain epistemologically grounded to keep from falling into the traps of idealism and skepticism.

Lycan began with his parents, who were both accomplished, albeit in different ways (his father had a PhD in biochemistry and his mother was a concert pianist).  Unlike some other Dewey lecturers, Lycan had a privileged upbringing, attending Amherst College for undergrad and the University of Chicago for graduate school.  He first became interested in philosophy while studying language (and in particular, Chomsky’s theories of Universal Language and Generative Grammar from Syntactic Structures).  In grad school these interests shifted to the philosophy of mind, which was the subject of his dissertation.

While his intellectual development did not contain many surprises, the social context in which it took place, combined with the events of his professional life, were noteworthy.  He began college in the midst of the Vietnam era, when there was a huge influx of students trying to get deferments from the draft.  While this alone led to a shift in the place of academia in society, an even greater one—at least for Lycan’s professional development—occurred around the time he went on the job market.  At the time Lycan graduated from the University of Chicago, trained philosophers were in high demand in a way they were not before and have not been since.  The “old boys club” of academia was still in full force, and many people were being set up with a job while still completing grad school and without having to apply (including one student who had yet to begin his dissertation).  Lycan mentioned how proud he was to be offered several of the top jobs his first year on the market, at least until he realized that he was only offered jobs that were advertised.

Title IX changed all this.  Following the passage of the law, all jobs had to be announced publicly to allow every person to potentially apply.  In addition, it required all applications to be read to prevent favoritism.  The philosophy job market has never been the same since, and while it is widely agreed that greater diversity in philosophy is a positive thing, the job market has become a huge and onerous task for all involved.

Lycan ended up at Ohio State, where he began attending many social functions with his philosophy colleagues.  While enjoyable for him, it caused frustration on the part of his non-philosopher friends and family, who became exasperated by the literalness of Lycan and his colleagues.  So “funny” was the communication of the philosophers they encountered that Lycan’s friends and family began a tongue-in-cheek group aimed at “destroying philosophy in the English speaking world,” while Lycan’s partner adopted the maxim that professional philosophers should not be allowed to talk about the meanings of colloquialisms.

After commenting on the role philosophy played in his community, Lycan discussed the community of philosophy.  It seems clear, he said, that the era of “big names” in philosophy (he specifically mentioned G.E. Moore and Rawls, among one or two others) is over, in part because of Title IX and the breaking up of the boys club.  Yet it is also the result of the increasing specialization of the discipline such that many areas of philosophy no longer encounter one another.  Finally, philosophy is becoming more professionalized, as now undergrads are encouraged to act like grad students and repeat the views of their professors, while grad students are in many ways supposed to act like full professors.

Lycan felt that philosophers need to resist this trend, though not by going back to the old boys club.  Rather, the field needs an interdisciplinary approach to encourage dialogue and engagement with ‘outsider perspectives.’  Few philosophers of the past embarked on their projects with fully-fledged philosophical credentials (Locke and Hume being good examples), but came to their theories in a roundabout way that led them through other professions.  While there are many ways an outsider perspective can be encouraged, Lycan specifically claimed that every philosophy graduate admissions committee should reserve a place for an accomplished student trained in another field.

Nevertheless, philosophy must remain well-grounded with an understanding of what justifies philosophical beliefs.  It is for this reason that Lycan gave three criteria to keep in mind: common sense, the discoveries of current science, and intuition.  The first criteria is necessary to keep from becoming too idealistic—and accepting anything—or skeptical—and accepting nothing.  The second is necessary to remain aware of what empirical study demonstrates, especially because science is much better at producing consensus than philosophy.  Philosophy deals with abstract matters that only through great difficulty, and only for short periods of time, create consensus.  The importance of empirical evidence in reaching any conclusion necessitates that philosophy communicate with fields gathering such data.

Yet if it only used common sense and science, philosophy would get very little done.  This is why philosophy requires intuition, or “seemings.”  All humans have intuitions about what is or should be the case, and philosophy can use these feelings as evidence to make arguments in the more abstract realms of metaphysics and ethics, among others.  The reason for this is that intuitions can be considered epistemologically sound, and thus truthful, if they are ‘explanatorily coherent.’  In other words, if the intuitions fit with what we know via common sense and science, then they can be part of our philosophical arguments.

Lycan defended this theory against claims that it sets up an undefended epistemological foundation and thus begs the question, saying that there are no specific intuitions which the theory necessitates must be true.  Rather, the intuitions that have a truth value are those which meet the principle of credulity, which says that—all things being equal—we should always prefer what seems to be true (or what fits with what we already believe).  So Lycan is not defending any particular hypotheses, nor necessitating any be true; he is saying that as long as our intuitions meet basic logical standards, we are justified in treating them as such.  This is nothing other than a form of ‘epistemological conservatism’ that avoids the proliferation of theories by using criteria like testability and simplicity.

By maintaining such an approach, philosophy can incorporate outsider perspectives and search for new theories while not becoming lost among all the new possible ideas such an approach would produce.  Lycan concluded with an appeal to remaining open, saying that idealism and skepticism may yet be proven to be true (if new developments in fields like quantum mechanics, among others, yield fruit and produce a new reflective equilibrium).  His approach does not necessitate that any school of thought be accepted or rejected, only that the easy road to certain speculative or cynical ideologies be precluded.

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