The Problem: How to discern bullshit in philosophy?

One of my concerns is the existence of an enormous amount of philosophical writings, and the seeming lack of guidance in separating, as is said, the wheat from the chaff, or, truth and importance from bullshit. The situation is this. You go to a bookstore or a library to read some non-fiction . . . what should you read? One answer is: read a textbook. In fields where there is a discernable and agreed to progress, this is a wise suggestion. However, because of the proliferation of textbooks for economic reasons, there is also the problem — perhaps a minor one — of picking the best textbooks.

My field of study has been philosophy. And the situation in philosophy is — what can I say? — very fuzzy. There is, first, the problem of demarcating the field. In some bookstores, philosophy is cataloged together with religion and “new age” literature. Second, there is a vague demarcation between continental and analytic philosophy. Third, there is an avalanche of books and especially journal articles on philosophy. How does one sift through this avalanche of literature?

In 1994 I tried to do a kind of study of influences in philosophy. I was using the computer data bank of Philosopher’s Index, which has a category of “mentioned author.” So, I compiled a list of the 100 most “influential” (meaning, most mentioned) authors from roughly 1940 to 1994. You can look at my findings here.

The thing that struck me at the time — though I did not mention or pursue the problem — was that most articles were never mentioned or commented on. This is — what can I say? — weird, because philosophy, as I conceive it, should be dialectical, meaning that it should engage in critical discussions (dialogues).

This matter of ignoring philosophers and writings needs an explanation. And the only explanation that seems plausible is an economic one. The only job a philosopher qua philosopher can do is teach; so philosophers try to get teaching positions. Since there are more philosophers than teaching positions, there is a competition for jobs. And, other things being equal, what distinguished philosophers in the quantity and quality of their publications; hence, the avalanche of publications. The writings tend to be commentaries on famous philosophers, some are commentaries on contemporaries, and others offer some purported original insight.

Now, as a student of philosophy, how do I sift through this avalanche. One way is supposedly to take a course in philosophy. But, which course? given by whom?

Reading about schools of philosophy and philosophers, there was a tradition in the ancient and medieval world to flock to hear a distinguished philosopher. This was true in a small relatively homogenous community, such as the Athenian and Roman empires, and in the Latin scholarly world of the medieval world.  One also reads of students flocking to hear Hegel or Heidegger in Germany.

But this flocking to hear a philosopher is now very rare. Who are you to read or listen to? About what?  In 1986, Charles S. Yankoski made an effort to provide some guidance, but his experiment failed through lack of money and institutional support.  Take a look at this effort here.

Place of Bullshit in Philosophy

Accepting or succumbing to bullshit is foolish; rejecting bullshit is wise.

The proposition above is an example of an appraisal, a value judgment. And what field of learning studies appraisals? According to the late philosopher Curt Ducasse, the primitive or basic subject studied by philosophy is precisely various appraisals. And the knowledge of the norms of appraisals is wisdom. A philosopher, on this line of reasoning, is a lover of — in the sense of a searcher after — wisdom, which happens to be the etymological description of philosophy.

However, knowing what wisdom is, does not make one wise. The reason is quite straightforward. Wisdom consists of knowing how to act A in given circumstances C, which can be expressed by the conditional statement.

If one is in circumstance C, one should act (or do) A.

Now, it is possible to know this rule or norm, but not know that one is in circumstance C, or not to have a clear idea of the circumstance C. But the difficulty in acting wisely is further complicated by the phenomenon called “weakness of the will.” In other words, although you know how you should act, you do not. You may be lazy, you may procrastinate, you may be pulled by some other desire, with the result, you fail to act at all, or you fail to act in a timely manner. My point is, that wisdom is one thing, and acting wisely is another. Philosophy, according to Ducasse, studies the nature of wisdom; it does not make you wise. Put otherwise, the necessary condition for acting wisely, is having wisdom. But having wisdom is not a sufficient condition for being wise.

See: C. J. Ducasse, Philosophy as a Science: Its Matter and Its Method, 1941.

 

Can we choose to believe?

“Escaping from bullshit,” in one important sense, is an elliptical expression for “escaping from bullshit beliefs.” But if you believe something, it seems that you don’t recognize it as a bullshit belief. If you did, you wouldn’t believe it. So, let us assume that there may be among your many beliefs some bullshit beliefs. Why make this assumption? Because you recognize that others have beliefs which are incompatible with your beliefs, and incompatible beliefs can’t be both true; so, one of you has to have some bullshit beliefs. Is it you?

Most of the beliefs we have we inherited from our culture. Others we obtained through observation, hearsay, and authority. It comes from listening to people we encounter, news sources, magazines, television, and now the internet.

So, if someone asks you why you believe what you do, you may answer that you learned about it from Bill, or you heard it on the radio, or you read about it on the internet, or it is in your sacred book.

The response may be: “OK, I understand the source of your information, but how do you know that this information is true?”

And instead of offering a justification for their belief, people sometimes say: “I choose to believe it.” And it is sometimes said to others: “You shouldn’t believe this,” or “you shouldn’t believe him.”

The implication is that you can choose to believe or not to believe. But, is it possible to choose to believe or not to believe?

A very detailed and insightful essay on this topic was written by William P. Alston, with the esoteric title, “The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification” (1988).


Assume that you are convinced by Pascal’s Wager that it is better to believe that God exists (in other words, you want to believe that God exists), but you don’t believe that God exists.  Can you choose to believe that God exists?

pascalswager