Philosophy as philosophizing

Recently I was introduced by Jacob Feldman to a video and a corresponding article by Eric Dietrich who poses the question: “Is there progress in philosophy?” And his answer is that there is not.

He does not tell us what philosophy is, though he selects some allegedly philosophical problems and some metaphilosophical positions as examples of unresolvable philosophical disputes.

I want you to listen to him and read his article. Afterwards I will give you my commentary.

Erich Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy, Essays in Philosophy, 12:329-344 (2011).


The first thing that I would like to say is that his view of philosophy is too narrow or myopic. The broader view is that philosophy is really “philosophizing.” It is an activity whose goal is to resolve disputes and hopefully to come to agreements. This activity is called by Mortimer J. Adler “dialectic.” See his book: Dialectic (1927). A related approach can be called “critical philosophy,” as presented by C.D. Broad in “Critical and Speculative Philosophy,” Contemporary British Philosophy (1924): 77-100.

See also my: The Aim of Liberal Education (2003)

As with any activity, a critical discussion can be done with various degrees of proficiency. In this sense, there can be progress in the acquisition of such a proficiency.

As to solving problems, I will mention some which have been solved.

The first is the clarification that existence is not a predicate. This solution has been attributed to Kant, but there are better modern expositions. And since this matter is relevant to an argument for God’s existence, see: C. D. Broad, “The Validity of Belief in a Personal God,” Hibbert Journal 24 (1925): 32-48.

The second concerns the credibility of miracles. See: C. D. Broad, “Hume’s theory of the credibility of miracles,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 17 (1916-1917), pp. 77-94.

The third concerns the problem of a free will and determinism. The solution consists of reframing the problem as contrasting doing something freely with being coerced to do something. This solution is referred as “compatibilism.”

In short, there has been progress in philosophy in discarding superstitions and the cobwebs of language.

Further Commentary:

1. He takes Aristotle as a “paradigm?” philosopher. But is Aristotle a philosopher because he has scientific speculations? Aristotle, qua scientist was wrong about many things. And, Aristotle qua philosopher has also been criticised by other philosophers, and if these other philosophers are correct, then philosophical speculation has indeed advanced.

2. As an example of philosophy not having resolved any philosophical problems, he assumes that as to the question whether there is a God or not, there is no solution. Here he is wrong. The fact that there are people who disagree, what does that show? Can their reasoning be evaluated? Yes, relative to some agreed to standards, such as non-contradiction and compatibility with the findings of science. I pose to you the problem of finding fault with the reasoning of C. D. Broad, “The Validity of Belief in a Personal God,” Hibbert Journal 24 (1925): 32-48.

3. On the assumption that philosophy does not progress, he cites three philosophers who try to answer why this is so: Colin McGinn, Thomas Nagel, and James Sterba. By my lights, the assumption is wrong. But it does not exclude the intractability of some sorts of questions.

John Locke on escaping from bullshit

“. . . The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity: but every one must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge;– which certainly had been very much more advanced in the world, if the endeavours of ingenious and industrious men had not been much cumbered with the learned but frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or unintelligible terms, introduced into the sciences, and there made an art of, to that degree that Philosophy, which is nothing but the true knowledge of things, was thought unfit or incapable to be brought into well-bred company and polite conversation. Vague and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard and misapplied words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance, and hindrance of true knowledge. To break in upon the sanctuary of vanity and ignorance will be, I suppose, some service to human understanding; though so few are apt to think they deceive or are deceived in the use of words; or that the language of the sect they are of has any faults in it which ought to be examined or corrected, that I hope I shall be pardoned if I have in the Third Book dwelt long on this subject, and endeavoured to make it so plain, that neither the inveterateness of the mischief, nor the prevalency of the fashion, shall be any excuse for those who will not take care about the meaning of their own words, and will not suffer the significancy of their expressions to be inquired into…..”

(John Locke, Epistle to the Reader, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689)

The Social Contract and Its Mismanagement

The social contract is the idea that morality and political arrangements are to be justified by social agreements. And I totally agree with this. This is the ideal of anarchism.

I suppose that the original historical source of this idea is from the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in which the Hebrews make a covenant (agreement) with God. God gives them 10 rules by which they are to live, and if they do so, they will be rewarded in heaven. Except if the deal is not accepted, they go to hell. Not quite a free agreement, ey!

For the heyday of social contract theories, see the Wikipedia entry for: Social contract

In an earlier blog, I pointed out the mismanagement of the social contract by John Rawls: Too much amnesia in the Original Position of John Rawls.

And in a still earlier blog, I pointed out the mismanagement of Rousseau’s social contract by Ian Shapiro: (2) Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”.

In this blog I will point out how Immanuel Kant mismanaged the social contract.

There has been a great deal of effort (exegesis) to tease out of Kant a coherent proposal for grounding morality — with no positive results. And the reason for Kant’s failure is easily explained, but the reason for this failure has, as far as I know, eluded everyone.

What has not been noticed is that the social contract is between “rational beings.” And these “rational beings” are God, angels, and the human noumenal self (=soul). And besides being rational beings — and this is the missed part by all commentators: they are all IMMORTAL!

And whatever the rules which are agreed to by these immortals, must apply to all of them. The fact that the (human) soul is attached to a human body is a peculiarity of interest only to humans. If a universal rule is to be adopted for all concerned, it cannot be a rule serving only a particular interest of humans, such as not to die.

I could go on and point out the consequences of this line of thinking, but I will not. I will simply say that Kant’s ethics is grounded in science fiction.

Philosophy as Hermeneutics

As Curt Ducasse pointed out in Philosophy as a Science (1941), there are many conceptions of the nature of philosophy. And there is one which I would like to focus on: philosophy as hermeneutics.

The conception of hermeneutics which I want to focus on is the techniques for the interpretation of the Christian Bible. It is taken for granted (assumed) that the Bible is the word of God, revealed to some individuals. As such, because God is conceived as not a liar, everything in the Bible is taken to be true. However, there are passages which seem to say falsehoods and seem to be contradictory. So, techniques of interpretation are introduced in such a manner as to make the Bible speak only the truth. Look at the Wikipedia articles: hermeneutics and Biblical hermeneutics.

When I read philosophical writings, many of them seem to be written in the same reverential manner as the writings of theologians. They want or assume that the author wrote in a sensible manner and wrote the truth, and they do hermeneutical acrobatics to make it so.

The curious fact is that the authors chosen for such hermeneutical exercises are authors who are on the face of it totally esoterically obscure. And the authors who are clear are ignored. See my discussion at: C. D. Broad: The Default Philosopher of the Century.

On Richard Wolff and worker-owned enterprises

Richard Wolff focuses on the issue of what is called, “exploitation.” This is the fact that, for example, a factory owner, or a CEO of some corporation receives an income many times greater than an employee. This greater income is due to receiving the “surplus value” or “profit” from an enterprise.

Wolff’s proposal is to legally convert private enterprises [I take it of some large size] into worker-owned enterprises on the model of the Mondragon enterprise in Spain.

Wolff is trying to satisfy a principle of equality in outcome.

I, in contradistinction, am not driven by any principle of an equality of outcome, but rather I am driven by a principle for an equality of opportunity. I want a universal right for access to subsistence, and I see this demand being satisfied by allowing everyone a right of free access to subsistence land.

Thus, I do not propose barring free enterprises, nor exploitation, nor surpluses, nor profits. In my arrangement, a private entrepreneur could actually be beneficial to those who cannot help themselves, i.e., those who cannot survive independently, but can do so by being directed.

And concerning those who can help themselves independently, the entrepreneur will have to lure them with a reward which is greater than that which they could eke out by their own efforts, or efforts of those who have combined in some co-operative manner. In other words, he will be compelled by the circumstances to minimize his profits. Thus, Wolff’s desire for eliminating “exploitation” in factories will tend to be achieved by my proposal.

In my thought experiment with Crusoe and Friday on an island, I imagined that they agreed to a division of the island into two equal parts, but that Crusoe possessed a rifle with bullets, and that the island had many feral pigs. Crusoe would let Friday use the gun on the condition that Friday share his kills with Crusoe.

Since this arrangement was better than what Friday could manage on his own without a rifle, he agreed to the deal. This is an example of an agreed to exchange where Crusoe is “exploiting” Friday. But this is not an example of capitalism because Friday is not forced to accept the deal at the cost of starvation (by not having free access subsistence land), because, after all, he still can hunt pigs with a spear, a bow, or some form of trap. It is simply that he can more easily shoot two pigs in a much shorter time than it would take to get even one pig by an alternative method.

We can generalize from this example to say that Crusoe will be “rewarded” if he can come up with some appealing invention or idea — including some form of entertainment. [As does Wilt Chamberlain in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974)] But the reward will tend to be short-lived. For example, Friday could — hypothetically speaking — make his own rifle and bullets. And someone else can become more entertaining than Wilt Chamberlain.

In our current society, there are patent laws, which ensure a monopoly and profits. On the island, there are no patent laws.

Too much amnesia in the Original Position of John Rawls

John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice (1971) posits a group of rational people who are told to deliberate on rules of justice for a life they will have after being transported into some unpredictable human condition in some unpredictable institutional situations.

He concludes that the only rational choice is to agree on two principles. The following formulation here will suffice:

The two principles of justice are the liberty principle and the difference principle. The two principles are intended to apply to the basic structure of society–the fundamental political and economic arrangements–as opposed to particular actions by governmental officials or individual statutes. The liberty principle requires that the basic structure provide each citizen with a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties — such as freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and due process of law. The difference principle requires that inequalities in wealth and social position be arranged so as to the benefit the worst off group in the world. Rawls states that the two principles are lexically ordered, with the liberty principle taking precedence over the difference principle in the case of conflict.

As it turns out, although the altered condition of the people in the Original Position is unpredictable, their transported institutional situation seems to be a liberal democratic society with a capitalist economy. So, in effect they are asked to write a meta-law for, let’s say, the Constitution of the United States. In effect, the second principle would require the introduction of either a right to a job for all or a basic income for all, and perhaps a free universal health care.

What these people in the Original Position seem to have forgotten is that they are animals on earth who need access to subsistence, and that they can get this subsistence if they have a free access to land. Before the contents of some agreed to rule is adopted, it is first necessary to make agreements in the first place. So, it seems that the first order of business is to come up with two meta-rules: Meta-Rule 1: Make Agreement (on Rules) rather than resort to coercion (War); Meta-Rule 2: Abide by the agreements (Rules).

Really, instead of the contrived Original Position, a more historically realistic situation is envisioned by John Stuart Mill. He imagines a group of colonists arriving at some uninhabited land.

Book II, Chapter 1. Principles of Political Economy:

In considering the institution of property as a question in social philosophy, we must leave out of consideration its actual origin in any of the existing nations of Europe. We may suppose a community unhampered by any previous possession; a body of colonists, occupying for the first time an uninhabited country; bringing nothing with them but what belonged to them in common, and having a clear field for the adoption of the institutions and polity which they judged most expedient; required, therefore, to choose whether they would conduct the work of production on the principle of individual property, or on some system of common ownership and collective agency.

If private property were adopted, we must presume that it would be accompanied by none of the initial inequalities and injustices which obstruct the beneficial operation of the principle in old societies. Every full grown man or woman, we must suppose, would be secured in the unfettered use and disposal of his or her bodily and mental faculties; and the instruments of production, the land and tools, would be divided fairly among them, so that all might start, in respect to outward appliances, on equal terms. It is possible also to conceive that in this original apportionment, compensation might be made for the injuries of nature, and the balance redressed by assigning to the less robust members of the community advantages in the distribution, sufficient to put them on a par with the rest. But the division, once made, would not again be interfered with; individuals would be left to their own exertions and to the ordinary chances, for making an advantageous use of what was assigned to them. If individual property, on the contrary, were excluded, the plan which must be adopted would be to hold the land and all instruments of production as the joint property of the community, and to carry on the operations of industry on the common account. The direction of the labour of the community would devolve upon a magistrate or magistrates, whom we may suppose elected by the suffrages of the community, and whom we must assume to be voluntarily obeyed by them. The division of the produce would in like manner be a public act. The principle might either be that of complete equality, or of apportionment to the necessities or deserts of individuals, in whatever manner might be conformable to the ideas of justice or policy prevailing in the community.

Examples of such associations, on a small scale, are the monastic orders, the Moravians, the followers of Rapp, and others: and from the hopes, which they hold out of relief from the miseries and iniquities of a state of much inequality of wealth, schemes for a larger application of the same idea have reappeared and become popular at all periods of active speculation on the first principles of society. In an age like the present [1848], when a general reconsideration of all first principles is felt to be inevitable, and when more than at any former period of history the suffering portions of the community have a voice in the discussion, it was impossible but that ideas of this nature should spread far and wide. The late revolutions in Europe have thrown up a great amount of speculation of this character, and an unusual share of attention has consequently been drawn to the various forms which these ideas have assumed: nor is this attention likely to diminish, but on the contrary, to increase more and more.

Rawls’ problem is caused by starting off with a bad idea of justice. Justice, in short, is simply the virtue of keeping to your agreements.

Anyway, here is Noam Chomsky’s view of Rawls:

Origin of Capitalism

In the following blog, Robert Paul Wolff answers how capitalism started. Taken from: The Philosopher’s Stone

Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Christopher Walsh posts the following interesting question in the comments section of this blog:

dear professor wolff

the fact of primitive accumulation seems a particularly telling criticism of Nozick style justifications of capitalism because it hoists them on their own petard – what is primitive accumulation but a particularly egregious form of coercive property rights violation i.e. theft. I sometimes wonder whether capitalism could be justified if there had been no primitive accumulation and everyone started out with equal shares of resources. Perhaps the appropriate response is that capitalism could never have come into being in such circumstances. What do you think?

I have had my say about Nozick’s book in the article [ Robert Nozick’s Derivation of the Minimal State,”Arizona Law Journal, 1977 ]archived at [follow the link at the top of this page], so I shan’t repeat myself here. But the larger question about the conditions under which capitalism came into existence, or could come into existence, is worth some discussion, because it is an opportunity to expose a fundamental defect in the style of thinking characteristic of those of all political complexions who defend capitalism.

It is of course obvious that in some sense everyone did start with equal shares of resources, if we go back far enough to a time when there were no property rights at all, no law, no organized society, indeed perhaps no homo sapiens sapiens, but just bands of homo neanderthalensis. But let us for a moment engage in the kind of “thought experiment” that anarcho-capitalists, libertarians, and other such-like lovers of capitalism so favor, and which is Bob Nozick’s stock in trade. Imagine a society of men and women in which everyone farms a plot of land or plies a trade, and in which, on market day, they all gather in the town square to exchange what they have produced for what they need: potatoes for shoes, cloth for chickens, hats for strawberries, and so forth. How might capitalism as we know it emerge out of this idyllic starting point? Well, one imaginative chap who had read a little Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman on a rainy day, might step forth in the town square and in a loud voice announce that he is prepared to hire some sturdy lads and lasses to work a good plot of land he has located. The land should yield a thousand bushels of wheat a year, he says, and he is prepared to give the ten farmers he seeks to hire fifty bushels of wheat a piece for their labor [numbers for illustration only — I am a philosopher, so I haven’t a clue how much wheat one farmer can grow in a year]. Everyone looks at him as though he had lost his senses. “Why on earth should we give you half of the crop we raise with the sweat of our brows and the pain of our backs?” they want to know. “Well” he says, I had the idea first, and besides I found the land, so I have decided to take half the crop for myself.” The poor sap gets no takers, and goes back to the library [they do have libraries] to see whether he can find another book that will give him the clue to becoming a capitalist.

First he tries some old Puritans, who preach the virtues of discipline, self-sacrifice, and the deferral of gratification. Apparently the secret to becoming a capitalist is to live a life of self-denial and carefully put to one side a part of every year’s crop, or a portion of every year’s pile of shoes — whatever happens to be one’s way of making a living. So he tries this, and sure enough it seems to work. After a year of hard farming labor, he sets aside ten of the one hundred bushels of wheat he has grown, which he exchanges for some additional tools and better seed. Year after year, he keeps at it, and he does indeed prosper, so much so that he is visibly better off than those of his fellows who are less able or willing to engage in disciplined self-denial. But he still does not have anyone working for him, because whenever he tries to hire some chaps to farm his land, he finds that he must either offer them the full product of their labor, which doesn’t do him any good whatsoever, or he must offer them less than the product of their labor, in which case they laugh at him and go back to their own land.

Well, twenty years go by, and our aspiring capitalist is getting on in life, so he decides to go back to the library for one last search of the available books. There he stumbles on a copy of Capital, and after he has plowed through the mysterious and quite unhelpful discussions of the fetishism of commodities and the working day [what, he wonders, are factories], he comes upon Part VIII “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation.” The heavens open, the angels sing, and he realizes that he has found the Promised Land. Off he goes back to his village, where he proceeds to use the little bit extra he has saved by his rigorous self-denial to hire a few bully boys who prefer beating up farmers to working the land. They pretty quickly drive the hard-working farmers from the good land, and stand ready to guard it for its new owner, our capitalist hero. Now, when he goes to the square and offers to pay fifty bushels of wheat for enough work to produce one hundred bushels of wheat, the dispossessed farmers, driven from their land, have no choice but to accept his offer. Agricultural capitalism has arrived. Can financial capitalism be far behind?

Modern-day apologists for capitalism simply assume without explanation that a few people will own the means of production — the state standing behind them to protect that ownership with the full force of law and police — while the many have nothing but their labor and are therefore forced to sell that labor to the owners of the means of production for a wage. These apologists focus all their attention on the wage bargain struck in the labor market, worrying endlessly about whether it is a bargain “freely arrived at,” without ever really asking themselves how the participants in the wage bargain came to be in the situation that defines their relative bargaining power.

To answer Christopher Walsh’s question simply, capitalism never develops out of a situation in which everyone has an equal share of the resources, unless first a process of expropriation and primitive accumulation has taken place.

Robert Paul Wolff’s Blog

I have just discovered that Robert Paul Wolff has had a blog since 2007. I have read some of it, and find nothing substantial to disagree with. Actually, I have in the past read some of his published writings, and have found them to be insightful concerning anarchism, capitalism, and most political matters.

I encourage you to browse his blog: The Philosopher’s Stone

As an example of his wit, here is one of his blogs.

Sunday, March 14, 2021
I am sure all of you are fully familiar with this [below] and can probably quote it from memory, but for those who have somehow failed to watch it, this is a must. It is the functional equivalent of two semesters’ study of Karl Marx and one semester study of the foundations of anarchism.

Sunday, January 15, 2017
Now that you have all had a chance to view the three minute clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, let me ruin it for you by explaining its deeper meaning [yes, Virginia, it has a deeper meaning. For serious Marxists, everything has a deeper meaning.] What makes the scene work, comedically, is the utter failure of the Anarcho-syndicalist cowflop collecting peasants to understand King Arthur, and his utter inability to understand them. The source of the missed communication is that they exist at different stages in the historical development of the social relations of production, and hence their understanding of social reality is encoded in different and incompatible ideological rationalisations of the ruling class. [of course, what also makes the scene work comedically is that the writers of the Monty Python sketches have pitch perfect senses of humor, but that goes without saying.]

The impossibility of someone living in Feudal England understanding the laws of motion of a capitalist economy also, by the way, demonstrates that the knowledge conditions posited by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice under what he calls the “veil of ignorance” are epistemologically incoherent, as I demonstrated in my book Understanding Rawls, But the Monty Python crew, being essentially overgrown Oxbridge undergraduates, probably did not realize that. [If they studied at Cambridge rather than Oxford, they might have taken their understanding of anarchism from my In Defense of Anarchism, because for some while it was required reading for the Moral Science Tripos.]

If you would like me to ruin one of your favorite Marx Brothers sketches, feel free to ask.

The Right to be a Free Peasant = The Right to a Free Homestead

Recently I have discovered Distributism. This is a position defended by Hillaire Belloc in The Servile State, 1912, and by G.K Chesterton in The Outline of Sanity, 1926. And I have been listening and watching Laurie M. Johnson talking about Distributism.

Distributism is the recommendation that everyone should have a right to free subsistence land. [It abstracts from the problem of the type of government, which is addressed by anarchism.]

As I followed this discussion, three things struck me as being missed. The first, is that there were many writers who expressed the same view, but who are not known or ignored. The second is the myopic focus of the discussion to what is occurring in the United States and Great Britain. But the reality is that there are indigenous people and people without states who live off the land. Also there are all sorts of populations within states that live off the land in villages or homesteads. The third thing which is not taken account of is anthropology and the origin of the State.

(1) Here is some literature advocating a free access to subsistence land:

Thomas Spence, The Real Rights of Man, 1775.

William Ogilvie, The Right of Property in Land, 1781.

Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, 1795-6.

Charles Hall, The Effects of Civilization on the People in European States, 1805.

Thomas Skidmore, The Rights of Man to Property, 1829,

William Thomas Thornton, A Plea for Peasant Proprietors, 1848.

John Stuart Mill, Socialism, 1879.

Anton Menger, The Right to the Whole Produce of Labour, 1899. [See: Critical remarks on Anton Menger’s approach to Socialism]

George Cadbury (and Tom Bryan), The Land and the Landless, 1908.

(2) People all over the world live in subsistence villages. Below is an example of life in an Eastern European village:

See also: We have everything but we have no money

(3) Concerning anthropology: Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021)

Concerning the State: Franz Oppenheimer, The State, 1914.

Blurriness of Political and Economic Language

Political and economic talk is totally blurry because of ambiguity and vagueness. The only way to make one’s way through it is to tag these terms to particular persons. In other words, make them relative to the person using the term.

But even this will not solve the muddle because of psittacism — talking like a parrot without any understanding. And a related problem is that of what Susan Stebbing called “potted” or “canned” speech [Chapter 6, Potted Thinking, Thinking to Some Purpose, 1939]. This is the use of catchwords and slogans without any backing. So, it is pointless to talk to someone who uses words and phrases without the ability to supply a clarification through a definition.

I don’t know why, but the following TED presentation by Kajsa Ekis Ekman in 2014 sticks with me as an example of someone who wants to sincerely give a definition, but fails. She talks instead about the strategies and effects of a capitalist economy, and recommends democratization of the workplace.

Now, compare this talk with that of G.A. Cohen: Criticism of Capitalism by G. A. Cohen, reflecting on Al Capp’s creature, the Shmoo