Paul Thagard on analytic philosophy's "dogmas"

Via Brian Leiter, this post by Paul Thagard criticizes what he claims are eleven “dogmas” of “analytic philosophy”, which he describes as the attempt “to use the study of language and logic to analyze concepts that are
important for the study of knowledge (epistemology), reality
(metaphysics), and morality (ethics)”. Against this approach, Thagard recommends a revival of the classical enterprise of “natural philosophy”, which “ties epistemology and ethics closely to the cognitive sciences, and ties metaphysics closely to physics and other sciences” — a suggestion that many readers of this blog are, I’m sure, rightly sympathetic to.

However, even aside from the narrowness of his description of the analytic enterprise — certainly adherence to a strictly a priori method is a philosophical tendency in the anglophone world, but it is simply not true that it constitutes “the dominant approach” to philosophy in America or the UK — Thagard’s argument seems to me to be mostly targeted at a straw man, as nearly all of the “natural alternatives” he suggests to the supposed “dogmas of analytic philosophy” are themselves treated as dogma the mainstream philosophical community. For example, consider his criticism of dogma #9:

Thoughts are propositional attitudes. Natural alternative: instead of
considering thoughts to be abstract relations between abstract selves
and abstract sentence-like entities, accept the rapidly increasing
evidence that thoughts are brain processes.

This is a false choice, however: thoughts are widely believed to be propositional attitudes that are realized in brain processes, though of course the details of this general position are disputed in numerous ways. And while the idea that thought itself must be sentence-like can certainly be given “armchair” support — how else could we explain the logical structure of human reasoning, or even the fact that thoughts can be true or false? — it is also frequently advanced as an empirical hypothesis, as this is a natural way to explain the corresponding structure of human language.

Similarly for #10:

The structure of logic reveals the nature of reality. Natural
alternative: appreciate that formal logic is only one of many areas of
mathematics relevant to determining the fundamental nature of reality.
Then we can avoid the error of inferring metaphysical conclusions from
the logic of the day, as Wittgenstein did with propositional logic,
Quine did with predicate logic, and Kripke and Lewis did with modal

Once again, this “natural alternative” is not an alternative to the “dogma” at all: thinking that there are areas of mathematics — and physics and other sciences, perhaps — other than logic that are “relevant to determining the fundamental nature of reality” clearly does not mean denying that logic can do this as well. Moreover, certainly philosophers like Quine and David Lewis did not think their metaphysical views were not subject to any sort of correction or supplementation from the natural sciences!

As a final example, consider dogma #7:

Reason is separate from emotion. Natural alternative: appreciate that
brains function by virtue of interconnections between cognitive and
emotional processing that are usually valuable, but can sometimes lead
to error. The best thinking is both cognitive and emotional.

That link at the end goes to an earlier post where Thagard argues that “ethics should be concerned with how people can and should care about
others with whom they have social relationships, not with abstract
theories about rights and consequences” — the implication being that analytic ethicists dogmatically oppose this idea. But this is just not true: to give just one example, especially since the publication of Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” many analytic philosophers have defended the idea that “reactive attitudes” like resentment, gratitude, anger, and so on should be central to our understanding of rights, duties, and moral responsibility. Additionally, in recent decades the general topic of the relationship between reason and emotion has received a good deal of attention from English-speaking philosophers, most of it centered on rejecting what Antonio Damasio called “Descartes’ error” rather than dogmatically upholding it.

Again, I certainly don’t disagree with Thagard’s recommendation that philosophy should attend “to real world problems and relevant scientific findings”, and not only “its own history and techniques”. (It’s something I have recommended, too.) The point is just that the philosophical mainstream in the Anglophone world already does this, and so champions of natural philosophy should be claiming victory rather than painting themselves as representatives of an overlooked philosophical counterculture.

One comment

  1. Anonymous

    Right. I agree with your reservations to Thagard’s criticism. But perhaps it is worth noting, with regard to your comment on #10, that Lewis did sometimes appear to think that his metaphysical views were not subject to any sort of correction or supplementation from the natural sciences. Recall his (in)famous phrase: “I am not ready to take lessons in ontology from quantum physics as it now is.”

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