Review of Gary Gutting’s What Philosophers Know, part 1

In my post on leaving philosophy, I said that “I think philosophy gets even fewer real results than the meager results that philosophers have sometimes claimed,” linking to the Amazon page for What Philosophers Know, by Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting.

As an explanation for my comment, I’m going to do a three-part blog review of Gutting’s book. The first part of my review will correspond to part I of the book, which is subtitled “The limits of philosophical argument.” Gutting conveys the main point of the section when he says:

How often have we heard (or told others) that Quine refuted the analytic-synthetic distinction, that Kripke proved that there are necessary a priori truths, and that Gettier showed that knowledge cannot be defined as justified true belief? But, although I entirely agree that Quine, Kripke, and Gettier have achieved something of philosophical importance, a careful reading of their exemplary texts does not reveal any decisive arguments for the conclusions they are said to have established.

I think Gutting’s selection of the three claims (about Quine, Kripke, and Gettier) represent a nice variety, in terms of how plausible the claims are. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who thought Quine refuted the analytic-synthetic distinction, and based on the PhilPapers survey, the analytic-synthetic distinction seems to be alive and well. With Kripke, on the other hand, I do get the impression that a lot of philosophers think Kripke’s arguments are decisive, though I’ve personally never found them convincing. With Gettier, though, his critique of the JTB analysis of knowledge seems to me about as good a candidate for a conclusive philosophical argument as there could be. (Non-philosophers: don’t take my word for it. The Gettier paper is short and easy to read, so go read it!)

For this reason, I find the discussion of Gettier especially interesting, and I actually think Gutting makes a good point:

If I say that all women are under six feet tall, then the fact that a women is six-foot-four refutes my claim. But the force of the argument depends on the obviousness of the counterexample. In just what sense are the Gettier cases obvious? I suggest we can fruitfully judge the obviousness of a claim by the epistemic price of refusing to accept it. If I’m presented with a woman who certainly looks well over six feet and whose height has just been measured (by competent judges) as over six feet, denying her height requires me to deny the evidence of my own senses and the validity of a measurement I have every reason to think is reliable. To maintain my claim that there are no women over six feet will involve me in a cascade of epistemic absurdities that makes holding on to my claim a common-sense impossibility.

Gettier counterexamples do not have this sort of obviousness.

Gutting reinforces his point by giving examples of philosophers who’ve defended the justified true belief analysis of knowledge in spite of Gettier, and by noting an x-phi study showing that “non-philosophers are far from unanimous regarding Gettier intuitions.”

I think all of that is right, and I’d add that not only is Gettier’s argument not as decisive as our evidence that there are women over six feet tall, it’s hardly as decisive as the evidence for the major findings of 20th-century science. I say this in spite of the fact that it still seems to me that the Gettier cases are cases of justified true belief without knowledge. The distinction here is between what seems true and what’s genuinely obvious. I know in my past thinking about philosophy, I haven’t always paid enough attention to that distinction, and I suspect many philosophers are guilty of the same failing.

I find Gutting less convincing, though, when he claims that philosophical reflection on the work of Quine, Kripke, and Gettier has generated some knowledge other than what those philosophers claimed. Gutting claims, for example, that Quine has showed us that the analytic-synthetic distinction cannot be defined in non-modal terms, and that in most cases “justified true belief” is the correct definition of knowledge.

An obvious worry, which (unless I’ve missed something) Gutting doesn’t address is this: if Gettier’s arguments aren’t decisive, what are the chances that there will be better reasons for accepting claims like these? If we use the standard “to deny it involves as much absurdity as denying that there are women over six feet tall,” what are the chances that Gutting has reasons his claims that meets that standard?

Indeed, I can think of specific reasons to be skeptical. Maybe no one has given a good definition of the analytic-synthetic distinction in non-modal terms, but I think that’s at best weak evidence that no such definition could be given. And it seems confused to talk about a definition working in most cases: if you go around trying to determine whether things are human by checking whether they’re featherless bipeds, you’ll get the right answer most of the time, but it would be a mistake to say “the featherless biped definition of humanity works in most cases.”

Now, I don’t claim these criticisms are decisive rebuttals to what Gutting says about the analytic-synthetic distinction, or what he says about knowledge. I do think it’s clear, though, that Gutting’s reasons for his claims aren’t any more decisive than Gettier’s reasons for denying that justified true belief is knowledge. And I don’t think Gutting has shown that there are very many philosophical claims that are well-established in any sense, or that there are any philosophical claims with truly decisive arguments in their favor.

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  1. I don’t think Gutting has shown that there are very many philosophical claims that are well-established in any sense, or that there are any philosophical claims with truly decisive arguments in their favor.

    As I understand it, part of Gutting’s point is that philosophers almost never have truly decisive arguments — and, even so, philosophical claims can be well-established. The argument for the pseudo-Quinean claim that the analytic-synthetic distinction cannot be defined in non-modal terms is, roughly, inductive: all the failed attempts to give such a non-modal definition. As an inductive argument, it’s not `truly decisive’, but it is sufficient (or so Gutting would claim, on this reading) to establish its conclusion well.

    So Gutting’s critical point is that philosophers purport to use one set of methods and standards of good reasoning — deductive arguments from uncontroversial premises — while actually using very different methods and standards — non-deductive arguments whose premises, in turn, depend on somewhat subjective reactions to thought experiments. And he himself does not purport to use the first set of methods and standards.

  2. I think you may have put your finger on part of what I find so frustrating about philosophy, something that probably deserves a post to itself.

    But for now: do you really think the “pseudo-Quinean point” deserves to be counted as an item of philosophical knowledge?

    Look at it this way: if you heard there was a new paper out in a major journal claiming to provide a non-modal definition of analyticity, how confident would you be, based on past failures, that that definition must not work either? (Granted: I’d be pretty skeptical, because in general giving definitions rigorous enough to make philosophers happy is hard. But that doesn’t give any reason to be skeptical in particular of non-modal definitions of analyticity.)

  3. If theology isn’t a subject than the odds that “god exists” is 0 but there is some evidence for theology. Some phenomena needn’t exist for it to be a subject. Otherwise ufology wouldn’t be a subject either. You and Dawkins must mean something different by subject, ie, you must mean something must have been proven to exist for one to study it. But if this were true there would be no scientific progress because only known phenomena are subjects (hence exist) so nothing new is ever found.

  4. Chris Hallquist

    I know, Dawkins is playing with the definition of “subject” a bit for rhetorical effect. I would hope that if he asked someone “what subject did you study in school?” and they said “theology,” he wouldn’t object, “but theology isn’t a subject!”

    But I think you misunderstood my substantiative point. I never said that you can’t study something unless we know it exists. Rather, my point was that there are no such thing as “theological facts,” and that it’s hard to criticize someone for ignoring the best evidence for the existence of God when there’s no consensus on what that best evidence is.

    Embarrassingly, for theology, theology may come out looking worse off than ufology here. With ufology, there are at least facts about what observations have been reported, and you can expect a critic to be reasonably well aware of those facts. Theology, though, doesn’t claim to be based on reported observations, and so can’t even claim that much!

  5. Well I agree with your substantive point which is lost on most who take the bible as an inspired text from which facts can be derived. One might instead say “theology has many contradictory subjects” and this wouldn’t be denigrating religion in a cheap way.

    I once had class mate from Kenya who claimed he studied science as a subject in school. “What is Science?” I asked. He didn’t understand why we had distinct scientific subjects. To him it was all just science. So I ask him what science is (careful empirical study) and he really had no answer.

    I work for a potential future catholic priest who has cerebral palsy. He has an IQ of 134. Right now I am working on convincing him that the bible has passages (even whole books!) which are egregious to his own values.

    I guess I am much more like Robert Wright than Hitchen’s or Dawkins. I am practical though, we need curmudgeons of the human condition too on-board like P.Z. Myers or Robin Hanson.

    (Hanson has a great blog BTW!!)

    My goal is to convince christians that portions of the bible aren’t sacred and need to be edited out because they themselves disagree with with what previous author’s of the text stood for in terms of values. The point of all of this is that we must make distinctions that matter. Christians helped end slavery, fought for the rights and suffrage of women, helped end WW2 through both science and engineering and also giving their lives in battle.

    OF course, most of what I like about christianity is a recent development. And that is why the bible needs to be edited.

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