I’ve recently been diverting myself quite enjoyably with the opening chapters of Richard Double’s Metaphilosophy and Free Will.1 By a “metaphilosophy,” Double means an interrelated set of views about what the enterprise of what philosophy is, what it can achieve, and the desires we happen to have for philosophy. He identifies a number of different possible metaphilosophies — including philosophy not a pursuit of truth by as a form of edifying literature, philosophy as an attempt to improve human well-being, or philosophy an attempt to find underpinnings for some system of belief like common sense or religion. Double’s own metaphilosophy is something he calls Philosophy as Continuous with Science, which is the attempt to have a system of beliefs that tracks truth as well as possible, whether or not it underpins our common sense, is edifying, or improves our well-being. As he describes it, Philosophy as Continuous with Science sounds a lot like what I have called The Bitter Path of Hard-Nosed Realism. Double gives a number of reasons for why one might be attracted to Philosophy as Continuous with Science, one set of which is disarmingly self-revealing:
Another part of my answer has to do with the vision of the philosopher as the courageous truth-seeker who faces the direst of facts with Stoic detachment. (For me, the persona of W.K. Clifford I derived from reading “The Ethics of Belief” was very moving, though I think Clifford’s argument is hyperbolic and philosophically weak.) Those of us who like Philosophy as Continuous with Science can build a heroic vision of that metaphilosophy which is very ego-gratifying. In addition, one must not underestimate the titillation and ego-boost we receive from shocking lay persons and other philosophers with our uncommonsensical views, especially when we can claim that whole areas of philosophy that others hold dear are based on confusions.2
And reading these words I have one of those “that’s just how I feel!” moments.
That said, there’s also a recipe for intellectual humility in Double. He accepts the Humean distinction between facts and values and, just as I do, rejects the notion that there are any objective values. But when we reject the view that there are any objective values, we must reject the claim that there is anything that we ought to all desire. There are just whatever desires actually-existing individuals happen to have as a matter of brute psychological fact. And since choice among metaphilosophies includes our desires for philosophy, no one can say that any metaphilosopohy founded on a desire that someone actually happens to have is objectively worse than one founded on someone else’s desire.
Double also plausible notes that there are high-level preferences among different possibilities in philosophy (he gives the examples the choices between skeptical and non-skeptical epistemologies, realist versus instrumentalist interpretations of theories, conservative versus liberal ontologies, strict versus liberal requirements on explanation, and whether or not we accept Hume’s principle). These also affect choices among metaphilosophies and philosophies, and it isn’t obvious that there are objective constraints on our preferences among these either.
So if Double is right, it is futile to try to seek a once-and-for-all knock-down argument against any (well, at least many) stable philosophical positions, no matter how much you might despise them, because they live at home in metaphilosophical positions other than your own, and facts and logic alone cannot force someone out of that.
A larger implication might be that your philosophy is a function of who you are, of fundamental and perhaps constitutive preferences bound up with your identity.
Double may be right. I still am what I am, though, even if I do manage to learn a little humility.
1Richard Double, Metaphilosophy and Free Will. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Back to main text.