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Defending Humanistic Reasoning

Paul Giladi, Alexis Papazoglou, & Giuseppina D’Oro say we need to recognise that science and the humanities are asking and answering different questions.

The year is 399 BCE. Socrates has just been sentenced to death by his fellow Athenians for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens. Sitting in his cell, Socrates is asked by his friends to explain why he remains in prison instead of escaping to exile.

How should Socrates’ explain it? Should he provide a physical explanation; that is, an account of his bodily movements? Or should he provide a different kind of explanation – one that makes reference not to his physiology, but to his reasons for acting? Let’s have a look at the following passage from Plato’s Phaedo to see Socrates explain the difference between the two kinds of explanation:

“in trying to give the causes of the particular thing I do, I should say first that I am now sitting here because my body is composed of bones and sinews, and the bones are hard and have joints which divide them and the sinews can be contracted and relaxed and so… make me able to bend my limbs now, and that is the cause of my sitting here with my legs bent… [But then I] should fail to mention the real causes, which are, that the Athenians decided that it was best to condemn me, and therefore I have decided that it was best for me to sit here and that it is right for me to stay and undergo whatever penalty they order.” (98c-e)

Or to use another example: Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Because of his leg movements? Or because he wanted to assert his authority in Rome over his rivals?

When we seek to interpret the actions of Caesar and Socrates, and ask what reasons they had for acting so, we do not usually want their actions to be explained as we might explain the rise of the tides or the motion of the planets; that is, as physical events dictated by natural laws. Our curiosity is satisfied when, rather than treating them as simply another material entity, the explanation enables us to see the purpose of their action. Providing an account of their physiology here would not adequately make sense of their actions.

The two varieties of explanation appear to compete, because both give rival explanations of the same action. But there is a way in which scientific explanations such as bodily movements and humanistic explanations such as motives and goals need not compete. Our aim in this article is to introduce you to a highly neglected tradition in the philosophy of mind, which we’ll call epistemological idealism, to see how scientific and humanistic explanations can co-exist. This form of idealism is called ‘epistemological’ to highlight that it has nothing to do with metaphysical idealism, the claim that reality is made of ‘mental stuff’. Instead, epistemological idealism recognises that when it comes to our explanations of reality, the aims and methods we apply reflect something about our minds, rather than simply being about the way the world is independently of us.

Caesar crossing rubicon
Caesar Crossing the Rubicon by Granacci. But why?

Scientific Naturalisms

Since the late nineteenth century, Western philosophy has adopted increasingly naturalistic views. In current Anglo-American philosophy, the norm is to assume a reductive form of this naturalism which claims that everything can be explained just in physical terms. This position is usually called physicalism or materialism. According to this version of scientific naturalism, the image of the world provided by the physical sciences (basically, physics, chemistry, and biology) is all the world there is. And philosophy must conform to science. To quote Paul Boghossian, “We take science to be the only good way to arrive at reasonable beliefs about what is true… Hence, we defer to science” (Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, 2006). In this view, the task of philosophy is first to assume the methodological superiority of natural science, and then to develop positions which do not disagree with or upset certain background assumptions of science. The most important of these background assumptions are that: (1) there exists a theory-independent, external world; (2) the world investigated by physics is a knowable world; and (3) the explanations of physics provide complete explanations of reality.

One reason physicalist forms of scientific naturalism have become so widely accepted is that many philosophers tend to find it difficult to make room for complex phenomena such as consciousness within the world presented to us by the natural sciences. Because of this, some physicalist philosophers reduce complex psychological phenomena down to their component material parts – things such neural mechanisms – or even to the very components of matter itself. They do this to easily accommodate complex phenomena within the natural world. To quote Thomas Nagel, with the reductive physicalists, “there is the hope that everything can be accounted for at the most basic level by the physical sciences, extended to include biology” (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception Is Almost Certainly False, 2012).

However, more recently, philosophers such as John McDowell, Jennifer Hornsby, Hilary Putnam and Nagel himself have taken a different approach: a non-reductive scientific naturalism. These philosophers argue that while the mind is indeed part of the world presented to us by the natural sciences, the complex mental states involved in consciousness cannot be simply scaled down to physical processes. To quote Nagel again: “There are doubts about whether the reality of features of our world such as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level only of physical facts – facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences.” (ibid).

Because it is a naturalism, and hence limited to natural phenomena, non-reductive naturalism holds that there is nothing ‘occult’ or ‘spooky’ about consciousness, thoughts, and feelings. However, there are (at least) two main concerns with this approach. Firstly, if these phenomena are regarded as natural just because they are not supernatural, what should count as natural and supernatural now? Secondly if we deny that such phenomena as consciousness are exhaustively accounted for by physical science, the problem arises of explaining how they relate to the rest of nature – the nature that is fully described by that science.

But wait. There is a way out of this difficulty: we drop the question about how mind and the rest of nature relate, and focus instead on the question of what must be assumed for certain forms of knowledge to be possible. Then once we have uncovered the background assumptions to our forms of knowledge, we can show how different forms of explanations can co-exist.

Investigating Knowledge Itself

This approach has been pre-shadowed by certain historical philosophers we three are researching. Explaining the place of mind within nature in this way started with the attempts by Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884), and Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1915) to defend the independence of the human sciences from the natural sciences. This approach is also found in the work of British idealists such as R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) and Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990). They started with the claim that all knowledge rests on presuppositions, and defined philosophy as the task of uncovering and making explicit the assumptions which govern all forms of inquiry, from which they then hoped to show the compatibility of different forms of explanation. It is the task of natural scientists to investigate nature. But it is the task of philosophers to investigate what we must assume to make the scientific investigation of nature possible. Philosophers are not interested in starting with the results of natural science, but with their presuppositions. To quote Wilhelm Windelband here:

“It is permissible for the other sciences to regard… general perspectives and principles as given and established. This assumption is sufficiently reliable for the purposes of specialised research within the discipline in question. The essential feature of philosophy, however, is the following: its real object of investigation is actually these [general perspectives and principles] themselves.”
(History and Natural Science, p.169, 1894).

Now this is not to say that scientists themselves cannot engage in reflection on the background assumptions of science and the concept of nature. But it is to say that when scientists do so, they are doing philosophy, not science. This is because this sort of investigation cannot itself be carried out using the methods of natural science.

Therefore, this approach is committed to two tiers of investigation: a ‘primary tier’ of empirical investigation, which is the work of scientists; and a ‘secondary tier’, looking into the assumptions behind the empirical investigation, which is the work of philosophers. In this context, the philosopher is whoever engages in reflection on the background assumptions of primary tier enquiries. Under this view, philosophy is a separate discipline whose distinctive subject-matter is the background assumptions of (say) natural scientific inquiry. This is an epistemological idealist philosophy because it recognises that the assumptions made by different forms of inquiry reflect human interests and cognitive capacities. But this approach’s distinctive idealist tinge aims not to compete with natural science in telling us what exists. Rather, it aims to spell out what we must assume for certain forms of knowledge to be possible, and to argue that these assumptions are a reflection of our cognitive interests and capacities. For example, physical scientists are interested in prediction. Such an interest is well served by the formulation of inductive generalisations, which rely on the principle that natural laws apply uniformly so that unobserved cases will resemble previously observed cases. Cultural anthropologists, on the other hand, are interested in uncovering the logic behind the apparent randomness or irrationality of human societies and customs. The assumption of the uniformity of nature which serves the physical scientist so well in predicting the course of impersonal nature will therefore be of no use to the cultural anthropologist, whose goal is rather to unlock the hidden logic behind actions which they struggle to comprehend in the light of their own cultural norms.

Understanding philosophy as being concerned with reflecting on and disclosing what we must assume for certain forms of knowledge to be possible enables one to defend the autonomy of humanistic explanations better than any attempt to defend the distinctiveness of the mental from a naturalistic standpoint. Why? Because by carefully unpacking the background assumptions of the different forms of inquiry we can lay bare the most important difference between the natural sciences and the human sciences. For example, natural science presupposes a uniform universe governed by universal laws; on the other hand, a historian does not approach history in such a way. Another difference between the natural sciences and the human sciences amounts to the natural sciences aspiring to grasp the universal, the general, whereas a human science such as history aspires to make sense of the particular, of unique events.

Understood as an inquiry into the presuppositions of knowledge rather than as a claim about the nature of reality, epistemological idealism succeeds in showing how it is possible for different and apparently incompatible explanations to peacefully co-exist. For example, the question ‘Why did JFK die?’ would no doubt receive very different answers from a physician and from a political historian. The physician might say that JFK died because his cranium was pierced by two bullets which caused fatal damage to his brain; while the political historian may argue that JFK’s death was the result of a political conspiracy. These answers do not compete because they do not address the same why-question: the political historian looks for motives, whereas the physician looks for antecedent conditions. Although JFK died only once, his death can be explained in multiple ways which are not incompatible if the explanations provide answers to different kinds of why-questions.The claim that these explanations compete arises only when we fail to see that the explanatory goals of the political historian and those of the physician are not the same. In a similar way, once it is acknowledged that different forms of inquiry rest on different presuppositions and have different explanatory goals, the alleged conflict between the human and the natural sciences is deflated.

This relatively forgotten philosophical tradition not only manages to make sense of how different forms of explanation, such as the physical and the psychological, can co-exist. It also has the advantage of offering us a conception of philosophy as a more independent and reflective activity, rather than merely an afterthought to an already fully formed natural scientific world picture. Thus a defence of the independence of humanistic explanations goes hand-in-hand with an understanding of philosophy as being tasked with unearthing the background assumptions which govern different forms of investigation.

Philosophy Is Indispensable

Philosophy and the human sciences will never be able to tell us the age of the universe or whether silver dissolves in nitric acid. Because philosophy and the human sciences can’t give us answers to those sorts of questions, physical scientists such as Stephen Hawking have presumed to dismiss philosophy: “Philosophy is dead. Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics” (The Grand Design, 2010). Quite aside from the irony that Hawking’s put-down of philosophy is itself a philosophical argument, not one relying on any particular scientific evidence, we think there is a good reason for scientists to think that philosophy is alive and well: philosophy tells us the background assumptions which govern the sciences.

In light of the attacks on philosophy by Hawking and others, a reminder of the arguments in defence of the independence of philosophy by Daniel Dennett is both needed and timely:

“Scientists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that philosophical ideas are only, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard, objective triumphs of science, and that they themselves are immune to the confusions that philosophers devote their lives to dissolving. But there is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”
(Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1996)

In epistemological idealism, a defence of the human sciences goes hand in hand with an understanding of philosophy as distinct in kind from natural science. Epistemological idealism, then, provides a powerful defence of the autonomy of philosophy against the recent attempts to see it as subordinate to the natural sciences. Reports of the death of philosophy rely on a misunderstanding of its nature. Rather, philosophy itself is needed in order to make sense of the human, as well as the natural, sciences.

© Dr Paul Giladi, dr Alexis Papazoglou & dr Giuseppina D’Oro 2017

Paul Giladi is a teaching and research fellow in Philosophy at University College Dublin and honorary research fellow at the University of Sheffield. Alexis Papazoglou is Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and secretary of the Hegel Society of Great Britain. Giuseppina D’Oro is Reader in Philosophy at Keele University and principal investigator, with Paul and Alexis, on a Templeton-funded project ‘Idealism and the Philosophy of Mind’.

• This article was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in it are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

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