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Nozick on Intellectual Humility

March 30th, 2010 · 11 Comments

All this discussion of morality and epistemology—and especially Freddie’s latest post—reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Robert Nozick, in the introduction to Anarchy State and Utopia. I think it captures my sense of human intellectual inquiry as (what I’ve elsewhere called) The Great Wiki:

[T]he usual manner of presenting philosophical work puzzles me.  Works of philosophy are written as though their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject. But it’s not, surely, that each philosopher thinks that he finally, thank God, ahs found the truth and built an impregnable fortress around it.  We are all actually much more modest than that. For good reason.  Having thought long and hard about the view he proposes, a philosopher has a reasonably good idea about its weak points; the places where great intellectual weight is placed upon something perhaps too fragile to bear it, the places where the unravelling of the view might begin, the unprobed assumptions he feels uneasy about.

One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things to fit into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another. You run around and press in the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they’ll fit and you press in until finally almost everything sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn’t gets heaved far away so that it won’t be noticed. (Of course, it’s not all that crude. There’s also the coaxing and cajoling. And the body English.) Quickly, you find an angle from which it looks like an exact fit and take a snapshot; at a fast shutter speed before something else bulges out too noticeably. Then, back in the darkroom to touch up the rents, rips, and tears in the fabric of the perimeter. All that remains is to publish the photograph as a representation of exactly how things are, and to note how nothing fits properly into any other shape.

No philosopher says: There’s where I started, here’s where I ended up; the major weakness in my work is that I went from there to here; in particular, here are the most notable distortions, pushings, shovings, maulings, gougings, stretchings, and chippings that I committed during the trip; not to mention the things thrown away and ignored, and all those avertings of the gaze.

The reticence of philosophers about the weaknesses they perceive in their own views is not, I think, simply a question of philosophical honesty and integrity, though it is that or at least becomes that when brought to consciousness. The reticence is connected with philosophers’ purposes in formulating views. Why do they strive to force everything into that one fixed perimeter? Why not another perimeter, or, more radically, why not leave things where they are? What does having everything within a perimeter do for us? Why do we want it so? (What does it shield us from?) From these deep (and frightening) questions, I hope not to be able to manage to avert my gaze in future work.

Tags: General Philosophy


       

 

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mike farmer // Mar 30, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Yes, regarding, equally, certainty about somethings and uncertainty about all things.

  • 2 DivisionByZero // Mar 30, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    That’s interesting. That’s not how I write at all. I create a shape and see if it fits. If it doesn’t fit I try a different shape and another and another. If necessary I’ll walk away and try from a different angle. When everything lines up it snaps into place with a resounding click that I feel in my gut. Obviously I don’t write much. ;-)

  • 3 finzent // Mar 31, 2010 at 9:36 am

    I have to say, though, that, in Anarchy, State and Utopia at least, Nozick himself was pretty reticent about possible weaknesses he perceived in his own work, if there even were any.

  • 4 sam // Mar 31, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    I dunno. Parmenides gives the Theory of Ideas of pretty good going over, and surely Wittgenstein’s (published) journey from the Tractatus to the Investigations is a recording on his part of the “distortions, pushings, shovings, maulings, gougings, stretchings, and chippings” that he indulged in along the way from the earlier to the later.

  • 5 John Merryman // Apr 1, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    The framing is the packaging. Otherwise there is no box to be inside or outside. Definition is limitation and limitation is definition.
    Or more cynically, when you’ve boiled away all that’s meaningless, what’s left must be the meaning.
    The source is the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell.

  • 6 JamieMc // Apr 4, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    This doesn’t describe the contemporary philosophical work that I know. I’m in rhetoric though, so I suppose we cherry pick stuff that is more open ended and inviting. In my mind, the whole point of philosophy is to unveil the “distortions, malings,” etc. so that we can do more self aware practical work. But I’m in rhetoric. We think everything is always contingent and always emerging.

  • 7 Sophomore // Apr 4, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    I’d suggest that the problem Nozick’s describing is a far more general one, by no means limited to philosophy. I’ve experienced it writing about history and law, sometimes very acutely. I do think this was an excellent description.

    What I wonder now is whether Nozick said anything interesting about how he intended to resolve the problem? Was it, as he hinted, that he would make his own work more transparent? Or did he decide that it was necessary to be opaque? Or something else? And, to the extent you’re interested in one reader’s vote, I’d be interested in hearing about other writers or writings that you think are especially insightful.

  • 8 links for 2010-04-05 « Lasting Impression // Apr 5, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    […] Nozick on Intellectual Humility [T]he usual manner of presenting philosophical work puzzles me. Works of philosophy are written as though their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject. But it’s not, surely, that each philosopher thinks that he finally, thank God, ahs found the truth and built an impregnable fortress around it. We are all actually much more modest than that. For good reason. Having thought long and hard about the view he proposes, a philosopher has a reasonably good idea about its weak points; the places where great intellectual weight is placed upon something perhaps too fragile to bear it, the places where the unravelling of the view might begin, the unprobed assumptions he feels uneasy about. (tags: nozick intellectual humility thought argument logic philosophy quotes writing) Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)links for 2010-03-29Republican Troubles and the Big Tent of the Democrats […]

  • 9 Michael McIntyre // Apr 5, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    I agree with this post. Many philosophers seem uncomfortable with allowing their readers to see how the “final product” gets created. They want us to focus on the end result – to appreciate its elegance or its truthfulness or what-have-you – and not the process that lies behind or underneath the end result. It’s almost like think they want their readers to believe that they “discovered” their philosophy in much the same way that Newton “discovered” gravity – like it fell into their laps, wholly-formed. It’s totally untrue, of course.

    And great philosophers are also frequently ungenerous towards other philosophers, often even towards the ones from whom they have derived the most benefit, by refusing to acknowledge influences.

    One philosopher who bucked this trend was the Russian existentialist philosopher, Lev Shestov (1866-1938). Here are two revealing quotes from his works (cited by George L. Kline in Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia):

    “People are offended when I enunciate two contradictory propositions simultaneously. . . . But the difference between them and me is that I speak frankly of my contradictions while they prefer to conceal theirs, even to themselves. . . . They seem to think of contradictions as pudenda of the human spirit.”

    “I must admit that Berdyaev has caught me. But why should he want to catch me? . . . Words and thoughts are only imperfect means of communication. It is impossible to photograph the soul . . . so we are obliged to use words. . . . But now Berdyaev tries to catch me. Instead of . . . realizing how impossible it is to find adequate expressions, coming to my aid, and guessing [my meaning], he thrusts a stick between the spokes of my wheels.”

    After noting the generous praise that Shestov showed towards his chief intellectual opponent, Edmund Husserl, George L. Kline concluded:

    “Shestov’s generosity and largeness of spirit seem to me unique among existentialist thinkers, most of whom – including the brilliant, often perverse, and sometimes profound Kierkegaard – have been jealous of their subjectivity, proud of their suffering, and ungenerous toward the thinkers from whom they have learned most.”

  • 10 プロペシア通販 // Sep 24, 2011 at 12:32 am

    thanksan interesting blog

  • 11 エドハーディー // Jan 20, 2012 at 3:33 am

    ectual opponent, Edmund Husserl, George L. Kline concluded:

    “Shestov’s generosity and largeness of spirit seem to me unique among existentialist thinkers, most of whom – including the brilliant, often perverse, and some

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