What is dreamt of in thy philosophy?

I almost went into Philosophy at university; one of my professors asked me to consider it. He may have been kidding of course, but I was young at the time and I liked the idea of playing with ideas, shuffling them, and then trying to pretend that I wasn’t simply confused, but confusingly profound. It fooled some of my classmates, I suppose, but as the year dragged on I realized that it was a game that only undergraduates were allowed to play. Most serious philosophers offloaded their teaching responsibilities onto their doctoral students; real philosophy was different, apparently. Complicated. Rule-bound. And random excursions into semantics and faulty syllogisms didn’t seem to amuse them anymore.

More often than not, they regarded these journeys as ‘epistemically unconscientious’ -a phrase I discovered only a few years into retirement from a different, but perhaps equally epistemologically demanding profession, Medicine. But the author, Victor Moberger, a philosopher then at Stockholm University in Sweden, seemed convinced that those of us who never actually pursued his field professionally were often practicing what he termed ‘pseudophilosophy’. https://psyche.co/ideas/pseudophilosophy-encourages-confused-self-indulgent-thinking

I’m thankful that I bailed when I did, because Moberger is far more serious about philosophy than I ever could have been. I thought it was fun, and although by now I’m pretty sure my neurons would have developed muscular aches and pains, there was a time when they may have been up to the exercise.

Still, Moberger seems to compare much of pseudophilosophy to the practice of pseudoscience, which he feels is not only false but also indifferent to the truth. And it would be something that is  ‘deficient with respect to philosophical issues in the same way that pseudoscience is deficient with respect to scientific issues…  What makes pseudoscientific beliefs deficient is that they’re formed in an epistemically unconscientious way. That’s to say, these beliefs are made from culpably confused and uninformed reasoning… However, such unconscientiousness doesn’t presuppose insincerity or charlatanry… since one can care about the truth of one’s beliefs without taking care with respect to it.’

In other words the prefix ‘pseudo’ added to an endeavour seems to mean to him that sufficient due diligence has not been paid to the subject matter in question; he feels that most of us -non philosophers at any rate- are lacking in epistemic conscientiousness. ‘A good rule of thumb for being conscientious is to keep an eye out for classical fallacies such as ad hominem, straw man, false dilemma and cherry-picking.’ Uhmm, okay…

I understand his point, but still, philosophy isn’t science -they deal with entirely different Magisteria. ‘Roughly speaking, the difference between scientific and philosophical issues is that the latter aren’t in any straightforward way resolvable via empirical investigation. Whether there is a God, for example, or whether there are objective moral truths, are questions that have to be answered largely via a priori reflection, if at all.’

On plodding my way (non-philosophically, of course) through the article, I have to admit to feeling a degree of shame in committing my elder ruminations to paper as I have often done without possessing the proper academic philosophical credentials. But then I realized I had been exculpated… Well, sort of: ‘writers, typically with a background in the natural sciences, walk self-confidently into philosophical territory without realising it, and without conscientious attention to relevant philosophical distinctions and arguments. Often implicit empiricist assumptions in epistemology, metaphysics and the philosophy of language are relied upon as if they were self-evident, and without awareness of the threat that those very assumptions pose to the author’s own reasoning.’ Mind you, being damned with faint praise, is hardly exculpation. Still, any port in a storm. I suppose I am, in a non-peer-reviewed sense, a ‘scientific pseudophilosopher’. At any rate, according to Moberger, Sam Harris is one as well, so I am in good company, I guess.

Fortunately, neither of us are the insidious kind of pseudophilosophers that really seem to bother Moberger -well, I’m not, anyway. He is more vexed at philosophers who raise issues ‘concerning knowledge, truth, objectivity, rationality and scientific methodology… without conscientious attention to relevant philosophical distinctions and arguments… Usually, the prose is infused with arcane terminology and learned jargon, creating an aura of scholarly profundity.’ That is obscurantist pseudophilosophy -the worst kind, I gather, because ‘the most common fallacy in obscurantist pseudophilosophy is equivocation, largely because it exploits ‘ambiguities in certain key terms, where plausible but trivial claims lend apparent credibility to interesting but controversial ones.’

He takes on the French post-modernist, Michel Foucault (whose work I have never understood, either). I once tried to read his History of Madness, found myself sadly unequipped for the task, and then attempted Birth of the Clinic with similar results. But I do have a vague recollection of what Moberger points out -namely that a central topic of Foucault’s writings was a critique of the notion of objective truth. ‘Foucault maintains that truth is socially constructed and subject to ideological influence, and therefore not objective… what is assumed or believed to be true is influenced by what he refers to as ‘power’’. So far, so good (I guess). But then, ‘by using the word ‘truth’ in an impressionistic fashion, the distinction between belief and truth is smudged over, allowing Foucault to make seemingly profound statements.’

I suppose it’s a good thing I never pursued the idea of a career in Philosophy because I thought that part of the Foucault stuff sounded pretty reasonable. But according to Moberger, ‘This kind of fallacious critique of the notion of objective truth is a particularly pernicious aspect of obscurantist pseudophilosophy in general. Often, it’s due to simple misunderstandings (such as confusing truth with belief or knowledge), but sometimes it’s due rather to wilful obscurity (as in the case of Foucault).’ Good grief his explanatory diatribe was as obscure as Foucault’s.

‘While pseudoscience can perhaps be counteracted by science education, the cure for pseudophilosophy is not science education but philosophical education. More specifically, it is a matter of developing the kind of basic critical thinking skills that are taught to undergraduates in philosophy.’ I think I can agree with him on that, but he concludes by saying that ‘due to its aura of academic legitimacy and profundity, obscurantist pseudophilosophy is often used to give credence to dogmatic and bellicose political agendas.’ Oh yes, and ‘it encourages confused and self-indulgent thinking in university students…’

So, I’m pretty sure I made the right choice; I wouldn’t have passed the exams anyway. Moberger may have a point, but honestly, his explanation of it is so complicated I have no idea what the point is… Is that epistemically conscientious?


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