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Ideas of the 21st Century

Ideas of the century: Disagreement (27/50)

Jean Kazez finds recent interest in disagreement most agreeable

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

I’ve always enjoyed the dramas of a philosophy seminar room. After a talk, somebody’s bound to become apoplectic. They’ll make objections in a great rush, with a red face, maybe even pound the table. The rest of the room will look on in suspense. For a moment, it appears the speaker’s argument has been demolished. But no, she comes back with a response, also delivered with the greatest confidence. Rebecca Goldstein hilariously describes such a scene in her new novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

I’d normally be talking about the novel in my column (my review of 36 Arguments is at kazez.blogspot.com), but for this special issue, I get to talk about a “big idea” that’s surfaced in the last decade. The idea I have in mind concerns what happens next after philosophers clash. When the talk is over, all will probably be forgiven, and perhaps one will intone that calming platitude: “reasonable people will disagree.” In essence, they will each regard the disagreement they’ve had with a wholly respected peer as no reason at all to abandon ship. Does that reaction to disagreement make sense?

I’m starting to wonder because of the literature on disagreement that’s been growing steadily in the last five years. Richard Feldman is sceptical about the possibility of mutually respectful disagreement in a seminal paper called “Reasonable Religious Disagreements” (in Philosophers without Gods, edited by Louise Antony). His point is about all “genuine” disagreements, those between people who really do disagree (they aren’t just using words in different ways, pondering a non-factual matter, or some such) and who have shared their evidence and arguments.

Let’s say Tom and I disagree about some factual matter – say, about the existence of God. Our disagreement comes down to premise T3 of his argument for theism, which seems true to him, but not to me, and premise J3 of my argument for atheism, which seems true to me, but not to him. We each consider the other intelligent, good, unbiased, well-intentioned, etc. (we are “epistemic peers,” as the literature puts it). I can’t criticise him for finding T3 plausible, and he can’t criticise me for finding J3 plausible. So we disagree in a friendly, tolerant, mutually respectful fashion. Isn’t it great?

Feldman thinks the only problem is that we’re both being irrational. If we can really find no general fault with each other, shouldn’t we take each other’s seemings just the way we would take our own? That means we each must be impressed with the evidence for both atheism and theism, so we should both suspend belief. So much for respectful disagreement. Our unalloyed mutual admiration should erase the line between us and turn us into agreeing agnostics.

This is unsettling, and not just on a personal level. If Feldman is right, there should be fewer philosophy books that argue that p, and more that argue for bland disjunctive conclusions – p or q or r….depending on how many other philosophers with different positions the author is inclined to wholly respect. Alternatively, philosophers need to find it in themselves to regard each other more negatively. That’s an odd recommendation, considering how ubiquitous disagreement is in philosophy, and because of the way philosophers tend to see themselves as being (collectively, not just individually) among the world’s most clever people. (Don’t they?)

Going more negative, I could (as Thomas Kelly suggests) see Tom as non-credible on this occasion, for the very reason that I think he has the wrong views on T3 and J3. It’s also tempting to just trust my own seemings – after all, they do represent how things seem to me. Of course, Tom could have the same critical view of me, and the same trust in himself, and that’s worrisome. Considering the symmetry, and that we can’t point to any specific, neutrally characterisable error committed by the other, it’s very tempting to think we’re required to bend, not stick to our guns.

Bending and reconsidering in the face of disagreement is certainly what people do when they’re engaged in projects like medical diagnosis or figuring out a restaurant tip or predicting the weather, as David Christensen points out. Why not when the issue is philosophical? Perhaps people handle disagreement distinctively in philosophy because it’s so incessant. Positions become identities (“I am a utilitarian”, “I am a compatibilist”), and come to be maintained with tolerance for other identities. Beliefs don’t come and go in the way they do when consensus is just around the corner.

The battle over disagreement is being waged in conferences and journals, and Feldman has just co-edited a diverse group of articles on disagreement which is being published in September. Considering all the competing views, you may think “reasonable people will disagree,” but hold on! This literature has made me think twice and three times about that attractive platitude.

Further reading
Disagreement, edited by Richard Feldman and Ted A. Warfield (Oxford University Press, forthcoming, 2010)

Jean Kazez is the author of Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals (Wiley-Blackwell) and tpm’s regular arts column Imagine That

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4 comments for “Ideas of the century: Disagreement (27/50)”

  1. Disagreement? Why not do away with disagreement and do what Wittgenstein did.

    Wittgenstein and other good philosophers often dissolve disagreement by showing that both parties are working to a common model or framework that is incoherent, iconical or grounded on external assumptions (like Derridian priviliged binaries), assumptions that would, if they are revealed, undermine any arguments built on them.

    For example, arguments serving the atheist/believer dichotomy could, in most (if not all) cases, be dismissed on the grounds that they are working with incoherent models of proof, or with showy, iconical, images invented from distortions of dead culture or tradition (contemporary Halloween and its horror kitsch), or with competing priviliged binaries that impose a value scalar on (two) mutually exclusive positions or arguments.

    Posted by John Jones | October 6, 2010, 6:37 pm
  2. Hi Jean,
    ” . . . what happens next after philosophers clash … all will probably be forgiven . . .”
    The great “poker” debate between Wittgenstein and Popper sprang to mind. I don’t remember. Did they kiss and make up?

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | October 7, 2010, 7:48 pm
  3. Why does it follow that if two people with opposing (contradictory) ideas unable to move their counterpart from their position are irrational for maintaining their own views? The only way would be if each had a rational (logical) argument proving their point? Is this what Feldman requires? If not, I don’t see where the irrationality comes in. If so, we’re dealing with an impossibility since two contradictory statements can’t both be logically proved.

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | October 8, 2010, 5:16 pm
  4. “Apoplectic,” “a red face,” “pound the table.” These are all expressive of emotions. Why, if we are rational inquirers all applying a rational method of inquiry with the shared goal of knowing what’s true and if we know that emotions are a biasing factor, do we so often see detached, rational inquirers getting emotionally upset. It makes sense if there are other things on the line like tenure, power, status, money, but we even get upset when nothing but winning or losing the argument is at stake. I think the reason is, and you allude to it later in your piece, that our personalities are intertwined in our intellectual positions on these issues. As you say we say “I am a utilitarian.” It becomes a part of a person’s identity. But even if it is a part of a person’s identity why not just change one’s identity if it seems unsustainable? Why not be rational and neutral toward our identity (if, as above, nothing else is at stake)? I think the reason is that beyond being an identity these beliefs or positions on fundamental issues are doing psychological work. Psychoanalysis speaks of sublimation: the process by which our psychological needs are transformed into intellectual, and, more broadly, cultural products. Here’s an example from John Dewey:

    “There were, however, also “subjective” reasons for the appeal that Hegel’s thought made to me; it supplied a demand for unification that was doubtless an intense emotional craving, and yet was a hunger that only an intellectualized subject-matter could satisfy. It is more than difficult, it is impossible, to recover that early mood. But the sense of divisions and separations that were, I suppose, borne in upon me as a consequence of a heritage of New England culture, divisions by way of isolation of self from the world, of soul from body, of nature from God, brought a painful oppression—or, rather, they were an inward laceration. My earlier philosophic study had been an intellectual gymnastic. Hegel’s synthesis of subject and object, matter and spirit, the divine and the human, was, however, no mere intellectual formula; it operated as an immense release, a liberation. Hegel’s treatment of human culture, of institutions and the arts, involved the same dissolution of hard-and-fast dividing walls, and had a special attraction for me.”

    That’s a lot of powerful psychological work that Hegel’s philosophy is doing for John Dewey’s psyche. I think this psychology of belief is generalizable and it is especially relevant when we reach the bedrock of our beliefs where we can no longer give reasons for why we believe as we do.

    In neuro- and cognitive science they’ve been exploring the role that emotions play in allowing reason to function. It may be the case that we can’t decide or judge anything without our emotions and so that element must be present when we formulate and assert our views. Even to take an intellectual position on an issue requires, and perhaps especially so when reason has been exhausted, our feelings.

    I make an argument for a psychology of belief as a further exploration after a rational disagreement occurs here: http://www.integralworld.net/meyerhoff-ba-9.html

    Posted by Jeff Meyerhoff | October 11, 2010, 4:15 pm