Sunday, March 21, 2010

Influences and arguments

Lately I've been writing about the influences that can be discerned in the theories of John Rawls.  Rawls was a "social contract theorist"; to what extent were his theories shaped and framed by his reading of the great contract theorists such as Locke, Rousseau, or Kant?  He was also influenced by the history of economic thought; so is it possible to find parallels or echoes of the thought systems of Adam Smith or Karl Marx in Rawls's thinking?  And to what extent were there more local influences in the 1940s and 1950s that created fairly specific directions and characteristics in Rawls's thinking?

This is an interesting question in application to one particular philosopher.  But it also raises a more general question: where do philosophical theories come from?  To what extent is it the case that a given philosopher is working within a "micro-tradition" -- a particular and specific field of influence -- and to what extent is the thinker "original", bringing forward new ideas on a topic?  And once a fundamental topic has been established for a thinker -- e.g., "What defines the principles of justice for a property-owning democracy?" -- to what extent does the theory then develop autonomously according to the arguments and analysis of the philosopher?

This way of formulating the problem invokes several related ideas: influence and tradition; originality and creativity; and orderly, logical development of a position or theory.  

I suppose that there are many instances of philosophers who fall mostly in the "influence" part of the map: their philosophical work largely takes the form of carefully working out the ideas of their influencers.  (This might be part of the legacy of Rawls; I suppose there has been quite an ocean of philosophical work dedicated to specifying more exactly what "primary goods" are, or how "reflective equilibrium" works.)  This might be described as "normal science" -- taking the foundations of a field of study as being unquestioned, and then attempting to work out the details more exactly.

There are also some good examples of philosophers who were largely driven by the "logical analysis" part of the map: formulate a good, difficult question, and then spend the rest of one's career working out analytically sound answers to the problems this question spawns.  "Naturalized epistemology" might fall in this sector; we might say that the philosophers who have tried to give a biological interpretation of the conditions of knowledge are taking one fundamental question -- how do biological organisms arrive at knowledge of their environment? -- and attempt to apply the findings of cognitive science and evolutionary biology to the issues that arise.  Kant's philosophy also seems to have this character: once having chosen the topics "What can we know metaphysically?" or "What creates moral duty?", his mind seems to have proceeded analytically and logically, without correction or stimulus from a contemporary literature.

And what about originality?  Are there examples of philosophers who have largely invented a set of questions and approaches that defined a new philosophy for a given domain?  Wittgenstein is commonly recognized as a highly original philosopher; but certainly his theories were embedded in a tradition of philosophy.  Several things are apparently true about Wittgenstein when it comes to influence and argument.  (a) Many of his ideas and assumptions in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus derived from careful readings of Frege and Russell; (b) his insights and assertions in Philosophical Investigations were responsive to a surrounding set of ideas about language, behavior, and meaning, but his solutions and theories still strike one as being highly original; and (c) for certain themes and problems he continued to work carefully to move his position forward through analytical discovery and inference.  So Wittgenstein seems to illustrate all three dimensions of philosophical theory formation and knowledge construction.

Several things seem to be true about the formation of the theories and perspectives of individual philosophers:
  • They are introduced into a fairly specific "philosophical research community" through graduate education that provides paradigm examples of philosophical questions and issues and prescriptive advice about the nature of philosophical argument and analysis.
  • They are introduced to their field at a particular moment in social history: World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the civil rights period, 9-11; and historical events and shifts have an influence on the formation of their thought.
  • "Originality" can take the form of arriving at new questions ("How is group mentality possible?"); new methods of analysis (Frege-Russell's formal deductivism as a solution to the question of the nature of mathematical truth); or new substantive approaches to philosophical theory (Kant's Copernican Revolution in thought).
An interesting contribution to this set of topics is an innovative series of volumes posing "5 Questions" to philosophers in a variety of fields (link).  A recent volume is Philosophy of the Social Sciences: 5 Questions,  edited by Diego Rios and Christoph Schmidt-Petri.  Contemporary philosophers were asked to respond to five important questions about their approaches to the field of the philosophy of social science.  The format offers the beginning of a triangulation among "beginnings," "fundamental assumptions," and "future directions" for each of these philosophers.  The questions that were provided to the philosophers are these:
  1. How did you get interested in the philosophical aspects of the social sciences?
  2. Which social sciences do you consider particularly interesting or challenging from a philosophical point of view?
  3. How do you conceive the relation between the social sciences and the natural sciences?
  4. What is the most important contribution that philosophy has made to the social sciences?
  5. Which topics in the philosophy of social science will, and which should, receive more attention than in the past?
Contributors include David Bloor, Raymond Boudon, Mario Bunge, Nancy Cartwright, Margaret Gilbert, Daniel Hausman, Harold Kincaid, Daniel Little, Steven Lukes, David Papineau, Philip Pettit, Alexander Rosenberg, David-Hillel Ruben, John Searle, and Raimo Tuomela.  This list includes quite a few of the people who have helped to shape current thinking in this sub-discipline of philosophy; so it is very interesting to have a chance to see what they have to say about some of the original influences on their thinking about the social sciences, as well as their own definitions of the frameworks they have arrived at.  I found it very interesting to think seriously about these questions in my own case, because it forces one to reflect on the ideas, events, and ideologies that led one to choose one set of topics and approaches rather than another.  I would have added a sixth question for each of the contributors: "What are the most basic ideas that you have come to in the course of your studies of the social sciences?"

What I would like to see is a next step conducted by a gifted sociologist of the professions, who would attempt to map out the streams of influence and contribution that are documented within the essays in this volume.  Andrew Abbott's careful analysis of the currents of thought constituting the discipline of sociology in the 1960s and 1970s is a good case in point (Chaos of Disciplines).  Another good example is William Sewell's attempt to provide a geography of the discipline of social history in the 1960s (Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation).

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