Claims about what ‘most’ philosophers believe

David asked:

I’ve noticed that in some of the answers given here, there are sentences of the form ‘few philosophers now believe in Plato’s forms/ Moore’s intuitions/ the tooth fairy’. These survey claims are interesting. What weight, if any, should be attached to such preponderance of philosophical opinion, when thinking about the facts?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Yesterday’s BBC TV News was dominated by the repercussions of the British Gas price hike of 8 per cent. Few energy consumers felt that this was justified. Or did they? The situation wasn’t helped by the calamitously bad decision by British Gas to give their customers the opportunity to vent their feelings online via Twitter — gold to BBC news editors, who picked out the choicest (and rudest) comments. I could have told British Gas this would happen, and so could you. How do we know something that the management of British Gas didn’t (apparently) know?

As a comparative outsider in relation to English-speaking academic philosophy (comparative, because I still consider myself to be working in the broad English-speaking analytic tradition) I am not very well placed to make observations about what ‘few’ or ‘many’ academic philosophers believe. What are the current views about the analytic/ synthetic distinction? Did Quine win the argument, or lose? I’m not sure. My own view on this doesn’t count for a lot, or at least, not as much as the view, e.g. of Saul Kripke or John McDowell or Tyler Burge. Ask them. (I have my view, which I’m saving for another occasion.)

Plato’s Forms is an interesting example. Iris Murdoch offers a robust defence of (something like) the Platonic view in Sovereignty of Good. If you asked me to explain further I would say that Murdoch doesn’t believe in in the literal existence of Forms as metaphysical entities. Her concern is to oppose subjectivism about ‘the Good’. But what does that mean? Does Plato believe in the literal existence of the Forms, or is it just a ‘useful myth’? (his ‘theory of recollection’, e.g.). When it gets to issues like Plato’s Forms (or Moore’s ‘intuitions’ about what is Good, another nicely chosen example) there isn’t a clear answer in terms of ‘belief’ because the position that we are discussing is deep, has hidden depths, you could say.

There is a criticism one could make that academic philosophers generally are rather too quick to offer their views about what ‘most’ of their brethren believe. But there I go again: how do I know that? It’s an impression. I wouldn’t call it knowledge. So have I the right to make that statement? Here’s where we get to the nub of the question. Making an assertion implies that you know. If you’re not sure, if you are only guessing, or expressing a feeling, then you should qualify your statement accordingly. But who does that? In everyday life, we don’t. It’s called idle chatter. The same applies to philosophers who indulge themselves in that manner.


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