A Puzzle about Metaphilosophy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

ApollocutoutEnduring movements in the history of philosophy often owe their influence not to their core doctrines, but rather to the distinctive vision of philosophy they embody. Indeed, one might say of such movements – think of the traditions associated with the Stoics, Descartes, Hegel, the existentialists, and beyond – that they are primarily conceptions of what philosophy is. A conception of what philosophy is – a metaphilosophy – coordinates ideas about philosophical method, the nature of philosophical problems, and the limits of philosophy. In other words, a metaphilosophy tells us not only how to do philosophy, but also what philosophy can do, what we can expect from philosophy. A metaphilosophy hence often distinguishes genuine philosophical problems from pseudo-problems and nonsense; it also typically demarcates genuine philosophical problems from those genuine problems that reside within the purview of some other kind of inquiry, such a natural science, psychology, and history. It is tempting to conclude that although we tend to think of the history of philosophy as a series of debates concerning truth, goodness, knowledge, being, meaning, and beauty, it is actually an ongoing clash among metaphilosophies.

Though tempting, this conclusion should be resisted. This is because it is as yet unclear how metaphilosophical clashes are to be resolved, or even addressed. Which area of inquiry is suited to adjudicate conflicts over what philosophy is? Must there be a meta-metaphilosophy? But then wouldn't we also require a fourth tier to address conflicts at the meta-meta level? Then a fifth, sixth, and seventh? This proliferation of “meta” discourses about philosophy looks well worth avoiding. A further cause for resistance lies in the fact that the very idea of a clash among metaphilosophies is opaque. Why regard, say, the phenomenologist and the ordinary language philosopher as embroiled in a metaphilosophical clash at all? Why not say instead that they are engaged in entirely different enterprises and be done with it? Why posit something over which (philosophy and its proper methods) they are in dispute? The fact that it is not clear how there could be an adjudication of metaphilosophical clashes may be marshalled as a consideration in favor of the idea that opposing schools normally identified as philosophical do not promote different conceptions of philosophy, but instead embrace distinctive concepts that each calls “philosophy,” and so ultimately do not even clash at all, but only speak past each other. It certainly seems to capture what it is like to witness such clashes.

To be sure, that is a dispiriting result. This is because it seems we should preserve the idea that proponents of different philosophical schools may nonetheless disagree about first-order philosophical issues. For example, there are wide, conflicting varieties of answers to the questions: Is there free will? What is the nature of Justice? Is knowledge consistent with luck? Can judgments of taste be wrong? Any PHIL 100 course will have the debates about these questions animating it, and any advanced class will be a focused investigation of particular disagreements, and every dissertation and professional article has a number of target opponents on the issue. (And notice, further, that rejecting the view that there are philosophical disagreements is a counterexample to itself.)

The trouble is that if we accept the idea that first-order disputes are merely proxies for metaphilosophical clashes, then the ground upon which even first-order disagreement could proceed begins to dissolve. Indeed, if the metaphilosophy-first view is right, the variety of answers to these questions are not even different answers to the same questions. From the metaphilosophical level, even the questions are different. If this result seems absurd, then at the very least, the conclusion that all philosophical disputes ultimately bottom-out in metaphilosophical difference looks premature. Many would go further to say that it should be repelled to the last.

This brisk sketch is meant only to highlight a general puzzle about metaphilosophy. It seems undeniable that different philosophical traditions embrace their own distinctive metaphilosophies, and that these metaphilosophical commitments often drive their first-order philosophical views. Consequently, one familiar way of diagnosing first-order philosophical disputes is to ascend to the metaphilosophical plane, where the disputants' different methodological commitments can be laid bare and examined. But once this point is acknowledged, it is difficult to sustain another seemingly undeniable thought, namely, that different philosophical schools genuinely disagree about first-order philosophical matters. Put otherwise, metaphilosophical ascent seeks to dissolve first-order philosophical disagreements by relocating them to the metaphilosophical level. However, there is no progress in this maneuver, as it is hard to make sense of the very idea of a metaphilosophical disagreement. In particular, this is because it is not clear what exactly such purported disagreements are about, and thus it is difficult to see how they could be resolved. Again, metaphilosophical disputes look like paradigmatic pseudo-disputes, cases where the disputants use the same words only to talk past each other.

Our puzzle, then, can be posed as a metaphilosophical antinomy. On the one hand, we seek to accommodate the thought that first-order philosophical programs are manifestations of metaphilosophical stances; on the other, we want to preserve the thought that genuine philosophical disagreement is possible. One obvious and promising response to the antinomy is to deny that the tie between metaphilosophical and first-order commitments are as tight as has been supposed thus far. One must, that is, constrain the role that metaphilosophy plays in explaining first-order philosophical commitments. This is achieved by leaving open the conceptual space for first-order philosophical views that are not the product of, or fully explicable by, a background metaphilosophy. This, in turn, would countenance the possibility of first-order philosophical disputes that are not resolvable by means of metaphilosophical ascent. If this tempering of metaphilosophy is unachievable – if first-order philosophical disputes simply are clashes among divergent metaphilosophies – then there's an obvious sense in which the enterprise of philosophy is imperiled.