The Disconsolation of Philosophy

by Joseph Shieber

This semester I’ve been teaching a first year seminar entitled “Propaganda”. It is, unfortunately, a very timely topic.

The course draws first year students from across the spectrum of majors — some up-and-coming humanities majors, but also economists, natural scientists and engineers. Because of that mix, and because of the fact that I can’t really expect that many of the students have been exposed to philosophical thinking in their pre-college careers, I try to use the course as an opportunity to introduce the students to a little bit of how philosophy is done.

Having taught the course over a few iterations now, I’ve had an opportunity to observe a few different reactions on the part of my students to the bit of philosophy that we engage in in the course. There’s some dismissiveness, of course, on the part of some of the students, but I’ve also noted surprise on the part of some of the students in response to my own stance about how modest the fruits of philosophy often are.

I think that many of the students expect me to claim more for philosophy and what it can achieve. Perhaps they expect me to declaim dramatically that there is no such thing as truth. Instead, I’m more than happy to assert a variety of truths: that human-caused global warming is a genuine phenomenon, for example, or that vaccines don’t cause autism, or that human beings are the result of evolution by natural selection. But I also take pains to try to expose the assumptions on which those assertions of mine rely. And I also try to trace how different assumptions — including about what counts as good evidence — might lead someone to have different beliefs.

What I hope to achieve with the way that I deploy philosophy in the course is to get students to appreciate the value of intellectual humility. I want them to recognize how rigorous and exacting intellectual humility can be. It involves excavating the hidden premises that underlie our beliefs. It is also compatible with maintaining our belief in the truth of those premises, while at the same time acknowledging that those who accept different, incompatible premises, will arrive at different beliefs.

In the course, I am open about my own positions, but I encourage students to defend their own views, even if those views conflict with my own. I do my best to evaluate them not on whether they ultimately agree with me, but whether they do a good job of supporting their own positions on the basis of their own starting premises.

This makes for a challenging course for the students. Rather than telling them what they ought to believe, I encourage them to criticize, but also to defend their own opinions — just so long as they are able to shape those opinions into a coherent position.

One of the puzzling aspects of the course for the students is to recognize that two coherent positions, each of which enjoys a strong internal logic, can be mutually incompatible. Given that the two positions conflict, they cannot both be correct. But given their coherence and strong internal logic, it would not be possible to convince someone who is committed to one of the positions that she ought to abandon it.

This is puzzling because students often come in to a course with the expectation that the smarter and more logical a thinker is, the more likely they are to be correct. And it can be jarring to appreciate that sometimes two mutually opposed thinkers can both be incredibly smart and logically adept — since at most one of them can possibly be correct!

In particular, as I point out to my students, this demonstrates why it is that philosophy invites intellectual humility. The history of philosophy is replete with a number of cases of brilliant thinkers who created complicated, coherent philosophical systems — that are unfortunately mutually incompatible with the equally complicated, coherent philosophical systems created by other, equally brilliant thinkers.

I think it’s important to emphasize the connection between philosophy and intellectual humility, because philosophy has a long tradition of intellectual hubris, of overselling the value of philosophy. Consider the case of Boethius, a Roman aristocrat who lived in the last decades of the fifth century and the early decades of the sixth century C.E. Boethius achieved a high position in the court of Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogoth who ruled a kingdom stretching from Spain to the Adriatic, and including all of Italy. Due to court intrigue, Boethius was accused of sorcery and treason, imprisoned, and eventually executed in 526 C.E.

In his masterwork, The Consolation of Philosophy, written while in prison, Boethius seeks to comfort himself in his misfortune, through an imagined dialogue with a lady who serves as the personification of Philosophy. He consoles himself with the idea that the riches he has gained from his study of philosophy far outweigh his misfortune. Despite his imprisonment, no external force can remove him from “the chamber of [his] mind wherein [Philosophy] once placed not books but that which gives books their value, the doctrines which [those] books contain”.

We can distill this out as the Consolation of Philosophy principle, or simply Consolation Principle. According to the Consolation Principle, the philosopher’s mind, by itself and without relying on anything external to it, is sufficient for achieving something of value. In fact, in The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius seems to go even further and claim that everything of real value is attainable by the mind, acting alone. But let’s not deal with that strong version of the Consolation Principle; let’s just look at the weaker version, which just states that *something* of real value is attainable by the mind, acting alone.

Against this Consolation Principle I want to suggest that philosophy actually teaches us what you might call the Disconsolation Principle. Philosophy actually shows that the mind, acting by itself and without relying on anything external to it, is insufficient for achieving something of value. In other words it seems to me that, when you consider the nature of our mental resources themselves, you’re left with the inescapable position that the Consolation Principle just isn’t very plausible.

In order to appreciate this, it might help to begin by considering the nature of deductive reasoning. Valid deductive reasoning is reasoning that establishes its conclusions inescapably, given the truth of the premises on which those conclusions rest.

For example, if I know that the moon is made of green cheese and that green cheese is denser than brie, then I can conclude that the moon is denser than brie. The force of the argument rests on the fact that, if its premises are true, there is no way for its conclusion to be false.

But a great deal rests on the phrase “if its premises are true”. When I teach logic, I needn’t concern myself with the truth of the premises of the arguments that my students and I evaluate. In logic, we’re interested with the structures of arguments — whether those arguments are valid. And in deductive logic we can evaluate the validity of arguments without concerning ourselves with whether the premises of those arguments are actually true.

Now, of course, in other philosophy courses this is not the case. In other philosophy courses we might want to evaluate whether humans have free will, or whether knowledge requires belief, or whether morally right action sometimes deviates from the maximization of expected utility. In such cases, though we certainly want to evaluate valid arguments, we also need to consider the truth of the premises that figure in such arguments.

When doing philosophy, in other words, the validity of the arguments that we employ is at best a necessary condition for achieving greater philosophical understanding. Achieving such understanding will also require that we assess the truth of the premises that figure in those arguments. Does freedom require the possibility to have done otherwise? Is knowledge the most basic factive attitude? Does right action require that we treat persons always as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end?

But now here’s the problem for the Consolation Principle — and the reason why I find the Disconsolation Principle far more likely to be apt. It just doesn’t seem plausible to me that we can, solely using the resources of our own minds, evaluate the truth of the premises that figure in those philosophical arguments.

Let me clarify two important elements of this last claim.

First, the “we” in that claim is important. When I make that claim, I’m not claiming that nobody can, solely using the resources of their own mind, evaluate the truth of the premises that figure in those philosophical arguments. My claim is a weaker one: it’s that, if anybody can exert such feats of mental self-sufficiency, nevertheless such abilities are extremely uncommon.

So when I say that it’s more plausible that we cannot, solely using the resources of our own minds, evaluate the truth of the premises of philosophical arguments, what I mean is that the vast majority of people, were they even to care about or attempt to evaluate the premises of philosophical arguments, would not be able to do so alone and unaided.

Second, it’s important to understand what “solely using the resources of our own minds” means. By that I mean, to a first approximation, “using what seems to us, on considered and solitary reflection, to be the case”. I think the first approximation is enough for our purposes. Using the resources of your own mind means not conducting an empirical investigation, not consulting the investigations of others, and also not consulting the reasoning of others, or subjecting your own reasoning to the critical evaluation of others.

Given this way of understanding these two elements, it seems to me extremely plausible that most people would not be capable of assessing, in any satisfactory way, the truth of philosophical premises solely using only the resources of their own minds. (And yes, I include myself among those “most people”.)

Perhaps, though, I’ve been holding the Consolation Principle to an unreasonable standard. I’ve been assessing whether the unaided mind is sufficient to evaluate significant truths. And perhaps that’s too much to ask. But I think that there are reasons to think that the Consolation Principle, more generally, actually offers us little consolation.

To see this, take perhaps the easiest scenario for which the Consolation Principle might apply: even if you’re left solely to your own devices, your mind is sufficient for keeping you entertained. Once you realize that the phrase “even if you’re left solely to your own devices” doesn’t include your smartphone, you’ll probably already be inclined to question the plausibility of the Consolation Principle, even in the case that involves merely keeping yourself entertained. And evidence involving much more dramatic cases, such as the ill-effects of solitary confinement, for example, suggest that such skepticism is warranted.

So here’s where we are. When you consider the limitations of our mental resources, it seems plausible to suggest that the unaided mind is — or, at least, most unaided minds are — not capable of achieving very much.

In this way, the Disconsolation Principle is something of a return to an even earlier role for philosophy: that of gadfly to the intellectually self-satisfied. In the Apology, Socrates recounts having questioned a politician acclaimed for his wisdom and having come away thinking that “I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.”

Rather than consoling us about what we can achieve alone through the efforts of our minds, in other words, philosophy does better when it reminds us to be more modest about the extent of our abilities.