On disagreement in philosophy

DisagreementIn a brief interview with Vox Martha Nussbaum made some comments about disagreement in philosophy that have been met with approval from quite a few philosophers on Twitter. Beyond that selected audience, I think that Nussbaum’s comments reflect a fairly widely held belief in academic philosophy that disagreement is both necessary and valuable. It’s not just that disagreement will occur (perhaps because of epistemic pluralism), but also that disagreement is inherent to the practice of philosophy and that this is a good thing. You’re not really doing philosophy, or so the thought goes, if you’re not disagreeing with someone else. This idea stretches back to Socrates and is reflected in the agonistic and sometimes antagonistic practices of philosophy, both in person and in print. Before reflecting more on what seems awry with Nussbaum’s comments, it’s worth quoting them in full. Asked to ‘name a writer or publication you disagree with but still read’, Nussbaum responds that:

‘This strikes me as the most hilarious question, given that I’m a philosopher. Philosophy is all about respectful disagreement, and learning from disagreement. No decent philosopher simply parrots some other philosopher, so there must be disagreements somewhere in every case.’

She goes on to say that if she ‘didn’t disagree with a philosopher it would hardly be worth engaging with him or her, because there would be nothing to learn’. Much seems to depend on how exclusively we interpret Nussbaum’s use of ‘all about’. It would be unfair, I think, to assume that by ‘all about’ she means ‘only about’, but should rather be taken to mean ‘significantly about’. Philosophy can be significantly about disagreement and also significantly about truth, or accuracy, or coherence, or reflection, or whatever else. It’s useful then to distinguish between two issues. The first is about the idea of progress in philosophy. It’s apparent to anyone who has spent any time in academic philosophy that disagreements multiply but resolutions do not. It’s unclear what the procedure would even be for considering a philosophical question ‘resolved’. The second issue is whether philosophical disagreement is inherently valuable to the practice of philosophy. That’s the question I’m interested in here.

In order to see why Nussbaum’s position on that question strikes me as odd let’s imagine that a new book of political philosophy is published which sets out in great detail the author’s theory of justice. Upon reading it, Nussbaum is amazed to discover that she is in complete agreement with all of its arguments. Not only is she fully in accordance with its prescriptions and conclusions but she also finds no fault with its starting assumptions, its method, or any of its reasoning. What would her response to this hypothetical publication be?

There are three moves that Nussbaum could make that are in keeping with her comments about disagreement. First off, Nussbaum might say that it’s simply impossible for such a situation to occur: she would never and could never be in complete agreement with someone else’s theory. In other words, she rejects the premise of the thought experiment. Denying this, however, seems odd because Nussbaum must believe that someone else could in principle write such a book (however unlikely that might be) so long as she also believes that she subscribes to some coherent set of beliefs about justice with which the book could accord. What reasons could one possibly have for rejecting this possibility without recourse to solipsism? I can’t think of any. So, assuming that Nussbaum is not a solipsist she must accept, in principle, that the publication of such a theory is possible.

The second option is to say that yes, she is in complete agreement, but that ‘it would hardly be worth engaging with him or her, because there would be nothing to learn’. This again seems intuitively unsettling. Having spent a lifetime reading and writing about political philosophy Nussbaum finally comes across a theory of justice with which she is in complete agreement and her response to what we must assume is a work of genius (at least on her own view) is that it wouldn’t be worth engaging with it because there would be ‘nothing to learn’. Really? In the same situation I would feel obliged to engage by commending the theory to other philosophers, using my (very limited) public platform to promote the theory, and defending the theory from its inevitable critics. It would be wilfully perverse to discover such a theory and then say, ‘Well, nothing to be done here’. If one were to respond in this way then this seems to say something troubling about the practice of philosophy, which is that philosophy must always be critical. If you have nothing critical to say then you have nothing to say tout court. While I think there are good arguments that philosophy ought to be critical to a very significant degree, it can’t be epistemically desirable for philosophers to only ever meet agreement with  stubborn silence. If that’s the case then philosophy seems to have the opposite problem to science. Where scientific publishing ignores negative results, philosophy ignores positive ones (to the extent that agreement between philosophers constitutes a ‘positive result’).

The third move is to say that whilst she is in agreement with the theory, she is incapable of engaging with it at a philosophical level. She would vocally support the theory and champion its author, but her engagement with the theory would not be properly philosophical. Because ‘there must be disagreements somewhere in every case’ the absence of disagreements means that whatever she’s doing is, it’s not philosophy. This again seems odd, and implies that one only does philosophy when one disagrees with some philosopher or other. Does Nussbaum really want to say that? There are certainly ‘decent’ philosophers who are unabashed devotees of other philosophers. Within my own area, Samuel Freeman’s explication and defence of John Rawls and the similar role Henry Hardy plays to Isaiah Berlin spring to mind. Whether being a devotee is the same as parroting is not quite clear – explications are not echoes – but I’ve found a lot of value in Freeman’s and Hardy’s work that I would be reticent to dismiss as non-philosophical value. This argument also implies that Nussbaum’s use of ‘all about’ does in fact imply ‘only about’. If a philosopher is merely reflecting without disagreeing then he or she is not doing philosophy. This seems like an overly strict and limited view of what philosophy is. Further, it cannot be the case that philosophy is ‘only about’ disagreement because then the subject of disagreement is empty. If philosophy is defined as disagreement about X, then there must at least be something that counts for X. Philosophy must have at least some other element other than disagreement in order for it to begin as a practice.

Of Nussbaum’s three possible moves then, the first and the third are non-starters and the second and third suggest understandings of philosophy that I assume Nussbaum would find normatively undesirable. Where does that leave us? Well, I think that Nussbaum is slightly wrong about the nature of philosophy. If what she’s saying is simply that philosophical consensus is impossible then I agree. But her point seems to be the more radical one that it is impossible for a philosopher to fulfil the role of a philosopher when in complete agreement with another philosopher. On that point I disagree: disagreement may well be endemic in philosophy, but it is not a necessary condition of doing philosophy. As such, it is not inherently valuable to philosophy that we disagree. Philosophy can still be valuable without disagreement.

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