–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Philosophical Expertise

by | Dec 10, 2023

I’ve written a lot about the confusions that plague academic philosophers, and one of the things we are the most confused about is the sort of expertise our education and work confers.

A doctor of veterinary medicine is an expert on animal physiology and health. A medical doctor has a similar expertise, but with regard to human physiology and health. A botanist is an expert on plants. An astronomer is an expert on stars, planets, and nebulas.

Philosophical expertise is nothing like this. Ours is the mastery of a literature and a toolset, not of the things that literature is about, which means that our expertise is discursive through and through. We have mastered a certain way of talking, conceptualizing, and analyzing and become expert in a body of work produced in that idiom. 

Certainly, vets and doctors and botanists and astronomers master a literature and discourse (a mastery that includes significant empirical investigation), but the expertise that follows is not simply in that literature or discourse, but in the subject matter itself. By studying the literature and being involved in botanical discourse and experimentation, the botanist becomes an expert on plants. By studying the literature and engaging in the discourse and experiments in chemistry, the chemist becomes an expert on the properties and behaviors of chemical compounds. 

Do philosophers acquire a comparable sort of expertise through our studies and work? I don’t think so.

What would it mean to be an expert on morality? Presumably, to behave really well; better than most. And yet, the study of moral philosophy confers no such benefit, as evinced by the fact that moral philosophers behave as well or as poorly as everyone else. 

How about knowledge? What would it mean to be an expert on that? While more obscure than the previous question, it seems a similar answer is in order: To be an expert on knowledge would be to have mastered the methods of knowledge-acquisition, which means that one should be really good at knowing, across the different subject areas; better than most. Alas, the study of epistemology has no such effect, and philosophers seem as knowledgeable – and as ignorant – as everyone else (suitably qualified, of course).

Value? Beauty? Expertise with regard to these suggests that a person is in possession of superior sensibilities and tastes. Do philosophers who have mastered the literature and done research in axiology or aesthetics have better sensibilities or tastes than anyone else? Of course not.

And what about reality; the subject of metaphysics? What would it mean to be an expert on that? At this point, our questions have crossed over into the weird and nonsensical. I have no idea what being an “expert on reality” consists of or even means and I doubt anyone else does either. Whatever the study of metaphysics provides a person, then, it isn’t that.

It should go without saying that mastering, say, the literature on just-war theory does not make a person an expert on actual warfare or international conflicts, but watching philosophers on social media opining – often with great conviction and fervor – on the latest conflict in the Middle East reveals that many of us think it does. [1] Knowing the literature and publishing in political theory entails nothing about what one may or may not know about contemporary politics and government, but you’ll find philosophers publicly pontificating on these subjects nonetheless. Having mastered the literature on Smith or Marx wouldn’t seem to give a person the sort of expertise required to speak authoritatively on matters of contemporary, real world micro- and macroeconomics, and yet, once again, many philosophers act as if it does. 

In short, far too many of us think that our course of study and work makes us experts on everything that our literature speaks to. When talking to one another in exclusively philosophical spaces, this is harmless – a kind of mutual admiration society which, though smarmy and surreal, has no real impact on anyone else – but once it breaks out into the public or finds its way into spheres populated by those with genuine expertise in these areas, it becomes quickly evident that we are no better informed than anyone else (again, suitably qualified).


The reasons for this confusion about our own expertise are many and varied and include selection effects – i.e. the profiles of the sorts of people whom academic philosophy tends to attract – which means that any serious analysis would require its own separate treatment, so I’ll just say a few things about them here.

I’ve said that philosophy, at its core, involves the mastery of a discursive toolset and idiom, but many of the positions that have been most popular among philosophers suggest that our discipline confronts a reality beyond human discourse and activity. Bernard Williams may have thought philosophy a “humanistic discipline” – and so do I – but an awful lot of philosophers think they’re talking about stuff other than us.

With regard to these positions, the biggest culprits are the realisms and rationalisms: realisms, because they claim an “independent reality” – understood in a peculiar, distinctly philosophical sense of the expression – for the things one is talking about, and rationalisms because they claim a universality for one’s talking. If you are a moral realist, for example, and think that rightness and wrongness exist and operate independently of human attitudes and activity, then you may very well think there is a thing out there to be expert about, just as animal bodies are things out there for vets to be experts about. Ditto for “metaphysical realists,” who get to be experts about the ding an sich or Forms or whatever else they think is “real” in this strange philosophical sense of the word. And let’s not even get started on the unfortunate “modal realists,” who think that logical possibilities are akin to “distant countries,”as Kripke characterized the view in Naming and Necessity. (1980) Those who have read and digested the message of Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia (1962) might wonder why anyone still goes for this sort of thing, but here we are.

If in addition one is a (small ‘r’) rationalist, then one also expects universal agreement, in the sense that one views consensus on such matters as a norm, albeit perhaps an aspirational one. The canons of deductive and inductive inference are universal, after all (well, sort of), and as philosophical theories about obligation, knowledge, reality, and the like are created by way of ratiocination of one kind or another, if the relevant inferences are sound, they should enjoy universal consent. That they do not is obvious to everyone, but for the rationalist, this lack of agreement is a sign of some defect, either in the arguments or on the part of the interlocutor, and consequently is not perceived as indicating anything about the nature of our discipline itself.

I would point out to those who hold views like these that disagreements over these subjects are irresolvable. And it’s not just that people are stubborn or thick-headed and refuse to see the “truth” or “reality” or whatever it is, but that the kinds of positions we trade in by their nature suffer from indeterminacy. It’s not just that we can’t resolve disputes over them; they are not the kinds of things over which one can have resolvable disputes.

Whether utility or the dignity of the personhood of others is overriding of all other considerations – or whether anything is generally overriding in the manner utilitarians and Kantians say things are – is not resolvable. Whether epistemic warrant is “internal” or “external” is not resolvable. Whether American style democracy or European style constitutional monarchy is the more “just” system is not resolvable. Whether there are discrete selves or Humean “bundles” is not resolvable. Whether “reality” is “constructed” or “mind independent” is not resolvable. Whether Aristotelian “flourishing” or Epicurean “contentment” constitute the good life is not resolvable. I could go on, but surely you get the point. These are not the sorts of questions for which there are determinate answers, and when people disagree over them, there lies a point of inevitable stalemate, beyond which further arguments and evidence are useless. 

In part, this is because every one of these positions is consistent with the relevant facts: no fact is going to decide between Internalism and Externalism, Utilitarianism and Deontology, or Metaphysical Realism or Anti-Realism. (It isn’t as if, for example, being a metaphysical anti-realist will give you trouble when trying to kick stones, whatever Samuel Johnson might have thought.) It’s also because there are valid arguments for all of these positions and determining which ones are sound and which ones are not is undermined by the fact that many of the core premises cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed other than by way of further arguments, which will suffer from the same problem.

Philosophy operates within what Wilfrid Sellars called “the Manifest Image,” the space of reasons, representations, persons, and ends. Scientists study different aspects of the natural world, while philosophers examine the different ways of conceiving and thinking about that world, including by way of the sciences, which is what gives us the philosophy of science. We inhabit various types of environments – natural, social, civic, and the like – and philosophers investigate the ways in which we stand in relation to them, which informs everything from social and political philosophy to the philosophy of mind. All of us value things and feel obligated to do some things and not do others, and philosophers are expert in the different ways in which one might think about what we are doing when something matters to us or when we moralize, which gives us ethical and axiological theories. 

Or at least in a subset of those ways. What philosophy offers is a rational reconstruction of the things we think and do, and this provides us with neither a complete nor a fully satisfying account of them.

Many of us – even some of the best – have gotten this backwards and think that philosophy doesn’t offer a partial, rationalistic treatment of human activity and practice, but is in fact fundamental; that everything we do, at bottom, is philosophy: when we value things, we are doing philosophy; when we feel obligated we are doing philosophy; when we wonder about who and what we are or how we should live, we are doing philosophy. 

Mary Midgely meant something like this, when she said, “Philosophy, like speaking prose, is something we have to do all our lives, well or badly, whether we notice it or not.” But given philosophy’s (small ‘r’) rationalism, this cannot be the case – we are mammals, not rational minds inhabiting bodies – and given the built-in un-falsifiability – Everyone’s doing philosophy even if they don’t notice! – and obviously self-serving quality of the thought – We are experts on what everybody does all the time! – it is safely rejected. Much more apt is Stanley Rosen’s take, according to which philosophy involves extraordinary, technical discourse that is built upon our ordinary language and practice, rather than the other way around. (Austin observed how this can go terribly wrong in metaphysics and epistemology, in the already-mentioned Sense and Sensibilia, and Wittgenstein famously observed that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.”) As Rosen describes it in Metaphysics in Ordinary Language (1999):

My thesis is not simply that there is an ordinary language, reflective of the common stratum of human nature… I also claim that this ordinary language is retained as a basis… of all technical dialects. It is this basis that serves as the fundamental paradigm for the plausibility or implausibility of theoretical discourse and particularly of philosophical doctrines.

Philosophical expertise, then, is … philosophical. It is not an expertise in morality, but in a certain kind of moral thinking and talking. It is not an expertise in knowledge, but in certain ways of understanding and thinking about it. It is not an expertise in “reality” – whatever that might mean – but in certain ways of conceiving of the world and our relation to it. 

So, the next time a philosopher lectures you about the Arab/Israeli conflict or runs off on a rant about capitalism or “neoliberalism” or tells you that certain kinds of lives don’t constitute “flourishing” or that muons are conscious or deems your bologna sandwich or linguine con vongole  morally “impermissible,” just remember that he likely doesn’t know any more than you do about whatever it is the two of you are talking about. And while the particular framework from which he approaches these subjects may be illuminating and useful to your own understanding of things, it also may not be, in which case you should feel free to ignore him.


[1] A quick trip over to Daily Nous confirms that there is no limit to philosophers’ enthusiasm for this sort of thing. One finds no less than a half dozen posts, with hundreds upon hundreds of strongly opinionated comments (and no small number of accusations) on the latest Israel/Gaza conflict, over at Daily Nous. They are a testament to what a powerful cocktail the combination of oversized confidence and meager knowledge can be.