09 June 2008

R. G. Frey on Applied Philosophy

I support wholeheartedly the application of philosophy to practical issues; but it is as well to be aware at the outset of the form which the philosopher's contribution to these issues takes. It is, as R. M. Hare has impressed upon me, simply this: philosophy is concerned with testing arguments for soundness, and the occupation of the philosopher is to carry out this testing. To this end, he deploys the tools and canons of logic on behalf of accuracy in argument, explores questions of meaning, implication, presupposition, derivation, relation, compatibility, etc., pries into and generates examples and counter-examples, both realistic and hypothetical, and so on. One but only one of the tools he deploys in this task is the analysis of those concepts in which the arguments he is testing are set out; analysis is not, however, an alternative view of what the philosopher is about, in some way competing with his assessment of arguments. By contrast, though he can and doubtless should concern himself with and even soak himself in the factual material pertaining to the specific arguments under his gaze, further increases in this factual material and knowledge are not part of the philosopher's task as such.

(R. G. Frey, Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980], 2)

Note from KBJ: Frey is right that the philosopher, as such, has no factual expertise. He should have added that the same is true of evaluative expertise. That X is a philosopher does not give X's values any greater weight. Why should it? Where in my formal study to be a philosopher did I learn correct values? Philosophy is a formal enterprise. It can tell people that they cannot believe both p and q. It cannot tell people which of the propositions, if either, to believe. It can tell people that if they believe r, they must also believe s. It cannot tell people to believe r. The only leverage a philosopher has is the principle of noncontradiction. That may not seem like a lot, but it is.

Note 2 from KBJ: Frey says that "philosophy is concerned with testing arguments for soundness." A sound argument is a valid argument with true premises. A valid argument is an argument in which the truth of the premises is incompatible with the falsity of the conclusion. I hope you can see that Frey meant "validity" rather than "soundness." The philosopher is concerned not with the truth of an argument's premises, but with whether they entail the conclusion. There is one class of truths concerning which the philosopher, as such, has expertise, namely, necessary truths. The philosopher, as such, has no expertise concerning contingent truths.

Note 3 from KBJ: The following propositions are consistent:
1. Keith is a philosopher.
2. Keith makes value judgments.
3. Philosophers, as such, do not make value judgments.
If you understood what I said in my previous notes, you will see why these propositions are consistent.

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