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When Should Philosophers Be Silent?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2012

Jason Decker*
Carleton College
Charles Taliaferro
St. Olaf College


Are there general precepts governing when philosophers should not conduct inquiry on a given topic? When, if ever, should a philosopher just be silent? In this paper we look at a number of practical, epistemic, and moral arguments for philosophical silence. Some are quite general, and suggest that it is best never to engage in philosophical inquiry, while others are more domain – or context – specific. We argue that these arguments fail to establish their conclusions. We do, however, try to identify and defend several substantive constraints on philosophical dialogue and inquiry. In practice, though, respecting these constraints needn't lead to much philosophical silence.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2012

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1 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1922), 189Google Scholar.

2 Stump, Eleonore, Wandering in darkness: Narrative and the problem of suffering (Oxford Clarendon Press, 2010), 16CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Thomson, Judith, Normativity (Chicago: Open Court, 2008)Google Scholar.

4 Grice, H.P., ‘Logic and Conversation’, in Studies in the Ways of Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 2442Google Scholar.

5 Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet, edited by Furness, Horace Howard (Philadelphia: Lippincott's Press, 1871), 1801Google Scholar.

6 Note that one can't truly love that with which one has no acquaintance.

7 We will consider a secular version of this worry below when we consider Hilary Kornblith's argument against reason.

8 Mill, J.S., ‘On Liberty (1859)’ in On Liberty and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

9 Kornblith, Hilary, ‘Distrusting Reason’, in Midwest Studies in Philosophy XXIII (1999), 181196Google Scholar.

10 For a similar argument, see also Buchak, Lara, ‘Instrumental Rationality, Epistemic Rationality, and Evidence-Gathering’, Philosophical Perspectives (2010) 85–120Google Scholar.

11 Op. cit. note 9, 182.

13 Ibid., 185.

14 Ibid., 189–90.

15 Ibid., 193.

16 Ibid., 186.

17 Ibid., 189–90.

18 Ibid., 189.

19 Ibid., 187.

20 It's perhaps worth noting that even if a topic is nonexistent or ineffable, this might not be enough to force philosophers into silence. There is, for example, Plato's puzzling reference in the Republic to the good being beyond existence and Quine's puzzling claim in Word and Object that while linguistic meanings don't exist, if they had existed, the Verification Criterion of Meaning would have characterized them. There are even philosophers who hold that impossibilities can be conceived and discussed. This is not implausible, since, at the very least, one ought to be able to construct meaningful reductio arguments against impossibilia and evaluate substantive indicative and counterfactual conditionals with impossible antecedents.

21 Now is as good a time as any for us to caution that any claims we make about Wittgenstein (both early and late) are subject to contradiction by Wittgenstein scholars – such being the penalty for attributions to Wittgenstein (to adapt a phrase from Quine).

22 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, 2nd edition, Translated by Anscombe, G.E.M. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1958), 102eGoogle Scholar.

23 Op. cit. note 1, 187–189.

24 Ibid., 189.

25 Hume, David, ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’ in Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, edited by Selby-Bigge, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), 165Google Scholar.

26 Hilary Putnam suggests a more respectful approach in a chapter entitled ‘“Ontology”: An Obituary’ of his Ethics Without Ontology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004)Google Scholar. After comparing ontology to a stinking horse corpse (that's not the respectful part), Putnam offers this on its behalf:

[I]n Plato and Aristotle it [ontology] represented the vehicle for conveying many genuine philosophical insights. The insights still preoccupy all of us in philosophy who have any historical sense at all. But the vehicle has long since outlived its usefulness. (85)

Ontology is a vehicle that one shouldn't want to take – you're not going to get very far riding a stinking horse corpse! – but it's at least a vehicle with a storied history. It used to be useful for getting interesting places, even if it was getting there in a confused way. It can at least be admired for that (and presumably discussed in the context of a historical investigation of its uses).

27 One of us had such a student. How serious he was being was shockingly unclear.

28 Sparkes, A. W., Talking Philosophy: A Wordbook (London: Routledge, 1991), 54Google Scholar.

29 This is academic philosophy at its best. How often it's at its best is a fine question.

30 In Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 119CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Fried, Charles, Anatomy of Values (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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