Thales, Kitcher, and Mauvaise Foi:

EJ Spode
36 min readJun 8, 2023

A review of Philip Kitcher’s What’s the Use of Philosophy?

Thales falling in pit

It is said that the very first Western philosopher was Thales of Miletus, who lived from around 620 to 546 BCE. That is about 150 years before Socrates, and 200 years before Plato. His greatest claim to fame is his conjecture that “all is water,” which is important because it is our earliest record of someone asking about the fundamental constituent stuff of reality. But Thales second greatest claim to fame involves that time he fell in a well or a pit or whatever it was. Plato conveyed the story in the Theatetus dialogue putting the story in the mouth of Socrates speaking with Theodorus:

Why, take the case of Thales, Theodorus. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy. (Fowler’s translation)

You may have questions. For example, if Thales was really the first philosopher, how could a Thracian servant girl, or any Thracian for that matter, come to know his intellectual habits? You might wonder if this actually happened or is just some pre-Socratic fake news. None of that matters to us, because what really matters is the point that Plato was trying to convey: People are always up in philosophers’ business, giving them shit for not doing practical things. Sometimes philosophers feel the sting of this criticism and take it to heart. According to Aristotle, Thales decided to show the world that he could do practical things if he wanted to, so one season when he predicted a large imminent olive harvest, he cornered the market on olive presses and price gouged the poor olive famers around Miletus. He thus became not only the father of western philosophy, of but risk arbitrage as well. A Milesian Gordon Gekko. Aristotle thought Thales thus proved that “it is easy for philosophers to be rich if they choose, but this is not what they care about.”

My big point here is not really about Thales, so much as it is about the fact that philosophers have been taking crap about the uselessness of philosophy for two and a half millennia. Sure, the jeering Thracian servant girls have given way to moms and dads asking “so…, what you going to do with that?,” and then aunts and uncles get into the act at family reunions, and then spouses and other devoted companions start to wonder, and ultimately university deans, provosts, promotion committees, etc. etc. None of them can seem to see the point of what we do. It sort of sucks to have to deal with all that, but there is something that sucks worse, and that is when one of our own — another philosopher — decides to lay into fellow philosophers and tell them that what they are doing is pointless, or maybe worse than pointless. Thracians and moms and dads and aunts and uncles were not enough? Now we have to take crap from fellow philosophers too?

The thing is, when philosophers start to lay into other philosophers and call them out for doing bullshit, it is always…surprise!…not what THEY are doing. So, philosophers that like to do technical work will call out the big picture philosophers for the crime of carelessly opining about stuff without nailing anything down. Big picture philosophers will call out the technical philosophers because they commit the crime of losing their car keys in dark and then looking for the keys under the lamp because that is where the light is.

It is all good fun, busting balls and shit-talking like that, until some really powerful philosopher — a former American Philosophical Association president — comes along and writes a book, publicly calling out those fellow philosophers, and lining them up for the provost’s budget-cut kill station, all for the crime of not doing philosophy the way said famous philosopher thinks it should be done (i.e. how he or she does it). And this brings us to the recent book by Phillip Kitcher, What’s the Use of Philosophy?

For those that don’t know, Philip Kitcher is a very successful and productive academic philosopher. He is the John Dewey Professor Emeritus at Colombia University, served as president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has written (or cowritten) some 17 books on topics including mathematical knowledge, genetics, sociobiology, pragmatism, the theory of evolution, creationism, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Wagner’s Ring, the character Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and other topics. Just for the record I am a big fan of Kitcher’s work. I have nothing bad to say about any of his previous work that I have read. Some of it is fantastic. But this new book is not fantastic. It is bad.

Let me frame the discussion to follow. In 1953 Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay called “The Fox and the Hedgehog,” highlighting two distinct approaches to intellectual life. On Berlin’s analogy, Hedgehogs had one leading idea, and foxes had many. Let’s revise that story — call it fox-and-hedgehog 2.0 if you wish. On version 2.0, the fox is the philosopher that traverses the broader intellectual landscape and thinks about how things fit together in the big picture. Fox 2.0 is the “synthesizer,” in Kitcher’s terminology. And Kitcher himself would be the prototypical fox, traversing the intellectual landscape, thinking how to tie things together, and thinking about the end purpose of all of it. Hedgehog 2.0 is the philosopher that burrows in on narrow questions, ignoring the broader landscape above, but knowing the details of where she works very well. John Hawthorne is the protypical Hedgehog 2.0, as reflected in how he described his work in Steve Pyke’s book of portraits of philosophers. “Top of my to-do list: take joy in the details (and hope for the best as far as larger issues are concerned).”

If you have ever been part of a philosophy department (or for that matter, any collection of humans), you probably know who the foxes are and who the hedgehogs are. As with most bifurcations, it is of course imperfect, but serviceable. (Hereafter, when I speak of foxes and hedgehogs, just assume I am talking about the 2.0 versions of both.)

Is it better to be a fox or a hedgehog? Well, foxes tend to think that we should all be foxes, and hedgehogs tend to think we should all be hedgehogs. Foxes wonder, “what the hell are those hedgehogs doing burrowing around down there, we have no idea!” Meanwhile hedgehogs wonder, “what the hell are those foxes doing, running around up there? Can’t they stop and focus for a minute?”

I am inclined to think that Kitcher is a hedgehog that wanted to become a fox, became one, and discovered he was wildly successful at it. I have no issues with that. More power to him. There is nothing wrong with foxes. But you know how sometimes converts to a new religion become more religious than the OG believers — for example, converts to Catholicism that become more Catholic than the Pope, so to speak? In this case, Kitcher, in the sweep of his conversion to foxdom, seems to be saying that he wants us all to be foxes. Sometimes he seems to be saying something stronger — something on the order of “hedgehogs to the flames!”

The core thesis of Kitcher’s book is that contemporary philosophy suffers from a number of pathologies — six of them! He also seems to be suggesting that the pathologies fall more heavily on the hedgehogs in our analogy. And the way I read the book, that is not by accident. There is something about the hedgehog mentality that lends itself to these pathologies.

We will get to the individual pathologies in a bit, but it seems to me that in Kitcher’s view the biggest problem currently plaguing hedgehog philosophy is that much of it is not for some greater end. In point of fact, Kitcher seems to wonder if philosophy without some end should even be granted “permission.” Here is how he puts the question.

Should societies grant blanket permission to people who, in at least some instances, are privileged in the level of support they enjoy, to pursue any venture that arouses their intellectual curiosity, without any responsibility to account for the benefits they take it to deliver?

And the answer to the question comes from the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey in his claim that, as Kitcher puts it, “intellectual work should conform to a social division of labor, in which the inquiries conducted should serve others outside the tiny coterie of those who undertake them.”

Now obviously no one thinks that people should indulge in narrow personal pursuits all the time. There are a lot of people in this world that need a lot of help. Checking out from helping others really would be a dick move. But can’t some of your philosophical efforts be, you know, just for your own personal joy and your own personal interest in difficult narrow questions? I would have thought there are elements of human flourishing that involve addressing questions about the fundamental stuff of reality (as Thales did), even though Thracians and others don’t care about the question or the answer. But Kitcher isn’t buying this.

You might be doing university service and community service and teaching up a storm. You might even be doing work that does have visible external benefits. The question is, after doing all that, should you have permission to “pursue any venture that arouses [your] intellectual curiosity” if you can’t “account for the benefits”? My answer would have been “hell yes! there are some things that I want to know for their own sake!” But Kitcher has other ideas. He thinks “the choices of which ones to pursue ought to respond to interests that are widely shared.”

Just how “widely shared” does this interest have to be? Is it 51% of the population? 10%? Ten people in every city? A random sample of the population from Gallop polling? Kitcher doesn’t say, but apparently he is responding to widely shared interests when he writes about Wagner’s Ring, Finnegan’s Wake, and the character Professor Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. Who knew? In any case, the stuff that you are interested in might not be all that responsive to widely shared interests. You should really reflect on this. Especially if you are a “young philosopher”:

[T]oo many young philosophers rarely scrutinize the worth of the enterprises to which they will devote years of their lives. Perhaps this is the most obvious pathology of all, apparent to those outsiders who learn about what their friends in the philosophy department are doing and wonder why anybody would want to do that. [emphasis Kitcher’s]

My first question is how Kitcher could possibly know how often young philosophers scrutinize the worth of what they do. And naturally, my second question is about how often he wants them to revisit that question, since his concern is not that they never do this, but that they allegedly do it “rarely.” Maybe every day you should ask yourself if some friend of the philosophy department is out there jeering at you for doing that.

You might be thinking “well actually I do ask myself that question.” Well, good for you, but you have to do more than ask the question, you also have to be careful to not to “resist the question”. And here is one of those spots where Kitcher says something that sounds pretty good until you realize that you are supposed to imagine it delivered with a sneer.

Sometimes people devoted to “freedom in philosophy” resist the question. Nobody can predict, they say, which intellectual pursuits will lead to future benefits. Better, then, to let individual scholars, disciplinary communities, even whole fields go in whatever directions they choose. No need to justify working on questions others dismiss as pointless. Sources of good things are often found in surprising places.

Now you may be thinking to yourself: I could do without the scare quotes around “freedom in philosophy,” but otherwise that quote makes perfect fucking sense! But that just shows what a philosophical dead-ender you are. Indeed, that paragraph is, in Kitcher’s words, “a rationalization for academic irresponsibility, for airy refusal of that ‘social division of labor’ on which Dewey insisted.” Well, if Dewey insisted, I guess that settles that.

But I still have questions. I mean, how does one come to know that a book on Professor Gustav von Aschenbach will “respond to interests that are widely shared” and deliver “benefits” while what you are doing will not?

John Dewey and post-makeover Gustav von Aschenback

And speaking of future benefits, how could Kitcher, or incredulous friends in other departments, or family members or jeering Thracians or anybody, claim to know what the future uses of one’s work might be? Honest question! But that is just more “freedom in philosophy” nonsense to Kitcher.

But still… let’s try to imagine that claim delivered without the sneer. Even if you are an American Pragmatist, isn’t it a perfectly sensible thing to say that we don’t know what kind of payoffs our work will have? And anyway, why should deciding future payoffs be the business of APA Presidents or any presidents unless they can see into the future like Thales could see forthcoming olive harvests? In my personal experience, at least, things that initially seem 100% useless suddenly turn out to be useful at the end of the day. Let me give an example.

In 1981, when I was a second-year graduate student I was browsing recent philosophy journals in the library (this is how we did things in the olden days) and I came across an article in an important philosophy journal called Nous. The article was about formal rigor in mathematics, and in particular it was about arcane disputes that had taken place between continental and British mathematicians in the 17th and 18th Century regarding the formalization and rigorization of the Calculus. My thought at the time was, “what does this arcane discussion about the history of the Calculus — indeed, competing notations for the calculus — have to do with philosophy?” It certainly had nothing to do with anything I was ever going to be interested in. I put the journal back on the shelf, never expecting to think of it again. I imagined that the author, whose name was…checking notes… Phillip Kitcher… was one of those guys that wrote technical papers that didn’t add up to anything.

About five years later, I was doing some interdisciplinary work in linguistics, and came across a number of linguists making the claim, in print, that Chomsky was a slacker for not sufficiently formalizing his 1980s era theory (called, in the day, Government-Binding Theory), arguing that the development of classical physics had been successful because it developed within a well-defined mathematical framework — namely, the Calculus. The article by Kitcher rang a bell and I revisited the article, learning that, well no, actually the Calculus evolved in fits and starts in response to new developments in the sciences. Attempts to formalize the Calculus in Britain, just mucked up scientific development, while on the Continent, mathematicians and scientists were making great progress by developing and tweaking the Calculus on the fly. The Calculus was not fully formalized in a rigorous way until science had moved on from classical physics.

Kitcher’s paper didn’t just help in my response to the criticism of Chomsky in linguistics, but it eventually got me thinking about the role of rigorization in the sciences generally, and the view I eventually came to was that “rigorous enough” is just fine. But I didn’t take the mistaken next step of saying that scientists should refrain from rigorizing things. My thought was, if you want to bust your ass rigorizing something, by all means feel free!

The thing is that my experience was repeated over and over again in the decades following — almost like clockwork. I would come across a new paper with some new formal tool, or some new idea, and I would say “what the hell is this?” “Show me the philosophy.” Over the years I have wondered about the relevance of technical projects with fancy names like proof theory, discourse representation theory, dynamic logic, higher order logic, and then matters involving Bayesian decision theory, formal epistemology, epistemic modals, evolutionary game theory, and on and on and on. But eventually all of it became important to what I was working on. I even learned that ideas in the history of philosophy and in Continental philosophy which I had dismissed as so much mental masturbation would eventually become relevant. Did you know that both Leibniz and Jacques Derrida were obsessed with archives? I was vaguely aware but didn’t care until I started working for a blockchain technology company and they tasked me with sorting out the foundational issues in maintaining archives. It’s fascinating stuff, but I don’t have time to discuss it here, sorry. Email me.

All of this preceding discussion about future benefits has, for the sake of argument, granted Kitcher a point which probably should not be granted. It is his idea that philosophical work should be FOR something. That it should deliver benefits. But should it really? All of it? Is that really the correct way to think about philosophy? Don’t we deserve something a little bit like an argument here? Or at least something better than “Dewey said so” and “we think people are making fun of us”?

There is, it has to be said, something very American-centric about Kitcher’s approach to philosophy — this idea that anything worth doing must be for some really important end (which for Americans is usually money). Kitcher isn’t supposing that the ultimate end of philosophy should be financial, but his metaphors sure do cringe-worthily make one wonder: “Those inclined to dispense the funds might ask how long it is proper to wait for the expected returns…The extra-philosophical world has been waiting a long time for the goods to be delivered… Why invest in researchers who never offer any new knowledge?”

Why can’t philosophical projects, even when they have no further end, be good in themselves because they are in and of themselves cases of human flourishing? When Thales proposed that water was the basis of reality, wasn’t that an example of human flourishing? And when Russell and Whitehead wrote Principia Mathematica, wasn’t that an example of human flourishing quite independently of whether it would have applications in the real world? I don’t see why not. Of course, there are other ways to flourish. You can engage in all kinds of cultural projects, from music to dance, and from dialect poetry to video game design. You can write about Professor Gustav von Aschenbach! There are lots of ways to flourish. As for Kitcher’s work, it is as though he can’t admit that his work is a good in itself. He has to convince himself that it is for the benefit of the regular folk. My sense is that this is just a bit of mauvaise foi on his part. He should own his fine work as being a good in and of itself and stop pretending all of it (or even most of it) is for something bigger.

This leads me to the six pathologies that allegedly afflict the hedgehogs in particular. The first three pathologies are “the fetish for complete clarity, the fetish for formalization, and the introduction of hypothetical cases, so far removed from reality as to defy imaginative identification.”

Let’s talk about that last pathology first — “the introduction of hypothetical cases, so far removed from reality as to defy imaginative identification.” What he has in mind are thought experiments like the Trolley cases and in particular the really weird Trolley cases like the “Fat man on a bridge” case. You know the trolley cases; everyone does. A train is coming down the tracks and is going to kill five people but you can divert the train so that it goes down the track in which only one person is killed. Do you flip the switch? The fat man on the bridge case involves pushing a gargantuan man off the bridge in the path of the speeding train to save the hapless five.

Kitcher believes that when people conduct these thought experiments, they think they are trying to get at a priori ethical truths. I thought the point of the exercise was to try and limn the underlying assumptions in the ethical choices that people make. For example, if you were willing to flip the switch but not push the fat man that is sort of interesting, and it raises questions. What’s the difference? Something about direct agency? Are you sure your underlying ethical principles that took you to that point are consistent?

Kitcher also thinks that thought experiments like this are what turn students off from philosophy. He describes his experience teaching the trolley cases like this: “Perhaps my own experience in teaching undergraduates is unusual, but, in my efforts to present them with Trackside View and kindred cases, the main difficulty is eliciting any response at all. Almost everybody in the class shifts uneasily. When I look at particular people, eyes are lowered.”

Students listening to Kitcher teaching Trolley Problems

I know the experience of tuned-out students very well, but I never experienced it when teaching the trolley problem. I taught intro to ethics for several years and my experience was that students love thought experiments and in particular (again, in my experience) they love the trolley problem. They did not shift uneasily and lower their eyes as Kitcher reports, but they woke up and started talking. And honestly, that is precisely why these thought experiments are so well known. They are the best kind of pedagogical aides, which is to say they are the kind of pedagogical aids that gets the students to wake up and start discussing things and thus you don’t have to prepare as much material for class. It turns out that people even like to think about trolley problems when those problems aren’t on the exam. Even when they aren’t taking a class! For example, there is a web site called “Absurd Trolley Problems,” that allows you to respond to a series of increasingly out-there trolley problem. So far, over 4 million people have responded.

Students listening to me teaching Trolley Problems

Perhaps the reason that Kitcher finds the trolley problems pointless is because he is not in the business of designing autonomous vehicles, where some version of the problem has to be incorporated into the vehicle’s programming. Even if you don’t want the autonomous vehicle to make trolley decisions that is in itself a trolley problem decision you have made. Of course, when the problem makes its way into autonomous vehicles, it is all infused with probabilistic reasoning and way more complicated that what you get in Philosophy 104, but at the end of the day, autonomous vehicles are sometimes going to have to “decide” whether to swerve to (probably) kill one instead of (probably) five.

There is something deeply problematic about Kitcher’s suggestion that philosophers are unique in fretting over these weird and unusual cases. In his discussion of the trolley problem and robotic vehicles, Patrick Lin, Director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at Cal Poly, observes that in software engineering these are known as “edge cases” and they are considered to be very important: if we don’t know where they fracture and fail — then they arguably haven’t done their due diligence in designing the product, because we can’t expect them all to be normal cases. In the same article, Lin quotes former Microsoft engineer-turned bioethicist Kelly Mills, making the same point. “If I had told my boss at say, Microsoft, that ‘oh, that’s an edge case bug, don’t worry about it’, I would have been fired faster than I could blink … Being able to identify edge cases has been part of the standard job interview questions package for software-test engineers for over 20 years.”

Parenthetically, I want to say that the same point can be made about any philosophy thought experiment. Throughout my career I have listened to people dump on Nozick´s “Experience Machine” thought experiment, Putnam’s “Brain in a Vat,” etc. etc. They are all nutty and out there, having no relation to reality, until they do. One day you wake up and it turns out that there are these things called virtual worlds and they seem a lot like Nozick’s experience machines. Is it that terrible for philosophers to actually be ahead of the curve in thinking about these matters? Are we really supposed to ignore edge cases and confine our thinking to comfortable “normal” cases that conform to “interests that are widely shared”?

And before we leave the trolleys behind, those cases aren’t even all that edge. They happen all the time. If you think about it, these sorts of decisions are made all the time in warfare, for example. And while they don’t always look like a straight trolley problem, well, sometimes they do. On June 21, 2003, 30 Union Pacific railway cars brook loose and began careening towards downtown Los Angeles. Union Pacific employees made the decision to switch the cars to track leading to a suburban location that was less densely populated. The end result was that 18 of the cars derailed in the suburban neighborhood, causing injuries to 13 persons. 3 adults and 3 children were hospitalized.

runaway train redirected from downtown LA to the burbs

Did Union Pacific make the right decision? Well, how about people have the opportunity to discuss such cases in the abstract in their philosophy classes rather than have to think about them for the first time in a moment of crisis?

Kitcher’s discussion of the trolley problem is in service of a more general point that he wants to make, which is about the role of “intuitions” in philosophy. But I have to say that I don’t share his view of what people are up to when they talk about “intuitions,” because that is a very careless way to describe what is actually going on. As Timothy Williamson has pointed out, we should really call these “judgments.” On Williamson’s view there has been a failure to see that these aren’t little Cartesian insights that are immune to error. The judgments could be wrong. They are defeasible. What grounds these judgments? Well who knows? Philosophers like me are apt to give a naturalistic account of their grounding. Others might have more divine accounts or ground them in some notion of human rationality. That isn’t the issue. The issue is, what are the judgments telling you about your basic principles, whatever grounds those principles.

It’s not just the business about intuitions that troubles me. Kitcher’s view of what analytic philosophers do in general is completely alien to me. I am now pretty old — I am literally a senior citizen collecting social security, but the vision he has of analytic philosophy was dead before I was a grad student. I’m pretty sure it was dead before I was even born. The target here seems to be what used to be called “conceptual analysis,” and the idea was that you could sit in a comfy chair and smoke a pipe and drink brandy and reflect and come to understand concepts like truth and justice and knowledge. But I had thought that project was blown out of the water by Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empricism,” which was published in 1951. If the analytic/synthetic distinction collapses, as Quine argued, then where is that armchair philosophy supposed to get you? Spoiler alert: nowhere.

Gilbert Ryle doing serious conceptual analysis circa 1949

I’m not saying you can’t find a philosopher who sits in comfy chairs and opines about truth, justice, and knowledge and calls it conceptual analysis or thinks it is an a priori exercise. The problem is that Kitcher wants us to believe that this is the standard model among analytic philosophers today, but photoshopping that picture of analytic philosophy is quite a feat! In asks us to completely ignore the most famous and influential philosophers of the second half of the 20th Century.

Maybe he believes the post-Quinean empirical turn in philosophy is in retreat. That is the sense that I got from the following passage, where he lays into some younger philosophers that study the nature of causation independently of the role of causation in the sciences, as philosophers of his generation did.

Given the sophistication of half a century’s explorations of causation, from Wesley Salmon, Patrick Suppes, and Brian Skyrms to Nancy Cartwright, Jim Woodward, and Clark Glymour, listening to many presentations on “the metaphysics of causation” is akin to hearing fingers scraped over a chalkboard.

Those are all great philosophers that he mentions, and they did great work on the nature of causation in the sciences, but there are a group of younger philosophers who wonder if there might be a role for theories of causation independently of the sciences. Kitcher clearly fears that all the great work of his friends is being undone, but that isn’t really what’s going on — it is more of an attempt to understand how causation works in day-to-day affairs; it is the sort of thing that used to be of interest in AI research, before Large Language Models became the rage. In AI it was called “naive physics” and the idea was to use it to build systems that reason about the world in the way that we do. And whatever the external value of such work, experiencing it as fingers scraped over a chalkboard suggests that Kitcher is probably not giving it a chance. Does the new work have something to do with traditional conceptual analysis? Not that I can see.

To the extent that conceptual analysis still exists post-1940s, it is not really about some presumed analytic or a priori insight into anything. It is just a way of getting clear on what people are thinking. It is worth noting that a lot of philosophical “conceptual analysis” today overlaps with what linguists do when they do “lexical semantics” and it is not prescriptive, but it is descriptive. It is something that describes the contours of the concepts that people in fact employ in the lexicon. When philosophers get involved it becomes normative, but not normative in the way it was in 1940s Oxbridge. There is a large research program in analytic philosophy called “conceptual engineering,” in which people argue for ways to modify the concepts that are typically deployed (e.g. a concept like marriage or gender). Others argue that it doesn’t make sense to say that we can engineer concepts, but it does make sense to say that the nature of our concepts can be probed empirically, and we can find that we were wrong about our how we described our concepts in the past.

Do some philosopher sit and say “oh I know what the concept of female gender is because I can intuit it and that is that!” Well, sure, I have to confess that there are. But these are edge cases of their own. It isn’t some crisis in analytic philosophy or any philosophy. It is just a handful of people who don’t have arguments and think they can do philosophy by being pigheaded.

Let’s move on to the next pathology: the “fetish for complete clarity.” It perhaps never occurred to you that this was a philosophical fetish. Kitcher assures us that for analytic philosophy, at least, it is a problem.

Contemporary “analytic” philosophy, dominant in the English-speaking world, retains part of the positivist program. Philosophy’s central task is seen as providing analyses of concepts, analyses exact enough to make the concept completely clear…the analysis must decide whether or not the concept applies in any possible case.

This is such a weird take on what philosophers are up to. Even people that traffic in thought experiments like Trolley cases are not randomly tossing out edge cases to cover “any possible case.” As I noted before, the point of the fat man on the bridge is to understand the difference between pulling a lever and thereby directing a machine to a fatal outcome for somebody versus directly pushing someone with a fatal outcome. It is an important edge case because it interrogates our muted sense of responsibility when we enlist machines to do our dirty work. To me, that seems like an important insight.

And you know what? I don’t agree that logical positivists and old school conceptual analysis philosophers said that you should try to know how a concept applies in any possible case. Even Friedrich Waismann, who was a card-carrying member of the Vienna Circle, wrote about the “open textured” nature of concepts. In Waismann’s case, that applied to the logical positivists’ verification theory of meaning, and the idea was that no matter how precise you make some empirical measurement, there are inexhaustible ways it might be sharpened. Hence meaning (understood as verification) can never be made completely sharp.

Even people that think there is some precise formulation of a concept don’t believe that you can therefore come to know what that formulation is. Thus, for “epistemicists” like Timothy Williamson, there is a fact about when a collection of straw becomes a heap, but it’s not like we can ever know where that boundary is.

This takes us to the next alleged fetish/pathology, which is the fetish of excessive formalization. Above I spoke about how I was deeply influenced by Kitcher’s work on formalization, but I do want to make a distinction. I am very opposed to excessive demands for formalization, but I also have issues when people start complaining about other people’s love of formalization. I mean I do get what Kitcher is saying here. Like him, I have busted my ass trying to read a formal paper, finding in the end that it didn’t amount to anything. And I do, like Kitcher, feel that sometimes formalism is being used as a way to protect the author against criticism. But…and excuse the tu quoque nature of this …I also get that sense from work that uses obscurantist language and work that is larded with erudite high culture literary references that mean nothing to me. Meanwhile, the fact is that there are people out there that find the formalizations helpful aids to comprehension. I have a friend that turns directly to the technical appendices in my papers and reads those instead of all my elegantly crafted prose. And if people find it helpful to formalize their own work, and they aren’t busting my balls about me formalizing mine, I have a really hard time considering their formal habits a pathology or a fetish or even a waste of time.

Just as it is really hard to know when a piece of philosophy is going to be useful, it is also not always obvious whether a new formalism is going to be helpful down the line. Kitcher’s work on the history of the calculus showed that obsession with rigorization bogged down the development of the calculus in Great Britain. But Kitcher had the benefit of hindsight. It is less obvious that mathematicians could have known this at the time. In general, it is really hard to know or predict when a formalization will be useful and when it won’t. Kitcher is aware of cases like this — he offers a carve-out for Frege`s Begriffsschrift, which was a formal nightmare that turned out to be useful, in Kitcher’s view. But again, that is a judgment made in hindsight, and getting such judgments right initially is not trivial.

The fourth pathology is what Kitcher calls “Sprinking Fairy Dust,” and it involves attempts to bullet-proof a suspect premise by claiming it is a priori. More specifically:

Transform an unfamiliar and often ugly statement — a philosophical frog — into a gleaming philosophical prince. Wearing “a priori” Necessary Premise stands before the readers in full glory. No further questions need to be asked about its (his) credentials.

I have to say that in a book full of baffling claims, this is among the most baffling. Saying a claim is a priori doesn’t make the claim harder to refute, it is simply to say something about the source of the knowledge you are claiming to have (in this case, not knowledge from experience). If anything, it adds new vector points for attack. It doesn’t mean we can’t bring empirical evidence to refute the claim of a priori knowledge. We do that all the time. Kitcher is well aware of the most famous case — Kant’s claim that we had a priori knowledge that space was Euclidean. But then Einstein showed that non-Euclidean geometries might be better at describing relativistic space-time and that was that. People just said, “I guess Kant was wrong.”

I am pretty sure that in the quote from Kitcher above, when he talks of “Necessary Premise” he is talking about a premise that is necessary to the argument. But it did make me think about claims that certain premises are “necessarily true.” So, you can imagine thinking that is a bit of fairy dust too. But that line of reasoning would be just as baffling. Calling something necessarily true doesn’t make it necessarily true or even true. And as Saul Kripke showed, it could be necessary a posteriori, meaning that our knowledge of the necessary truth comes from experience. It can be refuted via experience too.

I will say that I have more sympathy for Kitcher’s fifth pathology, which involves “underestimating the intricacies of the domain from which the philosopher proposes to borrow.”

Or as he more pithily describes it: “A snatch-and-grab raid.” Kitcher is in particular cheesed off at philosophers that borrow bits and pieces of badly understood evolutionary theory to defend moral realism. And yeah, I can see how that would be annoying. Personally, I find it annoying when philosophers weigh in on linguistics by cherry picking quotes from Chomsky. I would much prefer that they actually engage in empirical research — collaborate with linguists to help understand the problem space better. But here is the thing about snatch-and-grab raids; I agree they are annoying, but they really seem to be the pathology of the fox more than a pathology of the hedgehog. Hedgehogs are more apt to burrow in and learn a special science. Foxes don’t have the time or temperament for that sort of thing. They are busy synthesizing a big picture. So…what is this claim even doing here?

The sixth pathology is “deference to the elders,” and here he seems to be focusing on only certain kinds of deference. Kitcher doesn’t have a problem with studying historical figures. He has written books about some of them! He seems to want more books like that. He invites us to revisit Cicero, Montaigne, and Dilthey. But it seems that what he doesn’t like is when we take up the questions that these historical figures asked. As Kitcher puts it, “Is this question, or this debate, one that remains worth pursuing?”

You may be wondering how you are supposed to study historical figures if their questions and debates are no longer worth pursuing. I have a story that might be helpful. When I came up for tenure, after the department voted, a member of the department came to my office and told me that he voted against my tenure case, not because he didn’t like me, but because he thought the department needed a “Peirce scholar.” The thing is, at the time I was doing work on logic and the theory of meaning and was doing interdisciplinary work in psychology and linguistics and still had connections with people in the AI community. That seems like the sort of stuff that Charles Sanders Peirce would have been doing were he alive. But my colleague didn’t want someone who did what Pierce did or would do, he wanted someone who did Peirce. Hagiology, I guess? In any case, I was reminded of that case when I read Kitcher on the deference to elders. Defer to their greatness, not the questions that engaged them. But I was also reminded of the following quote, purportedly due to Burton Dreben: “Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage? Now that’s scholarship!”

The book ends with a chapter entitled “A Letter to Some Young Philosophers” — a letter from Kitcher to junior philosophers of the fox variety, not the hedgehog variety. It is easily the worst part of the book. It is terrible because it feeds into a false narrative about foxes being disadvantaged on the job market, and it is doubly terrible for the advice that is offered to the foxes. But before we get to the advice, a word about the alleged difficulties that foxes face on the job market. It just isn’t true.

As Kieran Setiya pointed out in his review in the London Review of Books, Kitcher says that hedgehogs “are a lap or two ahead” on the job market. But, as Setiya notes, the fact is that over the last few years only 10% of advertised jobs have been in so-called “core philosophy,” which is the philosophical space typically occupied by hedgehogs.

I understand that if you are a fox it will seem like Kitcher is right about you being at a disadvantage. Every year there are a half dozen stars on the job market getting the top jobs and it seems like they are doing technical philosophy, but here is the thing: Most jobs are in perfectly respectable four-year colleges and perfectly respectable research universities. I’ve been on the job market, and I’m still traumatized by it decades later, but the thing you have to understand is that the deck is not stacked against you because you are doing fox-like philosophy. You are in much better shape than your hedgehog friends. Trust me. I have served as a placement officer for a top 5 department. Foxes are much easier to place.

But the real problem is that against the background of this misinformation and the false narrative that foxes are the unwanted stepchildren of philosophy, there is Kitcher’s remedy to this nonexistent problem. And his solution sounds a lot like “fake it!” Maybe you should consider living a “divided professional life” — which is to say do technical work just to keep your colleagues happy. This will allow you to “wear the mask of respectability.” Or then there is what he calls the “hold your nose and play by the rules” approach. Forget the good old days when we would rather drink hemlock than give up our philosophical pursuits. Now we are encouraged to pretend to be philosophical hedgehogs when deep down we are philosophical foxes. Things have definitely gotten worse in this chapter, because now Kitcher isn’t merely practicing malvaise foi; he is recommending it as a career strategy. And, serious questions: Just how long do we have to carry on this ruse, and will it even work? And is it even worth the candle? I mean, hedgehogs will not make you drink hemlock. Most philosophers believe in academic freedom. They only care that you are successful in what you do, even if they have no clue what that is.

No one asked me for my advice, but were I to give it, it would be something like this. It doesn’t matter if you are a fox or a hedgehog, if you want an academic position it is going to be brutal. There are just too many people seeking too few jobs. If you think it is hard for you because you are a fox or a hedgehog you are mistaken. It is hard for almost everyone. Furthermore, if your work is even remotely interesting you are going to receive a lot of resistance and a lot of pushback. That isn’t coming because you are a fox, it is coming because you are doing good work and the true pathologies of philosophy are professional jealousy, intellectual insecurity, and the old guard’s felt need to defend its turf. You can’t expect publications and talks and accolades to come easily. You have to create your own conferences, start your own journals, build a new academic subdiscipline from scratch.

There is a mythology about philosophical elders that seems to have taken root among younger philosophers in social media, and that mythology is the idea that in the olden days people slid right into their cushy jobs. But even in the 1960s when jobs grew on trees, you still had to fight to carve out a place for your ideas in the academy. I remember philosophers like Jerry Fodor and his associates carving out an academic space for doing philosophy of mind (that was a forbidden topic at the time). In linguistics, Chomsky and his students built a new approach to linguistics passing around mimeographed papers and setting up their own conferences and their own linguistics summer schools. This is all the more necessary now that jobs are scarce. My previous continental philosophy colleagues did the same thing, creating new journals and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). John Hawthorne and his friends busted their asses for years trying to carve out a space to do nuts and bolts metaphysics. I and my friends in linguistically informed philosophy of language had to do the same — organizing endless conferences, summer schools, creating pedagogical materials and then endless talks to hostile audiences. When we originally had some success in this, The Leiter Report created a separate category for us in the philosophy of language rankings. The need for that has dissipated. It is now a mainstream way to approach the philosophy of language, but it took a lot of work, and it generated a lot of pushback and hostility. You should expect the same.

But what is the worst that can happen? That you don’t get an academic job? Kitcher himself notes that most philosophers in the canon did not have academic jobs. Nor could they have, since universities are a relatively recent invention on the timeline of philosophy. My first job out of graduate school was not in philosophy, but in Honeywell’s Intelligent Interface Systems Group. I wasn’t philosophically disconnected. I often went across town to philosophy talks at the University of Minnesota where Kitcher was then a professor. I invited philosophers like Clark Glymour to come meet my group at Honeywell. My industry colleagues knew a lot of philosophy and loved to talk about it. Similarly, today it seems to me that the most interesting philosophy is being done outside of academic philosophy — there are people engaging philosophical questions in artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, virtual world construction, etc. Beyond that as the age of the nation state comes to a close, technology developers are engaged in philosophical discussions about new conceptions of sovereignty. Developers like Vitalik Buterin are examining new approaches to trust, the notion of place, and of community, not to mention concepts like quadratic voting. Trust me, there is more philosophy going on outside the academy than within. I see no reason why nonacademic employment opportunities would not be open to both hedgehogs and foxes.

Vitalik Buterin, thinking about trust and quadratic voting

The final advice that Kitcher has is that young philosophers “look for the right philosophical fields,” by which he means, look for a field that that generates lots of interest with the goal of facilitating your job hunt. He is particularly high on Amia Srinivasan and her book The Right to Sex, and he says that she “can be the model for the most satisfactory of my options.” But here is the thing. The context of his discussion seems to suggest that Amia Srinivasan was out there looking for hot topics, whereas the charitable thought would be that she wrote about her topic because it was interesting and important to her. Kitcher’s setup also makes it seem that her choice of topic was obviously going to get accolades. In hindsight it seems that way, but it took an act of great courage for Srinivasan to write on that topic (more accurately, collection of topics). She had no way of knowing that the profession would look favorably on her decision.

It is also completely weird to set her up as some sort of model for how fox-mode philosophers can overcome the hurdle of getting jobs. I mean, if Srinivasan is the model, then all you have to do is be a brilliant philosopher, a brilliant expositor, get a PhD from Oxford and have Timothy Williams and John Hawthorne as your dissertation chairs, coauthor a paper with Hawthorne, and after all that, all you have to do is write a book that gets on the Sunday Times Best Seller list. It’s that simple.

My point isn’t that you shouldn’t have great aspirations. It is simply that it is really bad advice to try to be something you aren’t or work on something you don’t want to work on just to get a job. In the first place, you have no idea what will be marketable when you go on the job market, or when you get your second or third job or when you come up for tenure. You have no idea.

And while I am at it, I just want to point out that Srinivasan’s two advisors are nothing if not philosophical hedgehogs (Hawthorne being our prototype hedgehog, quoted earlier). Had Srinivasan been in the grip of Kitcher’s warnings about hedgehog philosophers she may well have avoided working with Williamson and Hawthorne. But working with them doubtless added tremendous critical depth to her work. Foxes and hedgehogs can learn a lot from each other. Ginning up a schism isn’t helpful to anyone.

Throughout the book there are references to a classical piece called Multiple Tremolo 41 (sometimes he calls it Quadruple Tremolo 41), which is, we are told, a piece of piano music of great technical difficulty. Kitcher clearly hates the piece as much as he hates analytic philosophy and he returns to the topic in his letter to junior philosophers. In this case he shares with the young philosophers a fantasy he has of a world where Multiple Tremolo 41 falls out of interest and is no longer performed. Instead, people will “perform classics (and, perhaps, some newly written pieces).” [comma intonation his]. The story appears in his letter to junior philosophers to illustrate his vision of a world without technical philosophy, a world in which philosophy gets back in its lane and performs what Kitcher takes to be the classics. The passage is horrifying, and I reprise it here in its entirety.

In my opening fantasy, the breakaway pianists who desert the étude Olympics to perform classics (and, perhaps, some newly written pieces) for an appreciative audience only elicit even more disdainful sniffs from the cognoscenti. That is not the inevitable end of the story, although it may well be a passing phase. Continued acclaim for “popular concerts” could slowly begin an exodus. Not only does the noncompeting audience for further assaults on Multiple Tremolo 41 disappear entirely, but, each year, the number of competitors diminishes. Eventually, disdain proves hard to sustain. Only the diehards resist joining their fellows who receive the adulation of the slums.

Like Kieran Setiya in his review of Kitcher’s Book, I was very curious about Multiple/Quadruple Tremolo 41, which I took to be some musical sensation that was taking over classical music and pushing good classical music to the margins. I wanted to hear it. So, I searched YouTube, imagining there would be videos of these performances. But there were none. So, then I searched Spotify for an audio file; still none. Finally, I did a google search. In all of google space the only references to the piece are in publications by Kitcher, Setiya’s review of Kitcher’s book, and the resulting discussion in the philosophy blogosphere.

The story is interesting because it exemplifies so much about what is wrong with this book. It is not just the distain for the new technical work, but the delusional sense that this technical work is crowding out all the “good” work that Kitcher favors. But most of all there is this ungrounded assumption that Kitcher has a handle on the interests of the common folk (the “slums”, which he takes himself to be aligned with in his example). He is the man of the people, not the of the “cognoscenti,” but who knew that what the people of the slums wanted was more writing about Finnegan’s Wake?

I began with the example of Thales falling in the pit and being subject to scorn for being the out-of-touch philosopher. But I also retold the likely false story that Thales was the very first Western philosopher. If I had to guess, there have been philosophers, or something very much like them since homo sapiens started walking the Earth. And I also would guess that there have been people giving them crap for as long as homo sapiens have been walking the Earth. But still, Thales did live in a special time. He didn’t have to worry about deans and provosts and department chairs, trying to manage the direction of his work. He didn’t have to worry about professional societies and their presidents or the job market or his teachers and his classmates. He was free to do whatever he wanted as long as he could endure some jeering.

What a great place to be! And if I were the sort to give advice to junior philosophers or any philosophers, my advice would be to do philosophy like you were unencumbered by the limits of academia and attempts by professional societies and great men to guide you to what they imagine are the proper fields of study. Be true to yourself. Be a Thales. Do what you love.



EJ Spode

Writes about Philosophy, Crypto Anarchy, Cryptocurrencies, DeFi, Generative Linguistics. More info: