Philosophy and Its Epistemic Neuroses

Philosophy and Its Epistemic Neuroses

Philosophy and Its Epistemic Neuroses

Philosophy and Its Epistemic Neuroses

Excerpt

The philosopher, John Wisdom once wrote, is like the obsessional neurotic who cannot leave his apartment without checking again and again to see whether he has turned off the lights or locked the door. These doubts of the neurotic seem peculiar in much the way that the "doubts" of the philosopher seem peculiar to the nonphilosopher. I speak here of skeptical doubts: Do we have knowledge of the "external" world? Can we have knowledge of other cultures? Can I even know my own mind?

But the philosopher's "doubts" are of not quite the same sort as the neurotic's. The philosopher "entertains" doubts as if they were occasional dinner guests: Though they seem real enough for the duration of the meal, they are not allowed to linger once the party is over. He keeps them from interfering in his nonphilosophical life. By contrast, the neurotic, says Wisdom, is moved to act. As little as he believes that he has left the lights on, he still feels the need go back and check. "The philosopher doesn't," says Wisdom. "His acts and feelings are even less in accordance with his words than are the acts and feelings of the neurotic" (1957, 174). The philosopher, unlike the neurotic, often "doubts" and "worries" in a way that does not directly touch his life -- or his philosophy.

Is this diagnosis of "the philosopher" correct? If so, what is the etiology of such psycho-philosophical disorder? And is there some course of therapy that might alleviate or resolve it?

The "philosopher" -- and I mean this term neither to include all philosophers nor to exempt myself, necessarily -- I shall argue, suffers from forms of "epistemic neurosis": She is tempted by philosophical views that, if they are to be expressed, must "entertain" skeptical "doubts." But the philosopher cannot take those doubts seriously, since so honoring the skeptic would undermine all available justification for the very positions that mandate the validity of those doubts. With such doubts always about, philosophy can get no peace -- it is "tormented by questions which bring itself in question." questions that may "leave no room for the rational activity of philosophy" (Putnam 1981, 113). The philosopher's . . .

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