Worrying About Armchair Philosophy

Lately I have been wondering whether I ought to have ideas or opinions at all.

Source: Ashley Van Haeften at flic.kr/p/qHdSBt.

Source: Ashley Van Haeften at flic.kr/p/qHdSBt.

In the winter and early spring of this year, I was reading excerpts from existentialist philosophy—works like Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. The experience was illuminating, or perhaps the opposite: I had managed to convince myself that I knew something about Continental philosophy, and as I was reading that whole edifice has come crashing down. I was chastened. I realized I had not only been ignorant, I had also been flatly incorrect about, for instance, Sartre’s views on morality. There is a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect in which people who aren’t good at a task tend to believe they are good at it while people who are good at a task tend to believe that they aren’t good at it. I learned that this cognitive bias is true by learning I had been victim to it. I thought I knew philosophy exactly because I did not.

Of course I was reading in the original for the first time what I had only read commentary about before, and I shouldn’t underestimate the importance that makes. But still I realized that I was a novice, an amateur, a baby of philosophy. And, by extension, I began to suspect that I was an amateur, really, for any knowledge domain that I had formerly felt I had any mastery in. If I say that I am an armchair philosopher, know that I do not just refer to the tradition of Western philosophy, as understood by university philosophy departments. By “philosophy” I also mean psychology, anthropology, sociology, theology, history, critical theory, and all of aesthetics. I mean anything that handles questions about what it means to be human; how we, in our particularity, conduct ourselves in the world and how we ought to conduct ourselves; what knowledge is and how one can best pursue it; the nature of truth—should such a thing exist—and the human relationship with it. When it comes to all of this, I once thought I knew a few things; now I realize that I know nothing.

Before this crisis I had been entirely comfortable with the thought that I know nothing for sure. There are many ways into this realization—postmodernism, fallibilism, and certain mysticisms, as three examples—and I’ve been interested for a little while now in personal epistemology (which examines and understands people’s beliefs about knowledge) and how to manage the final stage. But I’m at the point now where I feel so far behind that I don’t know what to do.

I need to recognize that I am unlikely to discover the best currently possible answers to these questions myself. There are experts who have produced better answers than I have or likely will. Ideally, then, my goal is to find these experts and submit to their ideas. The problem is that there are many experts and most of them are mutually exclusive. My goal would then be to distinguish which among them are most correct and which are not, and act accordingly. But, alas, the very reasons why I must turn to experts are the very reasons why I cannot determine which are the most correct.

One of the things I had been looking at as a research assistant at UBC is the ways people decide what resources are the highest quality. This is generally an issue with library work: librarians are expected to return high quality resources for their patrons. But quality is not the same as truth. Librarians should be able to find the experts; librarians, as non-experts, cannot adjudicate between competing experts. And what I have learned about cognitive authority and the ways people do determine which expert to believe is that those ways are not, ordinarily, very reliable.* It is always a shot in the dark. Sometimes it is a good shot, but it is only good considering that it is shot in the dark.

My question then is: given all this, why would I write about my ideas in public?

I’ve been updating poorly on this blog because I was not sure I had an answer to that question, but after some thought I think I can offer the following things. Of course, this might all be a delusion born of pride on my part, but nonetheless it is the delusion in which I am currently living.

  1. I may know nothing next to experts, but I also know more about certain things than most people. In fact, there are probably very few truly hierarchical relationships: there are people who know much more than me, generally, and yet I know a few things they do not. Perhaps, then, it is not unreasonable to think that people can learn things from me. If nothing else, I can direct people to experts they might not otherwise find.
  1. I must wrestle with these issues for myself, but this does not mean that I must wrestle with them by myself. In doing that work here, I can offer to other people the work I have done so that they do not have to do all of it themselves. Perhaps this will be more noise than signal, but I hope not.
  1. I can offer to myself the opportunity to be proven wrong. That was the gist of my introduction, of course, but it bears repeating.

None of this is new. I am the sort of person, however, who must justify my decisions to myself in terms of what I offer to others. It is worth my time, if only to myself, to make this explicit and to remember it.


*Cognitive authority refers to that credence or reliability an individual grants to another source concerning its claims in a certain knowledge domain. For instance, when commentaries talk about John Stewart being the only journalist people could trust, they are suggesting that viewers grant John Stewart cognitive authority.

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