• Kant on Religious Superstition and Fetishism

    Consider this line from Kant:

    “The delusion that through religious acts of cult we can achieve anything in the way of justification before God is religious superstition.”

    Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, and Other Writings, Revised Edition, Translated by Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni, Introduction by Robert Adams, Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 200

    He is referring to acts which in themselves have no moral significance or are otherwise matters of indifference or even disapprobation to God, such as mere attendance at religious services, the thoughtless profession of religious propositions, apathetic observance of ritualistic practices, etc.* He associates such things with “sorcery” and “fetishism” (202) and “conjuring up” (203) because they are attempts to gain God’s favor through entirely naturalistic practices with no intrinsic moral significance and to use God as a means to get what one wants, which is “absurd.” (203)

    Whoever prioritizes such rituals over moral service to God “transforms the service of God into mere fetishism; he engages in a counterfeit service.” (204) Any church that practices such fetishism is engaged in superstitious “priestcraft” and not true religion.

    Kant seems to have had in mind the sort of behavior Jesus advised against, namely, the empty babbling (battalogēsēte) that some folks think will gain God’s favor (Matthew 6:7) and the ritualistic priestcraft censured in Matthew 23:23. That Kant is correct seems beyond reasonable doubt, and yet the problem he addresses continues with disturbing frequency. Human beings seem miserably vulnerable to such fetishism.

    *Kant grants that one may practice some rituals properly if one is antecedently committed to the moral service of God as taking precedence over ritual.  

  • Some Problems Concerning Epistemic Justification

    Jamie Carlin Watson here articulates a problem concerning epistemic justification. He writes:

    “But the idea that justification is a matter of having good reasons faces a serious obstacle. Normally, when we give reasons for a belief, we cite other beliefs. Take, for example, the proposition, “The cat is on the mat.” If you believe it and are asked why, you might offer the following beliefs to support it:

    1. I see that the cat is on the mat.

    2. Seeing that X implies that X.

    Together, these seem to constitute a good reason for believing the proposition:

    3. The cat is on the mat.

    But does this mean that proposition 3 is epistemically justified for you? Even if the combination of propositions 1 and 2 counts as a good reason to believe 3, proposition 3 is not justified unless both 1 and 2 are also justified. Do we have good reasons for believing 1 and 2? If not, then according to the good reasons account of justification, propositions 1 and 2 are unjustified, which means that 3 is unjustified. If we do have good reasons for believing 1 and 2, do we have good reasons for believing those propositions? How long does our chain of good reasons have to be before even one belief is justified?”

    A critical question to consider is this: what is the nature of epistemic justification? I have suggested in my published work (here) that there are two kinds of justification: loose and precise. The former is fallible, and roughly a matter of a proposition’s being more likely true than not, given the relevant evidence. The latter concerns being epistemically certain and thus infallible regarding a proposition; i.e., given the pertinent reasons for believing that p, one cannot be wrong that p.  

    Now, with respect to precise justification (PJ), arguably, (1) is not justified. One cannot be epistemically certain that one sees the cat on the mat, since one might be wrong that one is seeing what one takes oneself to be seeing. And since (1) is not justified, neither is (3).

    But we can modify the example to obtain PJ. Consider this:

    1*. I am being appeared to cat-on-the-matly.

    2*. Being appeared to cat-on-the-matly entails that there is a cat-on-the-mat experience.

    Together, these seem to constitute a good reason for believing the proposition:

    3. There is a cat-on-the-mat experience.

    Arguably, one can be epistemically certain of (1*) and (2*) and hence of (3*). But (3*) is quite different from (3).

    What about loose justification (LJ)? Plausibly, (1) and (2) are loosely (and thus fallibly) justified in the sense of being more probably true that not, given the evidence. Therefore, we have reason to believe that (3) is also loosely justified.

    But does (1) require independent reasons before one can believe it with LJ? It depends on one’s assumptions. As Watson notes, if one assumes that all epistemic justification requires inferring beliefs from one or more other beliefs, then there is a problem he calls the dilemma of inferential justification (DIJ). On one hand, if there are no good (independent) reasons to believe that (1), then (1) is unjustified and thus (3) is unjustified. On the other hand, if there is a good reason to believe that (1), say proposition (1a), then either (1a) is unjustified or we need another belief, (1b), to justify (1a). This seems to set up an infinite regress, and therefore (1) is unjustified; hence (3) is unjustified.

    One can block the DIJ by rejecting the assumption that all epistemic justification requires inferring beliefs from one or more other beliefs. How might one do this? My studied preference is to claim that some beliefs are properly basic and thus self-evident (or otherwise obviously true) or supported by non-belief states, such as direct and indubitable experience. For example, (1*) seems obviously and indeed infallibly true based on direct experience. This approach is called foundationalism. I grant that there are problems with foundationalism, but I cannot address them now.

  • Timeless and Not Timeless

    I just observed someone call the game of baseball “timeless.” If he means that the game is an American classic, or that its nature is such as to last several decades as a sport, then I understand. But clearly, the game is not timeless in the sense of being non-temporal, like a number or a property. Each game is a series of events: thoughts, decisions, pitches, swings, hits, throws, sprints, slides, innings, etc. These events occur during the game; i.e., they happen in time. In this respect, baseball is not timeless.

  • Happiness Expertise

    If you want to learn whether or not a person is happy, you might ask him, but you shouldn’t assume that he has the relevant expertise to provide a reliable answer.

  • A Bad Argument for Abortion

    Colin McGinn and I agree that the “My body, my choice” argument is a bad argument. I’ve made this point elsewhere, including a similar commentary on my blog here.

  • What it Takes to be the Best (Assuming There is Such a Thing)


    Colin McGinn is an eminent philosopher. He’s confident, too. He argues here that he is the best philosopher of all time (BOAT).[1] There is something tongue-in-cheek about McGinn’s post, given the comments on it – some of which are his, yet something serious stands out. He makes a respectable case for himself. But I will not state my position on the BOAT here. That is not my concern. Rather, I want to discuss what it takes to be the best philosopher ever, assuming that such a thing is possible.

    Definitions and Assumptions

    The matter depends on the definitions of ‘philosopher’ and ‘philosophy.’ The latter term is difficult to define, as I noted here in the inaugural post for this blog, which I started in December 2021. Consider this as a working definition:

    Philosophy is (a) the careful and reason-based thinking about the most significant issues of the life of persons as such; (b) the commitment to live in accordance with such thinking; and (c) the willingness to consider fairly all relevant evidence and follow compelling argument wherever it leads, for the sake of understanding or reasonable conclusion rather than winning a debate or defending a previously-held dogma.

    Assume arguendo that philosophy is something like what I characterized above. A philosopher, then, is one who regularly does (a) – (c). A good philosopher meets these conditions with a sufficient degree of expertise. The best philosopher ever, if such a concept is feasible, should meet (a) – (c) better than most and attain any other requirement that makes a philosopher the BOAT. I suggest some requisite factors below. That there are many factors suggests that the BOAT satisfies them via combinatorial optimization. But I cannot go into that complex topic here.

    Before going too far, however, we should address assumptions. McGinn assumes that it’s coherent to compare philosophers axiologically, and in virtue of this assumption, his case also presupposes what axiologists call value comparabilism (VC). Roughly, VC is the view that at least some items stand in relations of better thanworse than, or equally as good as with respect to each other. The first two relations are asymmetric. The third is symmetric and reflexive. Assuming at least three relata, all three relations are transitive. In contrast, value incomparabilism (VI) is the claim that items fail to stand in such relations.[2]

    On VC, items are not comparable simpliciter. Instead, they are comparable with respect to a covering consideration v, which represents a single consideration or multiple considerations in which the items are similar. For instance, a car and a bicycle are analogous with respect to a v of speed; the former is faster (and hence better regarding speed) than the latter. However, if v is a matter of physical exercise, then the bicycle is better than the car, since the bike requires more bodily exercise to power its movement. If you want to get fit, you’re better off biking to work. Abstaining from donuts might help, too.

    Factors of Comparison

    Let’s grant that philosophers are axiologically comparable. What is the covering consideration? Prima facie, the answer is “doing philosophy.” But a deeper analysis indicates that “doing philosophy” is too broad; more precise considerations are obtainable. McGinn suggests five: (i) knowledge, the means to which include having access to the works of past great philosophers; (ii) quality of writing, which divides into clarity and literary style; (iii) breadth of philosophical topics addressed; (iv) quantity of works produced; and (v) rightness (i.e., truth of philosophical conclusions).

    These are plausible categories. But Lady Philosophy requires that one examine rather than accept them without question. Here is a brief critical examination, milady.

    Factor (i) requires a definition of ‘propositional knowledge,’ which is a perennial problem for epistemologists. Suppose that propositional knowledge requires epistemic certainty.[3] In this case, there is precious little knowledge to be had in philosophy (or in the sciences, for that matter). McGinn himself seems to accept something close to this view, given his insightful comments here.* Is it fair to emphasize knowledge, as McGinn does, if knowledge is so difficult to obtain in philosophy? Isn’t this like ranking the greatest basketball players of all time according to a factor that is unobtainable for them, such as regularly scoring 200 points in one game?[4] It is hard enough to rank basketball GOATS without introducing such stratospheric standards.

    Moreover, it’s questionable to hold that a good philosopher of the present is better than past greats such as Plato, Descartes, or Kant merely because present philosophers have the benefit of standing on their shoulders. On this argument, the last philosophers in human history will be the best merely because they are the last (assuming that these last men and women have access to all the philosophy that came before – which shows how important it is for each society to contribute to the discipline, by adding new works, preserving and teaching old ones, and teaching students how to do philosophy).[5] It’s also implausible that, say, a contemporary philosopher who learns the material of the past greats, but never thinks independently or does any philosophizing for himself, is greater than those grandmasters merely because he lives in the present. Alternatively, one might suggest that philosophers of different eras should be compared relative to the information available to them during their respective times. This option for ranking enables us to avoid the appearance of bias in favor of the present.

    Factor (ii) is also questionable. It is beyond reasonable doubt that clarity of expression is crucial to philosophy. But what about literary style? How important is style for a philosopher?

    I grant that it is a desirable feature. Yet style seems to be an item of dessert, or perhaps a digestif, rather than the main course. Plato, Seneca, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard are outstanding stylistic writers, but had they lacked adequate clarity or rigor of argumentation, they would not be counted among the noteworthy philosophers of history.[6] Yet one can be a great philosopher without being a great stylist.[7] (Another question arises: if a philosopher writes novels, is that factor relevant to his status as a philosopher? Arguably not, unless they are philosophical novels.)

    But wait! Are we placing too much emphasis on writing? It is also beyond reasonable doubt that Socrates is a great philosopher, though he didn’t produce any philosophical writings – at least not that we know. However, if we can rely on Plato’s characterization, the son of Sophroniscus was both a great dialectician and a masterful stylist of the spoken word. Perhaps, then, we should include quality of conversation as well as quality of writing. I will say more on this point in the next paragraph.  

    Factors (iii) and (iv) are significant. McGinn describes the breadth of his philosophical publications, which is reminiscent of Plato, who wrote on virtually every major topic in the discipline. And McGinn has been prolific: his quantity of publications is high, and he highlights his blog as a means thereto, which I agree is a good arena for doing philosophy if properly used. I would expand on the factor of quantity to include doing philosophy the way Socrates did: in conversation with friends and rivals.

    We now come to a major factor: truth. Let’s assume that truth is something like what the correspondence theory holds, namely, a matching relation between a truth-bearer (e.g., a proposition, thought, belief, statement, etc.) and the aspect of reality or fact (i.e., obtaining state of affairs) which that truth-bearer is about. It’s hard to deny rationally that a great philosopher must have obtained a good deal of truth, or at least reasonable belief, and should have avoided falsehood as much as possible.[8] I will not comment much on this point. McGinn’s treatment is sufficient for my purposes.

    Additional Factors

    I’m inclined to add conditions that must be met by any candidate for the BOAT. Here are a few suggestions.

    Factor (vi) is significance: the BOAT should work on areas of existential weight and not only on some esoteric issue of philosophy such as, say, the logic of relations. This issue is important, and I am interested in it, but a great philosopher should work on matters of concern to human life, such as the nature of knowledge, the question of free will, normative ethics, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of religion, etc.

    Factor (vii) is depth. Just as breadth of philosophical range is crucial, so is depth in one or more areas of philosophy. And the more, the better. One can be broad but superficial, and one can be deep but narrow. The goal is to balance the values of breadth and depth. This is no easy task and requires many years of intense study – suggesting that one is unlikely to obtain BOAT status before one’s middle or older years. Some folks fear aging, but the diligent philosopher has reason to await eagerly the gray crown of splendor. For his peak years are highlighted in gray, silver, and white.

    Factor (viii) is originality. One can be original in different ways: by introducing a new method, as Socrates did; by suggesting a novel solution to an old problem, as Kant did; by discovering a previously unrecognized problem, etc. I’m inclined to include epistemic autonomy in the category of originality: no good philosopher lacks intellectual independence; rather, a good philosopher must think for himself/herself, and in doing so, will likely achieve some degree of originality. A fortiori for a great philosopher.[9]

    Factor (ix) is the use of reason. A great philosopher must engage in reasoning, and do so with sufficient skill. Philosophers don’t accomplish their tasks via emoting, poetic thinking, fideistic maneuvering, mere assertion, etc.[10] Factor (x) is intellectual humility. A great philosopher respects the limits of his reason and those of human reason in general. As both Socrates and Kant remind us, human reason cannot solve every problem.

    Factor (xi) is long-term influence, both on the discipline of philosophy and in the broader culture. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, and others had such influence. Spinoza and Thomas Reid, for example, influenced philosophy but did not quite achieve enough cultural impact – or so it seems to me.

    It’s interesting to note that the influence factor is largely beyond a philosopher’s control; thus, the achievement of BOAT status is also beyond one’s control — assuming influence is a necessary condition for BOAT-ness. One can be an outstanding philosopher and yet not achieve much influence. Indeed, had history turned in other directions, the great minds of the past might be unknown today. There is a possible world in which all of the Stagirite’s works are burned in the great fire at the Alexandrian Library or hidden in that old cellar Strabo reports and hence lost permanently. For this reason, I’m ambivalent about whether long-term influence is necessary for philosophical greatness. On one hand, such influence seems like an obvious factor. On the other hand, why should one’s greatness hinge on such contingencies as the attention of others or the preservation of one’s works by future persons? As the Teacher astutely asks, who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? (Ecclesiastes 2:19)

    The final three factors concern philosophical mindset. Socrates is a paradigm here. Factor (xii) regards the mindset (will, attitude, etc.) to follow the argument wherever it leads, combined with the refusal to substitute apologetics or dogmatism for philosophy. Apologetics is acceptable in its own realm, but it is not philosophy. And the dogmatic spirit is opposed to the philosophical.

    Factor (xiii) is about purity of attitude: one ought to do philosophy for its own sake, and not use philosophy as a means to money-making, career-building, brand-crafting, establishing fame or reputation, etc.

    And factor (xiv) is about commitment. The BOAT must attempt to live the philosophical life, and not merely practice philosophy as an academic discipline. (Think of Diogenes the Cynic. He lived philosophy, even if he fell short in areas such as quantity of publication. He might even scoff at the claim that publications are necessary for philosophical greatness.) Although the philosopher is not a sage, a great philosopher seeks something like sagehood.

    I suppose I am a traditionalist in this respect. I agree with Pierre Hadot (1995) that philosophy is a way of life and not merely an intellectual exercise, though it is a way of life that necessarily involves the various cognitive activities included in the definition of philosophy that I provided at the outset. High-level intellectual endeavor is necessary but not sufficient for being a philosopher. Proper states of volition are also required.


    It should be clear that qualifying as a candidate for the BOAT is quite demanding, assuming that the concept is coherent. To count as a philosopher is uncommon enough; the philosopher is a rara avis. To be the BOAT is to tread in exceedingly unusual territory.

    We should also recognize that perhaps there is no BOAT, since (arguably) the greatest philosophers do not stand in relations of better than, worse than, or equal to. I don’t quite accept this view, yet something counts in its favor. As a philosopher, Plato is better than Epicurus or Bentham, though the latter two lived after the Athenian thinker. For me, this is an easy call. But it is harder to make the case that Plato is better than, worse than, or equal to Aristotle. They seem incomparable. Whether the incomparability is ontic or merely epistemic is a topic for another post.  


    Emery, Nina, Markosian, Ned, and Sullivan, Meghan. “Time.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of          Philosophyhttps://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/

    Chang, Ruth. 2015. Value Incomparability and Value Incommensurability. (In The Oxford Handbook of Value Theory. Eds. Hirose, I. and Olson, J. Oxford: Oxford University Press.)

    Hadot, Pierre. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

    Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1851. Counsels and Maxims.             https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Counsels_and_Maxims

    [1] A tip of the hat to Dr. Bill Vallicella for referring to this essay on his blog Maverick Philosopher. Bill himself is an excellent philosopher and, in my view, given the factors I discuss in this post, poses serious competition for any living philosopher.

    [2] See Ruth Chang (2015) for a detailed treatment of VC and VI.

    [3] I incline to this view and have published on the issue. See here, for example.

    [4] Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in one game, and this feat is widely regarded as one that will not be repeated.

    [5] Things become quite interesting if we consider the philosophy of time. Suppose that eternalism rather than presentism or the growing block theory is true. According to Emery, et alia, presentism holds roughly that “no objects exist in time without being present (abstract objects might exist outside of time).” On presentism, only the present moment and its objects and events exist temporally. Thus the Battle of Salamis does not exist, nor does Themistocles, nor does the event of the World Cup final match in 2026, since these three things are not now. Schopenhauer (1851) articulates the presentist intuition: “The present alone is true and actual; it is the only time which possesses full reality, and our existence lies in it exclusively.”

    The growing-block theory holds that the past and present exist but the future does not. On this view, the ontology of time is like a growing block which possesses a vanguard edge. This edge is where the present moment resides; a large section trailing the front is filled with past moments which are also real. The manifold continually grows, and as it does, the formerly present moments become located on the past section of the block, while the new forefront of the block becomes the new present moment.

    Eternalism is, roughly, the view that past, present, and future things exist. Past and future things do not exist here in time (i.e., now), but exist elsewhere in time, either at past points or at future points. An eternalist might compare time with space: Greece exists, but is not spatially here in Florida, where this post is being written. Similarly, the Battle of Salamis and the summer of 2025 exist, but not temporally here in September 2022.

    If eternalism is true, then the last philosophers of human history exist, and thus philosophers alive now are not the best of all time, assuming (as McGinn does) that the best philosophers are the ones who have access to all of the previous philosophical work from human history.

    [6] One might object here that Kierkegaard falls short concerning clear and rigorous argumentation. I hear ya. But he compensates in other areas, such as depth of penetration, moral insight, psychological investigation, and existentialist acuity.

    [7] It strikes me that there is an important feature similar to style and perhaps underlying it: broad education in the humanities, i.e., a classically liberal education (and don’t forget the sciences!). This factor, it seems to me, is necessary for a top-notch philosopher. McGinn mentions it in his essay. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had it with regard to the information available to them. Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, and Schopenhauer had it. Russell too. I could mention others.

    [8] One challenge for a philosopher is to balance both goals.

    [9] See here for a post of mine on epistemic autonomy in philosophy.

    [10] I grant that a philosopher might display emotion, use poetic devices, or communicate items of faith. But one cannot philosophize via these routes.

    *Addendum (10/4/22)

    Colin McGinn replied on his blog that by “knowledge” he meant a philosopher’s awareness of what prior noteworthy philosophers have said. Hence, my concern about requiring the BOAT to have propositional knowledge about philosophical issues is allayed. I agree that a candidate for the BOAT should be aware of what previous philosophers have said.

    Yet I still find it questionable that a present philosopher is better than a past one merely because the present thinker is aware of a greater number of contributions from the history of philosophy than the past thinker is. One might instead suggest that philosophers of different eras should be compared relative to the information available to them during their respective times. An analogy to sports comes to mind: on one hand, you might argue that a soccer great of 2022 (e.g., Messi) is better than one from 1972 (say, Pelé) because the present player has access to better training, sports science, nutrition, equipment, living conditions, travel technology, etc. On the other hand, you might say that the athletes should be compared relative to the conditions of their respective eras.

  • Epistemic Autonomy and Open Inquiry: A Summary of Maura Priest’s Professional Philosophy Has an Epistemic Autonomy Problem

    Introduction and Definitions

    Contemporary professional philosophy risks losing its epistemic autonomy, Maura Priest argues in Professional Philosophy Has an Epistemic Autonomy Problem. Sociocultural and institutional factors are present in the philosophical community which make philosophers less likely to achieve epistemic autonomy than one would expect, considering the nature of philosophy as a discipline that requires, encourages, and (historically speaking) has produced many autonomous thinkers. Given these obstacles, Priest (p. 71) contends, individual philosophers and the profession as a whole are worse off epistemically, as is the world at large. In short, given the influence of philosophy on the academy and on the wider culture, less epistemic autonomy among philosophers makes academia and the wider scope of human affairs vulnerable to weaker reasoning, peer pressure, and conformity.

    By ‘epistemic autonomy,’ Priest means roughly the virtue of governing one’s own intellectual life. (p. 72) Epistemically autonomous agents have proper control over their intellectual lives and projects, thus regulating them without undue external interference. In contrast, epistemically non-autonomous persons are governed by others; these might be individuals, but social forces and worldviews can also exert control over the non-autonomous. (pp. 72-73) Priest’s conception of epistemic autonomy is akin to Kant’s, who defined ‘enlightenment’ in terms of intellectual independence.[1]

    For Priest, self-governance is not a matter of inappropriate self-reliance or obstinacy. Self-governance is consistent with open-mindedness to information from external sources, provided that the self-governing agent performs due diligence in recognizing other sources as trustworthy. (p. 75) The trust given by an epistemically autonomous agent differs from the trust given by one who lacks such independence insofar as the former is grounded in good reasons and method, while the latter probably lacks these. Priest also claims that epistemic autonomy is a degreed property (i.e., one can instantiate more or less of it). Furthermore, since philosophy is a matter of rational investigation and philosophers are trained rigorously in reasoning, argumentation, and creative thought, philosophers epistemically ought to “fall further to the epistemically autonomous end of the spectrum than others.” (p. 77) This statement suggests that philosophers have little justification for abdicating their intellectual autonomy. Rather, the discipline of philosophy demands independence of mind. Philosophers who outsource their epistemic lives risk outsourcing their occupations. (p. 77) In short, as Kant might have put it, epistemic autonomy is a matter of having the courage and diligence to think for oneself regarding one’s scholarship.

    Examples of Epistemic Autonomy and Non-autonomy

                Priest provides several cases of autonomy and non-autonomy in common employment and academia. Freedom in the general workplace is associated with employees who are authorized to manage their own schedules and projects without being micromanaged by supervisors (p. 73). Regarding the academy, Priest illustrates non-autonomy by discussing the example of a philosophy professor who does not decide his own article topics and theses but delegates that responsibility to his peers (p. 74). Other examples of non-autonomy include scholars who select research topics to please university administrators, obtain grants, or secure employment in a job market that rewards scholars who emphasize orthodox ideas (p. 80).

    In addition, Priest claims that the pressure to publish on issues that conform to topics which are popular in academia can lead scholars to produce work that is neither epistemically autonomous nor intellectually heterogeneous. (pp. 82-84). For instance, suppose that a scholar selects a topic for research merely because a university administrator at her university has imposed a requirement that faculty in her department write about that topic in order to be promoted at the end of the academic year. Or suppose that a scholar defends a thesis he does not genuinely endorse with an argument he prefers not to use, doing so only for the sake of publishing in a journal that is favorable to such viewpoints. These would be clear cases of abdicating epistemic autonomy (as Priest defines it) for non-epistemic goals.

    Philosopher Justin McBrayer has articulated additional examples of scholars who risk sacrificing epistemic autonomy for non-epistemic ends. In Diversity Statements Are the New Faith Statements, he argues that the faith statements used by religious institutions and the diversity statements used by secular institutions are similar in that they tend to require conformity to relatively vague claims which ignore the careful distinctions and responsible thinking required to accept them intelligently. Such measures pressure scholars to trade autonomy and rigor for peer approval. As McBrayer notes, commitment statements exclude non-conforming thinkers from the respective academic institution, require people to affirm claims they likely do not understand, and block issues from further discussion rather than opening them for exploration. Each of these factors tends to decrease viewpoint diversity, though it should be noted that affirming a commitment statement does not exclude epistemic autonomy. It is possible to accept such statements in an intellectually responsible manner, even if the institutional and social pressures associated with the statements tend to work against autonomy.

    The Argument

    Priest proceeds to argue inductively that a paucity of epistemic autonomy is probable in contemporary academic philosophy because: (1) institutional features of the profession tend to prevent autonomy; (2) cultural features of the profession tend to prevent autonomy; and (3) psychological, sociological, and anthropological features of the profession tend to prevent autonomy. For example, Priest asserts that early in their careers, philosophers are pressured to transfer their intellectual agency to more seasoned colleagues because the younger philosophers “believe that doing so will advance professional, social, and other non-epistemic aims” such as pleasing experienced thinkers and university administrators, obtaining grants and awards, securing employment, and attaining higher levels of status in the academic hierarchy. (p. 80) This pressure might persist later in one’s career. Priest writes: “After tenure, philosophers might come face to face with new professional (and non-epistemic) pressures, e.g., the pressure to do research in areas that increase the odds of receiving research grants, of advancing their reputation either within their subfield or the profession at large, or that make it more likely their work will be published …” (p. 82) The result is that a contemporary academic philosopher might spend a career doing work which is not intellectually independent, to the detriment of both the philosopher’s scholarship and the discipline at large. 

    This problem poses a challenge to the field of philosophy.[2] As Priest puts it, by the time a philosopher has gained considerable experience – an experience that should correspond with proper intellectual freedom – “habits of autonomy abdication might be engrained.” (p. 85) Hence, it is more likely that the field of philosophy will have fewer excellent philosophers than it would have had were the problem absent, since ceteris paribus, philosophers who possess epistemic autonomy are better than those who lack it. Priest closes by articulating a plausible concern that the autonomy problem might subtly weaken the current field until it is “philosophy in name only” and that, given the magnitude of this problem, the effort to solve it is a worthy cause.[3] (pp. 86-87)


    At this point, the reader might protest: isn’t Priest’s inductive argument merely anecdotal? Is the argument weakened by hasty generalization? Does she cite broader empirical evidence beyond her observations? Priest answers that such criticisms miss the mark because she is not trying to prove that her experiences are guaranteed to be found by others across the discipline of philosophy, but rather that her examples “point out that the current systemic organization of the profession creates opportunity for these situations.” She continues: “Even if I had been making up my example out of thin air (I wasn’t), the institutional structure of the profession would still render the example plausible. If it is plausible, and if it follows that the profession is prone toward certain epistemic shortcomings, we all (professional philosophers) have reason for concern.” (pp. 84-85) In other words, Priest seems to be claiming that the current structure of academic philosophy is such that examples like the ones she provides are likely to be experienced by those in the discipline.

    Significance for the Reader

    The significance of this problem seems evident, and not only for philosophy. In general, it is plausible to suspect that any discipline which is (a) structured to oppose intellectual self-governance and (b) has relatively few epistemically autonomous agents is: (i) less likely to be a discipline of open inquiry and (ii) more likely to be ossified by an inflexible orthodoxy which prevents the field from intellectual progress. As Priest notes, such disciplines are prone to weaker argumentation and poorer scholarship, and are less likely to attract talented students. (pp. 71-72) Moreover, there is a worry that some of the field’s valuable research might never reach fruition because of institutional pressures that force authors to write about issues that do not interest them, which might in turn generate publications that infringe upon the author’s autonomy and do not reflect the author’s intended scholarship. (p. 83)

    Let us suppose that open inquiry operates on something like the following principle, which I call the principle of intellectual freedom (PIF): in general, permit public thought, inquiry, and speech which are intended for the pursuit of intellectual discovery, provided they do not violate anyone’s freedom of thought, inquiry, or speech and do not pose undue harm to any person.[4] A discipline that produces and promotes epistemically autonomous agents is more likely to employ the PIF, and therefore permit and explore seriously a wide range of views. Such exploration is conducive for a field to make epistemic progress regarding its distinct areas of inquiry, and might well lead to better and more frequent scholarship which reflects the genuine interests and ideas of the authors. But a domain burdened by the autonomy problem is less likely to achieve the goals of open investigation and intellectual independence, and thus inadequately equipped for continued growth concerning its distinct ends. In addition, if knowledge requires epistemic certainty and thus the acquisition of knowledge in the academy is less common than has frequently been supposed, as I have argued elsewhere, then we have further reason to tolerate rational inquiry in pursuit of intellectual discovery.[5]

    The PIF raises possible solutions for the problem Priest describes. Academia might begin rigorously to promote epistemic autonomy, rational and respectful disagreement, doxastic tolerance, and intellectual freedom. Something like the PIF might be encouraged across universities, scholarly organizations, and other institutions of higher education. Such an effort might help to counteract the pressures toward non-autonomy that Priest addresses (supposing that such pressures exist), thereby motivating greater intellectual self-government among scholars. This in turn might improve the quality of contemporary philosophy, other disciplines, and the university as a whole.


    Priest underscores a difficulty concerning autonomy that thinkers across academic disciplines should consider, regardless of whether their respective fields are currently facing the challenge. Even if the degree of severity of the autonomy problem is open to reasonable debate, Priest’s article is a helpful taxonomy of the sorts of non-epistemic interests likely to impede epistemic independence and free inquiry in the academy.


    Crozat, E. 2022. Why Fallibilistic Evidence is Insufficient for Propositional Knowledge. In            Logos and Episteme, Vol. 13, Issue 2, July 2022.

    Crozat, E. 2022. Education and Knowledge. Forthcoming in Logos and Episteme, Vol. 13,       Issue 3, October 2022.

    Kant, I. 1784. What is Enlightenment? Columbia University.             http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html

    McBrayer, J. 2022. Diversity Statements Are the New Faith Statements. In Inside Higher Ed.      May 23, 2022. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2022/05/23/diversity-statements-   are-new-faith-statements-opinion Priest, M. 2022. Professional Philosophy Has an Epistemic Autonomy Problem. In J. Matheson        & K. Lougheed (Eds.), Epistemic Autonomy (pp. 71-91). Rout

    [1] See What is Enlightenment?, available at http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html. Date of Access: September 8, 2022. Kant describes the epistemically non-autonomous (i.e., those in “self-imposed nonage”) as follows: “If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on–then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.”

    [2] By extrapolation, one might be reasonably concerned that similar problems exist in other disciplines.

    [3] Given the influence of philosophy on other disciplines, one might be concerned that this weakening of philosophy might spread through the academy. 

    [4] My use of ‘public’ corresponds roughly to Kant’s application of that term in his discussion of the public and private uses of reason in What is Enlightenment? The public use of reason ought to be free at all times, he writes, though there might be legitimate restrictions on the private use of reason. 

    [5] See Crozat, 2022 and 2022.

  • Try as he might, the religionist can’t defenestrate reason.

    Some religious believers assert that if there is a conflict between a passage of the Bible (or another sacred scripture) and human reason, one should defenestrate reason. The reverential motivation of this claim is understandable. But the claim is false, and its claimant is likely naïve on this issue.

    You can’t dispose of reason in this way, nor can you suspend it for the sake of accepting some scriptural proposition. For the passage of scripture must be communicated to you. In other words, you must read it, have someone read it to you, explain it to you, etc. Then you need to construe the proposition conveyed to you. What does it mean? Such interpretation is inescapably a job of reason. Hence, you can’t dismiss reason in favor of scripture. And since you can’t do so, it is false that you should do so.

    In short, the passage of scripture filters through your reason, and thus, though it might sound shocking to the pious ear, reason is an indispensable judge and not a courtroom outcast.

    Here is another consideration. The claim that reason should be dismissed if it conflicts with scripture comes too late. You are already engaged in the reasoning process. It looks like this:

    If scripture and reason conflict and the standoff is mutually exclusive, both cannot remain. Hence, either scripture must be rejected, or reason must be rejected. But scripture should not be denied. Thus, reason must be abandoned. 

    Now, regardless of whether this is an acceptable piece of reasoning, the fact is that it is a case of reasoning. One cannot coherently forsake reason and yet at the same time keep the very reasoning upon which one builds one’s disowning of reason.

  • The Children of Sisyphus

    I was thinking today about the myth of Sisyphus, king of ancient Corinth who was punished by the Greek gods for his wily attempts to avoid death. His penalty: pushing a boulder to the summit of a hill in Hades, only to have the rock roll back to the bottom, where he was forced to repeat the task, ad infinitum. That’s some serious rock n’ roll.

    The Sisyphean task has come to symbolize the existentialist theme that human life is absurd. Reflecting on this point reminded me of a novel I read about 25 years ago while in college: The Children of Sisyphus, written by sociologist and novelist Orlando Patterson. The book was required reading in a literature class at SDSU taught by Dr. JoAnne Cornwell. It was a good class, and the book influenced my thinking at the time.

    The novel underscores the absurdity of human life by presenting stories about poor and uneducated characters living in a garbage dump in Jamaica. Their desperate efforts at a better life make for a starkly existentialist narrative, complete with the evils of gullibility, wishful thinking, superstition, manipulation, religious fraud, squalor, and prostitution.

    If you have an existentialist bent, you might want to give the book a try. I haven’t read it since college, though I believe it’s in my library somewhere.

    (My library is divided into two sections. Section One is what’s on my bookshelves. Section Two is packed away in containers in my garage, awaiting the day when I have the shelf space to accommodate them. I suspect Patterson’s book is in the garage. This is no slight against his book, but instead represents the reality that my house is moderate in size and that I’m raising two young men who need space.)

  • Rationality and Irrationality

    Hades condemned Sisyphus to his unattainable task; the rational isn’t sentenced to engage the irrational.

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