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“The standard view in philosophy”


Suppose someone tells you to accept a certain proposition p because it’s the “standard view in philosophy.” This happens every now and then, as I’ve noticed from lurking on philosophy blogs. What should you do? Should you affirm p because he just told you that it’s the standard view, and you’re just too humble a servant of the consensus sapientium to do otherwise? Or should you pause a moment and ask some questions? The latter, I think.

Two questions to ask from the outset:

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. What is the criterion for something’s being “the standard view in philosophy”? What does “standard” mean? What is the scope of “philosophy”? Answering these questions seems a more arduous task than just giving a straightforward argument for p.

2. Suppose you have in hand an answer to the questions in (1). You might ask how someone knows that p meets the criterion specified by the answer(s). That seems at least as difficult as answering (1), and it’s a separate task.

More fundamentally, however, you might ask why p‘s being an instance of “the standard view in philosophy” has anything to do with its truth. And if truth is the aim of inquiry, you might then wonder what p‘s being an instance of “the standard view” has  to do with the task of accepting or rejecting it.

“Standard views in philosophy” are temporally indexed: they change over time. So if someone tells you that p is “the standard view in philosophy,” unless the person has a synoptic grasp of the whole history of philosophy, that claim is really elliptical for: S believes that p at t, where “S” stands for “the set of people affirming the standard view” and t is some time (with fuzzy boundaries made somewhat misleading by the assignment of a variable). But for any S asserting p at t, it’s likely that there was some predecessor standard view S* whose members believed ~p at t-1.

Why believe S rather than S*, then? Presumably because it’s now “the standard view” in philosophy that philosophy makes incremental progress over time, so that any S asserting p at t can be believed, prima facie, to have made a closer approximation to truth than any S* asserting the reverse at an earlier time.

But does anyone really believe that? Have Hegel and Peirce become the standard for “the standard view” in philosophy?  In other words, why think that any current standard view is superior to any past one, or any other view, simply because it’s current? That’s not a question that can be answered without circularity by appeal to “standard views.” But one needs an answer to know why p‘s being a standard view ought to be a reason to affirming that p.

Of course, a standard view might arise and not replace a predecessor. It might be that S has now come into existence, but S had no S* predecessor. Fair enough, but that doesn’t explain why S tracks the truth, either, much less why you should affirm that p because of S.

So if someone tells you that p is the standard view in philosophy, my advice is to tell him that that’s nice, but that you aren’t a standard-issue doxastic agent. Then tell him to produce some reasons for believing that p. If he does, take it from there. If not, feel free to listen, but regard yourself under no obligation to accept any part of his argument that proceeds from the belief that p.

Could it be that I’ve set up and knocked down a straw man? I don’t think so. But if you do, I’m at least entitled to infer that my objection works, if only on straw men.




  1. In any case, I think part of what’s distinctive about philosophy (as opposed, e.g., to science) is that you’re never supposed to accept anyone’s results without replicating them personally.

  2. Bill Walsh says:

    Two things strike me: First this claim is a species of Appeal to Authority and ought to laughed out of Intro to Logic 101! Secondly, from my amateur perspective it seems to me that those who might appeal ti the “standard view” are often the same ones who claim we can’t know anything at all, for sure!

  3. I don’t know how you’d go about replicating non-empirical results.

    But I’d still have thought that consensus in philosophy would be valued even less than consensus in science.

  4. irfankhawaja says:

    I agree that it’s an illicit appeal to authority, but it’s not one simple enough to laugh out of Intro Logic. Not all appeals to authority are illegitimate, after all. When I ask my doctor what medicine to take, I trust his authority and take what he prescribes. That’s a legitimate appeal to authority. The proponents of the argument I’m criticizing are saying in effect that philosophy is analogous to medicine (which is why Roderick’s criticism is so on point): “there are experts in philosophy; they should be regarded as authoritative.” I think the quoted statement involves an illicit appeal to authority, but put in that way, it’s not simpleminded.

    The people who appeal to authority and then defend skepticism are involved in an obvious contradiction, but in 20+ years in philosophy, I have never encountered anyone holding such a view. The more common combination is appeal to authority plus dogmatism about a certain kind of knowledge–knowledge about which the person in question regards himself as an expert.


  5. irfankhawaja says:

    I think I agree with that, but I don’t see how it’s consistent with the view you defend in the comments of the conceptual novelty post.

    Suppose Smith holds a minority view that most people reject, call it p. Suppose most people think that the burden of proof is against views like Smith’s. When Jones asserts ~p, and Smith demands a justification, Jones insists that the burden of proof is Smith’s to shoulder. Smith says: “No, I think part of what’s distinctive about philosophy is that I’m never supposed to accept your results unless I can replicate them personally. But to do that, I need to see your argument for ~p. So you owe me an argument that ~p.” And Jones says: “No, sorry; you just need to accept that your view is in the minority and for that reason, the deck is discursively stacked against p. That’s all I need to say about p. Real philosophers believe that ~p.” Hasn’t Jones done something wrong?


  6. irfankhawaja says:

    I’m guessing that Roderick would say that philosophical results are empirical, and you replicate them every time any two discursive partners agree on a conclusion via the same argument. That’s what I would say, anyway.


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