Friday, January 28, 2005

On Psychologizing

Jim Ryan, late of Philosoblog, and currently over at The Conservative Philosopher, writes:

Hi, Bill,

Heh, me, too: In 2003 I quit the profession right before being offered tenure.

BV: It takes cojones. I'd love to hear your story. But if you don't want me to post it, just say so.

I would say you are still a professional philosopher; it is just that you are no longer affiliated with a philosophy department. After all, you did not suddenly become an amateur philosopher. The professional/amateur distinction cuts perpendicular to the academically affiliated/academically unaffiliated distinction. Or so I would argue. Spinoza was a professional philosopher, though he made no money from philosophy, and there are paid teachers of philosophy whom I would call amateurs.

As for when to psychologize, I'd be interested in what you think of this: If refutations have already shown that the reasons someone gives for his belief are extremely poor, then what epistemic force does psychologizing have? Well, a little; at least it becomes material. An interlocutor may otherwise suppose, "Well, he must have originally had some good reason or other to take his position, so perhaps we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss it." But a good psychological explanation for his position gets the better of that supposition, obviating the need for further inquiry into the basis of his position. Is there anything I'm missing, Bill?

BV: That sounds right to me, although I am not sure what you mean by "it becomes material." Perhaps you mean that, after the person's arguments, if any, have been refuted, then it becomes legitimate to seek a psychological explanation of the person's holding of the belief in question.

There are a lot of deep issues here, and I can't claim to have thought them all through.

Suppose A has good reasons for believing that p. (A has apparently sound arguments for p; A can deal with counterrguments, etc.) Suppose that there is also a decent psychological or combined psychological/sociological explanation for A's believing-that-p. Can the latter undermine the former? Or are they simply irrelevant to each other? I think they are irrelevant to each other.

Example. In the days when I was taking money for doing philosophy, I once argued that the philosophical life is the highest life using Aristotelian arguments. A student objected: "Of course, you believe that; it serves your interests. You are merely justifying your life-style." I would say that is vicious as opposed to benign psychologizing, despite the fact that the psychological explanation is plausible: it is a refusal to take the appeal to reasons seriously. Indeed, it is a refusal to take one's interlocutor seriously as a rational being. And that is morally offensive.

What was my REAL reason for maintaining the Aristotelian thesis? This sort of question, I take it, asks after the motivating reason. The vicious psychologizer doesn't even admit that there could be a motivating reason or reasons as opposed to extrarational causes. But of course, this raises the hairy question of how reasons -- which are presumably abstract objects such as propositions or else propositions as grasped in mental acts -- can motivate, can enter into one's individual psychic economy. Next stop: The mind/body problem, explanatory exclusion, etc.

Is psychologizing in its vicious form the same as committing the genetic fallacy? I tend to assimmilate them one to the other. Is that right?

Here are two posts of mine on the genetic fallacy with reference to Nietzsche:
GF 1, GF2.