I’ve been thinking about the metaphilosophical issue of the value of opinionated philosophy and the value of (maybe highly) opinionated philosophers. Maybe philosophers with strong Socratic sympathies expect all good philosophy to end somewhere in aporia, but a good deal of philosophy doesn’t. There is in any case a common criticism of philosophy of religion that it often borders on Christian apologetics, though the criticism is really more general than that. I think I can make sense of this criticism as charging that philosophy of religion is often highly opinionated. And by ‘opinionated’ here I simply mean that the philosophical work includes settled views on points that are really worth controverting or that really ought to be held with less confidence. Maybe the notion of ‘opinionated’ I’m after is reflected in the ratio of the confidence with which p reasonably ought to be held to the confidence with which p is held by the author. Maybe it’s reflected in the degree to which one is mainly interested in speaking to the like-minded. There really is something unphilosophical about that, but it’s hard to pin down.
I don’t think the criticism can be deflected simply by pointing out that all philosophical work makes some assumptions (for the sake of argument). Of course that’s true, but the criticism does not make that mistake. I don’t think the criticism can be avoided by noting that many philosophers bring to discussion strong philosophical views. We can likely name, for instance, the committed invariantists, contextualists, relativists in epistemology, and the committed three-dimensionalists, four-dimensionalists, essentialists, and monists in metaphysics. But (many of) these philosophers spend a lot of time in defense of these views. They have not simply stopped arguing for them, given their deep conviction that they’re true. And I don’t think the criticism can be deflected by pointing out that certain philosophical problems require a lot of assumptions (e.g. think of philosophical problems in cosmology, where the discussion is high up in physical theory or philosophical problems in the neurobiology of free will). It’s true again that many interesting and controvertible assumptions are made in discussions here, but that is most often not a problem. The criticism is not making this mistake. I don’t think the problem can be deflected by noting that all good philosophy includes some strong opinion(s). Of course that’s true; I don’t think anyone is confused about that. Finally, I don’t think the (not-so-uncommon) mark-my-bravery response deflects the criticism. Here the idea, I assume, is to take standing firm without reply as some sort of virtue. I admire philosophical bravery (not bluster or bravado, but the real thing) by which I have in mind not backing away from a defensible philosophical position or research program for reasons of (even formidable) discipline pressure or social pressure or psychological pressure. But I take philosophical bravery to include a willingness to address at least the good/powerful objections to the contrary.
I raised the issue of opinionated philosophers because it might illuminate what some find wrong with opinionated philosophy. It is really hard (for me anyway) to get much from philosophical discussion with (even excellent) philosophers who have come to lots of settled opinions on frankly controvertible philosophical issues. All one can do (weirdly, what I feel like I’m expected to do) is just note what I’m told. What does that have to do with philosophy? I don’t have a lot of interest in doing that. What I want to do is take up the controversial issues in the expectation that they will be discussed fairly, and that is what invariably fails to happen in these cases. When I read an opinionated philosophical paper I get a similar impression. Maybe that’s the problem, but I’m not sure. I do know that highly opinionated philosophy is disproportionately boring. Maybe that’s the problem.