Friday, May 18, 2012

[PHI 3000] Is much of philosophy not really philosophy?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to rationalize is to "attempt to explain or justify (behavior or an attitude) with logical reasons, even if these are not appropriate." Rationalizing, in this pejorative sense, is more like making excuses and is usually done after the fact. For example, after I eat chocolate, I might rationalize my action (i.e., make an excuse) by saying that chocolate has antioxidants. But that is not why I ate chocolate in the first place. To put the same point in terms of beliefs, rather than actions, we could say that to rationalize is to find excuses for our beliefs.

Unlike rationalizing, reasoning (i.e., to reason) is drawing conclusions from evidence or reasons. To put the point in terms of beliefs, we could say that to reason is to find beliefs that are worthy of acceptance.

The red arrow depicts rationalization, whereas the green arrow depicts reasoning.

Now, it seems that, at times, philosophy has been more about rationalizing than reasoning. Here are just a few examples:
  • Philosophy of religion: Starting with the belief that God exists and trying to find reasons (or excuses) for this belief.
  • Metaphysics: Starting with the belief that human beings have free will and trying to find reasons (or excuses) for this belief.
  • Epistemology: Starting with the belief that we know certain facts and trying to find an analysis of knowledge that accommodates this belief.
  • Philosophy of Science: Starting with the belief that science is a rational enterprise and trying to find a philosophy of science that accommodates this belief.
  • Ethics: Starting with the belief that we are obligated to do only what we can do and trying to find a moral theory that accommodates this belief.
Are these fair characterizations of these philosophical projects? If so, is this a problem?


  1. Mmmm. Tricky.
    It seems true that we are often motivated to pursue particular philosophical projects on the basis of beliefs that we are already attached to... But perhaps this could be acceptable. To make a comparison to mathematics, it seems reasonable to think that mathematicians have intuitive reasons for believing that a theorem is true, and then set about finding a proof for that theorem. If they succeed in finding a sound (or at least valid...) proof, it doesn't seem quite right to accuse the mathematician of rationalization.
    So I guess my point is that it's only a problem if you begin to "bend the rules" to fit your pet project. Of course, the tricky thing is figuring out what bending the rules would actually look like in philosophy.

    1. Annette,

      Thanks for your comment. It sounds very reasonable to me.

      I like the analogy with mathematics. As I understand it, it shows that seeking evidence for beliefs that we find to be intuitively true is not a problem as long as we do not rest content with intuitions. We have to find evidence (reasons) that is independent of our intuitions. In the absence of such evidence, we should not be tempted to “bend the rules” to fit our intuitions. As you rightly point out, however, it is not clear what constitutes "bending the rules" in philosophy.


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