I’m now entering my second decade as a professor, and feel like I have amassed enough experience to point out certain trends. I’m not sure if the trends I want to talk about are the “normal science” of philosophy, or if they’ve been particularly noticeable in recent years, as philosophy has gotten more professionalized. What I’ve noticed is that a certain methodology for addressing a philosophical problem will arise in one particular sub-literature, where by “methodology” I mean some kind of quasi-technical mechanism for resolving disputes in any area. Then, that strategy will start to replicate (much like a computer virus); people will apply it to all the other fields where it has not yet been applied. For example, at first fictionalism was advanced to treat the problem of negative existentials; then it was applied by Gideon Rosen to modal metaphysics. In the intervening years, fictionalists have appeared in every discipline (fictionalism about morality, fictionalism about abstract objects, etc.), and in the late 1990s, being on a job-search committee meant wading through endless stacks of papers advocating fictionalism about this or that. Contextualist solutions to philosophical problems arose in a more haphazard way; in philosophical logic, in application to the liar paradox and the sorites paradox, in epistemology to the problem of skepticism. Now, a contextualist solution is part of the standard tool-box of possibilities when faced with an apparent philosophical problem. Now, we’ve got relativism about truth, the idea that the truth of a proposition is relative to an evaluator, and no doubt serving on a junior job search committee will involve wading through stacks of papers applying relativism to this or that apparent dispute.
Over a year ago, Brian Weatherson declared that relativism was going to be a central topic in philosophy in the next decade:
Brian has turned out to be correct.
For example, at the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in
Over the years, I’ve written papers or chapters of books criticizing fictionalism, contextualism, and relativism. At each point, I thought there were specific features of the methodology and its applications to which I was reacting (and certainly, each strategy raises different issues). But I’ve realized that I have a uniformly negative reaction to methodologies application of which would resolve a host of apparently distinct philosophical problems. I think there are two sources for this. First, I think the philosophical problems are sufficiently distinct from one another that I’m immediately suspicious of any attempt to resolve several of them by appeal to one mechanism (be it covert fictions, context-sensitivity, or relativism). I could be convinced (though I haven’t been so far) that some traditional philosophical problem (be it future contingents, or skepticism, or the problem of abstracta) is due to our failure to recognize context-sensitivity, or truth-relativity, or that we’ve stumbled unknowingly into a fiction. But I think it is prima facie pretty unlikely that the right account of the sorites paradox will have much to do with the right account of skepticism. Secondly, since the methodologies are usually awfully easy to apply, I worry about how to constrain them. In short, each methodology seems to make philosophy too easy. I’m certainly not saying these worries can’t be answered by advocates of catch-all methodologies. Many of the profession’s very best and most careful philosophers are attracted to them. But I do think there is a special burden, when advocating a catch-all methodological solution to a philosophical problem, to respond to these two worries.