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What should philosophers aim at?

In a recent tweet, Keith Frankish suggested that philosophers shouldn’t aim at being right. Instead, he thinks that they should aim at being usefully wrong.

Keith's tweet; used with permission

This struck me as somewhat puzzling and got me thinking about what philosophers should aim at.

As anyone who values knowledge will understand, sometimes being right really matters. For example, knowledge in advance of a potentially dangerous storm can sometimes save your life. Similarly, in philosophical areas like epistemology and ethics, being right about some issue or problem is also important and possibly for others, other than the inquiring philosopher, too.

When being right is actually important

For starters, the threat of External World Skepticism (EWS) poses a significant challenge to whatever you think you know about the world outside your own mind. You may believe that you have real friends. But if EWS is true, then you cannot know that the people you take to be your friends really exist. Instead, you’re just as likely to be a friendless brain-in-a-vat as you are the person with the friends you believe you have. You don’t know one way or the other. So, at stake are all your claims to knowledge about the world around you and, by extension, the reality of much of what you value in your life (1). Therefore, being right that EWS is false actually matters and so it’s a worthy aim of any inquiring philosopher.

Now let’s consider a couple of examples from ethics that show how being right may be important not just for the inquiring philosopher but for others, too.

Firstly, suppose your aim in inquiring about ethical issues like, say, environmental pollution is to discover whether polluting is actually right or wrong, then you may recognize that some actions, like littering, can be harmful. If you conclude that it’s wrong to harm others, then this knowledge should influence your behaviour so as to prevent, as far as it’s possible, such harm from occurring. This example of aiming to get it right seems to be beneficial not just individually but collectively and ecologically.

Secondly, let’s suppose that animal cruelty is wrong (as I hope everyone reading this already takes it to be), then we can simply deduce that if factory farming is animal cruelty (it is!) then it’s also wrong.

Emerson's tweet; used with permission

Surely, that’s right, isn’t it? But what use is it in being right about that?

Well, for one thing, it can help reduce needless suffering on our planet. Okay, but how can that happen? Well, if philosophers are right about that and then tell others, maybe that will motivate others (not only the philosophers) to change to a cruelty-free or plant-based diet.

please, come on babe, they’ll end up all confused, what’s the point of telling people if they won’t use it ~ Julian Casablancas; in the song Where No Eagles Fly

But wait, that sounds too ambitious, aren’t philosophers better at telling us what something isn’t than at telling us what it is?

This kind of impotence was probably best described by Žižek:

I feel like a magician who is only producing hats and never rabbits ~ Slavoj Žižek

Aside: perhaps it’s just Žižek who feels he’s always wrong; though, as some consolation to Žižek in the very unlikely case that he’s reading, Gödel once said (concerning Leibniz) that: “it’s just as hard to be wrong about everything as it is to be right about everything (2).

That may be the case, though it doesn’t also mean that philosophers can’t ever give right answers nor should it dissuade anyone from aiming at the right answer. For, as just shown, if right answers exist, then it’s worth aiming to get it right because getting it right can be important. However, when we get it wrong (as we so often do), then being usefully wrong can be instructive. And indeed much of philosophy is filled with examples of the latter case.

For example, the Justified True Belief (JTB) analysis of knowledge was widely accepted for around two millennia until Gettier demonstrated that JTB wasn’t a sufficient condition for knowledge. Efforts to find a fourth condition that, combined with JTB, would be sufficient for knowledge are widely thought to have also failed (e.g. No False Premises, Causation, etc). But this is already saying a lot. After all, even though JTB is insufficient for knowledge, justification, truth, and belief are still widely accepted as necessary conditions for knowledge. Philosophers, however slowly, seem to have got it right up to that point but not because they aimed at being usefully wrong; which just so happens to be a consequence of aiming at being right.

In conclusion, by aiming at being right there’s at least a chance of being usefully wrong. And if you're aiming to be usefully wrong, then I think you’re doing it wrong. So, just for kicks, I’ll close with what I wish Herm Edwards said in his famous interview (and what, if I were rich, I’d gladly pay him to say)(3):

This is what’s great about philosophy, this is what the greatest thing about philosophy is: you philosophize to get it right. HELLO? You philosophize to get it right! You don’t philosophize to just philosophize. That’s the great thing about philosophy. You philosophize to get it right. And I don’t care if you never get it right, you go and philosophize to get it right. When you start telling me it doesn’t matter, then please stop and get out, cause it matters!

a special place on campus (UTSC) where I like to think as I walk


  1. Rosen. G. et al. (2018). Norton’s Introduction to Philosophy. W.W. Norton
  2. From this video about the time Gödel told a joke or did he?
  3. From this Herm Edwards interview

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