When you think of a philosopher, what is the first thing that springs to mind? You might think of someone like Descartes, wondering whether all that we see around us is in fact a hallucination created by an evil demon; someone like Socrates, describing an unrealistic city, gesturing at a world of ideas, or Aristotle imagining the first unmoved mover of the universe. In short, you might think of philosophers as hopeless dreamers, the sort of people who are great to talk to, but who should not be allowed to operate any heavy equipment, to take the helm of a political system, or to go around corrupting the youth.
Then again, you might think of someone like Aristotle, gathering shellfish on the shores of what is now Turkey, developing the beginnings of a method of science; or a Helen Longino analysing the social practice of science. That is, you might also think of someone who applies critical thinking skills and an ability at abstract thought to do the same things we do every day: make decisions, uncover the truth, eat lunch. Only philosophers do it better.
For example, you might order a delicious steak for lunch. The philosopher will apply their abilities at abstract thought and critical thinking skills to order an organic quinoa salad. They may then proceed to offer painfully cogent arguments about why you should have ordered the same thing. They will thereby “win” at having lunch, perhaps at least in the sense that you will no longer have much chance of enjoying yours. If such a philosopher ever got elected to office, they would probably administer a nauseatingly pragmatic centrist government. (Not thinking of anyone in particular, M. Macron) Martha Nussbaum calls this kind of philosopher “a professional human being”, but ordinary people call them extremely annoying.
This may sound like material for a BuzzFeed quiz called “what kind of philosopher are you?”: salacious, but not exactly deep. But it actually has significant implications for philosophical method. In particular, whether you think of philosophers as hopeless dreamers or professional human beings is likely to shape what you think of a thing called “The Method of Endoxa”.
Depending on who you ask, the Method of Endoxa is either a terrible way of doing philosophy, or the only way to do good philosophy. In particular, it is widely supposed to be Aristotle’s method, though these days those of us who research Aristotle are starting to think the picture is not so simple. Be that as it may, Aristotle describes his method this way at the opening of Nicomachean Ethics Book VII, and Jonathan Barnes (in Aristotle and the Methods of Ethics)and Martha Nussbaum (in the Fragility of Goodness) are two philosophers who have described his method this way (though Barnes thinks Aristotle misdescribed his own methods).
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The Method of Endoxa works by doing a big survey and then trying to make sense of the results. In the first step, the survey, we collect the opinions of the wise and the many: that is, what most people think about a topic, and what the experts think about a topic. (these are called endoxa which is Greek for ‘reputable opinions’) For example, if we ask people whether it’s good to feel pleasure, almost everyone will say yes. Most doctors will say yes. Most psychologists will say yes. Some philosophers will say no. Our survey is completed.
My survey method here was basically to read books my whole life and not go out that much and then put together the results from memory and my philosopher’s intuition. Although this is a revered and ancient method (or at least widely practiced by philosophers), it could probably be improved on. Philosophy could learn from systematic literature review methods in the sciences. The movement of experimental philosophy, or X-Phi, draws on social science research methods to find out what people really think. It’s not entirely clear how Aristotle went carried out surveys, but he advises his students to collect opinions on a wide range of topics. [Topics I, chapter 14, if you want to look it up]
Once we have the results of our survey, we proceed to the second step: solving problems. In our example, one problem is that some philosophers, who we are assuming are wise, said “no, pleasure is not good.” We need to come up with a solution for this problem. Solving this problem requires doing two things. The first is that the statement of the position is not clear, so we need to clarify it. Which pleasures do they believe are not good? For example, do they think that pleasure at doing evil is not good, or pleasure which will cause a greater quantity of pain?
The second problem is that there is a contradiction. In this case our goal is to propose a theory that will preserve the truth in each position. One option might be to say that, while not every pleasure is good, almost all of them are. This preserves the truth in the idea that pleasure is good (i.e. it’s true in general, but not universally), while preserving what is true about the idea that pleasure is not good—there are exceptions.
(Other solutions are also possible: please do not get too caught up in this. This is a worked example to show you how the method works, not an analysis of the goodness and badness of pleasure, which is a tricky topic).
Hopeless Dreamers or professional Human beings?
Jonathan Barnes’ paper has been one of the key works promoting the idea that Aristotle applied The Method of Endoxa. It is where the name (which he describes as ‘grandiose’) comes from. But Barnes himself was critical of the method. He complained that it assumes that the philosophical truth will be something that people have already thought of. It constrains them from coming up with an entirely new idea.
This may be a serious problem. If we consider our example above, it is unlikely that we could ever come to the conclusion that pleasure is not a good thing at all. Such a position has only been held by a minority of philosophers, and the weight of the overwhelming majority of people in our survey would be too much. Nonetheless, it is possible that these philosophers (for example, the Stoics, and Socrates) were correct. Aristotle doesn’t think it possible that so many people would be wrong, but Barnes thinks Aristotle is a little over optimistic here. And in Aristotle’s time, the view that slavery was wrong was every bit as unpopular as the view that pleasure is not good, but that did not mean it was false. Could the method of endoxa have revealed this? Perhaps we need a different method, one that allows us to discover these wildly unpopular truths.
Martha Nussbaum sees things differently. According to her, she thinks that philosophers are all-too-inclined to embark on wild flights of fancy. These meet a human need to make sense of the world, but they do so by separating people from reality. The Method of Endoxa forces philosophers to seek out the order and systems in our language, our thought, and our communities. As we examine these systems, we may find that reform is needed. But these reforms will not be wild extrapolations from obvious truths, but proposals that arise from a consideration of the things truly our community truly believes. Philosophers may just have to accept that they can only see a little beyond the current views of the community; after all, Aristotle was hardly alone among ancient philosophers in failing to condemn slavery. Perhaps, rather than saying Aristotle was a professional human being, it would be better to say that Aristotle was a professional ancient Greek: he had reflected on ancient Greek values and practices more deeply than most. And by doing so he wrote a beautiful work of ethics, one that, in spite of some glaringly problematic aspects, has lasting relevance.
Goals and Methods
This debate about Aristotle’s method suggests something I think is unsurprising, but which I think philosophers do not take into account enough. Our choice of philosophical methods depends, to some large degree, on what you might call our ‘philosophical orientation’, or what you are trying to do as a philosopher.
For my part, I doubt that the idea of being a professional human being is terribly realistic. I’m not sure that philosophy will make us better makers of decisions, discoverers of truths, or eaters of lunch than anybody else. Furthermore, I agree with Barnes that the best parts of Aristotle are the ones where he seems to forget he was supposed to be following the Method of Endoxa.
Although I think philosophers are just as lost as everybody else, I do believe they can help us to have dreams that we would not otherwise have, and that these dreams, although sometimes dangerous, are of immense value.
As such, I am in search of other methods.
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