A Psychology of Philosophy




A Psychology of Philosophy



Most philosophers would agree that philosophy is a very difficult subject, in their heart of hearts if not in their practice. The problems of philosophy are difficult problems. They are not easily solved (sometimes not easily stated). The difficulty might be rated differently by different philosophers—from moderately difficult to extremely difficult to impossibly difficult. In any case there is a widespread perception of pronounced difficulty. I am concerned with the psychology that goes with that perception: what kind of mind is formed by the perception that philosophy is exceptionally difficult? Better: what kind of personality is created by the perception of philosophical difficulty? If a person gives his or her life to philosophy, while fully recognizing its exceptional difficulty, what kind of psychological formation will flow from that? If you devote your life to a subject that admits of relatively easy answers, you will likely experience satisfaction and a sense of achievement (as it might be, the flora and fauna of the Hebrides); but if you devote your life to a set of questions you believe you probably (or certainly) can’t answer, what will this do to you?

            The obvious reply is that you will not meet with success and you will suffer the pangs thereof. You want to know the answer and you strive to discover it, but you accept that you won’t succeed, probably or certainly. Suppose you have been struck with the problem of skepticism and you long to find an answer to the skeptic, but you accept that the problem is extremely difficult and that you have not discovered an answer, and probably never will. You could simply accept this fact, maybe reducing your efforts at solution, given that your chances of success are miniscule; that would be rational enough, considering. But you might also react by overvaluing your less-than-perfect efforts or by downplaying the difficulty of the problem. You might decide you were wrong about the difficulty of refuting the skeptic, or you might congratulate yourself on devising a highly ingenious or insightful response that has escaped the attention of others. This would be understandable, if not completely rational: you have succumbed to a kind of intellectual dishonesty (given that you are tacitly aware that your proposed solution doesn’t really measure up to the severity of the problem). You are engaging in intellectual bad faith. You do this because your earlier response was psychologically uncomfortable: why keep trying to solve what you believe you (probably) can’t solve? Why put so much effort into something pointless? And even if you think you might solve the problem, you still have to wrestle with the strong probability that you won’t solve it—given its extreme difficulty. It is psychologically uncomfortable to strive to do what you think you (probably) can’t do, so it is natural to revise your view of things.  [1]

            What I have just described is a situation in which cognitive dissonance is apt to occur. Cognitive dissonance theory was invented by the psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s and has become a standard part of psychology.  [2] The outlines of the theory are as follows. People are equipped with an overall drive towards psychological consistency. This drive is not restricted to belief consistency but applies also to harmony among desires, actions, emotions, and beliefs. If there is a lack of harmony, the subject will experience mental stress or discomfort or anxiety. This will lead to attempts at dissonance reduction by a variety of stratagems in order to restore harmony. The magnitude of the stress is a function of the magnitude of the dissonance. So a person will not be happy to act in ways contrary to his desires, or make statements contrary to his beliefs, or desire what he knows he cannot possess, or feel what he knows he shouldn’t feel, or believe what he has evidence against. Cognitive dissonance leads to dissonance reduction by modifying the dissonant psychological configuration. In Festinger’s original example, a member of a cult who is confronted by evidence undermining the tenets of the cult will be apt to deny the evidence or invent some ad hoc explanation for the evidence that preserves his cherished beliefs. Or a person compelled to work in an occupation that violates her values is likely to abandon or modify those values, or to insist that the occupation really serves to further them despite appearances (as it might be, pollution is actually good in the long term). The central point is that the drive for psychological consistency leads to bad faith of one kind or another. Dissonance is intolerable, so the subject strives to minimize or deny it, often by mental contortions and self-deception. Living with cognitive dissonance is harder than conforming one’s attitudes so as to avoid it. This is the realm of motivated belief and fake emotion and fabricated desire.

            How does this apply to philosophy? Simple: the acknowledged difficulty of philosophy induces cognitive dissonance, which is then massaged in various ways to reduce the mental discomfort. Difficulty produces dissonance because the life of a philosopher is predicated on denying or underestimating it. For the philosopher is investing time and resources in a project she knows is unlikely to bear fruit. She is working on impossible problems—problems she knows (or strongly suspects) she can’t solve. Suppose she is gripped by the problem of skepticism and is working hard to provide a convincing answer to the skeptic—burning the midnight oil, neglecting her family, not having any fun—all the while believing that her efforts have close to zero chance of success (after all, no one else has come up with anything). That is not a tolerable mental state to be in, because of the dissonance between will and belief: she wants and wills what she believes is not within her reach. Various dissonance-reducing reactions are possible: she can give up working on the problem, pretend that the difficulty is not as great as has been supposed, overestimate the value of whatever ideas she can come up with, become a dogmatist. In the extreme she could always declare that philosophical problems are pseudo problems or are meaningless or reflect mental illness. That way she can deflect the dissonance, restore her mental equilibrium, and relieve the stress. She might have started her philosophical life brimming with optimism—she will get to the bottom of these problems where others have failed (through insufficient attention to ordinary language, or by relying on a primitive type of logic, or by not knowing enough science, or because of general sloppiness). Then she felt no dissonance, because her beliefs were consistent with her desires and actions (such as protracted and expensive study of philosophy). But as her philosophical life wears on and the futility of her efforts becomes more apparent, she is likely to arrive at a more pessimistic view of her philosophical prospects—she comes to believe that she will likely not solve the problems that so gripped her (and still do). Then cognitive dissonance is apt to set in: she knows that she can’t achieve what she wants desperately to achieve. She could try to learn to live with this fact, though it would no doubt modify her practical motivations, or she could adopt a variety of dissonance-reducing stratagems. The two most obvious ones are denying the difficulty and overestimating her feeble efforts (“Yes, the problem is devilishly difficult, but my theory finally lays it to rest!”).

I take it this will seem familiar. My suggestion is that cognitive dissonance lies behind some of the characteristic types of philosophical posture. Hence the psychological appeal of logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, the latest brand of scientism, dedication to formal logic, post-modernism, Wittgensteinian quietism, neurophilosophy, descriptive phenomenology, experimental philosophy, eliminativism, and engaging in purely historical studies. These are all attempts to avoid or downplay the recognition of the difficulty of philosophical problems. Not that they might not have arguments in their favor, but the psychological attraction of such doctrines stems from their promise to free us from cognitive dissonance. It is not that any of them are prima facie all that plausible—they are commonly represented as revisionist—but we feel compelled to accept them because of the stress produced by acknowledging philosophical difficulty. Add to this purely internal source of disharmony the institutional pressures of teaching or studying at a place of higher learning: how can you justify teaching a subject to students that you admit consists of insoluble (or at least unsolved) problems? What truths are the students supposed to learn as a result of such teaching? What results are you conveying to them? How can they justify the expense to their parents? Also: what justifies tenure in a field where no one ever makes any substantial progress? How can you be paid to work on problems no one thinks you can solve? There is a lot of pressure to deny that philosophy is as difficult as it seems to be and has proven to be. We just need that nice fat grant and we will finally answer the skeptic! The latest fad (as it might be, neuroimaging) will resolve those age-old problems, so we need not accept that things are as dire as they appear. We need not accept that we are striving to do what we know we can’t do. That is the fundamental problem, psychologically speaking—the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the philosophical enterprise.

Other subjects do not writhe under this kind of pressure. In them progress is made, large and small, so that the striving to achieve results is gratified, with the hope of further achievements in the future. True, they can contain great difficulties, but history has been kind to them, and there are many areas in which substantial progress has been made. The physicist never feels under pressure to deny that his questions are meaningful, or to resort to ordinary language, or to eliminate what he finds puzzling (“There are no receding galaxies!”). Nor does the biologist have to accept that she is getting nowhere—she has many discoveries to occupy her time. But in philosophy the main questions—the questions that bring us to the subject—remain maddeningly recalcitrant: the mind-body problem, skepticism, the nature of moral truth, free will, the meaning of life, space and time. Not that noprogress is made; rather, the core problems are so difficult that meaningful progress can hardly be expected. Once this fact is acknowledged (assuming it to be a fact) cognitive dissonance is the natural response: if it’s so difficult, why even attempt it? To that question we need a dissonance-reducing answer. Other disciplines are not so afflicted: they are not defined by problems of this magnitude of difficulty. So their practitioners are not subject to the same mental torment as philosophers; they have no dissonance to reduce (maybe psychologists have an inkling of what we go through in some of their more baffled moments).

Imagine a subject of study S that expressly advertises itself as dealing only with the most difficult problems known to man. Some people find themselves going into S. These peculiar people don’t just explain what the problems are and then sit back and marvel at them—they try to solve them. Isn’t S a ripe subject for cognitive dissonance? No one has solved a problem in S for hundreds of years and there is widespread pessimism about solving any of them; yet people persist in trying to solve them and promoting their subject as a worthwhile investment of time and resources. There is thus a lack of harmony here between beliefs about S and life commitment to S—and there is much frustration, self-doubt, neurosis, self-deception, etc. It wouldn’t be surprising if people occasionally sprung up proclaiming that they have discovered a new method for solving their problems (say, studying Sanskrit) or insisting that the problems of S are really pseudo problems—and they would no doubt find their relieved followers. It’s tough devoting your life to problems you don’t think you stand a chance of solving. That way lies acute cognitive dissonance, with its strategies of avoidance. Better not to go into S at all, despite its intrinsic interest; people only go into it because they believe (unrealistically) that they alone can solve the problems of S (ego trumps realism). Doesn’t S sound a lot like philosophy, psychologically speaking? It needn’t bephilosophy, but it would feel like it—it would reproduce philosophy’s characteristic psychological contours. The difficulty of S combined with devoting one’s life to it sets up psychic tensions that lead naturally to certain kinds of reaction—mostly involving bad faith. This is the psychological landscape occupied by the philosophical mind. In particular, we philosophers are always trying to find ways to make philosophy easier than we know it to be.

I have spoken of the individual psychology of the philosopher, which may be taken to be more or less universal given the nature of the subject, but there are also some more local sociological pressures conducive to cognitive dissonance. I mean those pressures (mentioned earlier) stemming from the institutional structure of a typical university and of the profession of philosophy, as it exists today. It is necessary to publish and compete and establish oneself as defending a certain position. You have to show that you are good at philosophy, in the sense of being capable of producing it; and this leads to excessive optimism about what can be achieved in the subject. In particular, you have to show yourself superior to others in solving philosophical problems. Thus you will develop a tendency to overestimate the quality of what you do while underestimating the quality of what other people do. Your views and theories are clearly correct while theirs are clearly incorrect. In teaching the subject you will be tempted to make it seem easier to make progress than it is, so that certain views will be favored as the demonstrably true ones, as opposed to those radically misguided alternatives. This will lead to a culture of exaggeration and overconfidence—a lack of humility in the face of difficulty. How can you stand out professionally if you meekly suggest that it is all very difficult? The cognitive dissonance created by the confrontation between the intrinsic difficulty of philosophy and the institutional structures within which it is practiced will lead to extreme ways of trying to reduce the dissonance—such as declaring your own position definitively correct and everyone else’s hopelessly confused.  [3] Thus it is that factions are formed and feuds triggered. Professionally, you have to have a thesis—a position, a doctrine. But this conflicts with the recognition that it is incredibly hard to come up with anything convincing in philosophy—there are always opponents and objections. So we have cognitive dissonance built into the structures of the institution of professional philosophy, and with it those dubious and dishonest strategies of avoidance—particularly, overestimating one’s own position and underestimating the difficulty of the problem. And isn’t this exactly what we in fact find in professional philosophy—the blowhard and the minimizer, to put it crudely? Also the cult of personality, the formation of “schools”, the withering contempt for those who refuse to see the light, the ever-changing fads and fashions, the dogmatism, the willful blindness, the haggard looks, the neurosis, the swaggering and posing—all attempts to deal with the cognitive dissonance created by philosophical difficulty as it interacts with professional existence. Just consider the familiar figure of the philosopher who thinks (or purports to think) that he has it all figured out: emotivism in ethics, materialism in metaphysics, nominalism in logic, naïve realism in epistemology—everything is bathed in sunlight with not a mystery in sight. This philosopher can see, and will brook, no objection to any of these firmly held views; all alternatives he rejects as absurd and dishonest. Philosophy contains no difficulty for this jolly optimist. Mustn’t we wonder at such a person’s brash confidence? Can he really believe it is all so simple and straightforward? Isn’t his breezy conviction the result of an underlying cognitive dissonance? He knows that things are not really so easy and yet this causes him such acute mental discomfort that he has decided to act as if he has it all figured out.  [4] This is intelligible enough from a psychological point of view, but it amounts to nothing more than a strategy for avoiding cognitive dissonance. At the other extreme someone might feel the difficulty with particular force and decide to give up the study of philosophy altogether. That would also resolve the dissonance and might impress us by its intellectual integrity. But most of us are stuck between these two extremes, suffering the symptoms of cognitive dissonance: it is only partially resolved in us, if at all. We have our cherished theories, so desperately cobbled together, but deep down we realize that they may be wide of the mark or just grotesque errors. To take an example more or less at random: there was a time when people convinced themselves that Davidson’s use of Tarski’s theory of truth supplied all that could be asked of a philosophical theory of meaning; and this position was held with almost religious fervor. It is hard not to see this in hindsight as a kind of bad faith prompted by the felt difficulty of the problem of meaning combined with the need to say something positive about it. The problem isn’t so hard after all–all we need to do is throw some fancy formal logic at it and it will disappear in a flood of biconditionals! Either that or we have to admit that we are trying to solve a problem we haven’t the faintest idea how to solve (or even formulate).

There is a psychology to philosophy, generated by the peculiar character of the subject, and Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance seems like a good theory of what that psychology is.  [5] It explains many of the phenomena we observe and fits the way philosophy feels from the inside. It is an empirical psychological theory like any other and should be judged accordingly. It won’t solve any of our philosophical problems, but it might alert us to psychic forces in us that distort our thinking and practice.


  [1] It is often noted that you can’t intend to do what you believe it is impossible for you to do, so no one could intend to solve a philosophical problem he believed could not be solved. But that leaves room for intending to do what you think it is quite improbable for you to do. However, that attitude is inherently unstable and disagreeable, especially as the failures and sense of futility mount. At what point do you give up? (Desire, of course, is perfectly possible in the presence of a belief that the desired state of affairs is impossible.)

  [2] Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford University Press, 1957).

  [3] I have noticed over the years that people always seem to believe what they learned in graduate school, causally dismissing what has happened since. Pure cognitive dissonance.

  [4] It is not always a “he”, but statistically speaking…

  [5] What would a Freudian explanation of the philosopher’s psychology look like? Perhaps this: The difficulty of philosophy is experienced as a form of castration anxiety (of the intellect not the body), which is naturally repressed, and which manifests itself either as a denial of the castrating power of philosophy or as an assertion of the phallic prowess of the philosopher. Thus the philosopher rejects philosophical problems as meaningless or phony (and hence incapable of castrating him) or he elevates himself to superhuman levels of problem solving (phallic invincibility). The anxiety is thus allayed (how this fits the case of women philosophers is left for future research.) Maybe there was a time at which such an explanation would be taken seriously (in fact I invented it in the shower), but I prefer the Festingerian explanation to the Freudian one, having more to do with logic than libido. 

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