Non-cognitvism as philosophical method?


*By non-cognitivism I just mean a view on which emotions play a role in reasoning.

This post continues from the last one, which was on cognitivism and moral reasoning. I’m going to make some personal statements and some controversial statements, which are meant to be friendly and constructive suggestions, and I hope they’re taken in the right spirit.


It might be instructive to reflect on where the philosophical ideal of un-emotional (purely cognitive) reasoning comes from. In philosophy, we write dispassionately. We don’t include emotional arguments, or even personal anecdotes for the most part. The problem with personal stories is not just that they’re anecdotal, but that they’re emotionally evocative: they persuade without giving ‘reasons.’ They elicit our unreflective sympathy and agreement. If someone writes about her harrowing experience as a rape victim to frame an argument about the epistemic value of intuitions, like Karyn L. Friedman did (2006), we might worry that the anecdote does a lot of the argumentative lifting. But why shouldn’t it? We assume the validity of cognitivism when we assume that emotionally-resonant narratives can’t confer epistemic warrant – the very position Freedman is disputing! Maybe the cognitivist assumption is right, but for the most part, as a community, we assume it without argument, and this is a very dogmatic position. If we’re all going to agree that this is the right way to do philosophy, we’d better have a long discussion about it. And I’m not aware that a lot of discussions about the authority of cognitivism are taking place. If anything, they’re buried in the history of philosophical discourse.

I find personal narratives to be some of the most compelling arguments in philosophical writing, although I don’t come across them very often, and when I do, they’re usually in ‘newer’ branches of philosophy: transgendeer theory, mad studies (basically, philosophy of psychiatry from the service user’s perspective), critical disabilities studies, and sometimes feminist philosophy. Anecdotes arise more often in these fields because the fields themselves represent the perspectives of underrepresented groups who have relevant experiences – experiences that challenge the assumptions of the majority and make the field more objective. (see Sandra Harding 2015 for an account of objectivity as diversity – I can’t recommend it enough).

I write about my own experiences all the time, even in this blog. But I write about them under the guise of philosophical abstraction and objectivity. I don’t say, ‘this is my experience, which I’m refracting through the lens of philosophical convention to make it sound more professional.’ But that’s what I do. To be honest, I’m constantly writing about myself but presenting it as an argument about some philosophical construct, from a disembodied perspective – ‘the view from nowhere – as if it had nothing to do with my personal experiences. That’s what Freedman could have done – she could have written about epistemic warrant without talking about being raped. But she broke with convention, and maybe that’s what more of us should do. Maybe it’s better and more intellectually honest to ‘lay your cards on the table’ rather than pretend there aren’t any cards.

I think that responsibility theory is a very fruitful space for marginalized groups to write about their experiences, because if you think about it, responsibility is about those groups: it’s about people who had abusive and neglectful childhoods, people with psychological disorders, people who have have been oppressed by sexism and racism and homophobia and transphobia. These are the people that we’re writing about when we write about ‘unfortunate formative circumstances’ and ‘psychologically abnormal individuals’ and addictions and personal identity and psychological congruence and coercion and duress, etc., etc., etc. And sometimes when we write about those groups we’re really writing about ourselves, only we’re not saying so.

What better opportunity for marginalized groups to make a dent in trenchant philosophical issues?

But sometimes I worry that by presenting philosophical problems as abstractions, as problems about what to do with people and how to handle people, and about what specific cognitive states are implicated in ideal responsible agency, etc., we alienate the people who are in the best position to contribute to the discourse – the people who are in a position to give us the objectivity-as-diversity that we so desperately need in this field. We risk alienating people, I think, when we represent philosophical problems as abstract problems rather than questions that deeply affect us on a personal level and connect with our lives.

I want to clarify in closing that I’m not saying that philosophy is rubbish as it’s currently done, or anything even close to that. I just want to suggest that there might be other ways of doing philosophy that might seem less ‘philosophical’ only because of a cognitivist bias.


2 thoughts on “Non-cognitvism as philosophical method?

  1. Very interesting post. Can you give an example of the kind of philosophical paper you are envisioning? Would it illustrate a point by using personal anecdotes in lieu of generic vignettes/examples/intuition pumps/thought experiments? Or would personal anecdote be added to the philosophical arsenal along with the traditional ways of defending philosophical theses? Or would this style of philosophy be a creative nonfiction article about the author with a philosophical thesis embedded within it? Perhaps I don’t read enough ‘newer’ branches of philosophy to be in a position to be sure I understand what you are recommending.


  2. Thanks for this. The ‘Transgender Studies Reader’ (eds. Stryker & Whittle) is full of examples. Michael Gilbert’s ‘The End of Gender.’ bell hooks’ ‘All About Love: New Visions,’ where hooks writes about her own un-loving family of origin and her abusive relationships with men. Haslanger starts a paper on gender discrimination in philosophy (2008) with, ‘There is a deep well of rage inside me,’ followed by a paragraph of anecdotes. I think this is a very honest and courageous and unconventional way to start a philosophy paper. Erik Fabris’ ‘Tranquil Prisons: Chemical Incarceration under Community Treatment Orders’ (2011). These are just some examples that come to mind as I’m having my morning coffee. None of these are part of ‘mainstream’ philosophy, but they’re all very good and honest pieces.


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