Brian Leiter and When Reason Goes on Holiday

In a recent post on his blog, Brian Leiter opens a discussion about my article “Study Philosophy to Improve Thinking–A Case of False Advertising?” published two days ago in Quillette.

Although Leiter says that the discussion will be moderated and that “only comments related to the issues raised by the essay are invited”, he did not stick to his own rule in his opening contribution in which he calls me “a right-wing crank” and “an anti-Marxist zealot”, and accuses me of “a fraudulent misrepresentation” of one of his posts. Since he doesn’t even mention the title of my book in which this transgression allegedly happened, his readers probably had no idea what he was talking about. Well, here you can read the offending two and half pages and form your own opinion.



2 thoughts on “Brian Leiter and When Reason Goes on Holiday

  1. Hi Neven,

    allow me to drop a few lines on Brian Leiter’s reply to your article:

    Let’s consider the passage picked out by Leiter – you write:

    “In reality, however, there is no justification for such claims. Getting higher test scores after studying philosophy does not show that higher scores are the result of studying philosophy. For all we know, it may be that philosophy students are brighter than average to begin with, and that this is why they perform so well on the tests. If that were true, their high scores would have nothing to do with their studying philosophy courses. Therefore, as long as this alternative hypothesis is not ruled out, no inference about practical benefits of philosophy is logically permissible. …

    Notice the irony. In their very attempt to promote philosophy as a great way to improve one’s critical thinking and logic, philosophers have so massively fallen prey to one of the most common and easily detectable logical fallacies–post hoc, ergo propter hoc (that is, A is followed by B, therefore, A caused B). This should give us pause about rushing to accept the idea that philosophy improves thinking.

    But wait, doesn’t philosophy focus very heavily on logic, analysis of arguments, fostering a critical approach, etc.? Shouldn’t this fact alone make us expect that exposure to philosophy would almost certainly lead to some improvement in thinking and reasoning skills? Not necessarily.”

    Now Leiter writes:

    “In other words, there is no evidence adduced that philosophy does not have the benefits claimed; the only claim is that alternative explanations for the data have not been ruled out.”

    In other words? In other words?? You talk about “logical fallacies” and “inference … logically possible”. Leiter however talks about “evidence” and “explanations”.

    So, Leiter provides a crude misrepresentation of your line of thought. Your point is semantical: X does not entail Y. Leiters interpretation is epistemical: Y is not the only possible explanation for X, so X is not evidence for Y.

    Although Leiter misrepresents your line of thought, his flaw might raise a question: In order to criticise the philosophy departments, you have to interpret their wordings. Why do you focus on a semantical interpretation? Why do you give the impression that a semantical interpretation (=> entailment) is the only possible one?

    Given the remarks by Leiter, another possible interpretation emerges: argument to the best explanation – along the following lines: philosophy graduates are highly clever, smart and successful, this is best explained by the fact that they have studied philosophy – so, why do you hesitate to study philosophy?

    This line of reasoning is not considered by you, and I think this is a gap in your article. But wait, if we review the discussion of Leiter’s reply at

    we see that even with respect to an argument to the best explanation, you occupy a very strong position. In short, the fact that some [!] philosophy graduates are brilliant and successful is explained poorly by the fact that these people have studied philosophy.

    Let me hint at another interpretation gap:

    In your article, you cite several philosophical departments. If we review these self-advertisements, we observe the occurrence of two words: “helps” and “improves”. These words, I’m inclined to think, suggest a charitable interpretation: studying philosophy supports one’s thinking skills.

    I wish you had discussed this interpretation. For, on the one hand, it is highly plausible to assume that studying philosophy supports one’s thinking skills. But on the other hand, it is not very promotional to tell potential customers that this is the case. In fact, a lot of things do support our thinking skills: good sleep, healthy nourishment, moderate sports, reading, discussing, playing Sudoku and so on. Why should I choose philosophy of all things?

    So, while my interpretation is charitable, it is not conducive for the philosophy departments.

    I guess the source of all this muddle is that studying philosophy is just one factor among several other factors that influence our thinking skills. This factor alone cannot ensure that our thinking improves. It supports our thinking, but if other factors (political correctness, feminism, left-wing radicalism …) outweigh this positive influence, our thinking skills will diminish.

    Anyway, I hope my remarks are not too simple-minded for an author like you 😉

    And, by the way, I’m left-wing too, but that does not prevent me from reading and lerning and smiling 🙂

    Greetz, Ben.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s