11 May, 2019 • • 40.1AcademiaPhilosophy

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On a Recent Abduction

Daniel Kodsi

Timothy Williamson 
Doing Philosophy: From Common Curiosity to Logical Reasoning
Oxford University Press

What is philosophy? Tellingly, this is a question that Timothy Williamson, in his recent book Doing Philosophy, does not directly attempt to answer. He states, in the introduction and conclusion, a rough necessary condition on philosophy: that it “arises from a natural drive in articulate human curiosity to go to one sort of extreme in its questions”. But not much more is offered, at the level of definition, about the nature of the discipline. Rather, Williamson introduces a distinctive theory of philosophy, which captures many, but not all, of the core features that common sense ascribes to philosophy. And he motivates this theory by showing how much it explains about philosophical methodology. These two tasks are not distinct: in a sense, Williamson theorises philosophy as that activity which appropriately uses the methods that he elucidates. In operating in this fashion, Doing Philosophy exemplifies precisely the kind of philosophy that it simultaneously describes.

That it carries off this double act with great success will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the rest of Williamson’s work. For roughly three decades now, Williamson has been a brilliant and highly distinctive presence on the philosophical scene—indeed, a somewhat iconoclastic one. This marks something of an irony, since his iconoclasm has often been exercised in defence of fairly orthodox positions. For instance, in defending the view that every proposition is either true or false, Williamson argues that there is a precise number of hairs such that a man with that many hairs or fewer is bald. In vindicating the importance of knowledge to epistemology (the study of knowledge), he argues that what mental state a person is in can depend on factors that are external to her body. And, in agreeing that Wittgenstein might have had many children, Williamson argues that there actually are many things such that they might have been children of Wittgenstein. Each of these views, it should be said, is taken dead seriously by professional philosophers, despite its intuitive implausibility: the usual refrain about Williamson is that, even if you disagree with his conclusions, you have to admire his arguments.

Williamson’s riposte, of course, is that you shouldn’t disagree—but that, if you really have to, you should at least assess his views by the right criteria. The test for Williamson, in the first instance, is not ‘Can this theory be deduced a priori from first principles?’ but rather ‘How much does this theory explain?’. If this sounds an awful lot like a question that could just as well be asked in physics, or economics, or really any other discipline, that is very much the point. “As a systematic, methodical form of inquiry, philosophy is a science, but not a natural science”, Williamson writes in Doing Philosophy. More generally, the book is his attempt to communicate this scientific—but decidedly not ‘scientistic’—view of philosophy to a primarily lay audience. In part, given the public’s rather dim view of philosophy, this means showing that much scepticism about the philosophical enterprise arises out of misconceptions about both philosophy itself and the methods employed in the other sciences. But Williamson does not limit himself only to this negative project: he sketches a very clear positive vision of philosophy, as well.


The byword of Doing Philosophy is abduction—not in the sense that Patricia Campbell Hearst was abducted, unfortunately, but as contrasted with two other possible methods of inference, deduction and induction. Deduction, as we all know, is when Sherlock Holmes concludes, on the basis that only Moriarty could have done it, that Moriarty did it, and induction is when Watson infers, from the fact that Holmes has solved his last hundred cases, that Holmes will solve his next case. But what’s abduction? It is, Williamson says, the technical term for inference to the best explanation. One gains knowledge through deduction by discovering what is entailed by known premises. With abduction, roughly, one proceeds in the opposite direction: in the paradigm case, one acquires knowledge by working backwards from known consequences to premises that entail them. More generally, abduction supports whichever theory, if true, best explains the evidence. The relevant criteria for theory choice, Williamson tells us, are “simplicity, informativeness, generality, unifying power, and fit with evidence”. Why prefer a theory that says that every emerald is green, to one that says that every emerald is green up until time t and blue afterwards? Because the former does better according to these criteria: it is simpler, so offers a better explanation of why every emerald we’ve observed so far has been green.

Crucially, the use of abduction unites disparate areas of systematic enquiry. It is obviously highly prevalent in the natural and social sciences: for example, it is the method by which physicists derive basic laws of motion from the empirical evidence. Equally, if less obviously, it is a feature of mathematical enquiry. Mathematics should seem to be paradigmatically deductive—concerned with deducing consequences from first axioms—and, indeed, much of it is. But mathematicians are also concerned with the further question of which axioms they should use, and here, as Williamson compellingly argues, mathematicians must rely on inference to the best explanation. For instance, we accept the axiom that an infinite set exists “because we need it to unify mathematics by deriving many already accepted mathematical theories from one new and more fundamental logico-mathematical theory”. Similarly, Williamson claims, for basic logical principles:

Classical logic is a good theory of the most abstract and general features of the real world. It has no transcendental justification, no proof that ultimately no challenge to it makes sense. It needs no such justification. Rather, classical logic is justified like other scientific theories, by … abductive comparison with its rivals.

Of course, as the case of mathematics brings out, an abductive methodology does not imply that deduction should cease to be significant to philosophy; much the contrary, the role of deduction in philosophy is one thing that the abductive conception explains. While we might initially rely on abduction in formulating a particular theory, an essential way of testing it—not to mention learning from it—will consist in working out by deduction what predictions it makes. Some of these we might find attractive, others might tell against it, and abductive criteria will again be salient in determining whether we should scrap the theory in favour of another one, or stick with it. For instance, since good theories are typically more elegant than their rivals, one prediction of Williamson’s theory of philosophy is that elegance—an aesthetic criterion—is relevant to assessing philosophical hypotheses. While I find this plausible, another philosopher might regard it as an unwelcome consequence of the theory. Regardless, as Williamson is keen to emphasise, a philosophical theory should not necessarily be rejected in light of a single apparent counterexample: crude falsificationism is as inappropriate to philosophy as it is to natural science.

In logic and some parts of metaphysics, it makes sense that the abductive methodology would be expected to yield universal generalisations. Not so in every branch of philosophy. Epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language, for example, are concerned with very messy systems: human beings, and our forms of life. What we should aim for in such areas, Williamson argues, are models: hypothetical systems that, despite encoding certain false assumptions about the phenomena they describe, are capable of shedding light on other aspects of them. While a central attraction of model-building is that it renders otherwise insoluble problems more tractable, it should be emphasised that nothing about the use of models, in either the natural sciences or philosophy, supports pragmatism or instrumentalism about truth. Just as a literally false sentence can be partly true, a model that makes false predictions overall can still make true ones about some determinate subject matter. To take one of Williamson’s examples, a model of population cycles which prescinds away from certain details of the environment might make false predictions about change in population size, but true ones about change in population size due to the factor that the model is intended to isolate. Or again, a model of planetary motion according to which planets trace elliptical orbits might be accurate about planetary motion due to gravitational forces, despite making false predictions about planetary motion sans phrase.

One of Williamson’s strongest points, I think, in response to scepticism about philosophical progress, as against progress in the natural sciences, is that it involves “a false image of each side”: neither philosophy nor the natural sciences can, for the most part, reasonably aspire to exceptionless hypotheses, and it is a shame that many seem to remain under the impression that philosophy should be in the business of stating universal laws. For while philosophy might not have managed to produce any reductive definitions of interesting concepts, it has had, especially over the last several decades, great success in model-building. Admittedly, these models are often technical: in the philosophy of language, for instance, the familiar notion of a question gets analysed as a partition on logical space—that is, as a set of propositions, which are themselves sets of possible worlds, which are in turn fully determinate ways that things could have been. But models in philosophy have nevertheless illuminated a very wide range of philosophical phenomena—from knowledge and meaning to causation and modality—as well as informed neighbouring disciplines, such as linguistics, computer science, and cognitive science.

There are dangers to model-building, of course: in particular, just as it requires good judgement and experience to identify the right metaphor, there is no easy formula that one can apply to determine which assumptions falsify inessential aspects of the system, and which falsify essential ones. Like metaphors, models essentially represent by misrepresenting; an uncritical reliance on modelling carries the risk that certain misrepresentations will wrongly be justified as necessary idealisations of the phenomena, and not be recognised as gross distortions of them. (That is to say, philosophers would perhaps do well not to copy too closely the practice of their colleagues in economics departments.) Similarly, as Williamson notes, “the potential of the model-building methodology for philosophy is only beginning to be explored”; it is not, I suppose, impossible that it should terminate in a cul-de-sac. But in not coming equipped with an a priori guarantee of success, the model-building methodology finds itself, as Williamson also reminds us, in the good company of virtually everything else.


“Many philosophers will hate my picture of how to do philosophy”, Williamson writes early on in Doing Philosophy. It is not a particularly good sign if a book starts off this way: the reader is well-advised to immediately fasten her seatbelt, in case of an author all too pleased with his quote-unquote provocativeness. Fortunately, such worries turn out, in this case, to be misplaced. Indeed, a central feature of Doing Philosophy is a certain level-headedness—a salutary insistence on uncontroversial truths that nevertheless tend to find a way of being forgotten in the seminar room. (I am reminded of a remark by Bernard Williams, that his “work consisted largely of reminding moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers”.) Williamson certainly does not avoid the occasional dig at his opponents: an unnamed Nietzschean philosopher comes in for very rough treatment; theorists holding a particular view of meaning are accused of a “repressive tolerance”; and ambiguous or vague writing is implied to be the refuge of intellectual cowards. But the tone of the book is, for the most part, much calmer than this: the role of common sense in philosophy is clarified; the idea that philosophy could or should be exclusively about terms or concepts is dispelled; and bad arguments against the use of thought experiments in philosophy are refuted.

Above all, Williamson repeatedly drives home variations on the same two themes, that thinking in philosophy is not fundamentally different from thinking in other sciences, and that, if philosophy does not rely on exactly the same methods as other sciences, this is only because each science uses the methods most appropriate to its subject matter. This is obviously a scientific view of philosophy, however, and since a roving band of philosophers tends to patrol the philosophical landscape, waiting to pounce on any halfway eligible candidate with the charge of ‘scientism’, it is not difficult to see why Williamson should have been confident of a frosty reception in some corners. Moreover, it is hard to deny that Williamson’s conception of philosophy is, in a certain sense, “unlovely”, to use an apt word that cropped up in Graham Priest’s largely positive review of Doing Philosophy. This is a point that Williamson implicitly acknowledges elsewhere, in response to a review of an earlier book on similar themes:

[Adrian] Moore presents himself as representing an alternative way of doing philosophy to the one urged in The Philosophy of Philosophy: more humanistic, concerned to preserve unsystematic insights, respectful of the complexities of actual life and language, sensitive to deep differences in conversational and historical context and so responsive to areas of discourse whose underlying purposes need anti-realist treatment, in short warmer, by contrast with the cold scientism, the ahistorical, harshly systematic, uniformly realist theory-building that I represent.

Williamson defuses the objection by pointing out that the warmer, “humanistic” picture of philosophy, at least in the guise that Moore presents it, rests on an illusion—“that its unsystematic, unscientific air depends not on avoiding theoretical commitments but on avoiding making good on them”. Yet this is still an exercise in damage control: it tells us why we shouldn’t do philosophy unsystematically, but not why we should do philosophy systematically—as against not doing it at all. There are, of course, many answers to this question, and it presents a problem that each person interested in philosophy will, in the end, have to solve in her own way. As indicated at the start, Williamson himself finds that he is naturally drawn to the kinds of questions philosophy asks—to the task, in Wilfrid Sellars’ famous phrase, of understanding how things, in the broadest sense, hang together, in the broadest sense. And really, I suspect that, for many philosophers, the intellectual thrill of theorising at such a high level of abstraction is exhilarating enough for descent to the biomedical laboratory or early modern archive to come to seem hopelessly, well, boring.

But the threat Williamson’s conception of philosophy poses is that, by demystifying what is involved in such abstract theorising, it also diminishes its allure. One aspect of his project that I think he could bring out more clearly, then, is the attractiveness of participating in the scientific enterprise itself. Compare, in this connection, another notorious remark of Bernard Williams’ (albeit one which never made it to print), that there is not much point to doing philosophy unless you are very good at it. That Williams was of this opinion, even as he championed the warmer view of philosophy as a “humanistic discipline”, marks a telling irony. As Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes about her own understanding of philosophy, rather more honestly than Williams did about his, “[t]he view of the philosopher as an artist or a critic who attempts to elevate her own contingent ways of seeing to the level of the universal—this is not a democratic vision of philosophy”. To put the point another way, if the philosophical enterprise involves a highly distinctive way of making sense of ourselves and the world we occupy—one that is deeply unlike the kind of understanding that we acquire in the sciences—the conclusion quite soon suggests itself that philosophy is also best pursued by highly distinctive thinkers.

There is nothing, to be clear, inherently wrong with the anti-egalitarianism that anti-scientific accounts of philosophy lend themselves to; certainly, it would be a mistake to reject them only on the basis of an inchoate quasi-Kantian appeal to the unfairness of some people being excluded from the institution of philosophy. But since we also have philosophical grounds for rejection, it is past time that those of us sympathetic to a more scientific conception of philosophy stopped ceding to such theories (or anti-theories, as it were) the rhetorical high ground. For one thing, why shouldn’t the vision of philosophy as a science itself merit the label “humanistic”? Given that science is not distinct from culture, but rather a very significant part of it (as Williams himself once noted), this vision can perhaps be more readily understood as humanistic than some of its rivals. It is more easily assimilated, at least, to the vast human enterprise of making sense of the world that we occupy, and of our place in that world. For another, anti-exceptionalism about philosophy suggests that philosophers might be able to begin letting go of the various resentments and insecurities that materialise when you are not sure that your project is coherent, let alone worthwhile. There might not be any a priori proof whose conclusion is that, in pursuing philosophy, you will be spending your time more fruitfully than if you took up some different project, or that you are guaranteed to make some contribution to human understanding that will reverberate through the ages. But again, there are no such proofs to be found.

As I have already suggested, Williamson’s theory of philosophy might itself be regarded as a sort of model of the discipline. The gauntlet it lays down to those critical of it is to state precisely which aspects of philosophy it falsifies, and explain why these falsifications are significant enough to ground rejection of the model. For instance, it is sometimes claimed that Williamson misrepresents the relation philosophy bears to history, or to literature. It is not obvious to me, however, in what sense this is meant. Facts about the development and nature of our culture are, when known, just as much part of our body of evidence as any other: since a theory which is inconsistent with them is false, the abductive methodology hardly implies that a good philosophical theory about social phenomena can ignore the results of the social sciences, or of the other humanities. No doubt, as always, a better model of philosophy willeventually come along, repairing some of the creaks or strains in Williamson’s—but the conceptual possibility of a better theory, to quote again from Williamson’s reply to Moore, “does not justify giving up the attempt to achieve what systematic understanding we can … at the first sign of difficulty”.


Finally, I would like to comment on Williamson’s advocacy of “adversarial philosophy”. It is somewhat awkward, I find, for academics to depict themselves as engaging in some species of “gladiatorial combat”, as Williamson puts it in Doing Philosophy; sparring with one’s middle-aged colleagues in print is, as it happens, rather unlike actual sparring. (Agnes Callard, another philosopher, has recently taken the metaphor to a considerably more embarrassing extreme than Williamson himself does.) More to the point, however, no one thinks that philosophy should not be highly disputational: rather, the disagreement is about whether disputation should primarily be saved for the journals, or whether speakers should make sure to have a second ready, just in case of KO at the lectern. As it strikes me, the important question here is not whether there can be benefits to sharp-edged questioning in Q&A sessions. It is instead about what dispositions we should aim to encourage or attract in professional philosophy, as well as about who might be turned away by a highly adversarial culture. In order for there to be adversarial questioning, after all, there must be adversarial questioners. And I find myself unconvinced that the possibility of graduate students being made to see through charlatans—the central advantage that Williamson cites for the gladiatorial combat model—outweighs the risk that those who would be attracted to adversarial philosophy would themselves tend towards “aggressive bluster or suave sophistry”.

Moreover, as Williamson surely knows, philosophical ability does not correlate perfectly with dialectical acuity. Often, the best philosophers are excellent dialecticians. But it is not true that the best dialecticians are always excellent philosophers. Sometimes they are simply the quickest, or the smoothest, or the most adept at marshalling contempt against their opponents. Academic philosophy as a milieu is vulnerable to the same social pressures as any other; these include the temptation to embrace a position—to stake one’s flag in a certain camp—out of affinity for the personal style of the philosopher who expresses it, rather than its substance. In fact, graduate students are particularly at risk of infection, since the credence one assigns to a particular view depends significantly on how compellingly the view is first presented to one. Of course, if graduate students in philosophy are resistant to being bluffed into a position, this risk dissipates—but in that case, so does the need for them to witness the public humiliation of their less clear-headed professors. Williamson mentions that he has “occasionally experienced philosophical cultures in which hard questioning was frowned upon”, adding that these cultures have been highly authoritarian; one wonders, though, whether the moratorium on duels to the death in such cultures was a cause of their oppressiveness, or an epiphenomenon.

Again, however, Williamson is no doubt aware of these points. Indeed, in reading the relevant section of Doing Philosophy, one does not really get the sense that he is advocating a determinate course of action, so much as announcing himself as standing against something (although it is not immediately clear what that something is). The reason I have focussed on the very brief section of the book on disputation is not actually that I disagree, but that, from a political perspective—in the broadest sense of ‘political’—it seems to me that this nebulous announcement is an instructive misstep. The intended audience of Doing Philosophyis not primarily other professional philosophers, who can be expected to follow the argument, even if they dislike the way that, at certain points, it is couched. Its audience, rather, is the general public and incipient philosophers, and hence an important question is whether the book presents its case not just convincingly, but compellingly—that is, whether it makes philosophy out as an attractive thing to do.

And speaking for myself, I find that the ode to disputation sends the wrong signal—it conveys an unwelcome combativeness, or worse, defensiveness. More importantly, this implication is misleading: Doing Philosophy is not just an exceptionally clear book, but a very clear-headed one, and at the few points that Williamson expresses annoyance, he does so about views that really are annoying. To the extent, then, that Williamson presents his view as faintly iconoclastic—as chaffing against an undefined enemy consensus—he subtly misrepresents its central virtues: both the ecumenicalism that the vision of philosophy as science represents, and the fact that, more than any other view in the area, it conduces to an unproblematic confidence in the practice of philosophy. Again, not to a specialkind of confidence, or to a confidence that admits of no coherent objection, but to a confidence nonetheless. In any case, these remarks are both marginal to the philosophical substance of Doing Philosophy, as well as internal to its project. Doing Philosophy is a characteristically excellent book, equal parts accessible and convincing. It would make stellar summer reading for students embarking on undergraduate courses in philosophy. If only someone could get Slavoj Žižek, or any remaining Wittgensteinians, to read it as well.

Daniel Kodsi is reading for a BPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College.