One of my new research interests is the philosophy of skills, or knowledge-how (see blogposts on The Philosophers' Cocoon, e.g., here). As so often is the case, the philosophical debate on knowledge-how is dominated by two well-outlined, opposing positions, in this case intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. According to intellectualists, knowledge-how is in some way reducible to knowledge-that. By contrast, anti-intellectualists propose that knowledge-how is not reducible in this way. Papers on skill often examine the plausibility of these positions, or extend the existing framework.
Another example is testimony. When philosophers such as Coady rediscovered testimony as a source of knowledge, quickly the debate centered on reductionism, the position that testimonial justification is in some way reducible to other sources of knowledge, such as memory and perception, and anti-reductionism, the view that testimony is a basic source of knowledge.
This sort of oppositional framework is applied to long-dead philosophers in an almost anachronistic way. Reid is commonly taken to be an anti-reductionist, Hume a reductionist. There is a lot more to be said about Reidian philosophy of testimony, particularly about its developmental account, but this received comparably little attention than the aspects of his philosophy that can be read as anti-reductionism. In this way, historical positions get framed in a way they were not originally framed.
The early framing in terms of two opposing positions stifles exploration of other aspects of a philosophical problem. There are many interesting things one could say about skills, and to me the question of whether or not skills can be reduced to knowledge-that is not particularly interesting*. However, when I will write up my research on this in the form of articles, I will need to at least make some reference to this debate, or justify why I won't address this important topic. As a result of this, philosophers close off a large space of possible views.
I here want to briefly discuss reasons for why philosophers get stuck in the rut of opposing frameworks, and what we could do to counter this tendency.
A first reason for the opposing frameworks is the important role of prestige in philosophy. My sister who is in physics once told me that never has she encountered an academic discipline (except perhaps law) that is as prestige-obsessed as philosophy. Philosophers cite sparingly, and tend to cite just a few well-known articles. Newcomers are expected to frame their discussions in terms set out by influential articles that appeared early in the debates. As Healy writes, the majority of papers even in what are considered the top general philosophy journals are hardly or not at all cited. A tiny fraction of papers are agenda-setters that “become centers of gravity that define what a field is about... Success means you structure the substance of the field. It’s like an Olympic event where the path taken by the winners also sets the shape of the track for future competitors.” Further on, he writes "Most of the time, publishing in a high-status journal is in effect a permit to talk about other people’s work. Your contribution must be framed by the central items in your field. And while it’s hard to clear that bar, a much, much smaller number of articles move from being items in the literature to being topics of the literature. "
One way to counter this is to have more inclusive citation-practices, which may mitigate the Matthew effect of just a few articles setting the stage, and also to read more broadly. As Marcus Arvan argues, if you "one only reads top-ranked journals and you only cite papers you think are “agenda-setting”", it is little wonder that you will only pick up on a small part of the philosophical literature, overwhelmingly written by white, male authors in prestigious institutions.
A second reason for the philosophers' rut is cognitive, namely the need for cognitive closure. The need for cognitive closure is defined by Maja Djikic et al as "the need to reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion. It encourages ‘‘seizing’’ on an early statement or proposition in the process of acquiring knowledge, followed by rigidly ‘‘freezing’’ on the seized item, and remaining impervious to additional information" This seems an apt description of what happens in a lot of analytic philosophy, focused as it is on solving little problems (or, as we call it in our household, sudoku philosophy) rather than outlining radically new positions.
The authors continue "Paradoxically, the smaller the number of alternative hypotheses, the greater is the thinker’s confidence in their validity" As Schellenberg points out, for instance in the philosophy of religion, some philosophers think they have successfully defended naturalism once they have ruled out Christian theism, or think they defend Christian theism by criticizing scientific naturalism, as if these two are the only games in town. But what with all the other religious positions, such as Mormonism, Hinduism, Islam, Wicca? Several things heighten the need for cognitive closure, among others, the requirement to come to a decision or obtain a concrete result. Given the format of the typical analytic philosophy papers, authors indeed need to come to a conclusion (rarely do we see, although it happens, that authors remain undecided at the end). So the format of the analytic philosophy article encourages close-mindedness.
One way to circumvent the need for cognitive closure is to use other formats to engage in philosophy (as Schwitzgebel has urged). For instance, Djikic et al found that reading fiction reduces the need for cognitive closure. They speculate that this is because fictional stories allow you to go along with people and positions you dislike. For instance, I am as far from being a libertarian as it gets, but I admire and respect Robert Heinlein's defense of libertarianism in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I can go along in the thought experiment of his novel without having to actually endorse libertarianism. And in this way, I can be more open-minded towards his political philosophy and learn to appreciate his point of view (e.g., why any form of coercion by the state might be bad).
A third reason for the philosophers' rut is relative unfamiliarity with non-western philosophical traditions, for instance, about both skill and testimony there is an ample literature in Indian philosophy. Even when one is more familiar with these traditions, it is still possible to apply western frameworks to non-western philosophical viewpoints, as contemporary philosophers have done with western philosophers in the past.
Still, it seems to me that a better acquaintance with non-western philosophy has the power to get us out of the philosophers' rut, by showing a well-developed framework of thinking about topics in a way that is different to how things are framed in mainstream analytic philosophy. I have some work in progress suggesting that people who specialize in non-western and Africana, or history of philosophy, have a different outlook on the factuality of some philosophical positions: people with these areas of specialization are more likely to regard religious claims as matters of opinion than as matters of fact.
In conclusion, we can get out of the philosophers' rut if we rethink the main format of philosophy (the journal article, preferably in the top journal), and become more inclusive about the formats and traditions of philosophical work.
*That is not to say that I do not appreciate the philosophical astuteness of authors who have contributed to this debate, just that it is not my main interest.