I have a question on how “disagreement” generally occurs in philosophy. It seems that in the various traditions of Western philosophy, much work concerns a quest to externalize our human intuitions, i.e., to axiomatize and prove them in the manner of mathematics (the generative power of which has produced a wealth of results and continues to do the same). It also seems that no school has yet fully succeeded in establishing incontestable axioms. There may be strong principles with a status akin to “semi-axioms”, in the sense that they conform to the intuitions of their originators and subsequent holders, but as various details are not yet incontestably clear, they try to gradually clarify them. In this ongoing process and as intuitions vary, it is customary to say that there is “disagreement” between the various schools.

From a metaphilosophical context one can ask how can two philosophers A and B disagree in matters of intuition that are not entirely clear even to themselves? (A and B could also be the same person at different times):

It seems there are these four alternatives:

C1. Not both of them are honest (someone speaks assuredly on matters he doubts).
C2. They are not studying exactly the same question.
C3. Even in an intuitive setting, valid philosophical reasoning from first principles is possible; but, there are varying degrees in human ability or willingness to follow a particular one.
C4. One of them tries to axiomatize philosophical reasoning via first principles, but the other simply does not. In the latter case, logical connections may be applied, but these are trivial accessories towards his main goal: to directly grasp something unshakable by later reflection and experience.

What do philosophers, metaphilosophers, and various philosophical theories (such as the Hegelian dialectic) have to say about the nature of philosophical disagreement?

  • Edited to avoid the "focus objection".
    – J D
    Nov 30, 2020 at 14:18
  • None of the above. Intuitions motivate judgments, and philosophers disagree in the judgments they make. While intuitions may be vague, the judgements they motivate do not have to be, and they serve as their premises. Judgments are not connected to intuitions by "valid philosophical reasoning from first principles" or anything of the sort. Most do not believe in first principles or axiomatization even of the reasoning that follows, which is informal and abductive. And since abduction itself depends on value judgements (which explanation is "best") there is a source for more disgreements.
    – Conifold
    Nov 30, 2020 at 14:31
  • "a quest to externalize our human intuitions" You might equally frame it as a quest to challenge & contradict intuitions. You make the assumption axioms apply, but that itself is very much open to challenge. Axioms apply by analogy to mathematics, as does 'first principles'. Why should that be the model? You have to make a decision about how you view truth, a framing issue, and disagreement can occur there.
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 30, 2020 at 15:14
  • @CriglCragl At C4 I say that axiomatization is not the only possible approach.
    – exp8j
    Nov 30, 2020 at 15:27
  • @Conifold At C4 I say that axiomatization is not the only possible approach. So if one, and therefore much more so if both parts move away from it, this can be a source of disagreement.
    – exp8j
    Nov 30, 2020 at 15:35

1 Answer 1


Disagreements of Analytical Philosophy and the Philosophy of Language

I'm going to respond from the position of someone who is clueless enough about the philosophy of language to try to relate the state affairs. You are keen to note that philosophy can be viewed as the process of converting intuition to language. In the analytical tradition, the literal process is subject to the philosophy of language which seeks to understand the relationship among concepts such as thought, reason, language, and theory, and otherwise build upon our understanding of the world derived from our naive realism. This can be conducted by an individual fluent in natural language with no formal training in the broadest sense, the sense that pre-Socratics did under basic labels of the physiki and theologi or it can be conducted with sophisticated artificial languages and formal systems which tends to exercised by the professional philosopher and constitutes philosophy in the narrower sense.

Frauds and Crackpots (Disagreement of Legitimacy)

For C1, this is certainly a possibility. Noam Chomsky, who is a popular and influential philosopher who we can thank for the notion of generative grammar has called at least one of his Continental contemporaries a fraud and derides certain methodologies as nonsensical. In fact, the Sokal affair is literally empirical evidence that some of what passes for postmodernist philosophy might be nonsensical in some sense. The problem with adjudging fraud in the broader sense where a lie is a communication with the intent to deceive is the age-old problem of knowing another's mind. Certainly sorting crackpots from geniuses is a big ask, though some metrics have been offered when analyzing theories. In US history, the Indiana PI Bill shows what happens when questionable philosophy gets into the ears of the uninformed. So certainly, C1 is a valid recognition of how some discourse is conducted. These "philosophical" disagreements use language so loosely they abuse it.

Differences of Opinion and Interpretation (Disagreement of Coherence)

C2 exposes another common happening in discourse. As the act of definition and establishing identity are both in the domain of philosophical methods, a lot of philosophical wrangling occurs over who said what. In my own readings, I've seen a lot of mischaracterizations of John Searle's arguments such as what exactly constitutes the social construction of reality and the Chinese room. One criticism I read of his views on constructing reality claimed he was promoting post-modernism which is absolutely naive interpretation of his theory given his analytical philosophy of mind. Daniel Dennett frequently and amusingly responds to criticisms that attack his positions that aren't his positions, and Thomas Kuhn remarked he himself was not a Kuhnian thinker since the term has changed substantially from his own claims. This is why natural language is often reduced to formalisms, to help clarify. In a formal framework, the syntax is lifted to prominence and it becomes hard to disagree. These philosophical disagreements are often a manifestation of differences in first principles, definitions, and often underscore a lack of familiarity with another's positions.

Shibboleths and the Defeasibility of Human Reason (Disagreement of Means)

No matter how many times a certain class of philosopher who seeks to obtain certainty from language that cannot be had wrings from deductive methods conclusions, the fact is that human reason is defeasible. I personally see this as a form of sophistry, and an entire analytic school rebelled against the abuses of technicalities in the form of advocating ordinary language use. In their (and my) eyes, cooking up even more sophisticated uses of natural and artificial language often is tantamount to trying to obfuscate the common-sense intuitions of thinkers. There is nothing inherently wrong with adopting conventions of language that clarify, but if your language is so opaque that the intuitions that it recognizes aren't clear, then the language-game you are playing might be a fancy game of who-knows-the-shibboleth. The real challenge is that theories are very complicated linguistic constructs, at the bottom of language there is an inescapable normativity. There are some schools of linguistic thought that are looking to reduce the ambiguity, for instance, those who advocate a natural semantic metalanguage or present semantic theories that are broader than truth-conditions. And that's just the interpretation (semantics) and representation (syntax). What of the differences and uses of methods of inference such as deduction, induction, and abduction (and inference to best explanation if you don't treat the two synonymously). These philosophical disagreements might be considered tactical disagreements because they are differences in the mechanisms of language.

Philosophers Will Be Philosophers (Disagreement of Ends)

Lastly, we come to your C4, where you note that not all philosophers conduct themselves to the same ends. What exactly philosophy is has been a matter of contention among some philosophers. Some philosophers are absolutists of sorts who reject the validity of any school of thinking but their own. Other philosophers (myself included) believe that various schools of philosophy are in essence nothing more than different technology-practices with differing metaphysical presuppositions. The logical positivists tried (and failed by their own admission) to use logic and science to eliminate metaphysics altogether! Philosophical disagreements of this sort might be called strategic differences since the plan on how to get to the goal is substantially different.

Metaphilosophical Disagreement (Disagreement of Disagreement)

Lastly, leave it to philosophers to disagree about disagreement. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an article Disagreement. From it, you can see that one can elevate disagreement from ordinary language analysis to a game-theoretic examination of values and incentives using ontological primitives of epistemology. So, you missed a C5, which is a special case of philosophical disagreement: "meta-disagreement"!.

  • Thank you for the many clues for further reflection.
    – exp8j
    Nov 30, 2020 at 13:52
  • No worries! I think your distinctions are very cogent and approach from the analytical side. You might also be interested in various dialectics such as the Hegelian dialectic which is one of many dialectic theories. The philosophy examines how ideas seem to move foward, then get pushed back, and then combine to move forward again: the thesis, antithesis, and syntithesis, if memory serves. But someone like @PhilipKlöcking might have an answer given his mastery of all things Continental.
    – J D
    Nov 30, 2020 at 14:08

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