[Update, 6/14: Doctor-killing enthusiast Ed Feser apparently reads this post as a "defense" against some accusation he made, rather than as an exploration of what struck me as a vaguely interesting semantic side-issue that came up in the course of the discussion. You can read his comments here.]
As far as I know, "logician" is a value-neutral term for someone who does academic work on logic. Similarly, "epistemologist" just means someone who works on epistemology. Calling oneself an epistemologist isn't *bragging* about one's epistemic abilities, and calling someone else an epistemologist doesn't mean that you think they know a lot of stuff, or that they're particularly good at knowledge-acquisition, or anything else of the kind. It's just a way of saying that their area of focus is epistemology. Similarly for "logician" and argumentative abilities. Or so I always thought. Apparently, elsewhere in the blogosphere, some people read these terms differently. A word or two of background for this...
In my last post, I made fun of Ed Feser for (a) ranting and raving about how Dr. Tiller was a "monster," a serial killer, worse than Dahmer, a servant of the demon Moloch and someone who had forfeited his right to live, and then (b) whining that critics who referred to him as an apologist for Dr. Tiller's murder were failing to read what he wrote in a "sufficiently charitable" manner. I wrote up a quick summary of the back-and-forth between Feser and his critics, and ended with a tongue-in-cheek attempt at a charitable interpretation that would be consistent with the actual content of Feser's argument. Since the discussion I was commenting had been taking place on philosophy professors' blogs, and the punchline had to do with formal philosophy, I posted it here instead of on my livejournal, despite the substance having very little do to do with what I normally talk about here.
In any case, I was fairly sure that about ten people would read the post and that would be that, but I felt viscerally disgusted after reading Feser's rant and his subsequent rationalizations of it, and I figured that mocking it here would at least be personally cathartic. Then Brian Leiter linked to my post and said some nice things about it, and Feser himself devoted not one but two posts to responding to me.
I won't re-cap the play-by-play of that discussion here, but one point emerged that from it that seems worth exploring in its own post, and has the additional virtue of transitioning back from the political stuff to the philosophical topics I normally talk about here.
Feser and his defenders thought that I was misinterpreting him, and that my dissection of his post was unfair or poorly argued. Fair enough, from their perspective. After all, the options are either that (a) I was being unfair or obtuse in some way, or (b) Feser's comments on Dr. Tiller's murder were utterly rationally and morally indefensible. What seemed strange to me, though, was that both Feser in one of his posts, and some of his defenders in various comment threads, expressed their contention that (a) was the case by sneering at the fact that, in my blogspot profile description I use the word "logician."
For example, in his second post, Feser describes me as a "willfully obtuse Liar Distorts reader (and a self-described “logician,” at that)."* If you read the comments threads on the various posts back and forth on all this, you'll find a couple of Feser's defenders making similar comments.
I have to say, it all seems strange to me. My dissertation is about logic. That's my primary AOS, the philosophical subject I spend the most time thinking about. Hence the word "logician" as, I thought, a neutral identifier, in my blogspot user profile. If I primarily worked on metaphysics or epistemology or ethics rather than logic, I'd have said "metaphysician" or "epistemologist" of "ethicist" instead.
Since I do spend most of my time reading, thinking and writing about the philosophy of logic, I'm frequently in the position of finding various things that various logicians have to say about various subjects unconvincingly argued, misguided, mistaken, or flat-out irrational. I mean, look, to pick an easy example, I side with classical orthodoxy in thinking that it is never rationally permissible to knowingly believe a contradiction, so there's certainly a level of analysis on which I think that dialetheists like Graham Priest or J.C. Beall, or even non-dialetheists like Penelope Maddy, who claims in her book "Second Philosophy" that, although there are no true contradictions, the Lottery and Preface Paradoxes show that it is rational to sometimes have inconsistent beliefs, or Gil Harman, with whom I've argued on this blog before, and who believes that good reasoning need not involve rejecting every contradiction you discover among your beliefs, are all, on a certain level of analysis, being irrational. None of that means that any of those people (at least the ones in that list for whom logic is one of their primary areas of focus) shouldn't be referred to as "logicians."
Of course, all of the people that I just mentioned are quite bright, and have interesting reasons for disagreeing with me about whether their beliefs are rational, but I'd generalize the point to say that even if I met an academic whose area of research was philosophical logic, but who I thought was a blithering idiot whose arguments on every subject were all absurdly fallacious, I'd still use the L-word as a value-neutral descriptive term when I was talking about them. For example, over a glass of Scotch with close friends in the privacy of my own apartment**, I might have the following conversation:
"Oh, you remember that ridiculous thing such-and-such said?"
"Wait, who's such-and-such?"
"Oh, you remember him. That idiotic logician who we met back in..."
...and I think that this isn't just a personal quirk of mine. I'm reasonably confident that this is the standard way of using the word. If someone writes their doctoral dissertation on meta-ethics, writes a bunch of articles about ethical theory and ends up running an applied ethics research center, and you know for a fact that this person regularly cheats at cards, borrows money under false pretenses, kicks cats when he walks through alleys, and is routinely cold and cruel to his wife and children, you'd still refer to them as an "ethicist" if you wanted to describe their academic work in a way that was a bit more informative than "philosopher." You don't have to be a more-ethical-than-average-person to be an ethicist, or a more knowledgeable-than-average person to be an epistemologist. Ethicists sometimes do unethical things. Epistemologists are sometimes ignorant even of recent work in epistemology with which they haven't bothered to keep up as they've grown older. And logicians sometimes make bad arguments.
So...I think...that the only circustances under which it makes sense to sneeringly refer to the fact that such-and-such "calls himself a 'logician'" is if you don't think that they really do academic work on logic.
Or maybe not.
Does anyone else out there have a different take on this? Is using the L-word to describe a grad student, a professor, an independent researcher or anyone else an honorific about their argumentative abilities, or just a short-hand for "academic type who does a lot of work on logic"? What do you think?
*For those not in the know, Liar Distorts is Feser's terribly witty and clever way of referring to Brian Leiter's blog, the Leiter Reports.
**As a general rule, I prefer not to talk disrespectfully about people in the profession in public, although I am willing to make an exception for people who, for example, rant about how recently murdered doctors had it coming because they were serial killers and servants of Moloch.