Saturday, June 13, 2009

On Referring To Oneself As A "Logician"

[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.


Colin said...

Sorry to hear about all the fuss over that post. I hope the attacks haven't been too nasty. I think, in essence, that you are exactly right about the use of "logician". However, there might be some line of thought such as the following: expertise on a normative domain of inquiry is, in part, constituted by following the norms of that domain of inquiry. An example of this thought is that good (expert) ethicists ought to be good (ethical) people. The analogue, I imagine, is that good (expert) logicians ought to be good (logical) people. But is the thought about expertise correct? It doesn't seem so to me, but I'm not entirely sure.

Ben said...

Well, sure, what you say seems right to me....both about what could be going on in that line of thought, and that it's not at all clear that this thought is right. After all, an ethicist who kicks cats or an epistemologist who immediately and uncritically believes his friend's story about encountering a ghost or a logician who makes a bad argument could have sufficient subject-matter expertise in their domains that, if they bother to reflect on their actions, they could come to realize why what they did was something they ought not to have done, but there could be all sorts of psychological reasons why they didn't bother to engage in this reflection, or why they did and were insufficiently moved by it, or why they were somewhat moved by it but still suffered from weakness of will, or whatever.

That said, it seems to me that even if we concede all that and say that subject-matter expertise is in fact *constituted* in part by following the relevant norms, then I'm not quite sure this gets us to the point where an ethicist whose behavior is despicable or a logician who routinely makes spectacularly bad arguments isn't an ethicist or a logician. It still sounds to me like all that conceding this would really mean would be that, e.g. an unethical ethicist would be shown to be a *bad,* incompetent ethicist, not a non-ethicist.

Brian Leiter said...

I think the simpler explanation is that there is, as you may suspect, no real "line of thought" at all here. As with juvenile word play like "Liar Distorts," his using "logician" derisively is just another manifestation of his complete lack of rhetorical talent: he has no sense for language, for presentation, for proportionality, for timing. Or, if he does, he loses his capacity for it when flailing about when confronted with someone like you who clearly has a much stronger rhetorical sense.

Anyway, thanks for your original item on this freakish display, which was very funny and well-crafted indeed.

Ben said...

Thanks. And, sure, I think you're probably right, but I'm also genuinely curious about whether other people use these terms in a different way.

Unknown said...

This is what the Right Wing does, though, because they've learned that Words Matter. Look at words and phrases like "feminist" and "political correctness" have been redefined in order to make them scary/ridiculous. Look at idiocy like trying to get the Democratic Party to change its name to the Democrat party, which despite its silliness, is motivated by finally grasping the concept that language shapes perception.

Look at how they redefined terrorist to mean "anyone who doesn't support the Bush agenda" and then howled with indignation when the Bush-sponsored DHS report mentioned that there might be some right-wing groups that could fall into the category of "domestic terrorist."

Look at how "intellectual" got used in the past few presidential campaigns. To me it seems like a good idea to have people actually thinking and using their intellect, but apparently it's all about elitism instead.

Or how the concept of a "left-leaning media" got used to obscure the absorption of said media by corporations with a definite interest in protecting the legal and social structures that allow them to continue gleefully raping the poor.

With verbal maneuvers like this, no wonder they're confused and fearful of anything associated with the word "logic."

Bobcat said...

I think my intuitions run a bit differently from yours. I'm not sure there's a purely descriptive sense of logician, or, if there is, then there is also a normative sense of the term as well.

Think, first of all, about the word "argument". I have lots of times seen comments like, "so-and-so's 'argument' amounts to the claim that...". The implication here is that the argument is so bad that it no longer counts as an argument, although it might indeed consist of a series of premises purporting to support a conclusion.

I think the same thing goes on with "philosopher." Again, I feel as though I've numerous times seen "this so-called philosopher claims...".

I think in both cases--the case of "argument" and "philosopher"--we have a sense that there are certain minimum standards a set of statements or a person has to live up to to qualify as an argument or as a philosopher, even though we also know that there are purely descriptive senses of these terms; for instance, you might say that anyone who has a Ph.D. in philosophy is a philosopher, or anyone who has a job teaching philosophy in a philosophy department is a philosopher, barring some special cases.

On the other hand, there is a normative sense of philosopher as someone who pursues the truth about philosophical matters. It is this understanding of philosopher that may explain why some people in my acquaintance don't think of Rorty as a philosopher.

Finally, there's a sense that, if you actually manage to get a Ph.D. in philosophy at a well-regarded school, then there are certain minimum expectations we may have of you for argumentative competency, such that if you don't meet it, you're not a philosopher in the full-blooded sense.

This applies, mutatis mutandis, for "logician".

J said...

It's funny how so many self-styled logicians seem prone to making endless normative judgments. Carnap, not such a poor logician, held ethical statements to be meaningless, did he not? (following Hume for most part). One might say "murdering abortionists is illegal," but "Murdering abortionists is Evil," while perhaps understandable, is meaningless in terms of truth functionality. Then it works the other way too: "Murdering abortionists is not Evil". Meaningless. So in effect any reference to some presumed moral universal should be considered verboten.

That said, Feser got his O'Reilly act on, and forgot that, one, Tiller had not been found guilty of any crimes, even for late term abortion; two, the Kansas govt. and Roe vs Wade allowed for it' three, women sought out Tiller, and he did perform a useful service (though I would agree there are issues when there is no health issues, and mom wants an abort for birth control, more or less).

Clayton Littlejohn said...


(*) You, my friend, are no epistemologist.

That sounds like something you could say to insult someone's epistemic abilities.

[Full disclosure. I'm an epistemologist. Not that I'm bragging.]

Ben said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben said...




Interesting perspective. I have to say on calling people "philosophers" instead of philosophers because what they have to say is so poorly thought-out and ridiculous, at least anecdotally, my impression is that this is the sort of thing much more common *outside* the ranks of professional philosophy than in it, and I don't think my impression is entirely eccentric. For instance, Jason Stanley had an interesting comment a while back-- the way that academics in areas other than philosophy tend to use the word "philosopher" as an honorific for particularly impressive intellectuals, whereas philosophy professors tend to simply use it as a term for people who do work on philosophical problems. (How interesting or worthwhile or well-thought-out their contributions to these problems may or may not be is an entirely different matter, presumably.) I mean, look, think of it this way.

We certainly don't go around referring to particularly ethical plumbers who don't know anything about moral philosophy as "ethicists" or trial lawyers who aren't interested in formal logic but are particularly good at delivering solid arguments as "logicians," so clearly displaying a high level of competence of the relevant type isn't a *sufficient* condition for being an ethicist or a logician. The remaining question is whether it's at least a necessary one, and so far, I'm not convinced. After all, even if we think that part of what constitutes competence as a logician is adhering to the relevant normative standards even in non-academic contexts, don't we want to have a conceptual category of "spectacularly bad, incompetent logicians?"

Ben said...


First of all, we seem to have wandered off into quite a different subject here.

Second, you seem to be engaged in a fairly strange argument from authority here:

1. Carnap was an impressive logician.
2. Carnap believed that ethical statements are meaningless.
3. Therefore, everyone should believe that ethical statements are meaningful.

Now, I don't know enough about Carnap to know if (2) is strictly speaking accurate. (I'm more confident that you're wrong about Hume.) Certainly, Carnap at one phase of his career was a verificationist, and you can get the result that moral statements are meaningless from verificationism.

On the other hand, verificationism is self-referentially incoherent, for familiar reasons, so why should anyone care what follows from it about morality?

Moreover, I could just as easily construct the following equal and opposite argument from authority:

1. G.H. Von Wright, founder of modern deontic logic, was a pretty good logician.
2. Von Wright pretty clearly believed that moral statements *were* meaningful.
3. Therefore, we should all believe that ethical statements are meaningful.

...which strikes me as a fairly nice demonstration of why we can't settle these issues by appealing to What Smart People Think.

Ben said...


Interesting point. Of course, I have to say that:

(1) I can't ever recall anyone saying anything quite like that, but

(2) To the extent that it does seem like a reasonable thing to say--that is, if someone were to use this insult, we'd all see what they were getting at and it wouldn't seem like a completely ridiculous thing to say, and maybe we'd even agree with a literal reading of the insult, that seems to indicate either that we think that either:

(a) If the person being insulted were an epistemologist, he probably wouldn't display such poorly-developed epistemic abilities, since the chances that someone would work on these problems all the time without letting it influence their own epistemic heavior are very low, or

(b) If the person being insulted were an epistemologist, he necessarily wouldn't display such poorly-developed epistemic abilities, because part of what it means to say that someone is an epistemologist is that they haven't.

To the extent that we'd take it quite that literally, I'd say that (a) sounds more plausible than (b). After all, people aren't generally in the practice of denying that epistemologists who irrationally believe things for which the evidence is sorely lacking aren't really epistemologists.

(E.g. I've never heard any of my atheist friends responding to Plantinga or other "reformed epistemologists" by saying that "those people aren't epistemologists.")

By analogy, if some guy named Jake constantly hooks up with random women at bars, uses a wide variety of recreational drugs, etc., we might summarize this behavior in certain contexts by saying, "Well, Jake's not exactly a priest, is he?"

OTOH, if we later found out that Jake had been ordained at a Catholic seminary, had never been de-frocked, and ocassionally conducted mass at a church two towns over (so that no one would know about his double life), we would have to concede that Jake was indeed a priest.

J said...

I did not say Carnap's point on the meaninglessness of ethical statements was true merely by Ad Auctoritas. More of a reminder, and in fact if you read the section (Logical Syntax, I believe) Carnap does refer to Hume on the fact-value distinction (is-ought as it was formerly known). And Carnap does use "killing is evil" or "murder is evil" as a meaningless statement, i.e. non verifiable (I realize verification criteria brings up other issues). Regardless, "Evil" , whatever it is, is not a class like "mammals" or "triangles" or "syllogisms" are classes. The statement "Killing Tiller was Evil" (or not Evil) does not denote something that we can point to, and it's certainly not tautological. ("Killing is illegal," or "murder is illegal" does point, at least to the penal code.)

Yes, with some work (we agree to term certain heinous acts like murder "Evil", and they might be illegal as well) one might put something together like a shared value based on our preferences (though not all share that value--ie the murderer of Tiller), but that's not exactly logic--closer to Hume, who said "Reason should be a slave of the passions."

What's the alternative? Plato? Theology? The moral realists (like Feser) don't really have any viable alternative to ethical subjectivity (which can still lead to agreement, contracts, even law)

Ben said...


As far as Hume goes, there's a big jump from making is/ought distinctions to the view that moral statements are *meaningless.* You seem to be setting up a strange false dichotomy between the meaninglessness view and some sort of non-naturalistic moral realism (which seems to be what you're getting at when you talk about Plato and theology). There's a whole swathe of moral realist views that have absolutely nothing in common with either Divine Command Ethics or anything remotely Platonic, and an even wider variety of meta-ethical theories that don't fit into any of your categories.

To start with, there are robustly non-cognitivist views according to which moral statements are very far from being meaningless, then there are flat-out error theories (which is a plausible way of reading Hume's projectivism) according to which, in the absence of moral facts, moral statements are not *meaningless* but *false.* Then, moving over to realist views, there's Blackburn/Gibbard-style moral quasi-realism, where we get moral truth without moral facts and square this circle with an expressivist theory of truth, or at least a two-tiered theory of truth where moral truth is understood in an expressivist way. (E.g. it can be true that killing Tiller was wrong and false that Tiller had forfeited his moral right to live without there being truth-makers "out in the world.") Closer to my heart, there's a wide-ranging family of naturalistic moral realist views, from synthetic reductionism to various emergence-based views and so on, according to which moral facts are in one way or the other ultimately constituted by mundane physical facts.

In any case, I find verificationism-based arguments for your view, or verificationism-based arguments for anything, extremely unconvincing, since the statement "only tautologies, contradictions and things we can point to count as meaningful" doesn't seem to be a tautology, a contradiction or something we can point to in the relevant sense.

J said...

Carnap's point on the meaninglessness of ethical statements was not THAT different from Hume's point on the lack of evidence/factual support for language relating to obligations, ethics, morality (ought-statements). Both are pointing out that ethical language does not really refer (of course the platonist says that's because its a universal of some sort in his platonic dream-abode). Check out Carnap's Logical syntax. He had read Hume EIHU, and realized Hume's importance as positivist.

(For that matter, Darwin and Nietzsche would provide more support for ethical subjectivity (which is not exactly synonymous to nihilism)). That ethics doesn't function logically (as both Hume and Carnap claim) does not necessarily mean that ethics as a whole is useless. It may mean ethics really belongs to psychology (or perhaps biology, and neurology).

Also, I am not convinced verification was knocked out. It may have been modified (by Quine and others) but has not been refuted. Consider it expanded: a subset of evidentialism, if you will--or induction, really. Obviously humans continue to make use of evidentiary reasoning of various sorts (as with journalism, academic research, courts, etc)

Bobcat said...

Sorry for not responding to your post earlier, Ben.

There's a couple of issues here.

First, on the "philosopher" issue: it seems to me that Eric Hoffer could count as a philosopher, even though he had no formal education. So, as you said, a certain level of competence could be a sufficient condition.

On the other hand, I know of one prominent philosopher who, upon delivering a lecture to his/her colleagues, was met with the question, "why are you in the philosophy department?" The idea was that, although he/she was tenured in the philosophy department, what he/she did was no longer philosophy, and so he/she shouldn't count as a philosopher anymore. So on this view, having a Ph.D. and being tenured in philosophy were not sufficient conditions for being a philosopher. So it's possible that for some people at least what you focus on is a necessary condition for counting as a philosopher.

So it could be this: what issues you focus on and the methodology you employ might be necessary and sufficient conditions for counting as a philosopher.

But regardless, even if all the above is extremely wrong-headed, I think it's fair that there are at least some senses of "logician" that take a certain minimum level of competence as a requisite to counting as a logician. Restricting yourself just to that sense, there would be no spectacularly bad logicians (or many fewer than there are now). It could be that when Feser questioned your status as a logician he was restricting himself just to this sense, but if pressed would admit that in the descriptive sense you are a logician.

J said...

"only tautologies, contradictions and things we can point to count as meaningful" doesn't seem to be a tautology, a contradiction or something we can point to in the relevant sense.

Analytical and synthetic truths for the most part. Mathematicians, logicians, programmers still make use of tautologies and contradictions, axioms. Reductio Proofs. They don't concern themselves with vague adjectivals, evil, good, justice, beautiful, etc.

We can also examine what academics do in natural and social sciences and see something like "pointing to facts." Same for journalists, researchers, detectives. They look for Evidence, data, the facts: a confirmation process. At times they must use probability, inferences, and so forth. Yet there's no facts of evil, except by abstraction.

Detective X found a body and gun. It's a horrible crime. But saying its "evil", while colloquial and sort of understandable is not really saying anything important. It may be deviant, if you like (though not all would agree). The work of an insane or irrational person. But someone who calls something "Evil", or even immoral says something like a hex. O'Reilly , Feser, a and pals actually believe in some Dantean zone. When they say abortions are "EVIL," they mean like the Devil's abode. Fire and brimstone, though altar-boys are a bit more subtle than the baptist types.

Emil O. W. Kirkegaard said...

Did you try the dictionary? It is pretty vague and his usage was fair.

"A person skilled in logic" is vague and can mean both what you mean with it and he wrote about you.

By the way, I regard myself a logician, both because I'm good with logic, and because I spend a fair amount of time thinking about it. Though I haven't written any dissertation about it (yet?), and I'm not even at the university yet.

Do you think my usage is fair? Compared to the average person I'm very good with logic, though that's not very hard since people are generally ignorant of logic.