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Fr. 508

April 14, 2014

The fourth and final set of remarks to be made in regards to the problem (“4. New models of collective decision making and collective rationality. Solving the problems of the 21st Century will require coordinated rational action on a massive scale. But we really have no models of collective rationality, no idea of the institutional, social, political and economic structures that will allow us to meet these challenges. Can philosophers help build them in time to guide us in meeting the challenges of this century?”) concerns the final question: what role do philosophers have in all of this?

The problem implicitly sets up the role of philosophers as follows:

3. Philosophers as rational advisers.

3a. The institutional, social, political and economic arrangements, models and structures necessary for such rationality are still to be developed.
3b. Philosophers are considered eminent agents of rational decision-making and collective models for reasoning.
3c. Philosophers will thus have a hand in developing the institutional, social, political and economic arrangements, models and structures necessary for such rationality to be developed.

Yet we might approach this role with a certain amount of trepidation, if not outright cynicism. Can philosophers truly be of much aid here? Do philosophers construct models of this kind? Without a doubt, our answer depends largely on what we make of the (metaphilosophical) question, “what is a philosopher/y?”, a question to which there is neither a simple nor definitive answer. With this in mind, we will content ourselves with a few brief observations on the matter.

First, the problem as worded suggests, perhaps even advances, a very particular view of reason and, by extension, philosophy. On this view, philosophy seems to consist in large part in the rules of social choice theory or decision theory and the aggregation of preferences applied therein. Although some part of philosophy is certainly bound up with these, we have previously observed that these do not exhaust all points of view on the question of “reason” or “rationality”. If these subfields do not exhaust rationality, then it stands to reason that other subfields might likewise have input on the matter.

Closely tied to the question of why social choice theory is seen as particularly suited to the models and structures above is that of why other versions of philosophy are ill suited for it. Certainly, contemporary continental philosophies centering on the isolation and manifestation of differences and the creation of incommensurable concepts are unlikely to appeal to those looking for models. The creative imagination has here too great a role to play, as it were. Similarly, analytic philosophies centering on the analysis or breaking down of concepts into their constituent parts do not seem to have a direct role to play in the practices at issue, unless it is as an auxiliary to the identification of political or social structures to be challenged, targeted, etc..

As we are here painting in quite broad strokes, it is reasonable to think that variants of these could have an important role to play. For instance, on the continental side, a philosophy like that of Michel Foucault, with its distinctive mix of archeology and genealogy, targets individual historical instances that could be altered in such a way as to produce different results; such a historical orientation seems particularly useful for this kind of exercise. Likewise, as suggested above, analysis could prove a useful auxiliary to similar processes. Neither of these falls, at least straightforwardly, into the case of social choice theory. In the end, this suggests at least a plurality of methods for arriving at such models and structures.

All of this can be addressed without entering into the waters surrounding the rather banal question, “does philosophy have anything to do with the real world?”. If such a question merits rebuttal, it perhaps suffices to remark that ethics and political philosophy have long been part of the philosophical canon and that even metaphysics itself starts out from the real world. More significantly, even those philosophies identified above as drawing significantly on the manifestation of difference or the creative imagination themselves issue in new approaches to ethics and politics, all of which brings out how real-world oriented philosophy is. In short, there is perhaps reason for cynicism, yet this is not at the level of philosophy’s bearing on the world, but on the bearing of which philosophy on that same world.

So concludes our initial investigation of problem 4.

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