Forrest Cameranesi, Geek of All Trades

Commensurablism

I have thus far laid out four broad swaths of philosophical opinions that I am against. I have explained why I am against fideism, why I am against transcendentalism, why I am against nihilism, and why I am against cynicism. These four broad positions I am against could be briefly summed up as the rejection of unquestionable answers (fideism), unanswerable questions (transcendentalism), ending up with no answers (nihilism), and not even beginning to question (cynicism). I will now lay out, in contrast, what kind of philosophical opinion I am generally in favor of.

My general philosophy is just the conjunction of the negations of those four broad philosophies that I am against. In being against fideism, I say to hold every opinion open to questioning, a position that I call "criticism". In being against transcendentalism, I say to reject any opinion that is not amenable to questioning because it is beyond any possible experience that could test it, a position that I call "phenomenalism". But in being against nihilism, I say to hold that there is some opinion or another that is actually correct in a sense beyond merely someone subjectively agreeing with it, a position that I call "objectivism". And in being against cynicism, I say to tentatively hold some opinion or another on what that might be even if you don't have conclusive justification to say that it definitely is that, a position that I call "liberalism".

As explained already in my essay against transcendentalism, phenomenalism is entailed by criticism: if you are going to hold every opinion open to question, you have to consider only opinions that would make some experiential, phenomenal difference, where you could somehow tell if they were correct or incorrect. And as explained already in my essay against cynicism, liberalism is entailed by objectivism: if you are going to hold that such a thing as a correct opinion is possible, you have to give every opinion the benefit of the doubt that that one might possibly be it, otherwise you would be forced to dismiss all opinions as equally incorrect out of hand. Because of this, "criticism" and "objectivism" are enough to summarize my entire general philosophy, and it would suffice to name that general philosophy "critical objectivism".

However I prefer a different, more succinct name, that also communicates better the gist of what my philosophy is, more than what it is not: "commensurablism". For two things to be commensurable is for there to be some way to compare and measure them against each other, and I call my philosophy "commensurablism" because, all of the above taken into account together, its defining feature is that opinions of any sort can be compared and measured against each other to see which is more or less correct than the other. That right there implies that there is such a thing as correct, implying objectivism; and it also implies that there is a question as to which opinion, and whether or to what extent either opinion, is correct, implying criticism. It also implies that the initial state of inquiry is one of several opinions competing as equal candidates, neither either winning or losing out by default lest the other can successfully challenge it, but both remaining live possibilities until one is shown to be worse than the other; which is to say, liberalism. And it implies that such a contest of opinion is settled by comparing and measuring the candidates against a common scale, namely that of the experiential phenomena accessible in common by everyone; which is to say, phenomenalism.


To further elaborate on the worldview entailed by this general philosophy:

I hold that there are two big mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive questions, neither of which is reducible to the other, and between the two of which all other smaller questions are covered. One is the descriptive question of what is real, or true, or factual. The other is the prescriptive question of what is moral, or good, or normative. There are many more concrete questions that are each in effect a small part of one of these questions, such as questions about whether some particular thing is real, or whether some particular thing is moral, that are the domains of more specialized fields of inquiry. And there are also more abstract questions about what it means to be real or to be moral, what criteria we use to assess whether something deserves such a label, what methods we use to apply those criteria, what faculties we need to enact those methods, who is to exercise those faculties, and why any of it matters, which are the philosophical questions to be answered in the rest of these essays. But in the middle of it all are those two big questions, in service of which all the other questions are asked: "What is real?" and "What is moral?"

I hold that in answering either question, it is completely irrelevant who thinks what is the answer, or how many people think what is the answer. All that matters is whether there are any reasons at hand to prefer one answer over another. In absence of any reasons, any proposed answer might be right, no matter who or how many people agree or disagree. But no matter how many reasons to prefer one answer over another, that preferred answer still always might be wrong, no matter who or how many people agree or disagree: the reasons to discard it may merely not be at hand just yet. All of inquiry, on either factual or normative matters, is an unending process of trying to filter out opinions that we have reasons to think are the wrong ones, and to come up with new ones that still might be the right ones. But no matter your current best answer to either question, there is always some degree of uncertainty: you might be right, but you might be wrong. All we can narrow in further and further on less and less wrong answers, in a way that is somewhat comparable to the "spiral-shaped" progress described by Georg Hegel, if we imagine an abstract space of possible answers, with the correct answers lying mostly likely somewhere in the middle of that space, and our investigations whittling away further and further at all opposite extremes, theses and their antitheses, and then again at the remaining extremes of the resulting syntheses, again and again, indefinitely.

Commensurablism

With regards to opinions about reality, commensurablism boils down to forming initial opinions on the basis that something, loosely speaking, looks true, and then rejecting that and finding some other opinion to replace it with if someone should come across some circumstance wherein it doesn't look true in some way. And, if two contrary things both look true in different ways or to different people or under different circumstances, commensurablism means taking into account all the different ways that things look to different people in different circumstances, and coming up with something new that looks true to everyone in every way in every circumstance, at least those that we've considered so far. In the limit, if we could consider absolutely every way that absolutely everything looked to absolutely everyone in absolutely every circumstance, whatever still looked true across all of that would be the absolute truth. In short, the absolute truth is the limit of what still seems true upon further and further investigation. We can't ever reach that absolute, but that is the direction in which to improve our opinions about reality, towards more and more correct ones. Figuring out what can still be said to look true when more and more of that is accounted for may be increasingly difficult, but that is the task at hand if we care at all about the truth. This commensurablist approach to reality may be called "critical empirical realism", as realism is the descriptive face of objectivism, empiricism is the descriptive face of phenomenalism, and what I would call a critical-liberal methodology is more commonly called just "critical" as applied to theories of knowledge.

With regards to opinions about morality, commensurablism boils down to forming initial opinions on the basis that something, loosely speaking, feels good, and then rejecting that and finding some other opinion to replace it with if someone should come across some circumstance wherein it doesn't feel good in some way. And, if two contrary things both feel good in different ways or to different people or under different circumstances, commensurablism means taking into account all the different ways that things feel to different people in different circumstances, and coming up with something new that feels good to everyone in every way in every circumstance, at least those that we've considered so far. In the limit, if we could consider absolutely every way that absolutely everything felt to absolutely everyone in absolutely every circumstance, whatever still felt good across all of that would be the absolute good. In short, the absolute good is the limit of what still seems good upon further and further investigation. We can't ever reach that absolute, but that is the direction in which to improve our opinions about morality, toward more and more correct ones. Figuring out what what can still be said to feel good when more and more of that is accounted for may be increasingly difficult, but that is the task at hand if we care at all about the good. This commensurablist approach to morality may be called "liberal hedonic moralism", as moralism is the prescriptive face of objectivism, hedonism is the prescriptive face of phenomenalism, and what I would call a critical-liberal methodology is more commonly called just "liberal" as applied to theories of justice.


The underlying reason I hold this general philosophical view, or rather my reason for rejecting the views opposite of it, is pragmatism. As explained above: this view, commensurablism, is just the conjunction of criticism and objectivism, which are in turn just the negations of fideism and nihilism, respectively. As elaborated already in my essays against fideism and against nihilism: if you accept fideism rather than criticism, then if your opinions should happen to be the wrong ones, you will never find out, and you will remain wrong forever; and if you accept nihilism rather than objectivism, then if there is such a thing as the right opinion after all, you will never find it, and you will remain wrong forever. There might not be such a thing as a correct opinion, and if there is, we might not be able to find it. But if we're starting from such a place of complete ignorance that we're not even sure about that — where we don't know what there is to know, or how to know it, or if we can know it at all, or if there is even anything at all to be known — and we want to figure out what the correct opinions are in case such a thing should turn out to be possible, then the safest bet, pragmatically speaking, is to proceed under the assumption that there are such things, and that we can find them, and then try. Maybe ultimately in vain, but that's better than failing just because you never tried in the first place.

I would argue that to do otherwise, to fall prey to nihilism or fideism, to deny that there are such things as right or wrong opinions about either reality or morality, or to deny that we are able to figure out which is which, is actually not even philosophy at all. The Greek root of the word "philosophy" means "the love of wisdom", but I would argue that any approach substantially different from what I have laid out here as commensurablism would be better called "phobosophy", meaning "the fear of wisdom", for rather than seeking after wisdom, seeking after the ability to discern true from false or good from bad, it avoids it, by saying that it is either unobtainable, as the nihilist does, or that it is unneeded, as the fideist does. Commensurablism could thus be said to be necessitated merely by being practical about the very task that defines philosophy itself. If you're trying to do philosophy at all, to pursue wisdom, the ability to sort out the true from the false and the good from the bad, you end up having to adopt commensurablism, or else just giving up on the attempt completely.


Continue to the next essay, Metaphilosophy.