The Philosophy of Commensurablism
In this essay I will lay out what my general philosophical views are, and my reasons for holding them, before I begin diving into the details of the implications of them on other broad approaches to philosophy, and on the many narrow subtopics of philosophy.
If you find yourself trying to do anything at all, trying to make some state of affairs or another the case, there are always two questions it behooves you to ask:
- how to do it, how does that state of affairs come to be the case – a descriptive question; and
- why to do it, why should that state of affairs come to be the case – a prescriptive question.
But the answers to each of these kinds of questions can always prompt more questions of the same kind in return, and as those chains of answers and further questions careen off toward infinity, big philosophical issues arise, both about what there is at all and how it came to be, and about what there ought to be at all and why it should be that way.
At least for the local questions of both of those types – how did or why should this become the case, just in terms of an immediate cause or purpose – people tend to argue as though some of their opinions were right and others were wrong, or at least as though some were more right or wrong than others; and as though they could sort out between them which of their opinions is which, or at least which lies more or less in one direction or the other. If they didn't think both of those things were true, then they wouldn't be arguing in the first place, as there would be no point if nobody was right or wrong at all, or if there weren't any question as to who it was.
The core of my general philosophy is that those two basic premises implied in every normal argument should always be treated as correct, even as the chains of subsequent questions careen off to infinity and big philosophical issues rear their heads, because either "I'm just right and you're just wrong" (supposing that some answers are unquestionable) or "there’s not really any such thing as right or wrong" (supposing that some questions are unanswerable) are nothing but lazy ways to dodge the argument, avoiding the potential of having to change one's opinions, and so cutting one off from all potential to learn and so improve one's opinions.
So my general philosophy could be most succinctly summed up as the rejection of both unquestionable answers (answers that are not to be questioned), and unanswerable questions (questions that cannot be answered). By this I mean trusting that there are answers to be had, but always questioning every proposed answer; and entertaining the possibility of anything that might be an answer, but rejecting anything that's beyond questioning.
Four Core Principles
In other words, I hold:
- That there is such a thing as a correct opinion, in a sense beyond mere subjective agreement. (A position I call "universalism", and its negation "relativism"; I argue further for it in my essay against relativism.)
- That there is always a question as to which opinion, and whether or to what extent any opinion, is correct. (A position I call "criticism", and its negation "dogmatism"; I argue further for it in my essay against dogmatism.)
These in turn entail:
- That the initial state of inquiry is one of several opinions competing as equal candidates, none either winning or losing out by default, but each remaining a live possibility until it is shown to be worse than the others. (A position I call "liberalism", and its negation "cynicism"; I argue further for it in my essay against cynicism.)
- 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, and opinions that cannot be thus tested are thereby disqualified. (A position I call "phenomenalism", and its negation "transcendentalism"; I argue further for it in my essay against transcendentalism.)
I group these principles together as alternate types of four broader categories:
- "Objectivism" is what I name the broader category that encompasses both universalism (which I support) and transcendentalism (which I oppose).
- "Subjectivism" is what I name the broader category that encompasses both phenomenalism (which I support) and relativism (which I oppose).
- "Fideism" is what I name the broader category that encompasses both liberalism (which I support) and dogmatism (which I oppose).
- "Skepticism" is what I name the broader category that encompasses both criticism (which I support) and cynicism (which I oppose).
(Henceforth I will use each of these terms in these specific senses only, to have clear labels for these positions. I am aware that many of these terms have uses other than the ones I am putting them to here, e.g. "objectivism" being used as the name of Ayn Rand's philosophy and "liberalism" being used in a variety of different political ways, and unless specifically mentioned I do not mean to imply any association with those usages where they differ from these ones).
Phenomenalism, as anti-transcendentalism, 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. (At least, unless you're willing to also reject universalism for relativism, and say that there are some questions about things beyond experience that simply can never be objectively answered).
And liberalism, as anti-cynicism, is entailed by universalism: 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. (At least, unless you're willing to also reject criticism for dogmatism, and say that there are simply some foundational opinions that are beyond question).
Because of this, "criticism" and "universalism" are enough to summarize my entire general philosophy, and it would suffice to name that general philosophy "critical universalism" or "universalist criticism".
However I prefer a different, more succinct name: "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.
The underlying reason I hold this general philosophical view, or rather my reason for rejecting the views opposite of it, is my metaphilosophy of analytic pragmatism, taking a practical approach to philosophy and how best to accomplish the task it is aiming to do.
As explained above: this view, commensurablism, is just the conjunction of criticism and universalism, which are in turn just the negations of dogmatism and relativism, respectively. If you accept dogmatism rather than criticism, then if your opinions should happen to be the wrong ones, you will never find out, because you never question them, and you will remain wrong forever. And if you accept relativism rather than universalism, then if there is such a thing as the right opinion after all, you will never find it, because you never even attempt to answer what it might be, 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 we never tried in the first place.
This line of argument bears similarities to Blaise Pascal's "Wager", or pragmatic argument for believing in God. In the Wager, Pascal argues that if we cannot know whether or not God exists, we nevertheless cannot help but act on a tacit opinion one way or another, by either worshipping him or not. This results in four possible outcomes:
- either we believe in God, and he doesn't exist, and we lose a little in the wasted effort of worship;
- or we disbelieve in God, and he doesn't exist, and we save what little effort we would have spent in worship;
- or we believe in God, and he does exist, and we reap the infinite reward that is heaven;
- or we disbelieve in God, and he does exist, and we suffer the infinite loss that is hell.
Pascal argues that it is thus the practically safest bet to believe in God, whether or not he turns out to actually exist. My pragmatic argument for commensurablism bears a formal similarity to that, in that I am also arguing that if we cannot know whether there are answers to our questions to be found, we nevertheless cannot help but act on a tacit opinion one way or another, by either trying to find them or not, resulting again in four possible outcomes:
- either we try to find the answers, and there are none, and we lose a little in the wasted effort of investigation;
- or we don't try to find the answers, and there are none, and we save what little effort we would have spent in investigation;
- or we try to find the answers, and there are some, and we reap the unknown but possibly immense reward that is having them;
- or we don't try to find the answers, and there are some, and we suffer the unknown but possibly immense loss that is never having them.
The important key difference between Pascal's Wager and mine is that Pascal urges us to "bet" on one specific possibility, when there are many different possibilities with similar odds – different religions to choose from, different supposed Gods to worship and ways to worship them – leaving one forced to choose blindly which of those many options to bet on, and necessarily taking the worse option on all the other bets. Whereas I am only urging one to "bet" at all, to try something, anything, many different things, and at least see if any of them pan out, rather than just trying nothing and guaranteeing failure.
To analogize the respective "wagers" to literal wagers on a horse race: Pascal is urging us to bet on a specific horse winning, rather than losing, while I am only urging us to bet on there being a bet at all, rather than not. If there is no bet, then we cannot lose the non-existent bet by betting in that non-existent bet that there will be a bet, even though we still might not win either, if there is indeed no bet to win.
I would argue that to do otherwise than to try (even if ultimately in vain) to find answers to our questions, to fall prey to either relativism or dogmatism, 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 either that it is unobtainable, as the relativism does, or that it is unneeded, as the dogmatist 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 give up on the attempt completely, dismissing it as either hopeless or useless.
As Henri Poincaré rightly said,
To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection. (La Science et l'Hypothèse, 1901). Or as Alfred Korzybski similarly said,
There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking.
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 bulk 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 do is narrow in further and further on less and less wrong answers.
Roughly Spiral Progress
In a way this is somewhat comparable to the "spiral-shaped" progress described by philosophers such as Johanne Fichte and Georg Hegel. Imagine an abstract space of possible answers, with the correct answers lying most likely somewhere around the middle of that space. Our investigations whittle 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. The center of the area remaining after each step will consequently wander around the original complete space of possibilities in a manner that gradually "spirals", roughly speaking, closer and closer to wherever the correct answer is in that space.
Fichte and Hegel's "spiral-shaped progress" of theses, antitheses, and syntheses is, I think, a bit too much an idealization of this process, but it is at least in the right general direction relative to its predecessors, in a way that is itself an illustration of this very process:
Eliminating first the extremes, the thesis and antitheses, of viewing worldviews either as constant and static, or as progressing linearly in a given direction, a first approximation at a synthesis could be the notion of circular change, alternating between opposites in a constant pattern. Hegel's notion of spiral progress is a further refinement upon that, a synthesis between linear progress and circular change, a view of alternating between opposites but narrowing in constantly toward some limit.
My view is a refinement further still, which can perhaps be framed as the synthesis of Hegel's view, and the view that there is no pattern at all to change, just random or at least chaotic, unpredictable change. In my view the changes of worldview are largely unpredictable and unstructured, but by constantly weeding out the untenable extremes, the chaotic swinging between ever-less-extreme opposites still tends generally toward some limit over time.
Commensurablism is itself explicitly such a synthesis of opposing views. As described already in the introduction, the history of philosophy is itself a series of diverging theses and antitheses punctuated by unifying syntheses, and I aim to position this philosophy as a synthesis of the contemporary pair of thesis and antithesis in that series, Analytic and Continental philosophy.
It is furthermore a synthesis of two opposing trends in general public thought that I observe in my contemporary culture, that very loosely track affinity to those professional philosophical schools. One of them places utmost emphasis on the physical sciences and the elite academic authorities thereof, largely denying the universality of morality entirety. The other places their utmost emphasis on the ethical and political authority of the general populace, while largely denying the universality of reality entirely.
But each of the faults of each of those trends of thought stem ultimately from haphazardly falling one way or another into one of the two worldviews that commensurablism is most truly a synthesis of: fideist objectivism and skeptical subjectivism. I aim to adapt and shore up the strengths of each of those opposing views, while rejecting those parts of each against which the other has sound arguments, resulting in this new view that retains the best of both and the worst of neither, being critical yet universalist about both reality and morality.
On Reality, Truth, and Knowledge
With regards to opinions about reality, commensurablism boils down to forming initial opinions on the basis that something, loosely speaking, looks true (and not false), and then rejecting that and finding some other opinion to replace it with if someone should come across some circumstance wherein it looks false in some way.
And, if two contrary things both look true or false 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 (and not false) 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 universal truth.
In short, the universal truth is the limit of what still seems true upon further and further investigation. We can't ever reach that limit, 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.
(It is trivially simple to satisfy everyone's different sensations with a theory that we’re all in different virtual worlds being fed different experiences, but theories that involve us all being in the same world together get trickier).
This commensurablist approach to reality may be called "critical empirical realism", as realism is the descriptive face of universalism, 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.
On Morality, Goodness, and Justice
With regards to opinions about morality, commensurablism boils down to forming initial opinions on the basis that something, loosely speaking, feels good (and not bad), and then rejecting that and finding some other opinion to replace it with if someone should come across some circumstance wherein it feels bad in some way.
And, if two contrary things both feel good or bad 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 (and not bad) 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 universal good.
In short, the universal good is the limit of what still seems good upon further and further investigation. We can't ever reach that limit, 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.
(It is trivially simple to satisfy everyone's different appetites with a strategy to put us all in different virtual worlds and feed us different experiences, but strategies that involve us all being in the same world together get trickier).
This commensurablist approach to morality may be called "liberal hedonic moralism", as moralism is the prescriptive face of universalism, 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.
Some philosophers, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, end up advocating what is called a "quietism" about philosophy by the time they reach the end of their own philosophizing. A quietism about philosophy is the view that there is nothing positive to say on the topic of philosophy, only things to say about what not to do, and so once some philosopher has spoken against the errors that are commonly made by all other philosophers, there is nothing more to say about philosophy: after that, philosophy should not be done anymore, because to say anything else would only be to philosophize badly.
I think that philosophy is no different than any other topic in that respect. Critical-liberal methods as I've already advocated above mean that all you're ever justified in saying on any topic is that the answer to a question is not within a certain range of possibilities, only ever saying that it must be in some range or another to the extent that that that is just a rephrasing of saying what range it must not be within.
But as already elaborated above, it is always still a range of possibilities that remains, a range that can always be further narrowed, a single exact answer never conclusively pinned down. Consequently, as much can still be said on the topic of philosophy as can be said on any other topic, as the process of narrowing down the possible answers – elaborating on what answers are not possible, as a quietist philosopher sets out to do – continues indefinitely, never being finished.
But like the quietist philosopher, I do think that philosophy done well is largely if not entirely about explaining the ways that philosophy may be done poorly, and why those ways are poor. To that end, before I get into any of my more specific views on the various sub-topics of philosophy, I must elaborate further on the broad ways in which I think philosophy is commonly done wrongly.
My phenomenalism may superficially sound similar to relativism (both being kinds of subjectivism), inasmuch as there being nothing more to things than their experiential qualities sounds superficially similar to there being no actual things at all, only the appearance of them. Conversely, my universalism may sound like it could entail transcendentalism (both being kinds of objectivism), for the same reasons but in reverse.
Likewise, my liberalism may superficially sound similar to dogmatism (both being kinds of fideism), inasmuch as not requiring justification to hold an opinion sounds superficially similar to condoning appeals to faith. Conversely, my criticism may sound like it could entail cynicism (both being kinds of skepticism), for the same reasons but in reverse.
This conflation of liberalism with dogmatism into just undifferentiated fideism, or equivalently of criticism with cynicism into just undifferentiated skepticism, and likewise of phenomenalism with relativism into just undifferentiated subjectivism, or equivalently of universalism with transcendentalism into just undifferentiated objectivism, leads many people, I suspect, to see the only available options as a transcendent dogmatic view, or else a cynical relativist view:
- Those who reject relativism, as I do, and correctly adopt its negation, universalism, but wrongly equate phenomenalism with relativism and thus universalism with transcendentalism, then correctly see that transcendentalism entails dogmatism, and so conclude that the only alternative to relativism is dogmatism. If they likewise correctly see that rejecting relativism entails rejecting cynicism, but wrongly equate criticism with cynicism and thus liberalism with dogmatism, they will likewise conclude that the only alternative to relativism is dogmatism. In either case, from their correct rejection of relativism, they find themselves seemingly but wrongly compelled to adopt dogmatism.
- Those who reject dogmatism, as I do, and correctly adopt its negation, criticism, but wrongly equate liberalism with dogmatism and thus criticism with cynicism, then correctly see that cynicism entails relativism, and so conclude that the only alternative to dogmatism is relativism. If they likewise correctly see that rejecting dogmatism entails rejecting transcendentalism, but wrongly equate universalism with transcendentalism and thus phenomenalism with relativism, they will likewise conclude that the only alternative to dogmatism is relativism. In either case, from their correct rejection of dogmatism, they find themselves seemingly but wrongly compelled to adopt relativism.
But a universal phenomenalism is not relativistic, and a phenomenal universalism is not transcendent, viewing the world as wholly independent of anyone's opinions about it, but in no part inaccessible to all experience of it. Likewise a critical liberalism is not dogmatic, and a liberal criticism is not cynical, viewing the search for answers as a ongoing narrowing-down from initially unlimited possibilities, not the construction of absolute certainties built upon foundations that themselves rest ultimately on nothing.
The differentiation of those superficial similarities, and so the opening up of possibilities besides those two extremes, is the key insight at the core of my entire general philosophy, embracing:
- universalism (the right objectivism) without transcendentalism (the wrong objectivism),
- criticism (the right skepticism) without cynicism (the wrong skepticism),
- liberalism (the right fideism) without dogmatism (the wrong fideism), and
- phenomenalism (the right subjectivism) without relativism (the wrong subjectivism).
Over the next four essays, I will elaborate further on the implications of my core principles of universalism, criticism, liberalism, and phenomenalism, as they relate to various broad approaches to philosophy:
- In the essay Against Relativism, I will illustrate how my position against unanswerable questions rules out the possibility of solipsism and egotism, as well as particular kinds of idealism about both reality and morality.
- In the essay Against Dogmatism, I will illustrate how my position against unquestionable answers rules out the possibility of both appeals to authority and appeals to popularity.
- In the essay Against Cynicism, I will illustrate how my position against relativism in turn rules out the possibility of justificationism about either reality or morality, as well as the reduction of prescription to description (scientism) and the reduction of description to prescription (constructivism).
- And in the essay Against Transcendentalism, I will illustrate how my position against dogmatism in turn rules out the possibility of supernaturalism and the moral analogue thereof that I term supernurturalism, as well as particular kinds of materialism about both reality and morality.
Continue to the next essay, Against Relativism.