Notes on a Global Philosophical Method (1. Intuitions and the Need for a Global Synthesis)

This is the first of a series of notes in which I try to think through the broad outline of what I’m calling “Global Synthesis” in philosophical method.  Basically, the idea is that philosophical development requires the creation of cosmopolitan philosophical theories and positions, via exposure to and understanding of a broad variety of philosophical traditions across the world and periods of history.  Ultimately, the best philosophical explanations will preserve not local, but global intuitions–where global intuitions are understood as those informed by synthesis of a variety of outlooks, cultural standpoints, and philosophical stances.  In this first note, I briefly consider the role of intuition in philosophy and the need for constructing globally informed intuitions.

I. Intuition and the Need for a Global Synthesis

There are a number of good reasons to look toward an integrated global philosophy, in which the global historical past and present contributes to the development of philosophical outlooks.  One key feature of philosophy that distinguishes it from the sciences is that it is largely done “from the armchair”, focusing on conceptual analysis and other largely non-empirical methods.  This is beginning to change to some extent, though it will likely always be the case that philosophers are less grounded in the empirical than scientists.  It likely has to be this way.  When we stop dealing with the conceptual and move fully to empirical science, we give up philosophy and move into the realm of the scientist.  And when we deal with the conceptual, we deal necessarily with ways of thought, with preconceptions and ideas shaped by culture, language, history, and a number of other factors.  Because of this, we can never assume that our armchair reflections are without position and that our intuitions are unaffected by the circumstances of our place and time.  As the early Chinese text Chunqiu Fanlu points out, “ideas have location”.  In order to understand our own location and to develop a more globally acceptable starting point for philosophy, we must look to the ways of thought of people around the globe and through history. That is, we need a “global synthesis” of ideas—to draw from a conceptual basket wider than that of contemporary Western analytic philosophy, or early Chinese ethical philosophy, or any other narrow tradition.  All too often, we do not look outside of the confines of our own narrow traditions, and so take our own intuitions as authoritative, taking the things that seem obvious or commonsensical to us as clearly demonstrated, self-evident, not in need of argument, or somehow “given”.

Almost all contemporary philosophy aims at trying to square our experience with our intuitions, with devising theories that explain or resolve philosophical problems in such a way as to do least violence to our prior conception of the world.  To some extent, things have to be this way, as there are many explanations consistent with what we observe, some wildly distant from our prephilosophical views, and some closer.  But we often treat these prephilosophical views themselves, our intuitions about the way the world is, as basic to human experience, and thus not themselves in need of defense.  It turns out it is not so.  If these intuitions were basic, we should expect people around the world and in all times to accept them—but when we investigate, we do not find this at all.  Indeed, some of our most doggedly held intuitions turn out to be things that most people who have lived on this planet did not hold, and we are in the minority.  Something being a minority view does not make it wrong, of course, but if we are going to appeal to intuitions and other prephilosophical ideas to ground our philosophical theories, then evidence that most of humanity does not and did not share these intuitions ought to give us pause and make us think that these foundations are not as solid as we believed.  We thought we were building on bedrock, when we may actually be building on quicksand.

But, you might ask, if we give up on basic ground-level intuitions, what do we have to work with?  It’s a good point—but it’s wrong to think that the only options we have are either grounding our views in current intuition or jettisoning them altogether and falling into something like skepticism.  What we need, I suggest, is to train our intuitions—that is, to develop them on the basis of a broader understanding of human experience and thought.  Given that our intuitions are shaped by our culture, language, and history, our locatedness, it should be no surprise that when our location is narrowly construed, our intuitions will likewise be provincial.  We will be unable to demonstrate that our intuitions are human intuitions just on the basis of our having them, because we can be demonstrated to be provincial humans!  The Zhuangzi offers a version of this objection (although it widens the scope to consider non-humans as well).  Where I differ from the Zhuangzi’s approach (and here am more on the side of the syncretic thinkers who authored the Huainanzi) is that I think the answer to this problem is not to discard the idea that intuition is a valuable guide and foundation in philosophy, but rather to broaden our location, so as to broaden the ideas determined by location.  What we want is intuitions that hold broadly, across categories and people.  We don’t want New York intuitions or Delhi intuitions, we want human intuitions. And if we want human intuitions, we have to become humans more broadly—that is, to become humans who occupy New York and Delhi, Johannesburg and Ulaanbaatar, who straddle Western and Asian and African thought.  What can move us from provincial location (and the provincial intuitions that come from it) to a broader human location (and broader intuitions) is global synthesis.

By “global synthesis,” I mean the construction of views that take into account the ideas of people around the world and across ages of history.  The basic idea is relatively simple.  If we want to make an enumerative induction, for example, concerning the traits of a particular kind of animal, we have to see a sufficient number of such animals. The more such animals we encounter, the stronger our conclusion will be.  If we see five dogs with spots and on the basis of this claim that “dogs have spots”, we will be making a bad induction, because our sample size is far too small. If we see one million dogs, across different parts of the world, all who have this feature, our conclusion that “dogs have spots” will have much greater support.  Of course, what we actually find when we go out into the world to look at dogs is that some dogs have spots and some don’t, and some have patches that are not quite spots but something else.  We can only maintain the (false) view that spottedness is somehow an essential feature of doghood if we stay within the narrow confines of a neighborhood in which all the dogs have spots.  And if we spend our lives in that neighborhood, with no outside contact, not only will we associate spottedness with doghood, but it will appear to us obviously so. Our entire experience of the world teaches us that dogs have spots, so to think otherwise would be bizarre.

This is all to say that, even if we require intuitions in order to ground our philosophical theories (and I think we do), not all intuitions are created equal—and provincial intuitions are much more likely to be badly wrong, because ideas have location. So what can we do?  As in the case of learning the nature of dogs—if we want to understand what features are essential features of dogs, we’ve got to go out of our neighborhood and look far and wide for different dogs, ultimately coming to a broader conception of what a dog is, based on a farther-reaching global observation.  The same should be the case for our intuitions and the foundations of philosophy.  And this will suggest varying levels of confidence about our own intuitions. Just as the careful thinker might refrain from trusting their intuition that all dogs have spots because they recognize that there may be many more dogs out there than the 5 in their neighborhood, a careful philosopher should subject their intuitions to scrutiny by comparing them to intuitions held by others around the world and in different periods.  It turns out that when we do this, our intuitions can change, and change quite radically.  We all know that the intuitions of non-philosophers are often different from those of philosophers.  What likely accounts for this is that philosophers have been trained in certain ways, initiated into particular kinds of practice, and inhabit a certain culture that differs from that of the wider society, and brings with it certain ways of thinking and certain ideas that seem intuitive.  Likewise, one who studies the philosophical thought of people across the globe will come to form different intuitions than those who more narrowly focus on one particular area, whether this area is in the West or East, North or South, the U.S., China, India, Mexico, or wherever else.

A key aspect of a global synthesis, then, is to encounter philosophical thought from around the world, rather than staying put within one tradition (or few traditions).  In order to form more global intuitions, we have to become part of global intellectual communities.  We need not understand this in terms of social interactions with various scholars across the globe (although that certainly helps, and is a good thing for many other reasons too!), but can broaden our intellectual horizon through encountering the philosophical work of traditions across the globe.  As we understand and integrate the thought of these traditions, our own intuitions will inevitably change.  The aim is that the more traditions we understand, and the better we understand them, we will converge on some shared basic intuitions, and these intuitions will be the result of the global synthesis—a far more secure ground on which to build philosophical theories.  An interesting feature of this synthesis, of course, is that we can expect the intuitions it generates to be different than those of any of the individual perspectives and traditions brought together through the synthesis.  But of course we should expect this—any synthesis of multiple things creates a new entity that is related to, but non-identical to, the synthesized parts. Just like an individual human being shares traits with parents and ancestors but is not simply an extension of either, the results of global synthesis will share features with the synthesized parts, without being simply a collection of those parts.  The result is thus a fusion rather than a collection. We generate something new.  Of course, because this fusion is necessarily non-identical to what came before, the distinctness of particular traditions and locations is lost, which some may see as a problem.  In my next entry, I explain why I think this is not a problem (even though it might be one on other conceptions of synthesis, such as the corporate model of modern globalization).

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