Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Rigor

Magicalersatz has a good post at "Feminist Philosophers" on the charge sometimes made that feminist philosophy is not sufficiently rigorous. 'Rigor' is a lot like 'clarity' in certain sectors of academic philosophy: it is a word that is used a lot, and in very different contexts, but people use it as if it required no explanation. People just think they know it when they see it. The post in question considers two possible informal ways of understanding 'rigor' -- the use of technical jargon and 'clear and careful argument'. I tend to think that neither of the adjectives here is of any use, but it is certainly the informal explanation you would probably most often get.

One other obvious candidate for what one might mean in general by 'rigor' is something like this: the systematic minimization of factors that can distort reasoning. This would have to include, however, close investigation of potential biases, a kind of critical investigation that in fact makes up a considerable portion of feminist philosophy. So faced with the claim that feminist philosophy, or philosophy of race, or philosophy of disability is 'not rigorous', this can only be taken in two senses: either the distorting factors that they investigate are nonexistent, themselves products of distorting factors, or we are simply saying that their attempt to minimize distorting factors is not itself systematic. The latter is obviously not a genuine problem -- that the work is incomplete does not imply that it is not good as far as it goes -- and the former quite obviously requires considerably more argument than just slapping a label on something.

Of course, whatever one means by 'rigor', the criticism seems to be quite the cop-out. Let's take it at face value. Here is a field in philosophy that is 'not sufficiently rigorous'. So, then, the obvious response of a reasonable person to this is not to dismiss the field but to work on making it rigorous. It reminds me of people who drop various dismissive complaints about philosophy of religion; it's obviously the case that religion exists, so even if one were sincere about the complaints, why would one take the complaints as reason to drop philosophical analysis of religion rather than to contribute to making it better? But this sort of deliberate insistence on being an uncooperative malcontent seems disturbingly common. (It's interesting, incidentally, to contrast this with feminist philosophers themselves, who certainly do complain a lot -- occupational hazard of any approach to philosophy in which critique plays a big part -- but they also quite commonly jump in and try to show how it should be done. That's why one can easily find active work in feminist approaches to practically every field of philosophy. There is no one so stupidly useless for philosophy as someone who claims to be a philosopher and doesn't take 'this is not rigorous enough' or 'this is not clear enough' or any other such thing as a challenge to start making it rigorous/clear/whatever enough.)

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