Dennett on pointless philosophy

Daniel Dennett argues that exploring some philosophical problems is like exploring a game he calls “chmess”:

Chmess is just like chess except that the king can move two squares in any direction, not one. (…) There are just as many a priori truths of chmess as there are of chess (an infinity), and they are just as hard to discover. And that means that if people actually did get involved in investigating the truths of chmess, they would make mistakes, which would need to be corrected, and this opens up a whole new field of a priori investigation, the higher-order truths of chmess, such as the following:

1. Jones’ (1989) proof that p is a truth of chmess is flawed: he overlooks the following possibility…

2. Smith’s (2002) claim that Jones’ (1989) proof is flawed presupposes the truth of Brown’s lemma (1975), which has recently been challenged by Garfinkle (2002)…

You’ve guessed what he’s getting at with this: sophisticated theorising about chmess may be impressive, but ultimately it’s just a waste of intellectual potential. Philosophers need to separate projects worth pursuing from chmess-like projects. Here’s Dennett’s idea on how to do it:

One good test to make sure you’re not just exploring the higher-order truths of chmess is to see if people aside from philosophers actually play the game. Can anybody outside of academic philosophy be made to care whether you’re right about whether Jones’ counterexample works against Smith’s principle? Another such test is to try to teach the stuff to uninitiated undergraduates. If they don’t ‘‘get it,’’ you really should consider the hypothesis that you’re following a self-supporting community of experts into an artifactual trap.

Does it work though? I’m not fully convinced. First of all, I completely disagree with Dennett on the a priori bit. He believes that “philosophy is an a priori discipline, like mathematics, or at least it has an a priori methodology at its core” – as I wrote here before, this seems to be a misunderstanding. That’s the main reason why I think typical philosophical problems aren’t like chmess – nor like chess, for that matter. But let’s leave it aside and assume he’s right. Is his test any good?

Looking for an illustration, I stumbled upon this game and got hooked.

I have three objections. First, people can be made to care about all sorts of things, like Kim Kardashian’s sex life or differences between iPhone 11 and iPhone 12. This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any value in studying them.

Secondly, it’s already well known that while non-philosophers care about some philosophical problems a lot, they aren’t too much bothered by others. Compare questions like: “Is abortion morally permissible?”, “Is capitalism justified?” or “Does God exist?” to questions like “Are there any abstract objects?”, “Is asserting that something is true the same as simply asserting it?” or “In order to have a certain belief, is it necessary to be related to one’s environment in a certain way?”. It’s clear that people find the latter much less exciting. But it’s not a good reason to think they’re less important, or that it makes less sense to investigate them. This becomes clear once we notice that the exciting problems are often dependent on the boring ones. For example, fun issues in practical ethics cannot be fully addressed without first solving some abstruse and tedious issues in metaethics. However the way in which the boring and the exciting are interrelated can also be quite obscure to laypeople. It is of course possible for them to discover it, but by the time they discover it they probably aren’t laypeople anymore.

This brings me to another reason why non-philosophers don’t find some philosophical problems attractive, which is they don’t really understand them. It’s not that easy to get one’s head around positions like representationalism about consciousness, or contextualism about knowledge. It might be the case that only philosophers care, or “can be made to care”, about whether those views are true, but this is only because no one else understrands them. And this surely isn’t a situation unique to philosophy: science is also full of problems only scientists can care about as only scientists can understand them. And just like in science, philosophical problems may or may not be worth exploring, but finding out whether they are is not something that can always be decided by consulting laypeople.

3 replies on “Dennett on pointless philosophy”

I’m always happy to see a new post here. Keep them coming!

I suspect you’re right that it’s in virtue of failing to understand it that a non-philosopher might fail to feel the pull of a philosophical problem. But the analogy you draw to support that hypothesis is, as I’m sure you’re aware, controversial.

This is because it assumes controversial similarities between philosophy and science. To mention the most salient (but to come at it from a few, slightly different angles): it assumes that expertise in science is like expertise in philosophy, or that the kind of knowledge gained through education in philosophy is like the kind gained through education in science, or that what it takes to turn the layman into a philosopher is like what it takes to turn the layman into a scientist.

Like I said, I’m sure you’re aware of this. I just thought I’d make it explicit.


As for the differences, I think they may well be there, but this doesn’t necessarily invalidate my analogy. For example, perhaps what it takes to turn the layman into a philosopher is not like what it takes to turn the layman into a scientist. However the bottom line is in both cases the layman is unable to understand certain problems, and therefore they can’t care about them, which is everything I need to make my point.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s