What Is Good Philosophy?

06 February 2020

Not too long ago, I had a Twitter exchange with Philosophy Talk’s Joshua Landy about whether Sigmund Freud was a good philosopher. I took the position that Freud was a good philosopher (in fact, an excellent one) while Joshua expressed the opposite view. I left the conversation feeling perplexed. How could we have such wildly different assessments of the same guy? At first, I thought that one of us must be wrong, and started to worry that it was me. Then, reflecting further, it struck me that I’ve never given much thought to the question of what good philosophy is—and that maybe my dispute with Josh grew out of our having different background ideas about how to answer this question.


So, what is good philosophy? Is it just a matter of taste? Or are there guidelines for separating the wheat from the chaff?


One consideration is whether a piece of work is executed with technical proficiency. If a philosophical work is sloppy—for instance, because it relies on fallacious reasoning, out-and-out contradictions, or ignores counterexamples—this certainly might count against its being good philosophy. Technical correctness is an attractive criterion because it’s pretty black-and-white. Determining whether an argument is valid is, at least in principle, a purely objective matter. That’s why such judgments often take pride of place as a sieve through which journal submissions are passed when editors have to make a call about whether to accept or reject an article for publication.


But logic and precision aren’t everything, and there are several problems with leaning too heavily on this criterion. One is that it’s possible (and I dare say quite common) for a philosopher to argue impeccably and yet produce philosophical work that’s utterly vapid, not to mention the fact that overly conscientious efforts to plug every argumentative hole by anticipating every possible objection can bury an interesting thesis under a mudslide of qualifications. Another problem is that even the “great” philosophical works—the ones that are included in the canon—are far being entirely lucid fallacy-free, even though their devoted interpreters may have a penchant for papering over cracks in their arguments. And in some cases, the quest for technical expertise just seems irrelevant. Complaining that Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is short on clear, explicit, logical argumentation simply misses the point. 


So, what other guidelines can we turn to? One is that good philosophy is often transformative. It helps us to see the world in new ways, revealing aspects that were previously invisible. I’ve never heard anyone gush that a work of philosophy changed their life because all of its arguments are deductively valid. Rather, they say that it made a difference to them by shining a light in the darkness, making familiar things seem unfamiliar, or helping them attend to what’s truly important in life.


If transformativeness is a philosophical virtue, then there’s something irreducibly subjective about the goodness of philosophical work, because whether or not a piece of philosophy is transformative depends a lot on the receptivity of its consumers. There’s also an aesthetic element involved  in this: the form of philosophical discourse is important as well as its content. Some kinds of writing are more likely to have greater impact on some people than other kinds have, even if they all express exactly the same ideas. 


What about originality? Planting a new question on the intellectual landscape surely counts in favor of a work being an example of good philosophy. That’s true even if the originator doesn’t pursue an answer to the question very well (or even if they never try to answer it—think of Socrates). Originality is often tied to productivity. A philosophical work is productive to the extent that it spawns more philosophical work in an ongoing research tradition. Alfred North Whitehead’s famous remark that the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato epitomizes this idea. Works included in the philosophical canon are by definition highly productive—giving rise to whole philosophical traditions and counter-traditions, and vast, labyrinthine literatures. 


But it’s important to recognize that the productivity of a philosophical work rests as much in the social, intellectual, and political milieu into which it is born as it does on the work’s inherent strengths. Copies of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, which is one of Western philosophy’s biggest hits, didn’t immediately fly off the bookstore shelves. Instead, it “fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots,” as Hume put it in an autobiographical sketch. If Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex had been written in 14th century Paris, it would have had a rather different reception than it did in 1949. Whether a seed produces a plant depends in large measure on the soil upon which it falls.


To wrap up, it’s hard to spell out exactly what good philosophy boils down to. There’s a diverse tangle of considerations involved which can flow together or come apart, and no clear metric for weighing them against one another. Deciding what’s good philosophy is a messy, often subjective, and historically contingent business. Perhaps, then, there are many ways that works of philosophy can be good, and the fact that smart, well-informed people can disagree so vehemently about them should be celebrated as reflecting the richness and complexity of our peculiar discipline.


Comments (5)

MJA's picture


Sunday, February 9, 2020 -- 2:55 PM

Philosophy is truth, and

Philosophy is truth, and truth is neither good or bad, it just is. Now the effects of truth can be either good or bad depending on the circumstances, but that is not the question.

There are though many philosophical ideas that have been proven untrue through the tests of time, Plato's forms for example. and they would be considered not bad or good but simply incorrect, right?

So of all the philosophy that we currently know, that has been written, is any of it true? What is true?
Has philosophy found the answer yet?
You know, the absolute. In physics, certainty. In religion, God. In justice, beyond the grayness of fair. In democracy, the truth that we hold self-evident.
What is the single truth that solves them all, I think it is good to know.


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, February 9, 2020 -- 12:08 PM

I think, based on some things

I think, based on some things I have been reading lately, that this is the wrong question. One needs to switch a couple of words around, in order to get at the right one. The question should be (and I have this on good authority): What good is philosophy? Well, for example, Jefferson, Madison and several other founding fathers found Enlightenment philosophers helpful when it came to crafting a New World government. Men like Hume and Rousseau grabbed their attention. Now, we do not give as much credence to such historical figures today, but, this is now, and different philosophical issues, perhaps deeper ones, demand attention. Good philosophy, though, is, arguably, that which gets published, or at least that which affords a livelihood for its'. practitioners. There are so many variations and so much squabbling among those in the discipline, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish smoke from fire. Pragmatism speaks to some, while leaving others cold.. Some fairly worship Davidson, Dewey, Nagel and others of the ilk; while some think Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, et al, had the most to say about human conditions (The Human Condition is a tired platitude which ought to be re-tired or buried, even though I still use it, in the context of that caveat.) Michel Foucault has his loyal admirers. What IS good philosophy? I really don't know, but I have learned a lot in the last twenty years. And I have learned from a diversity of philosophical treatises. I may even revisit Habermas, because apparently my first exposure to his notions was too early in the game. I probably will not read Plato; Socrates; Aristotle; and others of their time. Because that was then; this is now; I have my own philosophy to do and precious little time to do it...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 -- 11:06 AM

Not that it is all that

Not that it is all that directly related to this post, or even all that interesting, in itself, I thought I'd share an excerpt from a recent essay of mine concerning knowledge, opinion and belief. My previous comment, above (February 9, 2020)might serve as an introduction, of sorts, to the following:

...It is seductive to posit that if there were a continuum on which opinion,belief and knowledge might rest, belief would naturally fall somewhere between the others. But, I do not know how that could be right. Opinions can be based on facts and other bits of knowledge, while knowledge obtains its own unassailable standing, PRO SE. More often, a belief is based only on what someone has said about about something, rather than any nuggets of indisputable fact. Belief, as such, lies within a never-land, not demonstrably true, yet neither indubitably false...

So, good philosophy MAY be strictly in the eyes and ears of the beholder and what that beholder wants to believe, based on preferences and/or that cognitive bias, briefly discussed in an earlier post. Philosophers who ring resoundingly for me, may ring resoundingly hollow for someone else, and the other way round. That's the thing about beliefs and opinions---there are dozens of them out there... Over the last two days, I have 'pitched' an essay to a local newspaper. They seemed genuinely interested in publishing it---until I told them I did not wish to have my picture in the paper. I cited privacy concerns, which they chose to ignore. Ironically, part of the essay decried the narcissism and so-called 'transparency' of the world as we now know it. Apparently, the notion of privacy is archaic. In most quarters. Too bad policies are so inflexible.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, February 14, 2020 -- 9:11 AM

A few more thoughts on my 02

A few more thoughts on my 02/11/2020 comments::
...People confuse knowledge with opinion. That is a mistake. While opinion may be based, in part, on knowledge, this does not work the other way round. The larger mistake occurs when belief is confused with either of the former. Whereas opinion and knowledge reside, roughly, on the same 40 acres, belief lives on a totally different farm...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, February 26, 2020 -- 10:47 AM

What is GOOD philosophy? I

What is GOOD philosophy? I still don't know, but keep trying to write some anyway. Here's a late entry, based on language and the ways we can misuse it. Put it, if you wish, under the heading, philosophy of language. Fascinating topic, that.

The Veil of Deceit:

Transgression is no more than a watered-down term for aggression; a linguistic distinction with a softened prefix, in a guise of civility via diplomacy. Yet, there is nothing civil about either act. They are inseparably joined, head-to-foot: diluted hostility remains hostility nonetheless, and is, in the end, a regressive drain on the higher-order consciousness of which human beings are capable. Surreptitiousness is an evil of a particularly egregious sort. The placebo effect of language and its propensity to re-invent itself bestow an aura of acceptability and comfort on an uncertain world, while a veil of deceit blankets the broad horizon.