A little moderation helps

30 May 2012 | Story by Newsroom

Prof Bernhard WeissRight or wrong: Prof Bernhard Weiss suggested that a little humility is not always a bad thing when deciding which view is right, and which is not.

"It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom," is one of those trawlable aphorisms of Mahatma Gandhi you can quickly dig up with a half-decent Google search.

But that little truth was also the premise, sort of, of the inaugural lecture, delivered in May, of Professor Bernhard Weiss of the Department of Philosophy. Titled Disagreement: Its Epistemic Significance, Weiss' lecture started off, as any good philosophy talk should, with a problem.

The problem is this: a patient goes to see two doctors'”Dr X and Dr Y'”about a condition, and the two come to two very different verdicts about what's wrong with the patient. The patient clearly has no reason to prefer the one doctor's verdict to the other's.

But why should things be different for each doctor? It would seem that the only reason each doctor could have to stick with her own verdict is that it is hers. But that's "sheer chauvinism", said Weiss.

Given that, surely the rational step for each doctor is to reserve her judgement on the matter.

"However, the consequences of this concessive position '“ let's call it Moderation '“ are surely inadmissible," proposed Weiss.

For one thing, no one would ever have grounds to hold an opinion in controversial areas, for example, in philosophy.

"Almost every philosophical claim will be disputed by equally able and equally well-informed enquirers," he said.

So, in the end, said Weiss, Moderation would only lead to "a horrible and acute intellectual cramp".

On the other hand, sticking resolutely to one's own view at the expense of another's '“ when there is no reason to assume that that person is wrong '“ would not just be resolute, but "sheer bloody mindedness".

Weiss proposed a solution which he termed 'Humble Chauvinism'.

It's a view that takes on the best of both worlds '“ a little moderation, and a little chauvinism

"So we want some way to value our own views as in some sense privileged '“ we want to be chauvinists," Weiss explained. "But we want that to be tempered by the counter-evidence provided by opposing views '“ we want to be humble in our chauvinism."

This middle way, he went on, involves re-evaluating one's confidence in one's own belief. The contrary view of Dr X should require Dr Y not to give up her view, but at least to reappraise her confidence in its truth.

"So the suggestion is this: the evidence of others' judgements (and one's own) is not thrown into the pot of evidence and then used from a fresh perspective; rather, that evidence is used in forming a sense of one's own (and of others' reliability) which is then used in re-evaluating one's confidence in the original assessment of the original evidence."

Moreover, this way of incorporating the evidence of others' judgements was motivated as appropriate when one is an engaged enquirer rather than a mere information seeker, said Weiss.

He finally used his concept of Humble Chauvinism to reflect on academic enquiry. Typically academics are accorded some freedom of enquiry but only in a "context of academic structures which institute elaborate systems of authority".

As engaged enquirers, Weiss proposed, academics should be "immune to a certain kind of deference embodied in Moderate epistemology".

On the other hand, he said, as part of the enterprise of enquiry they will be involved in the business of appraising the reliability of enquirers. When institutionalised, this will require exercising an authority over their disciplines and, in the process, assuming a role as custodian of an intellectual heritage.

Download the podcast of Prof Berhard Weiss lecture.

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