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To be bold or cautious?

Some philosophers are bold; they defend strong positions with few hedges or caveats. Others are cautious; they defend weak positions with many hedges and caveats. Which of these two approaches, bold or cautious, is better?

I can’t offer a full analysis of what it is for one philosopher to be more bold (or less cautious) than another. But I can suggest one sufficient condition: if the central thesis defended by philosopher X is logically stronger than that defended by philosopher Y, then X is more bold (less cautious) than Y. For example, if X’s position is P, and Y’s position is P or Q, then X is more bold.

Now suppose that two groups of four philosophers are asked to take up and defend positions with respect to two propositions, P and Q. One group is bold. The four philosophers in this group adopt the following four positions:

B1. P and ~Q
B2. ~P and Q
B3. P and Q
B4. ~P and ~Q

The other group is cautious. The four philosophers in this group adopt the following four positions:

C1. P or ~Q
C2. ~P or Q
C3. P or Q
C4. ~P or ~Q

Notice, each philosopher in the first group is more bold than at least three in the second group (e.g. the philosopher who defends B1 is more bold than those who defend C1, C3, and C4).

Which group, if either, has a better approach? Which group would you prefer to be in?

If you want to maximise your chances of defending a true position, then the cautious approach is for you. Three cautious philosophers defend true positions, whereas only one bold philosopher defends a true position.

On the other hand, if it’s more important to you to know what the truth is, regardless of whether it’s a position that you personally defend, then, arguably, the bold approach is for you. There is reason to think that the bold philosophers, working together, are more likely to discover the truth than the cautious.

Suppose we ask both groups of philosophers whether P is true or false. The bold philosophers will divide into two opposing camps, two saying “True” and two “False”, whereas the cautious philosophers will all sit on the fence, all of them saying “Maybe true, maybe false”. While we we can therefore expect lively debate in the bold group, we can’t expect any debate in the cautious group. If philosophical debate is conducive to discovering the truth, then the bold group is more likely to discover the truth.

(Incidentally, I’m unsure of the precise relation between bold-vs-cautious philosophy and badass-vs-wussy philosophy.)

20 Responses to To be bold or cautious?

  1. Simon Rippon says:

    “Suppose we ask both groups of philosophers whether P is true or false. The bold philosophers will divide into two opposing camps, two saying “True” and two “False”, whereas the cautious philosophers will all sit on the fence, all of them saying “Maybe true, maybe false”. While we we can therefore expect lively debate in the bold group, we can’t expect any debate in the cautious group.”
    Huh? What kinds of things are the bold philosophers supposed to say in defense of P/~P? Do they have anything else to say – more than just [thumping the table]: P!!!? If so, why can’t the cautious philosophers also have a debate about whether P, using – with the requisite degree of skepticism – the same arguments and evidence?

  2. Heath White says:

    Surely there is no single answer here? Being super-cautious is boring, not likely to improve the state of anyone’s understanding. Being super-bold is likely to just stick you out on a wrong limb. How bold or cautious to be, at what time in which dispute, is a judgment call. Probably the profession benefits when you have some who tend to be bold, and some who tend to be cautious.

  3. Mark LeBar says:

    I fear this is a wussy response, but: why do we have to choose? Is philosophical investigation to serve just one purpose so that either the bold or the cautious approach does so better than the other? Why not think that it can serve multiple purposes, not only across multiple investigators, but for individual investigators across time, or even at one time across issues? It seems to me that, as an appreciator of others’ work, sometimes what I value in their work is precisely their boldness, and sometimes precisely where boldness perhaps generates more heat than light.

  4. From the perspective of the individual, it’s better to be bold when appropriate, and cautious when appropriate. (There’s a cautious answer!) But since we can’t always know which is appropriate in a given situation, it’s worth thinking about the question Campbell has posed.
    From the perspective of the group, it’s better if some philosophers tend to be bold, and others tend to be cautious. The latter will have lots of work correcting the errors of the former. But without the interesting (though frequently misguided) proposals and speculations of the former, the latter may have little to do.
    I think a lot of contemporary philosophy suffers from an excess of caution. This is particularly true in post-Rawlsian political philosophy, many of whose practitioners, it often seems, hesitate to advance a claim if they think someone might disagree with it, and so end up advancing claims that are qualified-to-death, to the point where there is almost nothing for anyone to disagree with! (To an extent this reflects the political vision given to us by Rawls himself, where all potentially contentious matters are to be excluded from public debate and relegated to the private realm.)
    I’ve also had the increasing sense of late that many journals’ editorial policies are governed by a preference for the cautious over the bold. That is, they would prefer to publish an article whose claims are likely mostly true, but quite uninteresting, to an article that makes very interesting claims that might turn out to be false. This, I think, is an unfortunate tendency.

  5. According to Meg’s criteria, one wussy-making feature is:
    “1. Epistemic Safety: whenever a view compromises metaphysical commitments for epistemological reasons, it’s totally wussing out. Rambo doesn’t sit and worry about whether he knows if he’s sewing his arm up right, or whether the make-shift needle will do the trick, or whether he’s losing too much blood, etc. He dives right in, gore and guts and all, epistemic status be damned.”
    Doesn’t that mean cautious views are wussy, at least if they’re engaged in for the purpose of being epistemically safe?

  6. First, you’re all big girl’s blouses.
    Now, a few bold replies:
    Simon. You ask:

    Why can’t the cautious philosophers also have a debate about whether P, using – with the requisite degree of skepticism – the same arguments and evidence?

    As I was thinking of it, a philosopher’s position, in a given domain, is the conjunction of all propositions in that domain that he is prepared to defend. Thus, by hypothesis, none of the cautious philosophers is prepared either to defend P or to defend ~P. So they can’t debate whether P is true or false, because that would require taking sides, defending propositions that they’re not prepared to defend.
    Heath. What’s wrong with going “out on a wrong limb”? If no one ever goes out on it, how will we know it’s wrong? (I’m sounding like Mill now.)
    Mark. Your view may be wussy, but it’s not cautious, at least not by the criterion I gave. Consider three positions:
    1. Bold philosophy is always better than cautious.
    2. Cautious philosophy is always better than bold.
    3. Sometimes bold is better, sometimes cautious.
    It does seem that (3) more cautious, but it’s not logically weaker. Perhaps we need to add another criterion: the more vague a view is, the more cautious. For any particular instance of bold-vs-cautious philosophy, (3) doesn’t say which is better, whereas (1) and (2) both do. So (3) is more vague.
    Troy. I sometimes find Rawls himself to be excessively cautious. Here’s an example. He begins A Theory of Justice by making a nice bold claim: justice is the first virtue of social institutions. But after briefly elaborating what he means by this, in the next paragraph he takes it all back, saying something like “no doubt I’ve expressed this view too strongly”. What’s the point of that?
    Jeremy. Yes, but another criterion of wussy philosophy, “3. Having Your Cake and Eating it Too”, doesn’t fit cautious philosophy very well. Suppose the orthodoxy is that P and Q are incompatible. So there’s one camp of philosophers arguing for P and against Q, and another arguing for Q and against P. Then the wussy philosopher is one who comes along and says P and Q, not being incompatible after all, are both true. But the wussy view is not more cautious. Logically, P&Q is not weaker than either P&~Q or ~P&Q.

  7. Brad C says:

    Interesting post!
    It seems to me the boldness of a philosophical argument or of espousing a view is more a factor of how counter-intuitive and contentious one’s claims are – where those are relative to one’s background conceptual community or that of one’s audience – than of logical properties. Boldness takes courage, after all, and it does not take much courage to assert a long conjunction of uncontentious platitudes.
    Rough glosses: a view is robustly counterintuitive if it is revisionary, rather than descriptive, relative to the relevant conceptual scheme/community (Davidson is grumbling in the backgrond, of course); a view is more contentious if one’s argument is disposed to elicit intelligent criticism from those in the relevant community.
    This view might cast doubt on the claim that “each philosopher in the first group is more bold than at least three in the second group”
    Consider:
    P = The earth is round
    Q = Killing the innocent is sometimes justified
    I do not think that B3 (P and Q) is more bold than C3 (P or ~Q) or C1 (P or Q).
    Since P is uncontentious for us, B3 and C1 are each tantamount to holding that Q, and C3 is tantamount to holding ~Q. Now assuming that and both Q and ~Q are roughly equally contentious, the people holding the views are just about equally bold. Another example could be used of course, if the antecedent there is rejected (and a case where P is something like ‘2+2=4’ is interesting to compare)

  8. David Sobel says:

    Most wise Professor Brown,
    Although I have no view on the matter, as these confusing topics are well beyond my ken, I could imagine someone else, no doubt badly confused, who might think that some parts of your previous argument could perhaps be imperfect.
    What if this confused fellow said that one can present arguments for and against a position without oneself taking a stand on the question? Thus this imagined person questions your claim that “none of the cautious philosophers is prepared either to defend P or to defend ~P. So they can’t debate whether P is true or false, because that would require taking sides” is true. The obnoxious and foolish person I am imagining thinks one can debate questions and argue about them without taking a stand about the correct resolution of the question. They think one can always mimic the argumentative powers of the bold by the simple device of saying, “suppose I thought that P was true, then consider this argument for Q.”
    Could I trouble you to set this buffoon right?

  9. I’m wondering if the bold / cautious question is supposed to be the same one under discussion in debates about Pyrrhonian skepticism. Those skeptics seem like the ultimate cautious philosophers. They counseled abstaining from belief in one side of a question or the other as far as possible.
    There are two relevant sorts of questions that I’ve heard come up in debates about Pyrrhonian skepticism — an epistemic one and a pragmatic one — and they suggest two different ways of addressing the question “Which of these two approaches, bold or cautious, is better?”
    The first question concerns the epistemic value of believing the truth versus the epistemic disvalue of believing falsehood. If you think that the disvalue of believing falsehood is tremendous, and if you have a correspondingly strict account of epistemic justification, you’re going to be cautious. It’s hard for me to give a good characterization of what the value of boldness is. For the reasons that David’s imaginary buffoon suggests, I don’t see that the bold philosophers will have an advantage in finding truth in the way Campbell suggested.
    And even if boldness puts you on a better path to truth than caution does, there’s something consequentialist about holding that in its favor that seems odd in a discussion of epistemic norms. Despite all my talk of value and disvalue above, I’m used to epistemic norms looking more deontic than this. Maybe the conduciveness of boldness to eventually having more true beliefs is just a pragmatic benefit. (Compare a situation where Alvin Goldman wins the lottery and endows lots of chairs at good departments that may only be filled by reliabilists. Being a reliabilist then helps you form more true beliefs, because it helps you get a position with great colleagues who will increase your stock of true beliefs. But this has no effect on whether reliabilism is correct as far as non-pragmatic epistemic norms are concerned. The connection between boldness and truth that Campbell suggests seems a little like that to me.)
    Pragmatic questions were a big deal in the ancient debate — does it advance your well-being to be bold or cautious? Pyrrhonian skeptics held that withholding belief on questions would put you in a pleasantly worry-free state called ataraxia. This was supposed to be a considerable pragmatic argument for their view. (I don’t know how to deal with sentences that begin, ‘Pyrrhonian skeptics held’ either…)
    I don’t know whether you’re more interested in the epistemic question or some version of the pragmatic question, and I don’t really know what to say about either one. But it’s probably best to separate them, with certain ways of promoting true belief falling on the pragmatic side.

  10. I propose that to simplify the question a bit: Instead of asking which of these two approaches is better, ask which is better if your sole desire is to get employed in a philosophy departement.
    Are there many “enfant terribles” with tenure? I’m genuinely wondering.

  11. Brad. I meant “or” in the inclusive sense, so that (P or Q) is consistent with, indeed implied by, (P and Q). Defending (P or Q) is therefore not tantamount to defending ~Q, even when P is uncontentious. If “or” is read exclusively, as I think you were doing, then (P or Q) is not logically weaker than (P and Q), and so defending (P or Q) need not be more cautious than defending (P and Q) by my proposed criterion.
    Professor Sobel. All I’ve claimed is that one cannot participate in a debate without taking a side. This seems undeniable. Debating without taking a side would be like playing tennis while straddling the net — entirely futile (and not very comfortable). But perhaps your imaginary friend is making the point that one can discuss an issue, raising considerations pro and con, without entering into a debate. This seems a good point. If discussion is no less conducive to truth than debate, then my argument fails to show that the bold are more likely to discover the truth than the cautious. So your friend might not be such a buffoon after all.
    (By the way, I’m not a professor any more. They stripped me of that title when I came to the UK. Now I’m a lowly lecturer.)
    Neil. That’s interesting. But I think it concerns a different issue, namely, what philosophers should believe. I was concerned, rather, with what philosophers should defend. These needn’t be the same. Philosophers can defend propositions they don’t believe, and believe propositions they don’t defend.
    Indeed we might exploit the conceptual gap between belief and defence to give a more general analysis of bold-vs-cautious philosophy. Bold philosophers defend propositions in which they have low credence; cautious philosophers defend propositions in which they have high credence. This would support the view, suggested earlier by Heath, that neither extreme is desirable. The most bold philosopher defends only contradictions, while the most cautious defends only tautologies. Neither seems very helpful. Perhaps, then, the thing to aim for is the “golden mean”: defend only propositions in which you have a credence of 0.5, i.e. where you’re precisely at the point of suspending judgement.

  12. Brad C says:

    Campbell,
    I understood you to be using inclusive V; I did not claim that “Defending (P or Q) is tantamount to defending ~Q”
    I wrote:”I do not think that B3 (P and Q) is more bold than C3 (P or ~Q) or C1 (P or Q). Since P is uncontentious for us, B3 and C1 are each tantamount to holding that Q, and C3 is tantamount to holding ~Q.”
    I am saying that defending (P and Q) is tantamount to defending Q and that (P or Q) is as well (even thought the latter is logically weaker). It is defending (P or ~Q) that I take to be tantamount to defending ~Q.
    I agree, of course, that the statements using (inclusive) ‘or’ are logically weaker than those using ‘and’; I only meant to question the claim that “each philosopher in the first group is more bold than at least three in the second group.”
    That claim does not follow from the fact that those in the first group are logically stronger than those in the second. I am questioning, in other words, the way you have understood logical strength to be sufficient for boldness.

  13. Brad C says:

    Man, my criticism is nit-picky, if not cautious.

  14. Brad,
    I don’t understand how defending (P or Q) could be tantamount to defending Q, even when P is uncontentious. Take your example, where P = “The earth is round”. My view is that (P or Q) is true. If I had to defend this view, I would say there is very strong evidence for P, and P logically implies (P or Q). But this cannot be tantamount to defending Q; the same defence could be given no matter what Q was.
    [By the way, you’ve changed C1. In my original post I defined C1 as (P or ~Q). But in your comments you’ve changed it to (P or Q). If we revert to my original definition and interpret the “or” exclusively, then it’s not hard to see how defending C1 might be tantamount to defending Q when P is uncontentious. For in that case the conjunction of P and C1 implies Q. That’s why I assumed you were reading “or” exclusively.]

  15. Brad C says:

    Cambell,
    You are right and thanks for being charitable about the quickly shot off response – I should be more careful even in the blogsphere.
    Any way, I still think that being contentious or counter intuitive are better guides to boldness than logical strength – what do you think of that suggestion?

  16. Brad C says:

    I am still trying to get at what bothered me.
    How about this as a counterexample:
    P = The earth is round
    Q = Brad’s first criticism was unsound
    It is hard to see how the defender of (P & Q) is “more bold” than three of these:
    C1. Defends (P or ~Q)
    C2. Defends (~P or Q)
    C3. Defends (P or Q)
    C4. Defends (~P or ~Q)
    I would think that she is just as bold as C1, C2, and C3, and less bold than C4. And I suspect that we could explain why logical strength does not track boldness here by appeal to the concepts of contentiousness and counter intuitiveness (or something like them).

  17. Brad,
    Here’s an argument for the view that defending (P & Q) is more bold than defending (P v Q).
    For simplicity, I shall write “P > Q” to mean that defending P is more bold (less cautious) than defending Q.
    First, I think that for any epistemically contingent propositions P and Q the following is true:

    1. P > (P v Q)

    (By epistemically contingent I mean we do not know with certainty either that the proposition is true or that it’s false. I assume that being epistemically contingent is compatible with being uncontentious.)
    By substitution, (1) implies:

    2. (P v Q) > ((P v Q) v R)

    By transitivity of >, (1) and (2) imply:

    3. P > ((P v Q) v R)

    By substitution, (3) implies:

    4. (P & Q) > (((P & Q) v (P & ~Q)) v (~P & Q))

    And (4) is equivalent to:

    5. (P & Q) > (P v Q)

    Which step do you reject?

  18. Brad says:

    Hi Campbell,
    At first, I would have rejected 1 — because I assume that to do something bold, one must be running a significant risk and that asserting two non-contentious propositions does not do the trick.
    But as I thought about it at a family wedding today, it occurred to me that one could use ‘bolder than’ in the way that we use ‘taller than’; I could admit that one person is taller than another in a context where neither one is tall (two short men who walk into a tall men convention).
    But as the start of your post suggests, I think we are more interested in the criteria for boldness, than in the criteria for one assertion’s being more or less bold than another.
    Brad

  19. Brad,
    Okay, I’m glad we sorted that out.
    I should say, by they way, that I agree with your more general suggestion: that the boldness of a position may depend in part on how counter-intuitive or revisionary it is. But I doubt that, say, (P v Q) could be more counter-intuitive or revisionary than P, given the logical relations between the two.

  20. Simon Rippon says:

    David Sobel, it would have been outrageously bold of you to call me a buffoon, were it not done so wittily. I therefore commend you!