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Philosophical Temperament

William James once said that history of philosophy was, to a certain extent, the history of clashing temperaments. Hilary Putnam has taken up the torch of James in the past few decades by focusing on the importance of values in our philosophical views. One of Putnam’s points–as I think the point was for James–was that the disagreements between philosophers and other intellectual thinkers throughout history is ultimately the result of differing temperaments (or holding different values…call them cognitive values). There comes a point when two individuals can know all the facts, have read all of the literature on an issue, be familiar with all the arguments and all the counterarguments, and yet they will still disagree with each other. The only plausible explanation for why this can be the case is if these two individuals hold differing cognitive values such they place more importance on one set of considerations as opposed to another set. Or they count some piece of evidence as strong rather than weak, or count a piece of evidence as evidence at all as opposed to something entirely irrelevant. There does not seem to be any dictate of reason that does, after all, tell us what evidence counts as relevant and what evidence does not. The difference in our temperaments turns out to be the fundamental explanation for why we find such differing schools of thoughts throughout the philosophical tradition. I think Putnam is right that values shape the core of our cognitive lives.

It is for these considerations that I think reason is ultimately unable to settle our most fundamental disagreements in philosophy (this is not to say that it cannot settle any of our differences). Two people can be completely reasonable and yet hold differing and incompatible views. This also raises an interesting issue that I often find myself dealing with: to what extent are our current philosophical views dependent upon our current state of mind (or our current temperament)? I suspect that there are parts of our temperament that are slow in changing and may not change at all throughout the greater part of our lives, Yet, I find myself being more drawn to certain views when I am feeling cynical and pessimistic while being drawn to other views when I am feeling hopeful and optimistic. And because the cynical and the hopeful views are both views that seem rationally acceptable, I am able to jump from one to the other. Perhaps I simply have a rare and unusual case of philosophical schizophrenia. 

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