From the literature of 2019
Every year, the editors of The Philosopher’s Annual set out to choose the ten best philosophy articles published that year. Upon receiving a list of superb articles from our nominating editors — a group of philosophers of varying specializations — the four primary editors of the Annual spend many months carefully reviewing the articles, combing through each one, and debating its merits. What it means for an article to be one of the year’s ‘best’ is, of course, a matter of contention. There is bound to be disagreement over what makes a philosophy article good, especially given the diversity in methodology and in subject matter within the discipline. However, we are confident that these ten articles are excellent works of philosophy that are more than worthwhile for all philosophers — regardless of specialization — to read.
In “Equal Treatment for Belief,” Susanna Rinard defends a thesis that is simple, yet radical: the question ‘what should I believe?’ is to be answered in the same way as the question ‘what should I do?’ Rinard thus challenges a widely held evidentialist view, according to which evidence is the only reason for belief. Her account of Equal Treatment gets the intuitively correct verdict about what to believe in many problem cases for evidentialism — for instance, in cases where a person’s chance of recovery from illness will be better if she believes against the evidence. In a time when many philosophers are interested in the role of pragmatic and moral influences on belief, Rinard’s proposal offers an intriguing reversal. Rather than trying to fit these concerns into an evidentialist framework, we should instead revisit our starting assumptions, and consider how belief and action might be more similar than we initially thought.
Grit, in the sense that is the core of Jennifer M. Morton and Sarah K. Paul’s article, is a disposition to persevere in one’s endeavors in spite of evidence that the risk of failure is high. Grit seems like a good and rational thing. But how can that be, if grit involves discounting genuine evidence about the likelihood that one will fail? In “Grit,” Morton and Paul argue that grit can be rational because the best ‘evidential policies’ we can use in our deliberation will often favor grit, as grit-friendly policies protect us against the ‘despair’ of giving up on our long-term goals. But whether an agent should reason with a grit-friendly policy depends on the context she normally finds herself in. In contexts of resource scarcity, where the costs of failure are catastrophic, it may be irrational to exhibit grit, as insensitivity to evidence concerning the likelihood of failure may lead to the investment of more effort than is worthwhile or healthy. Morton and Paul thus vividly illustrate how pragmatic considerations can legitimately shape the standards against which we evaluate our evidence.
Rinard, Morton, and Paul have prompted us to think about whether and in what cases we should use beliefs as a means to our ends. In “Games and the Art of Agency,” C. Thi Nguyen argues that when we play games, we engage in a special kind of means-end reasoning. According to Nguyen, games operate in the medium of agency, with players taking on the alternative agencies game designers prescribe for them. To experience the distinctive value of games, players must submerge themselves in these alternative agencies, adopting the temporary ends game designers set for them as something like final ends. Our ability to temporarily restructure our ends when we play games reveals something profound about our flexibility as agents. Games, Nguyen remarks, are “yoga for your agency.” Just as a yoga instructor might tell you exactly where to place your hands and feet in downward-facing dog in order to increase your physical flexibility, a game designer instructs you in how to engage in means-end reasoning to increase your agential flexibility.
The nature of so-called ‘full’ belief is a fraught topic in epistemology. Some writers have argued that full belief is merely maximal partial belief, or credence, while others have claimed that it is instead credence above some salient threshold. Both of these views are open to objections, however. In the case of the first, the claim can seem too strong: believing a proposition should be compatible with doubting it. In the case of the second, we can construct situations (like lottery paradoxes) in which the threshold can be set arbitrarily high, and yet rationality seems to require that one not fully believe the proposition in question. What, then, is the nature of full belief? In “Full Belief and Loose Speech”, Sarah Moss advances a compelling answer to this question. She draws an interesting parallel between cases involving full belief, on the one hand, and cases of loose speech, on the other. According to Moss, full belief is belief that’s as close to certain as is required for contextually relevant purposes, just as loose speech is speech that’s as close to accurate as is required for contextually relevant purposes. Moss also shows how her theory can be used to handle several long-standing puzzles in epistemology, providing each of these puzzles with a satisfying solution.
In “The Birth of Belief,” Jessica Moss and Whitney Schwab make an important contribution to our understanding of the historical development of belief, taking up the concept of doxa as discussed by Plato and Aristotle. While doxa is nearly always translated as “belief,” Moss and Schwab argue that this is a mistake, showing that doxa is neither entailed by knowledge nor mutually compatible with it — both of which are central features of the modern-day conception of belief. Instead, they argue that Aristotle’s hupolepsis — a generic attitude of “taking-to-be-true,” often translated as “supposition” — corresponds more closely to our contemporary understanding of belief. The authors close by exploring how the introduction of hupolepsis may have enabled a shift in epistemological debates toward questions of justification and immunity to error, which are central to contemporary debates but were not at the forefront of Plato or Aristotle’s epistemology.
Like Moss and Schwab, Jon McGinnis offers new insight into the historical development of a major philosophical concept. Unlike them, however, McGinnis focuses on a historical tradition that Western anglophone philosophers are less familiar with. In “A Continuation of Atomism: Shahrastānī on the Atom and Continuity,” McGinnis explores the history of atomism in medieval Islamic philosophy — noting that the influences, histories, and resulting concepts of Islamic atomism were quite different than those of the Christian West. McGinnis first lays out traditional kalām atomism, on which bodies have actual finite minimal parts that are physically and conceptually indivisible, as well as Avicenna’s criticism of this picture. According to Avicenna, the kalām picture is incompatible with deep-seated mathematical and physical intuitions, and he proposes instead that bodies have natural minima, rather than actual mereological parts. McGinnis then reveals that al-Shahrastānī actually developed a distinct formulation of atomism, on which bodies can have a finite number of possible, yet different, ways of being divided into atomic units, and that this picture is a direct response to Avicenna’s criticism of kalām atomism. Not only does McGinnis deliver a careful historical treatment of Islamic atomism, but he also does the important work of bringing attention to an intellectual tradition that has been under-discussed in anglophone philosophy.
Our aim in selecting articles for inclusion in the Annual is to assess them on the basis of their philosophical merits alone. It is therefore a coincidence that two of the papers this year bring historical perspectives to questions about infinity, albeit in very different ways.
David Hilbert famously said that “no one shall expel us from the paradise which Cantor has created for us.” In their article “Actual and Potential Infinity,” Øystein Linnebo and Stewart Shapiro note that the concept of ‘actual’ infinity has become firmly established since Cantor, eclipsing the ‘potential’ infinity that was taken to be the sensible alternative in thinkers from Aristotle well into the nineteenth century. Nowadays, the concept of potential infinity is often relegated to intuitionistic logic and an associated philosophical anti-realism. Linnebo and Shapiro offer a piece that is both historically motivated and logically rich, with an approach to potential infinity using the resources of modal logic. The authors offer one outline of potential infinity that sanctions classical rather than intuitionistic logic. They also show that a stricter understanding of potential infinity, while leading to intuitionistic logic, does so without collapsing into anti-realism. The main achievement of the paper is its enlightening clarification of the relation between potential infinity, intuitionistic logic, and philosophical anti-realism.
The concepts of actual and potential infinity that are the focus for Linnebo and Shapiro are clearly what Anat Schechtman classifies as ‘quantitative’ concepts, as they incorporate exact measures in ways appropriate to physics and mathematics. In “Three Infinities in Early Modern Philosophy,” Schechtman contrasts Locke, Descartes, and Leibniz’s respective treatments of the concept of infinity, arguing that only the Lockean treatment is quantitative. Descartes’ ‘ontic’ infinity is reserved for God alone — it is Descartes’ concept of the ‘indefinite’ that is closer to Locke’s infinity. Leibniz’s treatment of infinity, by contrast, is a response to Galileo’s paradox. By Euclid’s Axiom, a whole is greater than any of its proper parts. By the Pairing Principle, there are as many Fs and Gs if and only if there is a pairing of Fs and Gs without remainder. But the squares of natural numbers can be paired with the natural numbers themselves, and thus “the natural numbers are both greater than and equal to the squares of natural numbers.” Leibniz proposes an ‘iterative’ infinity in response, which is “not one [unum] and not a whole [totum].” That conception, Schechtman argues, goes beyond an escape from Euclid’s Axiom to entail a more radical rejection of measure for infinite aggregates entirely: a further non-quantitative concept of infinity.
Decision situations involving instability are often thought to spell trouble for causal decision theory. Andy Egan’s Murder Lesion case is perhaps the most worrying problem of this kind. But in “Causal Decision Theory and Decision Instability”, Brad Armendt argues that cases like Egan’s pose no threat to causal decision theory after all. Instead, contrary to what some have claimed, Armendt maintains that there is no single option that Causal Decision Theory recommends in such cases: the theory says only that an agent should choose whatever option looks best to her, in light of her beliefs and desires, at a given time. And if those beliefs and desires happen to change as she deliberates about what to do, then causal decision theory’s recommendations change as well. Armendt’s response to Egan’s puzzle is related to responses that have been proposed elsewhere in the literature. But it is notable for its elegance and simplicity (as is his paper), and will come as welcome news to those in causal decision theory’s camp.
A pluralist metaphysics holds that there can be many distinct material objects that coincide with one another. For example, a ring may coincide with a quantity of metal, but the two have distinct modal properties, including different survival conditions (the ring would cease to exist if I melted it down; the quantity of metal would not). But such views face the challenge of material plenitude: if we don’t want to be arbitrary about which material objects exist and which do not, we will end up with an ontological world that is ‘filled to the brim’ with coincident objects. Yet, while this is commonly noted, the material plenitude picture has not been carefully worked out. Maegan Fairchild takes up this task in “The Barest Flutter of the Smallest Leaf”. In this paper, Fairchild develops a theory of material plenitude, showing both that any such theory must overcome some substantial hurdles, and that her own theory can surmount such challenges. The picture of metaphysical reality that Fairchild arrives at is both unexpected and captivating, and her paper shows that a pluralist metaphysics is more attractive than detractors might have us think.
The papers in this collection cover a wide range of topics in philosophy. However, we are acutely aware that there are areas of philosophy that have been underrepresented among nominated articles for this and previous editions of The Philosopher’s Annual. We’d like a better representation among nominated articles of contemporary social and political issues, the philosophy of race, aesthetics, and philosophy outside the Western tradition, for instance. We are committed to finding ways to increase the philosophical diversity of papers that are nominated for inclusion in the Annual. In order to do this, we commit to seeking more nominating editors who work in areas that have been historically underrepresented in the Annual; seeking more nominating editors who are members of underrepresented groups in philosophy; inviting more junior faculty to serve as nominating editors; and continuing to recruit graduate student editors who work in varied areas of philosophy. In ensuring that nominated papers are sought from all areas of philosophy, we hope we can be more confident that the papers included in the Annual are truly the year’s ‘best’.
We learned so much from engaging with the ten papers in this year’s edition of The Philosopher’s Annual. We hope that they spark as much challenging, frustrating, and wonderfully enlightening discussion for you as they did for us.
Laura K. Soter