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Berislav Marušić (University of Edinburgh) & Stephen J. White (formerly at Northwestern University), "Disagreement and alienation"
Forthcoming, Philosophical Perspectives
By Beri Marušić
"Disagreement and Alienation" is a co-authored paper between Stephen J. White and myself, Berislav Marušić. Steve died in 2021 unexpectedly and suddenly at age 38. The version published here is the draft that we had at the time of his death.
This paper was in the works for a very long time. As became typical for my collaborations with Steve, it started out with a bad argument by me: I wrote a paper arguing that we should not relate to our beliefs as psychological facts, because we would be alienated from our beliefs and therein exhibit a failure of responsibility. My initial view was that beliefs, like decisions and promises, involve commitment, and whenever one regards one's commitment as a psychological fact, one exhibits a form of Sartrean bad faith.
With this initial view in hand, I boldly set out, in March 2016, to give a talk at Northwestern University. I presented my argument and, to put it mildly, crashed and burned. Baron Reed had a particularly elegant refutation of my view: He said that, in matters of belief, unlike with promises and decisions, commitment is not ‘for good times and bad’, but only ‘for good times’. When things go bad for a belief, we should let it go. More specifically, if we have reason to think that our belief is mistaken, we should suspend judgment, not hold on to the belief like we would hold on to a commitment in the face of temptation. The objection was clear and devastating.
As that seemingly endless discussion period was coming to an end, Steve was called on to ask the last question. In his usual manner, he charitably restated, at some length, the view I meant to be defending. He then said that he thought I was right that relating to our beliefs as psychological facts is a form of alienation. However, he suggested, the problem of alienation from belief is not a lack of commitment or a failure of responsibility, but an inability to engage in shared reasoning with others. He argued that for us our beliefs are not reasons to believe what we believe, and if others are engaged in shared reasoning with us, our beliefs are not reasons for them to believe what we believe, since those are not reasons that they could share with us. To look upon beliefs as psychological facts can, therefore, not be part of shared reasoning, and hence it precludes an interpersonal conception of disagreement.
At the end of Steve's question I felt deeply moved, intellectually and emotionally. In my response, I conceded the point and, immediately after the Q&A, asked Steve to be a co-author on the paper. This was the beginning of our friendship.
We rewrote the paper in much the way that he had suggested, and we submitted it to several journals. For about five years we tried to publish it, with no success. We felt misunderstood by reviewers, because we sought to question the premises on which the peer disagreement debate is conducted . However, reviewers typically took us to defend a position in the debate and found this position either unsatisfactory or unoriginal (or both).
In our last conversation before Steve's death, we decided that we should, as Steve put it, “get out of the disagreement business” and shelve the paper. We thought we would instead focus on the idea that shared reasoning involves mutual answerability. The dream—I can't say plan—was to write a book in which we would argue that other subjects figure in our thought in a categorically different way than objects, because they are potential partners in shared reasoning. Our account would articulate the interpersonal relations that constitute shared reasoning in terms of mutual answerability, and it would then consider the implications for the epistemology of testimony, the ethics of belief, the possibility of doxastic wronging and, perhaps once again, the epistemology of disagreement. I still think that this book is a good dream.
The reason that I have taken the paper off the shelf now is that, upon Steve's death, several of his close friends and I have sought to make available his unpublished writings—and this piece is part of his body of work. I am deeply grateful to the editors of Philosophical Perspectives for offering to publish it. I very much like this paper, more so now than ever, and I am happy that it will find some readers. I hope some of them will be sympathetic and might find ways to articulate our thinking in a way that epistemologists will be more receptive to.
“Disagreement and Alienation” is the realization of years of philosophical conversation and friendship. Work on it has opened my eyes to the interpersonal dimensions of thought, and I continue to be struck by how deep the interpersonal goes. I feel this depth all the more through Steve's death. The paper is also a piece of philosophy that exemplifies what it argues for: it is a piece of shared reasoning. However, in this case, the shared reasoning did not involve much disagreement. Steve and I saw eye-to-eye. His death is the loss of a philosophical brother.
This post first appeared here as a postscript to the paper.
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