Carlo DaVia (Loyola Marymount University), "A phenomenological argument against instrumentalism"
European Journal of Philosophy, 2022
“A Phenomenal Argument Against Instrumentalism”*
This article contains a phenomenal argument. Its author wrote it in response to a book defending the leanest and meanest form of instrumentalism on record. The view is lean insofar as it contends that good practical reasoning only requires reasoning well about the means for achieving pre-given ends. Unlike other forms of instrumentalism, it stipulates nothing about how we come to have the ends we do. This is also what makes the view mean: if true, the barbarous mafioso could be said to deliberate well solely on account of the cunning with which he plots his dirty deeds. But good decision-making seemed, at least to the author, to involve more than that. It also seemed to require reflecting on the quality of our ends.
So the author hoped to see the book and its defense of instrumentalism disproven. But how? Suspecting that a subtler mind had already identified some fatal flaw, the author decided to read reviews of the book. In them he found astute observations but no decisive refutation. What, then, to do? He visited a local coffee shop, seeking caffeine and inspiration from the Muses. The brew, though, only stimulated more muddled thinking, and his divine petitions for clarity went unheard. He returned home, no closer to a solution.
In the coming weeks, he tried a number of other techniques to resist the book and its conclusions. Nothing worked. Not only was the book winning out, but his own efforts were actually strengthening its argument. Everything he had decided to do could easily be described as a series of episodes of means-end reasoning. Was there really nothing more to practical deliberation than that?
One evening he vowed to forget the whole thing. He plopped himself in front of the television and began mindlessly flipping channels. Nothing was on but Good Will Hunting, an Academy-award winning film apparently still being replayed for New Englanders stuck in the 1990s. Not his favorite movie, but as he watched, he noticed something curious: the Ben Affleck character spent much of the film trying to be a good friend, and he seemed to learn something about being a good friend through his deliberations.
The author wrote up this article in order to explain, if only to himself, how such deliberations work, and how they show that good practical reasoning cannot simply be a matter of working out the effective means to our practical ends. Sometimes we hit upon means that compel us to reconceive the very end we are pursuing. We may realize that showing tough love is not just an effective way to be a good friend, but actually part of what good friendship entails. In this way we can reflect on our ends in and through our deliberations about them.
For parties interested in the full explanation, hardcopy offprints are available with helpful testimonials on the back:
“This paper is a mixed bag.” –Reviewer #3
“The biggest issue with this essay is structural and perhaps motivational. Although the essay bills itself as a criticism of instrumentalist theories of practical reason, instrumentalism is not the main focus of much of the essay.” –Reviewer #11
“I’m pretty sure this paper is about instrumentalism.” –The Author
“To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” –Roland Barthes
There have been a few other noteworthy readers. David Hume somehow acquired a pre-print, but only skimmed the abstract. He did not wish to endure the “painful elaboration” of such a dubious form of reasoning. Edmund Husserl read the article in full, but unfortunately declined to comment. However, an archivist at KU Leuven recently discovered marginalia from Husserl saying something to the effect that, finally, anglophone philosophers were taking seriously his studies in the passive syntheses of judgment. Nearly everyone else who heard of the publication opted, sensibly, not to read it, relying on studies by social statisticians who have definitively shown that, given the low academic pedigree of its author and the high rate of global scholarly publication, the article would almost certainly be of little consequence.
In any case, the Author is grateful to the editors of the journal for allowing him to “close the writing.” He can do something else now that the article is safely locked behind a paywall, yapping like a small dog at any instrumentalist who chances by.
The Author’s family remains blissfully ignorant of all this. But there is an alternative world in which they have read the article and decided that, whatever it meant, they would still be proud.
*Erratum: The article is entitled “A Phenomenological Argument Against Instrumentalism.”
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