This Critical Notice appeared in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (March 1993), Vol. 53, no. 1, pp. 224-228.

Baffling Phenomena and Other Studies in
     the Philosophy of Knowledge and Valuation.
Savage, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991.
Pp. ix + 223.


Simon Fraser University

Strictly according to the rules, the first two words of the title of this book should be in quotation marks, for the reference is to the name of the first essay in this collection. Perhaps an editor, anticipating problems of electronic cataloging and retrieval, red-penciled them.

      Three of the twelve essays (nos. 1, 3, and 11) have appeared earlier and have been revised for publication in this volume. The others are newly published. The book is dedicated to Ernest Sosa, editor of this Journal.

     All of the hallmarks of a Rescher work are present here: the unmistakable prose style and vocabulary; the prominent role of philosophical taxonomy; the appeal for tolerance, understanding and appreciation for conflicting points of view; the exceptional scholarship, particularly of the history of philosophy; and the breadth of knowledge and interest that is virtually unrivaled.

      Rescher explains (p. ix) that he views the collection as falling into four principal categories. Chapters (essays) 1-3 deal with issues in the theory of knowledge; 4-9, with philosophical inquiry itself; 10-11, with rational decision; and 12, with philosophical issues arising out of studying and contemplating the future.

     The lead essay, the aforementioned "Baffling Phenomena", recapitulates some fairly standard material. What is new is Rescher's exhaustive catalog of ways of reacting to recalcitrant (anomalous) data: dismissal; degradation; accommodation; resignation; and mystification. Anyone familiar with other of Rescher's writings will anticipate correctly that he will have no truck with the latter course.

     The second essay, "The Principle of Sufficient Reason [PSR], Then and Now", traces the evolution of PSR – from Leibniz, through Kant, and on to Peirce and Russell – from what Rescher aptly describes as its initially being regarded as hardware to its now being regarded as software (p. 25). Although ostensibly and principally on a different topic than the first essay, this second one actually complements the first in an unexpected way. In the previous essay Rescher had argued that often wholly new theories are needed to explain refractory data; in this second essay he argues that occasionally wholly new modes (overarching models) of explanation are needed (e.g. in our moving from the paradigm of determinism to that of stochastic processes).

     The third essay, "How Wide Is the Gap Between Facts and Values?", rounds out the section on knowledge and valuation. Here Rescher argues convincingly that the exclusivity of the dichotomy, factual/evaluative, is in logical conflict with some strongly held philosophical intuitions. To avoid the inconsistencies, Rescher urges adopting a threefold classification: factual; evaluative; and hybrid.

      Implicitly, both in the content of its text and in its examples, this chapter provides cogent refutation of the explication favored in numerous philosophical writings of the concept of valid argument. For it is clear in this chapter that there are countless arguments which are clearly valid and yet which do not satisfy the standard definition of "validity" – viz. that it is impossible for their premises to be true and their conclusions false – for the simple reason that some of their premises and/or their conclusions are not even truth-valued (i.e. are evaluative or hybrid, not factual, assertions). Many authors of introductory philosophy texts, particularly those in informal logic, would do well to read this chapter and to revise their explications of validity accordingly.

      Having rejected a rigid fact/value distinction, Rescher then undertakes to argue for value objectivism – the thesis that (at least sometimes) "a specific resolution of a value issue can be rationally constrained by objectively establishable considerations" (p. 30) – while at the same time rejecting value naturalism – the thesis that "value claims can (at least sometimes) be inferred from strictly factual considerations" (p. 30). But how, exactly, may a value-claim be 'constrained by' or, as he later puts it, 'warranted by' a factual claim? His answer is: "in innumerable situations, the transition from factual premises to evaluative conclusions is mediated by (frequently enthymematic) evaluative premises that are essentially trivial and truistic" (p. 45, italics added). An example of such a "close to trivial" premise is: "it is wrong to do something that causes people needless (pointless, unnecessary) pain" (p. 44). But even if one were to agree that there are 'innumerable' examples where such 'trivial' or 'truistic' mediating premises might be available and salient, it remains unexamined how often our inferences to evaluative conclusions can be warranted by the conjoint logical cogency of such rock-bottom evaluative principles combined with strictly factual statements. It is clear that what we have in this essay is just a glimpse of a possible avenue of research. In line with the approach of much of this book, Rescher has left it to others (or himself at a later date) to work out the details, to probe the problems, and to furnish the test cases.

      Fully half this book may be viewed as metaphilosophy, an interest of Rescher's which has been an obviously growing concern in some of his recent books. The next chapter begins the section of the book explicitly addressed to the practice of philosophy.

In "Epistemology as an Inexact Science", Rescher argues that several epistemological theses – Nihilism, Scepticism, Relativism, etc. (he lists eight in all) – which are universal (and hence self-referential) turn out to be self-refuting. (For example, Rescher offers this self-refuting explication of [one particular version of] scepticism: "Nothing is knowable: we cannot warrantably assert any claims about what is or is not the case" [p. 60].) The way to avoid the pain of advancing self-refuting theories in epistemology, he argues, is to abandon the universality of claims in that area, to move from "Invariably and exceptionlessly, all/no A's are B's" to "Standardly and ordinarily, all/no A's are B's" (p. 62). "Standardly" is emphatically not to be read as equivalent to some statistical or probabilistic notion, e.g. as "mostly" or "almost always". The latter reading is a necessary condition for something's being standardly the case, but is not a sufficient condition. Sufficiency is secured through two further conditions: the exceptional cases must form a 'natural kind' and there must be a cogent explanation (presumably known or readily available) which explains why this latter class (of exceptions) does not fit the standard case (p. 63).

      Rescher then applies this repair to the case of the Gettier Problem, arguing that the historical analysis of knowledge – viz. that knowledge is justified true belief – should be weakened to claim no more than that standardly knowledge is justified true belief. Gettier-type examples would not, then, constitute bona fide falsifying counterexamples, but only 'exceptions'. Thereafter, the task would become "mapping the exception categories that are at issue" (p. 67). But is this feasible? Many would argue that after nearly thirty years of struggling with the problem, philosophers have good reason to despair of the exceptions comprising anything like a 'natural kind'. Indeed inductive evidence would seem to suggest that Gettier-type examples do not comprise one, or even just a few, independently characterizable classes. Nonetheless, even if 'standardism' fails to put the Gettier Problem finally to rest, it still warrants mindful consideration. Anyone pursuing epistemology, or indeed any branch of philosophy, must constantly ask, "Just how high ought we to set our expectations? How precise can we reasonably hope to make our philosophical theories?"

      Again invoking this notion of a 'standardist' epistemology, Rescher now has a theoretical basis for underpinning one of the admonitions he has been repeating in recent years in a variety of his writings: a caution about putting much stock in extravagant counterfactual theorizing. "The epistemologists' all too familiar penchant to far-out thought experiments--devilish Cartesian deceivers, hypothetical wicked scientists who transplant brains or rewire our cerebral circuits, and much of the rest of the demonology of modern epistemology has to be restrained" (p. 71). It is interesting, and more than a little peculiar, to compare this severe counsel with what he writes much later, in chapter 9, "Thought Experimentation in Pre-Socratic Philosophy". There he recounts a number of prodigally counterfactual suppositions, for example, he relates Xenophanes writing "if cattle and horses or lions had hands, ..." (p. 149). Although Rescher examines the logical form of Xenophanes' and others' arguments, he is silent as to the methodological admissibility of their premises.

      Chapter 5, "The Promise of Process Philosophy", is a propaedeutic for the creation of a 'verb ontology' as opposed to the standard 'noun ontology' (or the Quinean 'adjective ontology'). By his own characterization, the project is "no more than a glint in the mind's eye of certain philosophers" (p. 88). Nonetheless he believes that its realization might well "overcome various serious defects in the available alternatives" (p. 90).

      Chapter 6, "The Taxonomy of Metaphysical Positions", is a quintessentially Rescherian undertaking. Not only does he review various historical attempts to catalog metaphysical theories, he goes one better. In the Conclusion (pp. 109-110) to this chapter, he moves from metaphilosophy to meta-metaphilosophy, offering his own catalog (taxonomy) of ways of classifying metaphysical positions!

     The next chapter, "On the Systemic Interconnectedness of Philosophical Issues", explores a matter doubtless subliminally thought-about by many contemporary philosophers, but not much talked about, and even less pursued; indeed it is almost a taboo subject: the scale on which contemporary philosophers pursue their research, writing, and theorizing. The small, isolated, problem has become the norm. Exceedingly few philosophers nowadays pursue 'grand system building' or strive for a synoptic overview. (Rescher, himself, is such a conspicuous and worthy exception, that he is particularly suited to complain of the defect. But it is hardly smugness which prompts his complaint. It is instead his perceiving a distinct shortcoming in pursuing philosophy on the small scale.) As Rescher sees it, attention to detail, in effect, to minutiae, carries with it, not just a risk, but a high risk of falling into inconsistency, not perhaps within one's own public work, but with other, larger-scale and remote, presuppositions one is likely to hold. He illustrates the danger with examples showing how plausible theories in one field of philosophical research can be inconsistent with principles in another (how for example epistemological theories can conflict with ethical ones, or semantical ones with metaphysical ones). The upshot is an important qualification to Rescher's well-known appeal for tolerance in philosophical matters. Although we must be pluralists collectively, it is a (logical) disaster to be so individually. It is simply not good enough to say "Here's my theory of X", when that theory is in conflict with other theories you also hold. This latter point is the essential topic of the ensuing chapter 8, "Philosophical Perspectivism". At the end of this latter chapter, I was pleased to find Rescher writing something that I have often said (although certainly less urbanely) to my own students: "To do philosophy at all we must proceed on the basis of some preferred perspective. But you do not have to find it, for it will find you. As far as individuals go, perspectives are empirical givens. For you have no choice but to go on from where you are--from the particular perspective to which you stand committed by your emplacement in the world's experiential order" (p. 141).

     I have mentioned chapter 9 above.

      Chapters 10, "The Philosophers of Gambling", and 11, "Leibniz, Keynes, and the Rabbis on a Problem of Distributive Justice", are – first – an historical study of the birth and development of the philosophy of chance, and – second – an application of the philosophy of chance to a particular problem in distributive justice originating with Leibniz.

      Leibniz, and later Keynes, had argued that in cases of competing claims for possession of a good, the allocation should be made according to the relative strength of claims. However, actual legal practice more often favors a 'winner-take-all' assignment. Rescher argues that these two ways of distributing the good are appropriate for different sorts of situations. The former (viz. the proportional division of the good according to the strength of competing claims) "is a matter of the accommodation of competing entitlement considerations in a no-ownership situation" (p. 185). An example (indeed the classical example) is dividing the pot among the players at the end of a card game: no player has a prior claim on total ownership; each has an entitlement to a share of the total. The latter way (viz. 'winner take all') is fitting when it "is a matter of adjudication of conflicting evidential considerations in a situation where an ownership relation is already present" (p. 185). An example might be a case where two persons each claim to be the long-lost child to whom an estate has been willed. Here the entire estate will be assigned to the petitioner with the stronger claim (provided, of course, that that strength is above some reasonable minimum). Rescher's approach in this chapter is strictly historical; he does not attempt to tie this discussion in with recent writings in theories of distributive justice.

     The final chapter, "History of the Future", although it bears an attention-grabbing name, is nonetheless misnamed. Not surprisingly the chapter is actually about the philosophy of the future. Here a very great number of writers about the future – Ortega y Gasset, Toffler, Laplace, Hegel, Marx, Aristotle, Cicero, Moore, Machiavelli, von Cieszkowski, Darwin, Bacon, etc. – are briefly visited. Rescher's main concern is with three 'factors' and their interrelationships: predictability, tractability, and welcomability. It would appear that none of these implies or presupposes either of the others.

     On the technical side, there is one grievous production error. At the end of chapter 10, p. 176 has come off the presses blank, and thus note 31 is terminated mid-sentence and notes 32-37 do not appear at all. On p. 111, in note 14, Rescher misplaces a modifier. The unintended comical effect is that, rather than thanking David Carey, Rescher inadvertently accuses himself of plagiarism. Occasionally Rescher will indulge in a particularly tortuous sentence, one requiring a few re-readings in order to parse it, but these rough patches are relatively infrequent. Although the book has a Names Index, it lacks a Subject Index. Given the breadth of topics, a Subject Index would have been welcome.

     In its addressing 'big issues' rather than just the fine points of day to day philosophical practice, this book is one of a select few. It would make a splendid text, or ancillary text, in an advanced course in philosophical method; for it not only discusses philosophical methodology, it also itself instantiates a great number of diverse methods. Overall, this book is provocative, learned, and astute.

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