philosophical stalemates

Yesterday I was reading this review of Crawford Elder’s Familiar Objects and Their Shadows, which begins with the line: ‘Revisionary views about objects are all the rage’. That’s good to know. The review goes on to use a term that I have never seen applied to philosophical debate, or if I had it didn’t strike me then–‘stalemate’. It occurred to me that I already recognize the phenomenon referred to, but it raised a few questions for me. Such as:

1. What are the criteria for a philosophical stalemate?

2. If I can push a philosophical debate to a stalemate, is that kind of like winning?

3. Will all philosophical problems, in principle, end in stalemate; if so, do some take longer because the philosophy is amiss or the problem is more difficult?

4. Would someone like to chart for me the stages of a philosophical debate that ended in a stalemate, perhaps the one referenced in the review?

It’s curious to think that a philosophical debate could land in stalemate because that seems to entail that the debate was making progress, but progressing down the wrong path. Those involved will now have to return to the point or origin or figure out where they made their wrong turn. Because a stalemate does not entail that there never was any problem at all, right? If the analogy holds, that would be like saying to two players who’ve just reached stalemate on their chessboard that there never was a chess match.

In any case, someone should write a book about stalemates in philosophy. And I should get to know more about this metaphysical debate. I’m going to search Google now and most likely find that book I just asked someone to write.


About plasticbodies

Contemporary philosopher.
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7 Responses to philosophical stalemates

  1. dmf says:

    to reach a stalemate doesn’t necessarily mean that there was ever progress involved merely that the conversation has reached an end, after Wittgenstein Rorty wrote in terms of conversation stoppers, and if one takes a roughly kuhnian/davidsonian take on historical developments (as opposed to a dialectical one) than new problems/intuitions may spur/spark new concepts/ways that leave the old forms/ways behind or in a kind of bricolage repurpose them.
    just because we have people acting as if there is a chess game ( or say a political/judicial/religious/economic system) in place doesn’t mean that there is, we are very good at acting as if, and either ignoring or imaginatively filling in the gaps.

  2. henadology says:

    I think that Lyotard’s concept of a “differend” comes pretty close to the sort of stalemate you describe. My own attitude toward a stalemate in philosophical argument is that if it proves genuinely intractable, it calls for jumping up a formal register, i.e. getting more abstract, but then as a Platonist I would think that, I guess… that would probably turn out to have been the basis of the stalemate in the first place…

  3. plasticbodies says:

    Yeah, that might be the strategy: a shift in register. That doesn’t really resolve the stalemate, but it raises the game to another level. This term got me thinking–admittedly, a cynical thought–that in a way all philosophical problems will end in a stalemate. This is cynical because it invokes the cliched trope that philosophy works on false problems, or at least problems that admit of no solution. This is what dmf was pointing to with Rorty, at least in some respect. Cynicism and irony are close here. The way around this is to invoke a notion, perhaps dialectical, of progress. The possibility of a stalemate, then, seems to rely on one’s prior commitments regarding whether or not philosophy really makes progress. Do the majority of philosophers believe in progress or is the opposite true?

  4. dmf says:

    surely most believe in progress in the platonic sense that I think that you are getting at.
    here is David Chalmers’ take on the matter:
    here is MacIntyre:

  5. dmf says:

    when I was working in the science/lab world if we discovered or someone brought to our attention that we were asking the wrong questions, using the wrong tools, or otherwise failing to frame things in productive/generative ways this might be briefly painful but never was this talked about in terms of “nihilism”, and I think that this may in part be because for working scientists coming to terms with not-knowing, the limits of what/how we know are an intrinsic part of the working process. Would be interesting to read more philosophical research that included talking about the costs/limits/narrowings that accompany research tools/methods, the imagined unknowns and the known factors that could not be accounted for. Perhaps philosophy should be more like working science in these ways and not just consumers/users of the results of such work.
    my worry is that projecting on the page/screen one is in a largely resistance free realm where with some training and talent one can smoothly cut&paste in such a way that it seems seamless and whole, fait accompli

  6. Adam Robbert says:

    Great questions! I’m jumping in a little late here, as I’m just now reading this post, but I think the appeal to Kuhn is worth expanding on since, it seems to me, that one can stalemate philosophically in two different ways 1) when two philosophers are genuinely working within the same paradigm, using the same methods and technical tools to solve a particular problem that is understood to be relevant to the state of the field or 2) when philosophers are operating with different paradigmatic commitments (with associated epistemological/ ontological commitments) and are trying to debate a point of partial intersection.

    In the first scenario, the same phenomena should appear roughly the same, presenting the same problem to be overcome. This kind of Kuhnian puzzle-solving, I think, can reach a stalemate if the available research tools provide inconclusive results and cannot interpret the data (what dmf references above). This leads to two potential variants of the stalemate a) more data needs to collected to resolve the impasse b) the anomaly will not yield in the face of more data, and thus the paradigm is called into question – leading to a potential stalemate of the second variety. In both cases, the issue lies with the resistance of the phenomena being studied, and not necessarily as much between the two philosophers.

    The second kind of stalemate, which would involve disagreements across paradigms would require an appeal (as henadology points out) to a metaparadigmatic system of values that organizes how paradigmatic values interact with one another. The problem here is that, once you’ve gone meta, you open the door to an infinite recess. Further, It may not be possible to develop a truly metaparadigmatic frame since the rules of one paradigm may obviate the rules of another – a higher synthesis, in other words, would cripple the value system of one or more of the paradigms (tyranny of the whole…) In any case, this second kind of stalemate will perhaps tend to be between the philosophers, and no longer be as in touch with the phenomena being observed.

    Perhaps I am bringing too much science to philosophy, but it seems distinguishing between two stalemates might help.

  7. dmf says:

    AR, I would say stick with the Kuhnian line all the way if one is in a realm of “normal” science, common methods/commitments/standards than the problem is instrumental, but if there is a true gap than the parties can be left to their own projects, or spurred on by the tension/gaps can seek some yet unknown paradigm changing insight/calling/intuition that will not sublate the earlier tension but leave them behind as new living metaphors/ways are developed.
    As long as everyone is civil about it this can be a way for many means to be developed and let them be known by their results.

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