Names and Doctrines

A recent member of philosophy twitter invited responses to the following: “name a widely held philosophical doctrine that you’ve never found in the slightest degree plausible.” The writer named utilitarianism. Another responder said, ‘philosophy of language.’

Something can be implausible (or plausible) only if it can believed. A doctrine is a statement (or set of statements) with a subject and assertions about it. We have doctrines of various things. One might have a doctrine of what makes actions right or wrong, or a doctrine of the Trinity.

To provide a name for something that can be plausible or implausible one must name a doctrine. As far as I can tell, philosophy of language has no chance of being plausible or implausible because it doesn’t name a doctrine. The term, philosophy of language, refers to a domain of inquiry and as such isn’t a doctrine. Someone might propose a theory within a domain, which could be true or false, but the entire entire domain doesn’t count as a theory. Hence, a category mistake has been committed.

In contrast, utilitarianism is something that can be true or false because it is the name of a view in ethics. One can state utilitarianism in various ways, but all of them are statements of a proposition that bears a truth value. Finding a proposition implausible just means that there is not sufficient evidence to support its truth.

In other cases, something named may be a collection of views with differing subjects. For example, people might say, “Marxism is false.” What they ordinarily mean is that the doctrines comprising what we call Marxism are largely false. Those doctrines include doctrines of human nature (or the lack of it), economic doctrines (including the labor theory of value), and doctrines on the distribution of goods (each according to his need).

One might be opposed to Marxism because one thinks the labor theory of value is demonstrably false, and plainly so, I would suggest. The problem with saying that Marxism is false is that one wants to know precisely which parts are false. One is better off stating which doctrine one finds implausible.

Worldviews often have names. We say someone is a ‘naturalist’ to indicate that the person believes that all explanations for phenomena are explanations to be provided by the natural sciences or that there exist no entities that cannot be described in terms provided by the natural sciences. Someone has a Christian worldview if that person subscribes to the basic doctrines of the Faith. To say that a worldview is false one must specify the doctrines one disagrees with. A false worldview is such only if its doctrines are largely false.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.