Christine Ladd-Franklin

Christine Ladd-Franklin (1847-1930) was a philosopher, logician, and psychologist. A student of C. S. Peirce, she made numerous contributions to psychology and mathematical logic despite a tenuous attachment to professional academia. Misogyny being what it was (and is) in academic hiring, Ladd-Franklin never secured a reliable academic post:

Laurel Furumoto notes that "her inability to secure a regular academic position was a predictable consequence, in that time period, of her decision to marry" (Furumoto, 1994, p. 97). In light of the fact that "she never held a regular academic appointment" and therefore never secured solid academic affiliation, her active academic career was remarkable (Furumoto, 1994, p. 93). [source]

Plenty of interesting biographical work on Ladd-Franklin exists, though I somewhat recently got to hear Jessica Gordon-Roth speak on the implicit sexism involved in the (often lengthy) biographical preamble that precedes discussion of women in philosophy, so I won’t rehash Ladd-Franklin’s life story. Recently I read her paper “Epistemology for the Logician” [link]. In it she claims that philosophy, unlike science, does not make steady progress and her argument for why is that science, unlike philosophy, has a “common groundwork” (what she later calls explicit primitives) that command the assent of everyone involved. Here’s a reconstruction of the argument:

  1. If X is a branch of knowledge, then the knowledge produced by X is cumulative.

  2. If the knowledge produced by some branch of knowledge is cumulative, then there is some set of explicit primitives that are the common ground among practitioners of that branch.

  3. So, either philosophy is not a branch of knowledge or there is a set of explicit primitives that are philosophy’s common ground.

Since she wants to reject the first disjunct of the conclusion, Ladd-Franklin sets out to describe what the set of explicit primitives must be like, assuming they exist. For now I’m less interested in the content of the common ground than I am in the claim that philosophy, or science for that matter, must have one.

It seems to me that Ladd-Franklin is on to the same thing expressed by Peter Spirtes, Clark Glymour, and Richard Scheines in Causation, Prediction and Search when they distinguish between Platonic and Euclidean analyses of causation:

One approach to clarifying the notion of causation—the philosophers’ approach ever since Plato—is to try to define “causation” in other terms, to provide necessary and sufficient and noncircular conditions for one thing, or feature or event or circumstance, to cause another, the way one can define “bachelor” as “unmarried adult male human.” Another approach to the same problem—the mathematician’s approach ever since Euclid—is to provide axioms that use the notion of causation without defining it, and to investigate the necessary consequences of those assumptions.

Ladd-Franklin is calling for a set of philosophical axioms or, at the very least, a set of methodological axioms for philosophy. It’s clear that Spirtes et al. heartily endorse the Euclidean approach over that of Plato. But if we understand logic, and philosophy more generally, as the normative study of methods—methods of inquiry, methods of political organization, methods of living—why expect that that study will have a static method? In particular, it seems like a fixed metaphilosophical (or metametaphilosophical, or…) method would be to already answer the questions posed by philosophy.

This isn’t to say that philosophical subfields ethics, or politics, or the metaphysics of causation, or whatever can’t do the thing Ladd-Franklin wants them to do. They clearly can! It’s just that taking Ladd-Franklin’s proposal to apply as a general aim for philosophy as such seems wrong to me.

Regarding the argument reconstruction above, I’d want to deny premise (1), though only on the grounds that I think the implied universal quantifier doesn’t scope over philosophy. Or, rather, that philosophy isn’t a branch of knowledge in the same way that physics, biology, or ethics are. Philosophy is the trunk. The evidence of its cumulative development of knowledge isn’t in the advancement of better theories or more accurate predictions, it is the proliferation of its branches.

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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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