Keeping Successorhood and Inheritance Apart: A Reply to Lebens and Ruben, Jonathan Payton

SERRC —  December 6, 2013 — 5 Comments

Jonathan Payton, University of Toronto, jonathan.payton@mail.utoronto.ca

Payton, Jonathan. “Keeping Successorhood and Inheritance Apart: A Reply to Lebens and Ruben.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3 (1): 14-19.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1bI

Please refer to:

I want to thank both Sam Lebens and David-Hillel Ruben for their responses to my (2013) essay. In my reply to Lebens, I want to make two points. First, political offices should not be counted as a kind of tradition, so it is no mark against my view that it fails to account for them. Second, if there is an concept of successorhood which must be defined in terms of counterfactual approval rather than qualitative similarity, then this concept ought not to be built into the concept of inheritance; that is, we must allow Y to be an inheritor of X’s tradition without being X’s true successor. In my reply to Ruben, I want to clarify and expand upon my original argument against the requirement that inheritors also be true successors. In doing so, I hope to reinforce the advantage that my own view has over the view that Ruben now adopts. 

Reply to Lebens

On Lebens’s view, there is a concept of true-successorhood which must be cashed out in terms of counterfactual approval, where this is not reducible to facts about qualitative similarity. In my (2013) I summarized this concept as follows:

Successor-L: Y is a true successor of X iff there is an SX and SY [where these are sets of beliefs and/or practices] such that (i) Y develops SY after X develops SX, and (ii) X would approve of SY, after some initial shock, if X were to be resurrected from the dead, or suddenly and abruptly transported into the future to see Y for himself. (2013, 43)

Successor-L includes a slight modification of Lebens’s own presentation of the view. (2013a, 31) While Lebens does make mention of SY, since what X is supposed to approve of is a certain set of Y’s beliefs and practices (ibid.), he makes no mention of SX, or of the temporal relation between SX and SY. I had argued that condition (i) gives the best account of the temporal successorhood relation that must hold between X and X’s successors (2013, 40-41), and so built in the reference to SX. Since Lebens did not object to this point, I took Successor-L to express his view, and took the references to SX and SY to motivate the reduction of counterfactual approval to qualitative similarity.

However, in his reply to my paper, Lebens seems to be insisting on a different view, one on which the references to SX and SY seem to be out of place. Lebens thinks that the office of the president is a kind of tradition, and that the counterfactual approval which grounds one’s inheritance of that tradition need not be based on qualitative similarity between two belief/practice sets:

Washington, were he to come back to life, might think that the views, the constitutional understanding, and even the understanding of the office of presidency, of Barack Obama differ greatly to his own. He might think that there are many better candidates around to play the role of president. Nevertheless, noting the historical chain of transmission of the office, he might say ‘Yes, this chap is my successor’ (Lebens 2013b, 67).

The target of Washington’s approval seems not to be Obama’s beliefs and practices at all, but rather Obama himself: even if Washington disapproves of Obama’s political beliefs and practices, Obama can apparently still count as Washington’s successor, because Washington is aware that he stands at the end of a kind of historical chain, and on that ground approves of him.[1]

It seems that Successor-L needs to be replaced by something else. If we remove the references to SX and SY, and ensure that X approves of Y rather than SY, we get:

Successor-L*: Y is a true successor of X iff X would approve of Y, after some initial shock, if X were to be resurrected from the dead, or suddenly and abruptly transported into the future to see Y for himself.

The problem now is that it isn’t clear how a criterion of temporal successorhood is to be built into Successor-L*. If there is no SY to serve as the target of X’s approval, and no SX to set the standard by approximation to which approval is to be gained, then the condition that SY develops after SX looks completely out of place. If X’s approval doesn’t concern SY, then why should the temporal location of SY be of any importance? But the criteria I considered and rejected in my (2013) are no more plausible for political ‘traditions’ of the sort Lebens isolates than they are for intellectual traditions, for which he thinks my account is well-suited. If we insist that the lives of X and Y must not overlap at all, then it seems that Washington never had any successors. If we insist that the overlap must be only partial, then we rule out by fiat a case (which is obviously possible) where one’s own twin is one’s political successor. We might try to leave the condition somewhat open-ended, to be filled in by each particular tradition to which Successor-L* applies, but I’m not confident that this could be done without circularity. If the relevant tradition to which Washington and Obama belong is the tradition of being the President, then we can’t say that Obama is Washington’s temporal successor iff Obama holds the office of President after Washington does without assuming the very notion of successorhood (namely, the notion of Presidential successorhood) on which Successor-L* is meant to shed light.

My own solution to this difficulty is simply to deny that the Presidency is a tradition. The reason it was so plausible to treat successorhood and inheritance as grounded in features of one’s beliefs and practices, I think, is that traditions (whether they be philosophical, religious, or political) are precisely traditions of thinking and behaving in certain ways, so that one belongs to a tradition in virtue of one’s beliefs and practices. One typically holds a political office for very different reasons, having to do with the procedures that are in place which govern succession or appointments: presidents of democratic societies get the position by being elected to it; monarchs get the position by familial inheritance; etc. When determining whether Y is the President, or the King, one typically doesn’t look to Y’s beliefs and practices, but to the procedures which the relevant government has in place for determining such things.[2] If we deny that political offices count as traditions, then they can’t be used to motivate Successor-L*.

Lebens extends his considerations about offices of authority beyond political ‘traditions’ to religious traditions. He points out that in the Jewish tradition,

[t]here may be cases where more than one splinter group claims to be in control of the office of authority, each with seemingly equal entitlement, based upon the ambiguity of the law…In these sorts of cases, we might want to come back to counterfactual approval. Even if the relevant formal laws are, in some objective sense, ambiguous, we might want to say that Moses would approve, subjectively, of our splinter group. Given our views about Moses, and his authority, we might want to base our claim to inheritance upon that counterfactual approval (2013b, 68).

At this point my concerns about the relationship between successorhood and inheritance come into play. Lebens, like Ruben, wants to define inheritance of a tradition in terms of true successorhood: to be the inheritor of the tradition started by X is to be, among other things, one of X’s true successors. However, if being X’s true-successor means holding the office of authority (where this in turn is grounded in Moses’s counterfactual disambiguation of the laws), then unless every member of the relevant tradition at a given time can ‘be in control of the office of authority’ at that time, it would be unwise to build true successorhood into inheritance. I take it as obvious that one can be a member of the Jewish community without being an ordinated Rabbi, and hence without counting as one of Moses’s true successors.

There is a fallback position available, which is to say that one counts as an inheritor of the Jewish tradition if one is a member of a group one of whose members counts as a true successor of Moses. So, although I don’t need to be an ordinated Rabbi in order to be Jewish, being a member of a group which contains, as one of its members, an ordinated Rabbi is both necessary and sufficient for being Jewish.[3] The thing to notice about this fallback view is that being an inheritor of the tradition is no longer equivalent to being, among other things, one of Moses’s true successors; the reason this view of successorhood works, if it does — notice that the concerns raised above about the target of counterfactual approval and the nature of the temporal successorhood relation will apply here as well — is precisely that we’ve kept successorhood and inheritance separate, so Lebens has more work to do to define what it is to inherit a tradition.

Reply to Ruben

Lebens is willing to grant that my view works well for intellectual traditions, but insists that a different approach must be taken for certain political and religious traditions. Ruben, by contrast, rejects my view outright.Recall, I originally suggested the following two definitions as providing a suitable modification of Ruben’s view:

Successor**: Y is a true successor of X iff there is an SX and an SY such that (i) SX and SY stand on opposite ends of a chain of Ss (which may include only SX and SY), (ii) each link Sn is developed after Sn-1 and (iii) each link Sn is qualitatively similar, to a very high degree, to Sn-1 (2013, 42).

Inheritance: Y is an inheritor of X’s tradition iff (i) Y is a true successor of X, and (iii) Y develops SY because X develops SX, where ‘because’ signals causal influence (2013, 40).

Call this combination RUBEN (since it is the combination he now wants to accept). RUBEN allows inheritance to be defined in terms of successorhood, and as I mentioned above, I take this to be a bad way to go. One of the arguments I gave was that RUBEN comes to grief over the following example. Wittgenstein is one of the founders of the analytic tradition, so inheritors of the tradition he started should count as such by standing at the end of causal-similarity chains that start with him, Frege, Russell, etc. However, it seems to me that being Wittgenstein’s true successor doesn’t involve standing at the end of a similarity chain (not necessarily a causal similarity chain) which begins with Wittgenstein. As I put it, “Cora Diamond’s claim to be a true successor of the early Wittgenstein (whether valid or not) depends on her similarity to him, not her similarity to her immediate predecessors.” (2013, 43) To help Ruben avoid this difficulty, I offered him the following combination of definitions:

Successor*: Y is a true successor of X iff there is an SX and an SY such that (i) Y develops SY after X develops SX and (ii) SY is qualitatively similar, to a very high degree, to SX (2013, 41).

Inheritance*: Y is an inheritor of a tradition T iff (i) there is some X that originates T, (ii) SX and SY stand on opposite ends of a chain of Ss (which may include only SX and SY), (iii) each link Sn is developed after Sn-1, (iv) each link Sn is qualitatively similar, to a very high degree, to Sn-1, and (v) the holder of Sn develops Sn because the holder of Sn-1 develops Sn-1 (2013, 43).

Call this combination PAYTON (since it is the combination I defend). PAYTON avoids the problem just raised, while still making the identity of traditions a transitive affair (the original motivation for introducing similarity-chains).

Ruben thinks that this argument for PAYTON fails, but I think he misunderstands what I take the real issue to be. He summarizes the problem as follows. If RUBEN is true, then the following seems possible: “there may be a group of philosophers at t* with ideas less similar to Wittgenstein’s at t but because they are on a similarity chain, they would have more or at least equal right to be counted as his successors than … the New Wittgensteinians.” (2013b, 30) Ruben is right that I take this to be a bad result; Timothy Williamson and Cora Diamond both stand at the end of a causal-similarity chain that begins with Wittgenstein, but surely one of them has greater claim to be Wittgenstein’s true successor than the other. Ruben is also right that we need not move to PAYTON in order to avoid the bad result. His own solution to this problem is to point out that Wittgenstein stands at the beginning of two traditions: the analytic tradition and the Wittgensteinian tradition. Williamson certainly counts as an inheritor of the former, but probably doesn’t count as an inheritor of the latter. What this means is that Williamson might count as a true successor in one sense and not in another: he stands as a true successor to the early Wittgenstein in one respect, which is why he counts as an inheritor of the analytic tradition, but he does not stand as a true successor in another respect, which is why he fails to count as an inheritor of the Wittgensteinian tradition. By making this distinction between traditions, Ruben can retain RUBEN, and hence keep true successorhood as a necessary condition on inheritance of a tradition. However, Ruben is wrong that to think that he has solved the original difficulty.

The original difficulty, recall, was not that Diamond and Williamson have an equal claim to be Wittgenstein’s true successor, but rather that Diamond’s claim to be Wittgenstein’s true successor is no longer grounded, as it should be, in a relation of similarity that she bears directly to him (or rather, a relation of similarity that her philosophical beliefs/practices bear directly to his). According to RUBEN, if Diamond counts as Wittgenstein’s true successor, this is because she stands at the end of a similarity chain that begins with him. Admittedly, Successor** allows that she and he are the only two links on the chain, but nothing seems to rule out the following story: there is a similarity chain running from Wittgenstein to Anscombe, from Anscombe to Dummett, from Dummett to Edgington, and finally from Edgington to Diamond, and it is in virtue of this that Diamond counts as Wittgenstein’s successor. Surely, however, the notion of a similarity chain is completely out of place here. The belief/practice sets of Anscombe, Dummett and Edgington are irrelevant to the issue.

In fact, not only does the concept of a similarity chain look completely out of place here, but the concept itself looks bizarre upon reflection. The notion of a similarity chain, as it occurs in Successor** is not the notion of a causal-similarity chain. I originally introduced the concept of a non-causal similarity chain to preserve the transtivity of identity for traditions without sacrificing what I take to be one of Ruben’s insights: namely, SY must be causally influenced by SX only if Y is an inheritor of X’s tradition; Y can be X’s true successor without having been influenced by SX.[4] (Ruben 2013a, 38-39) While the notion of a non-causal similarity chain can achieve this result, it now seems to me to be otherwise useless as a component of a plausible account of successorhood. If there is no requirement that each link on the chain be causally influenced by the prior link, then we should be able to gerrymander all sorts of similarity chains connecting Wittgenstein to Diamond. At least in principle, we can construct a chain running from Wittgenstein to a philosopher A upon whom Wittgenstein had no causal influence, to a philosopher B upon whom A had no influence, and so on up to Diamond; there is no requirement that the links on the chain have lived in the same country, engaged with each other’s work, etc., so the chain is held together only by qualitative similarity and temporal successorhood. Obviously this chain is not a good candidate to ground Diamond’s claim to true-successorhood, yet it if RUBEN is true, it seems to have as good a claim to that role as the Wittgestein-Anscombe-Dummett-Edgington-Diamond chain.

We would get a more plausible view if we built the notion of a causal-similarity chain into Successor**. Indeed, it seems to me that the story about the Wittgestein-Anscombe-Dummett-Edgington-Diamond chain is only plausible because we tacitly assume that this is a chain that registers causal influence. Unfortunately, to do that would be to reject Ruben’s insight about the difference between successorhood and inheritance. The best solution, then, is to adopt PAYTON, and be done with defining successorhood in terms of similarity chains of any kind. So, while Ruben is certainly right that his view can account for Diamond’s greater claim to be Wittgenstein’s true successor — provided we pay more attention, as I did not, to the ways in which different traditions splinter and intersect — I take PAYTON to be the better view, because it makes Y’s claim to be X’s true successor depend on the similarity of SY and SX, irrespective of any other links on a similarity chain, and because it does so without building causal influence into the relation of successorhood.

References

Lebens, Samuel. “True Successors and Counterfactual Approval.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no 10 (2013a): 26-32.

Lebens, Samuel. “Counterfactual Approval and Idiosyncratic Counterfactual Approval.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 11 (2013b): 65-69.

Payton, Jonathan. “Ruben’s Account of Traditions and True Successors: Two Modifications and an Extension.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 11 (2013): 40-46.

Ruben, David-Hillel. “Traditions and True Successors.” Social Epistemology 27, no 1 (2013a): 32-46.

Ruben, David-Hillel. “More on True Succession and Tradition.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013b): 29-31.

[1] Of course, in a case like this the historical chain is in place regardless of Washington’s counterfactual approval. In other cases, however, the relevant X is meant to be authoritative over who stands at the end of the chain, because X is authoritative about the disambiguation of ambiguous rules of succession. X’s counterfactual attitude thus grounds successorhood, rather than being a mere indicator of it.

[2] (Or, if one does look to Y’s practices, these practices can’t serve to ground Y’s status; political offices typically bring with them unique powers, so one is able to behave as one does because one holds the office, rather than vice-versa.)

[3] One might worry that an ordinated Rabbi will satisfy this condition trivially, and hence will count as inheriting the Jewish tradition by virtue of being an ordinated Rabbi. While that seems wrong to me, it’s easier to accept that being an ordinated Rabbi is a sufficient condition on being an inheritor of the Jewish tradition than it is to accept that it’s a necessary condition.

[4] So, for instance, there is such a thing as the British Empiricist tradition, not simply because these philosophers all had similar views to one another, but because there is a chain of causal influence running between them. If there is some long-forgotten Mesopotamian tradition of empiricist philosophy, whose causal influence stopped long ago, and of whom the British Empiricists consequently had no knowledge, then while we may count Hume as among the true successors of this Mesopotamian tradition, there is no philosophical tradition that contains both Hume and the Mesopotamian Empiricists.

5 responses to Keeping Successorhood and Inheritance Apart: A Reply to Lebens and Ruben, Jonathan Payton

  1. 

    To be honest, it seems like a remarkably sterile concept, depending as it does on a counterfactual (the ‘predecessor’ coming back to life to declare approval). Plus, if we could arrange for that to happen, it would be overly dependent on the predecessor’s narrowness or generosity in anyone to be a “proper” disciple. E.g. Ayn Rand would probably accept nobody as sufficiently submissive to here ideas, while Depak Chopra, if he were dead and came back to life, might be unable to pass a negative judgement on anyone. I.e. it could be a rather arbitrary matter of personality

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