Philosophy Across the Oceans

by Brian on July 28, 2003

Via Scott Martens, I saw that the Chronicle of Higher Education has published an article on the differences between philosophy in Britain and North America.

One of the big differences is the attitude towards interdisciplinary work. Scott highlighted the following quote, which was pretty striking.

In Britain, there is more skepticism about the value of interdisciplinary work, notes Tim Crane, the country’s leading philosopher of mind. “A lot of what counts as interdisciplinary work in philosophy of mind,” he says, “is actually philosophical speculation backed up with certain, probably out-of-date, Scientific American-style summaries of research in psychology or neuroscience, which tend to support the philosophical preconceptions of the authors.”

That’s not exactly what I’d call “noting” the existence of skepticism.

It’s also pretty misleading in a way. Most of the best recent work I’ve seen in philosophy of physics and philosophy of biology seems to rest on a pretty thorough understanding of the relevant fields. And my impression is that this generalises fairly widely (though maybe not to philosophy of mind). Sometimes philosophers of X will end up having more productive conversations with other specialists in X than with other philosophers, because they rely so heavily on specialised knowledge of their field. Even if Tim’s right about philosophy of mind, it isn’t a reasonable characterisation of interdisciplinary work in general.

The article ended with a long discussion about the role of academics in public life, again noting difference between Britain and America.

There are two broad models of how such engagement might best be achieved: what I call the participatory and the contributory. In the participatory model, academics engage in real-world problems by becoming members of the institutions that are directly involved with those problems. In the contributory model, academics remain in academe, but issue documents, books, and papers that are supposed to contribute to public life.

In Britain the participatory model is dominant, while in America it’s the contributory model. Americans write articles for Philosophy and Public Affairs, British philosophers get involved with political groups and influence things directly.

So that got me thinking, is spouting off ideas on a blog a contributory or participatory mode of engagement? Brian’s hypothesis: if it has a comments board it’s participatory, if not it’s contributory.

Quite by coincidence, an ad for the book on which this article was (I think) based arrived in my mailbox today. So I (think I) can fill in one of the gaps in the article. The author, Julian Baggini, says

I’ve recently taken such a picture, interviewing, with a colleague, 16 of the best British-based philosophers in the generation that will soon lead their discipline.

That made me think, well who are these 16 greats? The ad for the book says it contains interviews with

Simon Blackburn, Helena Cronin, Don Cupitt, Richard Dawkins, Michael Dummett, Stuart Hampshire, John Harris, Ted Honderich, Mary Midgley, Ray Monk, Hilary Putnam, Jonathan Rée, Janet Radcliffe Richards, Roger Scruton, John Searle, Peter Singer, Alan Sokal, Russell Stannard, Richard Swinburne, Peter Vardy, Edward O Wilson, Mary Warnock.

This is odd since (a) there’s 22 names there, (b) not all of them are British or philosophers, (c ) there’s hardly a person on that list under 60 and (d) Tim Crane is not on the list, when the impression from the earlier quote was that he was one of the interviewees. (And I’d find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t be one of the “16 of the best British-based philosophers in the generation that will soon lead their discipline.”) Maybe the super 16 are interviewed as well as the 22 luminaries listed above. Does anyone have the book in question so we can find out?

By the way, if you head over to Scott’s site, you should check his post explaining his carefully considered and well earned aversion to Noam Chomsky.



Chun the Unavoidable 07.28.03 at 10:00 pm

For what it’s worth, and I realize that this isn’t the most appropriate place for the comment, after reading the “aversion” piece, I asked a linguist down the hall if it’s true that “[Chomsky’s] principles ultimately produced nothing, and may well have set linguistics back decades.”

He advised me to have a look the professional literature and to get back to him. If Language is any guide, it seems to be true. He seems to be mentioned or cited about 15 times per issue, which I’m sure is a lower rate than that of other prominent linguists and is not a good measure at any rate.

It’s sad, I suppose, how many non-linguists think that Chomsky “revolutionized linguistics” just because all the books tell them so. Perhaps the propaganda model could best explain it.


Chris Bertram 07.28.03 at 10:07 pm

No, the 16 are

Ray Monk, Nigel Warburton, Aaron Ridley, Jonathan Wolff, Roger Crisp, Rae Langton, Miranda Fricker, M.G.F. Martin, Timothy Williamson, Tim Crane, Robin Le Poidevin, Christina Howells, Simon Critchley Simon Glendinning, Stephen Mulhall and Keith Ansell Pearson, some of whom fit the description of “rising stars”. The complete description is here.

FWIW I thought that Baggini’s article was pretty poor and, though British philosophers have to cope with a different institutional culture from Americans, there’s really just one anglophone philosophical culture now which includes, also, the Australians (among others). The attempt to suggest otherwise is just a matter of marketing (for the book – probably some commissioning editor’s brainwave) and journalism.


dsquared 07.28.03 at 10:08 pm

Yeh, but how many times is Freud cited in psychology journals? I often think that we don’t give enough credit to the guys who explored blind alleys. A line of David Stove’s about JS Mill comes to mind “Here Mill is providing his usual service of making an important mistake clearly


Anyone 07.28.03 at 10:35 pm

You are confusing What Philosophers Think (2003), which has interviews with 22 British and American philosophers and philosophically interesting scientists, with New British Philosophy (2002), which has interviews with 16 British philosphers. An easy mistake to make given the similarity in content and proximity of publication date.

Incidentally, participatory in this case means taking part in committee work with non-philosophers rather than starting a conversation in the blogosphere.

There is quite a good interview with Janet Radcliffe Richard in What Philosophers Think which discusses this. She’s asked what exactly she does in these committees and she describes it as baby philosophy, or something like that.

She says that she examines arguments which are full of the most basic philosophical mistakes that people wouldn’t make on any other subject that isn’t of such great concern to them as medical ethics. She claims that they make these basic errors of logic, precisely because they’ve decided their position with passion, and then seek to justify it.

Far from letting the fly out of the flybottle or examing the consequences of adopting certain axioms, she seems to be applying the tools of informal logic – ie a fairly standard list of fallacies for detection – to ethical controversies that the government can pass on to a committee because they don’t split people on party-political lines. This last par is my view rather than hers as I understand it.


Chun the Unavoidable 07.28.03 at 10:37 pm

Another off-topic question: I’m not a philosopher by any means, and I’d like to ask the genuine articles (and internet celebrities) here if my initial impression of David Stove–reactionary lunatic–is widely shared in your discourse communities. I base this on his rather intemperate views of Feyerabend and Popper (of all people), his charming essay on feminism, and his provocative stance on evolution. I haven’t read [must avoid awful pun] the whole Stove by any means, and I’m wondering if his reputation rests on some famous argument about natural kinds, or how something supervenes on something, or elms and experts.


Scott Martens 07.28.03 at 10:38 pm

Chun, I have the table of contents and abstracts of the June issue of Language – the articles themselves aren’t online. Of four articles, two are on dialectology, and area that has very little to do with Chomsky, one is on using neural networks in historical linguistics, which is a pretty anti-Chomskyan thing to want to do, and the remaining article is by a specialist in Arabic morphology who frequently writes articles making a case against the Chomskyan school of morphology.

The March issue is a little better for Chomsky. There are two articles whose titles suggest that Chomsky is definitely going to be cited – one on wh-movement in children with soi-disant SLI, which means Chomsky and Pinker are going to be cited as demi-gods; and the other talks about the “syntax-semantics interface”, which means the author has probably rejected strict Chomskyism, but isn’t quite willing to totally give up on the indepedence of syntax. The December 2002 issue is worse. It has one article that specifically denies using linguistic universals to explain a phenomena that has often been expected to require a universal. One article appears to use a constraint-based grammar – not a very Chomsyan thing. Of the remaining two articles, one is about the history of Welsh prepositions and the other might evoke Chomskyan linguistics.

Are you sure you’re not seeing him cited so often as what the authors are against?


Scott Martens 07.28.03 at 10:45 pm

Oh, and on topic, I agree with Crane only about the philosophy of the mind. I am less clear about the state of other interdisciplinary areas in philosophy. I recall some of the lectures on the philosophy of physics that I got a long time ago, and it seems to me that those were clearly quite knowledgeable.


Chun the Unavoidable 07.28.03 at 11:18 pm


I wouldn’t deny that he’s a polarizing figure, but your claims of total non-contribution, etc., are implausible.

I have access to the entire text of recent issues of Language, and I made a pretty serious mistake in my “15 times per issue.” The actual figure is cited or mentioned in 15 articles/reviews per issue.

Goodness knows I’ve made my share of intemperate arguments on the internet, and I certainly don’t much enjoy arguing with people about Chomsky, for the exact reasons you mention. I don’t see how one could fail to find his lacerating contempt for those who disagree with him a source of endless amusement, however. If he’s set back linguistics back decades, at least he’s made it more enjoyable to the layperson with an advanced degree in hyperbolic topology, nyeagh.


Scott Martens 07.29.03 at 12:01 am

Chun – I will agree that Chomsky will be remembered in the history of linguistics, and that the opinions expressed on my blog are my own and may not be shared by all the other people in the language business (although they should be.) But, a lot of the citations of Chomsky are of the type you’ll find in articles like the ones Gafos writes: There is the well established generative school’s approach ot this problem (Chomsky 1980), but I’m going to offer a case in support of other school X which I believe better explains the phenomena.

The other thing is that there is an inverse relationship between your proximity to Boston and the regard Chomsky has. Language is not necessarily a good basis for a study of the body of linguistic practices. You might take a look at the cognitive linguistics literature as well.

Of each of the claims in the first paragraph of my post that I attribute to Chomsky, I stand by my claim that each one is deeply troubled or very nearly completely abandonned. I really can’t think of any other important claims Chomsky has made.


Brian Weatherson 07.29.03 at 12:51 am

Much thanks for the tip about the books. I clearly did get the two mixed up. I’d actually seen the earlier book too, it was at the book expo at one APA or other, I’d just forgotten I’d seen it. The list doesn’t strike me as too bad, apart of course of the absence of any CTers. (What should the term be here? I thought it would be easiest to say that each member of Crooked Timber is a Crook, but that might seem loaded.)


thepublicguy (aka anyone) 07.29.03 at 12:39 pm

How about twisted splinter or tainted beam?

Coincidentally I’ve just been flicking through Giovanna Borradori’s The American Philosopher: Conversations With Quine, Davidson, Putnam, Nozick, Danto, Rorty, Cavell, Macintyre, and Kuhn.

That’s an interesting list. It is my firm belief that at least one of those philosophers is Scottish or at least started out that way so they’re not all American and maybe not even “all-American” either.

I prefer Baggini’s latest book to this one which was published in the original Italian in 1991 and translated a few years later. Everyone in this book is labelled post-analytic, starting with Quine because he wrote Two Dogmas of Empiricism. I get the impression for that for Borradori analytic philosophy means logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy and that work in an analytic style on themes that wouldn’t have been touched by the immediate postwar generation doesn’t count. But I’m no philosopher so I’m not in a position to comment authoritatively.

It might be entertaining for you to compile a list of Australians who should be interviewed for a book on philosophers for a general readership but again I couldn’t help you there.


JW 07.29.03 at 4:13 pm

Scott, I really find your claim about Chomsky’s influence in linguistics quite puzzling. I mean, just for starters, what about the entire minimalist program, which still seems extremely active? And G&B still seems to be a major component of pretty much every linguistics grad student’s education. I agree that the stuff about innate knowledge is doubly controversial (in what sense innate, and in what sense knowledge?) But it’s interesting that the Chomskyan syntax has flourished even in the absence of anyone making particular sense of the innateness claims.

None of this should be at all construed as a defense of the man’s politics, btw. And, for that matter, it’s not meant to imply that he hasn’t had a deleterious effect on other parts of linguistics, such as semantics, most notably. But I must suspect that your categorical condemnation of his linguistic work is a bit overstated.


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