Michèle Lamont on Philosophers

by Harry on May 20, 2009

A colleague (in Philosophy) just sent me this interview with Michele Lamont about How Professors Think (which just arrived in my mailbox but I still haven’t read). The book is based on interviews of academics who serve on funding panels, and teases out the differences between several disciplines in how they think of their standards and apply them, among other things.

It’s all worth reading. I was particularly struck by this:

Philosophy is a problem discipline, and it’s defined as such by program officers. Philosophers do not believe that nonphilosophers are qualified to evaluate their work. Perhaps that comes out of the dominance of analytic philosophy, with its stress on logic and rigor. Philosophers think their discipline is more demanding than other fields. Even its practitioners define the discipline as contentious. They don’t see that as a problem; argument and dispute are the discipline’s defining characteristics.

All that conflict makes it difficult to get consensus on the value of a philosophy proposal — or to convince people from other disciplines of its merits. The panels I studied are multidisciplinary. Nonphilosophers are often frustrated with the philosophers. They often discounted what philosophers had to say as misplaced intellectual superiority.

That is exactly right, in my own experience, and it is a problem in various ways, especially in our relationship with the Humanities. Philosophy seems to be an outlier within the humanities, just as Linguistics is; we have less in common with the other humanities in terms of the concepts and methods that we deploy, and even the subject matter, than they have with one another (I don’t think I could make the case for that claim in a rigourous way, but I’m convinced its true). Some philosophers, furthermore, seem largely uninterested in any other kind of intellectual endeavour, and this just increases the sense of the other humanists that we are arrogant; worse still, those of us who are interested in other disciplines frequently look to the sciences and social sciences rather than to the rest of the humanities (speaking for myself, I read history and literature for fun, but I read sociology and economics for work). The final problem philosophers have is, as Jason Stanley points out, that the term “philosopher” has more than one legitimate use in English, such that “it is not unusual for English professors to describe themselves as philosophers”; those who do, in my experience, do not have much contact with people who work in philosophy departments, even when it would be very easy for them to have contact (and, as Michael Rosen rather wilily points out in his contributions to that thread, its not as if philosophers in Philosophy departments have some respectable way of defining what they do that includes them, but excludes others). Other humanists often either think they know what we do (but don’t) or think that we ought to be doing something that we are not doing (and not what we are doing). In my experience graduate students are not trained, or given much experience, in explaining and motivating what they do to other humanists, and each discipline can survive without much contact with other disciplines, so we can pretty much go our own way. For a discipline that places so much value on rigour, explicitness, and clarity, it is striking that most of us cannot articulate to nonphilosophers (or even to our students) definitive criteria for “philosophical interestingness”, which is one of the key values in the discipline.

I doubt the situation is good, either for Philosophy, or for the rest of the humanities. And not only because it makes it hard for philosophers to get grant proposals accepted. I’ve frequently been struck, when reading grant proposals from other humanities disciplines, how they could have been enriched by interaction with philosophers, whose input would have helped people to structure arguments better and perhaps to see problems that they gloss over. When I read proposals with some moral or ethical dimension I almost always know philosophical literature that is accessible and seems to me vital for thinking clearly about the matter at issue, and would help the scholar to distinguish the various reasons they have for thinking something they want to argue for. [1] Less frequently, but not infrequently, I see ways that the work the person is doing might illuminate thinking about some philosophical problem. (That this happens less frequently could be because I share the arrogance of my discipline, or because philosophy is more useful to other disciplines than they are to philosophy, or because I am focused on evaluating and/or helping the person to improve their proposal, rather than trying to learn from it).

[1] These comments should not be taken to concede the Philosophy does not engage with other disciplines. In fact I suspect philosophers interact with other disciplines more than most in the humanities do; its just that a lot of the interaction is with disciplines outside the humanities.

{ 195 comments }

1

Nur al-Cubicle 05.20.09 at 2:50 pm

Conversation with a mother with a child in the local high school (fact):

Q. So, are they teaching Philosophy these days in high school?

A. Oh, of course not. That’s a religion.

2

Jonathan 05.20.09 at 3:14 pm

I’m in English, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard others refer to themselves as “philosophers.” I do agree with Stanley that the term is probably more widely used as an honorific, but it becomes slippery when dealing with “theorists,” few of whom, it would seem, Stanley is willing to describe as working on philosophical problems in the sense he intends. But “theorist” is the term I’ve heard the most often to describe Foucault, Derrida, and even Habermas or Adorno in English Depts, not “philosopher.” I also can’t imagine getting offended enough about this to ruin a dinner party.

3

Harry 05.20.09 at 3:25 pm

I can’t imagine being willing even to discuss it at a dinner party (not that I go to many — maybe if I went to lots I’d be bored enough to be willing to discuss it). I’ve come across a number of people who have said things like “this is really a work of ethics/philosophy/political philosophy” in Humanities departments, and have, like Stanley, though quite rarely, had people said “well, really, I’m a philosopher” or some such. When that happens I don’t challenge it, but I am disappointed that someone who says that doesn’t feel that people in the Philosophy department have anything to offer (and I think they’re wrong, too, at least in my institution).

4

qb 05.20.09 at 3:37 pm

Shorter Lamont: Philosophers think they’re better than other people.

Shorter Stanley: Don’t call yourself a philosopher unless you’re doing the things that the people who are better than other people do.

5

Bill Gardner 05.20.09 at 3:43 pm

Harry,
You’ve focused on the relationship between philosophers and humanists. How do you see things with social or life scientists?

My sense is that, very unfortunately, most empiricists think that philosophers are irrelevant, as they have no data (and no grants). They assume that everyone else thinks similarly, and feel something like pity, as if philosophy were a kind of intellectual disability.

6

AcademicLurker 05.20.09 at 3:49 pm

Foucault and Derrida most certainly designated themselves as philosophers. I’ve mainly heard theorist used to describe people in Lit. & Cultural studies who make use of F & D’s writings.

I’m less sure about Adorno. The Frankfurt school described its activity as “critical theory”, so maybe theorist is appropriate.

7

Matt 05.20.09 at 4:07 pm

Foucault and Derrida most certainly designated themselves as philosophers.

I don’t have anything to say about Derrida here, but I’m not sure this was always right about Foucault. Some of his work is pretty clearly philosophy, especially the early stuff (_The Order of Things_ and the like.) But his later work, while having clear philosophical interest, and having philosophical aspects, and being fertile ground for philosophers to work at, is also not clearly clearly philosophy, I think. And, I think that Foucault also saw this. The title he gave his chair at the College de France, after all, was “Professor of the History of Systems of Thought”, a title that seems to more clearly describe what he was up to in his later work than does “philosopher”. That doesn’t take away from him at all, I think. And he was clearly doing philosophy through much of his career, so it seems fine to me to call him, in general, a philosopher, but he also seemed to have seen himself as doing something else much of the time, and I think he was right to so see.

As to Harry’s point, I’ve not known too many people in, say, English departments say that they are _philosophers_, but have heard a fair number say that they do _philosophy_. (More probably do say “theory”, but “philosophy” isn’t that unusual, either.) Often what they do is philosophy, just poorly done. That philosophers think this is so shouldn’t be a surprise, though, any more than literary critics might reasonably think that the literary criticism done by philosophers is poorly done. What I do see is people w/o training in philosophy calling themselves “ethicists”, usually medical or whatever. This tends to mean “I emote about subjects in a fairly banal way, without realizing that my emoting is banal.”

8

John Protevi 05.20.09 at 4:40 pm

FWIW, there are a number of people working in non-Philosophy departments who *are* philosophers (degrees in philosophy, teaching and publishing on philosophers and on topics philosophers teach and publish on). Yours truly, for example.

Also, in my experience, most people in say, English departments, whose degrees are not in philosophy but who write on, say, Deleuze, tend to hedge their bets and say they “do theory,” or that they “write on philosophy sometimes.” I’m sure there are exceptions here, but I haven’t run into too many of them.

Neither of these points are directly relevant to Harry’s post, however, which has to do with the relative isolation from humanities disciplines of people working in philosophy departments.

9

Anonymous 05.20.09 at 4:40 pm

“I’ve frequently been struck, when reading grant proposals from other humanities disciplines, how they could have been enriched by interaction with philosophers, whose input would have helped people to structure arguments better and perhaps to see problems that they gloss over.”

I admit to being very struck by this, in a variety of contexts. But I also wanted to say: Vice versa. Knowledge of other disciplines may be more useful to philosophers than they know. It is often striking to me how incurious some philosophers are. They are sometimes dismissive of whole swaths of intellectual inquiry. I’m not talking about pseudo-philosophy but of qualitative social science or history, e.g. Sometimes it is because they notice some sloppiness in an argument (that may not go all the way down to the argument’s core) and sometimes it seems knee-jerk and makes me worry some people think that doing philosophy and having an interest in (but not a full competence in) the natural sciences sort of covers all one’s intellectual bases. If one is incurious, I still think a little intellectual humility is in order. Perhaps withholding one’s negative judgment of the methodology and subject matter of disciplines you are not well-versed in is advisable.

There is a huge amount of bad philosophy that is done by non-philosophers and that might be the reason behind the dismissive attitude (justified or not) but every once in a while I think maybe someone they respected (a professor, a fellow grad student) simply told them that everything that anthropologists do is bunk and they remain forever convinced this is true. I heard many claims of this sort in graduate school. It would be nice to change that culture and open up a mutual dialogue between philosophy and some branches of the social science and humanities. I once witnessed a collaboration between a fairly orthodox analytic philosopher and an English professor that led to some extremely fruitful research on both their parts. Obviously, the openness has to go both ways. Some philosophers’ views on other disciplines are not the only reason these dialogues are hard to achieve.

The chance to hear from people working in various disciplines is one of the things I like most about Crooked Timber.

10

eric 05.20.09 at 4:41 pm

@4, they think they have a better discipline, is the idea, not that they think they are better people.

Foucault on more than one occasion, for instance when invited to speak to the French philosophical society, said exactly that he wasn’t a philosopher.

11

George W 05.20.09 at 4:42 pm

I hope it’s possible for the average Joe (let alone the average English professor) to think about ethics without having first fought their way through a John Rawls book. Whether that makes them an “ethicist” or just an ethical person depends, I guess, on whether anyone is willing to pay them for it. Randy Cohen, for instance, probably makes you guys puke, but there seems little doubt that he is in fact a professional ethicist.

12

Colin Danby 05.20.09 at 4:50 pm

When he was the “consider yourself a philosopher” question (_Foucault Live_ p. 137) MF was evasive. Historian is a more obvious way to categorize his output, no?

There may also be a continental/AngloAm distinction operating, as Harry’s post seems to assume that philosophy is analytic philosophy. For continental phil the boundaries seem more porous.

13

peter 05.20.09 at 4:54 pm

Having once participated in a week-long workshop comprising both philosophers and computer scientists, one difference in disciplinary style quickly became evident: Faced with a description of a new application domain or problem, a typical computer scientist immediately thinks:

How can I simplify this problem or abstract away from some of the details of its description, in order to make progress towards solving it?

while a typical philosopher immediately thinks:

What implicit assumptions have been made or distinctions overlooked in this problem description, which need to be articulated, analyzed and discussed before we start to tackle it?

Needless to say, these different disciplinary styles themselves became the subject of discussion by some of the philosophers present, much to the annoyance of the computer scientists!

14

John 05.20.09 at 5:15 pm

An irate dean stomps into the physics department, waving this year’s budget requests.

“What is it with you guys? Why can’t you be more like the mathematicians? All I ever buy them are pencils, paper, and trash cans! Or the philosophers? All they need are pencils and paper!”

15

Righteous Bubba 05.20.09 at 5:24 pm

John 05.20.09 at 5:15 pm

Retelling that.

16

AcademicLurker 05.20.09 at 5:46 pm

Matt, Eric & Colin Danby,

True. Whether or not Foucault considered himself to be a philosopher depends on which era Foucault you read.

17

Daniel S. Goldberg 05.20.09 at 6:01 pm

Matt,

What I do see is people w/o training in philosophy calling themselves “ethicists”, usually medical or whatever. This tends to mean “I emote about subjects in a fairly banal way, without realizing that my emoting is banal.”

This exactly right, IMO. I will never cease to be amazed at how frequent a view it seems to be in the circles I move in that no actual training, practice, and scholarship in moral philosophy is needed to actually “do” applied ethics. On the other hand, even among those with the requisite background, there are obviously better and worse ways of actually doing applied ethics, and the nature and quality of the connection between what is preferable for professional moral philosophy and what is preferable for professional applied ethics should not be assumed.

As to the subject of the post, there is an even more basic question I think needs to be answered or at least raised to disentangle the relationship between philosophy and the humanities: what exactly are the humanities? If we want to clarify or understand the tensions and relationships between professional philosophy and other disciplines in the humanities, surely it is important to actually understand what we mean by the designation “humanities.”

Sadly, in my and others view, the term is frequently as little more than an administrative designation, i.e., it is not the natural or social sciences, and it involved, “you know,” Plato, Aristotle, and then “some Renaissance guys, too.” I maintain, and will hopefully put in writing at some point, that properly historicizing the humanities itself — the name of the educational program developed in detail by a particular group of persons in particular communities during the Middle Ages/Renaissance — may shed some important light on the values and ethos that (here’s the normative claim) should animate the practices of persons who claim to be “humanists” today.

I also suspect that this approach might illuminate some important points in regard to the subject matter of this post.

18

StevenAttewell 05.20.09 at 6:05 pm

I’d take exception to “philosophy is more useful to other disciplines than they are to philosophy,” but I’m doing it on the poor evidence of having taken a truly terrible multidisciplinary course (Columbia’s Contemporary Civilization) from a philosopher who exemplified the worst stereotypes about arrogant philosophers.

In this case, the philosopher in question really needed to pay more attention to history. I remember getting into arguments about Plato, where as a proto-historian, I was trying to bring in historical evidence about Plato being related to the Thirty Tyrants and the relationship between the Sophists and radical Athenian Democrats (Sophists were willing to teach any student for money, but Plato believed that only young men of virtue, which often meant sons of the nobility) as critical for understanding the context of the Republic. This teacher dismissed any idea that historical context might matter for understanding a philosopher’s ideas and insisted that the text itself was the only thing of importance.

So was this an isolated incident, or should intellectual history be a required course for philosophers?

19

Adam Kotsko 05.20.09 at 6:30 pm

I just completed an interdisciplinary PhD in theology and philosophy, and currently the majority of my publications are in philosophy — but I would never claim to be a philosopher, primarily because people who consider themselves to be “real philosophers” are huge dicks about it.

20

Anonymous 05.20.09 at 6:33 pm

Steven: I would say this is an isolated incident. Ancient philosophers know a lot of the history surrounding the texts they are working on and sometimes find this history relevant to interpreting the text. History is not the final word on interpretation in philosophy–so this may be what the person meant. Philosophers are looking for arguments, not trying to decide historical questions. But almost any philosophy student in a Plato class will hear about the context you describe.

21

Cala 05.20.09 at 6:34 pm

So was this an isolated incident, or should intellectual history be a required course for philosophers?

I don’t know whether it was an isolated incident, but I can say that it would have been surprising among the scholars of ancient philosophy that I know.

22

Harry 05.20.09 at 6:56 pm

I think I’m right in saying that among historians of philosophy pre-20th century it normal for people to care a lot about and pay a lot of attention to historical context and intellectual history, so indeed SA’s experience is probably atypical IF the protagonist was a historian of philosophy. BUT SA doesn’t specify that is the case, and for a philosopher teaching about Plato it would not be at all surprising.

AK — was that directed at me?

I respond to more, and the direct questions, later when I have a moment.

23

Adam Kotsko 05.20.09 at 6:58 pm

Harry, No, it was not directed at you.

24

Matt 05.20.09 at 7:08 pm

StevenAttewell- I can understand some contexts in which the attitude of the philosopher in question would be appropriate- sometimes you just want to look at the quality of the argument in question and not why the particular person is making it, after all. But, about the particular case, my understanding is that the Contemporary Civilization class at Columbia is taught by all sorts of people, including philosophers who are not historians of philosophy and have no special interest in that. (My understanding is that rewards of certain sorts are given to people who teach this class, so there is incentive to teach it even if the teacher in question isn’t very interested in it.) This means that sometimes the class will be taught by people probably not best suited for it. But, as Harry and others suggest, most historians of philosophy these days are interested in the historical context of their subjects.

25

Robert 05.20.09 at 7:18 pm

I am a philosopher who teaches in interdisciplinary courses fairly regularly (‘Great Books’ sorts of things). I have enjoyed it much, especially getting the chance to learn about other disciplines and the works that are at their centers. (It’s like getting to be an undergraduate again.) Still, it’s an impossible task to talk to students about poetry, literature, art and the like. I grope around without a clue what to do, and can only really offer something when we get to a book of philosophy. However, I’ve been surprised on occasion to hear a lack of humility from some colleagues in other disciplines about philosophy, about my discipline, what is and is not philosophy, what is and is not philosophically important, what is and is not really in some work of philosophy. I admit I have heard philosophers on occasion pontificate on the true ‘great books’ of another discipline, though I am embarrassed to be in the same room. Yet even though I’ve had these experiences, on the whole, most academics, including philosophers, seem to me to be exceedingly humble about what they have expertise is in. Anyone should be squeamish about believing that colleagues outside of one’s discipline can adequately evaluate her work. It’s not as though we’re all born knowing what’s important in disciplines outside our expertise. And I’m surprised to hear that those doling out grant money suppose that they do. Isn’t that what letters of support are supposed to be doing–explaining the significance of a project to bright but uninformed and untrained amateurs?

26

greg 05.20.09 at 7:21 pm

I’ve read and discussed with friends and colleagues plenty of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and so on. In graduate school we undertook the study of “critical theory” rather than “philosophy” in the sense aligned loosely with Adorno & Horkheimer’s Frankfurt School. None of the lit or history professors I studied with ever referred to themselves as philosophers or their work as philosophical. Indeed, in a course I took with Derrida not once did he call his work “philosophy” or himself a “philosopher.” He did, however, occasionally refer to himself as a “thinker,” the same word he used to describe Heidegger, Levinas, and Foucault, to name just a few. “Philosophy” and “philosopher” seemed too circumscribed for his taste.

27

self exile 05.20.09 at 7:24 pm

3 term course in the history of philosophy. Final meeting after getting finals back. My statement “No where in this course have I found 1 single instance of a philosopher drawing a conclusion that is verifiable by other means.” Grade F. Personal philosophical belief: Philosophy is mental masturbation.

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StevenAttewell 05.20.09 at 7:24 pm

Well, that’s good to know. I actually don’t know what kind of philosophy this professor did/does, we didn’t really talk about it, but it was unlikely that it was the history of philosophy given their attitude. Glad to hear that this was an exception to the rule.

29

Tom B 05.20.09 at 7:30 pm

A real issue troubling the interaction between Philosophy and other fields is the significant confusion, most of all among those in ‘Philosophy’ departments, about what Philosophy is. Unless we simply define Philosophy as “that which gets done by people in departments labeled ‘Philosophy’ “, there needs to be a real examination of just what Philosophy is and why it is an important and distinct discipline. Despite the general ahistorical tendency of the last three-quarters century, what Philosophy means today cannot be understood absent of an understanding of what it has been and why it arose in the first place. The first place to go looking is the Ancient Greeks.

My general view, assuming we want a relatively clear intellectual taxonomy, is that Philosophy departments as they currently exist should be re-named Conceptual Analysis departments. The conflation of one tool for doing Philosophy [conceptual analysis] with Philosophy itself will need to be remedied before Philosophy, and those in departments labeled as such, can regain importance and coherence.

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steven 05.20.09 at 7:41 pm

I think the etymology of “philosopher” explains the tendency to use it as an honorific, with which I am sympathetic. I have certainly met some people-with-jobs-in-university-philosophy-departments from whose mouths the claim “I’m a philosopher” sounds implausible if not actually conceited, especially when it turns out that what they actually mean is “I teach and write about what philosophers have written.” (Sort-of a fortiori, if I ever heard an English prof say “I’m a philosopher” I would have difficulty in not sniggering out loud.) And conversely, there certainly exist philosophers who have never set foot in a university philosophy department (including, obviously, most philosophers throughout history).

I tend to think that the term “poet”, too, should be reserved for honorific purposes. Not everyone who publishes verse is a poet. (It’s more difficult, but sometimes at least vaguely meaningful, to describe someone who has never published or even written any verse as a “poet”.)

31

Matt 05.20.09 at 7:45 pm

My general view, assuming we want a relatively clear intellectual taxonomy, is that Philosophy departments as they currently exist should be re-named Conceptual Analysis departments.

The (or a) problem with this is that lots of what happens in philosophy departments today isn’t at all properly or plausibly called “conceptual analysis”. Furthermore, even when that term is used there’s a great deal of dispute about what it means and what it comes down to. (See, for example, a recent review of Timothy Williamson’s book _The Philosophy of Philosophy_ by Peter Hacker in the Philosophical Quarterly where it’s clear that the two have quite different ideas of what counts as conceptual analysis. I’m fairly sure, furthermore, that most of the philosophers on this blog would not describe what they do as conceptual analysis, at least not entirely.

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Harry 05.20.09 at 7:50 pm

On useage — I think people in philosophy departments tend to use the term in two quite different ways “I’m a philosopher” when talking to other academics just means “I’m in a philosophy department”, whereas “he’s not really/really is a philosopher” means “He doesn’t actually do/does in fact do philosophy”. Philosophy is something I do, not something I study; its an activity not a subject matter. I agree with Matt about conceptual analysis — its just one of the tools that philosophers have at their disposal, and is valuable for but not all there is to, for example, doing ethics.

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burritoboy 05.20.09 at 8:01 pm

I think one problem is that a great number of professors of philosophy call themselves philosophers simply, when they’re simply professors of philosophy instead. For instance, professors of political science know they’re not politicians themselves, and professors of poetry usually know they’re not poets themselves (if, of course, they haven’t written any poetry). That is, more grandly, that what many academic disciplines teach are topics created by society at large: society needs a role called an engineer or a lawyer, and the professor of engineering creates engineers and the professor of law creates lawyers.

But society doesn’t need philosophy: plenty of functioning societies had no philosophers whatsoever, and it’s dubious whether any society actually “needs” philosophers perse. In fact, where philosophy always was and will be is where poetry now also is: previous societies needed poetry – a poet worth studying was a person who wrote poetry that many people liked, or many people thought valuable, or other poets liked, or inspired the king or a number of other reasons. Since our current society has no need of poetry, there is no poetry public except for professors of poetry. Thus, in the past, it would have been bizarre to argue that professors of poetry are necessarily poets of worth (what was a great poet would be a judgement not primarily made inside the academy or by members of the academy) . Now, it’s reasonably valid to say that poetry is an entirely academic exercise and that the best professor of poetry is also simultaneously the best poet simply.

I.E. the poet once had a relatively clear and widely understood societal function. Now that societies don’t need poetry, that understanding means it’s essentially a matter of trivia whether professors of poetry produce good (or indeed, any) poets. It’s probably irrelevant if the professors of poetry want to designate themselves the great poets of the age. There’s no one outside poetry academe who would dispute this designation.

But this had always been the case with philosophy. The state or society doesn’t care and doesn’t want any philosophers whatsoever.

34

burritoboy 05.20.09 at 8:09 pm

“I was trying to bring in historical evidence about Plato being related to the Thirty Tyrants and the relationship between the Sophists and radical Athenian Democrats (Sophists were willing to teach any student for money, but Plato believed that only young men of virtue, which often meant sons of the nobility) as critical for understanding the context of the Republic. “

The professor was, in my opinion, much more correct about this than you were. Plato in fact relates about the Thirty Tyrants and his own conclusions about them in his Seventh Letter – it’s more illuminating to think about what Plato says in the Seventh Letter about this than an examination of the few pieces of historical evidence we have is. Plato talks about the Sophists and their role in politics extensively – again, his thoughts about this are more valuable than retailing the few pieces of historical evidence we have.

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burritoboy 05.20.09 at 8:15 pm

“there are a number of people working in non-Philosophy departments who are philosophers (degrees in philosophy, teaching and publishing on philosophers and on topics philosophers teach and publish on). “

All that is completely irrelevant. A philosopher isn’t determined by degrees in philosophy. Teaching or publishing on philosophers is indication of being a scholar of philosophy (which is a great thing, but that is not being a philosopher simply). Teaching about the topics philosophers talk about is also a great thing, but doesn’t even seperate philosophers from theologians from (some) sociologists from (some) economists from (some) pyschologists and so on.

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Tom B 05.20.09 at 8:21 pm

I readily concede that conceptual analysis wouldn’t be an exhaustive description [or even necessarily a precise one, accepting the disputes over accounts of the term itself] of what academic philosophers do, but it seems like the bulk of it. But whatever they are doing, they don’t seem concerned with Wisdom, whatever it happens to be, or explaining quite what it is that replaces Wisdom as a primary concern. For as many things [some significant and some trivial] as academic philosophers will conceptually analyze, its curious that Wisdom is, as far as I am aware, quite a rare object of analysis. And I don’t think its owing to Wisdom being a particularly self-evident concept or idea. There appears to be a dissidence when studying Ancient thinkers who were ultimately interested in Wisdom of some sort, by those not similarly concerned.

I also agree that for many kinds of inquiry, such as the cited example of ethics, conceptual analysis might be necessary but isn’t sufficient. My concern is that much of this other work is not taking place or getting priority, but I could be mistaken. I am curious as to what other kinds of descriptions academic philosophers would give concerning what they are doing other than conceptual analysis.

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Sage Ross 05.20.09 at 8:21 pm

Maybe the problem is that, because the disciplinary focus is on “philosophical interestingness”, the best philosophers work on core, more abstract problems, and the bad philosophers are pushed to the margins to apply philosophy to particular problems of interest to other disciplines.

In my field (history of science), many of us do read and engage with philosophy (and some of us do philosophy and call ourselves philosophers). Science, of course, has been a major site of philosophical interestingness for centuries. But the philosophy I’ve read on another personal area of interest, Wikipedia, ranged from trivial observations couched in jargon to ill-informed polemics that reflect a total lack of engagement with related spheres of discourse.

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George W 05.20.09 at 8:25 pm

An anecdote: I work for a large, international organization with both financial clout and intellectual heft. During orientation, we had a session with a woman from the business ethics department. She asked, What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think “ethics”? People threw out things like morality, fairness, following the rules — much nodding of heads. When she looked right at me, I said “Aristotle.” Stopped her right in her tracks. What did I mean by that? Nothing specific, I said, it’s just that Aristotle is the only person I can think of who wrote a book specifically about ethics. Huh, imagine that — a book. (Don’t ask me what Aristotle SAID about ethics — it’s been 20 years since I faked a term paper on it.)

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steven 05.20.09 at 8:31 pm

In re: interdisciplinariness. It seems weirdly often to happen that I am reading some person-who-writes-books-that-get-published-under-the-rubric-“philosophy”, and this person announces that he or she, or some cadre of colleagues or new “movement”, is going to courageously tackle some hitherto underdeveloped field of philosophical inquiry, and I think: “Huh. They really ought to begin by reading Proust.” I don’t know how many of them actually do get round to doing so.

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StevenAttewell 05.20.09 at 8:33 pm

Fair enough, I was a green-behind-the-ears sophomore history major at the time. However, the professor didn’t tell me that I was missing important historical evidence and thus drawing inaccurate conclusions – the professor told me that historical context is unimportant.

And I don’t think I agree with your suggested methodology here. It’s bad practice to assume that one source gives us the whole of the story, especially when the source had motivations that might have led them towards a biased account. Even still, from looking at the Seventh Letter, we see that Plato had a strong anti-democratic political ideology (which is what I was arguing):

As I observed these incidents and the men engaged in public affairs, the laws too and the customs, the more closely I examined them and the farther I advanced in life, the more difficult it seemed to me to handle public affairs aright. For it was not possible to be active in politics without friends and trustworthy supporters; and to find these ready to my hand was not an easy matter, since public affairs at Athens were not carried on in accordance with the manners and practices of our fathers; nor was there any ready method by which I could make new friends. The laws too, written and unwritten, were being altered for the worse, and the evil was growing with startling rapidity. The result was that, though at first I had been full of a strong impulse towards political life, as I looked at the course of affairs and saw them being swept in all directions by contending currents, my head finally began to swim; and, though I did not stop looking to see if there was any likelihood of improvement in these symptoms and in the general course of public life, I postponed action till a suitable opportunity should arise. Finally, it became clear to me, with regard to all existing communities, that they were one and all misgoverned. For their laws have got into a state that is almost incurable, except by some extraordinary reform with good luck to support it. And I was forced to say, when praising true philosophy that it is by this that men are enabled to see what justice in public and private life really is. Therefore, I said, there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men, till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers.

As a historian, I would say this is a conservative aristocrat talking. He holds the “manners and practices of our fathers” as synonymous with good government, he find the current trend of public policy “evil,” and just so happens to end up with an idea that you can only have good government when people like Plato get to make the decisions – he certainly changes his mind later on when we get to The Laws, but that’s a different matter.

My argument at the time, and I would argue, my argument now, would be that this philosophic argument can’t be separated from the historical context. It may well have philosophical or logical validity, but it’s still coming from his particular background. I believe my argument then was that I don’t think that the son of a radical democrat who had been executed by the Thirty Tyrants would have come up with the same conclusion about democracy; I thought that Plato’s class identity played a role. The professor was basically arguing that we had to only consider the ideas and take the argument at face value, without considering the context of the author’s experience.

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ben 05.20.09 at 8:54 pm

(See, for example, a recent review of Timothy Williamson’s book The Philosophy of Philosophy by Peter Hacker in the Philosophical Quarterly where it’s clear that the two have quite different ideas of what counts as conceptual analysis.

)

A truly great review of a truly awful book.

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Robert 05.20.09 at 8:54 pm

Perhaps one reason philosophers don’t have a nice, neat account of what they do for a living is that the very question ‘What is philosophy?’, when not meant to ask something utterly uninformative (“It’s what they do over there in that department.”), is itself regarded by philosophers as a philosophical issue. Most philosophers don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on the question, though when asked “what is philosophy”, they will, as is their disposition, start talking about some of these disputes. There is a journal devoted to this subject, ‘Metaphilosophy’. It’s not all that easy to say what poetry or art is either, though, and most artists and poets spend little time on it. It’s hard enough to compose a poem or a painting. Likewise, philosophy.
It’s worth pointing out that the claim that contemporary philosophy is ‘ahistorical’ seems itself ahistorical. I’m not sure what the charge means exactly (I suspect it implies some sort of relativism), but which philosopher in the history of philosophy wasn’t ‘ahistorical’?

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John Protevi 05.20.09 at 9:00 pm

@ burritoboy / 35:

this topic of the thread is premised on distinguishing the use of “philosopher” as (1) an identifier in the current academic division of labor, but which doesn’t necessarily match up with appointments in philosophy departments and (2) as an honorific, signifying the few people who produce work with historical value. In #8 I was (quite obviously) offering a (partial) list of criteria for justifying usage (1). It’s not clear what you’re up to, but it has something to do with (2) and with the state from what I can gather.

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Aaron Swartz 05.20.09 at 9:21 pm

It seems to me analytic philosophy should just bite the bullet and become a social science. People get all upset when I suggest this, but analytic philosophy really just looks like a social science to me, the one whose ambit is things that can be discovered without leaving the armchair.

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Matt 05.20.09 at 9:34 pm

analytic philosophy really just looks like a social science to me,…

Again, that might describe some “analytic philosophy” (whatever that means these days), but it doesn’t describe a lot of what’s done in the majority of philosophy departments, large and small, in the English speaking world.

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Chris Bertram 05.20.09 at 9:45 pm

#17 _I will never cease to be amazed at how frequent a view it seems to be in the circles I move in that no actual training, practice, and scholarship in moral philosophy is needed to actually “do” applied ethics._

Having served, as a philosopher, on the ethics committee of a large medical research project, I can report that the judgement of the patient representatives, parents, medics etc. struck me as being in no respect inferior to those of philosophers on the questions we addressed.

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Robert 05.20.09 at 9:49 pm

Right, I agree with Matt. A lot of what is done in philosophy departments is, for instance, trying to establish some sort of reflective equillibrium among widely held intuitions about particular cases and general principles that have some initial plausibility.

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kid bitzer 05.20.09 at 9:58 pm

this thread sounds familiar. some of the issues, e.g. the reaction of interdisciplinary review boards to philosophical grant-applications, were hashed over in these previous discussions:

http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2006/07/geniuses_three_.html

http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2006/07/philosophy_and_.html

(where “hashed over” ≠ “settled”)

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Neil 05.20.09 at 10:49 pm

I think I’ve had more interaction with the humanities than most of the other philosophers posted here (2 phds, and one is in the humanities). I can confidently report that people in English departments and c *never* say of themselves “I’m a philosopher”. It’s an honorific in their lexicon which ought to be applied only to the greats (which of course they define somewhat differently to us). “Philosopher” = dead white guys plus a handful of living French people not all of whom are guys.

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JonJ 05.20.09 at 10:57 pm

@40

It’s not quite clear to me what you mean by “separating the argument from the historical context,” or “considering the context of the author’s experience.”

If you mean that the historical context has to be understood to understand what Plato meant by the quoted words, you might have a point. But then, to do that adequately, you would also need to be able to read his words in the original classical Greek, which a heck of a lot of members of philosophy departments who teach Plato can’t do. (Once upon a time, I taught history of philosophy, and could read Plato, very haltingly, in the original.)

On the other hand, I think it is also perfectly proper to take this same text as though it were written in English (sounds to me sort of like Jowett’s English, but I wouldn’t swear to that) in say the 19th or 20th century, or 21st century, and consider whether it expressed a “philosophical” argument (taking that term to mean whatever you like), whether this argument was of any philosophical interest, whether it had any validity, etc. Sometimes, in and out of the philosophy classroom, we do want to analyze arguments that way, abstracting from their historical context. For example, we might want to see whether such an argument had any validity in our own social context, independently of what Plato was up to when he wrote the words.

Either way of handling this text, and a number of others, seem to me to be perfectly suitable. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

As for the old “paper, pencils, trash can” jest, nowadays of course all any philosopher needs is a bit of electricity to charge the laptop battery and an Internet connection.

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Sam C 05.20.09 at 11:28 pm

Steven at 30 (and others): I’m sympathetic to the idea of using ‘philosopher’ and ‘poet’ as honorifics, but it leaves me with a problem. I’m paid a salary to do and teach philosophy. What do I call myself? I’m obviously not (yet) a philosopher in the honorific sense that, say, David Hume was. But is there also an aspirational sense in which I can be a philosopher, much as I could be a novelist without being Proust?

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burritoboy 05.20.09 at 11:32 pm

” I believe my argument then was that I don’t think that the son of a radical democrat who had been executed by the Thirty Tyrants would have come up with the same conclusion about democracy; I thought that Plato’s class identity played a role. “

But the problem is that you can only make the case that Plato’s class identity played a role by examining his philosophy. 1. Your discovery of Plato’s class is itself a reflection of your own philosophy. You are actually using a theory of class to reflect on Plato’s philosophy. I.E. you are actively assuming that your understanding of class is superior to Plato’s. Now, that understanding may indeed BE superior to Plato’s but that’s nothing we can assume. The only way this dilemma can be resolved is philosophically. History provides comparatively little additional value to this question.

“He holds the “manners and practices of our fathers” as synonymous with good government”

Plato doesn’t really seem to be a particular fan of the traditional Athenian regime, and even in the passage you quoted Plato indicates the converse – the vast majority of regimes are heavily flawed whether they’re old (and traditional thus appealing to conservatives) or new (and thus not appealing to conservatives).

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steven 05.20.09 at 11:34 pm

How about simply “I’m a philosophy professor”? And then if your interlocutor says: “Gosh, a philosopher!”, you can earn brownie points for modesty by replying: “Well, you know, one aspires to being a philosopher…”

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bianca steele 05.20.09 at 11:37 pm

@Steven Attewell,
Personally, I thought CC was worthwhile, though I also find it difficult to imagine a Columbia professor in the 80s telling an undergrad not to take a class-based approach to Plato. Isn’t that what the intro to the Penguin edn says outright? How do you discuss the political cycles without mentioning that Plato favored aristocracy? Back then I’m certain you could have easily found section taught by a history prof who favored the approach you’re describing.

As for me, I took CC with a philosophy professor who happened to be a Communist (replaced halfway through with a famous professor who’d never taught it before)–which means I’ll really never know what the run-of-the-mill leftist or left-center take on Locke’s theory of property is. I was taking two other philosophy courses at the time, including history of philosophy, and didn’t notice any huge difference in the approach (with one exception when it came to the relationship between philosophy and religion). On the other hand, things may have changed; the professor who gave me an A in Aristotle now teaches in a different department. I also have no idea whether the comp lit or German professor who taught the Literature Humanities section I took would have been misleading if I’d gone on to take an English course. I suppose this is the kind of thing that gives interdisciplinary courses a bad name.

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steven 05.20.09 at 11:42 pm

@40:

I believe my argument then was that I don’t think that the son of a radical democrat who had been executed by the Thirty Tyrants would have come up with the same conclusion about democracy; I thought that Plato’s class identity played a role. The professor was basically arguing that we had to only consider the ideas and take the argument at face value, without considering the context of the author’s experience.

Well, your professor was arguably justified so to insist inasmuch as a hypothesis as to why (you think) Person A holds View B is not a refutation of or even an engagement with View B, it is simply an ad hominem sidestepping of it; and engaging with View B itself was presumably the point of the class in question.

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burritoboy 05.21.09 at 12:06 am

“this topic of the thread is premised on distinguishing the use of “philosopher” as (1) an identifier in the current academic division of labor, but which doesn’t necessarily match up with appointments in philosophy departments”

1. The current academic division of labor isn’t really a very interesting topic perse (“We didn’t get as many grants as those lit theory bastards! Waaaaaaah!”) but understanding what philosophy actually is, is conversely extremely interesting. If understanding or examining the current academic division of labor helps us to the second goal, then it’s useful. Otherwise, no-one really should be very interested. (I mean, it may prove interesting or enlightening to professors of philosophy, but that’s not a reason for that to be of momentous importance otherwise.)

2. Calling a scholar of philosophy a philosopher is very close to calling a scholar who works on F. Scott Fitzgerald a great novelist equal to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The problem, centrally, is that philosophy is NOT an academic discipline. It’s a way of life.

“I’m paid a salary to do and teach philosophy. What do I call myself? I’m obviously not (yet) a philosopher in the honorific sense that, say, David Hume was. But is there also an aspirational sense in which I can be a philosopher, much as I could be a novelist without being Proust?”

No, you can’t. Which is why many of the people who actually were philosophers, repeatedly denied that they were philosophers.

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Matt 05.21.09 at 12:28 am

The problem, centrally, is that philosophy is NOT an academic discipline. It’s a way of life.

This account is going to make an awful lot of people who are clearly philosophers into non-philosophers- Russell, Kant, Hegel, Carnap, A. Smith, Thomas Reid, Sidgwick, etc. Even for many non-academics who are clearly philosophers, it’s not clear that we’d say that philosophy was a “way of life” for them- Descartes, Hume, Leibniz, Locke, etc. So this account surely won’t work. I guess you can go on insisting on this account if you want, but I think it pretty clearly won’t work. It’s right that working in a philosophy department isn’t necessary for being a philosopher, but what many people who work in philosophy departments do is properly called philosophy (if it’s not, it’s not clear what it is.) I don’t see how they are wrong to say they are philosophers anymore than a chemistry professor is wrong to say she’s a chemist, even though she also teaches chemistry as well as doing it.

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harry b 05.21.09 at 12:28 am

bianca steele — ok, up to this point we’ve all avoided naming names. But who on earth was the communist? You can reply by email to spare his blushes.

I guess I just disagree that philosophy is a way of life. It may be, for some people. But it wasn’t for the great philosophers (Hume, Kant, Mill, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke….); it was something they did. An enterprise, an activity. Just one of many in the cases of most of those named, who also excelled at other, quite different acivities.

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Daniel S. Goldberg 05.21.09 at 12:28 am

\threadjack

Chris,

I can report that the judgement of the patient representatives, parents, medics etc. struck me as being in no respect inferior to those of philosophers on the questions we addressed

Two points: first, as I am guessing you are aware, there is a vigorous and fairly voluminous debate over whether it makes any sense to speak of an ethics expert, and whether there is any value added. A CT comment thread is obviously not the appropriate forum to delve into that literature, but it is obviously relevant.

Second, I respect your perspective, but I have formed at least somewhat different views from my own experiences in clinical and research ethics. However, I do want to say my comments were not generally directed at lay participants in the cultures of medicine and science, but rather at many of the professional participants, who often seem to me to have the (peculiar, if not altogether mistaken) unreflective view that their expertise as a professional healer/investigator is all the experience, training, and savvy they need to render ethical decisions as to sometimes deeply complicated and difficult problems. Moreover, the extensive history of unethical human subjects research during the 20th century, does not inspire confidence in the notion that professional healers and investigators are are well-equipped to make decisions that at least historically will be judged morally plausible. Whether applied ethicists would have made a difference is, of course, another question altogether.

\end threadjacking

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bianca steele 05.21.09 at 12:41 am

Harry, I don’t remember her name. I could give you a choice of two first names that collectively would have a 95% chance of including hers.

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kid bitzer 05.21.09 at 12:46 am

hannah and rosa?

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Becko Copenhaver 05.21.09 at 12:51 am

To go back a bit to part of the original topic, what is it about us philosophers (yes, I call myself a philosopher) that makes our colleagues think we have misplaced intellectual superiority? I wonder if it isn’t so complicated, i.e., if it isn’t primarily about our insularity and somewhat anomalous status with respect to the rest of the humanities. I wonder if it is simple mores. It took me a long time to figure out that I can’t engage most of my non-philosophy colleagues as I would a fellow philosopher without seriously and unintentionally offending them. Where others say things like “I hear you and let me push on that a bit,” we tend to say things like, “You’re wrong, for the following three reasons.” In the rush to get through an extended line of thought we often leave the niceties of polite discourse behind (mind you, I am not exempting myself here in any way). I think this actually plays a part in our insularity and our inability to articulate properly to others what we do – I think many of us don’t recognize the social conventions that govern the way many of our colleagues engage in simple intellectual conversation.

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StevenAttewell 05.21.09 at 12:53 am

Burrito-Boy:
“The only way this dilemma can be resolved is philosophically. History provides comparatively little additional value to this question.” That does sound rather arrogant, displinarily-speaking. Philisophic thought, as well as its thinkers, doesn’t emerge from a vacuum of pure reason. Many things influence philosopher’s thinking – I doubt for example that women philosophers would agree with Plato’s comment in the Symposium that love for a man is higher and purer than love for a woman.

Right, but there’s a more subtle thing going on here. The traditional Athenian regime can refer both to democracy, and pre-democratic Athens. Obviously, Plato’s not simply an aristocrat – he doesn’t endorse rule by blood. But given that he thinks only the sons of the aristocracy should be educated in philosophy, his call for philosopher-kings has a certain self-interested ring.

Bianca:
I don’t know whether to be flattered or not by the idea that I went to Columbia in the 1980s – I was in the class of 2005. And I did switch halfway to a much better section that turned into a rollicking debate over the validity of the Enlightenment. Ended up enjoying myself quite a lot.

BTW, if you want a good left take on Locke’s theory of property, I suggest Michael Perelman’s Invention of Capitalism. Essentially, the argument is that Locke’s theory of property is a giant apologia for the enclosure of the commons, which arguably was a huge theft of property rights from the majority of the people.

steven:
That counts as an ad hominem attack? I wasn’t saying he was wrong because he was an aristocrat, I was saying that his attitudes toward the capacity of ordinary people for self-government were influenced by his background. That’s rather mild for ad hominem.

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Adam Kotsko 05.21.09 at 1:12 am

It’s always reassuring to see recurring dodges. For instance, we are to believe that what most people think analytic philosophy is, isn’t going on very much in philosophy departments anymore, or at least isn’t at the heart of what they’re doing. What are they doing? We never find out — the result is an infinite deferral of the right to critique. I’m not asking for a review of the literature, but the interlocutor literally never gets even the vaguest intimation of all these things that are going on in philosophy departments that aren’t “analytic philosophy.” I’m starting to think that analytic philosophy doesn’t exist when people want to critique it, but it does exist when people want to get a job in philosophy departments.

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steven 05.21.09 at 1:41 am

StevenAttewell: the criterion for calling something ad hominem is not the ferocity or otherwise of the “attack”. Your approach to Plato is ad hominem inasmuch as it is directed at “explaining” (away) the view by reference to prior facts about the man, rather than arguing with the view itself. (Ah, I see that Adam has something about this on his other blog.)

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harry b 05.21.09 at 2:03 am

I think that’s a fair challenge Adam, and that its meetable, but not in short order. More later; but possibly quite a bit later.

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sleepy 05.21.09 at 2:49 am

“I think the etymology of “philosopher” explains the tendency to use it as an honorific, with which I am sympathetic.”

” Calling a scholar of philosophy a philosopher is very close to calling a scholar who works on F. Scott Fitzgerald a great novelist equal to F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

Thank you.
As I say often enough I want a little historical research on when every professor of philosophy came to be called a ‘philosopher’ I’m willing to bet we can date it to sometime in the last century. Two Cultures’ etc and the attempt of some humanistic disciplines to escape to something else. It ranks up there with the ‘science’ of history, and of economics.
etc. etc.

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Matt 05.21.09 at 3:00 am

Adam- one thing to note is that two definitions of “analytic philosophy” given by non-philosophers (I’m pretty sure) here are not compatible- if analytic philosophy is conceptual analysis than it’s almost certainly not a social science, and vice-versa. As for what people in “mainstream” philosophy departments are doing, it’s much too multifarious to be easily captured, I think. It’s certainly not a particular methodology or even a small set of them. Even in particular departments that’s so- what Jerry Fodor, Stephen Stich, Alan Code, Martin Lin, Brian Weatherson, Ernest Sosa, Ruth Chang, Dean Zimmerman, Peter Kivy, and Larry Tempkin all have in common methodologically will be awfully hard to find except at the most abstract level. Given this, I don’t think that it’s terribly useful to talk about “analytic philosophy” except perhaps as a field of historical study. But, I think most of the confusion people have comes from not closely engaging with the work most philosophers do these days but rather having taken some undergrad classes or having read Ayer or Wittgenstein on their own.

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harry b 05.21.09 at 3:02 am

The comparison between the literary critic and the philosopher doesn’t work. The literary critic studies novels, and does literary criticism. She/he therefore is not a novelist (good, bad or indifferent), but a literary critic. What most of us in philosophy departments do is philosophy; we are engaged in the same activity as Hume, Kant, etc, and most of us are not scholars of their work, but we read it in order to learn how to do what they were doing better than we otherwise could (just as novelists read novels by great novelists in order to learn how to do it, and comedians study (and steal from) great comedians in order to learn how to engage in the same activity. So, I don’t think that any living philosopher thinks that any living philosopher is as good a philosopher as Kant, Hume, Descartes, etc, just as I doubt any living novelist thinks that any living novelist is as good a novelist as Austen, Proust (was he a novelist?), etc. But we are engaged in something that is recognisably the same activity. Its true that “scholars of philosophy” are not, qua scholars of philosophy, philosophers (Rawls, I guess, was both a scholar of philosophy and a philosopher). But most people in Philosophy departments are not scholars of philosophy (and some who are are also philosophers, eg Rawls).

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sleepy 05.21.09 at 4:14 am

“What most of us in philosophy departments do is philosophy; we are engaged in the same activity as Hume, Kant, “
As a ‘philosopher’ you’re engaged in the same activity as Kant in the same way Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano are engaged in the same activity as Palladio, or Christopher Wren (as an architect).
The pretense of philosophers. and it has to be said contemporary designers, is that the knowledge in their their field is cumulative, like chemistry. Is isn’t. At least not in any way that is useful as philosophy.
Logicians are technicians at best.
Bring back Philology, please.

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JohnM 05.21.09 at 6:08 am

Jesus Christ I don’t think I’ve ever read so many different No True Scotsman fallacies in a single thread before.

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Paul Gowder 05.21.09 at 6:20 am

Seems to me that the solution is not to give a good goddamn about the label but simply distinguish good work from bad work with reference to various methodologies, which may be more or less appropriate in a given case. That is, a piece of good work is one a) uses a methodology appropriate to the question, and b) uses that methodology well.

If one does a) and b), why should it matter whether one calls oneself a “theorist” or a “philosopher” or a “literary critic” or an “economist” or what-the-fuck-ever? And getting the more socially acceptable of those names won’t do one a whit of good if one does not do a) and b).

What other role do the labels serve, other than to distinguish between groups of people who one thinks do a) and b) and groups who one thinks do not? Joe Schmoe may do work in the same field as Jane Schmane, but Jane counts as a philosopher (or an economist) because other people who count as philosophers think Jane does good work, while Joe counts as a literary critic (or sociologist) because they don’t. Reverse those to state it from the perspective that puts the literary critic or the sociologist in the center and the point works just as well. (Oooh, did I just do a deconstruction? Sexy.)

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CK Dexter 05.21.09 at 10:04 am

” Calling a scholar of philosophy a philosopher is very close to calling a scholar who works on F. Scott Fitzgerald a great novelist equal to F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

Patently false. You’ll notice the word “great” doesn’t appear in the word “philosopher”? You might also be aware–or inform yourself–that some (indeed, most) philosophers are not historians of philosophy (just as some English professors are novelists), and that some historians of philosophy also do non-historical philosophy? There is the added complication that historians of philosophy are not analogous to literary historians. Historical philosophers analyze, critique, reconstruct, and respond to historical philosophical arguments. Literary history would be analogous if scholars re-wrote, or added chapters, or edited, the works they study.

“Philosopher” is not an honoric, and no one has suggested any clear reason why it should be treated as such. And it’s worth keeping in mind that Socrates’ definition of philosopher as _lover_ of wisdom rather than wise person was specifically intended to insist that the philosopher is one who seeks, not one who has found, which doesn’t fit the honoric view.

It is somewhat mind bogglingly ironic that a blog frequented by academics, many of the English department variety, would have a discussion about the uselessness and pretentiousness of any academic discipline, any field of knowledge, any profession.

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dsquared 05.21.09 at 10:29 am

Nine times out of ten, “I’m a philosopher” can roughly be translated as “I smoke a lot of dope”. I’d regard “I’m a philosophy lecturer” as much more of an honorific, as it at least certifies that the speaker manages to get out of bed more than three days in ten.

The issue that strikes me was ably (if frighteningly!) summarised by Sosa above:

Maybe the problem is that, because the disciplinary focus is on “philosophical interestingness”, the best philosophers work on core, more abstract problems, and the bad philosophers are pushed to the margins to apply philosophy to particular problems of interest to other disciplines.

which is to say – Harry, to what extent do you think your views in the post are coloured by your own location in a subfield of philosophy which is a) not very typical of philosophy in the way in which it relates to other social sciences and to practice, and b) sociologically, not exactly the highest-status subfield? (as Kieran occasionally points out in these threads, a is related to b, in that in an awful lot of areas, economics being a particularly bad offender, status and “purity” go together.

As Matt says above, conceptually “what Jerry Fodor, Stephen Stich, Alan Code, Martin Lin, Brian Weatherson, Ernest Sosa, Ruth Chang, Dean Zimmerman, Peter Kivy, and Larry Tempkin all have in common methodologically will be awfully hard to find except at the most abstract level”, but sociologically, those names probably form the points of a decagon in methodological space which has boundaries that are really quite aggressively defended. I’ve suggested in the past that “analytic philosophy” is best thought of as being the name of a trade union (and one with decidedly pre-Thatcher attitudes toward demarcation practices), and if one takes that view, then I think Lamont’s critique goes through.

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novakant 05.21.09 at 10:45 am

it is simply an ad hominem sidestepping of it; and engaging with View B itself was presumably the point of the class in question.

Your approach to Plato is ad hominem inasmuch as it is directed at “explaining” (away) the view by reference to prior facts about the man, rather than arguing with the view itself.

Whatever happened to “Das Sein bestimmt das Bewusstsein” ?

I’m certainly not saying that this is the last word in approaching the works of a philosopher or that such an approach cannot turn into an ad hominem, but to simply dismiss it out of hand and equate it with an ad hominem is a bit rich really.

The literary critic studies novels, and does literary criticism. (…) What most of us in philosophy departments do is philosophy.

I don’t think the distinction is nearly as clear cut as you make it seem and FWIW both Quine (if I’ve understood his arguments for confirmation holism and ontological relativity correctly) and certainly Rorty would back me up on this. You might be correct as far as de facto day to day academic teaching is concerned, but there is no good reason to draw a sharp distinction between the activity of discussing an ethical dilemma as it is presented in a thought experiment and a novel.

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Sam C 05.21.09 at 12:05 pm

Steven: calling myself a ‘philosophy professor’ would sound very odd, since I’m British not American. And in fact I spend a fair amount of time discussing philosophy (not philosophy professing) with people who aren’t professional philosophers; time which I don’t much want to waste being coy about what I do. I’d rather get on with the work of thinking together about the good life.

Burritoboy: I call myself a philosopher because I do the kind of work done by people like Aristotle, Hume and Mill, and try to live up to their example. What’s wrong with that?

Shorter Adam Kotsko: hey no fair, stand still and form an orderly target!

Novakant: I think you’ve missed the point that was being made with the literary criticism/philosophy disanalogy. As a [philosopher/aspiring philosopher/philosophy lecturer], I engage in the same kind of activity as David Hume did (some of the time, when he wasn’t being a diplomat, historian, or librarian). F. R. Leavis, in contrast, did not engage in the same kind of activity as D. H. Lawrence did. I write philosophy, as did Hume. Leavis didn’t write novels.

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novakant 05.21.09 at 12:21 pm

I think you’ve missed the point that was being made with the literary criticism/philosophy disanalogy.

No, I got the point but was expanding on one of the axioms necessary to make it, i.e. the distinction between “literature” and “philosophy”. If, as I would hold, there is no such clear cut distinction, then Harry’s argument falls apart.

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steven 05.21.09 at 12:28 pm

Steven: calling myself a ‘philosophy professor’ would sound very odd, since I’m British not American

I do apologise. In that case dsquared’s suggestion of “philosophy lecturer” would presumably work better for you.

And it’s worth keeping in mind that Socrates’ definition of philosopher as lover of wisdom rather than wise person was specifically intended to insist that the philosopher is one who seeks, not one who has found, which doesn’t fit the honorific view.

But the self-professed “lover of wisdom” is implicitly virtuous enough to have chosen the right thing to love in the first place, viz., wisdom, rather than money, fame, power etc.

I do sometimes find it strange that almost no person-employed-in-a-university-department-whose-duties-include-teaching will ever volunteer that he or she is a “teacher”, which seems almost to be an anti-honorific in Anglo-Saxon circles these days.

79

JoB 05.21.09 at 12:28 pm

What the heck …

The pretense of philosophers. and it has to be said contemporary designers, is that the knowledge in their their field is cumulative, like chemistry. Is isn’t. At least not in any way that is useful as philosophy.
Logicians are technicians at best.
Bring back Philology, please.

I wasn’t aware philology had gone anywhere but it is conceivable that it disappeared in an universe where philosophy is non-cumulative (at least not ‘in any way that is useful as philosophy’!). If that’s arrogance, there should be more of it – in a world still plagued by the ‘I said so’ or ‘he says so’-fallacies.

The idea that the thought of a mediocre contemporary philosopher is worse than that of Kant is ridiculous (although perhaps such discussions will forever be dominated by bad philosophers – the type that easily believes they would better at soccer if they had set their minds to it, I guess).

The problem of philosophy’s popularity is that it is an activity on subject matter that is not directly measurable (which does not mean its progress isn’t). One side-effect is that may charlatans can hide in this field and that patience is needed to filter them out (not unlike other human activities such as chemistry and fashion).

80

steven 05.21.09 at 12:39 pm

As a [philosopher/aspiring philosopher/philosophy lecturer], I engage in the same kind of activity as David Hume did (some of the time, when he wasn’t being a diplomat, historian, or librarian). F. R. Leavis, in contrast, did not engage in the same kind of activity as D. H. Lawrence did. I write philosophy, as did Hume. Leavis didn’t write novels.

I’m not sure that the claim that you are “engaging in the same kind of activity” (even if accepted for the purposes of argument, though it could do with unpacking) gets you as far as you want it to, all the way to a justified claim to the same substantive description. I sometimes run (eg for a bus), and Usain Bolt also runs. This does not make me an athlete.

81

Sam C 05.21.09 at 12:52 pm

Steven – no, I’m the one who should apologise: that opening remark was pointlessly irritable, and weakened the point I was actually trying to make, which is that I’d rather be upfront with the people I talk to about what I do. I think, talk and write about the good life, I don’t just teach other people’s thought and writing about it. I take your point that merely engaging in the that activity isn’t enough, but I was actually claiming to be an athlete, although not yet a world-class one, rather than just a runner-for-buses. If that’s arrogant, I’ll own that.

82

Sam C 05.21.09 at 12:56 pm

[oops – ‘the that’ > ‘that’, obviously]

83

engels 05.21.09 at 12:56 pm

As part of my job as a manager in a double glazing firm I engage in the same activity that Julius Caesar did – leadership. So when people ask me what I do for a living I say I am a ‘leader of men’.

84

Matt 05.21.09 at 1:04 pm

I mostly agree with Harry but would want to insist that at least sometimes studying, teaching, and writing on the history of philosophy is a way to _do_ philosophy, even quite a good way. (I don’t mean this just in the way Harry suggests- that we read people smarter and better at philosophy than we are to know how to do it better.) This seemed to be the view of Aquinas, who devoted quite a lot of his time to working on Aristotle, and Hegel (“The history of philosophy as philosophy” might be his term, though maybe it’s only used to describe his view, I’m not sure.) This approach has been taking by many good philosophers today, including Michael Rosen and Gary Hatfield, and seems to be fairly strong among those influenced by Stanley Cavell and his reading of Wittgenstein.

85

steven 05.21.09 at 1:08 pm

Apology unnecessary! But re the claim of “engaging in the same activity”, it might be worth pointing out that the truth or otherwise of such a claim will vary with the magnification-level of the comparison. Zoom out, and DH Lawrence and FR Leavis were engaged in exactly the same activity, ie writing books. Zoom in a bit, and it’s not the same activity, because one wrote novels and one wrote criticism. But now swap out Leavis for Evelyn Waugh and compare him with Lawrence. At the current zoom level they were engaged in the same activity, ie writing novels, but zoom in some more, and it becomes apparent that they were doing extremely different things…

So thanks, now, for offering a lower-zoom-level definition of what a philosopher does:

I think, talk and write about the good life

Okay. (But that’s not what Hume-the-philosopher was always engaged in doing, is it?) And further, if one were really intent on being annoying, one might then ask what distinguishes philosophers in this respect from writers of self-help manuals, religious tracts and the like? Are they philosophers too, even if perhaps bad ones?

86

Tim Wilkinson 05.21.09 at 1:14 pm

novokant’s transgressive discourse:

“There is no good reason to draw a sharp distinction between the activity of discussing an ethical dilemma as it is presented in a thought experiment and a novel.”

No – because both are discussing an ethical dilemma. Anyway, what is a novel doing on that side of the (dis)analogy?

There is a distinction analogous to lit. critic v author which is roughly that between philosophers and critical historians of philosophy. The latter address philosophical topics, but their project is essentially interpretative – what was Hume’s view? Not my cup of tea at all.

“Quine (if I’ve understood his arguments for confirmation holism and ontological relativity correctly) and certainly Rorty would back me up on this”…Are those primary or secondary ‘sources’?

87

Tim Wilkinson 05.21.09 at 1:20 pm

Strewth, comments are coming thick and fast – hadn’t seen Matt’s comment so couldn’t disagree with it.

88

Walt 05.21.09 at 1:24 pm

Dexter: We’re discussing the uselessness of philosophy? Where?

89

dsquared 05.21.09 at 1:26 pm

80, 83: or equally pertinently, the average science lab employs a lot of people, all of whom are doing science, but there is a very definite social demarcation (which I think can only kindasorta be matched up to any objective difference in activities being carried out) between those who are called “scientists” and those who are called “technicians”.

90

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.21.09 at 1:29 pm

Nine times out of ten, “I’m a philosopher” can roughly be translated as “I smoke a lot of dope”.

Smoking a lot of dope certainly helps one to appreciate metaphysics, or so I’ve been told. That’s philosophy. It might also make one a botanist and a chemist. Science for the masses!

91

bianca steele 05.21.09 at 1:45 pm

@HV: For some definitions of “chemistry.”

92

bianca steele 05.21.09 at 1:48 pm

It does seem like this thread is “why people might dislike philosophers and why they shouldn’t.” But are “people” academics and “philosophers” people in philosophy departments? are “people” professionals and “philosophers” people who took from their undergrad philosophy courses the idea that in the modern era it’s good to be analytical? are “people” ordinary joes and “philosophers” people who spend their spare time reading Plato and Newman?

93

Gandalf The Pious 05.21.09 at 1:51 pm

BL writing in the PGR:A reflective, literate person will still find far more nourishment from the writings of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, than from the attempts of some “analytic” philosophers to become free-lance social critics or purveyors of existential wisdom. Yet as a discipline, in which students are recruited to do doctoral work, it is a bit silly to think that Philosophy Departments can train Nietzsches. Genius, one may hope, will find its way in the world without the benefit of rankings.

Apropos of nothing, I find this statement very odd.

94

harry b 05.21.09 at 2:28 pm

OK, steven (85) and engels (83) both make good points. (Or perhaps between them they make one good point). I can’t specify exactly what the right level of abstraction is, but it seems to me that at that level of abstraction Descartes, Kant, Hume and Locke were engaged in the same activity as one another, and David Lewis, Bernard Williams, Judith Thomson do it too. I don’t understand the first part of novakant’s point, but the second part — that it is possible to explore philosophical issues philosophically in a novel — seems true, and relevant to the question of whether we’d want to call some novelists philosophers (sure) but not to whether literary criticism is novel-writing.

I can’t tell the extent to which my location within the discipline influences my views (for what its worth one colleague in a high-status location within the discipline seemed to agree with the post when he read it immediately after I posted it). What I suspect is that my views are influenced by two things; i) a lot of contact and intellectual engagement with nonphilosophers, mainly outside the humanities but to a considerable extent within the humanities and ii) the sense that I, personally, rely heavily on having been trained within the core of what people call analytical philosophy in order to do what I do (all of which is distant from the core, and some of which is very distant from the core) as well as I do it (which may not be very well, but its better than I could do it without that quite intense training). Pulled both ways, if you like. Some of the criticisms of analytic philosophy and philosophers here and among the humanities are the result of ignorance or ill-will; others seem largely warranted. Philosophers (whoever they are) are partly responsible for the ignorance of others, and could work on engaging with the rest of the humanities in a non-arrogant-seeming way.

Yes, there’s no doubt that Philosophy has a Fred Kite-ish feel to it. Much less than it did when I entered 20 years ago, and less in the US than in the UK. But, way too much, I agree.

Some people here seem to think philosophers care more than they actually do about the use of the term (probably JS’s comment about dinner parties didn’t help). Me, I really don’t care how it gets used. On reflection, the main way I use it is in conversation with social scientists, to point out to them that I don’t really belong in the gathering, and that they’re not going to learn anything very interesting or useful from me.

95

PGD 05.21.09 at 2:32 pm

As D-squared says in 74 above, this is an issue in the sociology of knowledge, not philosophy. People within a discipline are often not well placed to take an objective view on the social structure of their own discipline and how its boundaries are maintained.

Two points: first, as I am guessing you are aware, there is a vigorous and fairly voluminous debate over whether it makes any sense to speak of an ethics expert, and whether there is any value added.

requiring philosophical training or expertise to make ethical judgements is like requiring a graduate qualifications in order to be kind or fall in love.

A CT comment thread is obviously not the appropriate forum to delve into that literature, but it is obviously relevant.

no, go ahead, a CT comment thread is the appropriate forum for anything and this sounds like an interesting topic. Surely, as a trained philosopher you don’t think yourself superior to the denizens of CT comment threads?

96

steven 05.21.09 at 2:37 pm

Proust (eg) was certainly “doing philosophy” under any reasonable definition of that activity, among many other things, in Alrdtp. A lot of the great novels are vast interdisciplinary laboratories — which perhaps in turn explains why some proportion of literature academics are dillettante flibbertigibbets.

97

sleepy 05.21.09 at 2:38 pm

Every chemist with a mediocre mind can do meaningful research. The best a professor of philosopher with a mediocre mind can do is teach. Philosophy is not an objective field.
Philosophers are architects of values not delineators of objective truth. They describe our response to the world, not the world itself. Professors of literature teach the history of literature; novelists write literature. In the continental tradition philosophers are like novelists and architects, and they’re studied in American comp. lit. departments [philology].
The American academic tradition in philosophy marks this absurd.
Jason Stanley once wrote that the responsibility of a university is to increase its own prestige. [Like the responsibility of a company to increase its share price?] Prestige is a given value, almost an absolute. I would think that the first question a philosopher would ask is the meaning of prestige. Philosophy in this context is a technical skill. The snobbery is the snobbery of intellectual interior designers.
A Ph.D. does not confer genius. It does not confer a fertile imagination. All it says is that you are conversant in the history of a field. To pretend otherwise is to lie, individually or collectively. Scholasticism is a collective lie.

98

burritoboy 05.21.09 at 2:49 pm

“This account is going to make an awful lot of people who are clearly philosophers into non-philosophers- Russell, Kant, Hegel, Carnap, A. Smith, Thomas Reid, Sidgwick, etc. Even for many non-academics who are clearly philosophers, it’s not clear that we’d say that philosophy was a “way of life” for them- Descartes, Hume, Leibniz, Locke, etc. “

It doesn’t matter what a philosopher does to earn a living – Socrates’ wandering around Athens cadging meals is just as valid as Maimonides being a doctor as Kant being a philosophy professor as Hegel being a newspaper editor as Hegel being a philosophy professor. We’re talking about their inner life, not what name is on their paychecks (if they get any paychecks).

99

burritoboy 05.21.09 at 2:55 pm

“I wasn’t saying he was wrong because he was an aristocrat, I was saying that his attitudes toward the capacity of ordinary people for self-government were influenced by his background. “

But the only way we can test this claim is philosophically, not historically. Are Plato’s arguments about the capacity of ordinary people for self-government correct? Are they soundly argued? What flaws are in his argument? What arguments can we assemble against his? (and so on) History doesn’t help greatly with those questions, because the questions are philosophic, not historical (more historical data about Plato’s family or more data about the aristocracy of Athens wouldn’t help us very much in answering those questions).

100

Matt 05.21.09 at 2:57 pm

We’re talking about their inner life, not what name is on their paychecks
What makes you think you have any interesting access to the inner life of either the great philosophers or current ones? Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think the “inner lives” of, say, Frege, Hegel, Plato, Spinoza, Mill, Hume, Aquinas, Carnap, Adorno, Rawls, Moore, and Seneca all have something in common that joins them into a group that doesn’t also include a lot of people we’d not want to call philosophers if there term is going to have any meaning at all. Really, I think this whole approach is hopeless.

101

burritoboy 05.21.09 at 3:01 pm

“And it’s worth keeping in mind that Socrates’ definition of philosopher as lover of wisdom rather than wise person was specifically intended to insist that the philosopher is one who seeks, not one who has found, which doesn’t fit the honoric view.”

Precisely.

102

burritoboy 05.21.09 at 3:11 pm

“What makes you think you have any interesting access to the inner life of either the great philosophers or current ones? Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think the “inner lives” of, say, Frege, Hegel, Plato, Spinoza, Mill, Hume, Aquinas, Carnap, Adorno, Rawls, Moore, and Seneca all have something in common that joins them into a group that doesn’t also include a lot of people we’d not want to call philosophers if there term is going to have any meaning at all. Really, I think this whole approach is hopeless.”

If you’re trying to organize a university, I would agree – for most people, the term philosophy is either meaningless or even offensive. It’s probably counterproductive for most people to try to distinguish between philosopher and sophist. Again, the philosopher is precisely not a role within a society, but a lover or pursuer of something outside of society.

103

belle le triste 05.21.09 at 3:14 pm

“a lover or pursuer of something outside of society”

wow, good luck with that

104

Adam Kotsko 05.21.09 at 3:23 pm

I’m pretty sure philosophy and mysticism aren’t the same thing, burritoboy.

105

sleepy 05.21.09 at 4:05 pm

And I’m pretty sure rationalism began with theology and the mysteries of transubstantiation.

106

onymous 05.21.09 at 4:32 pm

Historical data has no bearing on claims about the capacity of people to self-govern? Really?

107

JoB 05.21.09 at 4:37 pm

sleepy, and your droppings began as food; they’re both organic just as lots of things are thinking and only a very specific sort of thinking is philosophy — a hallmark of which is that it progresses.

108

PGD 05.21.09 at 4:53 pm

a hallmark of which is that it progresses.

as soon as it shows any real signs of progress it becomes a science and exits the philosophy department.

109

burritoboy 05.21.09 at 5:07 pm

“I’m pretty sure philosophy and mysticism aren’t the same thing, burritoboy.”

Neoplatonists?

110

novakant 05.21.09 at 5:12 pm

but the second part—that it is possible to explore philosophical issues philosophically in a novel —seems true, and relevant to the question of whether we’d want to call some novelists philosophers (sure) but not to whether literary criticism is novel-writing.

Harry, I’m sorry, but again you presuppose distinctions that are not clear-cut or self-evident. I’m not saying that one cannot make distinctions between writing a novel, writing a philosophical treatise, writing an essay or discussing either. What I am saying, though, is that such distinctions are gradual, not fundamental, and that, as Steven has pointed out, these distinctions start to blur, if you zoom out a bit further. And if one views the matter from the level of abstraction that Quine reaches in “Two Dogmas”, then it becomes clear that there is no privileged and exclusive level of discourse, that would allow us to “explore the philosophical issues philosophically in a novel”, as opposed to and isolated from – well I don’t know what exactly: the plot, the style, the characters? Conversely, it is quite obvious that philosophers make use of “literary” techniques all the time and there simply is no purely philosophical discourse that could be sharply distinguished from other ways of dealing with the world.

111

dsquared 05.21.09 at 5:26 pm

a hallmark of which is that it progresses

and regresses.

112

burritoboy 05.21.09 at 5:42 pm

“Historical data has no bearing on claims about the capacity of people to self-govern? Really?”

Which is not what we’re talking about – the question is whether Plato being an aristocrat necessarily controlled his arguments about aristocracy.

113

onymous 05.21.09 at 5:46 pm

But the only way we can test this claim is philosophically, not historically. Are Plato’s arguments about the capacity of ordinary people for self-government correct? Are they soundly argued? What flaws are in his argument? What arguments can we assemble against his? (and so on) History doesn’t help greatly with those questions

It certainly looks like you’re saying history doesn’t help to answer the question “are Plato’s arguments about the capacity of ordinary people for self-government correct?”, though if you mean historical knowledge about Plato himself, rather than about attempts of ordinary people to self-govern, doesn’t help, I would find that pretty plausible.

114

Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.21.09 at 5:50 pm

I think Paul Gowder makes a good point (although I would speak of methods, as well as other philosophical virtues rather than ‘methodologies’), but there’s a lot of professional boundary maintenance at stake here. I think Jon Elster is a “philosopher,” so too Amartya Sen, and a few folks working in the field I was trained in, Religious Studies, I would likewise count as philosophers. If I’m not mistaken, Ronald Dworkin does not have a lot of formal training in philosophy, but I find much of his work to be of comparatively high philosophical quality (but what do I know: I teach in a Philosophy Dept. but will readily concede I’m no philosopher) .

Related to this, I think it is useful, with a Stephen Toulmin or a Martha Nussbaum or a Pierre Hadot, to look at the history of philosophy and see how it has changed, from the classical Greek period through the Renaissance, from the Enlightenment to “post-modernity.” Something of value may indeed have been forgotten or lost in this history that is worth recovering or resuscitating.

Like other academic disciplines, the professional field of philosophy has become quite specialized if not fragmented at a time when, at least practically speaking, the issues and problems philosophers might speak to in the public arena are truly of a transdisciplinary and complex nature that mock such specialization. As in what the late John Ziman calls post-academic science, I’m not sure there’s any way to resolve this tension or conflict between the momentum toward specialization and the imperative for taking cognizance of the proverbial big picture.

It strikes me as quite odd, for example, that there’s a need for something christened “practical ethics” when ethics, by definition, should treat “practical” topics. Now of course I’m not saying conceptual and linguistic analyses or even highly theoretical or meta-philosophical approaches are unnecessary or irrelevant, but the practical character of ethics should discipline the nature and extent of such inquiries in a manner that would make it unnecessary to invoke the adjective “practical.”

And perhaps I can be forgiven if I bring up a pet peeve of mine that, in some quarters, is tiresome to hear repeated yet again but has yet to fully sink in and that’s the ongoing provincial or parochial or tribalistic character of much of contemporary philosophy: its comparative neglect or ignorance of the philosophical figures, schools and traditions of Eastern provenance. Brian Leiter’s latest philosophy polls are symptomatic of such tribalism. Philosophy departments in the West need to take a more active role in hiring those with backgrounds in, say, Indic, Buddhist, and Chinese philosophies and worldviews. Of course there are signs that things are changing (e.g., the coverage in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which I lobbied for from its inception) but those changes are taking place at a glacial pace and widespread ignorance of the works of non-Western philosophers remains scandalous (i.e., inexcusable).

And to return to a theme within the ambit of this post: much of the best work in contemporary philosophy takes place, I believe, among those with strong backgrounds or cultivated interests in fields outside of philosophy proper, be it in the natural or social sciences, the law or the humanities (I won’t name names, but the list is fairly long).

115

Adam Kotsko 05.21.09 at 5:56 pm

Burritoboy, Some philosopohers were mystics, obviously. But your comments seem to define philosophy as mysticism. Maybe I should draw some Ven diagrams.

116

JoB 05.21.09 at 6:08 pm

PGD & dsquared, seen as you’re so scientific; can you back up the claim with evidence?

117

JoB 05.21.09 at 6:15 pm

further to 116: Or would you say my claim is nonsensical? In which case, on what basis?

118

anonymous 05.21.09 at 6:43 pm

BBoy. May I recommend to you I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates?

119

dsquared 05.21.09 at 8:04 pm

I can do better than evidence; I can make a logical argument.

AJ Ayer (and the type of philosophy he represented) were more or less dominant for a period of time in philosophy. TH Green (and the type of philosophy he represented) were more or less dominant for a period of time in philosophy.

Ayer believed that Green represented a waste of mental effort and a massive false move, so it is not possible to believe that Ayer and Green were both right. So either Ayer was right (and philosophy went up a blind alley with British Idealism), or Ayer was wrong and Green was right (and philosophy went up a blind alley with Logical Positivism), or they were both wrong (and philosophy went up two blind alleys).

Thus I prove that philosophy has regressed on at least one occasion, QED.

More generally, since more or less every other field of human knowledge has had blind alleys, false trails and periods of regression, the large claim requiring evidence would be that philosophy alone has improved monotonically since Thales of Miletus. Are you making this assertion?

120

Tim Wilkinson 05.21.09 at 8:22 pm

A (typically?) undiplomatic philosopher* responds to novokant(110):

Harry seems to be pointing out that you don’t address the issue that for some reason seems to have arisen, which is (something like) whether it’s true that:

academic philosophy is to works of philosophy
as
academic Eng. lit. is to works of literary art.

And the short answer is ‘No’. Maybe the problem is that if you insist on seeing everything as ‘discourse’ you will assume that all writing is about other writing.

In any case, the denials that certain distinctions are clear-cut, sharp, self-evident or fundamental or that ‘discourses’ are pure, privileged or exclusive seem to amount largely to unfounded attacks on straw men of the type favoured by ‘debunkers’ of all persuasions. On ‘blurring when you zoom out’, that’s pretty much what zooming out is: increased coverage with concomitant loss of detail. But metaphor aside, the underlying point seems to be that because two things are of the same genus they can’t be differentiated, which is wrong.

*a ‘philosopher’ because – and insofar as – I do philosophy, as a mathematician does maths and a plumber does plumbing. Nothing to do being a genius, any more than with smoking endless Gitanes (you can’t smoke an endless Gitane anyway) or having a Beethoven hairdo or making up lots of long words. Celebrity philosophers and ‘philosophers’ like BHL may like to weave (or collaborate in maintaining) a mystique around their activities but, as Bertie R might say, that is not my fault. It might help to explain a perception of actual jobbing philosophers as being smugly aloof and self-important, though.

121

JoB 05.21.09 at 8:23 pm

No, dsquared, I’m not making that assertion ;-)

I’m making the assertion that one can speak with sense about blind alleys & temporary regress in philosophy (as you say, this holds for every field of human knowledge). That therefore one can speak of progress in philosophy. I also assert dualism is abandoned – naïve empiricism is abandoned – that Kant improved on Hume & so on, i.e. that there is not only the possibility of progress but actual progress.

Would you deny that assertion – preferably by referring to non-foornotes in the history of philosophy.

122

Tim Wilkinson 05.21.09 at 8:37 pm

D^2 (118): Not happy with this lemma at all:

“Ayer believed that Green represented a waste of mental effort and a massive false move, so it is not possible to believe that Ayer and Green were both right.”

I suppose you could always just change ‘possible’ to ‘plausible’ and retrench to offering mere evidence after all.

123

steven 05.21.09 at 8:54 pm

I’m making the assertion that one can speak with sense about blind alleys & temporary regress in philosophy (as you say, this holds for every field of human knowledge).

Philosophy’s a field of knowledge, is it?

124

Anonymous 05.21.09 at 9:03 pm

I think that what is making this thread fun is the non-philosophers in it. Also, their jokes are better. Is this not relevant to the issue at hand? Somehow?

125

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.21.09 at 9:08 pm

Yeah, it’s odd that a field would have blind alleys. On a field one can pretty much walk in any direction.

126

steven 05.21.09 at 9:25 pm

Surely it is the nature of any philosopher who finds himself in a field to head for the nearest blind alley, even if it means hauling bales of straw to construct one himself, whereupon he can stare at the dead end and mutter to himself, “But is this alley really blind?”.

127

Lee A. Arnold 05.21.09 at 9:26 pm

I’m not sure dualism has been abandoned. (Not by anyone using language, anyway!) It seems always to pop out again, displaced to a new arena by the new philosophy. Instead of “body vs. mind,” we get “matter vs. information,” or whatever the current jargon is about “brains vs. the programs being run on them.”

128

engels 05.21.09 at 10:00 pm

82. The aim of philosophy: to shew the sheep the way out of the blind alley.

129

JoB 05.21.09 at 10:05 pm

Henri, LOL

Steven, constructing a straw man there, I see.

Lee, it doesn’t survive in the Cartesian form anymore. The notion of programs running on brains, wasn’t that abandoned? If not, it should be.

130

dsquared 05.21.09 at 10:19 pm

I’m not sure dualism has been abandoned.

au contraire, I’m sure it’s been abandoned several times in the past, and equally sure that it will be abandoned many more times in the future.

(“abandoned” as far as I can see is a sociological claim about philosophers and doesn’t look promising to me as evidence of progress, unless you can be sure they were right to abandon what they have in fact abandoned. But if you can be sure of that, then you’ve already reached a point at which you can assess the objective truth of philosophical claims from the standpoint of Ultimate Reality. From which point, of course, there cannot be progress.)

131

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 05.21.09 at 10:38 pm

“I wasn’t saying he was wrong because he was an aristocrat, I was saying that his attitudes toward the capacity of ordinary people for self-government were influenced by his background. ”

But the only way we can test this claim is philosophically, not historically. Are Plato’s arguments about the capacity of ordinary people for self-government correct?

But you appear to assume that empirical arguments have no part in philosophy, which sounds like hogwash to me. Did Adam Smith come up with his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” by ignoring reality?

I could point out Athens’s highly stratified society and the part which Plato was born in (i.e, at the top), but you think it is irrelevant to philosophy. And I could state that the latest Indian general elections illustrate Plato’s arguments about the capacity of ordinary people for self-government are a load of nonsense. A truly philosophical argument would probably engage with the actual arguments, but at least we know they contain flaws, because the conclusion is wrong.

132

Salient 05.21.09 at 11:19 pm

The notion of programs running on brains, wasn’t that abandoned? If not, it should be.

I think this thread’s gone miscellaneous enough to justify my asking: why should it be? This isn’t a defensive question; I’m not familiar with any recent neuroscience that addresses this model one way or the other (though this doesn’t mean much; IANAN).

133

onymous 05.21.09 at 11:25 pm

The notion of programs running on brains, wasn’t that abandoned?

The only thing worse is when you encounter someone who earnestly tries to explain their deep insight that the whole universe is, like, a computer, man, and we’re all just programs. But wait, Wolfram is the other thread.

134

Lee A. Arnold 05.22.09 at 12:17 am

Well I don’t really know what the current jargon is. Concepts are the performative routines of agency? Embodied embedded enactivism? Chaotic itineracy among the attractor ruins?

135

Ben 05.22.09 at 12:33 am

Several people in this thread have asked for a definition of philosophy — or at least some explication of what it is that contemporary philosophers typically do. I think many philosophers would be tempted to claim that philosophy is characterized by its a priori methodology, but this does not seem to me to adequately distinguish it from several other academic fields; and besides, I see no reason why philosophy should necessarily have to exclusively rely on a priori methodology.

So, I think that if you want to understand what philosophy is about, you really just have to look at examples of what actual philosophers do. For instance, the greatest contemporary philosopher is, in my opinion, Jerry Fodor. One of Fodor’s main projects through the years has been to critique the sciences, and he has recently argued against the reliance of the theory of evolution on adaptation, marshaling both conceptual and empirical arguments. To get a gist, I recommend the following link (Fodor is also a great writer, so it’s well worth the read): http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n20/fodo01_.html

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random philosopher 05.22.09 at 12:39 am

Undeniable truths:

1. Many philosophers are jerks.

2. Many philosophers are especially jerks when it comes to other fields in the humanities.

3. Many philosophers, even talented philosophers, are doing things that aren’t worth doing.

4. Many people in fields in the humanities other than philosophy are full of pretentious non-sense and even an occasional dose of charlatanism.

5. Philosophers are able to work well with academics outside of the humanities, e.g., mathematicians, physicists, social scientists, biologists, cognitive scientists, etc.

6. Pontificating about whether people who do philosophy should be called philosophers is silly. If chemists all got together and decided to call themselves ‘asdfeists’, then more power to them. The same with philosophy. No one is hurt by those that work in philosophy departments calling themselves philosophers. Obviously, philosophers aren’t calling themselves philosophers because they think they are the equal of Plato. They are doing it because they are engaged in many projects of the same sort as the projects of Plato.

7. In response to someone’s comment on the practicality of ethics: Practical ethics should be distinguished from theoretical ethics not because some clear distinction can be drawn or because the latter is irrelevant to practical concerns. Rather, the theoretical aspects of ethics are hard. The clearly practical aspects of ethics are hard. You could do them both at the same time, but that’s even harder. That means it is often worth focusing in on one or the other. Obviously, they must inform each other–reflective equilibrium and all that. You’re right though that if theoretical ethics had no practical consequences, then it would be unclear in what sense it counts as ethics. People that think practical ethics is not serious are not themselves serious ethicists.

8. Philosophy has a good deal to contribute to ethical thought. We can’t just go by Joe the Plumber’s opinion. We need careful, rational inquiry. Insofar as Joe the Plumber carefully and rationally inquires, Joe is doing philosophy. See Plato for more information.

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sleepy 05.22.09 at 1:26 am

#52
“But the problem is that you can only make the case that Plato’s class identity played a role by examining his philosophy. 1. Your discovery of Plato’s class is itself a reflection of
your own philosophy. You are actually using a theory of class to reflect on Plato’s philosophy. I.E. you are actively assuming that your understanding of class is superior to Plato’s.
Now, that understanding may indeed BE superior to Plato’s but that’s nothing we can assume. The only way this dilemma can be resolved is philosophically. History provides
comparatively little additional value to this question. “

Bizarre. We have the entire history of human argument and action to look over in examining Plato. We know all sorts of things he did not. The critique everything that exists is just that. And we read not just for text but subtext. Plato’s stated ideas and the ideas in the text are not identical. “Original intent” is not the be all and end all of philosophical analysis. Philology again.
What’s the form?
Along with the history of the use of ‘Philosopher’ maybe someone should do a little research on the history of skillfully articulate intellectually lazy British bloody-mindedness of the sort still practiced today by DD/BB, Snitchens and others. It’s a wonderful counterweight to academic pedantry, and we in the colonies’ are heirs to this, though Norman Mailer is dead and Gore Vidal is old. The only one left is ME!
But what’s the history of this form? What spawned it?

Leiter linked to a joke philosophical dictionary Dennett puts out. A few of the commenters pointed out the references were all to people of Dennett’s generation or older and that this limited its relevance. I asked how this was possible that philosophy could become “dated.”
“We don’t talk about that much anymore”
Why, because it’s SOLVED!!??
No, because they began to talk about something else.
The best we can do is describe our preferences in such a way that future generations may learn about us. What great philosophical problems have we solved? None.
We describe our preoccupations, that’s all. Rawls described his. He said nothing about actual people. Political philosophy now says nothing about politics. It’s the formalism of liberal secular theology. And it will be read and contextualized as the product of an age. And it will be read as interesting or not. It won’t be read as correct or incorrect except as much as some people will have similar beliefs. And beliefs are not facts except as much as it is a fact that people have beliefs.

Philosophers are like architects. There has been no “progress” in architecture in thousands of years. Is a building by Frank LLoyd Wright better than one by Palladio? Or does it just suit us more?

What is the just relation of the individual to the state? There is no one answer. There is only the answer for us. It amazes me when people argue about whether nationalized health plans are ‘un-american.’ Arguing over them is the process by which they are becoming american. Arguments make new truths.
By arguing that people are basically self-interested we’ve actively help encourage greed.
But now even neoliberals are talking about ethos. And so a new ethos is developing that finds greed distasteful. ANOTHER NEW TRUTH!
It’s fun being a determinist.

The only thing that predates the dawn of the universe, the one absolute and inviolable truth that’s left, is Budweiser sux.

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harry b 05.22.09 at 3:16 am

I’m all for empirical sociology of a profession (a la Daniel). A priori sociology (a la sleepy) is less interesting.

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coyotelibrarian 05.22.09 at 4:28 am

(Going back a ways) #80 – “I sometimes run (eg for a bus), and Usain Bolt also runs. This does not make me an athlete.”

No, it makes you a “runner.” Like Usain Bolt, perhaps, but you don’t have to have Olympic class talent to (correctly) describe yourself as a runner.

#69 “What most of us in philosophy departments do is philosophy; we are engaged in the same activity as Hume, Kant, etc”

Are graduate students (or undergrads for that matter) puzzling over the same issues also “engaged in the same activity as Hume and Kant?”

Googling the phrase “I’m a philosopher” provides some curious results.
For example, there’s YouTube’s Hardxcore Darkness:
eh, im 16, ima dude x.x i haz long hair…. hazel eyes, and ima philosopher of sortz
luv computerz and friendz, skateboard a lil

Then there’s Charles Calhoun of calhoungolf.com:
” I wear several faces when it comes to the game of golf.

First and foremost, I’m a golfer.

Second, I’m a teacher of the game.

And third, I’m a philosopher.”

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John Emerson 05.22.09 at 4:29 am

I didn’t say a fucking word, guys. Count your blessings.

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sleepy 05.22.09 at 4:43 am

What is a priori sociology?
We do the best we can, with the data that’s available.
But you look for data where you can, and if it’s not your field of expertise it’s not the data’s fault, it’s yours.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.22.09 at 7:10 am

@129 The notion of programs running on brains, wasn’t that abandoned? If not, it should be.

Not sure if you’re being sarcastic here, but isn’t modern science squarely based on this exactly premise? Here: Possible site of free will found in brain.

Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London, says the experiment breaks ground because it pinpoints volition to a specific part of the brain, allowing scientists to experimentally control it.

“That’s extremely interesting, because up to now it has been very difficult for neuroscientists to deal with the idea of intentions or wishes or will,” he says.

However, Haggard says no one should be surprised that the experience of volition can be liked to specific brain areas. “I can’t think of any way you can have conscious experience other than as a result of neurons in your brain firing.”

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.22.09 at 7:15 am

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JoB 05.22.09 at 8:35 am

@13o,

It is so classy to snipe at a comment without identifying it.

Let me pass over the fact that you assert regress all whilst apparently denying even the possibility of progress …

Abandoned is not just a socilogical claim. Newton’s theory was abandoned and whilst it is surely something true of the group of physicists, it is certainly also something true of the theory itself – a sign of progress.

As Ultimate Reality was abandoned as well (God being death & all), I can’t make much of your point of view that objective truth requires assuming UR is worthwhile.

You see: I skipped the qualifier ‘of philosophical claims’ after ‘truth’. Annoying isn’t it?

Still, it’s OK to skip in quoting this time because the qualifier is rhetorical only. If there is no real progress in philosophy we’d better time travel to Galileo and tell him that it is no use to disconvenience the dogmatic beliefs of his time.

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JoB 05.22.09 at 8:47 am

132, 133, 139,

The notion of programs running on brains, wasn’t that abandoned? If not, it should be.

It isn’t abandoned. Cognitive science still assumes this naïve conception much as Kant assumed that Newton had said all that could be said in physics.

Nevertheless, it should be abandoned. Both Quine and Davidson destroyed the ideas of Fodor/Chomsky extending the computer-as-brain-analogy coming from days when all of philosophy was merely a technical execution of logic. Science, biology/psychology & the like, are also not very friendly to it.

The neuroscience of ‘finding the God-center’ & al is very much the current fashion for vulgarizing science (as physics was the previous such fashion: Heisenbergian free will!).

That also shows where philosophy is very pertinent: brains-as-computers has all kinds of potential for abuse (‘reprogramming’!).

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Daniel 05.22.09 at 8:48 am

I feel so much more relaxed and productive since I adopted that policy of immediately and permanently dropping debates as soon as the first meta complaint is made.

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JoB 05.22.09 at 9:12 am

Enjoy your week-end then!

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Tim Wilkinson 05.22.09 at 9:30 am

@131 (Down and Out of Sài Gòn):
I think this has been pointed out above, but the ‘not historically’ bit was, I’m fairly sure, meant to refer to Plato’s personal history: pointing out that he was prejudiced (even assuming you could establish it empirically without appealing to the falsity of his conclusions) isn’t enough to dispose of his arguments, nor his conclusions. It might be a prudential reason not to spend your lmited resources reading and considering them, of course.

But you are surely right to point out that if you can discredit his conclusions then you needn’t necessarily bother trying to identify where he went wrong. And – though I don;t think anyone denied this – that empirically-testable premisses have a part to play in political philosophy.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.22.09 at 9:39 am

@142: The neuroscience of ‘finding the God-center’ & al is very much the current fashion for vulgarizing science

Ah, I just knew the word “vulgar” will make an appearance in the response; my neurons fired me a warning. If that’s vulgarizing, what’s the refined version of the same? And I mean in neuroscience, not philosophy.

And no, I don’t think this is similar to “Heisenbergian free will” at all, exactly because in this case it’s a real scientist talking, a guy with a bunch of scalpels and (I’m sure) a whole room full of very sophisticated electronics. “Heisenbergian free will” is not like that.

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novakant 05.22.09 at 9:47 am

There certainly is a potential for progress in philosophy for the simple reason that intelligent and well-read people can incorporate the theories of thinkers that preceded them into their work, which weren’t available to previous thinkers, which ideally leads to a higher level of reflection. How this is handled in individual cases is another matter.

Also, philosophical disciplines that draw on the results of science can take advantage of the progress in these fields. A good example might be the philosophy of mind: while we still don’t know a lot about how the mind works, we certainly know a lot more than Descartes did.

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JoB 05.22.09 at 10:08 am

Henri, if all people with scalpels & electronics had a point … I dunno – read the paper & see the concrete experiment that was done and you know what he proved. Cerainly not the PR-version because it’s kinda hard to design a variable bound to intention/volition.

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novakant 05.22.09 at 10:11 am

And here is a great link in case you’re bored:

http://consc.net/online

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Tim Wilkinson 05.22.09 at 10:18 am

141/130 (JoB/DD):
On regress – yes, the ‘argument from at least one blind alley’ only works to establish regression if we have reason to think that not everywhere we’ve been was itself a similarly blind alley.

And yep the ‘sociology’ crack is a bit flip. Though the point that a true theory abandoned does not a forward step make is probably fair enough, the conversational implicature of the original comment was surely that said abandoned theories were indeed untrue/wrong/incorrect/bad.

(Unless perhaps some kind of anti-realist understanding of progress was at work – not going back means we are going forward? Maybe Peircean convergence could function to close a subj/obj gap – except that we will never know whether we are actually doing some converging during any given time-period. Compare: how do you know you are oscillating around a moving equilibrium, or what is the margin of error of your margin of error, or why is all-tails evidence of a biased coin?)

But say we have on balance some reason, however weak, to think that new developments are moving in the right direction (and a fortiori, moving in some prevailing direction and not, say, cyclical). Or actually, don’t even say that if you like – the question still arises: how sure would you have to be that an abandoned theory was wrong to conclude that progress has been made?

No surer, surely, than you would have to be about progress in, say, physics? If so, the stuff about Ultimate Reality is a bit strong, I’d say, at least if We are not happy with very extensive skepticism – you can’t be that sure that everything since Newton isn’t a blind alley.

Perhaps (still assuming that rejecting the idea of progress in physics is not acceptable to Us) amassing empirical observations in natural science counts as a kind of progress, even if the project of building theories on them is doomed. But in that case, wouldn’t discovering (and recording) new valid arguments to add to our heap also be progress? Or is logic itself such a hostage to future philosophical advances that even new arguments are fatally undermined sub spec. aet.? I think that would be taking holism a bit far (so to speak!). You can perhaps(?) have progress in one field within the philosophy superfield even if that field might/will come to be undermined wholesale. When Newtonian mechanics was discredited (if it was), does that mean that some part of its development did not amount to progress?

Anyway much more certainly, dsqu’s ‘no further progress possible’ claim goes awry, since knowing one bit of philosophy to be wrong (even from a viewpoint of ‘UR’) doesn’t clearly (clearly doesn’t?) entail knowing everything about philosophy. Bit of an unphilosopherly (or as you might say dopey) point, if I may say so.

Right, so far so meandering. Take it or leave it – or point out which bits are on their way to becoming oxbow lakes (forever?). Or for those who like that sort of thing, read the subtext, deconstruct the discourse, repeatedly point out that we can’t get beyond our own horizons etc.

Oh, btw DD, what’s so great about getting out of bed? As any fule no, the much admired post-Socratic Psynchthloonous of Alamatatheloeia stayed in bed for twenty years and never wrote anything down.

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Tim Wilkinson 05.22.09 at 10:26 am

@143: nicely done meta-meta-complaint

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rich 05.22.09 at 11:24 am

I’d considered philosophy as a discipline, going all the way, and have nothing against it or profs when practiced soundly and ethically. You rightly point out that other fields could benefit by interacting with philosophers who do operate soundly. But the field, particularly logical positivism, structures in processes and practices that renders it unable to grapple substantively or accurately with specific issues. Can logic wrap its head around issues of faith, emotion or ecology? Depends on who’s doing the grappling — and whether their aim is to dominate their interlocutor or arrive at a co-produced truth that uses a reciprocally respectful dialog to uphold both particpants. Too often, the object is to cut down the other guy, under the guise of teaching people to think, rather than actually examine what the speaker is actually putting forth. I encountered this in a philosophy class at the UWMadison, which presumed to teach a ‘philosophy’ of environmental ethics. Yet the prof’s approach was utterly disingenuous — an unethical stance towards every proposition and each student — and he did not approach any argument, student or ecological unit with the intrinsic respect required to examine it accurately or truly.

It became a semantic game of switching definitions to say — ‘oh, a-ha, it couldn’t be that because x really means y’ — exploiting and bankrupting his relationship with his students to win apoint — and violating any prevailing ecological, ethical and linguistic rules that are the norm in any classroom or social situation.

Since I’m more adept at language than he is, I asked the pointed question, exposed the method, and after his outsized response resulted in a faux pas in front of 300 undergrads and he issued a non-apology — I dropped the class.

Why play a game designed to defy the norms and rules of the disciplines that philosophy presumes to be superior to, lord over, or operate as king of some mythical hierarchy?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.22.09 at 11:57 am

JoB, this is not about the guy with a scalpel having a point; I’m merely pointing out that the “computer in your head” concept appears to be, in fact, the main hypothesis of modern science, modern biological science. The concept is not dying, quite the opposite. And so it can’t be easy (if at all possible) for philosophers to abandon it.

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JoB 05.22.09 at 12:06 pm

Well, Henri, I don’t think the computational model is the main hypothesis anymore & I do think philosophers abandoned it. But I grant you: it is the main hypothesis still from a popular point of view and many popular philosophers still adopt it. & I apologize, but I’ll have to abandon it here. Without trying to be convincing: certainly the little that is known on the brain in biology does not support the analogy and neural networks in the computer sciences aren’t running programs in any strict interpretation of the word.

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Chris 05.22.09 at 1:56 pm

@153: Actually, they (generally) *are* running programs in the strict sense of the word – it’s just that the programs simulate a process which is different from the conventional understanding of “program”.

One point of discord between the “programs running on brains” idea and actual understanding of brains is that the brain does not have Von Neumann generalist architecture – you can’t get it to run a different program without rewiring it. It also rewires itself all the time, which is different from the traditional understanding of programming within the Von Neumann framework, but doesn’t necessarily put it outside the space of Turing-equivalent computing AFAIK.

Of course, you can perfectly well philosophize about the properties of minds *other* than those which exist in (if that is the right term for the relationship) human brains. If someone develops strong AI that *does* run on a Von Neumann architecture, then mind-body duality would be a provable reality for it; you could copy it into different machines and watch the copies diverge. This might even be taken as proof that our present inability to transplant a human mind to a different substrate is a mere practical implementation difficulty, not a genuine impossibility. (Indeed, I think some people take even the thought experiment as proof, at least provisionally until something better comes along.)

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sleepy 05.22.09 at 2:00 pm

“A good example might be the philosophy of mind: while we still don’t know a lot about how the mind works, we certainly know a lot more than Descartes did.”

The computational model is not dying. The unified computational model is dying.
The only way to oppose the computational model is to defend dualism and transubstantiation. But the defense of unified consciousness and of individualism and rational action are all of a piece, so ‘geeks’ continue the good fight in defense of their belief in themselves.
Only an ideological opposition to empiricism keeps this fight going.
We are machines caught between the twinned and dueling functional imperatives of calculation and conditioned response.

Novakant your description is of progress in science described in language and reflected upon by students of philosophy. You describe this as if philosophers decided there was no god. It makes more sense to say that philosophers came up with ways to describe the new popular sense that we are godless. So intellectuals began to say that god is dead. And this new idea was traumatic to most and still is. The absurdity of life is still traumatic to those interested in ‘truth’ and ‘meaning.’ To village atheists who live to drink and fuck, there’s no news.
All that exists are known and unknown facts. The rest is desire. When you finally get to Mars you need to go somewhere else. The rest is desire including David Chalmers’ desire for a certain kind of order including ‘freedom.’ cf. Donald Davidson’s arguments against the conceptual scheme. The fact that you can not translate Pushkin into french and Mallarme into english means nothing to the faithful who might as well be defending the geocentric model of the universe for all its relation to the facts. The stupidity of Chomskian nativism begins and ends in ideology. Facts be damned, rationalism lives on.
Philosophy models our thoughts no more or less than literature. It’s the claimed superiority of philosophy that’s the problem, like the arrogance of architects.
And HB if all I’m interested in is a priori sociology then why d I keep asking for data on the history of the use of the appellation “philosopher?”

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bianca steele 05.22.09 at 2:18 pm

I was certainly annoyed by reading something like “scientists know thoughts are things, like programs, in the brain,” but I no longer care. So there’s a physical thing called a brain and mental things are like software. It doesn’t really matter whether the person saying this knows what software is like, or where the mental/physical boundary lies, or whether the boundary is a myth. It would be absurd to expect everybody in the world to have an exact knowledge of technical terms in computer science, neuroscience, or any other science.

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harry b 05.22.09 at 2:22 pm

sleepy – it was the fact that your comment about political philosophy revealed that you haven’t read any for several decades that made me suspect you haven’t bothered to do any data gathering yourself. 20 names went through my head of prominent philosophers who write about politics and I thought about listing them, but I’ve got limited time and have no reason to believe you’d turn to them.

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praisegod barebones 05.22.09 at 2:41 pm

I don’t know whether its a helpful data-point on the philosopher/professor of philosophy issue, but I think that some of my colleagues with literature PhDs find it more or less *inconceivable* that I could be engaging in the same kind of activity as Descartes Hume and Kant (whereas I’ve certainly been educated to believe – or at least say – that I am).

Hence, I think, the inference that if I’m not a fraud, I must really be a historian of philosophy. Or if not, a sociologist; or a computer scientist. (It’s not an apodictic inference, of course.)

I’m not sure that I could give a good account of what exactly is at issue between us in our diagreement; but I suspect that someone who wants to take my side owes us a more substantive account of the relevant identity criteria for activity types than is likely to be forthcoming.

(Actually, I’ve got some idea of one thing that might be at issue – namely, that they are inclined and I’m disinclined, to be nominalists about all sorts of things, and in particular about kinds of social activity.)

That’s not all there is to it, though, since they typically don’t insist that my colleagues in the Fine Arts department aren’t artists, and must be historians of art, contrary to their explicit declarations.

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steven 05.22.09 at 3:42 pm

(Actually, I’ve got some idea of one thing that might be at issue – namely, that they are inclined and I’m disinclined, to be nominalists about all sorts of things, and in particular about kinds of social activity.)

That’s a built-in quirk in the language already, isn’t it? When someone asks “What do you do?”, the normal way to respond is by answering a different question, viz., “What are you?” (“I’m a philosopher.”)

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steven 05.22.09 at 3:48 pm

Anyway “philosopher” is kind of a broken word since there is no verb “to philosoph”. Perhaps if all people-with-jobs-in-university-philosophy-departments called themselves “philosophizers” then everyone would be happy.

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Jane D'oh 05.22.09 at 5:10 pm

The comment Adam Kotsko makes at 19 about being shy to identify oneself as a “philosopher” is absolutely right. In fact, the site for which Jason Stanley writes (link in original article) spends a great deal of its time on what it feels is a sort of anti-Sophist patrol, policing and denigrating the work of those folks working in philosophy who aren’t *really* philosophers, by its lofty standards. It’s a far more prudential path to avoid self-identification as a philosopher, if only to avoid Mr. Leiter’s cat-scratching,

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burritoboy 05.22.09 at 6:05 pm

“I think this has been pointed out above, but the ‘not historically’ bit was, I’m fairly sure, meant to refer to Plato’s personal history: pointing out that he was prejudiced (even assuming you could establish it empirically without appealing to the falsity of his conclusions) isn’t enough to dispose of his arguments, nor his conclusions. It might be a prudential reason not to spend your lmited resources reading and considering them, of course.

But you are surely right to point out that if you can discredit his conclusions then you needn’t necessarily bother trying to identify where he went wrong. And – though I don;t think anyone denied this – that empirically-testable premisses have a part to play in political philosophy.”

Yes, of course Plato’s arguments can be invalidated by empirical evidence, some of which can be historical evidence. Plato himself indicates that he sometimes reasons from historical evidence and even makes predictions (for example, in the Seventh Letter) which Plato implies we (those of us examining his writing many years after his death) can test empirically through historical analysis. In fact, leaving aside Plato, such philosophers as Xenophon, Hume, Machiavelli, Ptolemy of Lucca, Montesquieu and Leibniz, among many others, all thought writing histories was valuable as philosophic endeavours.

But all this is the converse of Steve Attenwell’s proposal: that Plato’s membership in the aristocracy was the decisive (or an important) influence on his philosophy.

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JoB 05.22.09 at 7:36 pm

sleepy-159,

What the heck, continued …

So intellectuals began to say that god is dead. And this new idea was traumatic to most and still is.

God’s death wasn’t proclaimed by intellectuals but by one historically very identifiable philosopher. If you define ‘most’ to be ‘the people sleepy knows’ you may be spot on, I guess. But other than that and similar groups the proclamation of God’s death has been something of a non-event for most (unfortunately). Anyway, nobody was/is compelled to agree, as is quite apparent from the majority of the world’s population that doesn’t.

Maybe you’re a non-village atheist insomniac ( & I can dig that). But being sleepy is not an excuse for making grand sweeping claims contrary to fact. Somehow you seem a bit stuck in the 70’s, all traumatized & stuff.

“All that exists are known and unknown facts.”

Give us one of the known ones then, and be sure that it’s stated brutely without implied theory or theories.

PS: computationalism is dualism of HW and SW, how can you oppose something that’s of a piece with something that you try to defend? the line from Descartes to computing over rationalism/nativism is rather obvious, isn’t it?

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sleepy 05.22.09 at 7:42 pm

Rawls is still a center of discussion. G.E. Cohen writes if you’re an egalitarian how come you’re so rich? and rationalizes prep schools. Empiricism might say (and my experience does) that a broader experience of the world of other classes, including being forced to socialize with them and not just study them, is itself educational. I grew up in a house with a 6000 volume library in a neighborhood that was working class and black. I of course was neither, but my neighbors’ children were my friends. That fact has affected my behavior to this day.
Nussbaum is a liberal, no more, no less. She critiques less than she manifests. The same holds true for….

Libertarianism is a cult with defenders in the academy, including people taken very seriously in these pages. The theory of rational action has no foundation beyond the wish.
etc. etc.

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Hidari 05.22.09 at 8:50 pm

‘The only way to oppose the computational model is to defend dualism and transubstantiation. ‘

That is utter and complete bollocks. Actually it’s worse than that: it’s the opposite of the truth. In reality as philosophers (or ‘philosophers’ depending on your point of view) such as Dreyfus and Descombes and, to give him credit, Searle, have tirelessly pointed out, it’s actually the computational model of the brain which is (covertly) dualist, as it posits a dualism in which the ‘mind’ (conceptualised as software) is different from the brain (conceptualised as hardware).

I use the CTM to refer specifically to cognitivist models: connectionist models don’t have this particular flaw, although they do have others.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitivism_(psychology)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-cognitivist

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computational_theory_of_mind

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sleepy 05.22.09 at 9:23 pm

Materialism is causation.
All else is dualism

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John Protevi 05.22.09 at 9:37 pm

I wonder if we don’t need a new verb for sleepy’s contributions: “to delphize.” As in, “man, that sleepy was really delphizing over at CT the other day.”

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sleepy 05.22.09 at 9:38 pm

Conditioned response is chemicals and wiring.
Computing the odds is done by man made machines.
Both systems exist simultaneously in the same organ the brain and are in opposition.
Yet the brain can make only one choice for any action.
Consciousness is the sensation of indecision and of the shadows of choices not made, patterns not followed. The self is an illusory whole made to facilitate functioning and continuity. Assuming a world founded on causation this seems the only logical argument.
To argue against this is to found a logic on a faith on what must be so.

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Keith M Ellis 05.23.09 at 3:45 am

Many facets of this discussion interest me, but none so much as that begun by StevenAttewell and burritoboy. Their argument is representative of many in this thread in that they are attempting to describe the nature of philosophy in equal and opposing simplistic fashion. For StevenAttewell, philosophy is the discipline where people badly practice other sciences, such as history or poli-sci. For burritoboy, philosophy is an exalted state of rational being.

Would it be too much to ask to just let philosophy be whatever it is? And not assert that it’s what you’d prefer it to be?

Though this will come as news to many, there is not simply one superior “mode” by which one considers the universe. To implicitly assert that all thinking on, say, politics is best done as historical analysis, or as political science, or as sociology, or as fictional narrative, or as political philosophy is like asserting that everything one needs to know can be found in the Bible. It’s grandiose and offensive. My preferred mode of thought is materialist empiricism, but I don’t imagine that the sciences I prefer offer every possible insight 0n everything of interest.

Plato’s political philosophy in Republic need not be vetted by subsequent accounts of history, nor subsequent political theory—especially considering that Plato was offering a political theory as an analogy for a moral theory. A student insisting that Republic could only be understood by comprehending the history of Athens and Plato’s life is not unlike the nerd who complains about the errors in Star Trek physics. There’s some relevance, yes, but it’s not essential—and an insistence upon such a comprehension as the price for admission is to make the painfully common mistake of equating one’s own particular enthusiasms for the Only True Path to Knowledge.

Just so with someone who asserts that philosophy is a combination of a particular lifestyle and an exalted consciousness.

Philosophy is the peculiar intersection of a long, tortured, and extremely diverse intellectual heritage with a mostly verbal emphasis on intellectual analysis. It is not “pure”; and it probably resides within contemporary humanities departments more because it shares a messy organic nature with art and literature and less because it is intrinsically humanist. It is a variety of intellectual temperment; and one with a proven utility. It is not privileged as an intellectual discipline, nor is it subordinate to any other.

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bianca steele 05.23.09 at 3:52 pm

My preferred mode of thought is materialist empiricism,

?

http://www.google.com/search?q=materialist+empiricism

I’m not being facetious to try to make a point. I really don’t know what you’re referring to.

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Righteous Bubba 05.23.09 at 4:14 pm

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engels 05.23.09 at 5:05 pm

Did the Delphic Oracle go on at quite such length?

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Jim Harrison 05.23.09 at 5:34 pm

I used to know a guy named Joel Tarr who was one of the founders of the applied history movement. Contrary to what you might expect, he wasn’t suggesting we could learn from the past in any direct way. In fact, the main activity of his applied history group was to try to keep people from thinking they could. Philosophers engage in a similar activity. For all the contempt that physical and social scientists heap on the philosophers, they do a heck of a lot of philosophizing themselves, albeit often under some other name. The point is, they usually do it very badly. The philosophers are just pointing out that if you’re going to promote erroneous metaphysics, it might as well be novel erroneous metaphysics and not the same old crap that Socrates shot down in 399 BC.

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bianca steele 05.23.09 at 5:54 pm

RB,
Okay, that’s what I would have guessed. (Keith will probably correct you if he meant something else.) What I still don’t get is why a nonphilosopher would say what s/he believes is “materialist empiricism,” as opposed to saying s/he doesn’t ever think about philosophical issues at all.

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Keith M Ellis 05.23.09 at 8:06 pm

Because I do think about “philosophical issues” quite a bit, am reasonably well educated in philosophy, but by temperment most inclined to understanding the world via scientism (which was what I was aiming for from a different direction with “materialist empiricism”).

I describe my affinity for that view in the way that someone else might describe their affinity for history, or art.

While that’s my affinity, I don’t privilege scientism as a “mode” (by this I mean a way of thinking, not a body of knowledge) for thinking about the universe. Philosophy as a “mode” is distinct from history as a “mode”. I was being critical of someone who only seems to believe that comprehension of the subject of Republic can only be achieved historically (or, alternatively or in conjunction, by the body of knowledge and techniques which comprise political science).

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bianca steele 05.23.09 at 9:16 pm

I’ve never heard “scientism” used as an honorific before. If I weren’t resolved to play nice (hence the nom de plume), and if I hadn’t been the target of some enthusiastic ad hominems when I’d tried to engage with in a discussion of ideas I found novel and, frankly, unappealing, your use of the word would lead me to suggest you’re arguing in deliberate bad faith. Though on the other hand the enthusiasm of those reactions suggests it hadn’t been bad faith after all. If so, then I’ve been wrong, because I don’t really believe “scientism” exists. I think it’s a label imposed by people who don’t like science, its attributes consisting of all the bad things they can think to throw at it. I can’t think of an argument that would convince me the label would be worth attempting to “uncoopt.”

I’m still not sure exactly what you’re arguing. Are you saying that a person who mostly rejects arguments against science ought to also adopt additional beliefs that would add up to scientism? Or are you saying that there is some additional set of substantive beliefs that most people who think science is OK don’t have, but a significant number do? My sense is that the latter question is more interesting, but I don’t have a lot of evidence either way.

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Anonymous 05.23.09 at 9:39 pm

I just want to put in a plug for comment #136. I would also like to add:

9. Philosophers (philosophy professors–whatever) may be unable to say what philosophy is and also avoid (a) excluding things that are obviously understood by everyone in philosophy to be philosophy, since Plato and (b) including things that can be done badly by people in many other fields.

And (9) probably doesn’t matter. Philosophers can, in the individual instances where bad philosophy is done, explain why it is bad philosophy. Personally, I think that is often a waste of time, unless something is at stake politically or the answer to the question has some noticeable effect on people’s lives. Life is short. Billions of people live under an almost countless number of harmless misconceptions. There are usually better things to be doing than trying to show them where they’ve gone wrong.

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onymous 05.23.09 at 10:25 pm

Because I’m feeling persnickety — though sometimes I’m even persnicketier — I wonder why the discussion here centers on the relation of philosophers to the humanities, and implicitly (and, on occasion, explicitly, as in 136.5) assumes that philosophy and the sciences have a more congenial relation. As a physicist, I would be interested in cases where the philosophy of physics reveals useful insights not obtained long ago by working physicists. In my experience, for instance, philosophers thinking about quantum mechanics, causality, and related issues are typically either rehashing things that physicists understood 75 years ago, or are wasting their time with some highly reactionary attempt to save a misguided view of the world (like “local realism”, or whatever the catchphrase of the hour is) from what they perceive as an assault from quantum mechanics. It’s not that I think philosophers of science are incapable of producing insights that are useful to scientists; it seems entirely possible, but I don’t know of good examples. And in general I suspect that if the relationship between philosophy and the sciences is more congenial than that of philosophy and the humanities, it’s because we scientists are nigh-unaware of the existence of philosophy.

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Keith M Ellis 05.24.09 at 12:46 am

Bianca, I’m having much difficulty in merely beginning to grasp even what point of view from which your comment originates.

My education is in many ways strongest in science, many of my friends are scientists, and my worldview is predominantly scientific. My first impulse when I want to understand something is to take an empirical approach. I added “materialist” to my self-description because “empiricist” does not necessarily exclude it (in terms of worldviews and modes of thought, empiricism and non-materialism could be complementary) and I chose “scientism” because it encapsulates a conjunction of attitudes which cluster around these concepts.

Certainly, some use that word as a sort of insult; probably to imply a way of thinking that is supposedly too narrow and rigid. Indeed, in some people it is. But that accusation, or the possibility of it, doesn’t inspire defensiveness in me and I’m a little surprised that it does in you. The contemporary scientific view of the universe—or, more precisely, the view of the universe that those who most strongly affiliate with the social institution of “science”—is a worldview, a mode of awareness with its own particular strengths and weaknesses.

That it has some weaknesses as well as strengths is clearly apparent to me; just as any other mode of awareness does. The various forms of art are, in my opinion, also modes of awareness with their own strengths and weaknesses. So, too, is historicism.

To put my argument in perspective, I should mention that my educational experience with philosophy, science, literature, and history is atypical by contemporary academic standards and it is my opinion that this unusual experience (which exists alongside prior conventional education in science) provides me with a better-than-average understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of how they’re otherwise conventionally taught. To be sure, many of my classmates arrive at a chauvinistic conclusion which is at odds with my own: they believe our experience is the high road to what they imagine as “truth”. I disagree but believe that our experience has its own particular virtues which compensate for its weaknesses.

A type of ahistoricism is an essential quality of this education and, for the most part, this is almost aggressively the case with regard to philosophy. My tutors were very much the sorts of people who would insist that “the text itself was the only thing of importance”. I disagree—but I also would disagree that an historically informed reading, such as StevenAttewell advocates, is necessary. There is a particular kind of value and insight available in taking a text as its own exclusive authority—historical context can obscure as much as it illuminates, especially in unskilled hands. Indeed, it seems clear to me that there are a number of useful ways in which to approach a text; none of them are exclusively sufficient for the most ambitious of readers; none of them so far superior to all the others that a serious reader can safely habitually utilize one to the exclusion of all the rest.

It seems to me that philosophy is a “mode” in the same sense that art is a mode and science is a mode. People have become so specialized these days that it’s well-nigh impossible for them to appreciate that useful and important things about the world can be developed outside of their disciplines. That is to say, only when they can be safely convinced that a subject of inquiry is entirely outside their discipline will they admit that there’s another way of approaching it. Otherwise, they tend to be certain that another discipline’s approach to a subject is inferior and incomplete, at best, and misleading or confusing, at worst.

By its nature, philosophy gets the worst treatment by other disciplines these days because the subjects of philosophical inquiry are enormously varied and almost without exception they are the subjects of inquiry of other disciplines. To everyone (but particularly scientists), philosophers are badly imitating its betters and producing little or anything of value. These people seem to be incapable of grasping that philosophy has an inquisitive character all its own; a utility all its own.

The flip side of this is that equally chauvinistic philosophers can wield the other edge of this sword and assert or insinuate that philosophy is privileged above all other modes of thought because it can consider almost any topic. So, too, both artists and critical theorists are prone to making such claims.

I took issue with StevenAttewell’s argument because, honestly, his intellectual point-of-view is closest to my own, as a matter of temperment. If I hadn’t learned better, I’d have argued the same historicist argument he makes, I would have looked down upon those who stupidly and ignorantly thought that it made any sense at all to read Republic outside its historical context. Luckily for me, however, I did learn better. There is nothing in this world that cannot be more greatly and usefully comprehended by expanding upon and integrating the perspectives from which it is viewed. I could devote my entire life to the study of Republic without exhausting all possible ways in which it could productively be approached. There’s a reason why critical modalities so quickly come and go: it’s not simply fashion and the thirst for the novel, it’s that there are always additional new and useful perspectives.

Students of the nature of animal intelligence have a typical response they make when someone attempts to compare the intelligence of a human with, say, a dog. They’ll say, “a dog is very smart at being a dog, not so smart at being a human”. To some extent (and being careful to avoid pushing this line of argument too far), asking whether it’s better to understand ethics through philosophy than through, say, political science or theology or even cognitive science is a category error. Ethics as understood via philosophy is the best way in which to understand ethics via philosophy. It’s a very poor way of understanding ethics via theology or political science.

People who tend to denigrate the utility of philosophy—or, for that matter, critical theory—are the sorts of people who have difficulty not feeling certain that there is a single, privileged way of understanding pretty much everything. In this sense, yes, I think the criticisms of those who use the word scientism are often apt—and I say that as someone whose intellectualism could be most accurately described as “scientific”, even though I’m not a scientist. I’m not making the common romantic claim that many subjects are, by nature, completely unsuitable for science; rather, I am making the claim that even when a subject is, by nature, quite well suited to science, it can be and usually is also well suited to disciplines other than science.

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sleepy 05.24.09 at 3:44 am

Scientists laugh at philosophers with science envy. Philosophers with science envy laugh at humanists. Humanists ask: what is science envy?
And the difference between being called a philosopher and calling yourself one is the difference between being called Righteous Bubba and calling yourself one. Self-praise is not a compliment.

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Danny Yee 05.24.09 at 1:58 pm

“philosophy is more useful to other disciplines than they are to philosophy”

I would rewrite that as “philosophy is only useful in so far as it is useful to other disciplines”. My experience is that philosophy that fails to connect effectively with other disciplines – law, physics, history, anthropology, psychology, or indeed anything with an empirical or pragmatic grounding – is arid and sterile.

In contrast, it is possible to do good physics or history or biology without involving philosophy, at least in a good many areas.

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engels 05.24.09 at 2:40 pm

What is the sound of one hand blogging?

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Keith M Ellis 05.24.09 at 2:47 pm

I’m not sure, but fleshbot.com seems like the place to go to find out.

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belle le triste 05.24.09 at 2:54 pm

a REAL materialist would be doing the er legwork there, keith

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steven 05.24.09 at 5:40 pm

In my experience, for instance, philosophers thinking about quantum mechanics, causality, and related issues are typically either rehashing things that physicists understood 75 years ago

Did physicists really and unanimously “understand” the underlying ontological issues 75 years ago (do they now)? AIUI at least one influential subset of physicists decided not even to try to understand them, given that just doing the maths was so successful. (Feynman: “Shut up and calculate!”)

(This should not be taken to imply that whatever philosophers have to say about such things these days is necessarily useful.)

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Keith M Ellis 05.24.09 at 6:10 pm

I think steven is exactly correct about QM. It’s not that physicists managed to settle the vexing philosophical issues surrounding QM, it’s that they largely lost interest in pursuing them.

There is still work being done on the philosophical implications of QM by contemporary physicists. I came across one person who lists this in his CV and I wrote him, curious about how his colleagues feel about this. He told me that some find it interesting, others handwaving and a waste of time, and most tolerate it because he does other work that has greater utility.

One can take a graduate-level class in QM without the words “Copenhagen interpretation” ever being mentioned. Frankly, while I find this a bit surprising, I don’t find it to be shocking or unacceptable because a working physicist really need not worry a bit about these things in order to do productive work in particle physics. As they say, the math really is everything; it is exceedingly tricky and arguably impossible to translate that math into language.

“(This should not be taken to imply that whatever philosophers have to say about such things these days is necessarily useful.)”

No, but personally I’d like to see serious interdisciplinary work between knowledgeable philosophers and physicists on these issues. I don’t think a philosopher without appropriate training in QM is equipped to do so, and I don’t think a physicist without appropriate training in similar philosophical issues and techniques is equipped to do so, either.

This is a completely different, but related, subject—but I think that the inability to understand that other disciplines can have useful ideas and methods with regard to one’s own research topic drives the far too common cross-disciplinary overreach and the corresponding lack of serious and ubiquitous interdisciplinary research and cooperation. But this is just one piece of that puzzle.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.24.09 at 6:57 pm

Quantum physics is the outstanding example of a description of reality going to several decimal places, devised without philosophical input, presenting pictures that are new to metaphysics, and having foundational philosophical implications.

Anyone will note that scientific discovery occurs by very different paths: such as by finding discrepancies, by abstracting a theory to a different situation, by looking for invariants through changes, by trying different equations to fit experimental results (a repeated technique in physics,) by pure philosophical musing, etc. etc. Any of these trails might suggest a repeatable experiment, and off we go.

But in the modern period, pure philosophical musing accounts for only a tiny number of discoveries. The premiere example is the theory of relativity, which originated in epistemological musing by Einstein, who explicitly identified it as such. It included I believe a thoroughgoing review of ideas from Aristotle to Kant — or at least, Einstein was quite familiar with them in his latter years, and continued both to employ, and to advocate for, an epistemological approach to unified theory.

There are of course older examples of a good deal of philosophical study in scientific discovery, I suppose we might conjecture at paradigm shifts. Descartes-Galileo-Newton come to mind as people well-versed in old arguments about the nature of reality — although perhaps that is because all they had to study were the ancient classics, plus the medieval experimenters.

We ought to distinguish “philosophy” as enormous endeavor, from the “philosophy of science,” a subdivision which has been about logical methods until its sociological turn. In most cases philosophy of science has little to teach scientists, much as philosophy of mathematics is of little use to working mathematicians.

But here again: the present mix in the philosophy of science, which is something like a philosophical psychology of science, is somewhat important for forming hypotheses in developmental child psychology.

Indeed I think it’s easy to predict a future circumstance wherein philosophy will again become crucial: when brain imaging becomes precise enough so that we can follow exactly what happens when the subject undergoes conceptual change, PLUS what happens when the subject thinks of the general idea of “concept.”

The connection between these two is philosophical in nature, and so philosophical discourse will provide most of the initial guideposts for drawing the detailed scientific map of how we perform classifications and meta-classifications.

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bianca steele 05.24.09 at 9:07 pm

belle@188:
You know, it’s hard out there for a pimp.

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PenGun 05.25.09 at 2:17 am

Philosophy is an elaborate method of hiding from the truth.

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Tim Wilkinson 05.25.09 at 2:56 pm

It strikes me that articles in the top (or ‘top’) analytic philosophy journals are largely footnoteless, and are comprehensible, or intended to be so, by the intelligent layperson. This may suggest that the layperson in question might have come up with the article themself*, given enough musing. There is something in this: e.g. I remember as a 2nd or 3rd year undergrad being referred to a chapter from a Dworkin jurisprudence book for an important development in aesthetics.

If, so such a line of thought might go, philosophical achievement is not necessarily based on learning or even training, then what is required to be good at philosophy? Two salient possibilities:
1 (expectably more common among philosophers?): some special qualities like lateral/clear/perspicuous/just damn clever thinking;
2 (for the hostile nonphilosophers?), basically bugger-all: anyone can do it but most have something better to do.

The situation may exacerbated by cross-attribution of these views: philosophers suspect non-philosophers of thinking 2, possibly because they themselves have nagging doubts about it, etc.

[*On this neologism: when is the use of the plural pronouns as unsexed personal singulars going to catch on in formal writing? It’s common enough in informal speech, and though by failing to specify multiplicity it may increase and will never reduce ambiguity , that’s not a unique or insurmountable problem, any more than the prsumably acceptable failure to specify sex is – or duality, triplicity…, or age-group or hair colour.]

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zdenekv 05.26.09 at 6:16 am

Tim Wilkinson :

“This may suggest that the layperson in question might have come up with the article themself*, given enough musing….If, so such a line of thought might go, philosophical achievement is not necessarily based on learning or even training, “

No ways, this doesnt follow . If I say something like following without any footnotes, for example , it doesnt follow that fair amount of learning is not required to make the point I am making :
“…. We cannot assume a priori that naturalized philosophy cannot show that some sort of plausible identification of values and facts about evolution is not made in near future which would make some plausible derivation of value from facts possible. The point is, if philosophical ethics is continuous with science in the sense that philosophy is just a more abstract scientific inquiry –as the naturalists are arguing– then we cannot rule out such a possibility a priori because a priori method in this sort of inquiry is not viable….”

Or, it is possible to characterize say the debate in phil of biology regarding evolution of morality without any footnotes but again it does not follow that fair amount of learning is not required to get it right. So I cannot agree with the point you are making.

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