Synthetic Philosophy within the division of Labor

by Eric Schliesser on January 30, 2024

When I first published on what I call ‘synthetic philosophy’ back in 2019, I presented the two key components of the view in such a way that it caused confusion about the position I was trying to describe as a sociological phenomenon within philosophy of science. I developed the idea of ‘synthetic philosophy’ in order to give philosophers of science a better conception of what they actually do and how this might fit in the modern university (and their grant agencies). I introduced the idea with the following characterization:

‘synthetic philosophy’ [is] a style of philosophy that brings together insights, knowledge, and arguments from the special sciences with the aim to offer a coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both).

It is quite natural that my readers thought that synthetic philosophy just is a kind of integrative project. In contemporary philosophy, Philip Kitcher is (recall) the spokesperson for a view like pretty much this (including the use of ‘synthetic philosophy’) in which it is part and parcel of contemporary pragmatism. My friend, Catarina Dutilh Novaes, also advocates for a version of this view (see, for example, here at DailyNous). In Bad Beliefs, Neil Levy emphasized and developed a slightly different version of this view, too. This approach is also nicely defended by Adam Smith in the context of describing philosophy’s role in the division of labor at the start of Wealth of Nations.

My unease about this program is due to the fact that what does the integration, the integrative glue, as it were, is too unconstrained or (to use one of Timothy Williamson’s favorite words) undisciplined. I also worry that it opens the door to the image of the philosopher as creative genius who has mystical powers at understanding the totality of things. I reject the anthropological (and moral) assumption on which such a heroic figure is based. In addition — and I was myself not as clear about this back in 2019 —, hyper-specialization makes the kind of integrative project Kitcher wishes to defend a glorious, fool’s errand. (To be sure Kitcher himself is quite explicit that he rejects the anti-egalitarian commitments that are inscribed in the creative genius image.)

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