Monday, June 03, 2013

The philosophers' ailment

Many philosophers have a nasty habit that is best thought of as a kind of illness. Maybe some therapy would help.
It isn't new. You can see it at least as far back as der Wiener Kreis, in the work of Carnap, sometimes Russell and Frege, even Wittgenstein. Dennett and the Churchlands exhibit it in philosophy of mind, and any number of ethicists seem to be suffering from it as they read studies in neuroscience and psychology and evolutionary biology.
A lot of us probably catch it in graduate school where it attaches either to a sense of inadequacy or admiration for people practicing other real disciplines. Its hold is strengthened in those conversations where social acquaintances tell us they can't figure out why anyone would be paid to shovel such meaningless bullshit and those moments when students ask us when they will ever use what we are talking about.
Its symptoms are such an overwhelming deference to scientists that one soon loses any sense of what exactly philosophy is supposed to be, as well as an inability to see that philosophy can ever do anything—has done anything in the two-and-a-half millennia it's been knocking around—except clear up a few minor confusions in the hallways of the people who really understand the universe and its inhabitants, the scientists
Ultimately, it leads to a kind of hard-on for science that the infected philosopher is no longer able to see any value that philosophy and its tools and methods and questions might offer, not least because she has given up the idea of value to science.
For example, here a philosopher decides that we cannot know whether literature has any value because the psychologists haven't done enough experiments yet, ignoring his own realization that literature might just be too complex to study by means of a set of laboratory experiments, and further ignoring that he has said nothing—as several commenters noted—about what makes literature good, or what moral improvement might be like, or whether we could even analyze morality by means of psychological experiments. He's too much in thrall of psychology to see that he has decided not to do philosophy or even be critical about the methods of the social sciences or question whether the right sorts of questions are being asked.
Of course, it must be sad to be engaged in a discipline that you think is no more than the handmaid of all the other—legitimate?—ones, but that's only half the problem. When students see this and when administrators see it, is it any wonder at all that philosophy gets shunted aside and cut with all the other humanities? When you give up on your own discipline, you shouldn't be amazed when others do as well.

1 comment:

Arnold Pena said...


This is a very interesting post - however, I ask you to consider that all science began as philosophy. Consider how philosophy is defined:

If we consider that philosophy is the love of wisdom and knowledge, and take into consideration how it is defined; then perhaps it is inevitable that the philosopher will end up with a "hard on" for science.

With regard to literature perhaps being too complicated to be subjected to a set of laboratory experiments, I share this with you.

I had a chemistry professor, Dr. Thomas Hammergrim, that explained during the course of one lecture what he called the "puddle factor". He said that this is what we could use when conducting an experiment to explain a minute or small amount of missing material: i.e. "Well this quantity X would equal value Y if I had not lost quantity Q by spilling, evaporation, etc."

What does this have to do with literature perhaps being too complicated to be subjected to lab experiments - I think this "puddle factor" is applicable. Perhaps it is not so much a matter of the subject being too complicated, but rather that our experiment is not subtle enough to measure such a discipline. Or, alternately, perhaps we need to reexamine our questions.

I regard philosophy far from being the handmaid of the other disciplines, she is the mother of them all, and perhaps without her, these disciplines become utilities. Philosophy is the guiding hand that steers the tiller of science away from - well, the undiluted application of science to resolve the challenges that face us in our modern world - e.g. over-population.

I do agree with you. Thank you for such a good read to wake up to and consider with my morning coffee.