Philosophy and Philosophobia
By David Ottlinger
Philosophy, it would seem, has fallen on hard times. Or at least it is often said that philosophy has fallen on hard times. To philosophers themselves, philosophy has just completed an eventful century. And in spite of rumors one occasionally hears to the contrary, philosophers are in no way worried about the subject drying up or having its territory annexed by any science which might supersede it. If anything, in my experience, philosophers worry about the ballooning of philosophical investigation with new “philosophy of’s”—philosophy of reference, philosophy of physics, philosophy of neurology—being discovered all the time. But many voices have emerged in our culture which seem uncomfortable with the idea of philosophy. The common refrain, as I hear it, is that philosophy has lost its utility, if it ever had any. If anything, all this expanse is part of the problem. Philosophical thinking may be interesting but it never leads anywhere. Philosophy just doesn’t solve anything; it never brings a question to any satisfying resolution. Given the numerous potential subjects of study that vie for our attention, philosophy does not stand out. Other inquiries, notably scientific ones, promise more progress. So philosophy is excluded. But somehow philosophy keeps turning back up again. It is one thing to say that we must do without philosophy, but doing so, it would seem, is another. Some of these same voices realize this. They react strongly; their denunciations become louder and more shrill. Philosophy, they say, is too seductive and its siren song will seduce the unwary and siphon off precious energy and diffuse it in the form of endless and pointless puzzling. The energy that might have found the vital piece of evidence in some scientific endeavor is wasted in tedious abstruseness. It must be resisted. Resisting this energy drain will require some disciplined self-binding and wax in the ears. This effort and the attitude which accompanies it I term philosophobia.
Prof. Massimo Pigliucci at the late, lamented Scientia Salon tried to assuage some of these fears by arguing that philosophy is not such a hopeless tangle and that it does in fact progress and does yield important results.  I quite agree with this in general and I find that it needs to be part of the response. Many have claimed that they have looked into philosophy and found nothing, and one begins to wonder whether their hearts were really in the search (certainly they do not seem to remember much when they have finished). Highlighting what riches philosophy can offer is a quite sensible response. Still I am moved to give a somewhat different answer. Or at least I would shift some of the emphasis. I would be somewhat more downbeat. There is some justice in all this complaining. Philosophy never does solve anything. But all the unfavorable comparisons to science and the fault-finding in the world will not rid us of philosophy. There is a reason why philosophy is never quite effaced, even after so many attempts. We simply cannot do without philosophy. I do not mean that we cannot do without it in the practical sense in which the man who wishes to get ahead in business cannot do without learning golf. I mean this in the literal, logical sense. We cannot do without philosophy. We can do it well or poorly but we cannot be divested of it. Trying to take philosophy out of life is like trying to take heat out of fire. Philosophy might be an albatross chained around our neck, but nonetheless it is chained around our neck. Understanding why this is, and must be, constitutes a great step towards understanding philosophy and its contributions.
But it won’t do to go on talking to myself. I will be taking some comments of Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson as representative of the current climate of philosophobia. Of course there are more styles of philosophobia and more motivations for it than these two profess. Nevertheless these two strike me as broadly representative of the general mood. Most of the comments I will deal with were made extempore and this should be noted in fairness to those who made them. All the same I do find that there is a kind of logic behind such comments that can fairly be ascribed to the men who made them. This will seem speculative at times. I chose the word philosophobia because it is as much a feeling as a thought. It is not usually expressed as a definite position but more as a vague suspicion or mistrust. Accordingly, asides and off the cuff remarks are often the most revealing. Later they are often disavowed, for, as much as the cachet of philosophy as a discipline has fallen, its name still commands a vague respect. It summons up ideas of dusty books and ivied walls and everything gathered in the phrase “ivory tower”. People may not understand or like philosophy, but they don’t wish to tangle with it, so they prefer to repeat the old pieties rather than risk an open conflict. Yet I am resolutely certain that I am not seeing this logic in these and other remarks the way the believer sees the face of Jesus in toast. It would be naive and dangerous to view philosophobia as an illusion and not the lurking menace that it is. Its reality is well attested by the ubiquity of similar comments and by the occasional outbreaks of open conflict, one of the most prominent being the Krauss-Albert affair.  Its reality is also seen in the internal logic that such remarks display. There is a consistent rationale behind it. With that in mind we can turn to particular cases.
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, voiced a view which strikes me as typical of him.  In discussing the ontological argument for the existence of God he writes that he finds Bertrand Russell’s response to the argument strange. The ontological argument attempts to prove the existence of God by careful reflection on the nature of being. Russell objects that thought alone does not establish that objects in the world exist. Dawkins writes,
My own feeling, to the contrary, would have been an automatic, deep suspicion of any line of reasoning that reached such a significant conclusion without feeding in a single piece of data from the real world. Perhaps that indicates no more than I am a scientist rather than a philosopher. Philosophers down the centuries have indeed taken the ontological argument seriously, both for and against. The atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie gives a particularly clear discussion in The Miracle of Theism. I mean it as a compliment when I say you could almost define a philosopher as someone who won’t take common sense for an answer. (The God Delusion 82-83)
I will not be interested in the substance of what Dawkins has to say about the ontological argument, but rather, the general statements about philosophy this occasions. This is typical of Dawkins in that it is nominally reverent, but slightly puzzled. I say nominally reverent, because we are told that his definition of philosophy is meant as a compliment, but seems to me not at all complimentary. Indeed it would seem to me that even in general the idea that a person would reflexively question common sense would be no compliment. Such a person would strike most as perverse. But as a definition, or “almost” definition, of a kind of intellectual it is much worse. Philosophers seem to be defined as people who rigorously doubt everything no matter how obvious it may commonly seem. It just does not paint a very favorable picture of philosophers if we imagine them tilting at every windmill to make sure none are giants. I say puzzled because while philosophers take the ontological argument seriously, it is more than evident that Dawkins does not. So what praise can be left for these centuries of debate? What point could it have? Dawkins gives us no idea and I suspect has none. Whatever compliment he means to pay here, I suspect his heart is not in it.
Elsewhere his patience runs out. In a revealing off the cuff remark he made in a film he did with Lawrence Krauss, he began to complain about moderators in his many public debates:
Certainly my recent encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Chaledonion theatre not so long ago, that was completely ruined by the chairman, who was a philosopher, and felt it was his role to “clarify” things and of course that meant obscuring things. [4, The Unbelievers at about 14:22]
Evidently this puzzling behavior of philosophers no longer has the value that Dawkins attributed to it before, without, of course, specifying what that value was. Now philosophers appear as positively destructive. They only engender confusion and obscurity where once there was light.
It must be registered that Dawkins is at other times quite reverential of philosophy. In fact his swings can be quite violent. In a televised discussion with eminent moral philosopher Peter Singer he is almost fawning.  I found this the more surprising as in a later chapter of The God Delusion, Dawkins makes a foray into moral philosophy that leaves quite a different impression. (232-233) Much about the discussion is odd. It is extremely cramped, at about a page and a half. Dawkins finds it necessary to engage in moral philosophy to answer objections from an “imaginary [Christian] apologist”. It is an enforced excursion. Dawkins seems bored. Statements like “Deontology is a fancy name for the belief that morality consists in the obeying of rules” and “Deontology is not quite the same thing as moral absolutism, but for most purposes in a book about religion there is no need to dwell on the distinction” seem weary. The latter is certainly inaccurate. Evidently Dawkins has to amuse himself by going on little, irrelevant tears about shootings at abortion clinics and Louis Bunuel. Dawkins is again nominally reverent but puzzled. He seems willing to go along with the notion that such theorizing about morality is important but his great unwillingness to engage in any himself again suggests his heart is not with his mouth. In fairness to Dawkins surely some of the strain arises from the fact that as a biologist he is far afield and is swimming laboredly in unfamiliar waters. But his choice of compliment for his favorite theory, consequentialism, is telling. He calls it “pragmatic”. All this professional theorizing he views somewhat askance. The entire passage and much of the surrounding material suggest that he has difficulty imagining what all these philosophers are going on about. I again assert the non-confrontational nature of philosophobia. Dawkins seems to say one thing at home and another when an eminent philosopher who might defend his subject is present. The dismissive comments strike me as more sincere.
Neil deGrasse Tyson does us the favor of being much more strident. Not one to be cryptic he makes his distaste of philosophy very plain. His most revealing remarks were made on a podcast in casual conversation with several people. When one let slip that he majored in philosophy Tyson quipped “That can really mess you up.” What followed was a pure torrent of philosophobia:
Tyson: My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s…what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?
Interviewer: I think a healthy balance of both is good.
Tyson: Well, I’m still worried even about a healthy balance. Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress. All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you How do you define clapping? do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that. , some material omitted for space]
Tyson’s comments closely resemble Dawkins’ in everything except of course the nominal reverence. In fact Tyson in many ways presents an exaggerated version of the same argument. The main allegation is that philosophy has no utility. It is not “a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world”. This is a strange charge, as no doubt very few philosophers would consider what they do as aimed at increasing our “understanding of the natural world” and those who do are generally very concerned to bring onboard the relevant science. Philosophers of mind for instance often keep up with scientific literature on neurology and psychology. But not seeing what the value of philosophy is, Tyson quickly concludes that there is none. He adds that people believe philosophy is valuable “because philosophy class tells you this”, which is a fairly insulting suggestion. I can understand a person believing that the rationale for the study of philosophy is inadequate but to think that those who study the subject do not have one is bizarre.
Absent any utility of its own, philosophy only serves to “derail” and “distract”. Tyson will brook no “pointless delay” in the forward on-rush of science any more than Dawkins has use for philosophers’ “obscuring things”. Only Tyson heightens the threat to almost hysterical proportions. Philosophy is now not merely a drain and hindrance but potentially a total stumbling block. It now threatens to totally “derail” forward progress and leave us such that we “can’t even cross the street”. Accordingly Tyson does not gingerly step over philosophy, as Dawkins did, but pushes it away with both hands. There is no “healthy balance” such as the one Dawkins half-heartedly tried to strike; philosophy is totally cut from the team. But Tyson knows this will not be easy and he recognizes the allures of philosophical investigation. He recommends exactly the kind of deliberate deafening and self-binding which I have described. With this strategy Tyson hopes to sail around philosophy, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind”. (I will do my best to lead him onto some rocks.)
There is of course some justice in these claims. Philosophy is a very, very odd thing and even as people balk at its oddness, they generally fail to understand just how odd it really is. It is understandable that both Tyson and Dawkins seem to think that philosophy picks its problems almost at random. Philosophy is concerned with the perception of color, the reality of time, the ethics of global poverty and the nature of art. Quite simply it has no subject matter. As such it may seem that philosophers choose questions almost at random. They seem like people who just will not accept any common sense answer but must question everything as Dawkins implies. Likewise, and perhaps worse, no philosophical question (or at least none of any significant scope) is ever quite resolved. Usually an introductory course into a sub-field of philosophy will present an array of possible answers to a fundamental question. In philosophy of mind, there are property dualists, computationalists, eliminitivists and others. In ethics there are virtue theorists, consequentialists, deontologists and others. Almost certainly these kinds of divides will continue for the foreseeable future and I am inclined to think many are essentially permanent. In other worlds, people of intelligence, talent and good acquaintance with the best arguments will likely forever disagree fundamentally. So Tyson’s fears of an endless quagmire are not without basis.
But for all this unfortunate mess there is no escape. Both Dawkins and Tyson and likeminded philosophobes generally adopt towards philosophy the attitude they would adopt toward a science. If the science produces interesting results it prospers. If it fails to, it withers. If research into cold-fusion does not profit any scientifically or technologically useful results, it is abandoned. And so on. Likewise scientists choose their subject of study and apply scientific investigation to it. In this way philosophy fundamentally differs. Philosophy is occasioned by problems. Philosophical problems arise when ordinary life and discourse carries us into a place in which we find ourselves in confusion or internal conflict and we are rendered unable to move forward. When such problems arise they must be managed philosophically if we are to continue. Science comes to its subject, while the subject comes to philosophy.
Philosophical problems arise as we organize our lives and knock us off the path of common sense. When we trip on such problems and tumble off the way, we can take one path or another or turn back in cowardice, but none of these is turning away. Every choice constitutes an answer to the question, a response to the problem. An example will help. Imagine a child is drowning in a pond.  You ascertain that the child is in fact in distress and not playing in the water. Scanning the horizon you find no one looking after the child to save it, you alone can reach her. With dismay you realize you are wearing your best one-hundred dollar shoes. The muddy pond is sure to destroy them. What do you do?
I know very well many people’s reactions to such thought experiments. Dismissal. This is after all one of those comfortable, entirely artificial problems philosophers conjure up in order to disagree with each other. It’s all so academic—meaning of course that it is no earthly use to anyone not seeking tenure. Yet the situation of the person in the thought experiment is in a position in regards to the child, very much analogous to our own position in regards to the global poor. Our one-hundred dollars probably stands an excellent chance of saving one of the millions of children dying or at risk of dying from starvation or disease this very instant. Yet what educated, Western person does not own something relatively superfluous that is worth one hundred dollars? And if the man is obliged to save the child at the expense of his relatively superfluous property, here represented by his expensive shoes, how is it you are not obliged to sell your belongings to raise one hundred dollars to save an at-risk child? This thought experiment makes perspicuous the fact that we maintain our wealth while others suffer great privation. This surely is of more than academic interest.
You might react in any number of ways to this argument. You might ignore it, believe that somehow the analogy must fail and try not to think about it. But in doing so you are implicitly acting on the assumption that the analogy fails. You may turn your back on the argument (or on Peter Singer who first made the argument) but not on the problem. You have given your answer. Even if you do not act on the basis of a norm or rule you can explicitly give and defend, if you continue as you had you act on an implicit norm, namely that you are permitted to keep your wealth while others are in desperate need. No, your actions say, I am not beholden to the global poor in the specified way. Yet if you do so you give no reasons for acting as you do. Perhaps your position is somehow dis-analogous to that of the man by the pond such that you are justified in keeping your wealth while he must sacrifice his shoes. Many have intuited that there must be such a dis-analogy. Very well, but what is the dis-analogy? The puzzle remains. The moral here is that while you may be able to turn your back on this or that scientific question, say the questions posed to string theory, you cannot turn your back on philosophical ones. The thought experiment speaks to norms surrounding your form of life. Whether or not this is morally acceptable, you continue to behave as though it were. (Generally it is assumed that such objective norms exist and are discoverable.) We face many difficult and ambiguous questions, yet we must act. Philosophers give different answers to the question of our degree of beholdenness to the global poor. Philosophy, as ever, is conflicting and uncertain. Yet it provides the best and most coherent answers we have, our best attempts to justify our actions. The only alternative is flying blind.
Of course there are more philosophical problems than ethical ones. A history professor I once knew related to me a story of how he had run into a philosophical problem in the course of teaching a class. He was teaching a course on European history. A student who had read the syllabus asked the professor whether or not Poland was part of Europe. (The syllabus contained no material on the neglected state.) The professor was indefinite, but the student pressed. Well, was Poland part of Europe or not? Motivated in part by Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy, the professor reflected that the right answer to questions like these is that Poland is not part of Europe for the purposes of this class.  Whether or not a country counts as European depends on what kinds of historical questions are being asked. Trying to answer the question outside the strictures of a particular line of inquiry is hopeless and unhelpful. Before an answer can be given, it is important to ask what one means by “Europe” and for what purposes one means it.
Contra Tyson, shifting from questions about things in the world to questions about how we think about those things is not always a sign that the conversation is “devolving”. Sometimes it is a powerful way to move the conversation forward. We can become ensnared in language in speaking it, and we can only find our way out of these snares by examining our use of language. And these snares are ubiquitous. For my own part I don’t know how many times I have used Wittgenstein’s insights to clarify my thinking or on how many subjects. If you find the already given example minor, there are many others. There are evidently controversies in psychology and psychiatry that are driven by conceptual questions.  What exactly counts as an addict? What do mean when we say mentally ill? Answers to such questions may seriously alter how you see current scientific practice. I would not be misconstrued, I am no expert in the area and I am eminently unqualified to take a position in this contested territory. I only note in passing that where experts do fall is often driven by their understanding of the concepts they use. Evidently then, conceptual analysis and understanding of how concepts operate is not without its utility after all.
The above two cases strongly parallel the drowning child case. There is some issue on which we cannot choose but act. People experiencing psychological difficulty will continue to exist and to seek treatment. They can be treated in different ways or not treated at all but any of these paths will be motivated by answers to questions surrounding what constitutes mental illness. Likewise our history professor will have to choose whether or not to put material on Poland in his syllabus. These questions arise, they are not sought out. Our professor was going along preparing a class not expecting to be confronted by the question of whether or not Poland is part of Europe. The difference this time, in contrast to the drowning child case, is that the puzzle arises from questions about what is and not what we ought to do. The question “Is Poland part of Europe?” or the statement “Poland is part of Europe.” concern the way the world is and not how we ought to act. (Contrastingly, statements like “Should the man in the thought experiment save the child?” and “The man in the case should save the child.” speak directly to ways in which a person ought to act.) In other words these are puzzles for theoretical, not practical philosophy. My point is that while theoretical philosophy does not speak to what we do directly it can often greatly influence it indirectly.
Understanding the nature of philosophical problems and their distinctiveness exposes another assumption made by the philosophobic. In general they tend to view philosophy and science as aimed at the same kinds of problems. They are various instruments, applied to the same set of problems. They are different team members, but playing the same game. Dawkins notes how as a scientist he views questions concerning God differently than Russell and then goes on to apply his own kind of quasi-scientific method. He views the claim that there is a God as “the God hypothesis” and refutes it based on its fit to the empirical evidence. Tyson seems to view philosophy as a failure because it does not address real problems but in a way that makes his view similar. There is only fundamentally one set of problems and philosophy either addresses them differently than science does, and perhaps in ways inferior to those of science, or else not at all. This explains why Tyson and more implicitly Dawkins tend to see philosophy and science as being in direct competition. I hope the above suggests a different view. In reality there are (at least) two sets of problems and philosophy and science are usually not addressing the same set. They are quite distinct tasks though they can blur around the edges. One can try to solve philosophical problems with science in the way one can nail in a screw. It probably won’t work and whatever you do manage to build will be pretty shoddy. What is needed is not so much “a healthy balance” as “a healthy diversity”.
As I see it we are faced with problems ordinary life throws up which only philosophy can solve and philosophy can only solve them imperfectly. If you accept the above arguments you have every right to find that mildly terrifying. In fact, if you don’t I am not certain that you are fully paying attention. The idea that after millennia the best minds have radically diverging thoughts about how to organize a life is humbling and unsettling. Traditionally philosophy has had a role in humbling people and keeping them modest in this way. As Montaigne put it, “The truly wise are like ears of corn: they shoot up and up holding their heads proudly erect—so long as they are empty; but when, in their maturity, they are full of swelling grain, their foreheads droop down and they show humility.”  And after so many years philosophy still has the power to make us humble. It is easy to walk the high road of common sense. It is hard to give a rigorous account of why we live the way we do and think the way we do. Even for such fundamental and indispensable commitments as moral ones, there is no single, uncontroversial account that can be given. Such are the uncertainties with which we live daily, whether we are conscious of them or no.
I was moved to write a response slightly different from the one Massimo offered because I believed that it hurried exactly where it should have paused. It is certainly true that philosophy is more useful and more tractable than it is made out to be by its detractors, but running along to assure readers of what philosophy can accomplish might dissuade them from looking plainly at what it cannot. In one sense the philosophobic accusations are just. Philosophy never succeeds in ridding us of deep uncertainties. Every person at some point or another has to confront this fact. Blaming philosophy for this reality of life is pointless.
For all that I have said, I do not want to paint in too somber tones. All of Massimo’s rejoinders still apply. Philosophy forces humility on us, not despair. It is not a “bottmless pit”. While philosophy does not arm us with single answers to life’s uncertainties, it does arm us with better ones. Philosophically well articulated answers at least stand up to certain kinds of scrutiny and challenge. Likewise the perennial nature of philosophical controversy does not render philosophy useless. While on any essential question philosophy entertains disagreement, it is a bounded disagreement. There may be multiple schools of thought but narrowing the field to several schools of thought implicitly eliminates thousands of possible responses as crank answers. This elimination of options is itself supremely useful and action guiding. If we are not sure which path, if any, is uniquely right, we can at least be turned away from many that are wrong. Likewise differing philosophical schools frequently converge on important ideas. Not everything in philosophy is controversial. As to what is controversial, philosophy can at least help us to the best possible articulation and defense of the paths we do choose. For all its anxieties and uncertainties life is still livable, on most days at least, and philosophy is of great assistance.
If I were forced to vote, I would have to choose Plato as the greatest philosopher of philosophy. I have some suspicion that the opinion is fairly generally accepted. If teaching counted as voting I believe Plato would be voted Most Likely to Scare Undergraduates (with Descartes running an admittedly close second). The fact that in two and a half millennia he has never been bettered would be something of a scandal if his dialogues were not the toweringly great works they are. They capture not only many of the problems in philosophy but the human drama which comes in attempting to address them. Many of the dialogues are relevant to this discussion but the one to which I want to call attention is the Euthyphro.  Euthyphro was once on the way to the courthouse. He was full of purpose and resolve. His mind was noble and his intentions were pure. He met a man called Socrates. Socrates was an ugly man, full of irritating questions. For a while they fell into conversation. Socrates pestered Euthyphro with questions until his reasons seemed to evaporate and he was left full of doubts. Euthyphro finally was unsure of which path to follow. Eventually he hastily excused himself and returned along the way he came. Away from the courthouse. Socrates may not be pretty. He may be irritating. But after two and a half millennia he and his questions still stand between us and the courthouse. And I see no way around him.
David graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in philosophy in 2010. Until recently he has been a graduate student at the department of philosophy at Georgia State University, but is presently taking a break from formal studies to pursue other opportunities. His interests include philosophy, especially Kant, analytic philosophy and more recently philosophy of religion. He currently resides in Cincinnati.
 This exchange was begun by David Albert’s review of A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing at the New York Times Sunday Book Review: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html?_r=0 Krauss then gave an eyebrow raising interview to The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/has-physics-made-philosophy-and-religion-obsolete/256203/ Krauss’s response captures well the kind of cycle of obviously sincere attack followed by less-than-obviously-sincere retraction that is discussed in the present article: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-consolation-of-philos/ All of this ended with a détente of sorts, to be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tH3AnYyAI8
 Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.
 The Unbelievers. Dir. Gus Howlerda. Perf. Richard Dawkins and Laurence Krauss. Black Chalk Productions, 2013. Film.
(This film is available on netfflix).
 These comments were made on the Nerdist podcast: http://nerdist.com/nerdist-podcast-neil-degrasse-tyson-returns-again/ The relevant portions are at about 21:00
 The relevant insight concerns Wittgenstein’s doctrine of family resemblances. This argument was developed by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations but for a brief treatment see the relevant sections of Wittgenstein’s SEP article: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein/
 For a lucid discussion, see: http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs98-jerome-wakefield-on-psychiatric-diagnoses-science-or-ps.html
For a much harsher view, see: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jul/14/illusions-of-psychiatry/
 Montainge, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Trans. M. A. Screech London: Penguin Books, 2003. P557
 The Euthyphro is available online for free: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642-h/1642-h.htm