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. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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. [5] 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. [6], 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. [7] 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. [8] 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. [9] 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.” [10] 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. [11] 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.


Endnotes

[1] https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy/

[2] 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

[3] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.

[4] The Unbelievers. Dir. Gus Howlerda. Perf. Richard Dawkins and Laurence Krauss. Black Chalk Productions, 2013. Film.

(This film is available on netfflix).

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYYNY2oKVWU

[6] 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

[7] This thought experiment was first used by Peter Singer here: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm See also http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/199704–.htm

[8] 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/

[9] 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/

[10] Montainge, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Trans. M. A. Screech London: Penguin Books, 2003. P557

[11] The Euthyphro is available online for free: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642-h/1642-h.htm

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  1. Philosophy, it would seem, has fallen on hard times
    I would have to choose Plato as the greatest philosopher of philosophy

    Read the Dialogues and you will see Plato spoke to the ordinary man. And that is the whole point of philosophy, to speak to the ordinary man of meaning, ethics, value and truth, so that he will have a compass to guide him through the storms of contending claims on his belief and behaviour.

    Look now at modern philosophy and you will see an arcane, incestouous academia speaking to academia in impenetrable jargon that no ordinary person could possibly understand. Plato would be horrified beyond belief. Today’s philosophy is a betrayal of Plato and to worship Plato smacks of insincerity. Modern philosophy has scored an own goal of historic proportions and it is little wonder that physicists are so disdainful. Philosophy has jargoned itself into irrelevance.

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  2. Labnut,

    I’m surprised at the strength of your view here. I am afraid I am forced to differ with you. Plato most definitely did not speak to “the common man” in so far this has any meaning in the classical world. Socrates, as Plato’s principle mouth-piece, was instinctively quite aristocratic and he addressed himself to fellow aristocrats (also in the classical sense of the word). Indeed we get the contemptuous term “hoi paloi”, literally “the many”, from Plato. Socrates was contemptuous of the idea that “the many” would have a respectable opinion on a philosophical question. Also both Plato’s philosophy and other ancient philosophies were as dense and technical as modern philosophy so it doesnt strike me that there is now a strongly different conception of philosophy in that way. As to the idea that contemporary philosophy is “an arcane, incestouous academia speaking to academia in impenetrable jargon that no ordinary person could possibly understand”, I think that is remarkably unfair. Of course philosophy uses technical terms and close argument which will be difficult for the ordinary reader. But so does *every* other academic discipline. Why should philosophy, alone among academic disciplines, be different? Also I think most readers would find even much academic philosophy pretty readable. Authors like Peter Singer, Tim Scanlon, Sharon Street, Susan Wolf, Harry Frankfurt and many others philosophize without too many technical terms and in ways that speak directly to how we act and what we value. Even further, authors like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Michael Sandel, Paul and Patricia Churchland and others have written well praised books of popular philosophy aimed directly at non-specialist readers. The Routlege Guidebook series offers an introduction to essentially every area of contemporary philosophy and every major historical figure. Taking all this together I find it very difficult to accept that philosophy is speaking only to itself. It is rather that no one is listening. The fact that philosophy has altered public discourse so little is not because philosophy has little to offer, but that the public has little interest in taking what it does.

    FWIW, I don’t “worship” Plato.

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  3. David,
    I’m surprised at the strength of your view here

    Being provocative is sometimes the best way of getting the attention of philosophers comfortably ensconced in ivory towers.

    It is rather that no one is listening.

    With that simple sentence you have admitted complete failure. If no-one bought the cars at the company where I spent my corporate career should I complain “that the public has little interest in taking what it does“?

    Or should I perhaps own my actions, accept responsibility and strive to connect with my customers, and maybe even speak their language?

    FWIW, I don’t “worship” Plato.

    No, of course not, but you understand what I mean with my purposely attention grabbing phrase.

    the public has little interest in taking what it does.[philosophy]

    If my company insisted on making complex six wheeler cars our public would also have little interest. I would not dare appear in our boardroom with such a weak excuse.

    and he addressed himself to fellow aristocrats

    Yes indeed, and you have thereby admitted my case. Translated to today’s society that would mean speaking to the fellow citizenry. The working class then had no leisure time because they were working in the fields to fund the leisure time of the nobility. That situation has changed and consequently the audience is so much wider. Note also that he was not addressing himself to fellow philosophers.

    Why should philosophy, alone among academic disciplines, be different?

    That is the whole point of my argument. What is so special about philosophy is that its audience is/should be the populace. The other academic disciplines do not have the public as their primary audience. For example, the work of science cascades down into the world of technology and they produce the objects enjoyed by the public. Philosophy is unique in that the public are(or at least should be) their primary audience. There is no intermediate audience. And this explains the great irritation of some scientists who think you are in effect talking to the wrong people since you offer so little of value to them..

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  4. Philosophobia, continued

    As a manager I was urged to get out of my office and to wander around the workforce. Hewlett-Packard called this practice – Management By Wandering Around. Our management team was sent to work in the dealerships for three months at a time. This obsessive, outward looking focus forced us to interact with our clients, speak their language and understand, indeed feel their experiences. We got our hands dirty and felt the brunt of our customer’s pain.

    Pope Francis has been spelling out a similar message to his clergy.

    With respect to the church, Francis has exhorted priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep” and to avoid setting themselves apart from the laity.

    If we, as a company, wanted to retain our relevance, we had to be like “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”.

    The ancient philosophers did this when they went to speak in the agora. And so I think it is time that today’s philosophers discovered the smell of the sheep. Or you can contentedly tinker in tenured isolation. But then stop complaining.

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  5. Also I think most readers would find even much academic philosophy pretty readable

    Ahem… I really doubt that. I struggle with most of it and I am pretty representative. But first they must navigate an academic obstacle course and find their way through insanely expensive paywalls!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Labnut,

    First off, I don’t know how to “translate” Plato’s views into our situation exactly but I am pretty confident that he would not go along with our broadly representative democracy, rather he would try to reinforce an elite which he would feel could rule with wisdom.

    “With that simple sentence you have admitted complete failure. If no-one bought the cars at the company where I spent my corporate career should I complain “that the public has little interest in taking what it does“?
    Or should I perhaps own my actions, accept responsibility and strive to connect with my customers, and maybe even speak their language?”
    Look, I think academia should take responsibility for its own role in the rift between philosophy and the public, but no more. At some point the public has to take responsibility for its own willful ignorance. We have a culture of intellectual arrogance and laziness reflected in the comments of people like Dawkins, Tyson and Krauss. As I noted above, and you seemed to ignore, philosophers *have* gone to a good deal of trouble to give philosophy away. But there is only so much you can do if the public is sitting humming with its fingers in its ears. There’s an expression that covers this, to do with horses and water.

    You say you argued that philosophy ought to have the public as its primary audience. As far as I can see, you have only asserted it. At any rate it strikes me as quite untrue. Again philosophy is like any other discipline. Philosophers should be concerned with developing the best philosophy possible. Inevitably this will involve close argument and a degree of obscurity which excludes many readers but without which you could not have the kind of rigor and specificity academic inquiries ordinarily seek. Only once this kind of rigor has been cultivated should philosophers try to simplify and communicate their results to a general audience.

    A lot of people who ant to argue that philosophy has no value because it does not influence public discourse. I think this is the weakest argument against philosophy on offer. You just can’t ignore something then argue it not valuable because you ignored it.

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  7. Hi David

    I really liked this article and agreed with most of it. Please bear this in mind. These comments are not aimed at you in particular but at a mind-set. Unfortunately you’ve hit on a topic about which I feel very strongly. It may have led me to write too much and too generally.

    In regards to your two examples of philosophobia, it seems blatantly obvious to me that Dawkins and Tyson are blithering idiots. If this doesn’t seem obvious to almost everybody working in philosopher then philosophy really does have a problem. I see no point in discussing them.

    I liked the way you disposed of philosophobia, which I would call stupidity, without disposing of the complaints that it continually makes, many of which, if they are targeted at the tradition of academic philosophy that takes Plato as its origin, are easy to justify.
    In your defence of philosophy, however, what comes across strongly and counter-productively is an intense pessimism, a lack of excitement and no hope of progress. You yourself say, and feel able to do so to a professional audience,

    “Philosophy never does solve anything.”

    This leaves you bereft any decent defence against philosophobics. It is fortunate for philosophy, therefore, that many people would strongly disagree with this pessimistic assessment. You would be unable to back it up with a proof, and I like to think that I could formally prove the opposite result. I say this just to undermine the idea that you are speaking about the whole of philosophy. You are not speaking about one entire tradition.

    “Likewise, and perhaps worse, no philosophical question (or at least none of any significant scope) is ever quite resolved.”

    So it can seem. Kant’s ‘arena for mock fights’ and all that. Luckily this statement is unrigorous. It needs the proviso ‘in our university philosophy’. This is, of course, exactly the sort of philosophy that is the target for philosophobics. They never know enough about philosophy to grasp that there is more to philosophy than this, for if they did then they would not feel able to be so critical.

    “But for all this unfortunate mess there is no escape.”

    This is an opinion and in mine it is point blank wrong. Vast numbers of philosophers have escaped and even explained at length how to do so, including, in his muddled way, this commenter. It is not even complicated. It is just mind-bending.

    “Philosophical problems arise as we organize our lives and knock us off the path of common sense.”

    It seems to me that philosophy would be necessary for the very existence of common sense and is best served by using it. Dawkin’s idea that a wysiwyg view of the world is ‘common-sense’ is profoundly idiotic. Our common-sense tells us that he is not using his.

    “This explains why Tyson and more implicitly Dawkins tend to see philosophy and science as being in direct competition.”

    This phenomenon might best be explained by assuming that they are just two guys at the bar arguing nonsensically about things they do not understand. They are a disgrace to academia in my opinion, blatantly and very publicly betraying its standards, and it makes one wonder about the level of reasoning in the rest of science these days.

    “The idea that after millennia the best minds have radically diverging thoughts about how to organize a life is humbling and unsettling.”

    I’ll say. It’s a terrible idea. My literature survey reveals that the best minds, when they operate free from preconceptions, have radically converging thoughts on this and everything else. Indeed, the degree of convergence is remarkable.

    “In one sense the philosophobic accusations are just.”

    Not if they are aimed at the whole of philosophy, rather than the little bit the accusers know a little bit about.

    “Philosophy never succeeds in ridding us of deep uncertainties. Every person at some point or another has to confront this fact.”

    Do they? Are you sure? What if I refuse?

    “If I were forced to vote, I would have to choose Plato as the greatest philosopher of philosophy.”

    Plato is admirable in many ways and must be judged by the standards of his time, but what did he achieve as a philosopher? What problems did he solve? He started a long tradition of thought and would by now be a global hero if this had been developed and become successful over time, but two millennia later it is having to fight off charges of uselessness and even obstructiveness.

    It seems clear that the only effective solution for philosophobia would be to show that philosophy solves problems. That it does has been shown, demonstrated, proved and explained many times, and no counterproof has been discovered. If our own philosophy struggles to defend itself from the criticisms of the phobics then this would not be a problem for the whole of philosophy.

    Philosophobics will never have any conception of the whole of philosophy, as Dawkins and Tyson continue to demonstrate very well. The trouble is that many philosophers seem to have little conception of it either, so cannot defend themselves. Maybe the need for an effective defence will lead more people away from Plato to study Nagarjuna, who would get my vote, and whose philosophy is invulnerable to charges of inconclusiveness.

    I really liked the article because it highlights all these issues, and for this perhaps we should thank the philosophobics. .

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  8. Deeply disturbing article. Poland is in Europe, period. The man with the expensive shoes should remove them before jumping into the pond — it’s really hard to swim wearing shoes.

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  9. Hi David,

    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.

    I can.

    Socrates conclusion is explicitly that holiness (osion) cannot be an identity (tautos) with ‘god-beloved’ (theophilis), but the concession he earlier extracted from Euthyphro was not that it was the same, or an identity or synonym, but that it was a definition (horizo) which is a different concept, and so nothing Euthyphro has said has implied that it should be the same.

    It is not really clear what Socrates is seeking because he is asking for the “essence” of holiness and it is not clear what sort of answer would give someone the “essence” of anything.

    Also, his reasoning, although valid, is not sound in that he is equivocating over the “because” concept – when we say “John is a bachelor because he is not married” we do not mean quite the same as “John is a bachelor because he loves his freedom”.

    Here is my take https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OIdz5EfK02qKGSif92ZaBnlCSjYsKkcWWqnLcGtyto4/pub

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  10. Hi David. I’m not sure why you spend so much time on Dawkins, Krauss and Tyson, in that they represent only a relatively small constituency (as it were). I would think most people are interested in philosophical concepts at the “lived” level: justice, free will, ethics, the good life, law, political philosophy etc. The question is whether philosophy qua professional philosophy makes novel contributions at that level. Singer, one of your exemplars, has undoubtedly made a significant difference to the societal conversation (as Russell did in his day) but not so much as an academic I would suggest. Rawls and perhaps Novick are similarly important, but again the strength of their central arguments can hardly be described as universally accepted by philosophers. PeterJ’s contention that there is strong convergence in beliefs of professional philosophers doesn’t seem true of their attitudes to ethical issues.

    So then the question is whether the philosophical thinking performed everyday by judges, politicians, ethics committees (where as many have pointed out, the professional ethicist usually comes from a background in religion rather than “secular” philosophy), committees standardizing medical diagnoses, neuroscientists studying consciousness, government bureaucrats or professional bodies setting up codes of ethical practice, and so on, is in any way inferior to that done by academic philosophers.

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  11. For scientists, the value of philosophy is perhaps better appreciated by those of us having a Pragmatist’s view of ‘truth’, as opposed to a Platonist’s or Positivist’s/Scientismist’s view (cf. Consequences of Pragmatism by Richard Rorty): Philosophy is the foundry of vocabularies (used by all other endeavors). Philosophy (from Kant to Kripke) is (at least) appreciated by computer scientists, programming language theorists in particular.

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  12. There appears to be a tendency among the anti-philosophy to just make up stuff about what philosophers believe, in the sure and certain knowledge that their audience have no better knowledge of the subject themselves and will not bother to check.

    Ernst Mayr, in “Darwin and the Evolutionary Theory in Biology” claims that Platonism dominated the thinking of the 17th, 18th and 19th century and that this was responsible for the late discovery of the theory of evolution.

    In particular he claims “The discontinuities between these “types” (ideas), it was believed, accounted for the frequency of gaps in Nature “. Naturally he does not give even one example of anybody saying anything even remotely like this, never mind support the contention that this idea was so prevalent as to have delayed the discovery of the theory of evolution.

    Mayr seems just to have made this up on the spot. Richard Dawkins dutifully repeats Mayr’s nonsense, apparently not familiar with the concept of, you know, checking.

    So of course they are going to think that philosophy is nonsense, just as I would think that science was nonsense if I only ever got my information about science from Deepak Chopra, Dean Radin, Michael Behe and Oprah Winfrey.

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  13. DavidDuffy

    “PeterJ’s contention that there is strong convergence in beliefs of professional philosophers doesn’t seem true of their attitudes to “ethical issues.”

    A misunderstanding. I did not suggest that there is any convergence among professionals but among philosophers in general. I was specifically not thinking of the profession.

    As it happens, however, there is a complete convergence among all philosophers on the central factual issue, which is the failure of all partial metaphysical theories. On this there is virtually a global agreement. The divergence begins when it comes to explaining the reason for this failure. Either it means that philosophy is useless and the world is incomprehensible (Priest, Routley, Melhuish, McGinn, Chalmers, Kant, Russell, etc etc) or that there is demonstrable global solution for its problems that can be understood, involving the abandonment of these failed theories. I would take the latter view, while the profession as a whole takes the former. The former view is a insurmountable barrier to progress, as history clearly shows. It is unnecessary.

    For me philosophy would be far more important that it is made out to be by the profession, and certainly more important than physics. I liked Labnut’s analogy of the car manufacturer. It also seems to me that the profession is not business-like in its marketing or in its problem-solving role. The solution might be ‘Reading by Walking About’, since a restricted reading list seems to be a partial cause.

    For the generation of philosophers just completing their post-grad courses the opportunity to make a mark in philosophy may never have been greater, There seems to be a general recognition that we cannot go on like this and are in need of new approaches and ideas. Articles like this one are arrows shot at an already badly wounded animal.
    . .

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  14. labnut,

    Philosophy is an academic discipline. It is not like a company or a church. It’s main task is to develop thought in the most rigorous way possible. Only then do you try to communicate it to the public.

    PeterJ,
    I picked Tyson and Dawkins not because I thought their arguments were particularly good (I don’t), but because they strike me as representing a kind of drift of thought which is very popular right now. You say my contention that “Philosophy never solves anything” leaves me “bereft any decent defense against philosophobics”But I argued that while philosophy never *solves* anything in the sense of giving us single, exclusive, relatively certain answers, it can help us to better answers to some of life’s most pressing questions. Philosophy gives us uncertain answers but such answers are the best we have.

    ” I say this just to undermine the idea that you are speaking about the whole of philosophy. You are not speaking about one entire tradition.”
    I am talking about the entire tradition. What philosophy do you take me to be leaving out?

    “Vast numbers of philosophers have escaped and even explained at length how to [escape philosophical muddles]”
    Who do you have in mind? How do they explain it?

    “My literature survey reveals that the best minds, when they operate free from preconceptions, have radically converging thoughts on this and everything else. Indeed, the degree of convergence is remarkable.”
    I must say this is not at all my experience of philosophy. Act utilitarians have radically different ideas about our beholdenness to the global poor than virtue ethicists. Kantians have a very different perspective on medical ethics than utilitarians. And so on.

    ““[Me] Philosophy never succeeds in ridding us of deep uncertainties. Every person at some point or another has to confront this fact. [You] Do they? Are you sure? What if I refuse?”
    Yes they do. Yes I am sure. If you refuse you are failing to acknowledge a fundamental fact of life which I believe can only lead you astray.

    “Plato is admirable in many ways and must be judged by the standards of his time, but what did he achieve as a philosopher?”
    Plato set the agenda for philosophy and defined its major tasks in ways which not only defined philosophy for the ancient world but, to a breathtaking extent, our own world. This is the truth Alfred North Whitehead’s calculated overstatement that “All philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.”

    Astrodreamer,
    ” Deeply disturbing article. Poland is in Europe, period. The man with the expensive shoes should remove them before jumping into the pond — it’s really hard to swim wearing shoes.”
    So, are you going to sell all your surplus belongings and give them to the global poor?

    Robin Herbert,
    I am not addressing the Euthyphro dilemma here. In the context of the essay, “going around Socrates” means avoiding doing philosophy. That is what is impossible as you demonstrate well by doing some philosophy.

    davidduffy,
    See response to PeterJ re:Tyson and Dawkins.

    “So then the question is whether the philosophical thinking performed everyday by judges, politicians, ethics committees (where as many have pointed out, the professional ethicist usually comes from a background in religion rather than “secular” philosophy), committees standardizing medical diagnoses, neuroscientists studying consciousness, government bureaucrats or professional bodies setting up codes of ethical practice, and so on, is in any way inferior to that done by academic philosophers.”

    Yep. Moral philosophy gives us much more defensible answers. I find very few people who study ethics do not have the way they view their lives changed by it.

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  15. ” Deeply disturbing article. Poland is in Europe, period. The man with the expensive shoes should remove them before jumping into the pond — it’s really hard to swim wearing shoes.”

    DO: So, are you going to sell all your surplus belongings and give them to the global poor?

    If your question is not a non sequitur the sequence is highly contrived. I pointed to two places where your essay takes for granted the very thing you seem to deny, that philosophers compulsively contradict common sense.

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  16. I sympathize with both labnut and David in their debate. Since David himself presents what appeals in his position, I’ll note the origins of my sympathies for labnut’s charge.

    The historical fact is that philosophy colluded in its own marginalization. In the 19th century many believed that one true picture of reality – from physics to metaphysics – would at last reveal itself. Being true, it would no longer need argumentation, only clarification. By the 20th century, many – including many philosophers of certain schools – came to believe that the only means of revealing this truth would be through science.

    Logical Positivism was essentially a philosophobic philosophy, and attempted to defend itself within a scientistic worldview by insisting on the need for clarification through logical analysis. But the language of science is largely mathematics – buttressed by and explained in sophisticated common language requiring no better analysis than that provided by an educated journal editor. The Logical Positivists had dug a niche for themselves that most scientists didn’t see as necessary.

    However, Positivists’ own ‘philosophobia’ revealed itself in their dismissal of any philosophizing concerning matters not scientific – ethics, politics, aesthetics, etc. Their work not only lost relevance to the larger community, but the Positivists welcomed this. By the 1980s, when professionals in other fields of the humanities were arguing strenuously for the social importance of their studies, many Analytic inheritors of Positivism were wittily emptying what was left of the Positivist project of any content; eg., ‘philosophy of mind? why bother when AI and neurosciences can do better?’ – the founding premise of Cognitive Science.

    (We all know that philosophers in the Continental tradition dug their own niche of inscrutable esotericism; but we’re discussing the American situation.)

    astrodreamer,

    The question of whether Poland is in Europe seems to be uncontroversial. How about the question of whether the West Bank lies under Israeli or Palestinian dominion? The question is political, but politics always evokes the philosophical (and for Jerusalem, religious) views embedded in collective interests.

    One doesn’t need to be a professional to philosophize. I suggest philosophizing cannot be avoided. Whenever we think reflectively, philosophy appears.

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  17. Hi David ,

    First tine I read your article I did it on the fly I.have now had time to read the article at leisure and understand your point better.

    I think that it an excellent point and well put. But I wonder if it means that we should expect better or more of our philosophers.

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  18. Philosophy has no accomplishments of its own. It’s place is always in the margins and footnotes of other endeavors. (Just one example: the usefulness of type theory — it’s origin being in philosophy — in programming language theory and practice and in mathematics and mathematical physics.) But as a Derridean might note, this does not imply philosophy’s insignificance, but the opposite.

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  19. David – Thanks for your reply.

    -“You say my contention that “Philosophy never solves anything” leaves me “bereft any decent defense against philosophobics” But I argued that while philosophy never *solves* anything in the sense of giving us single, exclusive, relatively certain answers, it can help us to better answers to some of life’s most pressing questions. Philosophy gives us uncertain answers but such answers are the best we have.”

    In this case you are bereft of any decent defence. You state that philosophy (as you see it) gives us no conclusive answers. My criticism of your position would be identical to those of the philosophobics. Why fight for a discipline that produces no results?
    .
    –” I say this just to undermine the idea that you are speaking about the whole of philosophy. You are not speaking about one entire tradition.”
    -“I am talking about the entire tradition. What philosophy do you take me to be leaving out?”

    The terms ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ are very clumsy but they’ll do here. You’re leaving out one of them. You’re accusing the former of of having the same faults as the latter – in which case the distinction we usually make between them would be unnecessary. If It was true that your remarks would apply to all of philosophy then I’d be an avid philosophobic. But they do not. They omit consideration of one entire tradition.

    -“Vast numbers of philosophers have escaped and even explained at length how to [escape philosophical muddles]”
    Who do you have in mind? How do they explain it?”

    I had in mind the philosophy of nondualism and its approximations, thus all philosophers who endorse or explore it. C.S Peirce, Bradley, the Buddha, Spencer Brown, Radhakrishnan, Lao Tsu, Eckhart, de Cusa, Schrodinger, Nagarjuna et al, the list is vast.

    They would explain the lack of progress in large parts of philosophy by reference to its refusal to take any notice of Kant, who saw the undecidabaility of all selective theories of the world as a whole, and to its continuing insistence that one of these failed theories must be true despite the absurdity of all of them as established by philosophers the world over. .

    I recently posted the statement ‘All positive metaphysical positions are logically absurd” on dailynous and the comment received a number of likes and no objections. So, it’s job done. All we need do is abandon them. If we do not do this then we will be stuck in a mock fight forever. If we do it then our view comes into line with the other tradition of philosophy and we have solved the problem. You are criticising those who refuse to reject these positions, but this is not all philosophers. I am agreeing with your criticism but pointing out that it is local to ‘western’ thinking and thus not a criticism of philosophy as a whole but only a certain approach to it.

    –“My literature survey reveals that the best minds, when they operate free from preconceptions, have radically converging thoughts on this and everything else. Indeed, the degree of convergence is remarkable.”
    -“I must say this is not at all my experience of philosophy. Act utilitarians have radically different ideas about our beholdenness to the global poor than virtue ethicists. Kantians have a very different perspective on medical ethics than utilitarians. And so on.”

    If you read ten philosophers in the tradition you do not usually study you’ll find a remarkable convergence on every topic. This convergence is inevitable once all positive/selective theories are rejected. There is then only one way forward.

    –““[Me] Philosophy never succeeds in ridding us of deep uncertainties. Every person at some point or another has to confront this fact. [You] Do they? Are you sure? What if I refuse?”
    –Yes they do. Yes I am sure. If you refuse you are failing to acknowledge a fundamental fact of life which I believe can only lead you astray.”

    Well, I’d agree that in the end discursive philosophy is an output of the intellect and as such unable to take us all the way to truth and certain knowledge, but it is at least possible to have a theory that works. Certainly metaphysics can and has been solved at a theoretical level. That this is not well known is difficult to explain.

    -“Plato set the agenda for philosophy and defined its major tasks in ways which not only defined philosophy for the ancient world but, to a breathtaking extent, our own world. This is the truth Alfred North Whitehead’s calculated overstatement that “All philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.”

    Yes, Plato helped set the agenda for academia. But the only overstatement here would be the one you make, which is to say that the tradition that arose from Plato is the whole of philosophy. This is a tradition that openly and vociferously rejects the other tradition, so how can it be the whole of philosophy? .

    A much more vigorous response to the philosophobics becomes possible if we take into account the whole of philosophy, while if we do not do so then their objections can never be effectively met. You seem to agree that they cannot be met but make excuses for philosophy. I see no need for excuses. Yours is the majority view in the profession, for sure, but this is the view that cannot defend itself against its critics. It is not a necessary view but a point-blank denial of the facts, and as we see it leads to stagnation, despair and philosophobia,

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  20. David,
    Philosophy is an academic discipline. It is not like a company or a church.

    I think you are being over literal and missing the point of my analogy. So let me explain.

    A large motor company, like VW(where I worked), is an incredibly complex place and I think the depth of its complexity easily rivals that of philosophy. We make engineering drawings. These complex documents, that encapsulate a deep design process, are the centre of our lives and no car would be possible without them. A surprising number of people in our company thought this was the point of our existence. That was why we had to smell the sheep, to be reminded that there were real customers and that we had to supply real products that met their needs, in a hyper-competitive marketplace.

    In the same way philosophy ‘makes’ academic papers and they correspondingly encapsulate a deep thought process. And just as in my company, they are the centre of your lives. But it doesn’t end there. Just as in my company, you are losing sight of what is the real product and who the real customers are. Your primary products are the classes in philosophy that you give to undergraduates. Your primary customers are undergraduate students. And you are also in a hyper-competitive marketplace, competing for the attention of students.

    So how well are you doing in this marketplace?(All numbers from the Humanities Indicators web site).

    1. Degrees in philosophy as % of all degrees – 5.2% (not at all good)
    2. Trend, 2.5% in 1987 to 5.2% in 2009 (demand has doubled, that is an encouraging trend)
    3. College courses most commonly taken for Bachelor’s degrees:
    #1. Freshman composition – 85%
    #2. Psychology, general – 71%
    #13. Intro to philosophy – 28%

    It can be seen that philosophy is a distant also ran, trailing near the bottom in the marketplace although it must be said the situation has improved substantially. As a motor executive I would be dismayed by this performance.

    Need it be this way?
    Michael Puett, at Harvard, has made Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory the third most popular course at his university(http://theatln.tc/LhddBD). He did this by making the course relevant to the ethical concerns of today(He smelled the sheep). Eric Schwitzgebel has a class called ‘Evil’ and it draws 200 to 500 students a time. He says ‘It’s a rewarding class to teach! I discuss philosophical traditions about evil and “human nature”, literature on racial lynching and the Holocaust, contemporary empirical moral psychology, and theodicy‘. He also has a good sense of smell!

    And so it need not be this way as Puett and Schwitzgebel are showing. These undergraduates will go out into the world with their mode of thinking shaped by philosophy. That is(or should be) your real goal, making philosophy relevant to the way John Citizen thinks. If that can be done we have a reasonable hope of reshaping society.

    That is an awesome goal but my blunt opinion is you are failing to get anywhere near it because
    1. academic papers are the primary focus of your attention. It is rather as if VW thought its primary task was to make engineering drawings. It needs to be done but is a means to another and important end.
    2. the contents of your classes reflect the content of your academic work. This is alien to many students who fail to see its relevance. At VW no customer ever sees the engineering drawings even though they are essential to the product.
    3. Just as VW translates its engineering drawings into attractive saleable products you too must translate your academic work into a form relevant to society.

    You may reply that your classes in undergraduate philosophy do just this and some of them are even well attended.
    In reply I will point to the widespread misgivings about philosophy which is articulated as philosophobia and shows in the low demand for classes in philosophy. The irritation of some scientists is also a reflection of this. Attributing philosophobia to your critics is is just as useful as VW blaming its customers for VW-phobia.

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  21. I would say that the “product” of philosophy is nor the courses, rather it is some advance on human civilisation. The modern form of democracy is an example of a success in this area. I think there have been numerous other examples, but I won’t go into them here.

    Some of the common criticisms of philosophy are, I think, warranted: the pointless prolixity , the seeming focus on the argument to the detriment of any resolution to it are two that I can think of.

    I often think (mirroring Labnut’s business analogy) that we should project manage the outstanding problems of philosophy. First, state the problem/argument in as rigorous and concise a way as possible and to gain as wide acceptance as possible that this statement specifies the problem. Secondly, a proof of concept – is there a solution to the problem? What would it look like? Next, Mark off the parts of it where there is agreement. Then break up the project into tasks, making sure that there is an identifiable aim. Etc.

    My guess is that many.problems would evaporate in the first two stages.

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  22. For anyone who missed it, Massimo Pigliucci did recently put up a concise and informative post for his soon to be published book on this very topic. (https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/what-philosophers-think/). At the time David Ottlinger and I did have a bit of a chat given his upcoming post here.

    Massimo’s answer seems essentially to be that philosophers have indeed made progress given their wealth of various positions for various topics. With these well thought out “conceptual approaches” to choose from (rather than an unlimited supply!) apparently progress has indeed been made. I consider David Ottlinger’s position to be similar. As an “albatross hanging around our necks” we can attempt to do philosophy well, or not, but there simply will be no escaping associated questions. While I have no objection to either, I also believe that philosophy shall nevertheless achieve its own generally accepted understandings.

    Consider how long it has taken for civilized humanity to progress. As early as 11,000 years ago civilization is thought to have emerged in some capacity, or the earliest point at which we should expect various true specialists to begin emerging. Mathematics may have been occurring in the Minoan civilization about 4,000 years ago, where apparently four story palaces were built. Such people must have had various practical problems to figure out, though not yet modern theory from which to address them. Observe that 4,000 years divided by the 328 since Newton’s “Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy” nets us only 8.2%, and haven’t these final years been amazing? But given that scientific understandings do happen to be so recent, isn’t it possible that accepted philosophical understandings, for whatever the reason, are still to come?

    Though some may bring disrespectful accusations against the philosophy community, I would hope for us to continue searching rather than gratuitously argue “Philosophical questions have no true answers to them anyway.” If past conventions haven’t worked out, why not try some new ones? It seems to me that the surest way to fail at something, would be to decide that success isn’t possible. This is a trap that the philosophy community simply must not breach!

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  23. David – To clear up a misunderstanding that I belatedly noticed – when I suggested there was no need to talk about Tyson and Dawkins this wasn’t a criticism. I meant that there would be no need (I feel) for us to talk about them any more than you already.have.

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  24. It is profoundly depressing to see people embracing the “business” model of the university and treating education as a “product.” It is precisely this attitude that has caused the university tremendous harm and drastically reduced the quality of education we provide. Indeed, more than anything else it has served to erode my love of teaching, to the point at which I am looking forward to retirement.

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  25. OK, so a university is not a business, but they account for a certain portion of any nation’s economic resources so we should expect them to be effective.

    When Princeton University devoted an entire department for 25 years to find out that consciousness does not affect the clipped output of a white noise generator, well, perhaps it seemed to be a good idea at the time. But I don’t think I am implying that universities should adopt a business model when I say that this might not have been the wisest use of resources.

    Of course Princeton don’t have PEAR any more, now they have Peter Singer. Don’t get me wrong, I like his one good idea. I think it is an excellent idea to encourage people to donate as much as they can to provably effective charity.

    It is just that anyone without the intelligence to have worked that out for themselves already probably still won’t get it. So where is the gain?

    But here is the thing – do we cancel our unnecessary luxury – the holiday in Fiji, and instead send the money to Fiji to feed and provide medicine to the people who can’t get any work because no one is taking holidays in Fiji any more? Except we don’t have that money because other people cancelled the unnecessary luxuries by which we made that money. OK, that is a simplification but I think that it does illustrate the problem.

    So, taking my suggested approach, we get the experts together and we specify the problem properly, so that we are agreed on exactly what we are addressing. We don’t spend the next few decades doing this, we do it in, say, three months. Then we get all parties together and, having a coherent idea of they they are addressing, do a proof of concept. Is there something to be done or will the poor be with us always?

    Then they get to work putting together a specific proposal, taking into account practical, political and economic realities and exploring all the consequences, intended and unintended. Properly managed, this might take – maybe – a year or two, given that much of the detailed work has already been done. And then we will have, not just endless exploring of an idea, but an answer that most people agree on.

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  26. Dan-K
    It is profoundly depressing to see people embracing the “business” model of the university

    I am not suggesting we embrace a “business model” of the university. I happen to think that is an especially iniquitous idea pioneered by American universities and is yet another peculiar part of the American landscape. However business language can help to clarify an issue, seeing it in a new way and that was my intent.

    You should also bear in mind that people like myself are steeped in business language and so it is natural for us to bring it to bear on problems. I think also that it could be useful for you to consider the problem from that aspect.

    This illustrates a general point, the need for a kind of mental agility that examines a problem from many aspects. De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats is a well known means of promoting this. Another example is my advocacy of a cascading model for ethical problems. Instead of arguing that one ethical system should apply I argue that all four well known ethical systems(deontology, virtue, utility & rights/justice) be applied in turn to a given ethical problem. This reveals all contours of the problem so that a fully informed decision can be made. Perhaps, after De Bono, we could that approach the Four Ethical Hats 🙂 I cannot take credit for this idea. It was the approach put forward by two Jesuit philosophers who were on a lecture tour of our many parishes. They were also smelling the sheep.

    It is a rounded, all things considered, approach that works for most problems in life. it requires mental flexibility, agility and most importantly, a conscious abandonment of biases, prejudices and a fixed point of view.

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  27. Daniel Kaufman,

    I agree that labnut carried his business analogy too far for comfort. But I think that what he’s really trying to say is that philosophy needs to reach beyond academic concerns, which is probably the case.

    When we think of philosophers who had major impact on the larger culture, we do not think of logicians or analysts, but of William James, John Dewey, Sartre, Heidegger or the later Russell (the Russell who claimed he was no longer doing philosophy!) – Philosophers capable of addressing the broad issues of lived experience, rather than narrow questions of sentence construction. The problems of sentence construction are important, but philosophy cannot be reduced to this and all else delivered to science or politics; otherwise people will not see the need for those devoted to it – they will continue to philosophize, of course, but they will do so believing that they are merely perceiving ‘the truth,’ without reflection (which is nonsense).

    labnut,

    Don’t miss the larger picture of the university system – enormous amounts of money are wasted on popular programs that have little use – especially in sports, and in the ‘soft’ sciences with little hope of practical result (like biocriminology). At one college I taught at, much money went into sports, successfully attracting many students on the promise that they could begin their professional careers there, even though the college had produced precisely 0 professional players.

    The economic and political structure of the university is far too complex to get into here. Nonetheless, allow that many professors believe in what they do, and all will do what they must to survive in that structure.

    To all those who believe philosophy has produced ‘results’ or ‘solutions’ (or can or must):

    That’s delusion, fostered in the 18th century, when it was hoped that philosophy could replace theology. It can’t; the best philosophy doesn’t try. Philosophy’s never about resolutions (in practice dependent on choices needing action within given contingencies) – it’s about options in framing those choices and their consequences; thus not only permits but makes possible variety (while discovering its limits). It’s the questions, not the answers

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  28. To all those who believe philosophy has produced ‘results’ or ‘solutions’ (or can or must):

    That’s delusion, fostered in the 18th century, when it was hoped that philosophy could replace theology. It can’t; the best philosophy doesn’t try. Philosophy’s never about resolutions (in practice dependent on choices needing action within given contingencies) – it’s about options in framing those choices and their consequences; thus not only permits but makes possible variety (while discovering its limits). It’s the questions, not the answers.

    Daniel Kaufman,

    I agree that labnut carried his business analogy too far for comfort. But I think that what he’s really trying to say is that philosophy needs to reach beyond academic concerns, which is probably the case.

    When we think of philosophers who had major impact on the larger culture, we do not think of logicians or analysts, but of William James, John Dewey, Sartre, Heidegger or the later Russell (the Russell who claimed he was no longer doing philosophy!) – Philosophers capable of addressing the broad issues of lived experience, rather than narrow questions of sentence construction. The problems of sentence construction are important, but philosophy cannot be reduced to this and all else delivered to science or politics; otherwise people will not see the need for those devoted to it – they will continue to philosophize, of course, but they will do so believing that they are merely perceiving ‘the truth,’ without reflection (which is nonsense).

    labnut,

    Don’t miss the larger picture of the university system – enormous amounts of money are wasted on popular programs that have little use – especially in sports, and in the ‘soft’ sciences with little hope of practical result (like biocriminology). At one college I taught at, much money went into sports, successfully attracting many students on the promise that they could begin their professional careers there, even though the college had produced precisely 0 professional players.

    The economic and political structure of the university is far too complex to get into here. Nonetheless, allow that many professors believe in what they do, and all will do what they must to survive in that structure.

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  29. PeteJ,

    Well, you have set off more rabbits than I can hunt but I’ll say a little.

    I am disappointed that you did not engage my contention that while philosophy does not provide definitive and single solutions, it does provided tentative solutions and bounded disagreement. You ask “Why fight for a discipline that produces no results?” I have tried to argue why. If you grant my argument, you are like a man on a sinking ship who declares his shaky life raft as “bereft of any decent chance of floating”.and confidently drowns. *Granting* my argument you can admit our case is miserable. Or you can reject my argument, but you would have to say why.

    On Eastern philosophy I cannot say very much for want of knowledge. But I must say I am highly dubious of your contention that there is some overwhelming consensus in that tradition. As I understand it, Hindus, Confucians, Buddhists of various stripes and others all have deep and abiding disagreements.

    “I had in mind the philosophy of nondualism and its approximations, thus all philosophers who endorse or explore it. C.S Peirce, Bradley, the Buddha, Spencer Brown, Radhakrishnan, Lao Tsu, Eckhart, de Cusa, Schrodinger, Nagarjuna et al, the list is vast.”
    I have to admit to being puzzled when someone produces a list including C.S. Peirce and the Buddha to argue for *agreement* in philosophy. You seem to be arguing that there is a broad consensus in favor of monism (which is what I assume you meant by “nondualism”). This is not true. Many people are dualists and anyway there are many different ways to be a monist. Also this concerns only one topic in philosophy (philosophy of mind) so I don’t see what the point of granting it would be.

    On metaphysics, history may remember the day a centuries long debate was ended on a Daily Nous comment thread but I doubt it. It is easy to say “metaphysics is bunk” but hard to live without saying anything metaphysical. Problems, like the specific ones I mentioned, keep arising and becomes necessary to address questions concerning very basic features of reality like what makes two objects count as members of the same kind. So metaphysics persists.

    labnut,
    I am sharing in Dan’s depression.
    There is just so much wrong in the criteria for success you offer. I don’t necessarily want huge numbers of philosophy majors or even necessarily for everyone to take a philosophy class (though I’m closer to wanting that). And at any rate I could imagine having all of that and only teaching complete junk. So these are quite out as criteria for success.

    In general you assume that philosophers are not doing anything to tailor their classes to the world around them or working to communicate their subject. As someone who has attended regular teaching meetings, I can assure you this is far from the truth. I was most struck by this sentence “You may reply that your classes in undergraduate philosophy do just this and some of them are even well attended. In reply I will point to the widespread misgivings about philosophy which is articulated as philosophobia and shows in the low demand for classes in philosophy. ” Any failure must be the fault of philosophy. Philosophobes bear no responsibility for their puerile, anti-intellectual screeds. Of course I am quite used to this kind of reaction. I used to get it from my students. If they didn’t understand something, I didn’t teach it right. You have to explain to them that they have to take an active role in their own education. Recieving the information and spiting it back will not suffice. The same is true for public intellectuals who behave, for all the world, like they just graduated high school. Yes philosophy should work harder to communicate, but philosophobes can be held responsible for their antics which resemble rowdy kids disrupting the classroom because they dont want to be there.

    Eric,
    Glad you made it! On the whole I am not optimistic about a “philosophical revolution”. Philosophical arguments are largely conceptual and there is no evidence to appeal to to decide contended matters. I think the diversity is just inherent in the kinds of arguments it deals with.

    astro,
    In the case of Poland, I took it to be obvious that Europe implied Western Europe. As to the drowning child, it is an argument about whether we are obliged to help the global poor not whether it is easier to swim with or without shoes. A child is drowning right now and you are not saving it. Are you justified in neglecting this? Then how is the man by the pond not permitted to just keep walking?

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  30. Hi David

    What a fascinating conversation. I probably have more time than you so don’t feel obliged to trade blow for blow. Our difference of opinion is exactly that between two entirely different traditions of philosophy so we are unlikely to sort it out here.

    –“…disappointed that you did not engage my contention that while philosophy does not provide definitive and single solutions, it does provided tentative solutions and bounded disagreement.”

    My proposition here is that philosophy solves problems perfectly well, with nothing tentative about it, I understand that you mean to defend philosophy, but for me you are selling it down the river. Much of what you say in the article seemed spot on but in the end it can be no more than a good attempt to defend an indefensible position. If philosophical analysis can do no better than tentative solutions then philosophobia becomes justifiable.

    —“”You ask “Why fight for a discipline that produces no results?” I have tried to argue why. If you grant my argument, you are like a man on a sinking ship who declares his shaky life raft as “bereft of any decent chance of floating”.and confidently drowns. *Granting* my argument you can admit our case is miserable. Or you can reject my argument, but you would have to say why.”

    I do not quite see what you mean here. You have said repeatedly that the discipline produces no results. I’m, proposing that it does produce results. I’m suggesting that it’s not worth trying to defend a philosophy that does not produce results.

    –“On Eastern philosophy I cannot say very much for want of knowledge. But I must say I am highly dubious of your contention that there is some overwhelming consensus in that tradition. As I understand it, Hindus, Confucians, Buddhists of various stripes and others all have deep and abiding disagreements.”

    It is not difficult to verify that mysticism is the same the world over, or at least once one has got the hang of its metaphysics. It converges on a neutral metaphysical position, the idea that the universe is a unity.

    –“I have to admit to being puzzled when someone produces a list including C.S. Peirce and the Buddha to argue for *agreement* in philosophy. You seem to be arguing that there is a broad consensus in favor of monism (which is what I assume you meant by “nondualism”). This is not true. Many people are dualists and anyway there are many different ways to be a monist. Also this concerns only one topic in philosophy (philosophy of mind) so I don’t see what the point of granting it would be.”

    Not monism. It is better called ‘advaita’, or ‘not-dualism’, phrases that avoid implying monism. This is too big a topic for a comment’s section, but given time I think I could convince you that Peirce and the Buddha shared the same metaphysical view, and also Plotinus and Lao Tsu. It would be the ‘perennial philosophy’, so the list is a long one. This can defend itself more vigorously than the one you defend. You don’t have to believe this, but I would not say it without being able to walk the walk.

    —“”On metaphysics, history may remember the day a centuries long debate was ended on a Daily Nous comment thread but I doubt it.”

    Ha. Me too. But it could happen for an individual. I know you don’t believe this, of course not, but your argument is merely that you are ‘dubious’, despite not knowing anything about the philosophy I am describing.

    I’m happy to continue or leave it here David, as you wish. My complaints are not addressed at the article but at the assumption made by your school of philosophy and the philosophobics alike, namely that vast areas of philosophy do not exist.

    .

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  31. Just some stray remarks, as the conversation is far too involved for me to really engage at this point.

    1. I find all of this arguing over “progress” very weird. When did this become the standard by which we determine whether something is worth pursuing? What progress is there in art history? English Literature? Antiquities and Classics? Communications? Is the suggestion supposed to be that we not educate people in these areas, because they don’t make “progress,” in the manner of the physical sciences? The thought is unserious at best.

    2. David is completely wrong when he says that philosophy begins when we part ways with common sense. In fact, this is when philosophy ends and metaphysical speculation begins. A good dose of David Hume and Thomas Reid should cure him of this confusion.

    3. I highly doubt that studying moral philosophy has made anyone a better person. I suspect however, that it may have made some people worse, by allowing them to sustain the illusion that they have some kind of systematic understanding of what it is to be ethical. (Peter Singer leaps to mind.)

    4. We have far too many universities and far too many young people going to college as it is. The current attack on philosophy simply stems from the larger transformation of university education into job training for white collar jobs, one of the most ill-conceived developments in education, in the post-WW2 era. Most of what is being taught at the university has no business being there and belongs in community colleges and professional schools. We should be spending a lot more money on the latter and a lot less on the university. Let all those people obsessed with “progress” go get mechanical engineering degrees at a vo-tech and leave Swarthmore and Princeton alone to provide liberal arts degrees to the far fewer number of people who will still want them.

    5. Philosophy, when it is at its best provides a razor sharp critical apparatus, and is a potent tool for theoretical dismantlement. See J.L. Austin’s take-down of Ayer’s empiricism, in Sense and Sensabilia, for a particularly good example of this. At its worst it represents a lame effort to ape the theorizing of scientists, and acquire “knowledge” about things that are not, in fact, objects of knowledge.

    6. There is a basic rudeness involved in the demand, on the part of some, that philosophers justify themselves. My typical answer to such demands is to tell the person to piss off. Either that, or I turn around and begin demanding that they justify themselves and what they do to me.

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  32. Given the company that Labnut suggested as a model, I think I see what needs to be done. I am happy to modify the student information software to transfer more students to philosophy classes when a statistical analysis is being done and then transfer them back out again afterwards.

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  33. PeterJ,

    Thank you for your courtesy. I do think we have about reached bedrock. My last attempt will be to say that while I do not think philosophy produces results in the sense of narrowing options and offering better results. This is “result” enough to make the effort well worth while.

    Dan,

    On 1. I do think there is a prima facie force to the idea that if philosophy produces nothing, it should be abandoned. After all there is a cost to pursuing philosophy. Why put in your time and effort and get nothing out? Also I think other fields do progress in much the way philosophy does. The humanities are a family after all. I think we have more insight into Shakespeare today thanks to the work of people like Steven Booth, Maynard Mack and Barbara Everrett. Both Romantic and classicist condescensions have declined. In the twentieth century with the fall of character-centric criticism, we have more insight into the role of environment and society in the plays and how they inform the characters’ actions. There are still sentimentalist and anti-sentimentalist readings of Othello, but it is a bounded disagreement and both sides are getting more sophisticated all the time. History, I believe, advances in much the same way as well. There are still catastrophists and continuists about the fall of Rome. But both sides have improved due to new information (thank you anthropology) and new insights into texts (thank you documentary history). Again, bounded disagreement, increasing complexity and insight. (Im pretty far afield here, but I think its worth speculating even if I’m a bit out of my depth.)

    On 2. As I have said elsewhere, I think it is quite one thing to announce a common sense philosophy, another to deliver it. I have spent time with Hume and Reid (especially Hume) and Moore and Russell besides. Having read part III of the treatise and the Grey’s elegy argument, I am not sure what they are (who is?) but I am certain that common sense they are not. I relish Putnam’s quote that the “commonsense” philosophers of early analytic philosophy defended a sense-datum theory which was “so dotty on the face of it that no one likes to remember that this is the way analytic philosophy began.” (quoting from memory here, I think its in Why There Is no Ready Made World)

    On 4. I am genuinely uncertain here. You are the professional. Can the Universities take on an expanded role? If we want people to get technical education, should we try to use the institutions we have already set up? I’m sure I’m naive here, I stress I am genuinely asking questions here.

    On 5. I think this is very nearly true but I would not defend as austere a view as the later Wittgenstein. I think Sellars had a very pragmatic and reasonable attitude. Yes the critical “concept chopping” is the philosopher’s stock in trade but there are moments when saying something positive is both innocent and in fact very useful. Philosophy is usually useful critically but not always.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Hi Dan,

    I am not sure that anyone was asking you to justify yourself, but since you bring up the subject…

    Daniel Dennett, a prominent member of your profession, announces to the world at large, that what the “Average Joe” or “Everyday Folk” believe about free will is “preposterous” and that this has been shown “rigorously” (but leaves no hint of where such arguments are to be found)..

    Mr Dennett was rude, certainly, but if what he says is true then it needed to be said.

    If you fellows keep this sort of talk among yourselves, then fine, when it is announced to the world at large then – hey – I am an Average Joe, and have believed one or two preposterous things in my life, so I surely have an interest?

    So perhaps I am entitled to implore Mr Dennett not to deny me his treasure, to tell me what it is that he thinks I believe, why it is wrong and what I ought to be believing instead, to show me this rigorous argument.

    But his books are no use to me, he never seems to quite get to the nub of the thing. In fact many of the things he says do not appear to make sense. Certainly his books do not represent the “rigour” he speaks of. Am I then doomed to be preposterous?

    And yet, I studied logic at University under a very well-regarded mathematician, gained a distinction in the subject where most fail or barely gain a pass. Two years in a row I gained the highest marks of my year. Rigour is part of my daily job.

    I say, “Try me, show me the rigour”. Should I darkly suspect that he and his perhaps need to explain what they think it means to have a proposition demonstrated by an argument, then my question might indeed be rude, as was Mr Dennett’s accusation. I mean it only to be frank.

    Mr Dennett and his colleagues are perfectly entitled to tell me to “piss off”, but it was not me who started the conversation.

    Liked by 3 people

  35. Dan-K,
    1. I find all of this arguing over “progress” very weird. When did this become the standard by which we determine whether something is worth pursuing?

    Agreed. But then you need to clearly articulate ‘the standard by which we determine whether something is worth pursuing‘. And your explanation must make sense to ordinary people like myself. The many confusing, contradictory narratives that come out of the mouths of philosophers are part of the problem.

    3. I highly doubt that studying moral philosophy has made anyone a better person.

    Quite true. Being a better person is the result of a ‘desire’ to be a better person. Studying moral philosophy better equips people who already desire to be better people. Quite what inculcates the desire to be a better person in the first place is a whole other discussion. That is an important conversation we should be having but this is the wrong time/place.

    4. … The current attack on philosophy simply stems from the larger transformation of university education into job training for white collar jobs

    I agree with your statement about transforming university education into job training. That was a wrong turn for American education. But I cannot see how that translated into an attack on philosophy. I can see that it may have drained resources and students away from the humanities into more vocation oriented fields but that need not result in philosophobia. In any case philosophy graduates have increased from 2.5% in 1987 to 5.2% in 2009, as percentage of all bachelor’s degrees(Humanities Indicators web site).

    I suggest that philosophobia is instead the result of several intersecting trends.
    1. the incoherence of the narrative emerging from philosophy. By that I mean it is incoherent to people outside the field of philosophy. This is the basis of my earlier criticisms.
    2. a societal trend towards a WYSIWYG conception of the world, all that exists is tangible, observable and measurable. By this standard the deep intellectual conversation of philosophy is ethereal and otherworldly, with no connection to the WYSIWYG world. This also forms the basis of my earlier criticisms.
    3. the hubris of science. Its great success has led it to despise other endeavours, especially philosophy, since its incoherent narrative makes it such an easy target.
    4. the sensitivity of science. The last 100 years have seen the emergence of barriers to science, something that it finds quite disconcerting because of the metaphysical implications. Science was supposed to render metaphysics obsolete but instead the barriers have brought it back to life. Science is now in the business of creating speculative hypotheses to cross the barriers to science but they still want to call it science. They have moved into the realm of philosophy but are not equipped to do philosophy. This has made them legitimate targets of criticism by philosophers. An interesting example was Krauss’ outraged reaction to David Albert’s criticism of his book, A Universe from Nothing.
    Science is, in effect, defensively saying ‘stay off my turf’, and then they are taking the fight to philosophy(offense is the best defence) and saying ‘in any case you guys talk gobbledygook and unlike us, you make no progress’.

    And then philosophy conspires to help science in their fight by continuing to talk gobbledygook and arguing the inarguable, that they, like science make progress. And so philosophy contrives to score an own goal while at the same time shooting itself in the foot, a considerable achievement.

    This is a tragedy. Science has given us great tools for betterment and huge potential for devastation. The path we choose is dictated solely by the quality of our thought. Philosophy is unique among academic disciplines for providing tools for better thought. But first philosophy must raise its gaze from its navel to the world around it.

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  36. Labnut – For what it’s worth I’d agree with most of what you say.

    “Science was supposed to render metaphysics obsolete but instead the barriers have brought it back to life. Science is now in the business of creating speculative hypotheses to cross the barriers to science but they still want to call it science. They have moved into the realm of philosophy but are not equipped to do philosophy. This has made them legitimate targets of criticism by philosophers.”

    Right on brother. The idea that physics could replace metaphysics could surely only be held by someone who does not own a dictionary. I would highly recommend Paul Davies’ book ‘The Mind of God’, now quite old. Here is a physicist thinking honestly about where physics ends and metaphysics begins and writing an unusually good philosophy book as a result.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Hi Daniel and ejwinner,

    The last thing I want to do is raise your defenses regarding my ideas, so hopefully it will help to describe where it is that I’m coming from.

    For whatever the reason, I did struggle with deep questions as a child — a desperate need to understand why it is that people behave as they do. The essential answer which I developed as a teenager remains with me to this day; that we’re ultimately selfish products of our environments. At university however I found that neither philosophy nor any basic behavioral science, had accepted and cultivated my position. (Yes economics had done so, where I received my degree, though this field was far too specialized to address my true concerns). Thus I chose to develop my theory in private.

    I will not insist that my ideas be termed “philosophy,” if this does displease you or others. Classifications are of little concern to me. But also consider this:

    Science has obviously brought humanity tremendous power over the past few centuries, though apparently with very little theoretical understanding of how to use it effective. And what might we expect of a creature which has quickly developed tremendous power, but without an associated understanding for its proper use? The exact kinds of horrors found in humanity today, I think.

    It was nearly two years ago that I decided my ideas were ready for the scrutiny of others, and thus began exploring what academia had been doing without me. I’ve found that philosophers ask the kinds of questions which pertain most to my ideas, though with a major difference. While I seek effective models of reality, as Newton did, perhaps philosophers do not, or even should not, as each of you have suggested? This won’t alter my own passion itself however. I believe that without accepted understandings of what we are, we shall continue to fail to understand how to effectively lead our lives, and structure our societies — a very dangerous proposition for a creature which has become this powerful, this quickly.

    I am going to need people exactly like yourselves to consider my ideas from a non defended position. Perhaps it would help if my ideas were considered as a potential answer for psychology, rather than philosophy? Regardless, I do know that the EA will help advance my quest!

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  38. David:

    The view that objects continue to exist when unperceived is certainly a feature of common sense. That there is such a thing as cause and effect is certainly a feature of common sense. That the future generally will be like the past is certainly a feature of common sense. I love Hilary Putnam, but I never heard sense data theory referred to as common sense. Indeed, it is precisely this view — the “theory of ideas” as it used to be called — that Hume *contrasts* with the view of the vulgar; i.e. common sense.

    Stanley Rosen lays out in beautiful prose why common sense provides the ultimate conditions of adequacy both for philosophy and science in his book “Metaphysics in Ordinary Language.” https://books.google.com/books?id=lQjhJ9MzhMoC

    —————————————

    I continue to be puzzled by this demand for justification. In the 20 plus years I have been teaching, I have instructed literally thousands upon thousands of young people in logic, introductory surveys in the major topics of philosophy, interdisciplinary historical surveys of the humanities, more specialized topics in philosophy, like the philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, and more. Thousands upon thousands. My teaching reviews are quite high — you can look me up on “Rate My Professor” if you like. And I was even invited by an online “tv channel,” Blogging Heads TV, to do a philosophy program, which is watched by even more people and seems always to lead to page after page after page of interesting commentary.

    It’s very odd, then, to be told “You need to justify what you do to us!” Aside from the fact that it’s weird to question the value of something that untold thousands of people, not to mention major institutions, like universities, deem valuable, this is just not something I ever see anyone demanding of anyone else. Do you walk up to a bagging clerk and demand that they justify their job, since after all, a robot could be built to do it? Or do you go up to the receptionist in a tanning salon and demand that they justify what they do, since, after all, tanning is superficial and unimportant?

    So, sorry, you can dress the question up all you want. I still don’t get it.

    Liked by 2 people

  39. Labnut: The evolution of the university into a certificate mill for white collar jobs has caused philosophy and other liberal arts to be devalued, because of their alleged lack of “relevance” to training accountants, middle managers, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  40. It looks like a series of posts will appear on the place of philosophy in the university here:
    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2015/10/university-structure-and-the-success-and-failure-of-philosophy.html

    I’m not sure it necessarily follows that expanding the higher education sector should lead to an absolute change in the number or quality of those taking up philosophy. Just like poets, there are probably more excellent practitioners in absolute terms even though they may be diluted in relative terms in the present culture.

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  41. Hi Dan,

    I continue to be puzzled by this demand for justification.

    I am not sure that you can be saying on the one hand that there are too many people at Universities and that certain courses should not be taught at university, in other words questioning the justification for your colleagues’ jobs, and then, on the other hand, being puzzled at people who might wonder about the justification for your own?

    I am not overly familiar with the American education system, but Glasgow University where my Dad got his engineering degree has had an engineering department for 150 years. Oxford have had their engineering department since 1908. I believe that some excellent philosophers went there too. If we move mechanical engineering out of Universities, do “Community Colleges” or “vo-tech” have adequate resources for the research involved in the area?

    Accountancy was, I am led to understand, invented in a University in the early Renaissance.

    Do you have any evidence that it is such courses that have caused philosophy to be devalued? Nothing to do with a prominent member of your profession writing pompous sneering articles dripping with contempt about the intelligence of the “Average Joe”, people like me, while themselves failing to demonstrate the ability to reason their way out of a paper bag?

    Or the continued championing by some philosophers of the gibberish of Heidegger, Derrida and their ilk, long after the “Average Joe” has gotten beyond feeling bad that we can’t understand “Being and Time” etc and realised that there is just nothing to understand.

    No, no, it must be the fault of the Engineering and Accountancy departments.

    But here is the thing. When a rich, privileged academic like Dennett has a highly uncomplimentary opinion about people like me (with apparently nothing to back it up), then you are not puzzled by that.

    But if people like me have, in our own turn an opinion or question about people like him, then that deeply puzzles you.

    Your puzzlement puzzles me. How very dare we? Who do we think we are? Philosophers?

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  42. But I guess that is the problem. When the guy in the ivory tower throws poo at you and you try to throw it back, you are likely to hit the guy in the next window along who never did you any harm.

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  43. Off topic note to editors – it seems that there is no email address anywhere on the site, not even on the submissions page. Am I missing it?

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  44. Robin: Perhaps you missed the part where I said we should be spending a lot more money on professional and technical education than on liberal arts education. That is not contempt for the professions and engineering, but rather the opposite.

    Do I have “evidence” that the new and overwhelmingly pre-professional focus of the university has damaged the public image of philosophy and the humanities? Well, prior to the Second World War, a university education essentially *meant* an education in Classics and classical languages. Today, those departments are either moribund or else have disappeared entirely. The high-profile people out there bashing philosophy are all scientists of one stripe or another. Etc.

    There also is the matter of simple reason — the relevance of the humanities (despite all the BS, desparate attempts at marketing) to professional life is at best indirect and at worst non-existent. So, it’s not surprising that as the university fills up with more and more students who are there for no other reason than to become accountants or chemical engineers, there will be less and less interest in — and use for — the humanities, including philosophy.

    As for the rest, I will simply refer back to the examples. We simply don’t, as a matter of course, walk up to people and demand that they justify their jobs to us, just as a matter of basic manners. That is, unless they are philosophy professors.

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  45. Hi Peter,

    The email address is hyperlinked in the submissions page, where is says “…send us a pitch, via *email*” (the stars here indicating the hyperlinked word).

    Though I will work on displaying our address more prominently somewhere, as it isn’t easy to see or identify.

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  46. Dan-K,
    for no other reason than to become accountants or chemical engineers

    You don’t think that perhaps sounds elitist? We need skilled professionals such as doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, electrical engineers, etc and universities are the appropriate place to give them the high level of skills they need. We, as a society, invest a lot of trust in these professionals so we demand a high level of education from them. As a sign of their importance and the trust they hold we also require them to get professional certification from their controlling professional organisations.

    The problem lies elsewhere. In European countries there has been a layered educational system that prepares people for different levels of function according to their aptitude and interests:
    1. Artisan training (artisan schools and technical colleges)
    2. Technician training (technical colleges)
    3. Bachelor’s degrees (universities, typically three years)
    4. Professional degrees (universities, typically four years)
    5. Honours and Masters degrees
    6. PhD programmes.

    America has tended to conflate the first three levels as its manufacturing industry has hollowed out and people are increasingly employed in service industries. This has flooded Bachelor degree courses with people who really are seeking white collar vocational training but desire the cachet of a university degree. There you and I agree. It is a symptom of aspirational creep and I see it in my own country where technical college has refashioned itself as a technical university but is really still a college. Bear in mind we use the terms ‘university’ and ‘college’ differently to you. For us ‘college’ denotes some form of vocational training as opposed to the academic education provided by university.

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  47. Dan

    Perhaps you missed the part where I said we should be spending a lot more money on professional and technical education than on liberal arts education. That is not contempt for the professions and engineering, but rather the opposite.

    I didn’t say you had contempt for them. I said you were questioning the justification for your colleagues jobs. Which you were.

    So, it’s not surprising that as the university fills up with more and more students who are there for no other reason than to become accountants or chemical engineers, there will be less and less interest in — and use for — the humanities, including philosophy.

    I can’t speak for accountants, but all the engineers I know and have known (which is many) they went to University because they had a passion for engineering and wanted an education in it as deep as only a University can allow.

    I am not familiar with the US education system, but in Britain or Australia it would make no sense at all to try to cash up the technical education sector to provide the level of mathematics and physics education to match a University, or to provide them with the same research capability, you would just be duplicating.

    Engineering needs to be where the mathematics is, where the science is and they need to be where the medicine is. Call that a University or whatever else, they need to be in the same place. If we were to hive off those disciplines so that they can be in the same place as engineering (and I bet the lawyers will want to be where the doctors are) and then have a University that was just Arts and Philosophy then the University would last, maybe, a week and then disappear. Can’t say if the same applies in the US.

    We simply don’t, as a matter of course, walk up to people and demand that they justify their jobs to us, just as a matter of basic manners. That is, unless they are philosophy professors.

    Or engineering professors, or accountancy professors apparently. You still won’t explain why it is not bad manners when you do it.

    It is a fact of life for most of us. I have had two professions evaporate under me simply because the world changed. It is happening to me again, I have to deal with that and plan for that. I might have to go back to University. Sorry.

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  48. I don’t know how often I have to repeat that I am for spending *more* more money on education in these fields. That this keeps getting interpreted as “elitist” just adds more to the puzzlement I already feel with regard to this subject.

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