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12/18/2014

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Marcus Arvan

Tony: I really cannot overstate how much this post resonated with me--though I'm not sure if our concerns are identical. My concern is that the term "research" plays into the seemingly dominant view in analytic philosophy that good philosophy is similar to good science: taking small steps forward on the basis of established knowledge or propositions. I think this model is problematic for a number of reasons. First, I don't think we know very much in philosophy, and that the scientistic model therefore has a certain tendency to promote a stultifying kind of conservatism/status quo bias. Second, and more deeply, insofar as sciences insist upon excluding things like emotion, all too often the scientistic model seems to me to result in a kind of "bloodlessness": abstract debates about "moral facts", for instance, as opposed to deep investigations of the phenomena themselves as they matter in human life--things like faith, betrayal, love, etc. Indeed, although I haven't exactly counted, I would be willing to be that the number of recent articles on moral facts outnumber the number of articles on things like love, betrayal, hope, or kindness on the order of 100/1000 to 1. (Note: I don't mean to dismiss work on moral facts. Far from it! I just mean to draw attention to the fact that the scales have been tipped far in favor of abstract philosophical questions over more down-to-earth ones).

Now, perhaps certain parts of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, language) are more amenable to the scientific model of research. Indeed, as I've suggested before, I'm inclined to think these areas could stand to become more scientific, based more on scientific results rather than vague intuitions. Other areas of philosophy on the other hand--particularly, your and my areas (moral and political)--could in my view stand to return to the Humanities tradition: a tradition of engaging more with art, literature, film, etc.; the kind of philosophy once done by people like Stanley Cavell. That's the kind of philosophy, it seems to me, that ultimately stands the only real chance of achieving the meaning of our field's namesake: love of *wisdom*.

Anyway, thanks again for the post. It was a pleasure to read!

Michel X.

I do think that my understanding of the term "research" is geared more towards what's done in the natural sciences, as opposed to the kind of incestuous armchair reading & arguing that we do. There does seem to be a fairly significant methodological difference there. Then again, characterizing what we do as research doesn't seem all that far-fetched; it's seldom experimental, but it does require us to read, absorb, and consider a large swathe of work on a problem before attempting to contribute our own two cents. That seems to basically be how research works in non-experimental fields/professions (e.g. journalism).

Art, however, is definitely *not* the right way to characterize it. While most philosophers of art would likely agree that what philosophers do *could*, under certain circumstances, be (appropriately) called "art", that's very different from claiming that what we do *is* art. We do not see ourselves as engaging in the production of artworks, and virtually nobody else does either. We are not artists. I suspect that your friend was thinking along much looser (and craft-y) lines (e.g. "artisan").

(While I'm at it, I'll raise--but not pursue!--a small grumble about thinking that art aims at beauty.)

Anthony Carreras

Thanks, Marcus!

"My concern is that the term "research" plays into the seemingly dominant view in analytic philosophy that good philosophy is similar to good science: taking small steps forward on the basis of established knowledge or propositions."

I hadn't thought about that, but I think you're right. Perhaps this is why the language of research is so ingrained in the profession: philosophers (analytic philosophers especially) want to be taken *seriously* - as seriously as scientists tend to be taken. The over-valuing of rigor, as you have often bemoaned here, would seem to be a symptom of this too.

What's interesting here, however, is that often the very same analytic philosopher who thinks that good philosophy should be like good science (in that it should be rigorous and take small steps forward on the basis of established knowledge or propositions) will also maintain a sharp distinction between science and philosophy by insisting that philosophy is a purely *a priori* discipline that does not depend on empirical tests and the like. I think there is tension here.

Marcus Arvan

Michel: I respectfully disagree. Some of us, at least--though I am happy to admit we are probably few--do regard philosophy as more akin to art than science. When I do moral philosophy, I want to paint a picture of human life and choice that I consider an accurate and emotionally moving picture of how we should choose and behave--in sort of the same way that a film can have a moral "point" to it. Although this may seem to stretch the idea of "art" quite far, I don't think I'm alone in trying to pursue philosophy in a way more akin to art than science. I think Cavell did so; Rorty did so; and so too, if Russell is to believed, did Wittgenstein (Russell is known to have noted on many occasions that W seemed more like an artist than a scientist--and obviously W's favored mode presentation--especially in his later work--seems more artistic than scientific).

Also, artists "do research" too, in your sense. Elvis, for instance, "researched" (i.e. ripped off) the blues. Kurt Cobain "researched" the Pixies, etc., to develop Nirvana's style of music. Painters study other artists. Etc. The difference, as I see it, is that "artistic research" tends to be more intuitive, less rule-bound, more in touch with the human heart and human experience, etc., than scientific research--and it does not aim to represent reality so much as *change* it, moving the artist emotionally, spiritually, etc., to create something new that moves others similarly.

Anonymous PhD

At the risk of sounding like a stick-in-the-mud, I suggest, that philosophy is neither research nor art. It transcends, and indeed defines, these categories. it is a more fundamental enterprise than these, as can be demonstrated, to my mind, by the fact that the best research and the best art are always open to the whisperings of Lady philosophy (of you will indulge my manner of speaking). I think it is an error to try and shoehorn the work of philosophy into either of these more well-defined and therefore well-constrained categories.

That said, I constantly question whether what I, and most other Anglophone (analytical) "philosophers" do in our work genuinely constitutes doing authentic philosophy. I must confess to a unease with calling myself a philosopher. But perhaps that is because I am simply reticent to place myself in such distinguished company.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous PhD: I don't think you sound like a stick-in-the-mud at all--at least not any more than I do! ;) Still, I'm curious: why do you think art and research are well-defined categories? I don't think this is obvious at all. People vigorously debate what is and isn't art all the time! Just go to a modern art museum with some friends sometime...half the stuff doesn't necessarily seem like *art*--and yet, maybe it is! And is research so well defined? I've been a musician most of my life, but I've never done any music theory. I've just listened to many songs by many artists and internalized a ton of different ideas. Is it research? In one sense it seems to me like it is, in another sense not.

Indeed, shouldn't we have learned from Wittgenstein by now--and people who work on vagueness--that almost *no* concepts in natural language are well-defined, at least in terms of not having clear, neat, well-delineated satisfaction conditions?

Finally, why the reticence to call yourself a philosopher? *Must* you "place yourself in such distinguished company" to be a philosopher? Why? Do you sincerely seek wisdom? Do you do it with broadly "philosophical methods"? What is a philosopher if not that?

Marcus Arvan

Tony: I very much agree there is a tension there. :)

Dhananjay

I don't do research, but I think sometimes I manage to do philosophy (be a philosopher?).

I share the discomfort over calling philosophy art, not because it aims at beauty (perhaps I share some of Michel's worries here), but because philosophy is a kind of inquiry. It is therefore not productive, and whatever you think the aim of art is, art is characteristically productive.

Along the way we sometimes produce things - books, articles, videos, etc. - but this is incidental to the activity of philosophy itself. This point, and not the idea of carrying out a well-defined 'research' program, is I think the real problem with thinking about philosophy as research. Pace Anthony, I think philosophers do make discoveries. We don't, however, do philosophy in order to make things; making things is sometimes part of how we do philosophy.

What many of us do is, I think, what many of those in our sister disciplines in the humanities see themselves as doing: scholarship. Scholarship is leisurely (indeed, 'leisure' is the meaning of the Greek skholê); it is its own end.

Scholarship is tremendously difficult to justify, especially financially, so it is no surprise we have resorted to assimilating our practice to that of the sciences. But since it is fairly obvious that nearly everything we do is practically useless, the charade can only last so long.

We would do better - it would be more honest, anyway - to try to argue that it is intrinsically worthwhile for a society to have scholars. (We have one advantage here: the question of what is worthwhile is itself a philosophical, certainly a leisurely one.) I also happen to think that the habits of mind scholars cultivate in their activity are something it is valuable for many others who will not themselves be scholars to have, and so universities are a good place for scholarship to take place.

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