Many of my friends on social media have been posting and discussing, "When Philosophy Lost Its Way", an article by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle over at the New York Times The Stone opinionator column (thanks to Robert Frodeman as well for drawing my attention to it). The post is also currently being discussed at Daily Nous, where a few commenters so far seem sympathetic with the main points of the, but many others report being unpersuaded.
Very roughly (and I'm paraphrasing a lot here), Frodeman and Briggle argue that:
- Philosophy was once widely practiced, focusing on issues relevant to society and everyday life (e.g. wisdom, virtue, etc.).
- It then increasingly migrated into the modern research university, where
- It became increasingly specialized, modeling itself on the hard sciences, thereby
- Coming to focusing less on issues relevant to society and everyday life (wisdom, virtue, etc.), and more on peer-reviewed publication and "its own arcane language" (e.g. conceptual analysis, etc.)
- However, philosophy's attempt to model itself after the sciences not only divorced it from ordinary life and the humanities. It also lacks the virtues of the sciences--namely, reliable methods that lead to actual progress.
- Thus, philosophy "lost its way": it abandoned its roots (messy, humanistic inquiry) in pursuit of a fool's errand (scientific precision), in a manner that both (A) marginalized philosophy as an academic discipline (alienating it from the humanities, but also from science, since scientist have their own, more productive methods!), and (B) alienated philosophy from everyday life and society.
Have I gotten their account right? In any case, Frodeman and Briggle suggest that the key is for philosophy to return to its messy, humanistic roots. They write:
Our claim, then, can be put simply: Philosophy should never have been purified. Rather than being seen as a problem, “dirty hands” should have been understood as the native condition of philosophic thought — present everywhere, often interstitial, essentially interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary in nature. Philosophy is a mangle. The philosopher’s hands were never clean and were never meant to be.
What should we make of their critique, as well as their proposed solution? A number of Daily Nous commenters find the critique inadequately supported:
It is difficult for me to see why we should accept any of this picture. I’m not sure that there is nothing to it, but (as Crimlaw notes) we aren’t given much by way of evidence – merely some suggestive correlations, and a not quite spelled out view about what philosophy properly is. -- AR ·
Others are more sympathetic:
The article seems about right to me. From the outside one sees little interest in philosophy as an area of knowledge as opposed to an area of employment. It has become stereotypically ‘academic’ as in ‘unreal’, and seems to be stuck up the creek without a paddle. A revolution seems like a good idea. - PeterJ ·
I agree that philosophy has (generally) lost its way. A lot of philosophers don’t even seem to have a position on why what we do is important and why society should pay for it. Many seem to be cynical, not believing that there is a point. Others seem to treat scoring status points in the profession as the point of the profession... - Hey Nonny Mouse ·
Who should we side with? Well, many of the dominant methods of analytic philosophy (intuition mongering, the method of cases, a priori metaphysics) have increasingly come under fire by philosophers. Similarly, there are ongoing concerns in philosophy about lack of progress. Third, concerns about hyperprofessionalization are quite common. Fourth, philosophy departments, like many other humanities departments, are struggling to attract students, as well as marginalized more generally in universities (my department, for instance, is something like the second smallest department at my university). Finally, of course, members of the general public hardly have any idea of what actual philosophers do (the two most common questions a philosopher seemingly gets are, "What's your philosophy?", and, "What are you going to do with that?" In short, while I wouldn't know how to provide an airtight argument that philosophy "has lost its way" (what would one do, provide a statistical analysis of "way losing"?), there do seem to me--and to many others--to be genuine reasons for concern.
This brings me to what, in my view, is the much more important question: if philosophy has lost its way (to some extent), what's the best path forward? Frodeman and Briggle imply that philosophy should be un-purified, retreating to its roots in the humanities, eschewing the model of science for the messy, "dirty hands" of humanistic investigation. I could not disagree more! The problem is not that philosophy has been purified; the real problem is that it has not been properly purified. Here's why. Just about every line of human inquiry that eschewed the scientific method found itself mired in wanton specuation. Look first at ancient Greek cosmology. Thales thought everything is water, Heraclitus that everything is flux, Anaximander that everything proceeds from "the boundless", Aristotle that there are four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Here's the problem: this was pure B.S.-ing. It was mere speculation, unconstrained by any method for reliably distinguishing what is true from what "seems true." Now consider early 20th-Century psychology. We saw something similar. Instinct Theorists claimed everything we do is determined by instinct; Freudians that everything is the result of unconscious sexual urges; Jungians that everything we do is a quest "for wholeness"; etc. Once again, mere speculation. Science does better, because it has methods for reliably distinguishing what is true from what "seems true."
So, I think, if philosophy is to find its way, the way forward is not to retreat to a messy, humanistic approach. The way forward is to tie philosophy to science, returning to the tradition (which Frodeman and Briggle do mention) of natural philosophy--a tradition where philosophy and science were fundamentally intertwined. What we need is:
- Moral philosophy based on our best scientific understanding of moral psychology, practice, and human well-being (something G.E.M. Anscombe argued for 60 years ago!).
- Political philosophy based on our best scientific understanding of moral psychology, group behavior, and political economy.
- Philosophy of language based not on intuitions about reference, but rather upon rigorous findings of empirical linguistics.
- Metaphysics based on our best emerging theories of physics (e.g. theories of free will and moral responsibility based on our best understanding of physics, neuroscience, and experimental work on responsibility attributions).
In my view, at least, it is only by increasingly intertwining philosophy with the sciences--by forging a new natural philosophy--that we stand any chance of (A) moving philosophy beyond unreliable a priori speculation, basing it instead upon (B) epistemically solid foundations--scientific foundations that promise to make philosophy more epistemically respectable, and by extension, more relevant to the public and academy more broadly. In short, I agree with Frodeman and Briggle that we need to "get our hands dirty." I just disagree on how we should do it. We need to get our hands dirty with the sciences, becoming more interdisciplinary. We need to become a discipline where the following comment at Daily Nous is false: "Yep. And this is why those of us mostly interested in interdisciplinary work are SOL when it comes to jobs." We need to educate our grad students in the sciences relevant to their AOS, develop increasing expectations that publishable philosophy articles need to draw on rather than ignore the science, and indeed, reject methodologies (e.g. the method of cases, intuition-pumping, etc) that increasingly appear unreliable. In short, philosophy needs to be better purified, not unpurified! Fortunately, many of these changes are already starting occur, with the rise of experimental philosophy, critiques of traditional philosophical methods, etc.
Or so I'm inclined to think. What do you think?