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Matt DeStefano

These two criticisms seem contradictory to me. In the first criticism, Warburton seems to be claiming that philosophers can't explain the importance of their research to people outside of their specific niche - and that this is a bad thing. We're just speaking to each other in overly-technical language. In the second criticism, he seems saying that philosophers are kowtowing to the administration when they attempt to explain the importance of their research (or its "impact"). He even goes as far to say that by engaging in creative explanation of your research's impact that you've "compromised yourself" as a philosopher.

So, does Warburton want or not want philosophers to explain the importance of their research to people outside of the philosophical culture to which they belong? Damned if we do, damned if we don't.


It seems to me that Warburton's criticisms, if they apply at all, apply across academic disciplines, and not just to philosophy. What he says about philosophy being esoteric you could say about (the more theoretical parts of) mathematics, gender studies, or visual arts, for instance.

The same goes for point #2. Most efforts to quantify and measure "impact", including the UK's REF (Research Excellence Framework), are idiotic attempts by politicians to show the public they are holding academics *in general*, and not just philosophers, accountable for the funding they receive.

It's also not true that UK philosophers are just going along with REF (Research Excellence Framework) without protesting (see this memorandum to the House of Commons on measuring the impact of philosophy, by Luc Bovens and Nancy Cartwright: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/memo/spendingcuts/uc8302.htm )

Now, do philosophers have a special duty to fight these efforts to quantify impacts? Warburton seems to think so, and seems to assume a model of the philosopher as both an academic and a public intellectual, a model which fits some philosophers (e.g. Singer or Habermas) but not most. I personally can't see why academic philosophers would have a special duty in this respect. UK philosophers don't have secret powers they refuse to exercise and which would lead the UK's government to ditch the REF. I'd be curious to know exactly what Warburton thinks academic philosophers should concretely be doing, and why he didn't do those things himself before leaving the profession.

In brief, I don't think that the issues Warburton raises are issues specifically for academic philosophy, rather than for academic disciplines in general. And so I don't see them as justifying leaving academic philosophy rather than academia in general. I just think philosophers are more sensitive to these kinds of issues just because we are so incredibly self-aware - in comparison with other disciplines - about what we do, about what we take philosophy to be.

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Matt,

I’m not sure that (1) and (2) are outright contradictory. But I think you’re right that there is a tension there. On the one hand, if not compromising oneself as a philosopher means pursuing research topics that are esoteric or unpopular, then a (inevitable?) consequence of that seems to be that others will find (at least some) research topics neither interesting nor important. On the other hand, if philosophers should be able to explain the significance of their work to non-philosophers, and administrators are non-philosophers, then philosophers should be able to explain the significance of their work to administrators (whether they have to or not).

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Alex,

I’m inclined to agree with you that, if Warburton is right about academic philosophy, then his criticisms apply to other academic disciplines as well. If you are right that philosophers are generally more sensitive to these issues, perhaps Warburton could use that to argue that those who are more sensitive to an issue should do something about it. (Although I agree with you that the professional philosopher can, but need not be, a public intellectual. Scientists seem perfectly capable to fulfill that role as well.)

Gary M Washburn

I’ve been banging my head against this wall for forty years now, and can tell you that the extent of it is far worse. The term is intellectual dishonesty. A refusal to recognize clear implications. Make a distinction between philosophy and ‘philosophy’. There haven’t been any real ideas in ‘philosophy’ in over a century, though the Existentialists made a bit of an effort, now thoroughly ‘repudiated’ (which, in ‘philosophy’, does not mean disproved, only stigmatized) ‘Philosophy’ has lost the ability to see the forest for the semiot. If you’re lost in a wilderness a blaze on a tree might be read to indicate the way out, but that interpretation is already committed to being forgotten where you are. The whole world turns on one tiny sign, as if this were what is real and what realness means (so much for Peirce). Chomsky prejudices his major work by opening with the claim that language is sentences, and he relies, without justification, on saying, ad nauseam, that his system of ‘morphemes’ can produce an infinite number of sentences. But quantum physics demonstrates that there is no real infinity. The claim is a fiction meant to alleviate responsibility of what it is really trying to say, that that system of ‘morphemes’ can account for anything that can be said. Utter nonsense and completely unjustified, hence the cryptic way of claiming it. What it really means to make this claim is to assign our ability to understand each other to a commitment to something external and extrinsic to our commitment to each other, when it is precisely that latter commitment from which all meaning flows. As in the unjustified use of the notion of infinity, the modern era dawned (and it is very far from sunset, or ‘post’ in any sense at all) as an effort to take understanding of ‘the temporal world’ out of the hands of the clerics. Time had always been enigmatic because there simply is no way around its being anomalous to transcendence. Religion attributes this to corruption (as does science in its own inimitable hypocrisy and stupidity) but the early Modernists thought they had the measure of it in the development of the calculus. Now, most ‘philosophers’ look to Leibnitz in this, but Newton makes its meaning crystal clear by arguing that the differential reduces the anomaly of time to an infinitely negligible quantity. What he, and the whole world since, it seems, do not recognize is that what this method neglects is precisely the temporal process we suppose we are trying to understand. And until we do philosophy in a way to bring these and other travesties to light there will not be any philosophy to ‘philosophy’. I don’t really give a crap what ‘philosophers’ get up to, though it does make for a dearth of interesting reading. What bugs me is that for over twenty five years now I have been producing works that might open this miasma up to more interesting strains of thought, but cannot get a publisher to even take a cursory look at it. The presses committed to ‘philosophy’ simply reject it out of hand because it lacks the conventional form (I can only imagine what Derrida would have confronted if he had tried to publish his later works during his early career!). And the less academic presses want sentiment and edifying homilies, not rigorous and critical thought. Meanwhile, ‘philosophy’ slowly commits collective suicide by progressively robbing its natural constituency of any reason to be interested.

Take a look at a little book that was permitted no more impact than would be expected in this environment: Time in the Ditch, by John McCumber.


Marcus Arvan

Gary: you make a lot of scathing assertions, but as far as I can tell you don't provide any argument for any of them. If you are having trouble publishing with academic presses, perhaps you should self-publish.


"I'm not even sure what research means in philosophy."

Whatever the merits of Warburton's larger argument, I was glad to see someone else voicing this particular confusion. I've often wondered what philosophers mean when they talk about their "research." I suppose if you're doing straight-up history of philosophy, with all your focus on the "history, then the word makes some sense. But if you're "doing philosophy," is "research" really what you're doing? I think of research as the attempt to locate a set of facts. You want to know the population of Zimbabwe: you do some research. That might mean looking up the numbers that someone else has produced, or conducting the census and producing the numbers yourself. You want to know whether we have free will. Does "research" take you toward the answer? Maybe. It takes you toward other people who have thought about the question and offered some answers for you to consider. But that's just part of the job, and it's not the part we become philosophers in order to play. The word somehow fails, in an important way. Research is something for Google to automate.


I am constantly reminded by these discussions of Collin McGinn's "Philosophy by Another Name" article in the New York Times. I think it is clear that Warburton has a much different understanding of philosophy than academic philosophers do. When Warburton writes that academic philosophers are:

"just making finer and finer discriminations between whether they're a particular kind of materialist or a particular kind of functionalist. People stake out little claims. When faced with the need to explain what they're doing and why it should be of interest to anyone at all outside of that culture, many flounder."

I can only assume that Warburton imagines that philosophers should be dealing with what are conventionally thought to be, the classical, "large" issues of life. The issues that the person off the street might have in mind when he asks: "What is your philosophy on life?"

It seems to be that the criticisms that Warburton makes or means to make are criticisms he has with academic philosophy itself, and not with the ways in which academic philosophy has fallen off of some hypothetical track.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for your comment, Adam.

Suppose you are right that “research” is “the attempt to locate a set of facts.” Now, consider the following:

(1) The current population in Zimbabwe is approximately 13,813,952.

(2) Causal determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility.

(3) The zombie argument is fallacious.

I take it you would consider (1) a fact, but not (2) and (3) (supposing they are true). I am not sure why, though. Do facts have to be about people and/or events? Can’t there be facts about concepts, arguments, etc.?

Moti Mizrahi

GradStudent338, thanks for the reference to McGinn's piece in the NYT.

I am not sure why Warburton thinks that professional philosophers "need to explain what they're doing and why it should be of interest to [non-philosophers]." In fact, as Matt pointed out, this demand seems to be in tension with Warburton's call to professional philosophers not to compromise themselves as philosophers.


Hi Moti,

Thanks for your question. I don't want to insist too strongly on my suggested definition of research and the way I drew the distinction between doing research and doing philosophy. And I definitely don't want to defend a simplistic fact/value dichotomy. I think my point was much simpler, less controversial, and maybe even less interesting than your question suggests. All I'm saying is that there's something importantly different about what you're doing when you're figuring out how many people live in Zimbabwe, and when you're figuring out your propositions (2) and (3). “Locating a set of facts” is probably not the best way to describe the activity that produced proposition (1) and to distinguish it from the others. Perhaps you and I would describe the difference in other terms, and attach more or less significance to it. But would you agree that there is a difference?

I think the difference is significant, and I suspect that the connotations of the word "research" obscure this difference. The difference is significant because, if other people think of "research" in the same way that I do, then they may get the impression that the activity of philosophy should be judged by the same standards as the activity of a census taker, a market researcher, or whatever.

I suppose, then, that I'm endorsing Warburton's concern about philosophers rolling over in the face of the REF. I think of "research" as an activity that produces the kind of results that the REF apparently demands. I don't think of philosophy as that kind of activity.


Adam, on that view, mathematicians and theoretical physicists do not do research. Are you ready to endorse that view?

Brad Cokelet

I think the first quote is misleading people here. I do not think he is talking about explaining your work to random people on the street.

The quote continues: "Not the best ones, interestingly. The really significant philosophers are able to explain with superb clarity precisely what it is that matters about a topic. Not just for others with similar interests but for anybody who might be concerned with philosophy at all. Weaker philosophers hide behind a series of coded nods and winks to each other. This often betrays a lack of clarity of thought"

As I read this he is claiming that people arguing about fine grained sub-topics (e.g. is Parfit's response to Williams on internal reasons compelling?) should be able to link their arguments and positions to larger philosophic debates and issues, and thereby explain their work to people with philosophic interests and some degree of background knowledge.

Perhaps his worry is that professional pressure in the age of quantification is pushing people to just focus on responding to recent work rather than tracking the larger philosophic picture and why it is worth settling various on-going debates. I suppose this is at least a worry one should have about how increased quantification and professionalization will affect people as they go through the training process and become professional philosophers. And maybe much of Marcus's stuff on "aiming large" in one's work is one way to try to throw off the shackles and reconnect one's work with larger, philosophically interesting issues.


It sounds like Adam is just making a distinction between empirical and a priori investigation?

I agree that Warburton's two claims are in tensions with one another. However, I think his first one is valuable and needs to be given more consideration. Moti says, 'I am not sure why Warburton thinks professional philosophers "need to explain what they're doing and why it should be of interest to [non-philosophers]".' Surely it's obvious why philosophers should be able to do this? For a start (in Britain at least) our salaries are partially publicly funded.

But beyond that surely you want to be able to explain why what you do is important to other people? It's not good enough to say 'my field is highly specialised and if you haven't studied philosophy then you can't possibly understand what it is I'm doing'. Scientists work in highly specialised fields but produce results that generally justify what it is that they spend their time doing to the general public. Philosophy does not produce such results (nor does it produce 'proofs' akin to those in mathematics). Despite the scientistic language that's infected it in the last hundred years or so, it doesn't really produce 'results' at all. I think any philosopher who seeks to show evidence of scientific-style 'progress' in philosophy is onto a loser (the recent Chalmers paper on this seemed utterly misguided in this sense: philosophy just isn't the sort of thing that makes progress). Its value has to be understood differently, if it is to be understood as valuable at all. And Warburton is right that we don't do a good enough job of articulating what we think is valuable about it.



Yes, I think the word "research" seems equally strange when used to describe what mathematicians and theoretical physicists do.

I agree with Craig: philosophy doesn't produce "results" in the way that empirical science does. My suggestion is that using the word "research" to describe what philosophers do helps to obscure this difference. But Craig's point is the important one. My complaint about terminology might be no more than a pet peeve. If "research" has a more capacious meaning for most people, and can include what philosophers (and mathematicians) do without implying that they do the same thing, then I have no real objection to its use. But if the word is an example of this "scientistic language" which I agree has infected philosophy, then I say we should use it more carefully.


Nick: It seems you just want a different word. Thus there is only a semantic rather than a substantive difference between the "research" done by an experimental physicist and a theoretical one.

If the issue is justification, ask Andrew Wiles his justification for spending seven years coming up with a proof of Fermat's last theorem. Was that a waste? How is it applicable to the average person's life? Why should anyone care? How is what he did any different than someone writing a 500 page tome on how many grains constitute a heap?

Gary M Washburn


That’s a bit brusque.

When you reach the end of the universe you arrive where you began. When you slice space to its least term all hell breaks loose, numerical determinacy vanishes. Does this suggest there is a real infinity that we can glibly reference when we need to avoid justifying our reliance on the quantifier? If not, doesn’t that suggest we take a closer look at the qualifier? And since when is a strong view prima facie evidence of weak arguments? Aren’t you guilty of petitio principii (the English version of this phrase has lost its strict meaning) by making such an implication? That is, foreclosing upon a global critique?

Marcus Arvan


My reply was brusque because you asserted, without any argument, that no philosopher -- including everyone reading this blog -- has had any worthwhile ideas in over a century. If you're going to say no one has had any good ideas, some argument is necessary. And unfortunately, I'm still waiting.

What's your argument in your newest comment?

For my part, I just don't understand your last several sentences: "Does this suggest there is a real infinity that we can glibly reference when we need to avoid justifying our reliance on the quantifier? If not, doesn’t that suggest we take a closer look at the qualifier? And since when is a strong view prima facie evidence of weak arguments? Aren’t you guilty of petitio principii (the English version of this phrase has lost its strict meaning) by making such an implication? That is, foreclosing upon a global critique?"

Can you clarify what you mean here?

Anyway, what I do understand are the two claims you make towards the beginning of your comment -- namely:

(1) When you reach the end of the universe you arrive where you began.
(2) When you slice space to its least term all hell breaks loose.

The problem, however, is this: to the best of our knowledge, both (1) and (2) are false.

Regarding (1): we would only arrive where we begin by travelling in a straight line if the Universe's overall geometry were closed and compactified (like a sphere). Unfortunately, it is not. The universe is known to have an overall flat geometry -- in which case, if it is infinite (which we do not know yet either way) travelling in a single direction would not return you to your starting point.

Regarding (2): it is true that our laws of physics do not apply ("all hell breaks loose") in a volume of space smaller than the Planck length. However, our best experiments so far suggest that the Planck length is the smallest "bit" of physical reality -- in which case the area where you say "all hell breaks loose" doesn't physically exist.


I'm not sure, by the way, that I agree with the analogy drawn between math and philosophy by Adam (explicitly) and Nick (implicitly). My post wasn't meant to draw such an analogy. Math produces proofs about which almost all mathematicians can come to consensus. Philosophy doesn't even do this. The similarity between the two starts and ends with their a priori nature, I think. You can justify proving Fermat's last theorem to non-experts by appealing to the intrinsic value of knowledge. A lot of philosophy, it seems to me, can't even be justified on this ground. Math IS the sort of thing that makes progress. Again, philosophy is not. (One might argue against this by appealing to advances in logic made by philosophers; I'd reply that these logicians have moved into the realm of math).


Craig: Philosophy does make progress, but the devil is certainly in the details. Most philosophers agree that Quine's refutation of Kant's analytic-synthetic distinction, Gettier's counterexamples against the the traditional view of knowledge, the moves in utilitarianism from Bentham to Sidgwick are all signs of progress.

Logic is a branch of philosophy. Philosophers can also appeal to the intrinsic value of knowledge to non-experts if you believe a number theorist can do so. Philosophers would have an easier time of doing this if we compare the applied areas of philosophy with the applied areas of mathematics.

Marcus Arvan

Nick: to my knowledge (if I recall the philpapers survey results correctly) most philosophers today still accept the analytic/synthetic distinction.


Nick, I think you're walking a path to nowhere by arguing as you do. The areas you cite as 'progress' have a significantly lower degree of consensus than areas of progress in the sciences (or History, in the humanities). In fact they're all still areas of hot debate.


Marcus: You are correct. Be that as it may, I think the claim that there is something we can call "philosophical progress" still holds without a consensus among philosophers about the analytic/synthetic distinction. Gutting makes the point admirably in his What Philosophers Know.

Moti Mizrahi

Craig, Adam, and Nick: Thanks very much for this interesting discussion. It seems to me that all of you agree that philosophy is essentially a priori in nature. Does that mean that experimental philosophy does not count as philosophy for you? What about phenomenology?



I don't know. I've not read much of or about either. But the little I have read about experimental philosophy makes it sound rather like (quite simple and primitive) psychology.

I think any useful definition of philosophy probably does have to make it a priori, otherwise I struggle to see how we can distinguish its areas from the various sciences (social or physical). On the other hand, I wouldn't want to rule out any and all empirical methods from the philosopher's toolkit. But I guess that's because philosophy is often (as with most disciplines) best practiced in an interdisciplinary way.

I realise that so far I've argued only negatively, criticising both the view that philosophy makes progress and the view that we don't need to explain what it is that we're doing to non-experts. The onus thus seems to be on me to give an account of what it is that we're doing without appealing to the notion of progress (at least as that notion is understood in the sciences). The truth is that I'm unsure how to give such an account. But, if pressed, I think I'd gesture vaguely towards achieving 'understanding' and thinking of philosophy as a quietist discipline. I'm not sure that would satisfy most non-experts however. 'Why should we fund your personal therapy?' might be the first question!

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for replying, Craig. If one wants to distinguish philosophy from other areas of inquiry, particularly the sciences, then one way to go is to say that philosophy is essentially a priori. Perhaps you are right that it is the best way to go. In that case, however, I suppose I would question the motivation to distinguish philosophy from other areas of inquiry. Why not accept that there is a continuity between all areas of inquiry and embrace methodological pluralism? What do we gain by setting (arbitrary?) boundaries between areas of inquiry?


Nick: Being an area of "hot debate" does not mean that progress has not been made on the question posed.


Moti: I completely agree that we should embrace methodological pluralism. My issue is with those who would deny that there is "research" in philosophy. As I said above, this is a semantic rather than substantive issue. Call it what you will but it is certainly as rigorous and important as anything produced by other disciplines. Timothy Williamson is certainly doing philosophical research. Joshua Knobe (experimental philosophy) and Sean Kelly (phenomenology) are certainly doing philosophy as far as I am concerned. If you disagree that Williamson is not doing research or that Knobe and Kelly these are not doing philosophy, then I can no longer contribute anything to this discussion.

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