I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Is Philosophy Futile?

The historian Richard Carrier offers some on-target criticisms of present-day philosophy in this interview with Ben Dench.

Richard’s central point is that the original idea of philosophy as providing a grand integrated view of life and reality has been replaced by a concept of philosophy that involves dealing with isolated puzzles and riddles :
In academia, philosophy is almost dead. What passes for philosophy now is little more than a fancy system of games and puzzles. Even the few exceptions (Singer, Nussbaum, Haack) are mostly divorced from the original goal of philosophy, which was to bring a coherent worldview to the common man, based on facts and reason, that would tell us how to better live our lives and cope with the world as-it-is. But that requires building and defending systems of thought, not arguing isolated specialized problems in isolated specialized fields; it requires figuring out what actually counts as progress and then rolling up their collective sleeves and working on that progress, not just pontificating willy nilly and turning philosophy books and journals into what the rest of us call history of philosophy; and so on. There are no Humes or Ayers or Aristotles or even Ciceros or Senecas anymore….

The idea of a coherent worldview, every part as well thought out as the rest, has become an alien concept. Philosophy as it was, is no more. And as far as most people are concerned, what philosophy is now, is all but useless to anyone, and even what's useful, is so dense and jargonized as to be unintelligible. That's why decreasing numbers even bother studying it….
Richard also points out that philosophers are focused on the obsolete, discredited views of long-dead philosophers in a way that never occurs in the natural sciences:
History of philosophy can save people time, but only if you actually use it that way. Yes, by learning the blind alleys, you can avoid them yourself. But this has a pernicious tendency in two unfortunate directions. On the one hand, many philosophers dismiss new ideas by immediately labeling them as something that was already refuted even when in fact the new ideas are relevantly different. I have a hell of a time trying to get philosophers to understand that I am both a mathematical realist and a mathematical nominalist, and not a mathematical Platonist in any sense of the term--they can't fathom the synthesis, because all they hear are the past-and-dead categories "mathematical realist," "mathematical nominalist," "mathematical Platonist" and they can't get their minds out of the ruts of the way these things were characterized and debated in the past. History of philosophy has made them worse philosophers, not better ones. On the other hand, many philosophers keep trying to think in the same ruts as past debates--we're still dividing ethical theories into Utilitarian, Kantian, and Virtue Ethics, even though that very division is antiquated and confining….

History of philosophy also seems to be starting to replace actual philosophy outright… Pick up any philosophy journal today and see the amount of citing and referencing and discussing of "other" philosophers that occupies their pages, in ratio to anything that actually gets done as far as making progress in human understanding, and you might become as alarmed as I am.

Philosophers shouldn't be acting like historians. They should let historians do that, just as scientists do. You don't see articles in science journals laden with elaborate discussions of the history of science before attempting to establish a finding. They just present their findings. If there are other current findings and theories on the books (not past refuted findings and theories, but still unrefuted ones), they will survey them and respond to them, even if that involves them in historical reporting. But they don't waste time on inessentials. They build on established and agreed findings and results. No botanist would say you have to read up on the history of all the mistakes and dead ends in 19th century botanical science to make progress in botany today. Philosophy should operate the same way. It just doesn't…
Finally, he suggests that contemporary philosophy is woefully lacking even in basic intellectual standards:
Once at a dinner I stopped an editor of a philosophy journal and showed him that he had published an article with a glaringly obvious logical flaw, so obvious in fact it should have been embarrassing to his entire publication and certainly should never have passed any credible peer review. He actually responded by saying, "You actually expect philosophy journals to prevent the publication of fallacious arguments?" I was flabbergasted. Several of us at the same table answered in unison, "Uh, yes, we do." What the hell else is peer review for?
The interview goes into much more detail, and covers numerous other topics ranging from technology to religious fundamentalism (I don’t agree with all of Richard’s other points in the interview: I think he is way too optimistic about technologically induced “telepathy,” for example).

If anything, I think Richard may have understated the problems with current academic philosophy and the radical difference between modern academic “philosophy” and philosophy as practiced by Locke or Aristotle.

In later posts, I'll discuss in more detail how and why modern philosophy is in the doldrums and what I think this means for us homeschoolers.

The root problem, I think, lies in philosophers' failure fully to confront the fact that modern philosophy arose as an attempt to deal with the collision between modern science and traditional religion in seventeenth-century Europe. The philosopher/anthropologist Ernest Gellner wrote on this at great detail (e.g., in his The Legitimation of Belief , The Devil in Modern Philosophy, and Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion), and I agree with Gellner that you cannot grasp modern philosophy without addressing broader issues involving science and religion.

No comments:

Post a Comment