Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Philosophy's future

I suggested in a previous post that philosophy would not exist today as a scholarly discipline - at least in the form it is in - were it not for a body of practitioners who seek (explicitly or implicitly) to defend an essentially religious or at least anti-physicalist view of the world. It is also clear that academic philosophy has provided a home and a platform for certain secular ideologies (such as feminism, radical environmentalism and leftist politics generally) which flourish widely within the arts and humanities.

I continue, however, to be interested in some of the key questions commonly addressed by philosophers, and have recently been doing some more reading in philosophy-related areas, including some work by Pascal Engel, a French epistemologist and philosopher of logic who is currently based at the University of Geneva. Engel is unusual amongst French philosophers in identifying with the analytic tradition, and he has an interest (as I do) in the logical positivist movement of the early and mid-20th century.

In 2002, Engel engaged in a debate in Paris with the American Richard Rorty. The debate was published in book form in 2007 (the year Rorty died) under the title, What's the Use of Truth? Rorty was a left-wing, secular pragmatist with an unfortunate anti-science streak. Though his writing is lucid and persuasive he is not on my list of favorite thinkers, essentially because of his attitude to science. However, this short review by Rorty of a book about truth by Pascal Engel (in which Engel roundly attacks Rorty's position) is marvellously elegant and restrained, and I am very much in sympathy with Rorty's view concerning the futility of much contemporary philosophical debate.

In fact, it seems pretty evident that philosophy is dying as an academic discipline. Real jobs in the discipline are disappearing. I wrote a piece late last year on City University of New York philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci's battle against proposed changes to the curricula at his institution which he saw as being part of a nationwide trend to dismantle not just philosophy but the entire liberal arts component of higher education. It is a sign of the times that a philosopher (Peter Ludlow), who is a member of a task force set up to reform the American Philosophical Association (which has both financial and organizational problems), has made a case for the dissolution of the Association.

The travails of academic philosophy may be due in part to its perceived irrelevance to mainstream concerns, or to a general perception that it, like other disciplines within the humanities, has become too closely identified with certain ideological tendencies, or to any number of other factors. But I am more concerned to salvage something from the wreckage than to speculate on the causes of the crash.

First of all, I'm sure that philosophizing (in the sense of scholars and others reflecting on their respective disciplines) will continue. Meta-thinking is just something people do, and always will do.

Secondly, even if much recent epistemology, philosophy of logic, etc. is of little worth, that is not to say that earlier work in these areas was not important and valuable. I personally continue to be fascinated by some 20th century thinkers whom I intend to continue reading and trying to understand better. And people like Pascal Engel may prove to be very useful and valuable guides.

Of course, no one can really foresee whether or not philosophy has a future, much less the nature of any possible future (though I am inclined to think it will involve fragmentation).

I conclude with a couple of personal comments on the discipline known as the history of ideas. I am not really interested, as an historian might be, in seeking simply to understand how certain ideas grew out of other ideas and how they developed, or in how certain thinkers developed their ideas and influenced subsequent thought. I (like many other intellectually curious people) am more interested in the ideas themselves than in the history, even if I always prefer to see ideas within their historical context.

Furthermore, I prefer some ideas to others: I am really only interested in the ideas which are still 'viable'. Or - if you prefer - 'true'.


  1. When Rorty spoke at my original university (long ago), a student asked him: "So what is the use of truth?". He seemed to me to fumble for an answer.

    Whatever truth might be, it will have to include conceptual, linguistic, mathematical, cultural and ethical instances, as well as regular scientific and observational truths.

  2. Scientific, mathematical and observational claims can, I think, be judged against an objective (in some sense) notion of truth. Likewise descriptive claims relating to language, culture and ethics. It's going much further to want moral truths in some deep sense. I resist going down that path.

  3. Damn, I was hoping I could catch you out!