Thursday, May 29, 2014

At Scientia Salon

Massimo Pigliucci recently published an essay of mine ('Does philosophy have a future?') at his new site, Scientia Salon. I knew beforehand something which Massimo recently confirmed in a personal communication and reiterated in a long comment on my post: that he "couldn't disagree more" with my take on philosophy.

Just to give a bit of background, Massimo recently wrote a piece taking Neil deGrasse Tyson to task for making dismissive remarks about philosophy, so I was a bit surprised when he went ahead and published my essay on the heels of that controversy. And controversy it was because Massimo's piece got huge exposure as it was picked up by the Huffington Post (see the Twitter and Facebook numbers for that post).

Anyway here is a link to Scientia Salon: scroll down for my essay and Massimo's challenge to Tyson.

My piece was designed as a discussion-starter and it seems to have achieved its objective. The social media numbers were relatively good and it prompted a lively and long comment thread.


  1. I was excited to see more than 200 comments to that post, until it became obvious the huge majority were off-topic. Mention religion and the atheist debate cranks up. That's why I just don't mention the damn thing except in the most circumspect and historical manner. In your case, though, it's part of your thesis, so ... here comes the sideshow.
    I'm still reading comments to find someone who actually responds to your presentation (besides Massimo).
    Meanwhile I'm glad you prefaced your discussion with a specific focus on academic philosophy. I'm critical of that too. But I'm also fond of pointing out, whenever this type of discussion comes up ("Is Philosophy Really Useful / Necessary / Relevant?"), that civilization itself is saturated with philosophical commitments, science is saturated with metaphysical commitments, and whenever we try to sort out those things, we are doing philosophy. Just not necessarily with a capital (academic) "P."
    My view of philosophy is to see it not as a discipline, but as an activity -- which even scientists do. But I do agree with you that its viability as a formal discipline is disputable. The formal discipline needs to catch up with reality. It's losing its voice -- a fact I view with alarm.

  2. Thanks for that, GC. I'm glad you thought my claims were not unreasonable.

    On the religion issue, one thought I had (which I thought it advisable to refrain from expressing at Scientia Salon) is that, though it is a science-and-philosophy site, a number of the most active commenters are clearly committed to a religious view of the world and, as you observe, they drive much of the debate. I wouldn't want to make too much of this, but these facts are certainly not in conflict with my suggestion in the essay that philosophy is strangely dependent on (and shaped – at least indirectly – by) religious ideas.

  3. Nice article. Wrong-headed though, in my opinion.

    I see philosophy as the normative study of rationality. All rational disciplines have a stake in that enterprise, but philosophers are the folks employed to do it professionally.

    To the extent that religion involves would-be rational claims and arguments, to that extent philosophy should engage with religion. But to be human is to be rational, so philosophy engages with all sorts of human activities.

    Why have people who do this professionally? One answer is suggested in something you say:

    "And argument and reasoning and debate — which are often put forward as essentially philosophical — have been taught at high school level for centuries as a component of the English (or other primary language) curriculum."

    Some English teachers do teach reasoning to some very small extent (at school and university), but they do it unprofessionally. That is, they don't generate a body of research and analysis to back up their teaching.

    The exception to this claim supports my argument. The English teachers have generated a huge body of post-modern and post-structuralist literature, much of which is committed to finding the ideological presuppositions (based on sex, race and class) of any supposedly rational form of discourse.

    I'm inclined to put the Mark English critique of philosophy in the same basket. It differs only in that it sees religion, and not sex-race-class, as the driving undercurrent. All such critiques work on the assumption that there is nothing of much importance to be said at the rational level. It's about unmasking, and not about rational engagement.

    There is a body of research that does treat rational argument on its own merits. And almost all of it is produced by philosophers. It would be great if English teachers and whoever else took part in this work, but in my experience few do.

    I liked the commentator who said: "Just because the average person can whack together a rickety table doesn’t mean we don’t need carpenters."

  4. Thanks for the comment, Alan.

    There may be some truth in your "unmasking" idea but needless to say I would interpret things rather differently.

    I think the main problem I have with what you say is that you are claiming (on behalf of philosophers) professional expertise in what you are calling rationality. And I have trouble relating the notion of expertise to something other than a narrow and clearly-defined discipline or activity.

    I accept that having an understanding of how logical principles operate in formal systems and in natural language contexts is genuinely useful. But my intuition pushes against your broader claims, and I have the sense that your concept of rationality may be ill-defined, with a meaning which shifts (broadens and narrows) according to context.

    I am assuming that your claim would not be that people trained in this particular discipline are thereby somehow better thinkers than people trained in some other discipline; but rather that they are more qualified than anyone else to adjudicate on the quality of other people's thinking. But this claim also bothers me (in part for emotional reasons I can't quite articulate and in part because I see thinking as something that goes beyond logic and rationality narrowly defined).

  5. I took Alan's mention of "expertise" in the sense of "specialty," not authority. I've been reading epistemology all my life, enough to recognize the issues and even to rank some thinkers on their merits. Epistemology is about separating illusion from "reality." To get there, we must examine what constitutes "reality." Along the way, every "expert" inevitably makes mistakes. So nobody yet has been an authority on knowledge, but hundreds have specialized in it, all of them worthwhile even for their mistakes. The same observations can be made in any discipline, even the hard sciences. So I don't read too much into "expertise" in Alan's phrasing. To me, the point at hand is whether it's useful to pursue expertise in anything, and the answer to that is yes. "Rationality" does have many meanings, but I can't swear off using the term just because it's imprecise. It's up to the writer (and reader) to use no more than one connotation at any particular point, at the risk of confusion (and conflations), but we do no justice to humanity by suggesting that, in the absence of complete authority on what constitutes "rationality," perhaps it's futile and wasteful to sponsor or produce experts.

  6. Yes, that describes where we differ very well. I think one can become expert(ish) is all-round thinking and argument, but this is an ill-defined set of skills. You think that because it is ill-defined, one can't become expert in it.

  7. GC, that's well said. Your point seems to me to apply in any profession. The professional expert has a body of not-easily-formulated skills and understandings. This can look foggy when one tries to describe it in general but when it is put into action it reveals its real worth. It is similar to craft knowledge in that it shows itself best in action, but it's different in that it rests on and refers back to academic research and theory.

  8. Interestingly, GC focuses on epistemology (which is narrower than philosophy as normally understood).

    And just a couple of thoughts on different senses of the word 'authority'...

    An expert, in my view, is simply someone who has specialized in and successfully mastered a particular body of practical or theoretical knowledge. Specialist or expert knowledge should be respected: the expert (by definition) speaks with authority within his or her area of expertise.

    Problems may arise from a blurring of the distinction between this kind of authority and other kinds of authority (like 'moral authority' perhaps, but especially the kind of authority that some people have to grant privileges or to constrain the freedom of others by virtue of the position to which they have been assigned (by a state or a school, for example).

  9. I guess my definition of philosophy (above) is a rather epistemologically-focused one, in agreement with GC's position, whereas yours Mark is metaphysically-focused. For my part I prefer to sit pretty loose to metaphysical matters. I don't really have any sense of how to do metaphysics. It seems to me people just choose a preferred metaphysics and run the race from there. It's inevitably a caucus race.

  10. I used epistemology as an example of a field study, to keep from muddling the discussion (since my observations are about expertise: worthwhile? yes.). Then I wouldn't have to (accidentally) defend any views on rationality, while trying to justify specialties at large and philosophy in general.
    Years ago I mused to my advisor that maybe philosophy is what we do once we're out of facts. He took this to mean "philosophy is only speculation" and that idea got him a bit ticked off. I had to think fast -- that wasn't what I meant. "Well somebody has to think about the limits of what we know, and how to get past the limits - right? First we have to know what counts as a fact (he liked that), but then, once facts are valid, philosophy is always working at the limits." Because that got me off the hook (that time), I actually learned something. From then on, it became a rule of thumb for me: in every case, speculative or otherwise, facts are first priority -- it's all about the facts. But I digress.
    "Rationality" is a tool. Like every tool, it has developed over time. The paleolithic cutting instrument today has become a stainless steel blade. Sometimes we forget how hard it was to get from there to here. I can see Alan's point in saying philosophy is the study of rationality, but I don't see any point in believing that's all philosophy is. More and more, I've come to believe that philosophy (an ocean full of hijackers and charlatans, but many talented navigators too) is the pursuit of meta-thought -- thinking that stands beyond and outside of thoughts. Thinking about what we're thinking, more or less. (Expressions like that always made my professors cringe and call me a mystic, "Do you like Hegel?" "NO" -- but I hope you get the drift.
    It's a form of thought no one goes a day without, aware of it or not. An activity; a process; not a thing. And some people like to specialize in that. I know I do.

  11. GC, as you know I too think there is often something a bit mystical (or dualistic) behind what you say. If people keep seeing it, maybe it's there!

    Alan, yes I guess I see philosophy in basically metaphysical terms because (as I see things) the really important basic questions, the real problems (other than practical or scientific ones) are – for want of a better word – metaphysical. Is the 'scientific worldview' (scientism, if you like) basically correct? Or is there a space for religion (or something like it)?

    You say you don't know how to engage with metaphysics (nor do I) but you admit that there are important differences between how people see the world.

    If I had a more or less religious view of things I would see a space for philosophy. But I do not have such a view and that is why I struggle to see a significant role for it beyond the 'philosophies of ...'. If I had to point to a core philosophical discipline (since I don't accept traditional metaphysics) it would probably be the philosophy of logic.

    1. My definition of a mystic is someone who thinks there are forms of consciousness (or things that are conscious) outside of organisms. Like "Truth Marches on Thru History, Revealing Itself to Man!" Magical attribution of substance to non-substantial things. I'm sure that's not what you think of me, is it?
      "Thinking about thinking" is a type of phrase common to German Idealists (and company), ex: Heidegger. But I don't go to such extremes as building a whole metaphysic around Thought as if it were a disembodied ghost. Like everything else humans use, thinking is a tool. Nature does not require it; nor does it require thinking to be logical. It's just something we do to survive. I don't see anything magical in that. Where my profs (and maybe you) got worried (LOL) was in their own heads, not in mine. "Thinking about thinking," to formally trained philosophers (old fashioned), conjured pictures in their heads of the thinker who makes the thinker think -- the old Cartesian ghost. The immateriality of mind.
      Mind is not immaterial. Thoughts are not immaterial. There is a physical process at work, and a physical analog for every single thought. Nothing metaphysical about it. Since I am a physicalist, I have no problem observing that philosophers think about thinking, without opening a can of worms. If you see that can open anywhere, you brought it with you. LOL.
      I have a Scandinavian/German background, and a Roman Catholic childhood to show for it. I'm familiar with the vocabulary of majickal thinking, so to speak. I have that gunmetal broodingness of the German intellectual, and I can recognize an Idealist at 100 yards. Exposure is not belief, however, and I can remember from my first day in school, thinking that nun stuff was pretty weird. Wondering why the statues in church were carved with clothes on (Jesus was naked), when it would have made sense to carve them naked and put real clothes on them later, like normal people -- what's up with that? In other words: Born Apostate. I never believed a thing they said. Especially the soul. A thing that is not a thing does not make sense to me. But for the record, phrasings such as "thinking about thinking" are made possible by that idealist vocabulary. I understand the mystical mind. I always think I'm bending it to my own use, perhaps to bend some mystical minds, until someone gets alarmed and I realize I'm failing. (Religion is the naturally superstitious "mystical" human mind at work, placed on a more formal linguistic footing. That's why it's not dead. Its roots are in primitive reason)
      All to say: your observation "maybe it's there" isn't too far off. But it's off.

  12. There's a third way of approaching philosophy, which is to see it as the study of the core concepts we employ in our apprehension of the world. This is a Socratic and Kantian view of the subject, and I think a Wittgensteinian one. I think it shows why we can't simply "do" metaphysics. When we try to do it, we encounter first the question of the language in which to frame the issues. Semantics precedes metaphysics, and maybe even precludes it, I think.

    For example, is there only one "scientific worldview"? Unpacking that idea is doing philosophy. Adjudicating on the metaphysical problem comes a long way down the track.

    1. I really like your way of putting that. It's great.

  13. "The limits of our language are the limits of our world." That sort of thing? Yes, I think I understand where you're coming from here. I can see how Kant was a precursor to this sort of approach, but I guess I will always want to move the discussion closer to the sciences. Kant himself was more scientifically engaged than most of his followers, wasn't he? And I just feel that the results of this kind of concept analysis have been rather disappointing. Why not engage more with brain science and social psychology in regard to exploring and explaining those basic concepts? Why not engage more with linguists on language matters? And why not derive one's views of 'what there is' from our best science (physics regarding the fundamental building blocks, other sciences with respect to higher order entities)?

    I guess you will see scientism here, but, unless you want to postulate some other realm not amenable to science I can't see why we should not be guided by science.

  14. In a very broad sense, science is unitary, because science is a synonym for reason. In that broad sense, we wholly agree. But if you put it to me that brain research can give us a better fix on our concepts than logical analysis, then I react with simple disbelief. If seems to me like trying to do surgery with a very blunt axe. If all you are saying is that empirical science and conceptual analysis should cooperate, then we are back on common ground. Oh the farmer and the cowman should be friends.

  15. GC, you defined meta-thought as thinking that stands beyond or outside of thoughts. Or is it just moving outside the framework of prior thinking to examine or question it, etc. I am certainly drawn to meta-thinking in the latter sense. But again I have reservations about applying terms like 'specialize' or 'expertise' to it unless it is narrowed down: I want first to specify a subject area (e.g. logic or language/linguistics or psychology or physics).

  16. Alan

    "... science is a synonym for reason..."

    Not quite clear on this. There are forms of (e.g. practical) reasoning in which we engage which are not at all scientific.

    Probably irrelevant, but your comment brings to mind Louis Rougier's idea of 'scientific philosophy' (a term he used in opposition to Neurath's preferred 'unity of science' to name the international conference he organized in Paris in 1935 on behalf of the Vienna Circle). Rougier resisted hardline physicalism and seemed to accept concepts like free will though he was not conventionally religious and restricted his philosophizing to epistemology and logic. He also wrote in the area of intellectual history and in a general way on social and economic themes. But no ethics, interestingly.

    And, by the way, I'm not saying anything like "brain research can give us a better fix on our concepts than logical analysis." I readily accept (as I stated above) "that having an understanding of how logical principles operate in formal systems and in natural language contexts is genuinely useful." I have no problem with logical analysis.

  17. By science here I was thinking of scientia, a term now nicely revived in Massimo's blog title. It's not today everyday English but it is still common in German, as Wissenschaft.

    If we go back to the 18C (as we should) "science" had not yet been demarcated as a special style of thought. Natural philosophy was part of the wider intellectual landscape. To me Rougier seems like an good Enlightenment polymath.

    Do you really have no problem with logical analysis? I thought it was just that that you were attacking! It seems I have a problem reading you correctly. Tell me again, in one sentence, what it is that you are against.

  18. My essay was an attempt to articulate some doubts (based to some extent on its history, e.g. on how philosophy has changed over time and its links with religion) about the future viability of philosophy as a stand-alone, secular academic discipline. I admit to throwing in a bit of provocative rhetoric, but I tried to keep my actual claims quite modest and qualified.

    I go back to your claim that philosophy is the normative study of rationality (which seems to make philosophy something like the queen of the sciences), and my points about how the word 'expertise' and the associated concept of epistemic authority are normally deployed and understood.

    Rereading your first comment, this sentence stood out: "... All such critiques work on the assumption that there is nothing of much importance to be said at the rational level."

    My point is that there is indeed much of importance to be said at the rational level but it is too varied – and too important – to be assigned to any one profession.