Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Standing On The Shoulders of Giants
October 21, 2012 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Holt’s philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant. At some time toward the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers faded from public life. Like the snark in Lewis Carroll’s poem, they suddenly and silently vanished. So far as the general public was concerned, philosophers became invisible.

Previously On MetaFilter
posted by jason's_planet (130 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well that was ummm..rambling and inconsequential. The notion that philosophy died when it became an academic discipline is as old as Nietzsche. Also, any discussion of Wittgenstein that purports to give a view of his philosophy and neglects the Investigations is either ill-informed or deliberately misleading.

Yay philosophy is dead! Let's get on with the philosophy.
posted by howfar at 10:00 AM on October 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Couldn't we get just one of them--just one--to go live in a barrel and carry around a lantern looking for an honest man?
posted by jfuller at 10:05 AM on October 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


You know, I suggested that for my dissertation, but my advisors said no. They made me do Postmortem Prenatal Ventilation, feminist perspectives on modern bioethics. The barrel would have been way more entertaining.
posted by dejah420 at 10:10 AM on October 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


MML: A NY Review Of Books article in which Freeman Dyson ostensibly reviews Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. Dyson ranges over such topics as posted by zamboni at 10:12 AM on October 21, 2012


The skill of this essay aside, I think it's a valid concern. Interesting that poetry disappeared at about the exact same time.
posted by msalt at 10:12 AM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


This really is an extremely silly essay.

With a few exceptions, I knew personally all the people on the science list. On the history list, I knew the names, but I did not know the people personally. On the philosophy list, I did not even know the names.

The conclusion that this justifies is: Freeman Dyson is not familiar enough with contemporary philosophy to form any reasonable judgment about it. The conclusion that this does not justify is: Philosophy is insignificant. (I mean, let's break this down into a syllogism for a second: the implied middle term is "Freeman Dyson has already heard of everyone significant.")
posted by RogerB at 10:15 AM on October 21, 2012 [13 favorites]


People saying that philosophy died in the C20th generally turn out to not have actually read very much of it. Given that Dyson apparently thinks that Wittgenstein was striving to "express the inexpressible" when his whole policy was based upon counselling Western philosophy out of the delusion that such a thing was possible, I'm inclined to trust my own judgment on whether he was a significant philosopher or a "dwarf".
posted by howfar at 10:17 AM on October 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Holt’s philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening.

The obvious flaw here is ignoring the existence of a whole tradition of philosophers, both dead and living, talking to and being listened to by the world outside. Although I guess it's a pretty easy mistake to make, since these days, they're generally called "public intellectuals", rather than philosophers.
posted by daniel_charms at 10:17 AM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's because we've got everything figured out, right? I mean, what's left to talk about?
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:23 AM on October 21, 2012


It seem like the only philosophers that inspire people now are the idiots that have nothing to do with philosophy (Ayn Rand, various "spiritual" teachers). Is this because philosophy is too hard for a non expert to even get started with any more?
posted by idiopath at 10:28 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


In my undergrad philosophy classes, we joked that there were lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow philosophy grad students. For the lowbrow, Plato had already said everything there was to say; for the middlebrow, it was Kant. The highbrow students argued with great fervor that it was Wittgenstein who'd finished it all.
posted by fatbird at 10:30 AM on October 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


Oh my. I've just discovered that my true calling in life was to be a high-brow philosophy student.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 10:36 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is this because philosophy is too hard for a non expert to even get started with any more?

Pretty much. Being an old discipline with a large body of very technical work, the amount of labour anyone needs to do to get in the door and become part of the professional discussion, is just absurd. The first way to dismiss Rand is to observe that she makes endless logical mistakes that no grad student would make, and when she does get around to actually discussing something of philosophical interest, she rehashes (badly) arguments that were made centuries ago. This is just to dismiss her (fairly, in Rand's case) as an enthusiastic amateur who didn't do the necessary legwork, and worked conclusion-first.
posted by fatbird at 10:37 AM on October 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Someone remarked the other day that "philosophy" might well be renamed "pre-science", since it is the business of thinking about things we don't understand well enough yet to construct scientific disciplines for. As someone who can rarely get his head around just what it is that pilosophers are actually trying to accomplish, this seems to make a lot of sense. Would those of you who actually understand philosophy agree, or does this framing miss the point?
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:40 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I really don't find his argument compelling. The philosophers of the 20th Century are just as well known as the scientists. The general public doesn't usually get wind of the ideas of current science for years after the event. Even in the article he is blathering on about multi-verse theories from more than 50 years ago and still has to explain them in detail because they haven't made it to the general public yet.

Similarly for say Goedels mathematical ideas are way beyond general levels of consciousness.

Compare that with the big names of the 20 th century philosophy. - Who hasn't heard of Michel Foucault, Sartre, Wittgenstein, etc..
posted by mary8nne at 10:45 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


The notion that philosophy died when it became an academic discipline is as old as Nietzsche.

Quick quiz for the philosophy experts: Which logical fallacy is on display here?
posted by DU at 10:47 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are many aspects of daily life that will never come within the purvue of science. Examples: that which cannot be observed, that which does not repeat, that which transcends the material, and that which can't be agreed upon.

Together they make up a large majority of our experience, and have an enormous impact on how and how well we'll live. Far from being insignificant or superceded, philosophies are more important then ever - 'specially in times of trouble. To the extent that we're ignorant of them, our participation in humanity is disabled. We become less than pawns in the scheme of things.
posted by Twang at 10:48 AM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


The fact that there is already a branch of philosophy called metaphysics is indicative of the relationship between it and science. Science occurs within a conceptual, linguistic, cultural and epistemological framework, it makes claims about the world in a particular intellectual context. It is less the role of philosophy to establish new fields for exploration than it is to investigate the very framework in which that exploration occurs. Those who make the scientistic argument for the end of philosophy, for example in some of the cruder approaches to cognitive science, typically neglect to account for the framework in which they make such an argument, the very framework which it is the job of philosophy to question.
posted by howfar at 10:51 AM on October 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Quick quiz for the philosophy experts: Which logical fallacy is on display here?

Well, the problem is that anglo-american (analytic) philosophy dedicated itself to the project of their austrian (see wittgenstein) forefathers of showing that the problems of philosophy (in particular metaphysics) were either linguistic fallacies or logic puzzles. having made metaphysics an un-idea, like the vanguard of the revolution, it's hardly surprising that this revolutionary class of philosophers should evaporate from history along with their long-hated foe.

also, their students, not ever having had to seriously deal with metaphysics tend to approach metaphysical problems with the simple heart of a half-educated medieval monk.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:56 AM on October 21, 2012


*Searches article for Dennett. Dennett not mentioned. Does not read article.*
posted by memebake at 11:02 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is true that philosophers are relegated to ivory towers, they are rare birds in cages. Except Ayn Rand, the philosophy of greed and me-first, the one thing people are willing to embrace in this libertarian age.
posted by stbalbach at 11:06 AM on October 21, 2012


The notion that philosophy died when it became an academic discipline is as old as Nietzsche.

Quick quiz for the philosophy experts: Which logical fallacy is on display here


In inferring an argument that is not present, you are displaying the "fallacy of extension" or "straw man fallacy". Well done! I'll tell teacher you're smart.
posted by howfar at 11:16 AM on October 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Someone remarked the other day that "philosophy" might well be renamed "pre-science", since it is the business of thinking about things we don't understand well enough yet to construct scientific disciplines for.

I always thought William Durant hit the nail on the head when he said that all science begins as philosophy and ends as art.

Philosophers who deal with very abstract, "purely" philosophical matters like analytic philosophy or epistemology are generally not well known to the wider world. Those who work in, say, ethical or political philosophy are far less obscure. Among educated people, at least, names like John Rawls or Peter Singer or Leon Kass or Alasdair MacIntyre will be at least as recognizable as any living scientist who isn't Stephen Hawking or...well, Freeman Dyson.

And of course there are the popular philosophers - like Ayn Rand, or Slavoj Zizek, or any number of others who bleed over into the category of public intellectual or lecturer or commentator.

I wonder if anyone has ever pointed out to Freeman Dyson that the vast majority of philosophers in the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries, and even back at the dawn of Greek philosophy, were obscure, unimpressive, and instantly forgotten. How many members of Plato's Academy or Aristotle's Lyceum are known to us today, or appear in the surviving literature or history of the Hellenistic era? Virtually none. Likewise, the vast hordes of Hegelian philosophers inveigled against by Marx in The German Ideology, the pompous academics who Nietzsche was so contemptuous of, the many critical colleagues of Locke, Hobbes and the like - they were as unknown outside of their universities and favored academic journals then as the folks that Dyson is condemning are now.

As for being 'influential', well, the days when a philosopher could convince or seduce an enlightened despot or clique of ruling oligarchs and thus get their views propagandized and put into practice across an entire society are over, thankfully. Newton and Locke, who Dyson mentions specifically, were operating at a very peculiar moment in history, as Rousseau was doing during the run-up to the French Revolution. There are still philosophers who manage such successes during such times, but they are rare in the West because, well, the West has been pretty well settled since 1945.

If you want to see intellectual figures and philosophers helping 'influence' history and politics, you can find them more easily outside the Western world, Sayyid al-Qutb and other Islamic thinkers, for example. But then, Dyson's view of philosophy seems likely to be a bit too narrow to include theologians....
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:19 AM on October 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


... the days when a philosopher could convince or seduce an enlightened despot or clique of ruling oligarchs and thus get their views propagandized and put into practice across an entire society are over, ...

Ayn Rand? I'd say we're on the cusp here in America. If Paul Ryan becomes Veep I'd say we're past the tipping point.

Of course I'm ignoring the argument that Rand is just a thin philosphy-ey coating over simple greed and resentment, similar to the waxy chocolatey coating on a Ding Dong.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:38 AM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Someone remarked the other day that "philosophy" might well be renamed "pre-science", since it is the business of thinking about things we don't understand well enough yet to construct scientific disciplines for. "

That's a fairly reasonable explanation of some parts of philosophy. One of the things you have to get Philosophy 101 students to understand is that there are generally not going to be "right" answers or solved problems. If philosophy actually solves a problem, it gets kicked out of philosophy. Historically we can think of things like the nature of matter, a deep concern of many Greek philosophers, which is now reasonably well understood and gets to be chemistry (mostly). Or Descartes did a lot of "philosophy" about how the human body works, as many philosophers in that era did, complete with vivisections of animals and dissections of dead criminals, which today (as we know a fair amount about how the body works) gets to be anatomy, physiology, medicine, etc.

Other areas of philosophy, like ethics or questions of political philosophy, aren't really going to have final answers. I guess if you wanted to be flippant, you could say that philosophy is made up of questions that haven't been solved yet and questions that can't be solved at all.

On the topic of the article, I do think there's a current lack of public philosophy around issues of ethics, political philosophy, etc., but I'm not sure what exactly to blame that on -- media thinking it won't sell ads? an impoverished political sphere where serious ideas aren't discussed? an uninterested public? philosophers refusing to engage with important public questions, instead preferring very esoteric, academic areas of philosophy? The academy encouraging novel work in narrow areas? The relatively extreme divorce of law and philosophy as disciplines at present? The difficulty in being a "polymath" who understands enough areas well enough to philosophize competently on complex issues of public interest? I expect all of those things and more deserve some of the blame.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:39 AM on October 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


God in Heaven, what a wonderful essay!

Thank you so much for leading me to it, jason's_planet.

Absolutely packed with illuminating things I did not know, for (a bare few) examples:
When I arrived at Cambridge University in 1946, Wittgenstein had just returned from his six years of duty at the hospital. I held him in the highest respect and was delighted to find him living in a room above mine on the same staircase. I frequently met him walking up or down the stairs, but I was too shy to start a conversation. Several times I heard him muttering to himself: “I get stupider and stupider every day.”
...
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room.
...

Holt describes a conversation between the young physicist George Gamow and the old physicist Albert Einstein when both of them were in Princeton. Gamow, the original inventor of the idea of quantum tunneling, explained to Einstein the possibility of the free lunch. Einstein was so astonished that he stopped in the middle of the street and was almost run over by a car.
...
In earlier centuries, scientists and historians and philosophers would have known one another. Newton and Locke were friends and colleagues in the English parliament of 1689, helping to establish constitutional government in England after the bloodless revolution of 1688.
...
[my emphasis]
posted by jamjam at 11:45 AM on October 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


benito.strauss: "Of course I'm ignoring the argument that Rand is just a thin philosphy-ey coating over simple greed and resentment, similar to the waxy chocolatey coating on a Ding Dong."

And the argument that Ayn Rand is a "philosopher" in the same sense that Barney the Dinasaur is a "musician".
posted by idiopath at 11:55 AM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


In inferring an argument that is not present, you are displaying the "fallacy of extension" or "straw man fallacy".

Sentence 1 was a claim.
Sentence 2 was the one I quoted.
Sentence 3 started with an "Also" and purported to support Sentence 1.
---------------------------------
Sentence 2 meant as an argument.
posted by DU at 12:01 PM on October 21, 2012


Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse . . .

Here's a maxim for all of us: never put yourself in the actual presence of anyone you've admired from afar. It cannot add anything to the joy you have had from their work, but it can ruin that joy forever.

. . . Interesting that poetry disappeared at about the exact same time.


It is, isn't it? The popular appetite for poetry, throughout the twentieth century, was increasingly sated by song lyrics, as music became more easily reproduced and consumed. I wonder if something analogous occurred as to the popular appetite for philosophy. (Mysticism, perhaps?)
posted by Countess Elena at 12:14 PM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Newton and Locke were friends and colleagues in the English parliament of 1689

This one is only half true. Newton was a Member of Parliament for Cambridge University in 1689-90 and again in 1701-02, but Locke was never in Parliament. However, both of them worked for the English government in the late 17th century, Locke in various positions related to international trade and colonial policy, Newton not so much as an MP (reportedly his only action in Parliament was to request that the windows be closed as it was too drafty) as in his work on the coinage--he was Master of the Mint for almost thirty years.

(Ironically or fittingly depending on your view of the history of liberalism, Locke helped create the legal apparatus of slavery in the American colonies.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 12:16 PM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Looks like Freeman Dyson's understanding of philosophy is as deep as his knowledge of the climate sciences.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:25 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


When Leslie published this prognostication, I protested strongly against it, claiming that it was a technically wrong use of the theory of probability. In fact Leslie’s argument was technically correct. The reason I did not like the argument was that I did not like the conclusion.

I wish he'd written in more detail about this. Like Dyson, I'm a mathematician, and like Dyson, I remember reading about this Leslie thing and thinking it was wrong. Unlike Dyson, I haven't discovered any reason to change my mind, and I'm curious what changed his.

More generally: I think questions about "how to reason in the presence of uncertainty" have a strong mathematical flavor but cannot be handled by mathematics alone. These questions are of great and immediate importance and philosophers (like Judea Pearl) have a great deal to offer about them. Then again I think many people who call themselves statisticians are at least half philosopher in this respect.

The relative merits of competing protocols for drawing conclusions from messy and incomplete observations is, in my view, way more interesting than the question of why there is something rather than nothing, a question about which I cannot personally bring myself to care. Heck, I don't even care whether there is something rather than nothing.
posted by escabeche at 12:27 PM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here's a maxim for all of us: never put yourself in the actual presence of anyone you've admired from afar. It cannot add anything to the joy you have had from their work, but it can ruin that joy forever.

As Wil Wheaton found out when he met the Shat for the first time.

Looks like Freeman Dyson's understanding of philosophy is as deep as his knowledge of the climate sciences.

Hmmm given that Dyson accepts anthropogenic climate change I guess you would be a climate change denier???

Or maybe you don't actually understand what his position is?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:33 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


How many members of Plato's Academy or Aristotle's Lyceum are known to us today, or appear in the surviving literature or history of the Hellenistic era?

As far as I know, relatively little of Hellenistic philosophy survives directly, especially in comparison with later and earlier periods: a huge amount of what people do is reconstruct it from Cicero and later sources, often confidently insisting that Cicero got it wrong (admittedly, however, I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who works on Cicero). Some of those who vanished were big names and well know to Cicero and his peers.

Not that this is an original point, but we've divided philosophy even further after its divorce from science which has its own problems. I can think of a number of people who are popularly seen more as ethicists than philosophers, like Peter Singer, but not someone who is popularly seen as a *philosopher*. (I know that ethics = moral philosophy, but I am not sure that how it is popularly seen.)

And you should never, ever meet your heroes. It never ends well.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:36 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


With a few exceptions, I knew personally all the people on the science list. On the history list, I knew the names, but I did not know the people personally. On the philosophy list, I did not even know the names.

I think that this speaks for Dyson's qualifications towards writing this piece.
posted by SollosQ at 12:40 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Other areas of philosophy, like ethics or questions of political philosophy, aren't really going to have final answers. I guess if you wanted to be flippant, you could say that philosophy is made up of questions that haven't been solved yet and questions that can't be solved at all.
This seems rather wide ranging. There are a lot of unsolved questions in the sciences -- is that all philosophy?
Like Dyson, I'm a mathematician, and like Dyson, I remember reading about this Leslie thing and thinking it was wrong
Not being a mathematician :-), it seemed wrong to me too, but one way to put it, that made sense to me, might be that the longer the human race lasts, the longer it probably will last (putting you right at the center). All else being equal, this seems reasonable, except that it assumes all else is equal. :-)
posted by smidgen at 12:43 PM on October 21, 2012


Hmmm given that Dyson accepts anthropogenic climate change I guess you would be a climate change denier???

Well, here he is featured on a denier website, here are some videos, here he is called "one of the world's foremost climate change sceptics", here's his brief Desmogblog profile... and more from RealClimate. You can do the rest of the googling.

In short, looks like Freeman Dyson's understanding of philosophy is as deep as his knowledge of the climate sciences.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:52 PM on October 21, 2012


I think philosophy has two main branches that are valuable, despite the fact that much of philosophy is not capable of providing inarguable answers.

The first is epistemology, which after sufficient work will teach you the limits of your knowledge. This process is sort of like a Zen koan: only by wrestling with the impossible for a time can you bring yourself to accept the counter-intuitive, arguably either frightening or freeing, truth: that true and certain knowledge about anything is outside your grasp, even in principle, in a way that is non-trivially meaningful.

This discovery leads to the second use of philosophy: once you understand what you do and do not (in fact, can not) know, you can develop a philosophy of life. This can be a strict intellectual philosophy (with belief but an understanding of the limits of that belief that frees you from the constant need to justify yourself) or in can be a "philosophy" in the loose sense of a set of guiding principles that aren't rigorously intellectualized. Or it can be something in between. But if you jump straight to religion or metaphysics or politics or moral philosophy or any of the other branches of academic or popular philosophy, you will be forever in danger of being led astray because you will never understand why you believe what you believe or the circumstances under which you should change your belief.
posted by gd779 at 12:58 PM on October 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


[A few comments deleted; let's move on.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:58 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are also these two important messages on the topic of Dyson and global warming.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:59 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


At some time toward the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers faded from public life.

Or, more likely, our notions of who and what counted as public life radically expanded.
posted by Casuistry at 1:01 PM on October 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


Brilliantly and succinctly put, Casuistry.
posted by howfar at 1:03 PM on October 21, 2012


> I think that this speaks towards Dyson's qualifications towards writing this piece.
> posted by SollosQ at 3:40 PM on October 21 [+] [!]

Judging by the comments so far, I am the lone and singular fpp-linkie-reading individual who knows Dyson is talking about a list specifically of philosophers of science, and one that was drawn up by a conference invitations committee at Princeton in 1979.

Depending on how idiosyncratic that committee's POV was, it's entirely possible not only that I would not recognize any of the names on the list today but that wikipedia wouldn't recognize any of them either.
posted by jfuller at 1:05 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the philosophy list, I did not even know the names.

Here is one, Slavoj Zizek. I don't know if he counts but he springs to mind at the moment.
posted by a shrill fucking shitstripe at 1:13 PM on October 21, 2012


Depending on how idiosyncratic that committee's POV was, it's entirely possible not only that I would not recognize any of the names on the list today but that wikipedia wouldn't recognize any of them either.

I read the article and saw that it was a list of philosophers of science. In fact I tried to find the list in question, but came up short.

On the one hand, I do admit I was subconsciously thinking that by not knowing a list of people in the philosophy of science equated with not knowing a list of people in philosophy equated with not knowing philosophy. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure if you gave him a list of important philosophers (either overall or in a particular area) from the 20th century he wouldn't know them either.
posted by SollosQ at 1:16 PM on October 21, 2012


[If you have a point to make about how sexism is bad, you can make it without using racial slurs.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:16 PM on October 21, 2012


In short, looks like Freeman Dyson's understanding of philosophy is as deep as his knowledge of the climate sciences.

This is a derail so I'm done after this comment, but linking to a bunch of websites bastardizing his position to bolster their own isn't really helping your argument.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:19 PM on October 21, 2012


If RealClimate, one of the most prominent climate science blogs run by NASA climate scientists, and well known and high quality websites such as DeSmogBlog, or the Independent (I could have also added edge.org) are not good enough for you, then allright, but I doubt anyone can do much better, either.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:34 PM on October 21, 2012


"This seems rather wide ranging. There are a lot of unsolved questions in the sciences -- is that all philosophy?"

I did say, "I guess if you wanted to be flippant ..."

But I was really talking about how the idea of philosophy being "pre-science" (although I don't use that term myself) can be a useful way to help beginning students understand what sorts of questions fall into the realm of "philosophy," how and why some of those questions change over time, and why philosophy doesn't really have "right answers." All of these can be a little difficult for a beginner at philosophy to wrap his or her mind around, but I think it's important for students to understand at least a little, because it makes them more willing to engage with philosophy. Just the idea of "studying philosophy" can be esoteric and offputting for students whose mental picture of it is boring dudes talking about boring things that are totally unrelated to anything in anyone's actual life. I basically teach freshman survey courses to students who are required to take the course, often for vocational programs (I spent three years teaching a state-required ethics course for men -- 98% men -- seeking diesel engine mechanic certifications, that had made the prior five adjuncts teaching it quit after one semester, three of them in tears). Maybe 20% of my students actually WANT to study philosophy, and probably 90% of them have up until this moment been exclusively in classes with "right answers," so helping them get their heads around what philosophy is and why it doesn't really have right answers is an important step to getting them willing to engage with the material. (I've talked before about how crazy-awesome it is to get to introduce "unlikely" students to philosophy ... but you've got to get them willing to try it! It's not like walking into a classroom and saying, "Okay, guys, Wittgenstein. I KNOW, right?" You've got to walk in and be like, "This is what philosophy is, this is why it matters, this is how it connects to your life, this is why this semester is going to be awesome. You're all going to do philosophy and you're going to surprise yourselves by how well you do it.")

In fact when I give this lecture and I talk about realms of knowledge and how the Greek philosophical question of "what is matter?" gets kicked out of philosophy once we have a scientific answer, I say, "Of course questions about matter are still ongoing -- I don't think any scientist would tell you their knowledge about something is "complete" -- but they're building on the scientific framework in place and so they stay in the realm of chemistry or physics or whatever ..." We also talk a little bit about philosophical questions that science might one day be able to answer -- free will is a pretty good example for my purposes, because the textbook my department uses goes a lot into "can neuroscience figure out if we actually have free will?" (I think not, personally.)

But I guess if you wanted to be flippant, all knowledge is philosophy, my good sir. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:47 PM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


What always gets me about the "what's the point of philosophy" discussions is how little people understand science. It's a bit terrifying. But I suppose on some deep level a faith in science is absolutely required these days. Is it not very close to all we have left? Is it not perhaps the only thing that might save us? Democracy is on its last legs and, let's face it, nobody can say for sure how this whole internet thing will turn out. Everybody is still waiting expectantly for their jetpacks but at least we have iphones to tide us over. But the last one was pretty disappointing... Well, we have science! But really, if we're so clear-eyed and rational, we ought to consider the fates of all gods before science and plan accordingly.

The article isn't even worth considering though it's always a bit charming to see Dyson play his rebel card. It's like when he argues against climate change and, really, I say, go for it, what good is dying if you're not going to do it on your own terms. The bravery of the dead and all that.

One thing I do always find a bit disturbing though is the intellectual pretense of media. Why do august institutions like the NYRB always have to hide their agenda behind some academic or expert? It's like when the Times trots out some idiot professor to whine about the internet or when cable news manages to dredge up some four-star to tell us how dangerous brown people are this year or, worst of all, we are instructed to take seriously the infinitely varied nonsense of some young writer whose daddy is rich or is from Indonesia. Isn't there something a bit disgusting about forcing these boring old white people to fluffle the feathers of other boring old white people? Or, in the case of the Atlantic (I think, I admit I have trouble telling the difference these days), boring young white people to rile up other boring young white people? It's incestuous and maybe even a bit pornographic. And after the monkeys do their dance we are really supposed to clap? I tell you this is far more offensive than any subreddit.

I should really like to hope that this kind of intellectual propaganda is on its way out. I imagine the idea that people used to believe what they read in newspapers will be even more incredulous than the idea that people used to read newspapers. It's not that the future will be particularly insightful or more aware -- I just feel like in terms of this kind of deliberate deception we ought to be able to do better. It works now, the newspapers can still trade on their tradition, on this unearned reputation for honesty ("we print what happened" and "first draft of history"), but how much longer will people pay for sub-par product?
posted by nixerman at 1:48 PM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


> The highbrow students argued with great fervor that it was Wittgenstein who'd finished it all.

The Investigations is the most recently written book of philosophy I have read that had me nodding like a maniac and going Yes! Yes! and left me with the overall impression "This guy really understands shit." His dissertation was much more of a slog for me, though the killer last line made it worth the effort. (To save y'all from having to look it up, it reads "When you've got nothing to say, you should STFU.")

But if I ever get a Twitter account, my tweets are absolutely going to be numbered Tractatus-style.
posted by jfuller at 2:32 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't there something a bit disgusting about forcing these boring old white people to fluffle the feathers of other boring old white people?

Some of us like being fluffled and are too cheap to pay for it.
posted by howfar at 3:00 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, I teach philosophy for a living, and I guess I don't think very highly of this piece.

For one thing, it's not right to try to put Wittgenstein at the center of contemporary analytic / anglo-American philosophy (neither term is much good, unfortunately). The early Wittgenstein is central to early Analytic philosophy, and that sort of thing still has some importance for the descendants of that movement...but only some. And when most people think of Wittgenstein, they think of the later Wittgenstein, who is not central to contemporary non-Continental philosophy. In fact, he's at the fringes, a notable outlier

There's a lot of bad philosophy today, but there's also a lot of good philosophy. It's more technical and specialized, but, overall, it's probably improved for having separated itself from history and literature and anthropology and the rest. Just as they have probably improved for having separated themselves, too. Philosophy has been diminished in significance--probably because, well, it's not so intimately tied up with so many different disciplines anymore. But it's probably better for it. Philosophy done in literature or history or anthropology departments is almost always bad philosophy. And roughly contemporary "philosophers" (broadly construed) who are popular are almost always bad to terrible. Foucault comes to mind, as does Derrida, Judith Butler...hell, even Kuhn isn't really that good, though he's head-and-shoulders above those others. Slavoj Zizek--who I'd be inclined to say is not a philosopher at all (at the risk of flirting with the No True Scotsman fallacy)--is just terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible. He'd be laughed out of virtually any reputable philosophy department in the States. The philosophy done under the guise of the "sociology of knowledge" in some sociology departments is, also, notably bad.

Philosophy's got a lot of problems. But I don't see that they author of this piece really has much interesting to say about them.

My $0.02.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 3:24 PM on October 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


So your response to someone dismissing whole swathes of philosophy out of hand is to...dismiss whole swathes of philosophy out of hand? :)

I'm not going to get into it with you, but the understanding of poststructuralism and deconstruction in most "analytic" departments I've encountered is...quirky to say the least. Not that there isn't a load of shite done in its name, of course.
posted by howfar at 3:35 PM on October 21, 2012


I would include Žižek in the "load of shite" section, btw.
posted by howfar at 3:43 PM on October 21, 2012


As someone who knows little to nothing of philosophy could anyone drop names of authors you would consider A list 20th/21st century philosophers? Also, why is Zizek "Terrible" and "load of shite"? If it's to much to get into I understand.
posted by a shrill fucking shitstripe at 3:58 PM on October 21, 2012


There are more philosophers in the 20th and 21st centuries than are dreamt of in your heaven and earth, Dyson.
posted by Foosnark at 4:04 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Brian Leiter: Why the New York Review of Each Other's Books Asked Freeman Dyson to review... a popular work on philosophy is far from obvious, though the most likely explanation is the long-standing hostility of the NYREOB's editor, Robert Silvers, towards philosophy. But he certainly got the hatchet job he wanted.
posted by homunculus at 4:06 PM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Leiter recently co-wrote a review of Thomas Nagel's new book Mind and Cosmos: Do You Only Have a Brain? On Thomas Nagel
posted by homunculus at 4:08 PM on October 21, 2012


Shrill, I would definitely put Thomas Nagel on the A list, and on top of that, he's pretty readable.
posted by fatbird at 4:28 PM on October 21, 2012


All I learned is that Freeman Dyson is yet another person in the world whose ideas and words are not worth my energy and attention. What a relief!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:39 PM on October 21, 2012


Shrill: Frege, C. S. Peirce, C. I. Lewis, Russell, Wittgenstein, P. F. Strawson, Saul Kripke, Quine, Sellars, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Hillary Putnam, David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel, Timothy Williamson, Davidson, Dummett.

A real haphazard list, but that's a drop in the bucket of what an "A-list" list of philosophers would look like.
posted by SollosQ at 4:55 PM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


After the article I was left wondering who the Teslas, Einsteins, Bohrs, Pastureurs, Curies, Darwins, and Newtons of today are.
posted by jade east at 5:05 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just to add to SollosQ's list: Chomsky??? I mean besides his political views his ideas about language have been pretty influential. I'm thinking here specifically about his claims that language is a natural object and the concept of discrete infinity.

Jaegwon Kim is also another I would add to the list.

Speaking of sexism where are all the women philosophers?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 5:19 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Philosophy done in literature or history or anthropology departments is almost always bad philosophy. And roughly contemporary "philosophers" (broadly construed) who are popular are almost always bad to terrible. Foucault comes to mind, as does Derrida, Judith Butler...hell, even Kuhn isn't really that good, though he's head-and-shoulders above those others. Slavoj Zizek--who I'd be inclined to say is not a philosopher at all (at the risk of flirting with the No True Scotsman fallacy)--is just terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible. He'd be laughed out of virtually any reputable philosophy department in the States. The philosophy done under the guise of the "sociology of knowledge" in some sociology departments is, also, notably bad.

Interesting. What are the weaknesses of these bad popular philosophers you cite?
posted by jason's_planet at 5:31 PM on October 21, 2012


God in Heaven, what a wonderful essay!

Thank you so much for leading me to it, jason's_planet.


You're welcome, sir! Glad you liked it!
posted by jason's_planet at 5:33 PM on October 21, 2012


Real, live practitioners of philosophy judge some of the most important thinkers of the 20th century (Foucault, Butler, Kuhn [!], Derrida) inconsequential as philosophers?

Why am I not at all surprised so many others consider philosophy irrelevant?

Wallow in it.
posted by mistersquid at 6:05 PM on October 21, 2012


Did you ever notice that philosophers seem to think that everyone else is also trying to do philosophy, and that they are doing it really wrong? Probably other types of people do that too, with their fields.
posted by thelonius at 6:07 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Real, live practitioners of philosophy judge some of the most important thinkers of the 20th century (Foucault, Butler, Kuhn [!], Derrida) inconsequential as philosophers?

Welcome to the analytic/continental divide.
posted by felix grundy at 6:13 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Welcome to the analytic/continental divide.

Can you say more about this? I remember from my undergrad days this feeling I got from the few philosophy courses that I took that the mainstream of philosophy didn't think that the deconstructionist/feminist critiques of their approach was even worth talking about. This has never made sense to me.
posted by overglow at 6:18 PM on October 21, 2012


I don't even know how people function as human beings without learning about philosophy. Even if philosophers never come up with anything else new, there will always be room for philosophers to curate and rework and explain and adapt all the work of earlier philosophers to new audiences, and that integrates new discoveries in science.

That said, I think a philosophy that ignores science is kind of dead and useless.
posted by empath at 6:28 PM on October 21, 2012


Terrible, terrible, terrible. He'd be laughed out of virtually any reputable philosophy department in the States.

i have no great interest in zizek but this is such a funny put-down, so bitchy and so self-referential. X is of no worth because I, philosopher in American philosophy department, don't find them worthwhile.

Can you say more about this? I remember from my undergrad days this feeling I got from the few philosophy courses that I took that the mainstream of philosophy didn't think that the deconstructionist/feminist critiques of their approach was even worth talking about. This has never made sense to me.

It all comes down to how you feel about Kant's program to advance metaphysics the way newton and leibniz had advanced physics/mathematics. most american philosophers descend from the "vienna circle" via Russel and Whitehead.

See Dennett, student of Quine, student of Whitehead...

Let's hear Carnap on metaphysics:
A language—says Carnap—consists of a vocabulary, i.e. a set of meaningful words, and a syntax, i.e. a set of rules governing the formation of sentences from the words of the vocabulary. Pseudo-statements, i.e. sequences of words that at first sight resemble statements but in reality have no meaning, are formed in two ways: either meaningless words occur in them, or they are formed in an invalid syntactical way. According to Carnap, pseudo-statements of both kinds occur in metaphysics.
So, after the Vienna circle, the project for philosophy (if you are an analytic philosopher) is to show that all statements in metaphysics are either syllogisms or pseudo-statements. If this is your viewpoint than most philosophy is completely irrelevant. It makes Russell's famous book "History of Western Philosophy" a sort of sarcastic joke because he (Russell/Whitehead) believe it's all basically irrelevant thanks to SCIENCE.

I think the way to think about analytic philosophy is as a cargo-cult of science. They tend to fetishize what they see as the methodology of science, hence the obsessive focus on formal logic in most American philosophy departments, with all the funny notation that actual math students laugh at. Pragmatism became the latest fad in American philosophy after everyone got tired of working out the logical structure of various sentences and in particular after logical positivism (the dessicated corpse of the vienna circle) was made a laughing-stock by people like Popper and even Quine himself. While the pragmatists sometimes pay lip service to William James they are mostly all students of analytic philosophy and pray to the various gods of naive empiricism (though try to get them to admit it.)
posted by ennui.bz at 6:46 PM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Shrill, I would add Derek Parfit to the list, and I'm surprised he hasn't been mentioned already. Reasons and Persons couldn't be more timely, given its relevance to examining the ethical implications of climate change. I haven't had a chance to read his latest book, though.
posted by Cash4Lead at 7:29 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I love Sophia. But some of these arguments almost make me doubt my true love.
posted by ovvl at 7:36 PM on October 21, 2012


overglow: "I remember from my undergrad days this feeling I got from the few philosophy courses that I took that the mainstream of philosophy didn't think that the deconstructionist/feminist critiques of their approach was even worth talking about. This has never made sense to me."

If they engaged in anything like a coherent discourse with one another, it would not remain a divide.
posted by idiopath at 7:36 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention.

This is completely untrue. Several of Wittgenstein's closest intellectual friends were women (G.E.M. Anscombe being the obvious example).
posted by phrontist at 8:51 PM on October 21, 2012


Here are a bunch of thoughts, mainly about things mentioned in this thread. I feel like we've discussed an article with nearly-identical substance not very long ago (philosophy is dead, quoth some famous person in another discipline), and I don't have a lot of appetite for engaging with most of that argument again. But, a few thoughts...

- Yes, Wittgenstein did have female students. Alice Ambrose (later Lazerowitz) was one of his close students.

- On the analytic-continental divide, we're discussed this a number of times before and lazy stuff from either side, or from grandstanding public intellectuals who don't know what's going on in present day philosophy has been the cause before too, IIRC.

Roughly, there are two traditions, and they don't cross-reference very much. This is fine. There is also some academic signaling going on. People on the analytic side need to signal that they think the continentals are hiding shabby thinking in grandiose rhetoric. People on the continental side (or people in literature etc departments who are brought up in the tradition of Literary Theory) need to signal that they think the analytics are covering dry oversimplifications in unearned scientific rhetoric. But typically people on either side are not well-read in the literature of the other side (because the other side is worthless, so why should they) - so if you ask what's the difference, you get mostly this kind of dismissal of the other side. It is not illuminating.

My background is on the analytic side, which today is the overwhelmingly dominant strain of philosophy departments in the Anglo-American academic world; so much so that I will use the term "mainstream" philosophy for it. (Older continentals like Hegel and Heidegger do get a hearing in these mainstream philosophy departments, but the newer ones like Derrida don't really. The latter-day continental thinkers are much more commonly studied and taken seriously in departments other than philosophy - eg literature, film studies, etc.)

Many people in the mainstream Anglo-American departments would say that "there's no real analytic continental divide." I think this is misleading, because there is a very real division between these traditions in terms of the social facts of the discipline - eg, whose work you need to refer to when writing an article. But when people deny there's a split, they mean something like this:

...once upon a time, in the middle 20th century, there was a coherent program called "analytic philosophy", coming from the Vienna Circle stuff that was mentioned above. But that unified consensus has since broken up. It took damage from Quine, then from Kripke and the flood of people like Davidson and Lewis in the later 20th c; and there was a rise and fall of Wittgensteinians who were a very powerful faction in the mid-20th century and then much, much less so by the late 20th c. Late century agenda, background assumptions, and methodological consensus was radically different from the consensus in 1950. Note that mid-20th c is when the split really becomes set in stone, so continental stereotypes of analytic come from this time.

Today in mainstream philosophy, there is a huge resurgence of people doing a priori metaphysics of a kind that would make the early analytics/positivists blanch. They do use and prize logical machinery extremely highly. The method is still like the sciences in the following way: assume we're all working on roughly one big body of common understanding, so for your own research you can bite off one very narrow problem. Consequence: most of the highly-prestiged-within-the-discipline work of philosophers in mainstream phil depts is totally inaccessible to laypeople (too technical) and is dull (addresses only small slivers of problems, does not address Life's Big Questions at all). And university publicity depts don't write press releases for every little discovery that is one small piece of a big puzzle, which does happen in the sciences (because they can get more support for grants/funding that way?).

- Further problem for mainstream phil: few public emissaries or high-powered-within-the-discipline figures who are focused on public outreach, outreach to other disciplines, or even pedagogy. (There are certainly a few.) It's a very interesting question why this is so - disciplinary incentives -- what is rewarded within the field -- is one possibility. Anyway, philosophy should be doing a lot better on this than it is. The APA is currently undergoing big internal debates over whether it can start to play unifying and publicizing role; Leiter's blog, linked by homunculus above, is the place to watch for updates.

- Leiter also periodically runs informal polls of his readers (mostly philosophers in mainstream depts). Here's one that might help with a question asked above about recent important names; you can search around his site for one that more directly answers the "recent" question, too:
Who are the most important philosophers of the 20th century?

- Here's an old answer I gave which talks a bit about the situation for women: Where are the famous female philosophers?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:57 PM on October 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


Wow, I missed out a paragraph in there. What it was meant to say was roughly:

People in mainstream phil depts say there's no analytic/continental split. What they mean is that "analytic philosophy" as a comprehensive program is no more. That midcentury set of shared assumptions etc has been superseded and what we're doing today is something different, a descendant of it. They also mean that they are open to reading people like Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger in some circumstances, and they don't disdain "metaphysics" in the way that the midcentury analytics did. I generally take this "there's no split" stuff to mean "the split is exaggerated, or it's not as absolute as it once was."
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:02 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


And of course there are plenty of figures who aren't neatly fit into either label, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:19 PM on October 21, 2012


There's a lot of bad philosophy today, but there's also a lot of good philosophy. It's more technical and specialized, but, overall, it's probably improved for having separated itself from history and literature and anthropology and the rest. Just as they have probably improved for having separated themselves, too. Philosophy has been diminished in significance--probably because, well, it's not so intimately tied up with so many different disciplines anymore. But it's probably better for it. Philosophy done in literature or history or anthropology departments is almost always bad philosophy. And roughly contemporary "philosophers" (broadly construed) who are popular are almost always bad to terrible. Foucault comes to mind, as does Derrida, Judith Butler...hell, even Kuhn isn't really that good, though he's head-and-shoulders above those others. Slavoj Zizek--who I'd be inclined to say is not a philosopher at all (at the risk of flirting with the No True Scotsman fallacy)--is just terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible. He'd be laughed out of virtually any reputable philosophy department in the States. The philosophy done under the guise of the "sociology of knowledge" in some sociology departments is, also, notably bad.

i have no great interest in zizek but this is such a funny put-down, so bitchy and so self-referential. X is of no worth because I, philosopher in American philosophy department, don't find them worthwhile.

This. I don't want to slander the discipline, but I think the best thing the professionalization of philosophy and relative sidelining of it from mainstream discourse has done for us as a society is to get it out of where it doesn't belong. Sociology is sociology, it studies what people do in (as best it can define) their natural and artificial groupings, it does not and should not make general prescriptions about what is best. Same with math, physics, and the rest. We now have a professionally trained caste of bullshit-callers who can tell the rest of us in very thorough terms why we need to STFU. Why don't they get more attention? They're a drag.

But I am grateful they exist as they do, in their ivory towers, because when those of us here on the ground get the impulse to feel smarter than we are, we look up and see them, gods towering high above the petty temporal grievances we mortals harbor, slinging their immaculately researched and logically infallible barbs at one another, arguing brilliantly about the nature of brilliance itself, and then we look back at O'Reilly, and the bickering housewife trying to get an expired coupon recognized by the half-asleep cashier at the supermarket, and the protestations from politicians that we need lower taxes, and we can see through it. It's hormones and fatigue and fear and greed. And if we study it enough, we learn how to combat those things. And I think it's there, indirectly, that philosophers have a much larger impact on public life than we recognize. You're the ones who teach us how to argue, how to think, who build the weapons to tear down bad science, fallacious rhetoric, and angry demands. And you leave them lying everywhere. You matter more than you know. Thank you.
posted by saysthis at 10:46 PM on October 21, 2012


I think the way to think about analytic philosophy is as a cargo-cult of science. They tend to fetishize what they see as the methodology of science, hence the obsessive focus on formal logic in most American philosophy departments, with all the funny notation that actual math students laugh at. Pragmatism became the latest fad in American philosophy after everyone got tired of working out the logical structure of various sentences and in particular after logical positivism (the dessicated corpse of the vienna circle) was made a laughing-stock by people like Popper and even Quine himself. While the pragmatists sometimes pay lip service to William James they are mostly all students of analytic philosophy and pray to the various gods of naive empiricism (though try to get them to admit it.)

This comment is ... strange.

As far as I can tell, logicians don't think that what they're doing is methodologically very close to science -- unless you're thinking that mathematics is a science, in which case, there has surely been enough overlap between philosopher-logicians and "actual" mathematicians in the last hundred and fifty years to think that they are similar. I'm also not at all sure what you have in mind when you say that actual math students laugh at the notation in formal logic. In many cases, philosophers and mathematicians use the same notation. And when the notations are different, are they laughing at the notation or at how the notation is being applied? Because if it is the first, that's kind of shallow. I mean, I don't especially like the old horseshoe material conditional that Russell and Whitehead used, but it would be very odd to reject their mathematical/logical/philosophical claims on that basis, wouldn't it?

Philosophers of science today don't seem to care all that much about logic. If they are generalists, they are much more likely to care about probability. But more often, contemporary philosophers of science are pretty closely connected to one or another special science and use the notation in that science. It would be a bit weird if this didn't happen, since many philosophers of science have advanced degrees in the sciences they care about.

The remarks about pragmatism are at least as odd. Pragmatism is hardly mainstream in contemporary American philosophy. (More's the pity, I say.) But anyway, if there were more pragmatists, that would hardly cut down on the formal logic. After all, Peirce was both the father of pragmatism and one of the early developers of mathematical logic. C.I. Lewis, a second generation pragmatist, was the first person to formalize modal logic in a way that stuck. And Quine, who had strong pragmatist leanings, was one of the founding editors of the Journal of Symbolic Logic.

Similarly, more pragmatism probably wouldn't mean less empiricism. Peirce was a self-described empiricist. And James was a radical one. Which makes me wonder what contrast you are trying to draw between contemporary philosophers and James. Do you mean to say that James was just less naive? Maybe, but it hardly seems to me that contemporary treatments of empiricism, like this one by Anil Gupta are naive. On the other hand, if the claim is that contemporary philosophers are empiricists whereas James was not (which is the way I read the remark), then the claim is false.

I'd love to know why you think Popper and Quine not only killed off logical positivism/empiricism but also turned it into a laughingstock. It seems to me that logical empiricism was not so much killed off as that it died a natural death as proponents took on other projects, changed their minds, or died. But most of the key doctrines, insofar as there even were key doctrines, of logical empiricism are still held by a large number of contemporary philosophers. The SEP article on logical empiricism might be helpful here.

As to philosophers fessing up to being naive empiricists, well, I don't want to endorse the naivety, but I'll cop to the empiricism. As would about a third of contemporary philosophers, it seems. (If you're wondering about the rest, it looks like slightly fewer lean toward or endorse rationalism and the rest -- about 37% -- think there is some other option.)
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:52 PM on October 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Foucault comes to mind, as does Derrida, Judith Butler...hell, even Kuhn isn't really that good, though he's head-and-shoulders above those others.

They are indeed so terrible and inconsequential as philosophers that one of them barely managed to get to no. 1 in this list of Most cited authors of books in the humanities, 2007, and the others are barely hanging on at no. 3 and 9.

Meanwhile, true, proper, good philosophy has carefully shut itself into their own departments, quoting mostly each other and ignored by all of the humanities, and thus is their seriousness and depth revealed to all.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:32 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Part of it, I think, is that we don't really trust intellectuals anymore. To some extent, we kinda let them run the twentieth century, and it turned into a slaughterhouse, with a lasting impact on how likely we are to let them guide our decisions now.

Part of it is the hyper-specialization and attendant difficulty in demonstrating relevance.

Part of it is that things that used to be "philosophy" are now done in other fields; a lot of what passes now as literary criticism or anthropology or other things would have been clearly labeled as philosophy a century ago.

A big part of it is just that we -- by which I mean Western culture in general -- don't collectively value rigorous, disciplined thought anymore. And that's a lot of what we used to rely on philosophers to do, as evidenced by the fact that a whole lot of philosophy's former domain is now just called "science". We have on the one hand people who are hostile to the very notion, preferring to trust their "gut". And on the other hand people who are exceedingly hostile to anything with an odor of Dead White Men about it. And on the other other hand, which is actually the big one, people who have just never been exposed to the idea of sitting down and really thinking about things, and so see it as an utterly alien thing that they don't understand.
posted by ubernostrum at 2:11 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm sort of surprised by the defensive reaction to this piece. I read the essay over the weekend, and then I read Leiter's blogpost, which -- merits aside -- reads like a bit of venomous gossip: "New York Review of Other People's Books," the supposed "long-standing hostility" of Robert Silvers to "philosophy"*, the piece is a "hatchet job."

Dyson does not say that philosophy is "dead." His point is not very subtle, but it's a little subtler than that. He says that the worldly influence of philosophers (apparently meaning, academic philosophers in the broadly "analytic" tradition), seems very small compared with the great old names we're familiar with. This may be debatable but it seems at least plausible, and it's not necessarily a bad thing.

-----
*To philosophy? All philosophy? Philosophers frequently appear in the NYRB, and not "outsider" philosophers lobbing epithets from faraway English departments, but people at the heart of the profession. Dennett has appeared many times; Nagel; Jeremy Waldron; Ronald Dworkin. This is a New York-centric list but whatever. It's also a law-and-politics-centric list, but it's still philosophy rather than anti-philosophy. I remember opening the NYRB a number of years ago and reading a long precis by Dworkin of some reimagining by him of Rawls's original position idea, involving like a desert island or something. Don't think I particularly liked it; pretty sure it was philosophy. One suspects Leiter is just discounting philosophers he doesn't like; he is a critic of Dworkin for example (with justice, I think).
posted by grobstein at 9:18 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am curious about the utility of learning philosophy. If the field doesn't accomplish any tangible goal, what good is it? I have heard it said that philosophy "teaches us to think more rigorously which lets us better apply our knowledge to other fields." However, for a group of people alledgedly concerned with logical thought, it's striking that this claim has never been empirically tested. You would think that if this were factually true, studies of philosophy majors careers would clearly show more success and accomplishment than those of other graduates.

I want to clarify that my question is not intended to critique the practice of philosophy (ie, the utility of original thought is not under debate) but rather whether we are teaching it in the right way. After all, anybody can philosophize (ie, come up with a philosophy of life, abstract ideas about the universe, subjective reality, etc), but if "professional philosophers" are going to claim that their academic credentials make them more qualified than a layman, it seems to me that they ought to demonstrate some objective proof that their "insights" are indeed of higher value. Otherwise, how can we be sure that this is not simply a branch of academic snobbery?
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:17 AM on October 22, 2012


utility [...] tangible goal [...] what good [...] empirically tested [...] factually true [...] success and accomplishment [...] objective proof [...] higher value

Philosophy: You're soaking in it!
posted by RogerB at 10:29 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Philosophy: You're soaking in it!

Thank you... I think? And yet I never majored in it at all, which possibly buttresses my point, depending on whether what you said was a criticism or a compliment.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:40 AM on October 22, 2012


The point of the joke is that every question you asked is in fact a philosophical question, every term a philosophical term — that is, answering it (indeed just defining its terms) would involve doing philosophy, participating in longstanding and difficult philosophical arguments, not just standing on some "objective" point outside philosophy and pronouncing upon it. You don't get to pretend that your favorite definition of the good, truth, etc. is the universal yardstick by which you can judge all philosophy, because dispute over the definition of the good, truth, etc. is what philosophy is.
posted by RogerB at 10:51 AM on October 22, 2012


"If the field doesn't accomplish any tangible goal, what good is it? I have heard it said that philosophy "teaches us to think more rigorously which lets us better apply our knowledge to other fields." However, for a group of people alledgedly concerned with logical thought, it's striking that this claim has never been empirically tested. You would think that if this were factually true, studies of philosophy majors careers would clearly show more success and accomplishment than those of other graduates."

Uh, it's empirically tested all the time and a popular "man bites dog" story in annual college issues from various magazines and newspapers, so I'm surprised you've never seen this data referenced. LMGTFY:

"A recent comprehensive study of college students' scores on major tests used for admission to graduate and professional schools shows that students majoring in Philosophy received scores substantially higher than the average on each of the tests studied. The study compared the scores of 550,000 college students who took the LSAT, GMAT, and the verbal and quantitative portions of the GRE with data collected over the previous eighteen years and was conducted by the National Institute of Education and reported in THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. "

Mid-career salary: " The starting median salary for Business Management majors is $43,000, while the starting median salary for Philosophy majors is $39,900. By mid-career, the median salary for Business Management majors has risen to $72,100, while the median salary for Philosophy majors has jumped to $81,200."

Top ten degrees for employability, UK (Philosophy is #8). In the U.S. they have an oft-quoted (but apparently uncited) 98% employment rate.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:16 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Eyebrows, thanks for the links - this is exactly what I was looking for.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:22 AM on October 22, 2012


People outside of the sciences can do science too. People outside of literature departments, outside of foreign language departments, social science depts, etc can do those things.

I'm not sure why these facts are supposed to entail that nobody should be studying those fields at a high level, in a community of experts organized around peer review and other institutional checks meant to promote the best stuff (the most original, rigorous, insightful, etc articles and research programs). I'm not sure what external measure of the quality of philosophical insight or progress you intend to apply.

I can show you the charts where philosophy majors do better on the GRE and LSAT than almost any other major, but that's inconclusive since it may be that people who are already skilled in those things choose the major more often. And student "success" after university is not an easy thing to measure since I think we wouldn't all agree that high paychecks are the best benchmarks to use - again there's a selection bias where students who are aiming for high paychecks as a major criterion in their own vision of success are less likely to choose a philosophy major than a preprofessional major.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:24 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


"A recent comprehensive study of college students' scores on major tests used for admission to graduate and professional schools shows that students majoring in Philosophy received scores substantially higher than the average on each of the tests studied. The study compared the scores of 550,000 college students who took the LSAT, GMAT, and the verbal and quantitative portions of the GRE with data collected over the previous eighteen years and was conducted by the National Institute of Education and reported in THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. "

Mid-career salary: " The starting median salary for Business Management majors is $43,000, while the starting median salary for Philosophy majors is $39,900. By mid-career, the median salary for Business Management majors has risen to $72,100, while the median salary for Philosophy majors has jumped to $81,200."

Top ten degrees for employability, UK (Philosophy is #8). In the U.S. they have an oft-quoted (but apparently uncited) 98% employment rate.

I've seen these statistics many times, but they are unsatisfying: there is no evidence as to causal direction.

Does philosophy coursework make students brighter and more employable, which is what you seem to be implying? Or do brighter students preferentially select into the philosophy department for some reason? And do better schools have more students in philosophy departments, and fewer in administration, management, communications? Etc. The latter class of causal stories seems pretty plausible.

For example, philosophy majors are often required to take a logic class; many students find such classes difficult; students sort out of classes that they find difficult. So students that major in philosophy are a stronger group because of selection effects, and not necessarily because training in philosophy makes them stronger in any measurable way.

I recognize that these statistics seem to support the "right side," pro-humanities, pro-thinking about interesting things. But they are not by themselves very convincing. We need subtler comparisons, for example difference-in-difference studies of how much students improve over 4 years of a philosophy degree vs. other degrees. Those may be out there but they don't seem to come up in this sort of discussion.
posted by grobstein at 11:28 AM on October 22, 2012


Ha, should have previewed, thanks for linkage, Eyebrows. Yes, there are a bunch of measures showing people who come out with philosophy majors are fucking smart. It is a good idea for employers to hire people who are smart.

Again though I should point out, even with the midcareer salary difference I'm not sure we can attribute that to the major's effects - there's a big selection bias and a very different overall population chooses philosophy as a major than those who choose business. Does philosophy make people smarter? I think so. But I also think smarter people choose to major in it, just considering all majors in the aggregate. Many fewer people choose to major in it as well, and it's possible there is a social class bias too, that upper-middle class people with better pre-college education and better family connections and more family support and socialization that prepares them for high-earning careers are more likely to choose a philosophy major.

This is one problem for promoting philosophy -- philosophers are typically unwilling to allow imprecise thinking even in sound bites promoting the field.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:30 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I've definitely seen a lot of social class bias in major choices in the areas where I've been. But I think there is some data that can address these questions more specifically -- my state university system breaks out a fairly large quantity of data by major with socioeconomic status of students upon entry to college, and you can slice and dice the data in a huge variety of ways, and they're tracking post-collegiate employment, for reports to the legislature about how the university system is serving the state.

(I've seen the major data broken out primarily to point out the incredibly poor outcomes in my state of the highly-regimented-by-the-state undergraduate teaching degrees, where students underachieve compared to socioeconomic peers in other programs, come out with the lowest average GPAs in universally-required classes (English Comp, say) but the highest average GPAs in major-only classes, perform poorly on GREs, LSATs, etc., and show little subject-matter specific knowledge. In short, the programs are totally lacking in rigor and the state keeps trying to fix it by doubling down on more of the same.)

Obviously that's not capturing ALL college students (and obviously there's some serious self-selection for private schools), but a large state university system with a well-regarded R1 flagship does capture a pretty decent cross-section and a large sample size.

Anyway, I personally wouldn't make the argument about philosophy being a good thing to study because it gets you a higher salary or whatever other measure of success; I think it's a crucially important thing to study because it makes you a better person. But that would be a whole different discussion. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:05 PM on October 22, 2012


Sure, I recognize that correlation does not equal causality, but up until now no philosophy major has been able to even demonstrate correlation to me via hard data - instead, when confronted about utility, they babble on about how "everything is ultimately built on philosophical thought" and completely ignore the distinction between building things on philosophical thought and needing a philosophy degree to be able to do so. So you can see why I tend to be a bit skeptical about the intelligence level of philosophy majors - in my past experiences with them (prior to this, I mean) they've always given me the impression of being self-aggrandizing idiots who conflate things too often.

Obviously I plan to fact check your sources thoroughly but so far it all looks very professional, so I may actually have to change my mind about philosophy's utility. Well done, sir (or madam)! I admire the efficiency of your proof.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 12:11 PM on October 22, 2012


(Eyebrows, I absolutely did not mean to suggest you were unaware of the caveats I mentioned! Sorry if it sounded like I was doing that. And it's great that your state u allows slicing the data that way; very useful.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:17 PM on October 22, 2012


I have a BA Honours in philosophy, and have gone on to work in computers my whole life, mainly in web development and IT. Anecdotally, my experience didn't make me smarter, or better able to understand everything because everything is ultimately built on philosophical thought. What it did was knock a lot of silly thinking and bad mental habits out of me. It screwed my head on quite tightly, and that's made all the difference. In the same way that it's pretty hard to get a degree in physical education and not be in good physical shape at the end of it, a degree in philosophy tends to produce people who are capable at unromantic, disciplined, principled abstract thinking, which seems obviously beneficial in an individual's life.

Many other degrees will do the same thing. But a philosophy degree seems the most direct way of straightforwardly exercising the brain.
posted by fatbird at 12:43 PM on October 22, 2012



I understand the utility of studying philosophy for personal development. But I feel like whenever I've seen this discussion, I see a variant of the "philosophy, you're soaking in it" response which points out the terms that come from philosophy itself -- yet these terms, logical fallacies and various empirical methods are not particularly new. They are worthy of study -- but are not modern.

I realize this is probably because of my ignorance, but I remain highly skeptical of the bits I've read by some of the luminaries mentioned above. Either they are newly discovering facts (and falsehoods) scientists and mathematicians have already discovered or are on their way to discover by more disciplined means, or they are looking backwards -- trying to reveal the world around them by constructing fantasy worlds in their head.

In my experience, the one thing that philosophy students seem to be really good at is on the fly bullshitting -- which would incidentally correlate well with general success (e.g. salary), but isn't necessarily a positive attribute.

On the other hand, philosophy should have something new to say about unquantifiable things like ethics. So, I remain torn between wanting to see people make progress on a calculus of ethics, and not wanting to hear yet another argument from authority. :-)
posted by smidgen at 12:49 PM on October 22, 2012


Well, I have a feeling there is going to be some slippery equivocation concerning what will count as "new" vs "bullshitting". Sure, philosophers aren't making a lot of huge paradigm-making discoveries, they're thinking about one little sub-problem within a set of established approaches - but that's true of a lot of fields, due to the hyper-specialization of academia. People in mainstream philosophy would, mostly, laugh you out of the room if you tried to present your New Unified Theory of Life or whatever; it's just not the way the field operates. Incremental progress on small questions. It is much more boring than what people want philosophers to do; it is much less swashbuckling or whatever. Ditto for a lot of academics in various fields. ("Oh, you're a marine biologist, awesome, you must study dolphins!" "Nope, I study larva of tiny organisms you've never heard of")

You can look around on various SEP pages to see some examples of what's "recent" in various ethical fields. Scroll to the bottom generally for quick looks at the most recent stuff - eg new objections to rule consequentialism. It is dry and inside-baseball; that doesn't mean it's worthless or not a real field or whatever.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:13 PM on October 22, 2012


Also bear in mind that people have been working on the big problems of philosophy (what are the basic categories of reality and of our experience, how should we act, how can we be sure of what we think we know, what makes a solid argument) for a hell of a lot longer than they've been working on problems in eg molecular genetics. Younger fields will naturally have more frequent big basic discoveries, and be making progress really fast, and not have a lot of older literature they need to refer to.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:22 PM on October 22, 2012


So, an anecdote. Which I know is not a datum, but illustrates something that I think is important.

I grew up pretty poor, and through a combination of work and a lot of luck got to go to a pretty expensive private college, where I did a degree in philosophy. One of my friends was the son of a corporate executive, who would send him bottles of Scotch that cost more than my total net worth for the first several years after I graduated.

But the interesting thing about his dad was how much he pushed a broad liberal-arts education; he said something once to the effect that "I could hire someone straight out of one of the humanities departments, and in six months or so teach them everything they'd need to know to get started in business. I could hire someone out of the business department and never manage to teach them to think."

That surprised me at the time, since I was accustomed to the idea that the humanities were the "useless" majors. But now, I think I see a lot of what he was getting at. And, predictably, I am now a huge advocate for a broad liberal-arts education, regardless of what department it ends up awarding a degree from.
posted by ubernostrum at 1:46 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dyson has described himself as "a practising, but not a believing, Christian", and I think there are indications, some in this essay, that the latter half of that declaration may not be as true now as formerly, and that when Dyson chides philosophy here because "Modern departments of philosophy have no place for the mystical", he deplores a lack of concern for "man's (sic!) ultimate concern."

The natural and clever juxtaposition of "Standing On The Shoulders of Giants" and "they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs" is especially tickling to me because Newton's most famous line ("If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants") comes from a 1676 letter to his only real rival in England Robert Hooke, who has been described as of "crooked and low stature", and is considered by many to have been a vicious swipe.
posted by jamjam at 2:15 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are a few good comments in that Leiter thread that homunculus linked above, concerning Wittgenstein's female students, if anyone's curious about that.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:46 PM on October 22, 2012


realize this is probably because of my ignorance, but I remain highly skeptical of the bits I've read by some of the luminaries mentioned above

It really does sound like ignorance, I'm afraid. Philosophy, like any discipline, really isn't something you can understand by reading 'bits'. If someone told you they thought physics was bullshit because they'd read a few quotes or even papers and weren't convinced, you'd likely think them a little foolish.
posted by howfar at 3:11 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


If someone told you they thought physics was bullshit because they'd read a few quotes or even papers and weren't convinced, you'd likely think them a little foolish.

But let's face it, physics has some pretty impressive results that belie the claim that it is bullshit (you're typing on one of them). What are the equivalent results for (recent) philosophy
posted by benito.strauss at 4:19 PM on October 22, 2012


But let's face it, physics has some pretty impressive results that belie the claim that it is bullshit (you're typing on one of them). What are the equivalent results for (recent) philosophy

Depending on what you mean by "recent," it's probably not unfair to answer with: "You're typing on one."
posted by grobstein at 4:25 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, I have a feeling there is going to be some slippery equivocation concerning what will count as "new" vs "bullshitting".
Not every exchange needs to be adversarial. I don't appreciate the framing or the implication.

I will admit to being quick on the trigger, and honestly, flat wrong some (more than some) of the time, but I will not tolerate people anticipating an argument in bad faith.

Anyway, the SEP link is facinating, thanks.
thought physics was bullshit because they'd read a few quotes or even papers and weren't convinced, you'd likely think them a little foolish.
Well, most people don't believe GPS devices use magic runes, so there is that. Of course, you could make a similar argument that bayesian reasoning emerges from philosophy into machine learning, for example, so, I'm not willing to say I'm not being horribly ignorant here. :-)
posted by smidgen at 4:27 PM on October 22, 2012


What are the equivalent results for (recent) philosophy

What are the equivalent results for evolutionary biology? Literary criticism? History? Economics? Archaeology? Musical theory? Fine art?

There are plenty of things that you need to understand to appreciate. You're welcome to think any or all of them worthless, but it's not me that's poorer for it.
posted by howfar at 4:33 PM on October 22, 2012


What are the equivalent results for .....

You've gone from "isn't bullshit" to "is something worth appreciating in my opinion". That's goalpost shifting.

EvoBio, by the way, helps us understand how diseases change in the presence of drug therapies, and so have saved some lives.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:23 PM on October 22, 2012


The point is that you can't prove that anything without tangible benefits isn't bullshit unless you understand it. In fact, to the person sufficiently ignorant of it, physics could be bullshit too and it might all be done by magic. The argument applies to anything. We have no compelling grounds to believe that anything we don't understand isn't bullshit. That's why intelligent and interesting people take the time to find out.

I also realise I have no interest in convincing you.
posted by howfar at 5:39 PM on October 22, 2012


I also realise I have no interest in convincing you.

Okay, scratch the Socratic method then. It would have been interesting to talk about whether or not philosophy actually has no tangible benefits.

Have a good night.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:24 PM on October 22, 2012


Eh? No of course it doesn't. Done. Cheers!
posted by howfar at 6:34 PM on October 22, 2012


You've gone from "isn't bullshit" to "is something worth appreciating in my opinion". That's goalpost shifting.

I'm curious. What is your standard for non-bullshit? What would philosophy need to produce or have produced for you to think it is worth (someone) pursuing?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 7:17 PM on October 22, 2012


Not every exchange needs to be adversarial. I don't appreciate the framing or the implication

I didn't mean you'd be arguing in bad faith per se, but this kind of challenge often ends up being sort of unmeetable even if the challenger isn't intending for it to be, because there is this slippery equivocation going on (again, even without intention). I think there is a real weird mix of expectations or desires people have of what philosophy should be that makes it hard for a real-world academic discipline to meet them.

Either philosophical ideas seem "old", in that they're working out implications of or problems with old views... or "obvious" - they seem familiar in some way that makes them seem like "well of course, why even bother having a theory about that"...or they seem so unfamiliar or confusing as to seem like bullshit.

This is even worse because the version of a philosophical idea that goes out to the public or even a low-level undergrad class has to be a simplified version. (So you often get students reading Plato for the first time and figuring well, I've read ten pages of this and I have come up with an objection to the view he's advancing -- these philosophers are pretty dumb to still be reading this guy after two thousand years.) It just takes time to get into some of the complexities of some of this stuff.

Of course, add to this that there are indeed some philosophy students and profs who are self-important jerks, or who talk a lot without saying anything, and I understand why people get annoyed and think it's a lot of hot air. But there are also a lot of very smart thoughtful non-bullshitty people doing this, so I don't know where that leaves us if we're going by the personal virtues of the people in the discipline.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:37 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I understand the utility of studying philosophy for personal development. But I feel like whenever I've seen this discussion, I see a variant of the "philosophy, you're soaking in it" response which points out the terms that come from philosophy itself -- yet these terms, logical fallacies and various empirical methods are not particularly new.

What do you mean by not particularly new? Logic as a field has been around for a long time, but the majority of the field has been codified and built on in the last 100 hundred years. Originally by Russell, Frege, et. al. The syllogistic/categorical logic people learn goes back to Aristotle, and some elements of temporal logic go back to medieval logicians. But propositional (elements of propositional anyway. Truth trees, natural deductive proofs, and truth tables are all new), predicate logic, and modal logics are all fairly new. Modal logic being the newest (Kripke's work in modal logic, tying possible worlds back to semantic truth, is incredibly new). Informal logic (the logical fallacies you point to) as a subset of philosophy is mostly new as well. Probably the most useful tool to come out of it is argument mapping (here's a paper on how argument mapping improves critical thinking). There is also ongoing research into this field (see Springer Argumentation library, or Douglas Walton's numerous books that go indepth into various formal and informal fallacies).

The usual counter to these positions is, "So what, doesn't mathematics have logic as well? And doesn't this stem from math?" This is true, but it ignores the fundamental difference between philosophical logic and mathematical logic: the jump between natural language arguments and logic. At some point, as you create or analyse an argument, you have to make a jump (in philosophical logician terms: an interpretation) from the natural language argument to a formalised argument through the logical language of your choosing (and vice-versa). Sometimes these interpretations aren't as clear cut as you would find in mathematics, as mathematics tends to have very well-defined terms. Here's an example: A first year discrete mathematics course that includes propositional logic will usually deem the word "but" to be interpreted as "and," but such an interpretation isn't all that it seems. There are philosophical texts (like Sainsbury's Philosophical Logic) that argue there is more to the word "but" than a conjunction. The most obvious being that under some interpretations it can mean a negation of the preceding sentence (and of course, there are counter-arguments to this, such as the "and" interpretation may be more primitive than the negation interpretation).

What are the equivalent results for (recent) philosophy

Russell struggled with this as well. He thought that philosophy ought to progress like science. His solution was to use logic to dissolve philosophical problems (some people thought he succeeded, others don't think so). I think the comparison may be making some form of category error. I think the main problem with the comparison between science and philosophy is that they are two different endeavours. Science is a framework that gathers concrete particulars from the world and uses variants of inductive reasoning (like statistics) and abductive reasoning (forming explanations) to analyse the concrete particulars. While philosophy seems to be speaking in very general terms about concepts, while mostly making re-course to deductive forms of logic and natural language arguments. Science is dealing with a large population of concrete particulars, and has a lot of room for error (due to the nature of induction). Both of these aspects generate scientific progress in both a positive manner (finding new particulars), and in a negative manner (building on errors). While philosophy deals with somewhat broad universal concepts (ethics, reasoning, aesthetics), and the room for error is smaller and mostly constrained to logical or semantic errors.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 7:39 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


What is your standard for non-bullshit?

Me personally? I actually like to do (some) philosophy, even if only for the "enjoying an argument and personal development" aspects. I used the bullshit/non-bullshit distinction carrying on from howfar's statement.

For an example of a substantive result produced by philosophy, one of the best I've seen is reading about Locke's social contract theories being developed in the 17th century and then being used to actually create the government of the US in the 18th century. So often subjects seem to "bud off" from philosophy on their way to conspicuous success, leading to arguments about "Is that really philosophy, or just math/logic/econ/physics/etc.?" but not in that instance.

My objection was because I thought that if you were going to compare philosophy to something else, physics was a particularly bad choice. You really can't judge them by the same standards. I saw it in terms of having impressive results, but I think ollyollyoxenfree has given an even better justification.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:24 PM on October 22, 2012


By the way, can someone explain what role philosophy had in producing the computer + Internet? I'm not getting that one.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:26 PM on October 22, 2012


benito.strauss: "By the way, can someone explain what role philosophy had in producing the computer + Internet? I'm not getting that one."

Computer science came out of the more philosophical side of mathematics (or is it the more mathematical side of philosopy?). Many of the basic assumptions of computer science are not derived from but simply are logic (Boole and Quine for example were essential to the development of the modern computer and were philosophers). The ideas of Turing Completeness and the Turing Test are classic philosophical thought experiments (with one, admittedly, backed up by quite an edifice of mathematics as well).
posted by idiopath at 9:10 PM on October 22, 2012


By the way, can someone explain what role philosophy had in producing the computer + Internet? I'm not getting that one.

Pascal and Leibniz, both philosophers, made some of the earliest computing machines.

If you count Boole as a philosopher -- and many people do -- then Boolean logic is a philosophical idea from the early nineteenth century. And most of the people who worked on logic in the nineteenth century, De Morgan, Venn, Peirce, Jevons, Frege, Schroeder, and so on were philosophers. (Towards the end of the century, there is a lot of cross-over, with the mathematics of set theory and number theory as developed by Dedekind, Weierstrass, Cantor, and Peano. Peirce and Frege both had hands in that literature as well.) Peirce seems to have been the first person to propose using electrical switches to represent Boolean logic gates, in a letter that he sent to Alan Marquand in the 1880s. Arthur Burks, a philosopher and close reader of Peirce helped build ENIAC. And while Alonzo Church, of Church-Turing Thesis fame, earned his PhD in mathematics, he was on the philosophy faculty at UCLA for a long time and is often counted as a philosopher.

I don't know that philosophers had anything to do with the internet per se. But we philosophers do have a legitimate claim on the early foundations of computer science and computer technology, which seems impressive enough.

Part of the problem here, though, is a kind of no-true-Scotsman argument that deprives philosophy of its greatest contributors. I am primarily a philosopher of science, and I like to think about the history of science. So, a few years ago, I was watching this documentary on the history of physics. They got to Leibniz and said, roughly, "Leibniz, the mathematician, had a debate with Newton about absolute space." I was, how to say this, angry. Leibniz was a philosopher if anyone has been. He was also a mathematician, don't get me wrong. But when he was alive, he was recognized as a philosopher. As was Newton. And their debate about space was a philosophical one. Why, then, doesn't philosophy get credit for these guys?

I think that philosophy should get credit for them. So, I guess I would argue that physics as a discipline is only what it is today because of the work of philosophers living three or four hundred years ago. Similar story for chemistry at about the same time. Boyle called himself an experimental natural philosopher, as did Newton and Priestley. Similar story for psychology as well, only much more recently.

One might be tempted to relabel people after the fact. So, Newton was a physicist, not an experimental natural philosopher, as he called himself. Leibniz was a mathematician. Boyle and Priestley were chemists. ... There is a certain justice in those labels, but there is also a certain amount of historical distortion introduced by them. In particular, it is really hard, I think, to separate off the philosophical concerns that a thinker has from the non-philosophical concerns without deciding beforehand that the philosophical parts are the worthless ones or something like that.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:47 PM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the answers. I can the problems that arise using modern terminology and distinctions and applying them to times when they weren't used. I reminds me of people using gay/straight distinctions and applying them to sexual relations in ancient Greece or Rome — they just don't fit.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:36 PM on October 22, 2012


Slavoj Zizek ... He'd be laughed out of virtually any reputable philosophy department in the States.

As would, I suspect, Socrates.
posted by Twang at 7:59 AM on October 23, 2012


Socrates, as presented by Plato at least, spoke very directly, and used language as a tool for getting precise about ideas. He was hated by the sophists because he continually demonstrated that the sophists were BSing or were covering up unclear or confused ideas in grand-sounding speech. I think Zizek is much more on the sophistical side, and (at least the good) mainstream philosophers are more on the side of using language to seek clarity/precision rather than obfuscation.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:23 PM on October 23, 2012


My objection was because I thought that if you were going to compare philosophy to something else, physics was a particularly bad choice. You really can't judge them by the same standards

But the standard you suggest as showing that physics isn't bullshit can't possibly prove that to someone. The existence of a computer cannot demonstrate the truth or falsehood of any physical claim, all it can conceivably do is demonstrate the efficacy of the practice. To the ignorant, the practice might be efficacious because of wearing of white coats. Indeed this is why we see so much cargo-cult science, people being unable to distinguish between the essential and accessorial aspects of the practice.

In a bullshit sniffing competition, you need to judge physics and philosophy by exactly the same standard: "to what extent are the claims made justifiable?"
posted by howfar at 2:19 PM on October 23, 2012


I think we're getting crossed up over two possible meanings of "bullshit". One is "are their statements true", the second is "are they useful or effective in improving life". You seem to be using the first, my asking for concrete achievements relates to the second.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:28 PM on October 23, 2012


Does codifying and developing the framework that in which we can argue between different theories of truth count as a tangible benefit?

Personally I'm not actually sure it does. Such benefits seem too bound up with the general cultural and intellectual practice to be specifically claimed for philosophy. But one could, I suppose, make the claim for the products of physics too. Design, engineering, economics and other practices and disciplines seem heavily implicated here too. I don't actually believe any radical implication of this suggestion, but I do find the notion of 'tangible benefit' a difficult one when discussing widespread and complicated cultural practices. It's not uninteresting question, on the contrary, I just don't think it's a very useful test.
posted by howfar at 2:47 PM on October 23, 2012


I don't know that philosophers had anything to do with the internet per se. But we philosophers do have a legitimate claim on the early foundations of computer science and computer technology, which seems impressive enough.

I think that philosophy should get credit for them. So, I guess I would argue that physics as a discipline is only what it is today because of the work of philosophers living three or four hundred years ago.


Just to play devil's advocate here, chemistry was built on the foundations of medieval alchemy. That doesn't necessarily mean a Bachelor's degree in alchemy is something modern people should strive for.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:41 AM on October 24, 2012


Man, I would love to have a degree in alchemy.
posted by empath at 7:44 AM on October 24, 2012


"Just to play devil's advocate here, chemistry was built on the foundations of medieval alchemy. That doesn't necessarily mean a Bachelor's degree in alchemy is something modern people should strive for."

chemistry replaced and almost entirely contradicted every basic principle of alchemy

computer science builds upon, reaffirms, and relies upon philosophical concepts of logic without contradicting them at all
posted by idiopath at 8:09 AM on October 24, 2012


chemistry was built on the foundations of medieval alchemy. That doesn't necessarily mean a Bachelor's degree in alchemy is something modern people should strive for.

And here's the problem in a nutshell: yes, it does necessarily mean that. A "bachelor's degree in alchemy" is something "modern people should strive for" — that is, learning the intellectual history of late-medieval/early-modern science and the history of chemistry is actually a tremendously productive way for an undergraduate student to spend their time. No, it won't teach them how to do chemistry the way we understand it now, but it will teach them other things that are at least as useful, e.g. about the relationship between scientific knowledge and the societies that produce it, the way "obviously true" beliefs and worldviews change over centuries. Similarly, there's no useful way to study philosophy without studying the history of philosophy — and this is a good thing, because it means students (ideally) learn to historicize their own beliefs and think about their own time in historical perspective, rather than pretending that we now just obviously know the truth and so we don't have to think about it anymore. This is a major difference between teaching strategies in the humanities and in the physical sciences — the sciences are usually taught without teaching their own history, especially at the undergraduate level, while improving students' historical thinking is among the major goals in almost all humanities courses — but that is not an incontrovertible truth, just a pedagogical choice. The syllabus is not the terrain.
posted by RogerB at 9:44 AM on October 24, 2012


Just to play devil's advocate here, chemistry was built on the foundations of medieval alchemy. That doesn't necessarily mean a Bachelor's degree in alchemy is something modern people should strive for.

I agree with that to a first approximation. But I think it is an incomplete story, and hence, a faulty analogy. Let me take a stab at filling in why.

Alchemy often gets painted as this crazy, backwards, anti-scientific thing. And so people are shocked that someone like Newton would waste the second half of his life messing around with alchemy. But that gets the history very, very wrong. The weird rune symbols of the alchemists functioned more like labels on a table of elements than magical emblems for incantations. And that really crazy idea of transmuting lead into gold? The reasoning behind that was that since everything is ultimately built up from the same atomic stuff, the difference between lead and gold must come down to a difference in the arrangement of the stuff, not the stuff itself. So, there ought to be a way to rearrange the stuff from a lead-pattern into a gold-pattern. They misunderstood how hard a project that would be, but the basic idea was sound.

Alchemy didn't so much spin off chemistry as it just transformed into chemistry. So, in one sense, alchemy disappeared after chemistry came along, but in another sense alchemy is still around: it's chemistry. I think of the relationship as very similar to that between a caterpillar and a butterfly. By contrast, philosophy spun off physics (and also informed chemistry both directly through theories of matter and indirectly through influence on physics and mathematics). Philosophy also spun off biology (a product of Aristotle, mostly), heavily influenced physiology and medicine (through Galen and Harvey), economics (Smith, Mill, Marx, Jevons, Ramsey, and arguably Keynes among others), psychology (Hume, Stewart, Bentham, Mill again, Peirce, and James among others), statistics (Leibniz, the Bernoullis, Hume, Bayes and Price, Peirce again, Johnson, Ramsey again, and others), and logic/computer science/artificial intelligence (Leibniz, Boole, De Morgan, Venn, Peirce yet again, Schroeder, Russell, Church, Godel, Carnap, and many, many others). The difference, as I see it, is that philosophy has a long history of spinning off very useful sciences and then keeping right on trucking along spinning off more things. Maybe this will come to an end, but it looks like philosophy is still in the process of either spinning off good ideas or making serious contributions to the various fields it has already spun off. (For much more recent stuff, you might take a look at philosophical work on decision theory, causation and causal inference, and moral psychology, just to pick a few areas that I am familiar with. And this says nothing about ethics or political philosophy or lots of other areas that I just don't do much work in.) Alchemy basically just transformed into chemistry. Philosophy makes new disciplines and then moves on to make other new disciplines, all while looking over its shoulder at its previous creations with a mixture of awe, envy, and pride.

To sum up: If philosophy had stopped doing anything new after spinning off physics or if philosophy turns into nothing but the intellectual history of a dozen or so European men, then you will see me hitting the door looking for the nearest statistics and/or computer science department. But for now, philosophy is still vital and still has a perspective that you don't quite get in other disciplines -- though I am by no means saying those other disciplines should be more like academic philosophy. I really like the division of labor. I think Smith was right about that much, at least: division of labor makes the academy exponentially more productive, in much the same way that division of labor makes manual labor more productive. But I do get tired of defending philosophy over and over again.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 6:58 PM on October 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


« Older The Adventures of Shirley Holmes is available onli...  |  Music video for Young Rival's ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments