Philosophy

Academic philosophy: not a reason-based discipline?

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As a follow-up to this blog’s earlier posts critiquing the lack of methodological self-awareness in mainstream academic philosophy (that is, analytic philosophy and its descendants), I wanted to quote another skeptical remark from Marcus Arvan at The Philosophers’ Cocoon. The remark appears in Arvan’s post on The Sociology of Philosophy:

Could it be, then, that this is how philosophy sometimes/often progresses: by largely arbitrary snowball-effects in which (A) a few thought-experiments/intuitions by a few famous people, (B) attract a few followers, which then (C) attract more followers, which then (D) marginalize people who do not share the dominant intuitions, thereby (E) leading the dominant class to conceive themselves as making progress on the basis of good arguments when, in reality, (F) the correct explanation of that “progress” is the aforementioned snowball effect (i.e. a self-reinforcing system of people with the “right intuitions” dominating/marginalizing those with “the wrong intuitions”)?

Again, it’s always refreshing to hear internal criticism of academic philosophy. There’s far less of it than there should be, especially in light of the profession’s self-conception as the great refuge of critical reasoning. But as in my last post mentioning Arvan, the question remains: What do other philosophers think of these kinds of remarks? How do they respond to the many obvious and damning criticisms that can be made of their discipline, which views itself (groundlessly) as the most self-critical and reason-based discipline of all?
For example, Brian Leiter links approvingly to Arvan’s post, writing: “Yes, we need more [sociology of philosophy], though the results are unlikely to increase confidence in many current philosophical fashions.” But Leiter, of course, is one of the most fervent and powerful defenders of the institutional and intellectual status quo in Anglophone academic philosophy today, including any fashions that he might find to be a waste of time — as his critics suggested (for example, here) in the recent controversy that led to his promising to step down as editor of the Philosophical Gourmet Report.
If the non-reason-based phenomenon that Arvan speculatively describes and others like it are in fact pervasive in academic philosophy today, as the evidence discussed in previous posts suggests they are, shouldn’t the institutional status quo be dismantled rather than defended and further insulated from critique?
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5 thoughts on “Academic philosophy: not a reason-based discipline?

  1. Very interesting! I certainly can’t speak to the mindset of every “mainstream” (Anglophone) academic philosopher. However, I do think that a decent number of such folks would agree with something in the neighborhood of Marcus’s claims. But I doubt most would accept that as evidence that mainstream Anglophone academic philosophy is hopeless/ should be abandoned/ “dismantled.”

    If philosophy is no longer thought of as first philosophy anymore, and we think of philosophy more as similar to/ continuous with the sciences (formal sciences or empirical sciences), then I think the “fashions” can be thought of as akin to Kuhnian paradigms. Kuhn said, there is a well-defined notion of progress within a paradigm. And I think at least some philosophers might consider that philosophical progress is similar. So unless you think science should be dismantled, I don’t think Arvan’s points entail that mainstream Anglophone philosophy should be dismantled.

    (A little bit more on philosophy, paradigms, and progress:) With First Philosophy out the window, we lose the idea of deducing philosophical truths from general claims accepted by everyone — some sort of Cartesian basis. So nowadays, the only way we can know whether a general, big-picture idea will work is by working through its details, and seeing how it handles a bunch of different cases. To do this, we work within a paradigm — and that paradigm will take as evidence claims that not everyone will accept, e.g.: ‘water’ refers to different things on Earth and Twin Earth.)

  2. nicholasmbourbaki says:

    Thanks for the comment. I suppose the reason I think contemporary puzzle-solving philosophy deserves to be dismantled, while science obviously doesn’t, is that science helps us predict and control nature. Puzzle-solving philosophy doesn’t. I suppose some naturalists might try to argue that the kind of linguistic puzzle-solving that fills the leading philosophy journals is just a part of science, or continuous with it, and is helpful to science — and thus can be defended in the same way I defended science. The argument would be that philosophers’ puzzle-solving contributes indirectly to science’s accomplishments in predicting and controlling nature — maybe by making scientists’ claims more clear, or consistent, or by drawing interesting inferences from the claims.

    But this seems speculative and self-serving: one hears this argument fairly frequently, but where is the evidence to support it? Philosophical naturalists and others may like to *think* of themselves as helping scientists, but how much of contemporary puzzle-solving philosophy has *actually* been helpful to science? My sense is that scientists would say: virtually none. Certainly not enough to justify the sprawling academic enterprise that fills the philosophy journals.

    And I suspect the scientists are right. Even on the rare occasions when puzzle-solving philosophers try to intervene fairly directly in scientific inquiry, they tend to be like grammarians trying to enforce rules of correct usage on a community that isn’t listening to them, and has no good reason to listen to them. The philosophers quibble endlessly in arbitrary attempts to make the scientists’ terms logically perfect. Meanwhile, the scientists ignore them and go on using their logically imperfect terms to do actual science, with better and better practical results. The scientists only address the logical imperfection of the terms when it’s useful to do so. The philosophers’ demand for logical perfection serves no purpose, and is justifiably ignored.

    The idea of puzzle-solving philosophers defending their professional work by thinking to themselves — “We’re really no different than scientists!” or even “We’re helping science!” — seems, the more I think about it, to be another instance of the lack of methodological self-awareness that calls into question whether academic philosophy is, in fact, a reason-based discipline as it exists today.

    Certainly, there’s an incessant barrage of reason-demanding and reason-offering while philosophers thrust and parry over their linguistic puzzles. But when it comes to methodological questions that might make a difference — such as: why are we doing this? what is the point of playing these games? — the flimsiest claims are accepted uncritically, without evidence or persuasive reasoning — such as the claim that the endless linguistic puzzle-solving that occupies most professional philosophers today can be justified as a contribution to science. If professionals in a discipline other than philosophy — say, Freudian psychotherapists — routinely claimed that their work was valuable because it contributed to science, but could offer few (if any) examples of their work actually doing so, and each of these examples came from a tiny sliver of their discipline that dealt relatively directly with recent scientific findings, wouldn’t philosophers be critical of the profession’s claims?

    Yet when philosophers themselves make this argument, with a similar lack of support, the community for the most part nods along, satisfied, and then returns to scratching their endless, needless logical itches.

    It still strikes me as a pretty sad state of affairs.

  3. Thanks for that! I think I agree that philosophy isn’t really “helping science” (I certainly agree that the vast of majority philosophy isn’t, but I think there may be some exceptions), and that philosophy isn’t “helping us predict and control nature.” I never meant to suggest otherwise: I was trying to say that philosophy was _analogous_ to paradigm-based science.

    And you may be right that paradigm-based philosophy is just castles built in air. Some of them certainly are. (I guess I’m thinking we can’t know, before we spend some time building, whether it will be a castle built in the air.)

    But I guess I wonder whether ‘predicting and controlling nature’ is the only acceptable intellectual goal. It might be; but I’m not sure the only alternative is what you call ‘scratching an endless… logical itch’ (or perhaps the desire to scratch that itch can be describable in somewhat less pejorative terms).

    Thanks again!

  4. Pingback: Philosophy “in the doldrums” | Against the Logicians

  5. Pingback: Thucydides and the Social Sciences (Autobiographical) | Against the Logicians

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