April 1, 2005

Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline

I suppose this will be a counterpoint to Tucker’s last two posts, although it does not really express a disagreement with them. I will simply be drawing attention to another quarter within which philosophy moves.

A while back Jason Stanley hosted a discussion on Brian Leiter's blog on related topics, though it was pitched as a debate between (what else?) whether philosophy should move towards becoming an ever-more technical, specialist discipline or engaging with questions of popular cultural concern ( http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2004/11/technicalhumani.html ).

The most cliché response to this choice is to claim it expresses a false dichotomy. “Fine,” I say, but then the onus is on the technician who is trying to develop a formal logic for vague predicates to demonstrate how making progress on that question contributes to our understanding of the nature of knowledge or the good life. Technical achievements in logic or science are obviously permanent contributions to our knowledge of the world, but their philosophical importance is always a further question (e.g., think about how much bad philosophy is premised on drawing pop conclusions from Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle).

At that time Stanley hosted this discussion, I had responded—rather anonymously under ‘IP’—by including a link to Bernard Williams’ online essay, “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline” (see title link). Along with Bertrand Russell, Simon Blackburn, and Thomas Nagel, Williams was the first analytic philosopher that I ever read seriously. Even while being sharp, clear, and deep thinkers who were appreciative of science and the worldview it has given us, they were also all characterized by having a sort of old-fashioned, donnish familiarity with the history of Western culture and a concern with the evolution of our self-conception.

I think, as Tucker himself noted, that these concerns are what should separate analytic philosophy from the kinds of scientific inquiry it so often tries to ape. Few people (except for maybe Tucker!) read Bishop Berkeley because he was “right.” He will continue to be read, however, because he took a set of facts about the world (as understood by the best science of his time), drew some of counterintuitive conclusions from them, and then constructed a worldview that could make it all hang together.

If this was the only point that Williams’ essay made—that philosophy should continue to ask the ‘big questions’—then his points would be cogent but fairly uncontroversial. Some might still quarrel that he was asking for too much—that philosophers should stick to being good under-laborers for the scientists—but I think history would probably repay their humility by forgetting they ever existed in the first place. The better response is that almost everything one says in philosophy will be forgotten anyway--better to make a serious attempt at saying something both interesting and true that makes a young person go, "a hah."

Williams’ real point is that the practice of philosophy is incapable of being understood in independence from its history. Current questions about “free will” and “determinism” would, for example, be unintelligible in a different intellectual culture. Likewise with questions about how to balance “liberty” and “equality” or what the criteria are for constituting “personhood” or “knowledge of the external world.” Questions about these concepts are, for some, inescapable. Usually, those people are philosophers (or students and professors of philosophy, if you prefer). Some of the concepts and the debates that stem from them might be incoherent. Wittgenstein thought this about a lot of them. Even if that is the case, however, Wittgenstein thought you have to understand and be entranced by the depth of the problems before you can claim a release from them. Furthermore, what I take to be Williams' point is that you will only understand the depth of the problems if you understand the history of how some fairly strange men (sadly, it is almost universally men) have constructed them. Wittgenstein's own inattention to history may be a reason why his solutions--even while dramatic and revolutionary--have not always been convincing. He simply left a lot that was relevant to the problems unanswered and even unasked.

Finally, delving into such history is what makes philosophy a humanistic discipline in the classical sense: a discipline for understanding arcane texts in order to better understand ourselves. The move towards making philosophy a humanistic discipline does, however, have a cost: the cost is that you are not discovering anything new, in the way that a physicist discovers the existence of a new particle or a new set of symmetries in nature. The only kind of discovery that philosophy is capable of generating is a kind of self-discovery--that is, a discovery of what you and the world were like all along.

Maybe there are people doing philosophy who are really not bitten by the old problems (even if it is only unconsciously—that is, by way of being bitten by the new problems that are really just extensions of the old ones). I wonder, however, what exactly philosophy is doing for them?

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2 Comments:

Blogger Blakely said...

Ignatio: nice post. Several points.

1. One major difference between philosophy and science is that philosophy can talk about the effects of science on our thinking. Philosophy can get outside of scientific thinking and talk about, for instance, the crazy things it makes philosophers want to do--; and all this remains within the boundaries of philosophy.

2. I think that philosophy can be done independently of history. In fact, it must be. If the problems are not capable of moving us without volumes of history attached to them, then it seems doubtful to me that they constitute philosophy any more. Sure, there are intellectual trends; but what we rely on ultimately to determine what does and does not make sense is not a historical explanation but ourselves--our experiences with thinking and our standards of rationality. Sure, some history might be useful, say, to some Masters students trying to become familiar with the terms of analytic philosophy; but I wouldn't say the history is necessary. Indeed, too much could be dangerous.

3. Why is self (and world-) -discovery of a lesser status than scientific discovery?

4/05/2005 05:05:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio said...

Hi Blakely,

Thanks for your comments.

On (2): I find Williams' arguments on the subject of history compelling. Our concepts are in part historical artifacts (though I hate the way the idea of 'memes' is often used, it provides a useful analogy). Some of the most interesting arguments about standards of rationality involve taking people from different historical or linguistic communities and asking how or whether the exotic communities' concepts translate into our own. In order to ask those questions in an interesting fashion, you have to at least have of an idea about what might be different about the exotic communities' approach to the world (though I agree with Davidson in "The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" that we have no way of making sense of the idea of absolutely irrational behavor or cultural difference. As soon as we are offering an interpretation, we have translated their concepts into our own).

On (3). I do not think such discovery has a lesser status at all; I am arguing in part against the scientistic view that it does.

I do think, however, that such discoveries are of a wholly different sort than discoveries in experimental science.

I think of philosophy as better at offering interpretations of existing practices and experiences than at offering speculative hypotheses that can guide experimental science. But I don't want to take a hard line on this, there is room and need for both.

4/06/2005 12:32:00 PM  

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