Philosophy seems to have a self-esteem problem these days. Partly it is a matter of depending for a sense of self-worth unduly on the opinions of others, but there is no denying that some of those opinions are negative. The Sokal event was in response to a particular school of apparent nonsense, but we also have the earlier remarks of Feynman on philosophy of science, and more recently Hawking on the relevance of the subject as a whole.
And now we also have the nasty dust-up over Lawrence Kraus’s childish and dismissive response to David Albert’s review of the title of his book. Gary Gutting sensibly asks Can Physics and Philosophy Get Along? (in the NYTimes on May 10), and provides a reasoned discussion of the sources of disagreement, but I think there is a bigger issue.
Perhaps it might be worthwhile for philosophers to ask if there is some good reason for the currently perceived disrespect of philosophy rather than just going into defense mode – and for those who do so ask, I have a suggested partial answer.
To me the value of Philosophy lies not in providing answers but in asking questions, and the problem as I see it is that many in the discipline present themselves as having some special kind of expertise in giving answers or resolving problems. Even when the claim of expertise is made more for the analysis and histories of proposed solutions (as opposed to their actual finding and evaluation) I still think that the emphasis on solutions is problematic.
A couple of my favourite examples of bad philosophising may help to make the point. Although Searle’s ‘Chinese Room‘ is mere foolishness as a “refutation” of “strong AI”, it may perhaps serve as a useful source of questions to clarify what the proponents of strong AI are actually saying. And similarly the “Gettier Problems” can lead to clarifying questions regarding the intent of those who “define” knowledge as justified true belief. In both cases a question might occasionally lead the hearer to identify something they had actually overlooked, but it remains open to the more likely possibility that the intent of the “folk” was actually much more sophisticated than the philosopher had understood it to be.