The Problem with Philosophy

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.

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One Response to The Problem with Philosophy

  1. alan says:

    The self doubt of Philosophers is expressed again by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse in an essay at Three Quarks Daily.
    (see )

    If there is a problem with the public perception of Philosophy it is may be a result of its having been “oversold” due to a misunderstanding (perhaps within the discipline as well as without) as to what its real value is.

    It seems to me that often Philosophy is more about studying the history of philosophy than doing it, whereas, for example, Physics is more about doing physics than studying its history.
    But that doesn’t make Philosophy valueless.

    Studying Philosophy is of similar cultural value to developing appreciation of other Arts and also provides some practice and training in the skill of identifying and comparing patterns of argument.
    But although Philosophers can be useful (on ethics panels and so forth) in helping people understand opposing views in an area of conflict, they do not seem to have any special skill in actually deciding what should be the outcomes of those conflicts and would be better off selling themselves as facilitators rather than arbiters. Indeed, I don’t know of any practical questions that are *answered* by common agreement among Philosophers (or philosophers), but Philosophy may be great training for the equally important task of *asking* interesting questions.

    A less amusing joke than the one Aikin and Talisse started with might be based on some disagreement between the parties, but though a similar joke about a relativist, a quantum theorist, and a statistical physicist might be based on differences about what they would look at first because of their differing fields of interest, it could not involve any difference of substance about the validity of any particular statement.

    Perhaps one could say that Physics ends where disagreement begins whereas Philosophy begins where agreement ends.

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