Ken and John discuss the future of philosophy with three rising stars in American philosophy: Elizabeth Harman from New York University...
This weeks episode concerned the Future of Philosophy. It was something of a departure for us. We taped the show in front of live audience of professional academic philosophers at the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association way back in March. We had three really good guests -- Liz Harman, Sean Kelly and Brian Weatherson. Thanks to the three of them for appearing. We've invited each of them to blog here any further thoughts they might have about philosophy's future. Perhaps they'll take us up on the invitation. Stay tuned. Brian Weatherson is a famous philosophy blogger -- though like many others he seems to have tailed off a bit on his blogging activity. Check his blog out here. Apparently Sean Kelly has a blog too, but it seems to have been inactive for awhile. You can check that out here
I just listened to a recording of the episode and thought I would follow up on a few of the things that were said there. I'll begin with my last remark that undergraduate institutions would be improved if Philosophy Departments became the size of English Departments. I should say that I didn't really mean that as a knock on English Departments. Some of my best friends are professors of English or of Literary Criticism. The real point of my remark was that philosophy deserves to play a much larger role both in undergraduate education and in our intellectual culture more broadly. I think, or at least hope, that that is beginning to happen. Maybe Philosophy Talk can in some small way contribute to that eventuality. In the remainder of this post I want to defend the view that philosophy deserves a larger seat at the intellectual, educational, and cultural table than it currently has.
Here are what I take to be some deep truths about philosophy. First philosophy currently is, has always been, and probably will always be a fragmented discipline. There is really no one thing that philosophers do and not much that unifies the mulipliticity of different things that philosophers do. Philosophy is what people who call themselves philosophers do. And people who call themselves philosophers do all sorts of things. Some of what philosophers do is very much continuous with the sciences. Some of what philosophers do doesn't intersect with the sciences very much at all. Some philosophers see philosophy as deeply and properly concerned with its own history. Some think that the study of the history of philosophy is no more relevant to ongoing philosophical progress than the study of the history of science is to ongoing scientific progress. Some philosophers take themselves to be addressing largely a priori matters that can be decisively settled merely by thinking hard, without appeal to empirical observation. Some philosophers are engaged in the basically conservative business of analyzing, and perhaps tidying up at the margins, our ordinary conceptions of things. Others aim to exert pressure -- sometimes extreme pressure -- on our ordinary concepts. Sometimes philosophers of this ilk are content merely to destroy the old, but often they offer up radical reconfigurations of those ordinary concepts. Some philosophers want to reconnect philosophy with broader humanistic inquiry; others recoil from the broader humanities. Some see philosophy as exhortation. Some see it as explanation.
At certain moments in history of philosophy, different conceptions of philosophy dominate various academic institutions. Some conceptions of philosophy, especially when conjoined with institutional structures like tenure and the power to grant phd's are more or less successful at reproducing themselves in subsequent generations of thinkers. But sometimes younger generations pull off paradigm shifts and declare the death of philosophy as previously practiced. Though philosophy is perhaps the oldest (academic) profession, it has died a thousand deaths and has been reborn and reshaped a thousand times.
It strikes me that it will ever be so. Consequently, focusing too narrowly on local equilibrium points in the vastly exended dynamic landscape that constitutes philosophy's walk through time is unikely to reveal anything deep. In one sense, that makes it pretty hard -- especially in the context of a one hour radio broadcast -- to say anything very robust about the future of philosophy. The current configuration of philosophy's fragments is unlikely to reproduce itself exactly in the future. One can probably profitably follow out various strands within the whole fragmented landscape and foresee different strands merging and dividing as the past recedes and the future becomes. Certainly the fragments of philosophy relate to one another in all sorts of interesting ways -- and these interrelations are themselves constantly in flux. In the begining of the last century, for example, there occurred something called the Linguistic Turn, which placed the study of language and logic at the center of all philosophical problems. The Linguistic Turn has long since run its course. Philosophy of Language remains a vibrant discipline, but no one, not even its most ardent practioneers, still believes it to be anything like First Philosophy.
If it's true that philosophy is a fragmented discipline, whose various overlapping strands exhibit no deep unity and stand in interrelations one to another that are in constant flux, how could it possibly be that it deserves a larger seat at the educational, cultural, and intellectual landscape?
Precisely because philosophy is so fragmented and so diverse, when taken as a whole it turns out to be a massive and sprawling undertaking. It is deeply engaged in some way or other with almost the entirety of the remaining intellectual landscape. It is certainly by far the most interdisciplinary of at least the humanities and probably the most interdisciplinary of all the fields of intellectual inquiry. Just think of the range of issues that philosophy has historically and still currently seeks to illuminate. It is philosophy that has struggled hardest and most persistently to spell out the rational foundations of the coercive powers of the state, the duties of human to human, the limits of the scientific method. Philosophy has tried to adjudicate the long struggle between science and religion, to integrate the daunting results of the natural, biological, and cognitive sciences into an uplifting or at least not debilitating picture of the place of humanity, and our deepest aspirations, into the order of things. Philosophy seeks to understand how consciousness and rationality manage to have a place in what looks to be a merely material univers, to understand what human beings can hope to know and by what methods of inquiry we can hope to know it. Philosophy seeks to understand the nature of art, the nature of beauty, the nature of truth, of language, of action, of causation -- and on and on. It is willing to subject any and every bit of received wisdom to the light of critical self-reflection.
Sometimes when outsiders look at the work of professional academic philosophers in our time, they are rightly daunted by the forbidding, highly specialized technical machinery that we sometimes deploy. But all this technical machinery is really just a set of tools designed to enable us to break down large problems into smaller more manageable subproblems and to enable us to approach the broken down problems with more rigor and clarity than we otherwise might be able to. Given the structure of professional academic philosophy, people get highly rewarded for being highly skilled at wielding these daunting technical tools. And I think it is entirely reasonable and justifiable that they should be. Indeed, I entirely applaud the maturation of philosophy into a set of technical subdisciplines. The unfortunate downside of that technical maturation is that it has obscured to many outsiders the continuing and, I believe, deep relevance of philosophy to many broader intellectual concerns.
The fact that many intellectuals and reflective thinking citizens more broadly fail to appreciate the deep relevance of philosophy to many current intellectual, cultural and social concerns is unfortunate. There is something of an unmet demand for philosophy among the broader intellectual public -- or at least there is the perception that professional academic philosophy is not responsive to a certain demand for philosophy.
Part of this has to do with the techinical nature of some parts of philosophy and its inaccessibility to a lay public. Part of it has to do with the fact that in professional academic circles the broader humanities have been feverishly rethinking, for quite a while now, many of their fundamental categories and concepts in terms of race, gender, identity, and culture. Many humanist take these to be quite fundamental concepts and categories and they take it that they play "heretofore" underappreciated roles in the dynamics of history, social and cultural change, and on and on. This has being going on for a long time in humanistic circles, but until relatively recently so-called analytic philosophers have mostly been pretty silent on these issues, for better or worse, with a few notable exceptions. Our main professional pre-occupations were elsewhere. That has certainly changed a fair bit. But even so, collectively (in our fragmented and divided way) we don't take these issues to be nearly so central or fundamental as many humanists do - though there are exceptions. But even many analytic philosophers who work in these areas and on these concepts tend not to share the views held by many humanists about these matters.
It's a complicated situation to which I don't pretend to do justice here. The long and short of it is that among humanists, professional philosophy has been something of an outlier in its governing concerns. Other humanists have noticed that fact. And they have noticed that areas ripe for philosophy were for awhile pretty much off the radar screen of academic analytic philosophers. Partly because analytic philosophy didn't readily and quickly step up and meet that demand, certain, let's say, substitutes stepped into the breech. The situation was made worse by certain fallen away analytic philosophers who "confirmed" the worst prejudices of many of the humanists about what we were good for.
One thing that bodes well for the future of philosophy is that the "substitutes" that I referred to above are beginning to lose their sheen and philosophers of the highest distinction are starting to do their work in ways that lets "outsiders" in without sacrificing our much loved standards of rigor and clarity.
I've gone on too long. So I'm going to stop with the thought that I don't really know what the future holds for philosophy. But I predict that this will be an exciting century for philosophy (if we don't destroy the planet). It will be one in which the breadth and depth of philosophy is given full play both within and without the academy. And the intellectual and cultural landscape will be much improved because of it.