Friday, February 22, 2013

The fading of philosophy

Last year, the well-known and respected philosopher Colin McGinn suggested that we replace the term 'philosophy' with 'ontics' to designate the area that academic philosophers – or 'onticists' – are engaged in. But, in my view, philosophy's problems are deep and long-term, and such talk of rebranding the discipline on the part of a leading practitioner only serves to underscore its parlous state.

My suggestion is not that we replace the term, but that we de-emphasize it, recognizing that it has gradually lost any substantive meaning as the designation for a stand-alone discipline.

When, in the early 20th century, metaphysics in general and philosophical idealism in particular fell out of favor, philosophy itself (of which metaphysics had traditionally been seen as the core) began to suffer a crisis of confidence and a fall in status. This trend was exacerbated as psychology and other social sciences established their scientific credentials, and severed their links with philosophy.

It's no wonder that the very existence of philosophy as an academic discipline began to be called into question, and, in the post-World War 2 period, it was seen by a significant number of its practitioners as being limited to serving a clarificatory function with respect to the sciences. It was seen as a handmaid to science in a similar way that, in the medieval period, it had been seen as a handmaid to theology.

Since the post-War period, things have gotten more complicated. There have been attempts to revive a more traditional and general role for philosophy, but, in my view, these attempts are fundamentally ill-conceived.

I would be happy to explain my case in detail to anyone who might be interested (a small and shrinking section of the population, I suspect), but for now will just say that I don't see whence such a discipline derives its authority.

Science derives its authority from established procedures generally referred to as 'the scientific method' which ensure that, to a large degree at any rate, human bias is filtered out: scientific findings are objective, and so authoritative. Mathematics incorporates similar procedures which allow results to be objectively assessed.

But nothing like this happens in philosophy. And, consequently, there is no convergence of opinion and slow building of a body of genuine knowledge such as occurs in the sciences.

This is not to say that science can play the role that religion played, that scientific knowledge can provide certitude, solace and a sense of purpose. It can't.

Nor can 'philosophy' of course. No discipline can.

There is – and always will be – a place, however, for reflective thinking. My point is simply that it doesn't constitute – and nor is it encompassed by – a single academic field or discipline.

Meta-thinking will always occur within and about the various physical, social, and historical sciences, and other disciplines, such as mathematics and logic. Such thinking can still be usefully described as the philosophy of physics, of biology, of history, of logic or whatever.

But reflective – and value-based – thinking about human life in general is more problematic. We all do it, but it does not – it cannot – be systematized. I have written before about my reservations about philosophical ethics, which I don't see as a viable area of research, or as something that constitutes a distinct and authoritative intellectual discipline.

What about reasoning in general (considered from a normative and pedagogical perspective)? Isn't this an area in which philosophers can claim expertise? Perhaps.

I do see a need to develop and promote logical thinking and skills related to reasoning and argument. But, though this is an area which philosophers are claiming as their own, I don't see it as necessarily being connected to philosophy at all.

In a recent discussion on a comment thread at Rationally Speaking, Paul M. Paolini argued (against me) that in areas beyond the scope of science and mathematics (like normative ethics) we have a stark choice between philosophy on the one hand and dogmatism or chance on the other. I made the point in response that defining philosophy in terms of rationality was inappropriate. Rationality is clearly a broader concept than philosophy, and there are many non-philosophical ways of dealing with general questions of human life and value which are compatible with reason.

In fact, ordinary educated discussion and deliberation may allow more scope for valuable, experience-based intuitive insight than the often stale, flat and superficially complex reasoning style of professional philosophers.

The careful use of language and sophisticated reasoning skills have traditionally been taught, directly and indirectly, in a variety of academic and intellectual contexts and subject areas. No knowledge of philosophy or philosophical logic is required to think and reason and argue well (which is not to say that a knowledge of informal and formal logic may not be useful).

On the question of logic, it is well to bear in mind that the crisp and complex grammars of ordinary human languages encapsulate the fundamental logical principles upon which formal logical systems are built. And ordinary language use is predicated on an understanding of these principles.

Philosophy and philosophers don't have a monopoly on reasoning or the teaching of reasoning, in other words, even if, historically, much cataloguing of logical fallacies and so on was done by philosophers.

Modern approaches will, of course, incorporate (but need not be restricted to) the findings of research in various branches of psychology concerning our brains' inbuilt biases of perception and reasoning.

Regarding the broader, more ambitious questions with which philosophy has traditionally dealt, we need to recognize that many of these questions are unanswerable, either because they are conceptually confused or because they are beyond the scope of current science (and perhaps also beyond our intellectual capacity).

It helps however – at least in my experience – to cultivate a sensitivity to, and a critical interest in, the fundamental media of our understanding: above all, ordinary language and its implicit logic; but also, if possible, mathematics and other formal systems.

The goal, as I see it, is clarity with respect to what we know, coupled with an awareness of the vastness of our ignorance and the need to remain alert to the possibility of new – and unexpected – perspectives.