Let me make a very simple — and, I hope, uncontroversial — point about expertise and authority before looking at some questions pertaining to the current (increasingly bitter) debate about the nature and status of philosophy and its relation to the sciences.
Expertise implies epistemic authority: the expert — by definition — speaks with authority within his or her area of expertise. If the expertise is recognized, the authority automatically follows and doesn’t have to be claimed or argued for.
But the word “expertise” normally applies only to reasonably narrow, clearly defined and recognized areas of knowledge, theoretical or practical. And general philosophy (encompassing all the traditional sub-disciplines) is just too broad and ill-defined for the word to apply in any natural or straightforward sense. Its meaning must be, as it were, stretched to fit.
There is even disagreement about what philosophy is about — or if it is about anything at all.
Some see it as the normative study of rationality. But it is simply not plausible in my view that philosophy (or any single discipline) could effectively encompass the entire realm of reason or rationality. Logic perhaps, but reason is a much broader concept.
Massimo Pigliucci prefers to see philosophy as being concerned with the exploration of conceptual as distinct from empirical space (the sciences being focused on the latter). But, again, conceptual space is just too vast an area to be subsumed by any one discipline. Besides, unconstrained by empirical (or mathematical) considerations, conceptual space is really not all that interesting. And of course, the sciences are just as much about model-building (i.e., exploring conceptual space) as they are about empirical evidence; and mathematics is pretty much all about exploring conceptual spaces of certain kinds.
If philosophy had a center or a core sub-discipline things might be different. Arguably metaphysics once played this role. And, in the middle years of the 20th century, a humbler, scaled-down version of philosophy focusing on logic and science prevailed and appeared to many to be viable. It may still be viable.
But there is as I see it a problem for academic philosophy as it is currently constituted (even apart from the various well-known and long-standing internal disagreements and divisions about the nature of the subject). However you look at it — and even limiting the picture to analytic philosophy — the loose amalgam of disciplines and activities which goes under the name of philosophy in academic contexts is not and is no longer generally perceived as a unified area of activity or knowledge.
So it is no surprise that general philosophy and philosophers in general are losing authority and status, even as certain sub-disciplines of philosophy — notably those with a scientific focus, like the philosophy of physics for example — manage to thrive.
In other words, in areas where the philosophizing is tightly constrained by a clearly specifiable body of scientific (or similar) knowledge to which the word “expertise” can be naturally applied, insidious questions about authority or status simply do not arise.
Earlier this year I wrote a piece expressing doubts — based largely on historical factors concerning how the nature of philosophy has changed over time and its links with religion — about philosophy’s future viability as a stand-alone, secular academic discipline . And though my claims about philosophy’s historical and continuing dependence on religious ideas were understandably contested by many, the main thrust of what I was saying — concerning the crisis of identity and credibility facing philosophy — was not, I would have thought, particularly controversial. Many within and outside of the discipline take a similar line.
For example, after my essay appeared, Laurie Shrage’s ideas on a more empirically informed philosophy were brought to my attention. Though her background and general perspective are very different from mine, she also recognizes the huge problems which academic philosophy is facing and tends to see them in surprisingly similar terms. Shrage looks at the way the discipline has developed historically and acknowledges its sometimes surprising links with religion . Her approach is refreshingly pragmatic, down to earth and open to what other disciplines — notably history and the social sciences — may be able to contribute to a new model of philosophy.
Other philosophers — most notably perhaps Richard Rorty, Paul Horwich and Peter Unger — have taken their cue from the later writings of Wittgenstein. Though there are marked differences between their views — between Rorty’s (very negative) and Unger’s (positive) attitude towards science, for example — all three men share the view that analytic philosophy as it has been and is still largely being practiced is profoundly misguided. Rorty’s views have been elaborated at length (for example, in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) and are well known. Horwich set out his position very concisely in a piece published last year by the New York Times entitled, “Was Wittgenstein right?” . And lately Unger has come out with a surprisingly blunt and scathing assessment of analytic philosophy. He too traces his basic ideas back to Wittgenstein.
“In a way, all I’m doing,” says Unger, “is detailing things that were already said aphoristically by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations” . He sees the only real hope for the discipline as lying in the direction of collaboration with the various sciences.
Unger’s approach is somewhat abrasive, but at least he draws attention to what is a real and ongoing problem. All too often philosophy’s defenders see no problem; or, if they see it, they think that acknowledging it will only give comfort to their detractors. For example, a commenter at Scientia Salon spoke (seriously, I think) about Unger having “gone over to the dark side” and others have spoken in similar terms. Such “them and us,” Manichean-sounding talk and thinking signals that philosophy has become for some less an intellectual discipline than a kind of religion or ideology.
Such approaches often involve inflated claims, and it is just not possible nowadays to articulate a broad and ambitious vision of philosophy which will be persuasive to a wider audience. Stirring rhetoric about philosophy’s intellectual grandeur and moral importance won’t get you anywhere. In fact, you could make a pretty good case that it’s precisely this grand, over-reaching, overblown view of philosophy which more than anything else is bringing it down.
Massimo Pigliucci’s contributions to this debate are neither Manichean nor merely rhetorical. He is seeking on this site — and, I understand, in a forthcoming book — to mount a rational and coherent defense of a very broad and, in effect, traditional view of the subject (incorporating ethics and standard metaphysics, for example), but I have the sense that such a line is not only in tension but also in conflict with his other main preoccupation: namely, to bring philosophy and the sciences closer together.
He believes that this rapprochement can happen even as philosophy continues to assert its status as an independent and so, in a sense, unified discipline. My view is that this unity and independence are not sustainable — but that this does not greatly matter because the most worthwhile philosophizing is focused closely on particular (usually scientific) areas of knowledge and inquiry and engaged in by those with appropriate levels of expertise in the areas in question.
It’s also worth noting that the very spectacle of scholars devoting a lot of time and effort to trying to define and defend their discipline is a sure sign that all is not well with the discipline in question.
But the signs are not all negative. As I have suggested, positive lessons can be drawn from the fact that there is far less controversy about the worthwhileness of science-oriented philosophizing than about more general and scientifically (or mathematically) unconstrained approaches. Does this not point the way to a brighter future — as well as signaling that empirically and mathematically unconstrained approaches may need to be jettisoned?
On the border lies some technical philosophy which engages closely with formal logic, and so is logically — though not empirically — constrained. I am thinking of the sort of metaphysics engaged in by Timothy Williamson or David Lewis and their respective followers, which has led to some good things but also to a lot of (in my view) meaningless speculation — as well as to the articulation of some pretty dubious ideas (such as modal realism, for instance). There have been useful contributions to work in linguistics (model-theoretic semantics, for instance), but I remain very skeptical of the value of any metaphysically-oriented work which is disconnected from empirical science.
Other types of philosophizing based on informal reasoning about science-fiction-like thought experiments — Twin Earth or zombie or brain-in-a-vat talk, for example — may be seen as empirically constrained to some extent, but its problem also is that it does not engage closely enough with real science. What this means is that the issues are often simply not resolvable in the terms in which they have been presented. Thought experiments just become talking points or discussion generators in the absence of any real — or at least prospective — engagement with actual science.
But what I want to focus on here is the issue of philosophers engaging in non-technical writing on general topics. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course. Anyone should be allowed to express their views on questions of general interest. But my question is: what is it that philosophers bring to this sort of writing as philosophers? In other words, what kinds of general problems are philosophers really equipped to address, and on what basis?
I recall a seminar I attended in which a philosopher, someone with real expertise in ancient Greek language and culture and ancient philosophy generally, read a paper in which he applied Aristotelian concepts to the question of sexual perversion. His focus was not historical, however, but rather on what Aristotle might teach us on the matter. During the coffee break, chatting to the woman (a non-philosopher) sitting next to me, I expressed the view that modern psychology might be able to throw a little more light on these matters than Aristotle. She sagely agreed. (I only found out later that she was the speaker’s wife.)
This sort of thing, philosophers implicitly or explicitly claiming expertise in areas beyond their real areas of knowledge — usually on the basis that the topic is an ethical or a metaphysical one, and ethics and metaphysics are a part of philosophy — is widespread.
Let me just mention, by way of example, three books by philosophers on general topics which have prompted (I think appropriate) skeptical responses.
One is the book The Meaning of Disgust by Colin McGinn . McGinn actually has a solid background in psychology but he gave it all up for a very old-fashioned, metaphysical version of philosophy. He was one of philosophy’s stars in the late 20th century and most famous for presenting, in a clear and accessible style, arguments that certain problems in philosophy — like consciousness and free will — are real problems, but problems that we are simply incapable of answering because of the limitations of our brains. In The Meaning of Disgust he seeks — believing as he does that all philosophy is logic (or the a priori analysis of concepts) — to isolate (by thinking very hard) the essence of disgust (whatever that might be). His approach is a mix of conceptual analysis, phenomenology, confronting rhetoric and self-indulgent psychological and metaphysical speculation. McGinn totally ignores the extensive body of science on the topic. The best that can be said of the book is that it elicited some gloriously scathing reviews .
The second book I will mention is Thomas Nagel’s notorious Mind and Cosmos . As in the McGinn case, there has been so much savage criticism of the book that I will not add to it, except to say that Nagel’s self-confessed ignorance about evolutionary biology, physics and other sciences relevant to his themes does tend to undermine his credibility from the outset.
It might be objected that philosophers themselves have turned on McGinn and Nagel, essentially ostracizing them.
But the fact remains that Nagel and McGinn were both leading lights in later 20th-century philosophy and their work is deeply interwoven into the major debates of that time. Further, the roots of their current ideas are clearly visible in their early, more respected work.
The third book is by someone who, in his earlier philosophical writings engaged with the ideas of both McGinn and Nagel. A.C. Grayling’s recent work, Friendship is a rather rambling essay on the subject . Grayling draws on selected philosophers and writers, but the selection of authors is arbitrary and the work is shaped by the author’s (necessarily limited) perspective and includes reflections on his own personal experiences .
It is not a bad book — certainly not embarrassingly bad or as flawed as the other two I mentioned. And Grayling is yet (so far as I know) to stumble intellectually or professionally and face the wrath of his colleagues. But this pedestrian little pot-boiler on friendship provides yet another example of a leading philosophical light exposing the — how shall I put it? — ordinariness of his insights on a general topic.
It seems to me that if you are writing seriously about a topic like friendship, broadly speaking you have three main options: a history-based approach, a science-based approach (social psychology, evolutionary psychology, etc.), or an intuitive, “writerly” approach. Grayling explicitly renounces the first two:
“Note that this is not a history of friendship, not a sociological or psychological treatise on friendship … [R]ather it is a discussion of the idea of friendship, a philosophical (in the broadest sense) exploration of views about it”.
Philosophical in the broadest sense: what does this mean exactly?
Grayling tries to explain, but in effect concedes that there is a lack of intellectual rigor: “I range widely through philosophical, historical and literary sources for my materials, not methodically and systematically, but as occasion and need suggest. As when sinking one’s instruments into ocean currents at various places, one eventually gets a sense of their drift: that has been a part of the technique here” .
Despite the attempt to liken his explorations to those of an oceanographer, the comparison is not convincing. In fact the simile is utterly literary and I would characterize Grayling’s general approach here as literary-philosophical . And, judged in these terms, the work fails to impress.
Many writers have said interesting or challenging things about friendship — and Grayling quotes some of them (Oscar Wilde, for example, who defined a friend as someone who stabs you in the front). But without some kind of intellectual framework to provide rigor and coherence or a strong perspective to provide subtlety and depth, what one is left with is superficial and unsatisfactory and uncomfortably close to desk-calendar wisdom.
True essayists or fiction writers can — like Proust for example (whom Grayling doesn’t mention) — challenge our ideas of friendship in subtle and serious ways that Grayling’s approach misses entirely. Not only does he fail to bring to the subject any original thoughts of his own, he fails (in my opinion) as a guide to the most worthwhile and original thoughts of others.
Grayling had the option, presumably, of taking a more rigorously historical or scientific approach. But he chose instead to play the role of the philosophically-oriented man of letters, an approach which is both difficult to play well and — whether played well or not — guaranteed to annoy people of certain types and temperaments. As my mother used to say: “Tell me something I don’t know why don’t you!”
So, overall, it seems to me that philosophy and philosophers are trading on the past glories of the subject, as well as on misunderstandings on the part of sections of the general public concerning what words like “philosophy” and “metaphysics” might signify. Peter Unger makes the point rather poignantly.
Characterizing (quite plausibly in my opinion) most contemporary metaphysics, as well as “some epistemology, a fair amount of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language” as being either parochial or trivial, he claims that potential students are in effect being misled or shortchanged.
“People who are signing up for philosophy don’t think they’re going to end up with this kind of stuff. They want to learn something about the ‘ultimate nature of reality,’ and their position in relation to it. And when you’re doing philosophy, you don’t have a prayer of offering even anything close to a correct or even intelligible answer to any of these questions” .
Behind Unger’s remarks is an awareness of the disappointment and disillusionment that many students experience when they take their first courses in philosophy and realize what thin gruel most of it really is. I personally have found myself in the position of trying to justify the discipline to skeptical students . (My usual line was to try to get them to see philosophy more in terms of the history of ideas, emphasizing the importance of knowing something about the way our cultures and our science have developed over time.)
Given that — whatever happens to philosophy departments — meta-questions relating to the sciences and other disciplines will continue to be addressed by practitioners of those disciplines, why does it matter so much to some that philosophy should survive as an independent discipline?
It may be that many of philosophy’s defenders are motivated by a belief in the need for a synoptic view.
There’s no doubt that an integrated approach to knowledge and understanding can be valuable, providing stability and a broad framework for thinking. And there is no doubt that religion and philosophy were once able to provide such frameworks. (Whether the frameworks were soundly based is another question, of course.) Religion still does play this role for some, but philosophy not so much.
Again, questions of expertise and authority arise here. Who these days (apart from religious leaders) would presume to offer a comprehensive intellectual framework? As I suggested above, I think the best we can do in the context of academic teaching is to point out how others have addressed these grand issues in the past. And such courses would perhaps be more appropriately designated intellectual history than philosophy.
What other reasons or motivations (apart from matters of material self-interest, self-image and identity) might people have for wanting to maintain philosophy as an independent discipline?
Ideological and moral motivations clearly play a part. Just as implicit religious, ideological, political and moral commitments lie behind and motivate particular philosophical views, so such commitments motivate particular views of philosophy. In fact, only the existence of such commitments could explain, in my opinion, the crusading passion which many bring to these debates.
I specifically singled out religious perspectives for attention in my earlier essay and there was — perhaps unsurprisingly — a high degree of hostility regarding my suggestion that philosophy has been dependent on religion in various and complex ways in the past and continues to be. Non-religious supporters of philosophy did not want to see their favored discipline as being in any way dependent on religion; and religious supporters of philosophy felt perhaps that only a discipline seen to be entirely free of religious presuppositions or influences could be used convincingly to defend a religious point of view.
Political and moral and other broadly ideological commitments are also in play, of course, and a broad-based, normatively-oriented version of philosophy is inevitably attractive to those who seek to influence the values and behaviors of others.
But perhaps even more important than specific political and moral commitments is a general conviction, almost religiously held in some quarters, that scientism (conceived as a too-narrowly-scientific view of the world) needs to be actively resisted, and that the arts and humanities — including philosophy — should play a central role here.
To the extent that I recognize the desirability of a respect for ideas, a sense of history and a broadly critical perspective, I’m on board. But seeing such qualities as being in any way dependent on the fortunes of a single academic discipline would be a mistake.
Mark English has a background in the history of ideas, linguistics and philosophy. He has a PhD in philosophy from Monash University and he blogs at Language, Life and Logic.
 “Are you sure you have hands?” Scientia Salon, June 18, 2014.
 “Does philosophy have a future?” Scientia Salon, May 26, 2014.
 See, for example, her 2008 paper “Will philosophers study their history or become history?” Radical Philosophy Review 11(2): 27-52.
 Here is Horwich’s essay.
 From an interview with Unger at 3 Quarks Daily.
 Oxford University Press, 2011.
 Daniel Kelly’s review is relatively sober and restrained, but it effectively exposes the absurdity of McGinn’s approach to the question.
 Oxford University Press, 2012. Here is Nagel’s own summary of the basic thesis of the book.
 Yale University Press, 2013.
 Grayling’s sources reflect his classical and philosophical background; he virtually ignores modern literature.
 Grayling, op. cit., p.15.
 Grayling could be seen as a modern incarnation of the 19th-century man of letters. I can think of a number of 20th-century English philosophers who played this kind of role (especially in their later years) or saw themselves in these terms. Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer were prominent examples, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Grayling saw himself as following in their footsteps.
 Unger, op. cit.
 I mean here students expressing doubts about the worthwhileness of the discipline, but it was often the case that these students were also religious skeptics. In my experience, students with religious affiliations are less inclined to question the discipline and are more likely to find it interesting — and challenging.