Doing Philosophy: From Common Curiosity to Logical Reasoning, by Timothy Williamson (Oxford University Press), $18.85/£12.99
If I could assign readings to anyone, I would assign Timothy Williamson’s new book Doing Philosophy to pop-scientists who have made ill-informed blanket dismissals of philosophy, like the late Stephen Hawking, who recently pronounced “Philosophy is dead”, or Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss or Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Doing Philosophy would open their eyes to a productive research program in analytic philosophy that works in concert with advances in science and mathematics.
Williamson is as much a “superstar” as any living analytic philosopher, meaning he’s familiar to most professional philosophers, but sadly to few others. In addition to having “done” a great deal of philosophy, especially in metaphysics and epistemology, Williamson also works in “meta-philosophy” or “The Philosophy of Philosophy” (the title of his earlier book on the topic). Doing Philosophy provides a short introduction to Williamson’s philosophy of philosophy, now easily accessible to the uninitiated.
I imagine this book as involving a park bench with three kids on it. At one end is a young Stephen Hawking, representing the clique Williamson wants to join: science and mathematics. At the opposite end is a young Michel Foucault, representing humanities, the arts, and “continental” philosophy (philosophy in the tradition of French and German speakers of continental Europe). Williamson is the awkward kid in the middle, representing “analytic” philosophy (philosophy in the tradition of English-speaking countries). The book is Williamson’s attempt to ingratiate himself to Hawking in three ways: by approaching Hawking, by pulling Hawking towards him, and by distancing them both from Hawking’s nemesis Foucault. (Like a gentleman, Williamson rarely names names, a vexing trend in books meant to be widely accessible, so we can’t be sure if he has Hawking or Foucault specifically in mind.)
Williamson sidles up to Hawking by likening philosophy to science. “Philosophy, like all science, starts with ways of knowing and thinking all normal humans have, and applies them a bit more carefully, a bit more systematically, a bit more critically, iterating that process over and over again”. To draw attention to similarities between philosophy and science, Williamson has chapters discussing philosophical uses of deductive logic, inference to the best explanation (chap. 6), precision and clarity in defining terms (chap. 4), and model-building (chap. 10). He also dedicates a chapter (chap. 9) to explicit connections between philosophy and various sciences.
Williamson pulls Hawking toward him by arguing science is more akin to philosophy than some might think. Philosophers hold it against views when they violate common sense, but so too do scientists when theories violate “common-sense ways of knowing through the senses”. Like philosophers, scientists often stubbornly defend lost causes, and progress occurs when the next generation chooses whose research programs to follow. Philosophers typically don’t do real-world experiments, but neither do mathematicians, computer scientists, nor highly theoretical scientists. Philosophers often use “thought experiments”, but so do some scientists. Philosophers place great weight upon intuitions, but if you define ‘intuition’ as the complement to conscious inference, then everyone relies upon intuition, if only to provide starting premises for conscious inferences. Frustratingly, Williamson doesn’t address the concern that philosophers might employ less reliable intuitions than scientists, a concern that becomes especially salient when you consider “far out” philosophical intuition pumps like John Searle’s Chinese Room, Keith Lehrer’s TrueTemp, or Donald Davidson’s Swampman. I, for one, would place more trust in a physicist’s intuition that her calculator is working than I would any philosopher’s intuitions about these fanciful cases!
Williamson distances himself from nameless philosophers (like perhaps Foucault) whom he thinks have given philosophy a bad name. “Admittedly, many contemporary philosophers are anything but scientific in their approach. This book is about doing philosophy well, not doing it badly”. Williamson admits that philosophers often study our field’s history more than scientists do theirs, but he argues this isn’t essential to good philosophy and can sometimes be a useful source for ideas (chap. 9). Then there’s this deliciously shade-filled passage, in which Williamson postures himself close to Karl Popper-minded scientists, and apart from a common analytic caricature of continental philosophy:
“Precision-loving philosophers [like me] are sometimes criticised for excessive caution, even for intellectual cowardice. The idea is that the truly bold philosophers are those ready to plunge into the depths of obscurity, risking all in murky darkness, while the precision-lovers play trivial games in the clear shallows. It’s a nice picture, the vagueness-lovers’ safe dream of danger. Wild and woolly prose may sound radical, but it’s really the easy, comfortable option, because its unclarity makes it unrefutable. The risky option is saying something clear and specific enough to be refuted.”
Williamson also distances philosophy from other non-sciences. He rejects the relativist view, common in other humanities, that all belief systems are equally correct, because this view doesn’t allow the real possibility that our own beliefs may turn out to be wrong. His chapter connecting philosophy to other fields runs the gamut of sciences, but the only “softer” field that merits even a brief section is history, as a potential reality check for political philosophy (chap. 9). Williamson’s vision of philosophy apparently has little use for religion, literature, sociology or the arts.
The current zeitgeist has many in the humanities calling for increased diversity and greater representation for women, non-western, and other under-represented voices. Williamson resists this at various points. Williamson defends stereotypically masculine “gladiatorial combat” aspects of philosophical discussion: “But to discourage sharp-edged questions only exacerbates matters by making it easier for high-prestige speakers to bluff, and get away with bad arguments.” Similarly, he dismisses the stereotypically feminine “feel-good slogan” that “discussion should be constructive”, which he likens to instructing city-planners to “always build houses and never knock them down”. Williamson dismisses gender and ethnic differences in philosophical intuition uncovered by experimental philosophy as resulting from flaws in experimental design, and he optimistically views philosophical intuitions as having “far more to do with cognitive capacities we all share, irrespective of our ethnicity and gender”.
Williamson also discourages philosophers’ weighing in on whether we should use the word “woman” for trans-women in a passage that suggests he might have learned the lesson of George Orwell’s 1984 a little too well: “In practice, a trend towards redefining terms may favour more sinister causes … Politically, people habituated to going along with linguistic reforms are easier to manipulate.” The net effect of these scattered passages is that philosophy may as well continue to be predominately white, privileged, masculine, and politically disengaged. It’s probably not coincidental that this echoes common perceptions of science.
Despite its title, Doing Philosophy contains less actual doing of (traditional) philosophy than most introductory courses would want. Also, its most sustained exploration of standard intro-philosophy fare (the mind-body problem in chap. 6), is unfortunately quite idiosyncratic, e.g., in depicting the view that many philosophers would call “Functionalism” as a form of “Identity-theory” – an interesting way of carving logical space, but not one I would use in an introductory course.
This book could perhaps be used in an upper-level course on meta-philosophy, though it would be somewhat challenging to use, as it does not engage at a high level with many named opponents. Williamson’s earlier The Philosophy of Philosophy would probably be a better choice.
Instead I would most recommend this book as an excellent option for independent readers who want to learn more about analytic philosophy and its relations to sciences and mathematics. Does anybody have Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s number?