Philosophy’s Future: The Problem of Philosophical Progress, edited by Russell Blackford and Damien Broderick (Wiley-Blackwell), $99.95/£60
There is a widespread and growing perception, both within and without the academy, that something is wrong with “professional” philosophy. As one of the philosophers disgruntled and disenchanted with my own field, I was pleased to be asked to review this book. It frames the main problem with contemporary academic philosophy in terms of philosophy’s lack of progress, as compared with the empirical sciences.
The premise is that in science, progress is being made toward consensus on the right answers to the questions science investigates. In philosophy, however, we find perpetual disagreement about philosophy’s problems. So, something must be wrong with philosophy.
My initial reaction is: why should the lack of consensus in philosophy be perceived as a problem? Philosophical questions, almost by definition, are the ones about which thoughtful, rational people can perpetually disagree. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, the problems of philosophy are to be studied not for the sake of their answers, since no definitive answers to them are to be had. They are to be studied for the sake of the questions themselves. These questions probably mark the limits of what human beings are capable of understanding. Seeing the many different ways in which these questions might be answered discourages dogmatism and opens the mind to many possibilities. It encourages intellectual humility, the Socratic virtue of knowing how much we do not know.
There is plenty wrong with academic philosophy these days, but the absence of convergence toward consensus is, in my opinion, not one of the problems.
Some of the contributors to this volume agree with me about this. For example, Massimo Pigliucci (following earlier work of Nicholas Rescher) argues that whereas science’s progress may sometimes be measured by convergence toward consensus, the same is not true for philosophy. In philosophy, progress is made in two ways. First, unsatisfactory accounts are eliminated. Second, accounts that remain standing after this critical process (let us call them “aporetic clusters”) are internally refined and improved. Competing aporetic clusters provide alternative conceptual landscapes, different ways of responding to philosophical problems. Surveying these possible responses results in a deeper understanding of the issues, without presenting any one solution as definitive. This strikes me as correct. However, the following problem remains: much of “professional” philosophical activity makes no obvious contribution to the understanding of any plausible aporetic cluster on any genuinely interesting issue.
Several contributors to this volume take the opportunity to opine about all that is wrong with contemporary academic philosophy, whether or not these problems represent barriers to “progress” as defined by the editors. There are several recurring themes.
First: there is too much intra-disciplinary “siloing” in philosophy. That is: philosophers read only the literature in their own peculiar little areas of expertise. Each little area sets its own standards for what counts as publishable research. People working in a particular sub-field of philosophy become isolated not only from people outside the academy, but from the rest of philosophy. Their work is intelligible only within an enclave of initiates. The presuppositions accepted within these isolated enclaves can often be revealed to be false or even ridiculous when exposed to the light of wider intellectual scrutiny.
Jessica Wilson provides an example, taken from the landscape of contemporary metaphysics. There has recently been a great fuss and bother about “grounding”. Jonathan Schaffer, Kit Fine, and others have maintained that previous attempts to explain the mind-brain relationship, etc., in terms of supervenience, causality, reduction, etc., were not properly metaphysical; they were overly semantical or linguistic. A new notion is allegedly needed: “grounding”. This new notion of grounding will allegedly revive a neglected Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics as about “what grounds what”.
As Wilson points out with undisguised exasperation, this amounts to re-inventing an old wheel under a new name, and then saying false things about the old wheel. I myself, having attended Jaegwon Kim’s NEH summer seminar on supervenience back in 1990, can attest that at least some understandings of supervenience were unquestionably metaphysical, and amounted to precisely what Schaffer and Fine seem to mean by “grounding”. The Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics has always been with us, and some philosophers have been pursuing it all along. The explosion of new literature on “grounding” adds nothing to our understanding of either the mind-body relationship, or to metaphysical issues more broadly construed. And yet, graduate students (who were not around in the 1980s to absorb the supervenience conversation) take the word of Fine and Schaffer as gospel, and assume that, before somebody invented the word “grounding”, we were all in ignorance of the real problems, and we all had a mistaken conception of metaphysics.
Wilson presents another example of basically the same “siloing” phenomenon, casting it as a separate problem within academic philosophy: the fact that philosophers often adopt philosophical positions due to sociological causes, rather than for sound epistemic reasons. Consider the widespread acceptance within current metaphysics of the “Humean dictum” that there are no metaphysically necessary connections among distinct entities. As Wilson points out, there is no basis in either science or common sense for such a view. How plausible is it that a chemical reaction between two elements is contingent? The only possible basis for the Humean view is an extreme empiricist epistemology that is now almost completely discredited. So, why are there so many “Humeans” in philosophical circles? Why is the so-called “Humean” theory of causality, according to which all causal relations are contingent, still considered a contender? Wilson’s hypothesis: it is because of the prestige within the metaphysical community of David Lewis, articulator of the “Humean dictum”. This raises the obvious question: is the prestige of David Lewis justified?
Another recurring theme: philosophers have lost track of the real issues at the heart of their field, and instead waste their time pursuing artificial issues. Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay are particularly eloquent about this problem. Philosophy journals (there are too many of them) are full of incomprehensible, inconsequential papers that nobody reads. Philosophy conferences (there are too many of them) are bizarre gatherings of peculiar people saying incomprehensible things. Nobody represented in the book notes that this is obviously due to the institutional structure of academia, where professors are evaluated and rewarded only on the basis of counting journal publications and conference presentations, without regard for the quality or content of what is published and presented. The game is to produce a lot of verbiage – the more, the better – and nobody doing the “evaluating” seems to care if it means anything or not.
Yet another recurring theme: philosophers should be aware of scientific results that bear on their areas of inquiry. James Ladyman sounds this theme prominently. Metaphysicians ought to know the basics of physics, chemistry, and biology, be well-informed about recent cosmology, and pick up their researches only where the science leaves off. Likewise, epistemology should proceed in light of results in cognitive science, and ethics should take regard of relevant research in psychology, evolutionary biology, and so on. We philosophers need to talk not just with each other, but with scientists working on related issues. Another point in the same ballpark: philosophers who do philosophy of science should have some experience of doing actual science.
Two of the four female contributors to this volume (Karen Green and Jessica Wilson) complain that the situation for women is bad in philosophy, and probably worse than in other academic disciplines. One barrier to progress, however that term may be defined, is institutional failure to listen to the voices of females. Statistical evidence bears out the fact that women’s philosophical writings are often ignored and rarely cited. Wilson remarks that males can get away with saying silly and obviously false things (see example of Fine and Schaffer above, not to mention David Lewis) and even become academic stars as a result, whereas women cannot get away with even the tiniest questionable claim without ridicule. There is no single clear explanation for this kind of phenomenon, but it needs to stop. Personally, it has often struck me that academic philosophy resembles interaction among male animals to prove, e.g. who has the biggest antlers.
Other contributors to this volume take the line of cheerleading for philosophy, arguing that, if “progress” is defined appropriately, philosophy makes progress after all. Some philosophical problems have been solved, or dissolved. Daniel Stoljar argues that the mind-body problem, as conceived by Descartes, and the problem of induction, as conceived by Hume, are in this class. Hmm. Consensus has been reached on some questions: as Stuart Brock points out, nobody thinks knowledge is adequately analysed as justified true belief anymore, and everybody knows that proper names at least sometimes function as rigid designators. (Woo-hoo!)
Some contributors take issue with the notion that (all) philosophy is usefully compared with science. Some kinds of philosophy are concerned with identity-conferring choices, as Ward E. Jones points out. Some philosophical debates, for example in ethics and political philosophy, are better construed as “intellectual wars of values” than as attempts to settle on a true account of reality, as Stephan Lorenz Sorgner maintains.
One contributor (Mark Walker) is sceptical about the progressiveness of science. A great deal of work in epistemology and philosophy of science casts doubt on the notion that human beings are capable of discovering the final truth about any empirical matter. This suggests that philosophy and science, when they proceed beyond mathematics and logic, are in the same uncertain boat.
Unfortunately, I cannot mention and evaluate all the essays in this volume in a brief review. As the foregoing remarks attest, I did find some of the essays cogent and worth reading – particularly the essays by Massimo Pigliucci and Jessica Wilson. Also notable is the fine essay by Myisha Cherry, who argues forcefully that philosophers need to “leave the shade” and express their views clearly in accessible public debate. Hear, hear! This is especially important in the present political reality, when we have a President of the United States who doesn’t know the difference between an argument and an ad hominem attack. Philosophy may not progress toward consensus, but it certainly encourages critical thinking and discourages fallacious reasoning.