Colin McGinn (a philosopher whose work on the philosophy of mind I have admired) has published an embarrassing piece in the Philosopher's Stone that is at the same time a plea for others to take philosophy seriously and a case in point as to why many don't. He proposes to rename the field of philosophy "ontics" and reclassify it as a science rather than part of the humanities. He justifies this proposal by making the case that philosophy is a science by the following standards: "the subject is systematic, rigorous, replete with technical vocabulary, often in conflict with common sense, capable of refutation, produces hypotheses, uses symbolic notation, is about the natural world, is institutionalized, peer-reviewed, tenure-granting, etc. We may as well recognize that we are a science, even if not one that makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics." He goes on to reduce "humanities" to its dictionary definition, "studies of human culture," and argue that philosophical sub-specialties are not studies of human culture.
This is a laughable replacement of wordplay for argument that might have the average reader believing that philosophy should simply be renamed "Semantics."
First, the wide definition of science that McGinn uses to rein in philosophy is also applicable to the humanities, including such subjects as comparative literature. In fact, even literary critics once believed themselves to be engaged in a science (in this broad sense) before "theory" (with its relativistic and anti-scientific preoccupations) took over English departments. So it doesn't help, in classifying philosophy, to note that it is a systematic body of knowledge. Which leaves McGinn arguing that philosophy be characterized as an empirical natural science ... despite the fact that it is not one.
Second, historically "philosophy" was thought to be an apt name because its meaning, "love of wisdom," calls out the problematic nature of its subject matter. "Love" implies a lack of complete possession of the beloved (see Plato's Symposium and various other dialogues -- Socrates seems to be inclined toward what the philosopher Stewart Umphrey calls zetetic skepticism, the belief that absolute philosophical truth is unobtainable but that the best life we can live involves seeking it anyway). By contrast, full possession is the name of the game in the hard sciences, where theories obtain wide consensus (despite the understanding that these theories are defeasible and might be overturned by the next scientific advance). Philosophical theories are always in dispute, and there is seldom ever any wide agreement on any major philosophical question. Further, that philosophical knowledge does not produce technology means it will always remain suspect to people who are inclined to believe that pleasure and the good life coincide -- which is to say, that to be worthwhile something must produce "practical" results, where the practical and the material coincide. Hence the Sophists of Ancient Greece went around with their day's equivalent of PowerPoint presentations (or TED lectures) to educate young men about virtue, defined as how to get ahead in the world. Socrates responded, "actually, that's a load of sophistic bullshit."
And speaking of which: philosophy was traditionally conceived to have an overarching goal of determining how to live a good life; and sub-specialties that didn't directly serve this purpose were thought to indirectly serve it -- not just because they laid the groundwork for addressing ethical questions but because doing philosophy turned out to be part of what it meant to live a good life. In Plato, epistemology and metaphysics are fields motivated by ethical and political concerns.
Finally, philosophy is part of the humanities because of the critical role that reflection (or "phenomenology") plays in its practice. (And as listeners and readers may know, I'm an advocate of reflection of the most comfortable armchair variety). It involves an attempt to come to terms with what it is to be human, and in practicing philosophy human beings are in the difficult position of being both subject and object -- a problem not generally faced by the hard sciences. Even epistemology and metaphysics -- which McGinn claims are about "nature" -- generally turn on the the problematic role of the subject in any engagement with the world. (I will concede that philosophy is a science the day that it involves long hours in a lab with a pipette).
The science envy that McGinn displays in this piece does not help philosophy. And in general, I'd like to say to those with similar concerns: if you wanted to become a scientist, you should have become a scientist. If your mother and friends are anything like average Americans, they would have thought more highly of you because of it. But consider the possibility that the arts and humanities are simply worthwhile pursuits, despite the fact that they are not going to produce the next iPad or a cure for cancer. And consider the possibility that the United States needs a counterweight to its philistinism -- to its pseudo-pragmatist values and their devaluing of the arts and humanities -- not the grotesque surrender to it that "ontics" represents. There are enough politicians telling children to study math and science and cutting the funding that would allow them to study anything else. They do not require your assistance, and your collaborationism is not going to win you greater respect -- from anyone.
My first thought, a question, is there any field of science that we don’t makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics? I’m wondering if anyone can think of any examples. I have experienced philosophy as heavily overlapping theology and religion, and because that, I personally can’t see it overlapping with science.
Brent Voelker says
I’m not sure this will answer your question, but here are a few examples of very productive overlap between sciences and philosophy. At least where biology and the cognitive sciences are concerned, the very best science writing is deeply philosophical, and good philosophy can engage science generously and in a spirit of friendship.
• Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan, What is Life?
• Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species
• Elizabeth Wilson, Psychosomatic
• Elizabeth Grosz, Time Travels
• Isabelle Stengers, The Invention of Modern Science
Philosophy is not a science; the two employ different methods, and it is method (or practice)that defines a discipline. But science can help ground philosophy, and philosophy can help make better science.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks, Brent! I’m noting your recommendations…
Chris Mullen says
I would completely second the work of Lynn Margulis (whose work i respect very much) and Terrence Deacon’s “The Symbolic Species The Symbolic Species” (if you want to read a direct and compelling challenge to Chomsky and Pinker on language).
I would also recommend the Journal of Applied Philosophy. The newest issue can be found here
for ryan (i could not hit reply to your note):
i did make the figure up, and in fact meant to say that but did not. my apologies. the intent was ‘most’.
in any event, i agree with you. so many in power exploit. that correlates to what my thought on the strongest. isn’t about the top 1 to 2 % who control most of what you describe? i have to have faith that ‘most’ individuals would not exploit, if they did not feel that they would be exploited themselves.
predators eating prey is something totally different, i feel. that is food for the predator. the fact that their prey are living individuals themselves does not come into play in the natural world. it just is.
when did we become rational? i don’t know that we are more rational now. we are more numerous, and with that comes responsibility. my meaning for rational was in respect to cultural norms, whether the culture is primate or human. (yes, primates have culture, as dewaal and others have proven. )
You’re right that I should have more faith in the decent intent of the majority, but it just seems like what has become a new and significant problem is that decent personal intent is no longer going to be enough. Even most of the top 1-2% are included in the same system of wage slavery as you and I are, and aren’t all a bunch of comic book supervillain type croney capitalists. It’s too easy to toss all the blame on to them, when even a small minority out of that group holds most of the political power. 1950’s style politeness shared between American suburban neighbors is not going to drag the world out of the ecological crisis. The golden rule is not simply natural, it must be expected out of one another, demanded, fought for, universalized. It is completely foreseeable to myself at least, that it could go away as a personal ethic forever, and that would make for a very dehumanizing event, but not even nearly an implausible one. I agree with everything else you have to say, sorry that I was hostile.
passion is a good thing. it is good to see/hear your passion. it is just that passion, coming from the young generation, that gives me hope that humanity may survive.
though, realistically, it is not looking so good.
Butters Stotch says
I think that it is merely important for philosophers to demonstrate that they do important work and are not bullshitting their way through life like those postmodern idiots.
Daniel Horne says
Plus, you know, this:
Anh-vu Doan says
Coming from the science vantage point, I feel that McGinn’s article seems to trivialize science as well. It seems to be predicated on the basis of a few surface appearances– for example, the practice of peer-reviewed papers published in journals. But this misunderstands science. The fundamental core of science thrives on the basis of testable hypotheses and falsifiable results. But philosophy deals with realms of concepts that are totally untestable. In no way could philosophy, no matter how rigorous, stand in the same area as the physical sciences, because they just don’t share the same fundamental methodology.
via Leiter: http://philocosmology.rutgers.edu/
Quine told all his philosophiles to lose their hangup with words as reality and get to work w/ science to approach truth.
PEL has had a great exemplar of this: one of his students who followed his advice quite successfully, Professor Patricia Churchland, who supplemented her Phil PhD with an M.D. in order to get at the reality of cognition.
The Science Network online has many other examples of philosophers doing the strenuous work of informing their philosophical theorizing with hard-won facticity available only with empirical work.
You do not do anything serious in an armchair.
Chris Mullen says
Burl, i think that you overlook a great deal of addendum made within the field of philosophy concerning the “anthropocentric” claim you make here.
There has been a great deal of cross-fertilization between philosophy and a whole host of scientific investigations into “animal cognition” that have sought to demonstrate that there is a is a “consciousness” contimuum between human beings and other animal species.
I can name half a dozen books off the top of my head that mix philosophy with science whose focus is challenging the “anthropocentric” model of human “exceptionalism” by establishing the validity of this “continuum”: Species of Mind, How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals, The Origins of Meaning (Studies in the Evolution of Language) , The Philosophy of Animal Minds (read a longer review here, and i could go on and on with examples (that i have read) that contradict your claim that there exists a “near total exclusion” of anything that is not “human phenomenology and language” in philosophy.
There is also the entire works of people like Paul Shepard who not only challenged the narrative of “progress” and the general themes of “civilization” but also challenged the very “anthroporphism” you decry. One of Shepard’s central themes is the complete and total inter-related nature of human consciousness with other animals. He, in fact, argues that other animals MADE us what we are and we would not be ourselves in there absence (this applies to non-domesticated animals, or “autonomous” animals). David W. Ehrenfeld , in his work, particularly in his book The Arrogance of Humanism aims to put “anthropocentrism” into critical focus and the philosophies that arise from this POV, specifically “Humanism.” (The argument here is not a denunciation of the aims of “humanism” but the ideas that are said to support it as a valid ethos). There is also John A. Livingston, who spent his entire career arguing against the basic premises used by ourselves as a species to justify our treatment of the natural world and other animals. I would recommend his Rogue Primate: An Exploration of Human Domestication for his exploration into how we became the kind of species we are (although his One cosmic instant: A Natural History of Human Arrogance for a more direct assault on “anthropocentric” philosophy).
I guess you could say that my definition of “philosophy” is not neatly delineated here since some of the above suggestions are not, strictly speaking, “philosophy” (from an academic standpoint). But, from my subjective evaluation of what is discussed in professional philosophical circles, i would not necessarily agree that philosophy has retained it’s “anthropocentric” bias although there are very vocal hold-outs who still maintain the “human exceptionalism” thesis ( a thesis that i would only marginally agree to in a very weak sense).
“It takes the wisdom embodied in sciences like ethology to show these thinkers what should be obvious to anyone who goes outside and takes a dog for a walk.”
But Ethology is also informed by pressing philosophical questions. In fact, it would be hard to argue that any study of “consciousness”, whether human or not, was not originally launched from a philosophical inquiry into “how we know”, “how we think”, etc. (Which is why i do not make hard and fast distinctions between “philosophy” and “science” as such even if the two are not equatible).
I would say that challenging the “anthropocentric bias” in philosophy has been a long standing thread IN philosophy itself and especially in the 20th century. I would also claim that this challenge has, in many ways, invigorated philosophy since it does contest some of the central premises found in the Western philosophical tradition (not that there has not been dissenters). I won’t even get into the whole confusing field of “Posthumanism” since only part of that field deals with critiquing “anthropocentric” notions in philosophy.
In short, as another non-academic, i disagree with your assertion that the “excessive anthropocentrism” in “academic philosophers” is a bias that requires a “corrective effect.” I say this becuase this “corrective effect” has already been an ongoing process.
David Buchanan says
I just want to add to Chris’s case. The title speaks for itself;: “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved”
Princeton University Press says, “Citing remarkable evidence based on his extensive research of primate behavior, de Waal attacks “Veneer Theory,” which posits morality as a thin overlay on an otherwise nasty nature. He explains how we evolved from a long line of animals that care for the weak and build cooperation with reciprocal transactions. Drawing on both Darwin and recent scientific advances, de Waal demonstrates a strong continuity between human and animal behavior. In the process, he also probes issues such as anthropomorphism and human responsibilities toward animals”
Chris Mullen says
David, i am kicking myself for overlooking that de Waal book. To make up for that, i am going to add the following paper based on his work: Frans De Waal and Pragmatist Naturalism
Also, i wanted to add another book i read not so long ago: Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think (although the somewhat recent controversy around the author, Marc Hauser, is disappointing, the book is still worth a read).
David Buchanan says
Sweet. The abstract for the paper says, ‘De Waal argues we should return to Adam Smith’s moral theory and his focus on sympathy and empathy. We believe a return to pragmatism would be more appropriate. Pragmatism largely conforms to the view of human nature that De Waal’s research now supports. We argue that pragmatism can provide a more sophisticated framework to integrate recent insights about primate sociality into political and legal theory. Moreover, we think the pragmatist approach can enrich the hermeneutic strain in De Waal’s research’.
I’m definitely curious about the details of their argument. Thanks.
Chris Mullen says
No problem. I still have to read it in detail myself.
DeWaal’s ‘Primates and Philosophers’ got me into the field of evolutionary theory and its relation to reciprocal altruism, along with ‘The Ape and the Sushi Master’.
Try Robert Sopolsky’s ‘A Primate’s Memoir’, and also Jared Diamond’s ‘The Third Chimpanzee’. To go back to the origin of the theory of reciprocal altruism, read Robert Trivers’ early work. To read about why humans lie, read his latest, ‘The Folly of Fools’.
David Buchanan says
I wonder if you’ve drawn any conclusions about that relation, Joan. Would it be an exaggeration or a distortion to say that the golden rule is natural, for example? I realize this isn’t exactly relevant to science envy but de Wall’s attack on the veneer theory was very intriguing and was hoping you might know how it’s been taken by others in the field.
sorry for the delay in my response: crazy busy time of year in my field.
also, i am unable to respond to how veneer theory is taken by others in the field of evolutionary theory. it is an interest for me, and I am not that current, i feel.
to answer your question from the perspective of one who has an intense interest in evolutionary theory/development and primates, i would say it is spot on that the golden rule is natural, but it is all about the ‘reward’. this is where differences occur.
we all, primates, live, work, play, for a ‘reward’, whether it be social, societal, financial, status, physical, pleasure, love, orgasmic, food, familial continuity, etc. and doing unto others etc. helps our lives to be ‘rewarded’, so to speak, as well as makes this life much more pleasant.
Behavior management, at least the positive kind, which is the only kind the brings long-lasting, permanent results, is all about finding the appropriate reinforcer. And reinforcers can change situationally, environmentally, socially, culturally, personally, and so one.
With that being said, I do feel the golden rule is natural, for maybe 98% of rational, average, non-defective ‘individuals’. (in other words: most!) As for the remainder of individuals, or those that do not have the normal societal norms constraining their behaviors due to either defective genes, physiologically abnormal brain development, sociopathy, etc., individuals that follow the golden rule would be easily exploited.
The veneer theory attack comes into play here: if these individuals are the strongest (strength/meaning being relative to position, situation, etc.) , then altruism and/or its reciprocity means nothing to them. They take what they want.
Sad, then, for all.
You made that 98% figure up, the sad fact about the modern world is that people are otherwise always forced to act in the interest of the pursuit of wealth, against whatever other intentions there might be, and it’s not just that sociopathic types are acting out of self-interest at the expense of others, but that every person today is forced to act in this way if they want to keep fed. When we claim that sociopaths are those irregular individuals who happen to break the rules, we are only working to prop up the wealthy, who aren’t forced to publicly exhibit their sociopathy in the way that the rest of us are, and aren’t met with any legal repercussions for behaving so much worse than the average person is compelled to.
Where does the golden rule come in to play when the IMF comes in to a foreign state and replaces their elected officials with western bankers? How does the golden rule reign supreme while the earth was still a gaseous cloud in space collecting dust? What does the golden rule have to say about predators eating prey? At what moment in time did we go from being animals to rational beings?
Chris Mullen says
There was a brief response to Colin McGinn’s call to rebrand philosophy as “Ontics” over at the Feminist Philosophers that might be of interest.
David Buchanan says
The comments over at the Feminist Philosophers site raised an interesting question. What if McGinn’s piece is some kind of Swiftian parody? What if he’s trying to make science envy look crass and silly? For example, could he really be saying this with a straight face?…
“Our current name is harmful because it posits a big gap between the sciences and philosophy; we do something that is not a science. Thus we do not share in the intellectual prestige associated with that thoroughly modern word. We are accordingly not covered by the media that cover the sciences, and what we do remains a mystery to most people.”
Isn’t he expressing the values of a high school kid here? The name is harmful for the purposes of prestige, media attention and general popularity? This is especially suspicious since the “prestige” currently being enjoyed by academic science is largely due to the funding it brings to Universities from private industry. If these grant-getting scientists were artists, everybody would be calling them sell-outs and corporate whores. Is intellectual integrity different from artistic integrity such that it’s okay for scientific research to be driven by the profit motive? Can you even imagine what philosophy would look like if it were driven by corporate funding? It might not be true, but if we assume that this is a parody and McGinn’s aim is to expose certain tragic absurdities, then his piece is more fun and interesting.
Daniel Horne says
He respond to his critics here:
I read the Times piece without knowing about the article in Philosopher’s Stone and assumed it had to be some kind of satire. No serious thinker could say this without tongue in cheek:
“The dictionary defines “philosophy” as “the study of the fundamental nature of reality, knowledge and existence.” We can simplify this definition by observing that all three cited areas are types of being: objective reality obviously is, but so is knowledge, and so also are meaning, consciousness, value and proof, for example. These are simply things that are.”
Between all the dictionary definitions, the straw-men arguments, and absurd over-simplifications like the above, Mcginn had to be aiming at a parody, or something like that… right? Meaning is a thing that simply is? Even my High School biology professors weren’t that credulous.
Wes Alwan says
@ Adam and David — yep, I thought it was a parody at first as well.
I’d put your point even more strongly by saying that philosophy purposefully sheds certain specialities when it realises that a practice that it has hit upon should better be classified as a seperate science (I have used the term here as it is being used in the article above, although I prefer a narrower definition myself.). One can think of many examples of this, from economics and evolutionary theory previously to neuroscience and artificial intelligence more recently.
That is not to say that philosophy has nothing to say about these subjects once they become the target of scientific enquiry, just that a certain amount of the empirical work is delegated to the sciences, where it belongs. This in fact frees up philosophy to scout out new terrain.