Philosophy must be an open, inquiring process and not harden into ideology

Opinion: The questions the discipline deals with are fundamental, recurring and unavoidable

Philosophers will tend to steer clear of ideology. Heidegger, who was identified with Nazism, is an exception to this rule. Photograph: Apic/Getty Images)

Philosophers will tend to steer clear of ideology. Heidegger, who was identified with Nazism, is an exception to this rule. Photograph: Apic/Getty Images)

Wed, Jan 22, 2014, 00:01

William Reville (Irish Times January 16th) wonders why there hasn’t been a storm of protest from philosophers over Steven Hawkings’s recently expressed view that philosophy is dead.

There are a number of answers to this. One is that philosophy isn’t a homogenous discipline but exhibits enormous diversity and plurality; and so there isn’t a single voice of “philosophy”.

Quite a few philosophers push the line that philosophy is dead and seek to do new things in its aftermath, and there are some who support the view that it should be part of science.

Others endorse the quip that philosophy keeps burying its undertakers and stay working at it, but they do so in varying and sometimes incompatible ways.


Keeping up
Another answer is that no claim is alien to rational consideration by philosophers, so if one claims that philosophy is dead, well what’s the argument for this? (We’re not big into outrage.)

Hawkings’s argument that philosophers have not kept up with science is not a terribly good one. What is “keeping up with science”?

Most scientific specialists acknowledge their relative ignorance of other specialisms: for example, geneticists don’t have special insight into astrophysics. The grand scientific overview just isn’t possible, even to scientists.

Furthermore, why should questions about ethics, logic, the nature of knowledge, even the question of whether anything exists outside the scope of physics, require detailed knowledge of science, indeed which science?

These questions don’t seem to be questions that are susceptible to the methodologies used by the various sciences, though they can be informed by scientific results.


No single method
What philosophers do in their daily work is consider arguments, evaluate them, clarify them, make distinctions, and try to rate the strengths and weaknesses of positions. There is no single, clear method of doing this with universally accepted assumptions and testable outcomes. When such a method appears for a topic and a clear decision process is arrived at, a science is born. This is, historically, how physics, astronomy, psychology, linguistics and a multitude of other disciplines arose from philosophy.

It can be frustrating to those accustomed to clear universal methods and defined procedures to have the kind of pluriformity and disagreement seen in philosophy – indeed philosophers such as Descartes, Kant and Husserl all had a go at sorting this out, without success.

I would guess this is at the root of Reville’s complaint that philosophy is not doing its job. He thinks philosophy should oppose scientism, speak out publicly against it and rail at people like Hawkings and Dawkins.

In fact, quite a number of philosophers have opposed scientism. For example, Thomas Nagel has recently generated a storm of debate with his book on evolution.

Ideology
Once philosophy hardens into an established position and seeks to defeat all others from that stance by “speaking out”, it becomes an ideology. Being a cheerleader for any ideology is alien to the majority of philosophers – not that there haven’t been infamous instances of this, Heidegger and the Nazis comes to mind.

So, what’s the point of having a discipline that doesn’t have clearly defined methods, doesn’t have measurable outcomes and in which there is so much disagreement?

Well, the questions dealt with are fundamental, recurring and unavoidable and tend not to be addressed by other disciplines.

A recent debate in the letters pages of this paper examined whether all mental life is reducible to brain function. Before even trying to answer this significant question, one needs to explain what is meant by consciousness, interpretation, subjectivity, free will, causation, personal identity and so on.

Figuring out these issues takes one to the space inhabited by philosophers, who propose new theories, deploy counter-examples, appeal to intuitions, refer to past views, expose hidden assumptions and so on.

It’s messy, but also unavoidable. And perhaps more fruitful than outraged “speaking out”.

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