Whose Philosophy Lost Its Way? (Post 1 of 3)

by Anand Jayprakash Vaidya

In the past 15 years, academic philosophers have engaged in a tremendous amount of navel-gazing about their discipline and its value. It is safe to say that the turn into 2000 brought with it a renewed interest in philosophical methodology. One important movement that brought about the self-inquiry was experimental philosophy. It did this through a critique of the intuition-driven methodology often used in analytic epistemology and ethics. More recently, as debates about methodology have unfolded, new questions have arisen about the history and future direction of philosophy. Just as 2016 got under way, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle put out “When Philosophy Lost its Way” in The New York Times. On March 7, Scott Soames wrote a response: “Philosophy’s True Home.” This exchange calls for some reflection and examination from another perspective. But first, what is the debate?

The debate appears to be about the proper place of philosophy, and whether or not its move into the academic institution from outside of it was a good thing. The advertised options in the debate for philosophy’s true home are: (i) as a discipline in the academy which functions like other core sciences, such as economics and physics; or (ii) as a non-academic discipline that finds its home outside the academy, engaged in the world and concerned with how one should lead the good life, with political action, and with social justice. One might characterize these opposing positions as highlighting different trajectories from the birth of western philosophy. One trajectory sees the institutionalization of philosophy in the academy as a bad thing, something that robbed it of its quest to answer questions concerned with the good life and social justice. The other trajectory sees the institutionalization of philosophy as a continuation of its function in modern philosophy and a move that ultimately enabled philosophy to flourish in answering and contributing to the production of knowledge and better ways of being.

Frodeman and Briggle see the institutionalization of philosophy into the academy negatively. They say, “Philosophy should never have been purified [through institutionalization in the academy]. Rather than being seen as a problem, “dirty hands” should have been understood as the native condition of philosophic thought— present everywhere, often interstitial, essentially interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary in nature. Philosophy is a mangle. The philosopher’s hands were never clean and were never meant to be.”

They also have a specific take about the negative impact of the purification that the institution of the academy enabled.

“The act of purification accompanying the creation of the modern research university was not just about differentiating realms of knowledge. It was also about divorcing knowledge from virtue. Though it seems foreign to us now, before purification, the philosopher (and natural philosopher) was assumed to be morally superior to other sorts of people. The 18th-century thinker Joseph Priestley wrote, ‘a Philosopher ought to be something greater and better than another man.’ Philosophy, understood as the love of wisdom, was seen as a vocation, like the priesthood. It required significant moral virtues (foremost among these were integrity and selflessness), and the pursuit of wisdom in turn further inculcated those virtues. The study of philosophy elevated those who pursued it. Knowing and being good were intimately linked. It was widely understood that the point of philosophy was to become good rather than simply to collect or produce knowledge.”

And they have a particular take on what the purification of philosophy in the academy did to the activity of philosophy as well:

“[P]hilosophy has aped the sciences by fostering a culture that might be called “the genius contest.” Philosophic activity devolved into a contest to prove just how clever one can be in creating or destroying arguments. Today, a hyperactive productivist churn of scholarship keeps philosophers chained to their computers. Like the sciences, philosophy has largely become a technical enterprise, the only difference being that we manipulate words rather than genes or chemicals. Lost is the once common-sense notion that philosophers are seeking the good life— that we ought to be (in spite of our failings) model citizens and human beings. Having become specialists, we have lost sight of the whole. The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.”

Soames has a different take:

“This institutionalization, [Frodeman and Briggle] claim, led [philosophy] to betray its central aim of articulating the knowledge needed to live virtuous and rewarding lives. I have a different view: Philosophy isn’t separated from the social, natural or mathematical sciences, nor is it neglecting the study of goodness, justice and virtue, which was never its central aim.”

His core view is:

“Philosophy’s interaction with mathematics, linguistics, economics, political science, psychology and physics requires specialization. Far from fostering isolation, this specialization makes communication and cooperation among disciplines possible. This has always been so. William of Ockham, Descartes, Leibniz and Kant were heavily informed by the science and mathematics of their day. Locke and Hume responded to Newton not with envy and a sense of inferiority (which Frodeman and Briggle wrongly attribute to philosophers responding to 20th-century science), but with a desire to apply Newton’s lessons to their natural philosophies of mind, which were then psychology-in-the-making.”

Concerning this debate, it is important to note that the main trajectory of the exchange concerns the development of western philosophy. This is explicitly signaled in Frodeman and Briggle’s opening line, “The history of Western philosophy can be presented in a number of ways. It can be told in terms of periods—ancient, medieval and modern.” Soames too responds solely to the characterization of western philosophy in the 20th century.

However, one might very well ask: what can be said of the development of other kinds of philosophy, such as Chinese Philosophy, Indian Philosophy, Latin American Philosophy, Africana or African American Philosophy, or Feminist Philosophy? Is there something at the core of philosophy in the pure western trajectory from Plato to Putnam that allows for this kind of debate concerning its relevance to take place? Is that trajectory absent in other areas of inquiry that are within the semantic range of the term “philosophy”? In my next, post I will go on to develop one answer to this question. Let me close this post with some points about the present debate.

For the most part, I agree with Soames, at least in so far as he points to a number of obvious ways in which philosophy in the 20th century—operating within the academic institution—has made solid and important contributions. I will draw attention to only one for now. Soames, in response to Frodeman and Briggle’s charge that academic philosophy in the institution becomes purified and detached from other disciplines, notes the following:

“The idea that philosophy was and still is isolated from other disciplines ignores much of its history. From 1879 to 1936 the philosopher-mathematicians Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, Alonzo Church and Alan Turing invented symbolic logic, helped establish the set-theoretic foundations of mathematics, and gave us the formal theory of computation that ushered in the digital age.”

Soames is surely right about this. The history of western philosophy, mathematics, and computing surely reveals the huge impact it has had on the development of computation in the digital age. However, Soames titles his article “Philosophy’s True Home,” which in contrast to the tone of Frodeman and Briggle’s analysis, makes it sound like there are only two options. Either the home of philosophy is truly outside academia or it is truly inside academia. But from a logical point of view, we can read the ‘or’ as either being inclusive or exclusive. On the inclusive reading, philosophy is both truly in the academy and truly outside of it. In my next post, I will explore that possibility through an examination of Indian philosophy.

Anand Jayprakash Vaidya is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at San Jose University in California. His interests include the epistemology of intuition, perception and modality, the metaphysics of logic, critical thinking, the capabilities approach to justice, the philosophy of economics, and cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary public philosophy.


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