Scenography of the Copernican world system by Andreas Cellarius. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Accessible and Inaccessible Disciplines: why philosophy and science are similar but are treated differently

This post originally appeared on OUPblog and appears here as part of our partnership with them.

By Paul Humphreys

Amongst my books is a late nineteenth century edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Purchased from a used bookshop many years ago, it contains the previous owner’s signature on the flyleaf together with a commentary: “Started Boston 1883. Began again in Salt Lake City February 1891. Began again 698 East Capitol St. Oct. 1911. Finished Nov. 1911.” I feel a bond with that reader, almost certainly not a professional philosopher, who persevered with difficult material, convinced that what was within was worth understanding. The commentary illustrates a striking difference between types of academic discipline. In some, the material, at least superficially, is accessible. In others, the door is firmly closed. Many of the creative arts fall into the first kind. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl can be appreciated by a teenager for its dark dynamics, despite the multitude of scholarly texts that deepen our understanding of that poem. In many sciences, the primary sources–journal articles–are impenetrable to nonexperts.

What of my own field, philosophy? Historically, some important philosophers, David Hume and René Descartes amongst them, combined sophisticated ideas with an elegant and accessible style. Unassisted readers struggle with other historical figures, such as Leibniz. But philosophy of the last fifty years has faced a special dilemma. Many outsiders, while recognizing that philosophy is difficult, become hostile and resentful when reading contemporary authors. Those same readers have a different reaction when faced with a journal article or even a textbook in molecular biology, acknowledging that the subject matter does not easily yield to amateurs, and rightly so. The reasons for the difficulties in both cases are straightforward–technical vocabularies, the assumption of much previous knowledge, subject matter that is remote from ordinary experience. What is puzzling is the difference in attitude by nonexperts. My Boston reader of a century ago thought that Kant was worth twenty eight years of effort and stuck with it.

Behind this antipathy to philosophy lies a peculiar psychological attitude, one that I have encountered many times. It is exhibited by a wide range of readers, from Nobel prize winners to Amazon reviewers. An individual, let’s call him Horace, has been successful in some area of intellectual activity such as physics, law, or engineering. Horace then infers from this success that he is equally adept in all other intellectual domains, including philosophy. Difficulties ensue, Horace does not understand why the author is arguing for X, or even what the argument for X is, but what Horace does know is that it’s the author’s fault or the fault of philosophy in general.

Not far from Kant on my bookshelves is Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. Originally published in 1912, it was part of the Home University Library series–later acquired by Oxford University Press–and its intended audience included working men and women with only a rudimentary formal education. Over a century later, Russell’s book remains a model of clarity and creativity. It was successful in part because thousands of readers who had never been to university, including miners, steelworkers, and other industrial laborers, were willing to come to grips with difficult ideas presented by a master of English style. They lacked hubris; they knew that this was going to be hard work and stuck with it. That attitude is rarer than it used to be, hence we now have a SparkNotes version of Russell’s book, complete with a “Plot Overview.” On our side, we philosophers should stop writing notes to one another. Some have done so; there are volumes in Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series that provide lucid, occasionally brilliant, expositions of contemporary philosophical ideas that challenge the reader.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell; John Maynard Keynes, Baron Keynes; Lytton Strachey, by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell; John Maynard Keynes, Baron Keynes; Lytton Strachey, by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1915 – NPG Ax140438. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used with permission.

What I fear is being lost, and it results from multiple influences, is the willingness to move from being a consumer of information to being an internal participant in philosophy. In mathematics, computer packages that solve differential equations are magnificently powerful but they can easily reduce you to a willing spectator. To understand mathematics, you have to work, really work, with the material. In many areas, Wikipedia is a wonderful source of information but it rarely jolts your mind. Contrariwise, information loss can force you to think, hence the old mathematical joke that to write an advanced textbook you just remove every other line from an intermediate textbook. To gain access to the realm of philosophy, you have to struggle with ideas, many of them weird and unappealing, few of them easy. That is what my Kantian book owner was willing to do. Those who are not willing will be left permanently on the outside, staring with puzzlement at their own reflections in the philosophical window.

Paul Humphreys is Commonwealth Professor of Philosophy and co-Director of the Center for the Study of Data and Knowledge at the University of Virginia. He is Editor of The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Science (Oxford, 2016).

2 thoughts on “Accessible and Inaccessible Disciplines: why philosophy and science are similar but are treated differently

  1. While Professor Humphreys makes a good point in emphasizing the importance of “working with the material” and “struggling with ideas” for attaining an adequate understanding, this applies to many different kinds of subject matter. But I can think of another reason why those who are not already initiated into academic philosophy might “become hostile and resentful when reading contemporary authors.” People need a working “philosophy” to live their lives; most everyone needs a way of framing the world so as to get around in it and a sense of right and wrong, true and false that, they hope, will generally serve them well. They also often have a reasonable expectation that those who spend their lives studying the writings of the thinkers of previous centuries and “philosophizing” in their own ivory towers will have something to say to them, something that will be meaningful in some way in helping them to make sense of their lives. Bertrand Russell addressed crucial events of his own time; Jean-Paul Sartre rewarded his reader with insights applicable to the human situation; Kant wrestled with issues of knowledge and morality that, if not initially easy to access at first, were well worth the effort once achieved. Simply put, this does not seem to be the case today. Of what value is talk of “possible worlds” when one lacks guidance for living in the actual world?

    Another sort of “peculiar psychological attitude,” moreover, one that seems to be shared by many contemporary philosophers, is that one need not be bothered with empirical science, as long as one can “imagine” something completely abstracted from its context that runs contrary to it. Kant was well versed in the science of his day, as were many of his contemporaries, and integrated it into his philosophy. While today’s intellectual may not possess the specialized knowledge or vocabulary requisite to discussions on the cutting edge of many fields, that person should, at a minimum, have a basic understanding of physical, biological, and ecological science–an education that omits such knowledge is hollow indeed. That many people today seem to be oblivious to the dependence of their own lives on the photosynthetic output of plants and its circulation through food webs, for example, and would likely attribute their continued existence simply to the possession of money, with no clue to as to the nature of that social object, could be considered a demonstration of the failure of those who consider themselves ontologists to attain or impart a grasp of “what there is and how it works”–something so necessary for humanity, in facing the challenges of the years ahead.

  2. People who challenge the fundamental assumptions of the field–––Socrates, Descartes, etc.–––have given philosophy many of its greatest advances. Such people are always resisted by technocrats à la Humphreys. Perhaps philosophers would not be criticised by everyone “from Nobel prize winners to Amazon reviewers” if they were willing to question their own assumptions, instead of writing off any challenges to their field as due to a “peculiar psychological attitude” allegedly endemic among non-philosophers.

    For an extended reply to Humphreys along these lines, see my blog post:

Comments are closed.