Philosophy Not As Exceptional, But As Specialized

Recently in the philosophy blogosphere there has been a bit of a stir over a request for grant proposals from the NEH for new classes on the “enduring questions.”  In response philosophy Professor Jude Jones and I have had several exchanges on questions related to the relative academic value of specialists from other fields teaching philosophy courses.  To read the NEH grant proposal in question for yourself, click here and to read other background and analysis on the issue, start here.

It should not be necessary to read the prior installments of our debate but if it interests you, you can read “Wanted: Non Philosophers To Do Philosophy”, “On The Goals of Introduction To Philosophy Courses”, and “On The Various Disciplines’ Resources For Engaging The Enduring Questions.”

In this post I will be replying to Professor Jones’s latest remarks to me (which can be found in uninterrupted form here)

Dr. Jones writes:

I think we are in fact close on many things, but still seem to have a gap on the special status you want to accord philosophy (in the strict sense) in regard to these questions.

You say, “My worry however is that crude inferences and formulations of abstract positions on philosophical issues come from these fields without any concern for engaging the rigorous insights of philosophers. ” Sometimes such inferences come; but not always–and surely the NEH is not looking to legitimize the crude and unrigorous. Rigor comes in many forms, and our colleagues in other disciplines can and should be trusted in principle (tho on a case by case basis maybe not trusted in fact) to pursue these questions in an intellectually responsible way. I have not seen a compelling case for the philosophical exceptionalism that seems to be implicit in your position.

My problem has nothing to do with my confidence in our academic colleagues’ senses of rigor or responsibility.  The issue to me is only qualifications to address certain questions adequately and the problem is a function of three things (a) knowledge specialization, (b) methodology differentiation, and (c) question divergence.

We are past what the NEH calls the “predisciplinary” stage of thought, we now know enough that within numerous spheres of investigation that the days in which a single thinker could provide sophisticated contributions to numerous fields of academic interest are over.  Far from thinking that philosophers are in any way “exceptional” among academics, I am aware that we are not trained within our discipline to be anything even resembling experts on economics or physics or anthropology, etc.

As educated people we can teach ourselves a good bit and we can understand the essential concepts which are part of educated discourse on such topics and hopefully even understand the points of contact between these fields and our own but it would be irresponsible for most philosophers to presume to teach courses on these topics.  Philosophers can teach the philosophy of science or the philosophy of social sciences or philosophical anthropology, but (as a rule) we do not receive adequate training to presume to teach those subjects in the most academically rigorous way.  We just don’t know enough to be more than educated citizens with educated opinions on these topics.

And, similarly, (average) anthropologists and economists and physicists simply have not specialized in the details of what we know enough to teach courses on our subjects.  That does not make us exceptional, it makes us specialized.  I respect these limitations greatly enough that you will never see on my blog a post where I make a definitive economic or health care or physics argument.  I am not qualified. I do not have the specialization of knowledge in these areas and if I were to muse about them it would be a waste of my readers’ time when they could be reading arguments that take place 15 steps past what I can come up with based on information and analysis that makes anything I could show anything I come up with on my own to be either a mash of secondhand contemporary theories or ideas which I think are my own but which specialists already worked out and accepted or rejected 50 years ago (or longer ago!)

That’s the nature of specialization, there are vocabularies, experiments, theoretical paradigms, mathematical models, real world experiences and othet histories and contingencies that put understanding economics on a level that would qualify me to offer public opinions or teach academic classes on the topic beyond my ken.  And that’s not because I am not rigorous or because I am generally superficial, etc.  but because I have not adequately specialized in that field.  I don’t know the tradition, I don’t know the math, I don’t know the facts, and I have not been so steeped in the data and the working paradigms that I can exercise wise judgment when assessing arguments.

That’s specialization and it limits otherwise brilliant, scrupulous people in a range of fields from presuming to give public comment or academic courses on topics outside their narrow specialties.  I am sure if I had to teach high school economics I am smart enough that I could master the material well enough for adolescents.  I am sure that I am educated enough that in private conversations I can follow and make reasonably intelligent arguments about economic issues of the day.  And as an educated person I can read articles and books by economists for intelligent lay people and at least defensibly determine what look likes an authoritative argument and which looks like a less compelling one (but even then the odds are not certain I can do even this given the complexities of the issues I cannot access.)  The most I can do is discuss the basic philosophical issues at stake, so that’s what I stick to.  “Whatever the details may be, here are the ethically relevant matters that we should assess when economists bring us empirical data”, etc.  I can ask those questions (as long as I have enough economic theory to be aware of its general dynamics.)

So, I don’t think philosophers are any more exceptional than any other academics but I think all academics are now so highly specialized that a great deal of humble restraint is necessary when offering one’s views in public fora and in academic contexts.  In fact, even within academic fields, we are too specialized that we cannot address the nuances of our own peers’ specialties which are not also our own in peer reviewed print or as graduate level courses.  We are qualified to introduce and reference a wide range of topics and can always do the nitty gritty research and thinking necessary to catch up, but time and specialization remain constraints.

I should say a little about “accessibility” that I’ve not said before. My comments about lived experience–including biology, hopes, fears, etc–made some effort at this but not enough. Bearing in mind that I have already agreed that some rigorous forms of addressing these questions require the painful work of philosophy, I would also assert that it is neither (a) likely or (b) necessary that this painful work be the only way these questions are pursued.

(a) It is in fact the case that despite our best efforts, some students will never take advantage of the training in philosophical rigor we offer them. In some cases the resistance is behavioral, but in some it is cognitive. Some students have not arrived in philosophy courses prepared in basic ways to engage in abstract forms of rationalization. It is unreasonable to think that every student’s prior educational preparation really has prepared them for the full benefits of philosophical material. I am not demeaning such students here, simply recognizing the fact that people come to our classrooms with different skill sets.

I agree with all of this.  These are important realities to acknowledge.  Nonetheless, insofar as any student can be trained in the formal rigors of philosophy and logic (which comes under our purview), I think it should be a prime objective of an education since it is one of the most distilled trainings in the conceptual and logical thinking which are the bedrock of all intellectual activity.  It may be hard, but it’s necessary that they be challenged as much as they can bear to practice what we do.  That’s not because the depth of our answers is necessary for them (in most cases, it’s not remotely) but because the philosophical approach to questions is the essence of intellectual activity.  They must also be scrupulously trained in scientific methods and statistical thinking more than they are.  And it’s not because they will ever need to be scientists or to run complex statistical analyses for themselves but because being a well-educated human being and a responsible citizen requires that if you can acquire the basic skills for differentiating between good and bad conceptual, logical, scientific, and statistical arguments made in the public sphere that you should.

In fact, I am far, far more personally concerned as a philosophy teacher that my students develop their skills of thinking than that they come away with a detailed memory of particular philosophical positions (nice as their having the latter would be in a dream world).

Which brings us to (b).

(b)Some such students might, however, find other extremely meaningful and intellectually important ways of engaging the ‘enduring questions’ despite their impediments in philosophy per se. Moreover, in the world in which these and all students will operate, the enduring questions will, for a variety of reasons, have valence and meaning in ways that trained philosophers will call “non-rigorous” but which pragmatic philosophers like myself would call “factually unavoidable”. Courses in which students are prepared to engage the enduring questions in a meaningful and intellectually challenging way that is NOT the rigorous modality of philosophy so rarely met in common life is a pragmatic VALUE for our culture. If a certain percentage of the population will never (for some good reasons) pursue philosophical rigor, should we not have educated people who can nonetheless face the lived enduring questions at a level of access that is as wide as possible? By “access” I mean the engagement with these questions that does not presume or require a facility with conceptual abstraction that for one reason or another does not flourish in every individual. Since this non-flourishing is sometimes due to forms of educational injustice, social inequality, biological obstruction, etc, “accessible” modalities of dealing with these questions seems to be a civil good justifying the educational model the NEH is suggesting in these grants and which the subsequent articles defend.

I agree with all of this.  Where my back went up was not that other disciplines wanted to address the questions that we treat rigorously but it was a rather more quibbling point that this is not turning “nonphilosophers into philosophers” as Craig claimed in the article about the NEH grant.  (The NEH grant originally didn’t offend me at all since I thought much like you).  I completely agree that the enduring questions can be meaningfully engaged through art or the study of it or through history, etc.  And there are certainly profound, brilliant, well-educated people who gained an equal or better level of depth to me by reading Homer and Shakespeare that I got reading Plato and Nietzsche.   I have not a doubt about this.  The human mind can engage issues deeply without discursive rigor.  And a well educated person in different areas attains different kinds of intellectual strength that well educated people in other areas do not because different fields of study engage different parts of the brain and cultivate different intellectual virtues and immerse you in different powerful paradigms or seas of texts which specialize your powers of judgment in different but comparably powerful ways.

And I can get rather far intellectually and as a citizen without having a mathematical mind or a deep grasp of history.

I’m not being fatalistic or condescending about the absence of philosophical rigor in our culture (in fact, the vision of our culture being dominated by philosophers makes me very uncomfortable, I must admit).

I don’t share the concern.  The day we’re overly philosophical we can start to worry.  In the meantime we have much more pulling in the opposite direction necessary before we can consider ourselves sufficiently philosophical enough to worry about over doing it!

I am trying to prize the real fact that not everyone does or can achieve philosophical rigor, and this absence is the occasion of other, plural, modalities of real and important meaning on these questions; and philosophers maintaining that their professional rigor is the main or only best way to approach life’s enduring questions is sociologically one of the reasons we are not perceived to be as welcoming as we might be to those outside our disciplinary halls. I’m not sure how strongly Dan is espousing what I call “philosophical exceptionalism”; but it strikes me as a valid query to put to his position.

While I agree that other fields can lead to good thinkers and have never disputed that, other fields do not have (a) specialization in our conceptual, theoretical, and systematic developments, (b) the training in our methods, or (c) sensitivity to our questions.   And we don’t have it to theirs.  Our problem with non-philosophers is not that we act too good for them but that often they don’t get what we do.  At least my impression is that they think there is no advancement in our field that they cannot catch up with through their own unspecialized speculations.  And our field does an awful job of popularizing its findings or explaining its distinctives and importance.

But, yes, either you must become a philosopher or you will not develop the rigorous formulations of answers to our questions or even recognize the importance of our questions in some cases.  That makes us no more exceptional than to say that without becoming a biologist you will not rigorously form biological theses or that without becoming a mathematician you will not develop new mathematical proofs.  Does this mean others are not rigorous?  No, with respect to their modalities they are extraordinarily rigorous and I’d bet many scientists far outstrip many philosophers for rigor.  But they don’t ask our questions and don’t have training in how to answer them.

And this is not a turf war issue but it is one of assertion of differences to our academic colleagues.  It is a defense of the legitimacy of philosophy itself to stress that there is a difference between moral psychology and normative ethics, economics and political philosophy, religious mythmaking and metaphysics.  Can a particular biologist develop a good philosophical argument? Of course.  And by doing so, she becomes a philosopher on that point the way that writing a mathematical proof makes you a mathematician and performing biological experiments in the necessarily rigorous way makes you a biologist.

But here’s the rub: approaching happiness or good and evil from a psychological or a biological perspective does not make you a philosopher.  It makes you a psychologist addressing the psychological sources (or other dynamics) of feelings called happiness or behaviors called good and evil or of our judgments about what is good and evil, etc.  Can psychologists ask these questions in a philosophical way?  Of course, theoretically they can, but (a) they do not usually have the conceptual specialization that philosophers have such that when they address the philosophical aspects of these issues they can advance beyond normally educated people to being academic experts, (b) their empirical training threatens to obscure their ability to handle the is/ought distinction or even recognize what’s really philosophically at stake in it, and (c) their abilities to formulate the philosophical question will likely be hindered by their training in posing psychological questions rather than philosophical ones.

When you add to this that most scholars in other fields do not study up on philosophical literature and are not trained to recognize philosophical questions as questions in the first place (because they tend to be qualitatively different kinds of questions than those studied in other fields), I am pessimistic that they would give an academia worthy treatment of the philosophical sides of these questions.

Are the philosophical sides the only important ones?  No.  Is there a lot to learn about these topics from the other modalities that philosophy on its own does not provide.  Absolutely.   I reference history and psychology and biology all the time in my philosophy teaching and writing because I’m sensitized to their interrelation and respectful of the limits of my own discipline and of philosophical tools for solving philosophy’s own problems by itself.

But the concern I have is that the other fields conflate their modalities for understanding the enduring questions with replacements for philosophical ones.  Sometimes they do replace philosophy.  Some questions which once were purely conceptual have now become, and will soon become, empirically decidable.  But not only do some questions remain specifically the provenance of philosophical tools and categories but they do so in ways that often only philosophers can recognize because only we are trained to be sensitized to the issues that make them our domain of inquiry.

So my quibble is with the phrasing that they want to turn non-philosophers into philosophers.  Other fields can do excellent work on the enduring questions that complements our own academically and that provides edification to students sufficient for making them educated sensitive people.  But those other fields do not have philosophical specialization, ask philosophical questions, nor answer philosophical questions with adeqate philosophical methodology.  And so despite their own rigorous contributions within their own scrupulous methodologies related to their own crucial questions—they need to recognize their limitations the way I recognize mine with respect to their field.

I’m really only quibbling with that one line in describing the NEH’s plan and not the whole grant itself.  But I quibble in order to defend philosophy’s own integrity and place in the academy against the assumptions of outside disciplines who measure progress in knowledge only in terms of empirical results or technological productivity.  I am wary of the lurking implicit charges that (1) our questions are not real, (2) that our speculations are as arbitrary as those in theology, (3) that our insights are simply irrelevant, (4) that what we do is simply another species of literature, or (5) that our tradition has no specialized answers one really needs to know for academic rigor that a dilettante could not access.

If I knew members of other disciplines understood our role, kept up on the basic developments of our field, consulted us when their questions bumped into ours, and knew how to formulate philosophical questions in minimally rigorous ways for an academic context, then I’d be a little less worried.  And I also think that Craig would not have thought he could make non-philosophers into philosophers with an NEH grant any more than he would have ever proposed turning non-economists into economists with one.  Nor would he have said that no discipline has any special insight into the enduring questions when ultimatley they are philosophical questions despite their components only accessible from more empirical modalities and their possible indirect engagement through rigorous treatment of other fields’ primary subjects.

For further follow up discussion, read the perspective of a philosopher who was on the NEH review panel last year.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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