From the archives: Philosophy is dysfunctional

Given all my occasional sniping about academic philosophy, I can’t believe I haven’t yet moved over this post, originally written in July of last year. There was also a follow-up post, which I’ll also move over at some point. It’s relevant to rebutting religious apologetics, insofar as it is frequently claimed that philosophy vindicates religion.

I’m now convinced that, as an academic discipline, philosophy is dysfunctional. The source of the problem is that, as Peter van Inwagen once said, “Philosophers do not agree about anything to speak of.” (Some philosophers might not agree with him about this, but from what I’ve seen, van Inwagen is right–see also some hard data here).

When I say this causes problems, I don’t mean that for philosophy to become functional we need to force philosophers to agree somehow. That would do more harm than good. But the lack of agreement among philosophers still causes problems. Most obviously, it makes philosophy not so useful to non-philosophers, since they can’t figure out what to believe based on expert consensus. But it also encourages perverse behavior by philosophers.

Here’s why: while philosophers pride themselves on caring about producing good arguments and getting at the truth, if they don’t agree what arguments are good or what the truth is, they can’t reward each other for doing either of those things. So philosophers aren’t under any pressure to get anything important right, and I don’t think they’re under any significant pressure to actually produce good arguments. What they are under pressure to demonstrate cleverness, and demonstrate being in tune with philosophical fads and cliques.

Pressure to be clever is a problem because clever does not equal right. Clever can be the enemy of right. As a very wise contributor to Less Wrong once said: “Any idiot can tell you why death is bad, but it takes a very particular sort of idiot to believe that death might be good.” So if you’re worried about being mistaken for just any idiot, take the position that any idiot can see is wrong.

Consider an example that seems too silly to be real. If I hold up two fingers and ask “how many fingers am I holding up?” saying “two” will not demonstrate cleverness. It only shows that you are conscious, speak English, and can see straight. If you want to be clever, you might say something like, “I don’t know how many fingers you’re holding up, because who really knows anything, anyway?”

Not that that’s actually a very clever answer. It’s sophomoric. But consider this answer: “The problem of external world skepticism has yet to be adequately addressed by philosophers. Many contemporary philosophers simply dismiss it, but I think these dismissals fail to adequately grapple with it, or even understand the real nature of the problem. However, I also believe that recent work in philosophy has made considerable progress towards solving the problem.” There, now we’re talking. So much better than just saying “two.”

The problem is especially bad when it comes to publishing. As one of my professors at Notre Dame once remarked, there is no such thing as the journal of one-sentence dissents. So, you might be able to publish a paper that develops a complex argument premised on the claim that p, even if your only support for p is to claim that there’s a philosophical consensus that p. However, there is no place where you can publish a short paragraph that says, “here are some prominent philosophers that think not-p, so there’s hardly a consensus and p needs some other support.”

In other words, it is sometimes easier to publish a complex argument with one glaring flaw, than it is to publish something that succinctly and decisively points out the flaw. And because “publish or perish” is the rule in academia, this means philosophers have an incentive to spend more formulating complex arguments that may or may not have real merit, and not much incentive to point out obvious flaws in other people’s arguments.

Incidentally, this also you can’t trust major philosophy journals to have all the best arguments on both sides of a philosophical issue. For example, many of contributors to this book and this book do an excellent job of pointing out the problems with William Lane Craig’s moral argument, but you’ll never see those criticisms in a “serious” journal article, because they’re so utterly obvious. For the same reason, you can’t assume that the academics who’ve published on an issue are the ones you should listen to.

Now, Craig isn’t the best example, since the specific flavor of terrible that is his moral argument is unusual in philosophy. So instead, let me quote something I said in a blog post written more than a year ago about respected philosopher Lawrence BonJour (note that in retrospect, I think this post was the beginning of the end of my career as a philosophy grad student):

In his book on the subject, In Defense of Pure Reason, he surprisingly only devotes a couple of pages to what he calls his main arguments. This was accompanied by a bold declaration that his arguments are so obvious that he doesn’t understand why they haven’t been more influential. In the precis of the book he wrote for the Philosophy and Phenomenological Research symposium on it, he summarizes his arguments in a couple of paragraphs that don’t quite match the arguments presented in the original book, and finally in his response to criticisms made by contributors to the symposium, BonJour admits he didn’t initially have a clear idea of what he was trying to say.

Again, the trouble is that there’s no glory in pointing this out, while BonJour’s book manages to be fairly impressive in spite of the main arguments being muddled. Meaning, this is a case where “good arguments” and “will enhance a philosopher’s status” fail to correlate.

Though I’m less sure about this, I suspect the lack of any real consensus among philosophers explains some of the cliquishness of contemporary academic philosophy. Lack of agreement creates a vacuum to be filled by cliques that seem to think only their own opinion counts when determining the verdict of enlightened philosophical opinion. That, and showing you’re hip to this fad or that clique’s shibboleth is another way of showing cleverness.

Analogies for animal rights: civil rights vs. the antiwar movement
Bill O’Reilly’s argument for the existence of God
Abolitionism vs. reformism
When passing a law is the easy route
  • xtog42

    Just because philosophers cannot agree on anything does not make it dysfunctional.

    One of the primary functions of philosophy is to help come up with hypotheses (testable guesses about how the world works) and even disagreeable philosophers can provide a set of options for research scientists to select from.

    • mnb0

      Scientists do not need philosophers to formulate their hypotheses and to provide sets of options for their research. I cannot think of any example; for instance there has not been any philosopher in history who even hinted at relativity, non-causality or even chaos theory.

      • xtog42

        Scientists resource their own philosophy and the cultural philosophy they live within.

        Your response seems to imply I said a scientist needs a philosopher — something I did not mean to say.

        A scientist IS a philosopher primarily when they hypothesize, but also when they use their imagination to interpret observations and create experiments.

    • Notung

      I don’t really think that’s the purpose of philosophy. I would just say that is the purpose of science. Philosophy concerns itself with arguing for and defending certain positions on a variety of different matters, such as ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and so on.

      Philosophers don’t (usually) ignore science but sometimes use scientific evidence in order to add to their arguments, if it is needed.

      • xtog42

        I never said the ‘purpose’ of philosophy was to make hypotheses, not sure how you can imply that from what I posted.

        I said that one thing philosophy does for us is help us form hypotheses.

        It’s not the only thing it does, nor is it the purpose of philosophy, nor does it require a philosopher proper with a PhD from an accredited institution.

        • Notung

          Ok, fair enough. I just see lots of people pitting science and philosophy against each other as if they are adversaries.

          • xtog42

            I totally agree with you 100% and it’s unfortunate.

            People want to equate philosophy with religion presumably because religion is said to be just a type of philosophy and therefore philosophy is the source of that which we challenge, but philosophy isn’t all about religion.

            That is my impression of why Lawrence Krauss went on a big fit against philosophy — although I did not hear his talk, just the responses to it. The thing is that a philosopher like Bertrand Russell is as far removed from religion as one could be and yet he is a philosopher. And one could argue that atheism or skepticism itself is a philosophy not a science or a religion, so how bad can philosophy be? The skeptics were a famous group of ancient Greek philosophers.

            Let me quickly explain. I have a real problem with people wearing the “skeptical” moniker and acting like that is what science is all about — systematized skepticism. But it is not really, not totally.

            Science is about trying to find out what we can say is true; skepticism is the process we use to verify truth claims. So science involves skeptical processes but in the end it is much more than that — it asserts things as true/real or false, with the understanding that we are talking about “truth”, not “Truth” based on some assumptions that skeptics like say David Hume might not agree with (ie. induction).

            We are all skeptics in that capital ‘T’ Truth is undiscoverable by us because we have no means to verify that which we think we know (We may have something we think we know, but how do we know we know it? We don’t, We can’t without an outside verification of that truth,…ala Rumsfield or Popper).

            Therefore all truth is provisional and temporary and small ‘t’ truth. And in that sense skepticism is conflated with science, but it is not all of science, it’s science’s quality control department.

            To further illustrate, just consider those who deny evolution evidence, or pollution’s effect on the climate, or those who think the moon landing was hoaxed — These are examples of skepticism and just because someone might argue and say well it’s not “real” skepticism does not absolve away the problem with the totally skeptical stance. When does one put aside skepticism and cop to the truth? Finding truth, whether big or little ‘t’ requires us to abandon skepticism.

            This is like the “but he’s not a REAL Christian” line we hear whenever we confront a Christian on a fellow Christian’s point of view. And in fact on some of the other FTB blogs there has been some rumbling on just this issue with comments about “hyper-skepticism” and such being used to confront DJ Grothe’s supporters. OK so how do we distinguish hyper-skepticism from proper skepticism? Good luck figuring that one out — peer review?

            Skepticism in a sense may be accurately associated with intellectual anarchy, in the same way libertarians get associated with anarchy, unless people set their skepticism aside and agree to certain truth finding processes (ie. Hume’s induction, the idea that the rules we discover today are valid tomorrow) and agree that when those processes are satisfied even though we can never find Truth, we can find truth but to do so we must abandon skeptical inquiry at some point and move on.

            So yeah, science and philosophy are not adversaries and anyone who is versed in ancient Greek philosophy would never make such strange assertion, so is it any wonder that Krauss had to do the walk-back routine concerning his remarks on philosophy? Again I haven’t read them I just know what has been written by others concerning his walk back.

            Aside: Sometimes these speakers at atheist events seem to really not know what to talk about. They have a recognizable name and so they get asked to speak, but most of their original ideas are already out there so they sort of just come up with stuff that they think will please or provoke the crowd. Many are not well versed in philosophy and history and so unlike Hitchens, or Harris or Dawkins or Dennett or Baker they cannot draw from a wide intellectual range enough to be not only unique and interesting when speaking to conventions but to also speak on a topic of high priority or relevance.

            Their messages tend to be parochial and obvious and mainly cheerleading or just preaching to the choir. (This is a blind criticism, I only know what is being talked about at these meetings/conventions second hand)

            When what we could really use are fresh ideas particularly from free-thinkers living in the sticks or in the military who are confronted with religious privilege and religious bigotry in a way that some of our best voices probably never really see on a personal level due in part to their rock-star status.

    • Chris Hallquist

      It seems to me not many philosophers are actually interested in doing that. Some (many?) specifically intend their views to be impossible to determine as true or false empirically.

      • xtog42

        Who are you referring to? I mean if you are referring to someone like Hegel,…OK,…but there are plenty of philosophers out there who really do work with practical substantive subjects that do have relevance,…like my favorite one Bertrand Russell.

      • Landon

        “Some (many?) specifically intend their views to be impossible to determine as true or false empirically.”

        This is just a bizarre statement. First, the empirical investigation of matters, full stop, is science, which is a distinct enterprise from philosophy. It’s not that philosophers “intend” their conclusions to be beyond the reach empirical verification, it’s just that philosophy by design seeks answers to questions that are not amenable to empirical investigation. Philosophy of science is an excellent example – it is a meta-scientific program, so it won’t be the kind of thing that we can do WITHIN “normal science.” That’s not a design flaw, that’s just the nature of the beast. Other areas of research, like moral philosophy, are likewise not going to be about the kinds of things that can be settled simply through scientific enquiry. This is to be expected – philosophy is about getting answers to things we think important enough to investigate but which are not proper subjects of science.

        That said, to the extent that empirical matters are relevant, I know of no analytic philosopher who thinks that they should be ignored. Philosophers of mind, for instance, are usually very well versed in the relevant brain science and are at pains to see that their hypotheses about the the nature of the mind are coherent with what we know about the operation of the human brain. Philosophers of science, of course, are arguing ABOUT the nature of science, so naturally there’s a great deal of reference made to actual facts about scientific practice, the truth or falsity of which can undermine or support, depending, a given position. I could go on, but these examples are enough to establish the point.

        Saying philosophers “intend” their work to be outside the realm of empirical verification is pointlessly conspiratorial – it makes it sound as though philosophers could be doing work that COULD empirically verified, but that they’ve carefully avoided that trap in order to… what, exactly? Earn big bucks? Statements like this are just silly, and they betray a basic misunderstanding the nature of philosophy. Philosophers “intend” their work to be outside the realm of empirical investigation inasmuch as that’s where philosophy picks up, certainly, but (analytic) philosophers certainly take it that their work must be compatible with empirical investigations. So it’s clearly not the case that philosophy is being used as some sort of refuge from “reponsible” (aka empirical) investigation of the world, and if that wasn’t the implication of that (odd) assertion, what was it?

  • mnb0

    It seems to me that disagreement in philosophy is fundamental, exactly because in the end there is no criterion to decide pro or contra a statement. As soon there is such a criterion – as happened with the debates on matter and time – philosophers are not interested anymore, even if that criterion hasn’t decided the issue yet.
    Just accept that philosophy cannot decide matters, cannot give definite questions. Isn’t that the very reason philosophy can be so attractive?
    Another point worth making is that this problem is not new. Haven’t philosophical cliques been formed many times before? Like during Scholasticism? At the end of Antiquity? In other words – are you describing a problem or a challenge?

    • DR

      Philosophers often cannot agree on the very nature of their discipline. I think that alone makes the existence of a coherent discipline of “philosophy” questionable. But more importantly, the absence of any sort of real progression, of improvements on the work of others, and the insistence on defining “schools of thought” and sheepish following of one’s thought-masters tends to discredit much of the field. The very existence of a split between so-called “analytic” and “continental” philosophy, still hotly debated to this day, shows the field to be decrepit and corrupt. Is there a continental science? Isn’t that dangerously close to “Jewish Science”?

      Philosopher’s first have to agree as to what their discipline is about: is it a less-rigorous but more humanities-friendly form of math? or is it a means by which one can make one’s personal prejudices sound intelligent? Or is it something else altogether, an honest investigation into the nature of thought without the baggage of ideological battles and personal vendettas?

      Once philosophers have solved that seemingly intractable conundrum, then we can start talking about the value of the field as a whole. Until then, I think we can only discuss the value of individual “philosophers”, rather than that of the field.

      • Notung

        Philosopher’s first have to agree as to what their discipline is about

        Ah but that’s a philosophical question, and views will differ! The most prominent people who said ‘philosophy is dead’ were philosophers themselves, and that opinion ‘died’ when other philosophers argued against it!

      • Landon

        There are all sorts of questionable things asserted as fact in this post; I won’t bother with them individually. I’ll say only this – while there is a great deal of discussion in the realm of metaphilosophy about the analytic-continental divide, there are at least two obvious and difficult-to-deny ways in which the two differ. First, analytic philosophy tends to treat “puzzles,” breaking philosophical conundrums into individual problems that are amenable to logical analysis. For instance, given a utilitarian ethics, how can modern Westerners justify many of the luxuries they enjoy? Argument on the issue would proceed by questioning the premises of the given utilitarian ethics, the “obviousness” that our current state of luxury ought to be left undisturbed, and so on. Second, analytic philosophy regards science as the best way to investigate the world and takes it as given that all conclusions must be compatible with the deliverances of science.

        Continental philosophy does neither of these things. It is little concerned with succinctly-stated “puzzles,” typically tackling broader, less easily specifiable issues, and doing so in a more holistic, even literary, way. Continental philosophy might be said to be fundamentally hermeneutic, as opposed to deductive, in character. Likewise, it does not (typically) regard science as the best way to understand reality and continental philosophers are not generally concerned with making their work conform to the limits set out by what is already known by science.

        Statements such as “[p]hilosopher’s [sic] first have to agree as to what their discipline is about: is it a less-rigorous but more humanities-friendly form of math?” are rhetoric – poor rhetoric at that – and shows a poor grasp on what philosophy actually is and does.

        • Notung

          Excellent comments, Landon. You are defending my discipline (I’m a mere grad student though, just about to finish) much better than I could!

          I do feel there isn’t anywhere near enough knowledge of philosophy (especially compared to knowledge of science) in atheist and skeptic circles, and I believe that it is to the detriment of the movement. It would help with everything; from arguing our case against (say) theists, to resolving the recent blowups regarding social issues.

          • Landon

            Notung -

            Congrats! The job market is brutal, but you’ll survive. I assume. I just know I’m not dead yet.

            I agree that a better understanding of what philosophy is and what we do would help a lot. Too many people only know philosophy as that section of books shelved next to the New Age stuff in the Barnes & Noble. They think it’s wool-gathering or “sounding deep.” It’s irksome, to say the least.

          • josh

            Why would ‘more philosophy’ help when everyone seems to agree that philosophers are hopelessly unable to resolve their differences?

          • Notung

            I say more philosophy because it would give everyone a better understanding of the best arguments and the best objections to their position on lots of different things. Saying philosophers are ‘hopelessly unable to resolve their differences’ is a pretty vague claim. What issue specifically are they unable to resolve their differences on, and why would that be a bad thing?

          • josh

            I don’t think professional philosophers agree on the best arguments or the best objections to a host of questions, and if they did I’m not convinced they would actually be the best. For a sampling of such disagreements see the link in the original post. Whether or not that is a bad thing in itself, it’s hard to see how it would help in arguing against theists or resolve contentious social issues as you suggested.

          • Notung

            I don’t mean that philosophers necessarily agree on what is the best argument – I’m saying that by being well-read in and understanding philosophy one is in a better position to make their own mind up what the best argument is (having heard more of them), and the various objections put forward to them.

      • xtog42

        “Russell was an important mathematician”

        Not only that but he was highly important in the fields of education, psychology and civil rights and social activism.

        I appreciate your clarification — for a moment I thought maybe you were just flaming the blog. It’s something I regretfully have come to expect here at FTB due the quality of the discussions at places like The Lousy Canuck and Almost Diamonds.

        I honestly do not know how the administration of FTB allows them to flame their own blogs like they do and ban people who are simply, calmly, rationally and with facts criticizing their posts.

        These were the first blogs I posted and tried to have a serious back and forth about the DJ Grothe situation until I was verbally harassed and sworn at until I just sort of snapped and came back at them in a manner that I regret and then got moderated.

        But anyway, professional philosophers are easy to criticize since it appears they are truly just “bull shit artists” like the Mel Brooks movie says. And admittedly modern philosophy is a wreck in that it has become very parochial and quite frankly dismiss-able by the general public.

        The only philosophy we have now is the psuedo-philosophy of the liberal vs conservative BS — which are really not philosophies as I far as I can tell in that they have little discernible internal consistency and some positions cons/libs have appear to go directly against their stated dogma (ex: Conservatives have a liberal position on guns, and Liberals have a conservative position on just about every damn thing outside of civil rights for gay people and racial minorities and even those they are weaker than than they should be given their stated philosophical disposition)

  • Landon

    Leaving aside the question of whether lack of agreement in philosophy is a sign of dysfunction (I don’t think it is, but I’m open to arguments on the point, of course), I think your insistence that philosophers don’t agree on much misrepresents the data you link to – badly, in fact.

    Of the thirty questions in the survey, philosophers agree in large part as to the correct answer to nearly half of them. Specifically, on six of the questions posed, approximately two-thirds of philosophers polled agree on one particular answer, with each of the other positions garnering only slender support. On eight other issues, a majority of philosophers agree on one of the answers, with no other answer gaining even half as much support as the leading answer.

    This doesn’t even address the questions themselves – some are clearly more central to philosophical enquiry in general (say, naturalism v non-naturalism) than others (say, theory of time). Agreement on those issues would be more “significant,” for lack of a more precise term at the moment, and on many of those central issues, there’s a good bit of agreement. For instance, most philosophers, by some margin, are atheists. A notable majority are naturalists. A likewise notable majority are cognitivists about moral judgment. And a majority are moral realists. Just by considering these characteristics, we can start to form a picture of “the average philosopher,” and that archetypical philosopher is clearly quite different in several of his views from the average person. It doesn’t seem to me that we’d be able to make those kinds of generalizations about practitioners of a field that is quite so fractious as you insinuate.

    Of course, this all ignores the question of whether the survey you reference really tells us anything about how divided philosophy actually is, as a discipline, and I don’t think it does. Some of the questions posed – such as, for instance, the question about the character of normative ethics – concern areas of current, active enquiry. It would be odd if there was significant agreement, wouldn’t it? The question of what will happen to the universe in the future (heat-death, collapse, etc.) is an open one in physics – is it a sign of the dysfunctionality of physics that its practitioners have not largely coalesced around one answer as of yet? Of course it’s not. Every field has its open questions.

    Now, it could be argued that some of these should not BE open questions, but that’s a whole other issue. As it stands, there appears to be, even on the questions the survey thought to ask, a good deal of agreement on about half of the issues. We could probably articulate a number of issues that are GENUINELY closed, upon which there is more or less universal agreement, by pondering what questions the survey notably did NOT ask.

    In short, I don’t think your argument even gets off the ground – it’s not clear that we should be worried about disagreement on these questions, and even if it were clear that we ought to be, it’s not clear that there is significant disagreement about them.

    • xtog42

      And it’s not even just about disagreement being functional….philosophical failure itself can also be incredibly useful to science. One might refer to Bertrand Russell’s work in mathematics.

      • josh

        So, the usefulness of philosophy is demonstrated by… a failure in formal
        mathematics? :)

        • xtog42

          Are you saying that failures in philosophy or anything for that matter do not provide the foundations for future success and are nothing more than wankery?

          Even though Russell’s investigation was ultimately a failure, he exposed the weaknesses of the subject matter that others then picked up on and road to serious practical successes that played a huge role in the technology we enjoy today.

          Russell developed logic into a science, and guys like Turing turned that into primitive computer language. That is no wankery, that is practical benefits deriving directly from philosophical investigation.

          And what do you mean by wankery anyway? Useless?

          Because History of Western Philosophy shows not only how philosophy is a product of its time, but also how it influences the future.

          • josh

            I’m saying a failure in mathematics doesn’t tell you anything positive about philosophy, unless you define philosophy so broadly that it includes all thought. (I’m not really against that in the sense that I don’t believe there are any rigid or particularly meaningful boundaries between disciplines, but if so then there’s nothing to be said for professional philosophers as a distinct group of people and Chris’s criticism is aimed at them.) Russell was an important mathematician. And really, I like him all right as a philosopher, but that doesn’t mean the field as a whole, particularly in the modern academic sense, isn’t full of wankery.

            ‘Wanker’ was introduced in a comment by fastlane down below and I used it in reply to your reply to him. I take it to mean, roughly, self-gratification that does not produce useful or reliable results. (Technically, professional philosophy might be a circle jerk.) In a broader sense I would use it as ‘wrong, and not in a particularly respectable way’. Russell’s Principia isn’t wankery, but then, it isn’t academic philosophy as I understand Chris to be using the term.

            Unfortunately, influential does not mean useful.

  • xtog42

    Heh,….I’m finally getting to read Krauss and his walk-backs and it is a mess.

    I’m not a big fan of Massimo Pigliucci but he is right on the money in his critique of Krauss here,….

    As I am reading this all I can think of is Mel Brook’s History of the World where he calls himself a “Stand-up Philosopher” and the dude says that just stands for “Bull Shit Artist.”

  • fastlane

    Paging Daniel Fincke. Daniel Fincke to the white courtesy phone.

    FWIW, I agree with the gist of your article, Hal. All the philosophy I’ve read, regardless of which ‘side’ of the religious debate they fall on, seems like mental wanking and little else.

    • xtog42

      Ever read Descarte, or Hume, or Russell, or Locke, or the ancient Greeks? Hard to call their stuff wankery. Now there is plenty of wanking in philosophy, don’t get me wrong, but you’d have to be pretty unfair to say it’s all mental wankery.

      • xtog42

        In fact, if you’re really serious about whether or not philosophy is useless word play, take a read of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy it might change your opinion of the activity.

        • Notung

          Yes, either that or read any philosophical journal on an issue you’re interested in (if you have access). I think you’ll find that almost none of it is ‘mental wanking’.

        • josh

          I’m reading through Russell’s History right now. A central theme of the book is that philosophers are largely a product of their culture and class. Still reading, but Russell is pretty harsh on most of the Ancient Greeks, certainly on the most influential/famous ones. I.e., there’s a lot of wankery.

          • Notung

            In what way?

          • xtog42

            You’re comment that he is “harsh” on the ancient Greeks is simply not true INHO. No he is not a sycophant of them, but he is definitely not “harsh” to them.

            I mean the dude is one of the most famous atheists ever, and his sections on Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas are very cheritable, why would he be “harsh” to the Greeks then?

          • Landon

            How on earth does “he criticizes the methods/conclusions of the Greek philosophers” translate into “wankery,” unless “wankery” means “anything I don’t like/care about at this very moment?”

          • josh

            “Plato’s doctine of ideas contains a number of obvious errors.”

            “In the first place, Plato has no understanding of philosophical syntax.”

            “Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins.” [Said of the Platonic Socrates]

            “Ever since the beginning of the seventeenth century, almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctine…”

            “The views of Aristotle on ethics represent, in the main, the prevailing opinions of educated and experienced men of his day… But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive.” [I'm eliding quite a bit there but it doesn't change the point.]

            “Aristotle’s opinions on moral questions are always such as were conventional in his day.”

            “I conclude that the Aristotelian doctrines with which we have been concerned in this chapter are wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant.”

            - Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

            Obviously I could go on, but I don’t mean to suggest that he never has anything good to say about them. Whether that is sufficiently ‘harsh’ to merit the adjective is not the thrust of my comment. I’m just saying I don’t find it hard to call much of “their stuff” wankery, and HWR does not support the view that reading the Ancient Greeks (or their successors) is an exercize in pure intellectual rigor.

          • xtog42

            So, in telling a history of western philosophy he is NOT supposed to identify the flaws in those primitive philosophies?

            Now maybe you could paste the sections where he talks about their influence.

            Here is a start,…from the preface

            “One consequence of this point of view is that the importance which it gives to a philosopher is often not that which he deserves on account of his philosophic merit.

            For my part, for example, I consider Spinoza a greater philosopher than Locke, but he was far less influential; I have therefore treated him much more briefly than Locke.

            Some men–for example, Rousseau and Byron-though not philosophers at all in the academic sense, have so profoundly affected the prevailing philosophic temper that the development of philosophy cannot be understood if they are ignored.

            Even pure men of action are sometimes of great importance in this respect; very few philosophers have influenced philosophy as much as Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, or Napoleon. Lycurgus, if only be had existed, would have been a still more notable example.”

            So, the fact that he gives lots of space to the Greeks is a testament itself to the fact Russell is making a case with the whole book that Philosophy Matters. That’s why he gives less space to Spinoza than Locke.

          • John Morales

            Josh, is it not apparent to you that Russell refers to Aristotle’s opinions and knowledge-base, rather than to the endeavour in which he was engaged, which we call philosophy*?

            Was the inspiration and intent at thinking rigorously something other than to what ‘philosophy’ refers?

            * Perhaps I should have written ‘academic philosophy’ here.

          • josh

            Huh? I’m not criticising Russell for criticising the Greeks, I’m agreeing with him. You seemed to be saying above that reading HWR would convince anyone of the merits of philosophy, I’m saying that’s far from certain given the wealth of errors and misadventures in the history of the endeavor, many of which Russell points out. Maybe you just meant that it should convince one of the merits of Russell?
            I’m not trying to argue that no philosophy has been influential, particularly when you include all manner of political and religious institutions, plus science. But you well know that historically people didn’t draw the distinction between philosophy and other intellectual pursuits that we do today, and the modern Department of Philosophy is what is being criticized. And again, that an idea has been influential does not
            mean it has great intellectual merit.

            I’m not sure how you intend to distinguish opinions and knowledge base from philosophy as practiced. I’m not arguing that Russell wanted to scrap the whole idea of philosophy, if that’s what you’re thinking. But if philosophy is just ‘intent to think rigorously’ then we’re all great sages. Hail, fellow genius! :) My problem, such as it is, is not with philosophy, broadly construed, as an ideal; but with Philosophers who, in my experience, far overestimate their expertise and contributions.

          • Landon

            Ah… I misunderstood what was supposed to be the “wankery” in this case, but I still disagree with your conclusion. In fact, so would Russell. Doing something wrong and doing something worthless are two different things. Do you think “…since the beginning of the seventeenth century, almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine…” if what he was doing was unimportant, was “wankery?”

    • Landon

      “On Liberty.” “Two Treatises on Government.” “Discourse on Method.” “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

      Just four philosophical works, off the top of my head, that are not only pretty clearly written and argued, but that have been STAGGERINGLY influential beyond the realm of academic philosophy. There are many, many others.

      Seriously, if “[a]ll the philosophy [you've] read… seems like mental wanking and little else” then either you haven’t read very much philosophy, you didn’t understand what you did read, or (most likely) both. And you certainly haven’t read (and understood) any of the four works I mentioned above.

      • Notung

        Yes or ‘Treatise on Human Nature’ (Hume), ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (Quine), ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ (Ayer), ‘Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits’ (Russell), ‘Practical Ethics’ (Singer)… the list is endless!

  • John Morales

    Chris, by dint of omitting one word, you made the title say other than your actual claim.

    Not a good performance, there, philosophically-speaking.

    • Landon

      The problems don’t stop at the title.

      • John Morales

        Don’t let the apparent mildness and specificity of my critique make you imagine it’s not dead serious.

        • Landon

          On the contrary, I think it’s an excellent point, made all the more excellent for its concision.