A quick thought on the definition and usefulness of “philosophy”

One way to define philosophy is simply as what philosophers do. And “philosophers,” in a modern context, generally means philosophy professors. This is in some ways a nice definition, because it rules out the possibility of making the absurd-sounding discovery that much of what philosophers do is not philosophy.

Another definition of philosophy is everything that falls outside the boundaries of other disciplines. There are historical reasons why this overlaps pretty well with the definition of “what philosophers (or philosophy professors) do.” Once upon a time, everything was philosophy. Newton’s greatest work, for example, was called “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.”

Then it gradually became clear that the accomplishments of people like Newton and Lavoisier were very different than the ideas people Aristotle and Descartes and been playing around with, and the term “natural philosopher” got replaced by “scientist.”

The number of disciplines that had moved from philosophy to science gradually grew. Psychology, for example, took a little longer to split off than chemistry or physics (William James is remembered as both a philosopher and a psychologist). Eventually it became clear that “philosophy” had in effect become everything that had yet to split off into a science. I don’t know when this was first noticed, but Bertrand Russell noticed it some time in the first half of the 20th century.

Now as I said, these two definitions of philosophy have a big area of overlap, but it’s important to keep them separate. Here’s a fallacy that can arise from confusing them: “Some things that are not within the boundaries of any other discipline are worth doing. So philosophy is worth doing. So what philosophy professors do is worth doing.”

Now I certainly think there are philosophy professors who do worthwhile stuff. Many of my favorite people are philosophers! But that doesn’t change the fact that much of what philosophy professors do is not worthwhile. Too often, the fact that there is a voluminous literature on a subject shows only that a lot of professors thought an article on the subject would be a good addition to their CV.

  • Timon for Tea

    “But that doesn’t change the fact that much of what philosophy professors do is not worthwhile.”

    The same is true of scientists, of course, and just about every other profession too. Just think of all those psychology careers built on unrepeatable experiments, for example.

    • http://avatars.imvu.com/jamesskaar jamesskaar

      that immediately brings me to pipeline on corante blogs, some posts about how utterly useless and unrepeatable much of modern chemistry(industrial and medical) is, papers churned out by software that takes years to track down as garbage, since nobody bothers to read them for a good while… anyway, the blog owners series on what he won’t work with is a gem, i think it was carbon diselenide that got me the most chuckles, but knowing how dangerous picric acid was in small amounts, and how much of it was involved in the halifax explosion, that was a nice treat.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    In my personal and untutored opinion, having spun off mathematics (yay!), science (yay!+), and theology (good riddance), philosophy now includes basically two domains: ethics and epistemology.

    Our society at present does quite poorly in both areas, and suffers severely as a result. Ergo, anything that philosophy can cultivate in such regards remains urgently necessary.

    Also, it can be really fun to watch a skilled thinker like John Wilkins work through the disentanglement of subtly-linked yet ultimately distinct concepts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sabrinawolfgang BinaAssault

    I have come across a lot of people why believe that philosophy is a wasted, (fake) science, and that it is completely useless to today’s society. I find it kind of depressing that people see it that way.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sabrinawolfgang BinaAssault

      *who (not *why) sorry for the typo there

  • McNihil

    I very much enjoy your take on philosophy. I have a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy myself and the overarching conclusion that I took from those few years of study is, more or less, that it’s all a big pile of horseshit. I am exaggerating facetiously but not by much. Most of the time while poring over the texts the curriculum had me read I thought to myself “What the fuck am I doing here? This is a big pile of irrelevant word salad!” It got a little better when I was finally introduced to Russel and other “analytical” philosophers of the 20th century, the century where – roughly speaking – science finally took over.

    I could never quite put my finger on why I thought so and never made the effort to actually articulate my point of view. Well, as they say, if you wait long enough with a task, someone else will do it for you and you’ve conveniently published a few blog posts that catch my opinion of philosophy quite nicely. Thanks for that.

    Now to my question: A little while ago, Brian Lynchehaun put up a post defending philosophy, as far as I understand it, from your (and Dawkins’ and Krauss’) kind of criticism. How would you respond to his points?

  • mnb0

    Russell actually wrote a bit more about it. He distinguished between two sources of knowledge (or claims as such): the scientific method and revelation. Everything in between is philosophy.
    In my opinion philosophers get out of the way too easily. Sure, what can be decided by experiment and/or observation is not too interesting for them. But eg the concepts of space and time (another example is the Big Bang of course, which is directly related to cosmological arguments for god) as used in physics have changed quite a bit last 100 years or so. It might be worthwhile if a philosopher, one who actually understands a few things of physics, would think them through. Of course physicists have done that themselves too, but perhaps not always as rigorous and consequent as desirable.
    Possibly it demands a lot of courage to undertake such a project.

  • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

    Most of the philosophy I’ve dealt with outside of ethics was my journey to passionate skepticism, and my current perspective is that science is the most practical/successful branch of epistemology. For non-science, non-ethics philosophy, I tend to think of it as ‘the history of thought,’ and potentially useful for understanding how other people might think, and potentially to show them how they’ve gone wrong.

    The utility of learning philosophy seems pretty hit-or-miss, depending on who’s doing the learning. Someone who’s genuinely interested in finding out the best ways to truth could emerge as a skeptic who understands the underlying principles of science and knows something about the problems of other modes of thought. Someone who’s just looking for ways to reinforce what he already believes likely just gets big, authoritative-sounding names to cite and new ways to obfuscate his logical problems from non-philosophers.

  • eric

    Then it gradually became clear that the accomplishments of people like Newton and Lavoisier were very different than the ideas people Aristotle and Descartes and been playing around with, and the term “natural philosopher” got replaced by “scientist.”

    It doesn’t even have to be ‘very different.’ Subject A has sub-discipline A1. A1 builds up such a significant body of knowledge that it makes pedagogical sense to separate it – i.e. have its own curriculum, professors, degree requirements, etc. BAM! You’ve got a subject B.

    IMO the reason it is difficult to bound and define subjects like philosophy using a top-down, structured model is because that’s not the way academics generally works to set boundaries. Its bottom-up. You get enough professors and students interested in exploring the details of what has heretofore been a narrow topic within a subject, and you set up a department for it. Sometimes that topic fails to gain traction. Sometimes it succeeds. Chemistry, physics, mathematics – these succeeded a long historic time ago, so they are now recognized as formally distinct. If you look at subjects like environmental science, you see subjects more in the transition zone; not always separate departments, but not completely “subs” to other departments either.

    So I’d give a big thumbs up to operational definitions like ‘philosophy is what philosophers do,’ and maybe add that it’s what gets studied in philosophy departments. If, to make up an illustrative example, symbolic logic developed such a following that professors wanted to teach a series of 15 separate courses in it, the job market was clamoring for symbolic logiians as a distinct group, and students wanted to graduate with a degree in it, then symbolic logic might legitimately peel off from philosophy and be considered its own, distinct subject. But until that happens, its part of philosophy.

    • eric

      Maybe the TL:DR version is: you are trying to figure out the “kinds” of subjects when, in reality, they descended with modification. :) Having evolved rather than being separately created, problems defining species (i.e., discipline) boundaries are inevitable.

      • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

        Fun analogy. The image that comes to mind is that the sciences are the diverse category of placental mammals, while what people call “philosophy” is pretty much left with a handful of egg-laying monotreme species of mammals.

        Both groups are still “philosophy” using the older definition, just like apes are still monkeys, but what we commonly refer to as “monkeys” would better be defined as “non-ape monkeys.”

        So, next question: What discipline plays the part of marsupial mammals? ;)


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