Is philosophy more like art than science?

On Twitter, James Croft responded to my recent blogging on philosophical progress by suggesting that maybe philosophy is more like art or literature than science. I’ve encountered that suggestion before, so it’s worth addressing.

First, I should briefly say what I think of art and literature. They’re great, but not really ideal for finding out the truth about the world. They might help you think about the world, but if someone’s go-to sources for backing up their arguments are fiction rather than non-fiction, the odds are overwhelming that they’re just regurgitating favorable propaganda, or being misled in their predictions about the future by science fiction, or something like that.

(Worst case scenario: they quote as authoritative a character who the author meant the audience to disagree with.)

James may disagree with that, but given what I’ve just said, it shouldn’t be surprising that I tend to see philosophy as more like science than art, at least insofar as philosophy is trying to mainly be getting at the truth. And I think most philosophers today, at least in the English-speaking world, would agree. From some of the things I’ve heard about Nietzsche (disclaimer: I have no first-hand knowledge of Nietzsche), maybe he wouldn’t agree with that, but I think most philosophers today would.

Now, I’m the last person to claim that what most philosophers think must be right, but if they’re wrong about that, that itself would be something wrong with philosophy (as it’s practiced today). Philosophers who would laugh at the idea that scientists should be conscious of the limits of science as discovered by literary theorists will make that very same claim for philosophy. This is true not just of philosophers of religion with a grudge against evolution (*cough* Alvin Plantinga *cough*), but come atheist philosophers as well.

However, the relationship between art and literature on the one hand, science on the other hand, and philosophy on the third hand, isn’t something I’ve talked with people much about. So I’m curious to hear from people with a different perspective.

  • staircaseghost

    The required reading on this is of course the great essay by Bernard Williams, ‘Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline’. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.

    Now, let’s see about this:

    First, I should briefly say what I think of art and literature. They’re
    great, but not really ideal for finding out the truth about the world.

    Implicit in this is that the humanities and the arts somehow suffer in comparison for this lack of descriptive truth-finding, which is simply to assert unargued the value judgment that the latter is intrinsically a more desirable enterprise. This is no more convincing than the charge that science suffers by comparison to music, because it is not very good for dancing to.

    Even in the case of literature or music, there is a cogent case to be made that they are “science-like” by comparing them, not to theoretical science, or experimental science, but observational science. More Tycho Brahe than Johannes Kepler, more barnacle-collecting than population-genetics-modelling, except the data are the infinite possibilities of the human mind to redescribe its own experience and create new possibilities for ways of being in the world.

    Philosophers who would laugh at the idea that scientists should be
    conscious of the limits of science as discovered by literary theorists
    will make that very same claim for philosophy…. but come [sic] atheist philosophers as well.

    Cite? I’m not aware of anything like a majority or even plurality view that “philosophy can dictate the content of science”, except in the more banal sense that philosophers often fret about demarcation issues. (And after Feyerabend, the general thrust of philosophy of science has veered away even from this enterprise). I do see this kind of thing in comboxes from time to time, vague asseverations that science is somehow plugged into a particular metaphysics, and that if a scientist “gets the metaphysics wrong” (how?) somehow their results will be faulty. But not anything in the last half century at least about dictating scientific truths or any kind of faith-head or pomo nonsense like that.

    Most philosophy is in some sense philosophy “of” something. This is because philosophy happens when questions arise when we are engaged in some practice (governing the citystate, doing botany, criticising Swedish film, euthanizing old people, finding out what if anything caused the big bang), and those questions are not straighforwardly answerable simply by “doing more” of that practice. We ascribe causes to events in the world, like the motion of billiard balls, but no amount of careful billiard-ball measurements is going to tell us what a cause is or what we can realistically hope to say about it, or how our conceptions and values might be altered in a more useful way about it. We hold people criminally responsible, and call this (when it goes right) “justice”, but no amount of murder trials is going to result in a verdict about what justice is, or what we can realistically hope to say about it, or how our conceptions and values might be altered in a more useful way about it; mutatis mutandis for math/ontology of math, moral psychology/metaethics, playwrighting/Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy etc.

    And here’s the twist: the psychological state of “having a question” or “wondering about something” is not univocal. Only rarely is “wondering about something” in this meta-discursive sense something that is even in principle answerable by simply “finding out more truths” in the purely descriptive sense that science does. That is why there is a venerable tradition, from Socrates through Wittgenstein, of Philosophy as a therapeutic enterprise. Not therapeutic in the sense of “making you less sad”, but therapeutic in the sense of ameliorating that psychological state of asking questions in cases where the questions themselves are meaningless. But there’s no way to tell ahead of time whether any given philosophical question belongs to one category or the other, without actually doing philosophy.

    “Philosophy hasn’t made any progress?—If someone scratches where it
    itches, do we have to see progress? Is it not genuine scratching
    otherwise, or genuine itching?” — Ludwig W

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

    The cheap rebuttal: if philosophy is an art, then I can happily ignore it, and instead stick to Beethoven.

  • staircaseghost

    Oh well…

  • staircaseghost

    We can certainly ask whether the dog is a labrador or poodle without making a value judgement about which breed of dogs is better.

    Sure, we can. But the actual immediate context here is Hallq’s series of posts decrying the “problems” of philosophy. Clearly, he thinks philosophy’s failure to deliver scientific truths is a “problem”, rather than, say, evidence that philosophy is not a science.

    I understand how general social attitudes and valuation of science vs. arts might put you on the defensive.

    I am only “defensive” when philosophy, which I happen to enjoy, is mischaracterized, and then aspersions cast on it on the basis of this mischaracterization.

    in your opinion, philosophy more like art or a science?

    Did you not read my extended reply?

    • eric

      I did, but its vague. Saying it therapeutically lets us address or answer questions does not tell me whether you think the way it addresses them says something about the content of the real world or just relieves some psychological bad feeling.

      So it scratches an itch. To extend the analogy: in your opinion, does philosophical scratching relieve the itch because it removes a parasite (or resolves some other physical source of the itch), or does it work via relief through distraction and satisfying our desire to do something, anything, in the face of discomfort?


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