Does Philosophy Matter? (guest post by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong)

Does Philosophy Matter? (guest post by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong)

The following guest post* is by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Duke), and appears here via a special arrangement with Oxford University Press and the OUP Blog, at which it is also posted.

 Does Philosophy Matter?
by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Philosophers love to complain about bad reasoning. How can those other people commit such silly fallacies? Don’t they see how arbitrary and inconsistent their positions are? Aren’t the counter examples obvious? After complaining, philosophers often turn to humor. Can you believe what they said! Ha, ha, ha. Let’s make fun of those stupid people.

I also enjoy complaining and joking, but I worry that this widespread tendency among philosophers puts us out of touch with the rest of society, including academics in other fields. It puts us out of touch partly because they cannot touch us: we cannot learn from others if we see them as unworthy of careful attention and charitable interpretation. This tendency also puts us out of touch with society because we cannot touch them: they will not listen to us if we openly show contempt for them.

One sign of this contempt is the refusal of most philosophers even to try to express their views clearly and concisely enough for readers without extraordinary patience and training. Another sign is that many top departments today view colleagues with suspicion when they choose to write accessible books instead of technical journal articles. Philosophers often risk their professional reputations when they appear on television or write for newspapers or magazines. How can they be serious about philosophy if they are willing to water down their views that much? Are they getting soft?

As a result, philosophers talk only to their own kind and not even to all philosophers. Analytic philosophers complain that continental philosophers are unintelligible. Continental philosophers reply that analytic philosophers pick nits. Both charges contain quite a bit of truth. And how can we expect non-philosophers to understand philosophers if philosophers cannot even understand each other?

Of course, there is a place for professional discourse. Other academic fields from physics to neuroscience also contain tons of technical terms. Professional science journals are rarely enjoyable to read. The difference is that these other fields often work hard to communicate their ideas to outsiders in other venues, whereas most leading philosophers make no such effort. As a result, the general public often sees philosophy as an obscure game that is no fun to play. If philosophers do not find some way to communicate the importance of philosophy, we should not be surprised when nobody else understands why philosophy is important.

This misunderstanding is sad, because philosophy deals with important issues that affect real people. Metaphysicians propose views on free will and causation that could change the way law ascribes responsibility for crimes or limits access to pornography on the grounds that it causes violence to women. Political philosophers defend theories with useful lessons for governments. Philosophers of science raise questions about the objectivity of science that could affect public confidence in evolution or climate change. Philosophers of religion and of human nature present arguments that bear on our place in the universe and nature. Philosophers of language help us understand how we can understand each other when we talk. And, of course, ethicists talk about what is morally wrong or right, good or bad, in situations that we all face and care about.

Because of these potential applications, there must be some way for philosophers to show why and how philosophy is important and to do so clearly and concisely enough that non-philosophers can come to appreciate the value of philosophy. There also must be some way to write philosophy in a lively and engaging fashion, so that the general public will want to read it. A few philosophers already do this. Their examples show that others could do it, but not enough philosophers follow their models. The profession needs to enable and encourage more philosophers to reach beyond the profession.

(images by Van Wanten Etcetera)

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