In the new Oxford Review of Books, Daniel Kodsi, an apparently remarkably well-read Oxford undergraduate, conducts a wide-ranging three-part interview (I, II, III) with Kwame Anthony Appiah (NYU). Here’s an excerpt from Part II:
DK: I suppose there are two questions about two ways philosophy seems to be going: one of which seems to be positive and one of which doesn’t. The first is that, as you’ve said before, it’s becoming more polyphonic. There are more voices and there’s more reliance on non-a priori stuff, and there’s race and gender, and that’s good. But there’s also a question about whether it’s becoming more professionalized or scientistic in a way that isn’t amenable to the kind of systematic theorising that many philosophers, many great philosophers, used to do.
KAA: The fields where you might think there’s the greatest risk of that are things like cognitive science and so on, where you might think that all people are doing is the more theoretical end of the development of theories about the five levels of visual perception and all that sort of thing, but the kind of people who are drawn, in philosophy, now, to that kind of thing, tend to be systematic in a different way from scientific theorising, I think, often drawing analogies between questions in a wider range of fields than much contemporary science does and so on. So, what’s gone, I suppose, is the thought that philosophy is about making one big picture that explains how all the pictures fit together, that it’s the queen of the sciences and that it’s its job to, in metaphysics, lay out what’s there for the scientist to study. I think a sensible view in ontology now would be that you can’t say what’s there unless you know the physics, and you’re not going to figure out what’s there absent grappling with the best physics of our time.
DK: Unger has a book in which he calls a great deal of philosophy ‘concretely empty’. And I’m not exactly sure what he means by that, except that it seems to mean all philosophers should be more like Tim Maudlin…
KAA: I think that what Tim is doing is a very important continuation of the historic project of philosophy and that if your questions are questions about being qua being, you should probably talk to him because you need to know the things he knows and push the questions he’s pushing in order to get to it. I agree with that, but that’s about one part of our picture. Yes, I think you need to be in touch with concreteness, but I don’t think the concreteness is all in physics. Concreteness is in biochemistry, it’s in psychology, and it’s in political life. It’s in the social life of us as creatures. So I think the picture … I agree that it’s not a good idea to think of philosophy as an a priori activity, but that, for God’s sake, is something that Quine said! It’s hardly a new thought. It’s a thought that was articulated by one of the first or second generation. Quine was shaped by the Vienna Circle. So it’s not a new thought, and, as I argued in the book about the experimental turn in ethics, if you look back at the history of ethics, there’s a very short period when Hare and such people were what ethics was, but already before Hare’s great book, Elizabeth Anscombe had written ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’.
DK: A paper very characteristic of her style.
KAA: Yes, and it’s characteristic in many ways. It’s full of terrible arguments and good arguments. It’s very insightful but also dotty. It’s a weird mix. I mean, she was a great philosopher; she was a terrible person, but she was a great philosopher. But, like all philosophers, she had characteristic weaknesses. So I think one of the interesting things about analytic philosophy when it was self-conscious is that it had an account of what it was doing that it didn’t believe and didn’t really practice. Again, the analytic-synthetic distinction is one of … Quine’s attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction occurs more or less as analytic philosophy is self-consciously taking off, so already the idea that you could be exploring truth in virtue of meaning, which was one of the main… I think that paper [‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’], it’s very hard to say what the argument is in the paper, but nevertheless, we should recognize that it was a very important paper, if you were telling a history of analytic philosophy, and it already questions the idea that you could be doing anything interesting if you thought that all you were doing was working out the consequences of meaning. I entered philosophy at a time when that was the story. Working out the consequences of what we already know was the story, and it was nice because you didn’t have to study anything outside your own mind. You could just sit alone in your study and work stuff out – and one way human beings make progress is by sitting alone in studies and working stuff out, I’m not against that – but the idea that we’re going to make deep progress in anything without input from the messy world of actual things, I think, is a mistake. But in a way what Peter Unger’s arguing against is not something that anybody was ever really doing. It’s something that some people said they were doing, but the actual practice of philosophy was never closed off to the sciences or to everyday life, and some of the leading figures, including in the analytic tradition were very empirically minded.
The interview series begins here.