Philosophy’s Fit With The Sciences and The Humanities


“My aim has been to remind philosophers that their subject, whether or not ‘handmaiden to the sciences’, ought to be handmaiden also to the humanities”

That’s Roger Scruton, writing about philosoph—

Hold on a second. Handmaiden? It’s 2017. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had a handmaiden since at least 1993.

Is political science powder monkey to governments? Is civil engineering the soda jerk to our cities? Is history the Fotomate of our memories?

Not to be knocker-up to the profession, but I fear that if we don’t start using less outdated metaphors, philosophy will just continue to be whipping boy to university accountants and further perceived to be as useful to society as a donkey puncher without a whistle punk.

Moving on…

The words that started this post were written by Roger Scruton, and appear as part of an exchange between him and Timothy Williamson in the Times Literary Supplement on the role of philosophy and its relationship to the humanities and the sciences.

Scruton is worried about scientism in the humanities and how, he thinks, it excludes the subjective point of view:

Philosophy is, and ought especially to be, a handmaiden to the humanities. It should use its best endeavours to show why the attempts to rewrite religion, politics, music­ology, architecture, literary criticism and art history as branches of evolutionary psycho­logy (or still worse, branches of applied neuro­science) are destined to fail. It should be intent on distinguishing the human world from the order of nature, and the concepts through which we understand appearances from those used in explaining them. It is for this reason that I believe aesthetics to be central to philo­sophy, being the branch of philosophy that deals directly with our most studied attempts to create and discern what is truly meaningful.

When I give a scientific account of the world I am describing objects and the causal laws that explain them. This description is given from no particular perspective. It does not contain words like “here”, “now” and “I”; and while it is meant to explain the way things seem, it does so by giving a theory of how they are. I, however, am not an object only; I am also a subject, one with a distinctive point of view…

The human world—what Edmund Husserl called the Lebenswelt and Wilfred Sellars the “space of reasons”—is ordered through concepts and conceptions that vanish from the scientific description of nature. Such things as purity, innocence, tragedy, comedy, elegance and refinement are not mentioned in the book of science. They describe how the world appears to us, and they identify the occasions of action and emotion. But they drop out of every scientific theory, including the theories that explain our belief in them.

Williamson warns that “the equivocation between ‘science’ as natural science and ‘science’ as rigorous inquiry” can lead to the perception that the humanities are worthless unless they adopt or become like the natural sciences, and to the mistake that the personal point of view cannot be studied in a scientific manner:

Scruton announces that “the subject is in principle unobservable to science” because “it is not part of the empirical world”.

History is one of the humanities if anything is. Historians study human subjects, whose points of view they try to understand. Con­sequently, on Scruton’s view, the subject matter of history is not part of the empirical world. This may come as news to historians.

Mathematics, though a science, is not a natural science like physics, chemistry and biology. It supports its results by deductive proofs rather than experiments, but is at least as rigorous, systematic and reliable a search for knowledge. On this broader conception, many parts of the humanities have a good claim to be scientific… 

“We must take a scientific approach to this problem” may sound plausible when interpreted broadly, but is then used to justify applying the specific methods of natural science to problems where they are unhelpful. There is nothing scientific about making unsupported reductionist assumptions into dogmas. Natural science does not tell us that every genuine question is a question in natural science; only bad philo­sophy does. Defending the humanities requires making those distinctions. What does not help the humanities is to contrast them falsely with science, and thereby obscure the ways in which they provide genuine knowledge.

The whole exchange is here.

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