The “New Questions of Philosophy”


“What subjects are now being confronted at the frontiers of philosophical inquiry, breaking from the familiar philosophical concerns of canonical figures like Plato, Locke, and Descartes?” That was a question raised recently by the editors of “The Masthead,” a new member-based media program at The Atlantic.

Stuart Davis, “Owh! in San Pao”

One of those editors, Caroline Kitchener, sought examples of such subjects from philosophers Elizabeth Harman (Princeton) and Andrew Janiak (Duke), who share them here.

Professor Harman discusses love:

While philosophers have traditionally discussed the nature of love, philosophers today are taking seriously its lived reality, and the implications of that reality. Love is not just romantic love between two people. The lived reality of love includes polyamorous love, love between siblings, love between friends, love of fetuses and children, and many other types and forms of love. Considering love as it is actually lived leads us to new questions: such as how we should recognize the loving relationships of others, and how we should treat the objects of love.

Professor Janiak discusses the work on heretofore ignored women in the history of philosophy:

The old idea that women never produced any important works of philosophy is increasingly being revealed as a sham. The historical record is full of treatises, plays, poems, and letters written by women who contributed to philosophy over the past few centuries, from Margaret Cavendish in England—the first woman to visit the Royal Society in London—to Emilie Du Chatelet in France. Scholars throughout the world are now excavating their works and bringing them into the light. We now have a virtuous circle: The more that scholars search through history for the lost contributions of women to philosophy, the more we find. The more we find, the more we can teach our students about such contributions, thereby generating more interest in new discoveries.

What do you think is new in philosophy?

I’d include political epistemology, misogyny, and the social and moral aspects of data collection and its assorted technologies, on a list of relatively new topics in philosophy.

I also think recent and continuing methodological and metaphilosophical developments are worth noting.

Chief among these is the expansion of who counts as “philosophically respectable” from the point of view of mainstream Anglo-American philosophy. The progress regarding women in the history of philosophy that Professor Janiak draws attention to is just one example of this. We are seeing similar developments regarding racial minorities in the history of philosophy, too. Work on philosophers from “non-Western” traditions, on their own or via engagement with more traditional members of the Western canon, is on the rise. In a similar vein, analytic philosophy continues to open up to the work of some of the figures of 20th Century Continental philosophy.

Along with this is the expansion of what counts as a “philosophically respectable” topic. For example, we are seeing the emergence of more philosophical inquiries into various aspects of race, gender, sexuality, language, and other issues related to identity.

These changes are in part a function of another relatively new and very important development: the study of the various sociological, political, economic, and psychological factors that affect canon formation and influence which questions and subjects in philosophy are taken seriously. There is a more honest acknowledgment that myriad non-epistemic elements have helped make mainstream philosophy what it is today. (As I like to say, philosophers are people, too.)

(Is this all just political correctness brought to bear on philosophy? If so, then the stereotypical view of political correctness as clamping down on inquiry is woefully one-sided, if not mostly mistaken: just look at all of the new philosophical questions and writings we have to think about now, thanks to it.)

I imagine that Daily Nous readers may have some further ideas about what the newer subjects and questions of philosophy are. Let’s hear what they are.

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