“There is no philosophical essence”


“The question I regularly encountered, and still do, is: Is that still Philosophy?”

That’s Ann-Sophie Barwich, assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington who describes herself as “a cognitive scientist and empirical philosopher & historian of science, technology, and the senses,” in a recent interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? She continues:

This undermined a lot of my confidence in the beginning. This ominous “more” of Philosophy as this invisible essence that somehow was not detected in my work. My writing was too scientific, too historical, too contemporary, too this and too that. Just never “enough Philosophy.” It took me years to realize that there is no philosophical essence. It’s an intellectual convention. Too often this conception is bound to a form of expression, how you situate yourself in relation to other sanctioned authors, not a way of asking and thinking through content. The critical switch then happened when I read people like the Churchlands and Dennett. Guess what question I read in reviews of their books: Yes, yes, nice, but is this still Philosophy? Let me reply now: If you think that it’s reasonable to tackle questions of conscious experience with, say Bertrand Russell, in the 21st century – despite the revolutionary advances in neuroscience – how can this *still* be Philosophy?

Earlier in the interview, interviewer Clifford Sosis asks what she finds appealing about philosophy. She says:

Difficult question because I developed an ambivalent relationship with philosophy. I’m deeply convinced of the value philosophical thinking has in science and society. However, its institutionalized profession disenchants me…

Many may feel that my criticism is uncharitable and that I undervalue philosophy. I hear that a lot. But it really isn’t. On the contrary, I see a much broader potential and power of philosophy than some academic debates would indicate. There’s a reason why people like Hannah Arendt eschewed the title of philosopher despite doing heavyweight philosophical thinking in her work. There is a reason why we now have philosophical articles on the proper treatment of the Churchlands (are they *really* philosophers?)just because they are doing philosophical thinking that steps out of the comfort zone of many armchairs and into the realm of science. Notably in a proactive and complementary fashion.

Philosophers tend to recognize philosophy only as what they were exposed to as philosophy. But we have become so limited in what’s been put on the curriculum and what’s been acceptable as philosophy in the higher-end journals that the necessary broader historical, global, and methodological scope is often missing. Sure, Africana and Asian philosophy have gained some momentum more recently, yet it’s still viewed as a somewhat niche expertise. It’s not niche, though.

And so I merely encourage philosophy to get out of its currently still restricted and highly contingent institutionalized self-image. If we forfeit a pluralism of what philosophy is, can be and can do, we are not just losing touch with the world, including science and society, we furthermore are actively narrowing down philosophical practice itself. Preventing that requires some serious soul-searching about a lot of traditions, including topics and styles, some of which have become far too self-complacent.

You can read the whole interview here.


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