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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David McNaughton
6 years ago

I entirely agree with this splendid post by Walter. My worry, as I have expressed elsewhere, is that what is required to get a tenure-track job, and then to get tenure, requires one to focus on the least accessible aspects of philosophy, and discourages those who may be great communicators from continuing in the profession. And habits are hard to break. However, things seem to me to be improving in this respect (e.g. the NYT Stone) and long may it continue.Report

N Kirkwood
N Kirkwood
6 years ago

Very interesting, and I agree it’s a problem. However, I worry that much non-professional scientific work is plagued with unclarity, and often completely misses the point. For the most part, the non-scientist gets their science-fix through media outlets like the printed news, television, or pop-science books. The former two in particular tend to be produced by non-scientists, and mostly by arts graduates with little scientific education (at least there’s a real problem with this in the UK, I’d be interested to hear what the situation is like elsewhere). ‘Scientific’ reports tend to over-exaggerate tentative conclusions as milestone advances, and often, given the authors are not qualified to appraise scientific articles, they miss key flaws in clinical trial designs. E.g. the ‘Carrots cure cancer’ or ‘Homeopathic remedy saves incurable patient’ scenario.

I agree philosophy has an important role outside of academia that is often grossly under-appreciated, but I’m worried about pseudo-philosophy becoming even more of a problem than it already is.Report

George Gale
George Gale
6 years ago

In 1981 I published an article in Scientific American. A couple of years later I submitted a ms to Philosophy of Science. It was rejected, and both referees made sneering comments about how maybe I should re-write the ms in a fashion suitable for my ‘fans at Scientific American.’ So much for reaching out to a wider public.Report

Anca Gheaus
Anca Gheaus
Reply to  George Gale
6 years ago

I’m very curious whether you had any exchange with the editors re those reports. Shouldn’t a decent editor block this kind of dismissing attitude from referees?Report

Eddy Nahmias
6 years ago

I recently had a piece published in Scientific American on free will and neuroscience (link below)–I hope I don’t get the rejections Prof Gale got (that’s a terrible reaction of your referees)! This is only partly a shameless plug; it’s also to point out that, while I heartily agree with Walter’s main points, I would emphasize that philosophers also need to get the word out to correct some of what scientists say when they write for popular audiences. They sometimes aim to connect their empirical discoveries to philosophical questions, and in doing so, they sometimes make mistakes that we should try to correct.
http://eddynahmias.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Nahmias-Free-Will-in-Scientific-American-2015.pdfReport

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

Thank you, thank you for an excellent post!

To David McNaughton: Yes, you’ve hit on a serious problem. It’s not that individual philosophers do not, in their teaching and writing, engage with the needs and aspirations of living people, but that the culture and the institutions of philosophy as a profession discourage and even punish such engagement. It’s the perennial question of social change: How do you move entrenched institutions, arrangements in which people may be deeply invested, in some new direction? My greatest worry is that a transformation in the institutions of academic philosophy could take a generational shift . . . perhaps over several generations. I hope we can manage it sooner than that, though.

To N Kirkwood: I think the idea of the original post is that philosophers would undertake to communicate with a wider public themselves. Perhaps one of the things to attend to in changing the culture and institutions of philosophy not only to provide incentives for engaged work, but also to establish standards of excellence and rigor in such work.

To George Gale: So much for blind review, eh?Report

George Gale
George Gale
Reply to  Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

Bob Kirkman: “So much for blind review” !! Yup. I made the mistake of writing on the same topic, but (I hoped) in a more philosophically sophisticated fashion. Didn’t work. It’s been thirty years, but, even today, I can feel the resentment from those referee reports. Sheesh.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

I agree completely with Walter. I would add that unlike the work of many academics, the work of philosophers can usually only be of use to someone who understands it. This makes the need to engage people outside of professional philosophy particularly acute. Let me plug here the Essays in Philosophy issue on public philosophy 15 (1): (2014) , the APA’s Committee on Public Philosophy, and the Public Philosophy Network.Report

Julian Friedland
Julian Friedland
6 years ago

Of course, this is largely an American problem.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

I hear positive things about the situation in parts of Europe, but not about anywhere else. I don’t think this is largely an American problem.Report

Joe
Joe
6 years ago

Now, not to sound like a 6 year-old playing “SHE started it!”, but while everything in this post is basically right, we should not forget that Philosophers’ contempt for bad reasoning in the public sphere is dwarfed, in cultural terms, by the contempt for philosophy often found in the sciences (and in other areas of the humanities). We live and breathe in an intellectual climate which struggles to even acknowledge the relevance of what we do, let alone refrain from all-out declarations of war on philosophy itself (Hawking, Krauss, Harris, Tyson… SO many names on this list). I suspect that this is partly why we sneer when we encounter bad reasoning: when we’re sneered at by people who then go on to make blunders that are directly trace-able to their lack of attention to philosophy, we sneer back. I agree that outreach is critically important, perhaps more so in ethics than in the rest of philosophy, but it’s important to remember that forces outside of our discipline are constantly working to ensure that no-one will even *try* to read our stuff, no matter how accessible it is.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
6 years ago

Addressing our philosophical writings to the non-academic public in an accessible way is indeed difficult, as Walter Sinnott-Armstrong says, because we tend to be inexperienced at that type of writing, and because we may even be punished for it by peers.

Regarding our relations with other members of the academy however, I think there is more of that than one might think at first glance. That’s because we too often only see “philosophy” as that which is done by people employed in philosophy departments. If you restrict your vision like that, then there’s a lot of work done using philosophical concepts that is hidden in plain sight, going by the name of French-philosophy influenced “theory” in humanities and social science departments.

I’ll take my own case (risking some #humblebrag or just plain #brag): working on and with Deleuze, I regularly give talks, am invited to review mss, and am asked to write PT letters in “theory” parts of Geography, Sociology, Political Science, Art Theory, Media Studies, English, and French, as well as Philosophy.

Two points here, reinforcing the OP: 1) I’m quite sure this network of contacts is sneered at by purists — but those purists can be found in both analytic AND continental camps (not all my CP brothers and sisters are happy about interacting with “science”); 2) because of that resistance I probably wouldn’t have had the freedom to pursue this work had I spent my career in a philosophy department rather than in a French department.Report

Wayne C. Myrvold
Wayne C. Myrvold
6 years ago

“Philosophers of science raise questions about the objectivity of science that could affect public confidence in evolution or climate change.”

At face value, that sounds as if it’s the role of philosophers of science to question the objectivity of science, and our effect on public confidence in evolution or climate change would be to steer the public’s opinion towards even more skepticism than already exists.

Is that how I’m supposed to read it?

I would say, rather, that philosophers of science should try to present the public with a more nuanced view of scientific reasoning than the sort that supports facile rejection of evolution and climate science.Report

Julian Friedland
Julian Friedland
6 years ago

That’s a fair point Greg Littmann. But considering that even you admit this is considerably less the case in parts of Europe, presumably France, the UK and Germany, this should be qualified in the article, which might have been more aptly titled: “Do American Philosophers Still Matter?” Furthermore, drawing this distinction could perhaps yield answers on what makes the American scene so different. Canada and Australia may be somewhat similar here to the American state of affairs.Report

Jennifer Frey
Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

I love this post. I think the relevant question is not “Does philosophy matter?” because philosophy (in its original sense of love of wisdom) will always matter to human beings, who are naturally curious and reflective animals who do wonder about it all, but rather “Does professional Anglo-American analytic philosophy in the US matter?” I think we all know that the answer to this question is by and large no and I’m sure many of us find this truly lamentable. It’s not simply that philosophers must leave behind technical jargon and mental gymnastics, but that philosophers must be trained differently. Presently we are trained to be clever and novel specialists who have learned to think small. It was not always so. A beginning, it seems to me, is a training that is more attuned to what is happening outside philosophy in the academe, as well as a better grounding in what used to be called the history of ideas. I have seen other academics shocked by the ignorance of many philosophers in both areas, and utterly bewildered by the idea that, to take a commonly cited example, ethics could proceed both a-historically (or with a certain canned history in its back pocket) and absent a dialogue with the social and natural sciences.

Professional philosophers are products of a university system that has by and large tended to encourage narrow specialization as a model of knowledge (i.e., it has modeled all knowledge on scientific or technical knowledge). I’d like to see more critiques of this model of knowledge from philosophers. MacIntyre has written a book about this recently that pays homage to Newman’s Idea of A University, but those who favor a more secular approach ought to be just as concerned with this question. Professional philosophy cannot change unless current institutional pressures change. We can start by making a philosophical case for this.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

Jennifer Frey, I don’t understand why you think the relevant question only involves Anglo-American analytic philosophy in the US.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

A friend just sent me this link, which seems relevant.

http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/social-philosophy-seminar-outlineReport

anon
anon
6 years ago

Jennifer Frey: I think your analysis is spot on. I would point out that Gadamer’s Truth and Method is a sustained critique of exactly the idea you identify (the idea that science/technology provides the model for all knowledge), and is written from a secular perspective.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

I suspect that at least some of the perceived lack of public presence for philosophy has to do with the small number of professional philosophers in comparison with professional scientists. There is a correspondingly small number of people educated in philosophy at all in comparison with those who get undergraduate degrees in biology, psychology, or other natural sciences. Many having studied for a degree in natural sciences will carry a life long interest in scientific subjects and, even if not working as scientists, they will enjoy reading popular scientific books and articles. Despite there being more philosophers than there are philosophy jobs, there still are not that many people educated in philosophy at any level and, so not that many members of the general public with a taste for philosophy. In the Anglo world, there are already some philosophers whose popular writings are read by a wider audience. Nussbaum, Singer, and Dennett come to mind. How many philosophers do we need in the public sphere? How does the ratio of public philosophers to professional philosophers overall compare with the ratio of public scientists to professional scientists overall?Report

Christian Coseru
6 years ago

If philosophy appears to matter less today, especially in the Anlophone world, it is because technical precision has all but replaced style as a form of cultivated self-expression. Even well read and cultured philosophers (and I’ve met a few), particularly here in North America, attuned to the pressing issues of the day (inside and outside academia), lack the stylistic resources and erudition to make philosophy as compelling for the generally educated public as it could be. Quine may be the most influential Anglophone philosopher of the last half century according to some recent polls (of philosophers), but he will never have the public reach of an Iris Murdoch, a Bernard Williams, a Richard Rorty or a Susan Wolf.Report

Jasper Heaton
Jasper Heaton
6 years ago

This is a great post and a great conversation, one that needs to be had (and to be kept on having). I have a couple of thoughts I’d like to throw out first. Some of this may take the form of a quasi-rant…

@ Jennifer Frey: I don’t see, though, why the answer to the question ‘does professional Anglo-Analytic philosophy (in the US) matter?’ has to be ‘no’, or even ‘by and large no’. For one, philosophy, as I am practicing it now, at my current Anglo-Analytic institute of the University of British Columbia matters enormously to me. And it matters enormously to my friends who study it at other Anglo-Analytic institutions. It matters because studying philosophy, in this analytic way, has provided me with a means of understanding and getting by in what is often (for me) a bewildering and frightening world. But by mattering to the individual (me, in this case) in this way, Anglo-Analytic philosophy matters to society at large, precisely because I am a fine, upstanding, and reflective member of society as a result of it.
But further, I think of the work being done in Anglo-Analytic departments on various social and institutional problems, and I see the results of rigorous, analytically exact analyses of the various concepts associated with these problems and institutions made manifest in the social change I see sweeping around me. As the author says, philosophy deals with important issues that affect real people; quite so! And the work I see being done at Anglo-American institutes does just this.
Do we think small? I don’t see that we do, though granted we may very well think narrowly. But narrow and small are not equivalent; indeed, the tendency, as it seems to me, is that in thinking narrowly, philosophers tend to think big. We think of the far-reaching consequences of whether this exceedingly narrow point turns out this way or that; we are alive to the enormous diversity subtle differences in views can result in. This awareness is a product of our training, our preciseness, and our narrowness.

And this takes me to the second broad issue I’d like to throw some thoughts out about – why must (Anglo-Analytic) philosophers leave behind technical jargon and mental gymnastics? I take some issue with the claim, by the author, that there is a ‘refusal’, perpetrated by ‘most philosophers’, to even ‘try to express their view clearly and concisely enough for readers without extraordinary patience and training.’ Perhaps we read different philosophers – probably we do; there’re a lot of philosophers to read! And those I read are often incredibly difficult to read, owing in part to their familiarity (and my lack of familiarity) with the language of the game, and their familiarity (and my lack of familiarity) with the rules of moves in the game. But the complexity of the texts is conditioned by the complexity of the content. The ideas I work with, that all of us in the field work with, are *difficult* ideas. Moreover, they’re often ideas for which natural language lacks the resources to express, or ideas for which it takes some significant leap away from standard patterns of thought – a leap achieved via gymnastics – to even grasp. The use of jargon and gymnastics by philosophers is not a refusal to make clear their ideas, not some cognitive conspiracy engaged in cloaking concepts; rather, it is an attempt to render intelligible the obscure. And to make a good attempt on this tends to require a lot of training.

It is bad when an field of investigation ridicules the popularization – and the popularizers! – of its content. The work of professional philosophers in universities should be rendered accessible to those who do not have the time, resources, or inclination to being a professional philosopher (same with the sciences, and the rest in between). This doesn’t mean turning away from technicality; it means putting an end to the culture of elitism that seems to pervade so far into the academies.

Philosophy is hard, and philosophical ideas take incredible effort (jargon-ish and gymnastics-ish) to express; philosophers have not done well at creating a culture for the wider dissemination of their subject matter. These are both facts, to be sure, but they are distinct facts.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

I would be interested to hear whether philosophers agree with Sinnott-Armstrong 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.”
As a sociological description, I found this surprising. But I’d be (practically!) interested in being corrected if Sinnott-Armstrong is right about this.Report

Robert Yost
6 years ago

This is a great post and I hope that philosophers start thinking that their field is in jeopardy of being expunged from the university. If philosophers would stop taking their field and their place in the university for granted, they may start thinking about how to prove their worth. By this I don’t mean economic worth (although I think that philosophy students can make a good living due to reading, writing, and thinking skills learned in the discipline) but the worth described above. We can help others think about their place in the world. We can inform current events and problems that people come across in their daily lives in an accessible way, even if most of philosophy’s work continues to be done in technical journals.Report

Deb Marber
Deb Marber
6 years ago

The situation seems different elsewhere, in France in particular. I once emailed Science et Vie’s editors while a first year Philosophy undergraduate in the UK about possibilities to intern with them and asking what one would have to do in order to write for them. They cordially answered that they generally only employed people with scientific degrees, but that I should do a program in scientific journalism after I graduated if I wanted to pursue that route.

This said, Science et Vie is a rather good quality magazine popularising science, and an article in it is more equivalent to one in The New Scientist than to a science column in the Telegraph. (The New Scientist seems to have similar requirements in terms of scientific education http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23329-do-you-want-to-work-at-new-scientist.html#.VPZSe1Yq8ds). There simply is a difference between good and poor journalism in any country, in my opinion.

I am curious though, what do you consider pseudo-philosophy?Report

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
6 years ago

I see why you read this sentence in the way you do, but what I meant was only that philosophers argue FOR OR AGAINST the objectivity of science, and these arguments can make people MORE OR LESS confident in evolution or climate change. I am sorry not to have been clearer.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

The hard sciences have had the smart and engaging Michio Kaku, NDT and Bill Nye to host popular broadcast programs about their field. Here is a question: would it be a boon to the academic philosophy in the U.S. if we had such outlets to reach the public lead by engaging, personable hosts? I’d love there to be a philosophy analog to Bill Nye The Science Guy to teach children about fallacies and such.Report

Jason Swartwood
6 years ago

This is a great post. This may illustrate one of the perks of teaching at a community and technical college (as I do). I spend most of my time trying to make philosophical issues, arguments, and methods accessible and trying to show why they’re valuable to my students, most of whom are not going to major in philosophy, let alone become professional philosophers. And the good news is that this is rewarding and enjoyable for both me and my students. So maybe it is good that a growing number of Ph.D.s are going to teach philosophy in community and technical colleges.Report

Dennis
Dennis
6 years ago

This there is the “folk” which is more than a bit pejorative.Report

Sophie
Sophie
6 years ago

“Folk” isn’t a pejorative. It’s a synonym for “pre-theoretical”. And philosophers are in the business of squaring theory with compelling pre-theoretical beliefs and intuitions.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
6 years ago

Dennis is right. In the interests of avoiding controversy, perhaps we could just use “volk” instead.Report

Sophie
Sophie
6 years ago

When I say “folk,” I don’t mean it as a pejorative. When others say “folk,” I don’t take it as a pejorative. But maybe people use more pejoratives around you and Dennis. Who knows? I kid, I kid. Later, gator!Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
6 years ago

“But maybe people use more pejoratives around you and Dennis.” Yeah, well, haters gonna hate. (Ballers gonna ball. Shotcallers gonna call…shots.)Report

Ben Gibran
Ben Gibran
6 years ago

As I’ve argued elsewhere (whyphilosophyfails.com), much of analytic philosophy is probably semantically indeterminate. But in order to realize that, we have to step back from the trees, the minutiae of philosophical arguments; and look at the woods, the socio-psychological flaws of any purely theoretical discipline; where peer-review is the sole arbiter of whether the relevant discourse is making sense. Such an arrangement has a tendency to degenerate into a mutual admiration society (notwithstanding some, largely arbitrary, internal disagreements on what is admirable).

It’s not the same with the sciences (apart from purely theoretical fringes like, arguably, string theory), because they have to make predictions that the non-expert can often easily test and to some extent, understand the theory behind (e.g. that the boiling point of water changes with altitude, because of differences in air pressure). In the applied sciences, such predictions are operationalized in artifacts (radios, cars, etc) which demonstrate that the relevant disciplines are not just ‘playing with words’ or ‘spouting hot air’.

Scientists rarely acknowledge the fact, but the non-expert public is actually heavily involved in keeping nonsense out of the sciences, effectively acting as a second, informal, layer of intellectual scrutiny after peer review. Not so in philosophy, where you have to be an ‘expert’ (i.e, a member of the mutual admiration society) for your opinion to count. As Sinnott-Armstrong pointed out, “philosophers talk only to their own kind and not even to all philosophers.”

He goes on to attribute the public’s negative perception of philosophy to a lack of ‘outreach’ by philosophers. Perhaps it is possible for the right kind of public-relations to raise the image of philosophy in the community at large, but such an effort cannot rescue the discipline from the more serious problem of semantic indeterminacy.

Even if all of philosophy was conducted in plain and simple English (or everyday German, French, etc), the non-expert would still not be able to determine which philosophical arguments ‘work’ without knowledge of the overarching debate, the sort of knowledge that only expert philosophers have (though even with that knowledge, the experts can’t agree on the validity of most philosophical arguments!).

So the lay public can never really act as that second layer of scrutiny for philosophy, the layer that actually underwrites the semantic consistency of scientific discourse. In the case of science, you don’t have to be an expert to know that scientists aren’t generally talking nonsense, because it’s obvious even to a 12-year-old that the relevant disciplines cannot get away with much semantic inconsistency, vagueness or vacuity when launching a satellite or doing open-heart surgery.

A high degree of semantic consistency is required to repeatedly pull off such sophisticated demonstrations of predictive power, particularly involving complex multi-disciplinary coordination (as is usually the case in science). Such transparent demonstrations of technical know-how are not available to philosophy. So the public (and for that matter, philosophers) are really in the dark as to whether much of philosophy actually makes sense (the problem doesn’t lie with jargon per se, the use of ‘everyday’ language does not guarantee that the language is always used in the ‘everyday’ sense; i.e. a philosophical context is not straightforwardly an ‘everyday’ context).

There are genuine philosophical problems, and the philosophical impulse is perhaps integral to what makes us human, but philosophy cannot be called a body of ‘knowledge’ (except in the sense of historical knowledge of what philosophers have said, along with a handful of substantive arguments that most philosophers agree are valid, excluding trivial logical syllogisms and the like). It is an activity that some people feel compelled to engage in, perhaps for important reasons, but like another such activity, art, there’s no methodology for measuring ‘progress’, for cumulatively gathering ‘facts’ the way that scientists gather data.

Philosophers may well see the world differently from having done philosophy, but the same is true of artists when doing art. To call that kind of shift in perspective ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ or ‘wisdom’ is a bit of a stretch (and would smack of pretention if claimed by an artist).Report

Marvin Edwards
5 years ago

Everyone should read William James’s “Lecture II” in “Pragmatism”. It is only when you get out of the ivory tower and examine how human concepts are put to use in the real world that you can become relevant and useful. Just be sure not to go off the deep end like Gregg Caruso and start trying to replace useful concepts like free will with useless ones like inevitability. (Both are true, of course, but only one has any real significance).Report