Philosophy, Real People, and the Real World

Philosophy, Real People, and the Real World

What are the boundaries of philosophy? Why are they there and what is their nature? How do such boundaries structure the way philosophers approach understanding people, events, relationships, institutions, and so on? A few recent pieces around the Internet explore versions of these questions.

Justin E.H. Smith (Université Paris Diderot) argues at Berfrois that the human being in all of its embodied, lived, sometimes irrational, and strikingly diverse forms is typically left out of philosophy:

The great victory of philosophy, in fact, is often held to be that we have got down to the very most basic structure or framework of human existence, from the perspective of which our earth-boundness, or our bipedality, or our diurnality, come to appear contingent…

The problem here is not that philosophers are slicing off just one part of the intellectual project of explaining human beings, and that I personally have no taste for that part. The problem is that what we get when we analyze human beings at that level is quite plainly not a model of human beings at all. There is a great deal that philosophers have taken to be eliminable that is not in fact eliminable. There is no meaningful concept of time for example that is not wrapped up with growth and death and aging, and thus that is not mediated by all sorts of rich, if culturally specific, beliefs about society. There is no meaningful concept of space that does not involve positive and negative valuations, psychogeographical projections– a frightening forest here, a bad neighborhood there, a great sublime ocean between us.

It is not that I want us to apprehend the world in this way, and am wistful about what philosophy has moved away from. It is that we in fact do apprehend the world this way– perhaps not exactly in the way I’ve explained, but still in some way that is comparable. We are in fact constrained to apprehend the world as an inhabited, enchanted whorl of beings and forces and vibes good and bad, surely as a result of the way our cognitive apparatus has evolved, but surely no less vividly for that. Yet for the most part philosophy doesn’t care…

At issue here, ultimately, is the philosophical question of what counts as a fact, and what I am trying to do is to press for an answer as to why it should be natural science that gets to determine, for philosophy, the answer. To pursue such questions is not to abandon science as a final arbiter, but simply to acknowledge what even the most heavy-handed 20th-century philosophers of science were prepared to recognize: that different levels of description are relevant for different tasks.

As if in partial response, Subrena Smith (New Hampshire) explains her work at Philosop-her, which seems as if it takes up at least some of what Justin E.H. Smith is concerned with:

My philosophical interests move between biology and psychology. I am interested in human behavior, and I think about human behavior (very broadly characterized) in the context of biology and psychology. My temperament and approach are empirical, and I privilege methodological approaches (messy as they are) that are our best candidates for acquiring knowledge: namely an innocent brand of empiricism. 

Yet Subrena Smith runs into opposition to her science-centric approach: “philosophers who take my approach to be insufficiently philosophical because I place too much emphasis on scientific resources.”

I have been thinking about the charge of scientism for some time now, because it has always struck me as strange. When you are told that your work is marred by scientism, it’s not a compliment. At the extreme it is an insult and at the less extreme it’s a way of dismissing you.

The charge of scientism, she says, is issued by people who are

worried that if philosophical questions can be settled by (for example) biology, then there would not be any space left for pure philosophy. I think that amongst philosophers this anxiety explains the tendency to distance oneself from work that is thought to be too empirical. But this position is very strange. I think that it’s difficult to find philosophers who believe that their work does not have some empirical features. Philosophers are interested in the world, and as such I think that the sorts of questions and claims that they make are, for the most part, about the world—including unobservable, but postulated, features of the world. Claims about consciousness are empirical. Claims about the metaphysics of gender are empirical, and so are claims about the nature of moral judgment. Philosophers like myself go to biology and psychology because we believe that the methods used in those domains often enough provide us with explanatory resources which help us to adjudicate the philosophical issues. We do not worship at the altar of science; we embrace those methods that stand the best chance of being knowledge-producing.

The concern that philosophy is somehow unhappy with its reliance on the empirical extends beyond questions of science to the messy details of the real world, and the extent to which they are excluded from various domains of normative theorizing. At In Due Course, Joseph Heath (Toronto) raises the idea that philosophers abstract themselves into irrelevance (thanks to Sergio Tenenbaum for bringing Heath’s post to my attention). Heath recounts the following story:

I was reminded of the importance of [knowing both normative theory and empirical detail] the other day, in the department, chatting with a few colleagues about current debates in just war theory. One of them, who has made rather substantial contributions to this literature, said “well of course, the problem is that the mainstream position in the philosophical literature is so far removed from the actual practice of any nation-state ever, that nothing anyone says has any relevance to the real world.” At which point I said, “yeah, the environmental ethics literature is exactly the same,” and another colleague chimed in and said, “yeah, the global justice literature is exactly the same… actually come to think of it, the whole egalitarianism literature is the same.” Thinking about it, I realized that this list could be extended quite considerably — of areas where philosophers have simply written themselves out of any and all policy discussions, by abstracting away so many features of the real world that there is nothing left to prevent the adoption of extremist views.

Some of the messy details of the real world include details about the history of philosophy, which, as typically taught, is also a kind of abstraction. It is not unreasonable to ask about how the formation of the canon is related to some of the above concerns. Just today, writer Minna Salami has a piece in The Guardian about the “Why Is My Curriculum White?” campaign in the UK, noting that “it seems that when a white male thinks about the meaning of things, any things, it is philosophy, while [e.g., Aztec, African, Islamic, and African-American] philosophers… are rarely discussed.”

There are, of course, different aspects of the pieces mentioned above, but I think they raise related questions about philosophy’s self-understanding, and about what philosophers should think about when called on to justify the enterprise.

(image: detail of “Williamsburg Bridge” by Richard Estes)

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Richard Yetter Chappell
9 years ago

While I certainly don’t think anyone should be going around insulting those who pursue a different style of inquiry from one’s preferred sort, I confess my own conception of philosophy is much more “aprioristic” (if that’s a word!). Science addresses empirical contingencies; for everything else, there’s philosophy. (Is mathematics then a branch of philosophy? Perhaps this characterization requires further refinement…)

From this perspective, the reason for philosophers to distance themselves from scientific work is not anything to do with “anxiety”, but just the methodological belief that empirical data isn’t particularly relevant to questions of distinctively philosophical interest (again, given the aforementioned conception of philosophy; I don’t mean to start any fights over the word).

Smith writes: “I think that it’s difficult to find philosophers who believe that their work does not have some empirical features. […] Claims about consciousness are empirical […] and so are claims about the nature of moral judgment.”

This surprises me, as my intellectual interests are almost entirely non-empirical in nature. (Insofar as I find empirical things interesting, e.g. identifying effective charities, I tend to regard these as non-philosophical interests that maybe relate, in various ways, to my more explicitly philosophical interests, e.g. concerning the demands of beneficence.)

Sure, some claims about consciousness are (at least partly) empirical (“At what stage does a human fetus become conscious?”). But I’m much more interested in the non-empirical question of whether phenomenal consciousness is sui generis or reducible to other (i.e. merely physical) phenomena. Likewise, one could investigate empirical, psychological claims about what happens to be going on in people’s heads when they make (what we call) “moral judgments”. But I’m much more interested in the non-empirical questions of whether there are sui generis objective moral facts, and whether non-cognitivist construals of morality can adequately account for its aspirations to objectivity and normativity, etc. etc.

There seems an important commonality to these non-empirical questions. I might try to capture this commonality by describing them as “distinctively philosophical“, in contrast to the sorts of questions that biologists, psychologists, and other scientists address. This is not intended as an insult to biological, psychological, or other scientific questions (or to the people interested in those questions!). It’s just to flag (what seems to me, at least, to be) a significant distinction in both subject matter and methodology — precisely the kind of distinction that disciplinary boundaries could sensibly mark (assuming it makes sense to have distinct academic disciplines at all).

Michael Barkasi
9 years ago

Richard, could you please clarify what you have in mind when you say that “I’m much more interested in the non-empirical question of whether phenomenal consciousness is sui generis or reducible to other (i.e. merely physical) phenomena”? I ask because I do research on just this question which assumes that is it empirical. For example, right now I’m working on a paper which argues that phenomenally conscious visual perception of an object (having a visual experience of it) isn’t constituted by the construction of a representation of that object in the visual system. To make the argument I start with empirical results (mostly from MOT, but also from other work on perceptual grouping) which support the claim that our visual systems don’t construct representations of certain arbitrary object parts (while constructing representations of whole objects). Then using a more introspective/theoretical argument employing what’s attendable, I argue that those arbitrary object parts are consciously seen. Whether or not it’s successful, this argument purports to get at your sui generis question about phenomenal consciousness (purporting to show that one potential reduction in terms of the construction of representations in the visual system) via empirical results. In addition, I very consciously attempted just this sort of empirically informed take on the topic, conceiving of the question from the start as being one partly dependent on empirical results. (I don’t believe there’s any straightforward way to totally settle the question empirically, but it seems clear that you envision empirical results as just being irrelevant to the question.)

Michael Brent
9 years ago

Thanks for raising these important issues, Justin.

One point that Justin Smith is calling to our attention is the very idea of a fact. As he put it: “At issue here, ultimately, is the philosophical question of what counts as a fact, and what I am trying to do is to press for an answer as to why it should be natural science that gets to determine, for philosophy, the answer.”

The passage from Subrena Smith does not directly address this question, but it does seem to tacitly assume a particular answer. When she says that our best candidate for acquiring knowledge includes “an innocent brand of empiricism”, she seems to be assuming that since the relevant facts are empirical, it follows that the best way to acquire knowledge of such facts is through empirical enquiry.

But we do not have to assume that the relevant facts are empirical. That is, we can question whether there are non-empirical facts that are worthy of our investigation, facts that, by their very nature, might escape the kind of empirical inquiry mentioned by Subrena Smith.

This, it seems to me, would require that we figure out what questions and topics count as empirical, and why, and what questions and topics counts as non-empirical, and why? If I understand what Justin Smith is suggesting, there is no need to assume that the natural sciences get to dictate *how* we should go about answering these questions, and *which* answers should count as correct or legitimate. That seems to me to be exactly right.

Given his interesting comment above, I wonder what Richard Yetter Chappell might say about how we should go about distinguishing between those questions and topics that count as empirical, and those that count as non-empirical? On what grounds, philosophical or otherwise, are we drawing such distinctions?

Michael Barkasi
9 years ago

What should philosophers think about when called on to justify their work? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot the last few years in my PhD program, and I think the following hits on points that I don’t often see raised. Presumably, a given work in philosophy is either shares a topic/ overlaps with work in other fields, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then I’m not really sure what the philosophers should do to justify their work—or even what they could do aside from trying to convince others of the work’s intrinsic value. But most work in philosophy isn’t like this. Most of it does overlap with other fields. Heath’s story brings this out nicely. In that case, I think there’s a lot of value in engaging with the related work in other fields and making one’s research relevant. For example, in my own work on consciousness engagement with empirical work helps to keep me grounded and focused. The steps I take are much smaller, but they feel much more secure and I feel as if I have some grasp of the issues.

So, perhaps the thought just is that by framing the question in terms of justification to others we’re apt to the miss the point that when philosophical work touches on topics also covered in other disciplines, not engaging (and making oneself relevant) with that work might mean missing opportunities to improve your own work.

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
9 years ago

I am sympathetic to Richard’s view. I see ethics as ultimately concerned with providing a criterion for choosing between options. Which options one is faced with is something that empirical observation can help with. But which criterion one employs to choose between those options is something that needs to be settled a priori.

Christian Coseru
9 years ago

The short answer to Justin’s first question at the top of this thread is: there are none. Insofar as philosophy pursues fundamental questions about the nature of reality, knowledge, morality, etc. its inquiries extend to all actual and possible domains.

The long answer is that tradition and institutional practices do set limits on how much philosophy can negotiate with other disciplines their boundaries (“their” because technically “it” has none). Philosophy has beed ceding ground for well over two centuries now to the sciences, so it’s harder for philosophers working in most areas of philosophy of science to push the boundary, let alone redraw it. There is a bit more leeway in much of the social sciences driven philosophy (x-phi is a typical case), partly because the data is easier to gather and interpret, and the methodologies easier to master. As for the humanities (art, literature, history, music), it’s not so much empirical and methodological boundaries that one negotiates but canons and approaches.

The more important question, I think, is: what are the internal boundaries of philosophy? Here, I’m not so sure about the answer.