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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