Plot Philosophy’s Subfields

Plot Philosophy’s Subfields

Yesterday’s post about interdisciplinary work in philosophy got me curious about how philosophers understand their work in relation to other disciplines.

One question we can ask of academics is: “what do they take themselves to be studying?” Of course, there are various ways of answering this question. One way of doing so is trying to determine where on a spectrum between “things” and “our understanding of things” researchers locate the object of their inquiries. That is, do they tend to understand the object of their inquiries to be first-order knowledge of the world (including us), or do they tend to understand the object of their inquiry to be second-order (or higher) knowledge, that is, knowledge of our understanding of the world? (For example, I take chemistry to fit better with the former, and literary theory to fit better with the latter.)

Another question we can ask of academics is: “by what methods do they seek to acquire knowledge?” Again, there are various ways of answering the question. One way of doing so is trying to determine where on a spectrum between more and less empirical their methods are (with “empirical” here excluding introspection).

It quickly becomes apparent that philosophy is too diverse for there to be easy or uncontroversial answers to these questions when we ask them about what philosophers in general do. However, we might have an easier time asking the questions by subfield (easier; certainly not problem-free). And perhaps doing so will help us better understand the diversity of philosophy as well as philosophy’s relation to other areas of inquiry.

So, to that end, I ask for your help. I used the two above questions to create a matrix. What I’d like to know is where you think various subfields of philosophy best fit on the matrix. Start with your own area of specialization, but feel free to place other areas, too. For ease of answering, I broke the matrix into numbered squares, though the squares should not be taken as marking off cleanly delineated differences. Additionally, the matrix is purposely not fine-grained, as I have no illusions of precision.

Here it is:

inquiry matrix numbered

To give you a sense of how to answer, here are some sample answers I’d give:

Analytic metaphysics: 13
Deconstructionism: 16
Experimental philosophy: 4
Philosophy of physics: 6
Political philosophy: 10
History of philosophy of science: 8

(I imagine some may disagree with these sample answers; please feel free to register this disagreement and provide alternative placements in the comments.)

Clearly, there are some complications that this matrix ignores (e.g., someone might think that where subfield X belongs on it varies according to one’s substantive views about X). To the extent possible, try to put these aside. I don’t know if this is going to be a fruitful exercise. We’ll see. Comments about that and suggestions are welcome, along with your tagging of various areas of specialization. (If we get enough answers, expect a subsequent post that will include a visualization of the answers.)

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