What’s “Core” and What’s “Peripheral” in Philosophy—and Why?


It’s pretty bizarre, when you think about it, that someone who spends their time wondering whether tables are real is considered to be working on a foundational area of philosophy, but someone who wonders whether races are real is doing something we consider a niche, ‘applied’ topic. Likewise, someone who tries to figure out how words like ‘might’ work is doing something core, and someone who tries to figure out how hate speech works is doing something peripheral. I don’t mean to denigrate the person thinking about epistemic modals or tables! People should work on whatever they’re interested in and whatever makes them happy. And I also don’t mean to suggest that esoteric topics are somehow not interesting to people from traditionally underrepresented groups. I think some of the best work being done right now in metaphysics and philosophy of language is being done by women and people of color, for example.  But I do think that the demographic makeup of philosophy has shaped our ideas of what is central, foundational, or ‘core’. It would be bizarre if it hadn’t, really. And I think that part of making philosophy more inclusive is addressing this – and, in particular, allowing people from a wider range of backgrounds to shape what we care about in philosophy, rather than only allowing people from a wider range of backgrounds to succeed in philosophy if they show they can advance the debates we already decided we cared about.

That’s “unapologetically geeky mutant” Elizabeth Barnes (UVA) in an interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher.

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annonGrad
annonGrad
5 years ago

As a graduate student from a racial minority, I find this very patronizing. I work on the epistemic of modals, because I think questions about necessity and possibility are philosophically more fundamental, even though sociologically or historically they are less important than questions about race. But the “core” of my interest is philosophy, not sociology or history. I would have become a racial studies graduate student, if I really cared to be in a field where my experience as a racial minority was at the center of inquiry.Report

anon prof
anon prof
Reply to  annonGrad
5 years ago

If only she’d said something like “I don’t mean to denigrate the person thinking about epistemic modals or tables! People should work on whatever they’re interested in and whatever makes them happy. And I also don’t mean to suggest that esoteric topics are somehow not interesting to people from traditionally underrepresented groups.” Oh, wait . . .Report

anon'
anon'
Reply to  annonGrad
5 years ago

Your response as “a graduate student from [an unspecified] racial minority” is “very patronizing.” Check your ignorance and strawmanning.Report

Liam
Liam
5 years ago

I am not sure what you are responding to in the interview. Barnes explicitly says “I don’t mean to denigrate the person thinking about epistemic modals or tables! People should work on whatever they’re interested in and whatever makes them happy. And I also don’t mean to suggest that esoteric topics are somehow not interesting to people from traditionally underrepresented groups. I think some of the best work being done right now in metaphysics and philosophy of language is being done by women and people of color”. So it’s certainly not the case that Barnes is saying either that in virtue of being from a racial minority you should be working on something other than what you do, or that your work must centre your experience as a racial minority.Report

Commentator
Commentator
5 years ago

If we don’t become more open to this supposedly ‘peripheral’ ‘applied’ stuff then philosophy will be dismissed from the academy in a few decades.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
5 years ago

More relevantly, Barnes states in the interview that she works on “metaphysical vagueness,” so certainly not an enemy of the basic worth of questions about necessity and possibility. Quite the opposite. The whole interview was gratifying to read. Thanks for linking to it.Report

annonGrad
annonGrad
5 years ago

I wrote the first comment. I’m sorry about the quick reaction – it was too quick. Sorry about that (and apologies to professor Barnes). However, in case you are wondering why I got so pissy, here is how it sounded to me:

– I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t care about epistemic modals or realism about ordinary objects, but I’m going to say a lot of things that imply that you don’t REALLY care about epistemic modals or realism. You THINK that you care about these topics because of philosophical reasons. But if you look carefully, you notice that you only care about these things because a canon full of white people cared about it. In fact, if we liberate you and let you come and write about your ideas, it’s likely that the foundational topics are going to change. It would be bizarre, if they didn’t…Report

Elizabeth Barnes
Elizabeth Barnes
Reply to  annonGrad
5 years ago

Annongrad, I’m really sorry if what I said came across that way, but I think you’re reading a lot into my comments that just isn’t there. As I say several times in the interview, none of what I’m saying implies that the things we currently think of as ‘core’ aren’t important or valuable – I’m arguing that we need to expand our notion of what’s core (or maybe better, just get rid of the core/non-core distinction entirely) rather than replacing what we currently value with other, different things. I don’t think this is a zero sum game. And I certainly didn’t mean to make any claims to the effect that people who actually like epistemic modals or quirky analytic metaphysics don’t *really* like that stuff. That would be a dumb thing to say, and also deeply hypocritical, given that I love that stuff myself. Nor am I saying that the only reason people actually care about these topics is because of white hegemony, or something like that. I’m just saying that I suspect that we’re missing out on a lot of important topics, and under-valuing others, and that I think this is plausibly (at least in part) due to the narrow demographics of our discipline, and may also perpetuate those demographics staying as narrow as they are. (This isn’t a claim specific to race, to be clear – I think it’s plausible for lots of groups which are currently under-represented in philosophy.)Report

annonGrad
annonGrad
Reply to  Elizabeth Barnes
5 years ago

Thanks, professor Barnes. I definitely read a lot into your comments, and it was especially bad behavior on my part, because I did it before reading the whole interview. So, sorry for that snarky first comment. Have a good day! 🙂Report

Elizabeth Barnes
Elizabeth Barnes
Reply to  annonGrad
5 years ago

No worries at all, annonGrad. And I hope you have a great day too!Report

JDRox
JDRox
5 years ago

Great interview overall, but I have to say that anyone who is having trouble seeing why metaphysics is more “core” than philosophy of race is being deliberately obtuse. Theories in every or almost every other branch of philosophy have metaphysical presuppositions, and theories in no or almost no other areas of philosophy have racial presuppositions. (Maybe that second conjunct is slightly exaggerated, but the general point is clearly true, I think.) And of course “the reality of tables” is not a philosophical problem–the question is whether there are any composite objects. And it is hard to see what other questions will deliver a verdict on this question about composition. On the other hand, whether races are real depends (at least as I interpret the question) on whether there are any natural kinds and, if so, what the right account of them is. That is, more general/foundational principles are going to deliver a verdict on the reality of race, but, even if other more general/foundational principles are relevant to questions about composition, they aren’t going to deliver a verdict. I should note that I think the metaphysics of race is super interesting and I’m not trying to disparage it. I just think that it’s clearly not a core area of philosophy.Report

Jasper Heaton
Reply to  JDRox
5 years ago

This assumes, though, that the core-not-core stratification of the various sub-fields of philosophy have to track the (supposed) hierarchical structure of fundamentality that, I presume, this thought latches on to. Sure, most if not all philosophical sub-fields have metaphysical implications/commitments (something I think philosophers would do well to remember), and so in that sense metaphysics (which here really means ‘questions about metrology, properties, parts, possibility etc.’, and not ‘what are social categories?’ which is also a metaphysical question…) is a more *general* field. But why think that what is ‘core’ concerns what is (most/more) general, or (most/more) fundamental? We have a convention that coreness tracks such features; but, then, it is that convention that gets targeted in the interview.

Also, you say that almost no other areas have racial presuppositions. Not to pick too much, but I imagine that’s one of the things philosophers of race might try and get a more informed answer to…Report

anon prof
anon prof
Reply to  JDRox
5 years ago

nd of course “the reality of tables” is not a philosophical problem

Ummm . . . yes, it is.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  anon prof
5 years ago

Well, please link to some papers (chapters, etc.) exclusively on the reality of tables. We both know that there are such texts on other important philosophical problems.Report

anony
anony
Reply to  JDRox
5 years ago

So, core areas of philosophy are racially blind. And philosophy of race isn’t not racially blind, so it’s not a core area. Spoken like someone truly ignorant of the philosophy of race.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  anony
5 years ago

I have no idea what ‘racially blind’ is supposed to mean (in this context). If this is a response to my comment above please explain. It would also be more…*helpful* if you pointed where the purported ignorance lies.Report

Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

It’s true that much other work in philosophy has some metaphysical commitments/presuppositions, but it doesn’t really follow that metaphysics need be a core area of the discipline. Much work in philosophy is committed to certain familiar arithmetic assumptions, but arithmetic is not a core philosophical discipline.

What would make one area really ‘core’, I think, is if the answers to questions that are currently the active topics of debate would make a big difference to how debates in other fields could go.

Now your mileage may vary on this, but I don’t think metaphysics as it is currently done has that feature. I don’t think that many live debates in epistemology, ethics or language turn on the resolution of active debates in metaphysics. (Whereas live debates in epistemology, ethics and language often do turn on the resolution of debates in one of the other two.) So metaphysics doesn’t feel, by this measure, that ‘core’. With one notable exception; work on social ontology feels very important to some issues in political philosophy, social epistemology, etc. But it’s hard to see the broader philosophical implications of work on, say, location.

Could be I’m wrong about what makes something core. Could be I’m wrong about the relation between metaphysics as it’s practiced and other areas as they’re practiced. In fact, I’d be surprised if I’m not wrong about one of those two things. But I think there is a decent case that metaphysics isn’t particularly core to current philosophy. One doesn’t have to be ‘deliberately obtuse’ to make that case.

And even if it isn’t ‘core’, metaphysics is really important. It’s been a central focus of European philosophy since the pre-Socratics, was one of the central foci of medieval Islamic philosophy, of Indian philosophy of several different eras, etc. The questions it asks are intrinsically interesting, whatever their implications for the rest of philosophy, as evidenced by their lasting importance across a range of cultural backgrounds. People shouldn’t diss metaphysics. But I think the case that it is no more ‘core’ than philosophy of race is (perhaps surprisingly) plausible.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have used the phrase ‘deliberately obtuse’–and it is important to note that Elizabeth just said that the reality of tables isn’t more foundational than the reality of race, which I agree with–but I do think that while philosophers like coming up with clever arguments, including arguments that metaphysics isn’t more foundational/core/whatever than philosophy of race, I think they’re doing it largely for fun/sport. I mean, just to pick a quick example, saying that “Much work in philosophy is committed to certain familiar arithmetic assumptions, but arithmetic is not a core philosophical discipline.” is clever, but really that’s just because arithmetic isn’t a philosophical discipline, right? If arithmetic was a part of philosophy, I’d certainly think it was a relatively foundational part, precisely because work in other areas of philosophy relies on arithmetic assumptions. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, I like having fun arguments, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I suspect you really think that metaphysics is more core than philosophy of race, but get a kick out of defending the counterintuitive position. Which, again, is totally fine, as long as people don’t then start agitating to reform the profession/graduate schools/etc. because they don’t think metaphysics deserves its “core” status.

Anyway, I think the way you and I are using the word ‘core’ is pretty similar, even if not identical, so let me say a bit to defend the “coreness” of metaphysics using your definition. Of course, really defending the claim would take more times than I have, but here’s the condensed version: first, I think that inquiry is holistic, in a sort of reflective equilibrium sense, so anything could be relevant to anything. That being said, meta-ethics is a foundational part of ethics, and parts of meta-ethics (i.e., parts of ethics) are just metaphysics (and so turn on how debates in metaphysics are resolved). On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any part of metaphysics that is just ethics.* Likewise, parts of the philosophy of race are basically just metaphysics–i.e., the metaphysics of race. But there are no parts of metaphysics that are just philosophy of race. Of course there’s the metaphysics of mind, lots of work right now on the metaphysics of propositions, etc. (And the metaphysics of mind and the metaphysics of propositions have a bearing on other debates in the philosophy of mind and language.) Finally, I do think that some key issues in epistemology turn on metaphysical issues–specifically, whether knowledge is a natural kind (relevant to evaluating Williamson, the view you float on the JTB analysis, etc.).

* Well, if parts of metaphysics are identical with parts of ethics…Yes, yes. Here’s an oversimplified example of what I mean: if there are no properties (a metaphysical theory), it immediately follows that there are no moral properties (an ethical theory). On the other hand, from the fact that there are no moral properties nothing follows (directly/immediately at least) about whether there are any properties.Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
5 years ago

I’ve seen several iterations of this conversation regarding what is, or is not, “core” to philosophy. One thing I’ve never quite understood is why make the distinction between core and peripheral at all.

I can understand a given department might ask themselves what they think are the topics and methods that they believe they should prioritize in their educational objectives for their students or something like that. However, I’m sure what the does the field of philosophy as a whole gain by making such a distinction.

What does the field gain by identify what the core subdisciplines are?Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Clement Loo
5 years ago

Here are some practical questions that need answering from time to time:

* Which subfields of philosophy should a philosophy major be required to take courses in?
* Which subfields of philosophy should a PhD student be required to take courses in?
* Which subfields of philosophy is it a complete emergency if one’s department has no faculty who can work/teach/advise in?

I think that to the extent that ‘core’/not-‘core’ is interesting to me, it is because it is shorthand for questions like that. And those are interesting, often pressing, questions. Of course, those three questions might have different answers – I think they do have different answers – so the shorthand is potentially confusing. But it is confusing shorthand for something important.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

I agree with all of this!Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

Where do you think the history of philosophy fits in here? We tend to treat it as a ‘core’ subject (especially ancient and modern) for hiring and educational purposes, and it probably fits well as an answer to the questions above, but I’m not sure that answering its live debates has quite the same impact on other subfields those in epistemology and elsewhere might have. Maybe history sets the foundations instead.Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

Hi Brian,
Thanks for your answer. Those questions seem to me to be relevant for individual departments when thinking about their curricula and hiring (which I noted that I can see the use for in my above comment), particularly in the milieu of limited resources. However, and this might just be an artifact of my biases more than anything, I’m not sure that they’re questions that are relevant to the field as a whole. At least, I would like someone who feels strongly about it to explain to me why the field in general should care about what subfields that a major or graduate student should be required to take courses in or what areas should faculty be able to speak to. What are the concrete goods or benefits that we gain, protect, or promote by – as a field – holding that particular subdisciplines are more essential than others.

Maybe another way to put it is why does the field generally, above the level of individual departments, need (or, less strongly, tend to benefit from having) common answers to the questions you listed?Report

Lysias
5 years ago

I like Brian’s way of putting things at 4:51. I should also like to add an additional question that is perhaps less practical; namely:

*Which subfields of philosophy should we expect to be able to talk about with nonspecialists?

I don’t expect to be able to talk about the ontological implications loop quantum gravity with people outside of philosophy of physics (and perhaps certain kinds of metaphysicians). I don’t expect to be able to talk about Skolem’s paradox with people outside of logic. I do, however, expect to be able to talk about skepticism and epistemic justification with people who don’t specialize in epistemology. Now, there’s obviously a value judgement of some sort that’s operative here, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable one. If I’m hiring someone to come work at my small college, I should like them to have an informed grasp of the central issues in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. It’s OK if they lack an informed grasp of issues in logic and phil physics, unless they’re explicitly being hired to teach in one of those areas.Report

Jasper Heaton
Reply to  Lysias
5 years ago

I wonder about this way of approaching the notion of ‘core-not core’. I expect to be able to talk to any specialist of any subfield of philosophy. I may not, and certainly do not expect to, talk to them at their level of specialization; but this is true of specialists in ‘core’ subfields, too. Ethics seems like it has a reasonably good claim to be a core subfield of philosophy (if we look at expectations for Majors, at least), and I can definitely talk about ethics with ethicists. But I can’t follow their talk to ‘all the places it goes’ – at a certain point, it becomes too specialized, and I have to stop and ask for things to be explained. But, then, that same ethicists will have a hard time talking to me, a metaphysician, when I start getting interested in principles of temporal composition.

I’ve heard it said that if you can’t explain your research to a four year old, you need to think again about just how you understand your research. That’s maybe extreme (though four year olds can be pretty canny), but I take it the point is that specialists must be able to talk to non-specialists.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
5 years ago

Usually I hate when people deploy this distinction, but it seems pretty clear to me that Barnes was using “core” in an anthropological and not a philosophical sense, in the interview. She was talking about how things are regarded, and by whom. What’s “core” is what a lot of people say is core over a long enough period of time. So her comment in this thread that perhaps the notion should be expanded or (“maybe better”) done away with is consistent with coreness being a pragmatic thing, rather than a real thing.Report

Jay Garfield
5 years ago

I live for the day when people will stop talking about the “core” and the “periphery” in our field. There is no way to do so without valorizing certain interests or lines of thought and disparaging others, and no way to do that without privileging certain arbitrary sensibilities. And once you seet up the core, you entrench it and perpetuate the whole thing.Report

Therese O'Connor
Therese O'Connor
5 years ago

Nobody who studies the question of whether tables are real is particularly interested in tables: they’re interested, maybe, in whether mid-sized physical objects are real (or maybe it’s all just atoms in the void); or maybe in the question whether artefacts are as real as non-artefacts; or maybe the question of whether any objects persist through time, despite ship-of-Theseus paradoxes. They’re interested in, excuse the pun, the basic furniture of the universe, and tables provide a vivid example. I do not know whether the same can be said of people interested in whether races are real.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

I can only think of one reason we need ‘a core’ and this is so that there are enough people doing the same thing that we can talk to each other and make…I want to say ‘progress’–perhaps that is optimistic. There needs to be the possibility of a conversation among us. I truly don’t believe we need a core for that reason, however. The structure of philosophy will provide this. People really will already cluster around a set of ideas because they need interlocutors and because philosophy has a particular history. Since graduate school I have rarely heard the ‘core’ or ‘foundation’ idea used except to shut out bits of philosophy that are too intermixed with social realities–even very implicitly. You might say then that it is an ideology that is designed to prevent certain ideas from being examined, but this would be way too simple. It seems to arise from the history of philosophy as well as from the power of science. I think it is an unconscious imitation of science and a (respectable) attempt to hew to our history. But this is just a guess. The fact is that I do not think anyone can truly defend it in a foundational way that doesn’t take big pieces of the argument on faith–pieces about ‘what matters’ that ultimately devolve into what someone values (which could be perfectly legitimate but it’s going to be hard to show they are universal). There’s no foundation to the foundation in other words. So I’d say we should go for these things on pragmatist grounds. What are the pragmatic reasons for having a core? We can’t imitate the social sciences. We’d just turn into bad social scientists. Does having ‘a core’ make it easier for us to hitch our wagon to science? And is science the way to go for the whole field? Sometimes people think this–but why? Science is about so many things in any case. It certainly doesn’t make us further from science to talk about race or gender really. There’s plenty of science about that. If we all just want to do philosophy of physics maybe that seems like a safe landing spot but I have my doubts–physicists are not exactly begging for us to hang out with them. Are we going to be handmaidens to linguistics then? Psychology? Biology? Where exactly are we trying to go? We may have more to contribute both to science and the world if we do open up to these more socially-laden topics.

I, too, have a bad reaction to the idea that demographics are just going to change what’s core though. I get where the grad student was coming from with his or her comment. And there’s another issue–it implies only racial minorities will care about race–or want to do it. Only women are interested in feminism. Feminism: Philosophy by and for women! Boy, howdy I can’t think of a better way to make every philosopher who doesn’t do these things think twice about whether they are worth doing–not just white and male philosophers but–I don’t think if someone said ‘hey you’re a woman, so here’s the kind of philosophy you will like’ I would never have been attracted to feminism. Instead a white male philosopher (actually two different white male philosophers) got me to read feminist philosophy of science, which they considered an interesting take down of a certain way of thinking about how science is done–and it seemed to them that anyone who cares about philosophy of science should think about. The truth is that it can take a woman to DO that philosophy sometimes. This is why you desperately need diversity in an intellectual community. Different people know different things. That it takes a woman to figure out some bizarre things about a current notion of scientific objectivity could be true in the way that you wouldn’t have the same Theory of Justice if Rawls hadn’t been interested in European history and the wars over religion. And then you wouldn’t find out all the essential things that are left out of Rawls until you read Charles Mills, who noticed them because of the things he knew, not because of his demographic category. I’ve never met Charles Mills but I get the feeling reading him that a lot of what he knows is from reading books he read and thought about–just as Rawls’ take on liberty is from books he read and thought about. Why people have the thoughts they have has many explanations but the great thing is that you get way more fertile research programs if you have diversity of thought and diversity of people does lead to that. However, it’s not a direct path from demographics to X type of philosophy. I’m pretty sure this (roughly) is what Professor Barnes means when she is talking about demographics but I’d be curious to know.

So one practical reason to avoid having a core is that it will make you stupid. You will start pushing away ideas that could be quite fertile over time for your field. You risk becoming parochial and insular. The ‘core’ idea and the ‘foundational’ idea and the pushing away of anything you aren’t used to is a recipe for dogmatism. It’s also very boring.Report

PeteJ
5 years ago

My two cents. For me metaphysics would be the core of the discipline and very little else would be worth thinking about until metaphysics has been sorted out. Any other approach will lead to theories about this and that based on metaphysical assumptions that are, well, just assumptions, and thus very possibly utterly wrong assumptions. I’m not even sure that I’d call person a philosopher where they do not focus on metaphysics as the core of the discipline. We would then be dealing with minor symptoms instead of the disease and there could no hope of a cure.

Also, while I do not mean to belittle problems of representation, I struggle to see what difference it would make to the issue here what type of human being we happen to be or which social group we fall into. Philosophy does not care. If a person does not see metaphysics as the core of the discipline then for me they have not yet found the plot, let alone gone as far as to lose it.

I would also stand up for arithmetic as a core area, or at least the foundations of mathematics, which seems little more than arithmetic, and would see Russell’s Paradox, say, or various continuum related problems, as arising with equal force and significance in mathematics and metaphysics and in need of a solution in both cases.

The issue does seem important, since much effort and journal space in philosophy seems wasted due to a tendency to focus on inessentials.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  PeteJ
5 years ago

Just for the record, I think many other things in philosophy are well worth thinking about, even if we don’t have the metaphysics figured out. When I say that philosophy of race isn’t “core”, I’m not disparaging it or trying to exclude people who work on it. Applied ethics is obviously super important, super interesting, super worth doing…just super. But it obviously isn’t core in any relevant sense (I say at least).Report

WP
WP
Reply to  PeteJ
5 years ago

I don’t get the motivation to take metaphysics as the starting point rather than, say, philosophy of language. Lots of questions in metaphysics depend on what what we can do with language. I’m somewhat bewildered to hear that you’re not even sure that you’d call Carnap a philosopher. I wouldn’t have thought that being a philosopher depended on accepting a substantive philosophical view.

Regardless of whether you think no one should be working on ethics or political philosophy today, given the fact that people *are,* it’s surely concerning that many aren’t engaging at all with race.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
5 years ago

“My two cents. For me metaphysics would be the core of the discipline and very little else would be worth thinking about until metaphysics has been sorted out. Any other approach will lead to theories about this and that based on metaphysical assumptions that are, well, just assumptions, and thus very possibly utterly wrong assumptions. I’m not even sure that I’d call person a philosopher where they do not focus on metaphysics as the core of the discipline. We would then be dealing with minor symptoms instead of the disease and there could no hope of a cure.”

This strikes me as wrong for a number of reasons.

First, all areas of human inquiry make tacit ontological assumptions(it’s pretty hard to inquire into some phenomenon or other without making some assumptions about what exists). If your position is that ‘very little else would be worth thinking about until metaphysics has been sorted out), then there is little worth thinking about. This would include the natural sciences, mathematics, all other areas of philosophy(Including those that are traditionally included core, like epistemology, ethics, mind, and so on). If sorting out ontology is required for any productive thinking on a topic to take place, than pretty much the whole of human intellectual history is filled to the brim with unproductive thought.

In addition, your comment seems to be inconsistent with the current practice of metaphysics, or at least analytic metaphysics. You seem to perceive metaphysicians to make lofty rulings of what does or doesn’t exist from on high, and the other disciplines to revise themselves based on their rulings. But from what I understand of metaphysics(at least, contemporary analytic metaphysics), the theorizing tends to be constrained by those other areas of human inquiry you look down upon. It’s typically considered a demerit to some metaphysical theory or other if it is inconsistent with science(for example, the objections to the A-theory of time posed by relativity). In the metaphysics of mathematics, metaphysical theories rise and fall due to their ability or inability to capture mathematical practice. The metaphysics of mind continue to be influenced by findings in cognitive science. And metaphysics is full of tools meant soften the blow of radically revisionary theories(Paraphrase, fundamentality and the grounding relation, Sider’s conception of structure, etc). It’s not to say that working in ontology might lead us to revise or reconsider theorizing in other domains, but it is hardly the sort of one way street you are making it out to be. Metaphysics hasn’t operated as the ‘Queen of the Sciences’ for quite some time, and I think for the most part that’s a good thing.

Also, it doesn’t seem to that merely being about metaphysics or ontology is what determines whether or not something falls into the ‘core’ or the ‘periphery’, either. While I’m mainly interested in formal epistemology, I have both a interest in metaphysics and philosophy of race. One falls into the core, one falls into the periphery. However, a big topic, with a large literature surrounding it, is dedicated to the ontology of race. Discussions in such areas use the same tools as metaphysicians, as the same questions as metaphysicians, and can be as rigorous and interesting as anything else going on in metaphysics. Yet, it is shunted to the periphery, while other topics like mereology are not. That isn’t intended to attack people interested in mereology, but to suggest maybe what is going on socially in philosophy isn’t merely people latching onto the sorts of debates that are more central or important in the discipline.

“Also, while I do not mean to belittle problems of representation, I struggle to see what difference it would make to the issue here what type of human being we happen to be or which social group we fall into. Philosophy does not care. If a person does not see metaphysics as the core of the discipline then for me they have not yet found the plot, let alone gone as far as to lose it.”

As a black student in philosophy, even one whose research interests tend to skew towards the so called ‘core’ areas of philosophy, shortsighted. While you might not find this stuff interesting or important, minorities might be apt to find such things interesting, because the issues tackled or the sorts of issues that minorities face in their everyday lives. And by applying philosophical tools to clarify and intellectually confront such issues might might be the spark that ignites a lifelong interest in philosophy in people who would otherwise write it off. Sure minorities might find that spark elsewhere(I’m an example of a minority who found that spark thinking about analytic metaphysics), by not shunting such issues to the side such as it has been traditionally done in philosophy, one might have the opportunity to light that spark with a variety of students who otherwise might dismiss the discipline. And given the low representation of certain minorities in academic philosophy, it seems like a small step we can make towards a more diverse academic environment.Report

Confused
Confused
5 years ago

I don’t understand why people think this is a big deal. The reason most people think e.g. metaphysics is important is because it is (or says it is) “ultimate”. And apparently most philosophers consider it to be so since it is regarded so highly. To come in and stomp your feet and say “pay attention to what I’m working on” isn’t productive. What you should do is show philosophers that what you’re doing is as valuable as what they are doing. If they don’t agree, then so what? That’s philosophy. (Personally, I regard things like philosophy of race to be infinitely more useful than things like metaphysics, but I regard things like metaphysics (or some areas of it) as far more important than things like phil of race.–though, in regards to conversations on social issues, I find that philosophers–like regular people–tend to be far less sophisticated and generally think at a lower level when addressing social issues. For some reason, talking about social issues decreases IQ.) Do we just want diversity for the sake of diversity? (That last question was directed at disciplines, but I guess it applies to other things too)Report

PeteJ
5 years ago

Hi Grad Student. – Thanks for engaging with my comment.

You say – “First, all areas of human inquiry make tacit ontological assumptions (it’s pretty hard to inquire into some phenomenon or other without making some assumptions about what exists).”

Quite so, This would exactly and precisely my point. So we make that assumption and then create fairy-tales based on it. Russell points out that almost all our sentences begin ‘There is an x such that…’ We ignore metaphysics almost all of the time even in philosophy.

– “If your position is that ‘very little else would be worth thinking about until metaphysics has been sorted out), then there is little worth thinking about.”

It’s okay. This is not my position. Some topics can be sorted out with no reference to first principles and quite independently of them. But we are talking about core issues, and I feel that these are almost invariably going to have metaphysical significance.

— “This would include the natural sciences,..”

Well , I do happen to believe that scientists would do well to study metaphysics, if only to prevent some of the nonsense they talk about philosophy. But much of science need take no notice of philosophy. It’s when scientists
talk about creating fundamental theories while ignoring metaphysics that I laugh.

–“mathematics, all other areas of philosophy(Including those that are traditionally included core, like epistemology, ethics, mind, and so on). ”

If we are talking about foundational mathematics then for me all of these areas ARE metaphysics Certainly ethics, epistemology and the study of mind are metaphysical studies and cannot avoid being so.

“–If sorting out ontology is required for any productive thinking on a topic to take place, than pretty much the whole of human intellectual history is filled to the brim with unproductive thought.”

Yay. There you go. My point is made.

–“In addition, your comment seems to be inconsistent with the current practice of metaphysics, or at least analytic metaphysics. ”

I certainly hope so. I am not proposing a particular way of doing metaphysics, just noting its unavoidability. If one method doesn’t work then pick another.

–“You seem to perceive metaphysicians to make lofty rulings of what does or doesn’t exist from on high, ”

This is the job, the entire purpose of the discipline. If it cannot make lofty rulings on existence then it is not doing its job.

–“It’s typically considered a demerit to some metaphysical theory or other if it is inconsistent with science(for example, the objections to the A-theory of time posed by relativity).”

There is no known case of metaphysics being inconsistent with science. There are multiple cases where a metaphysician’s opinion is inconsistent with a scientist’s opinion, but all this means is that on or both opinion is unworkable.

–“In the metaphysics of mathematics, metaphysical theories rise and fall due to their ability or inability to capture mathematical practice. ”

Just as they should.

–“The metaphysics of mind continue to be influenced by findings in cognitive science.”

I’d like to see an example. I cannot see one. The Mind-Matter problem is a lot older than cognitive science.

–“Metaphysics hasn’t operated as the ‘Queen of the Sciences’ for quite some time, and I think for the most part that’s a good thing.”

I feel it is a tragedy of such such proportions that it is difficult to express the scale of it.

–“Also, it doesn’t seem to that merely being about metaphysics or ontology is what determines whether or not something falls into the ‘core’ or the ‘periphery’, either. While I’m mainly interested in formal epistemology, I have both a interest in metaphysics and philosophy of race. One falls into the core, one falls into the periphery. ”

Whether a topic is core or not would, for me, depend on the depth in which it is being studied, not the subject matter. If you have an interest in epistemology then metaphysics is your area of interest.

–“As a black student in philosophy, even one whose research interests tend to skew towards the so called ‘core’ areas of philosophy, shortsighted. While you might not find this stuff interesting or important,”

Whoah. You are misreading me. Let me put it like this. If were responsible for expanding the diversity of the profession and interest in it, I would teach metaphysics to every community college student in the country. There is no topic that can be completely dismissed as unimportant or important. Most topics depend crucially on their metaphysical underpinnings, and where these are ignored the result is confusion and misunderstanding. I would cite Dan Dennett, David Chalmers and Ayn Rand as good examples, for all three visibly ignore the topic and end up in what is obviously a muddle. Should we increase access to muddle? Who would that help?

I’m not arguing against diversity, my ‘career’ as I like to call it, has been all about promoting access and diversity. I’m arguing for not ignoring metaphysics, for by so doing we turn philosophy into a post-modernist relativistic muddle that has forgotten its own roots. I’m arguing for access to something worth having access to., and this for me would mean dealing with the core issues rather than allowing students to wander off into rootless sophistic theoretical fantasies.Report

Alan White
5 years ago

It’s a mild shock to me that there has been no discussion of what philosophy is “hard core” as opposed to just “core”. We are the guardians of distinctions, after all.Report

LACprof
LACprof
5 years ago

The whole distinction of core and non-core is short-sighted and harmful. I think Brian is absolutely right that the distinction of core/noncore comes down to what is considered necessary in an undergrad dept., what is needed to go into graduate school, etc., but these standards may represent nothing more than the prejudices and interests of earlier generations. In the case of my own institution–where we teach a diverse and wonderful group of majors, most of whom are not bound for graduate school in philosophy–these standards are not only arbitrary, but irrelevant on the practical level. On the other hand, we know from experience that teaching about race, gender, sexuality, ability and class–not to mention nonwestern perspectives–attracts many students to the major, inspires high-level student work, and serves the goals of the university in that–since we teach many classes in the university’s core curriculum–our students learn to responsibly discuss the pressing political issues of the day. At a small liberal arts college, this is our “core”.

I do not mean to denigrate in any way those who work in more traditional epistemology, metaphysics, history of philosophy, etc. I agree that every philosophy student should be exposed to these subfields and every prof should be conversant with them. This has nothing to do, however, with the value of philosophy of race. Anyone who is inquiring, say, into the reality of races (itself probably not a representative topic for philosophy of race, but we’ll go with it) would have to be conversant with epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, history of philosophy. There is no lack of “core” expertise. But if her topic is deemed non-core, than she is likely to be marginalized in many ways–not least on the job market, if every department considers the teaching of “pure” metaphysics to be a core necessity and discussion of race to be a luxury. This will have poor consequences for the diversity of the faculty, for diversity within the curriculum, and of course, it will lead to recruiting the same-old cohort of white men to the discipline.Report

william lewis
william lewis
5 years ago

As someone trying to rethink our undergraduate program’s curriculum, I would love to have this blog discuss the questions Brian W. lists:* *Which subfields of philosophy should a philosophy major be required to take courses in?
*Which subfields of philosophy is it a complete emergency if one’s department has no faculty who can work/teach/advise in?Report