Is this the Golden Age of Philosophy?


Bryan Frances thinks that there are several indicators suggesting that we’re at the start of a “golden age of philosophy.” These indicators include:

  1. Much greater knowledge of the individual empirical sciences plus the attempt to use them in approaching philosophical problems
  2. Much greater knowledge and use of formal sciences such as math, logic, formal semantics, and decision theory.
  3. Much larger community of professionally trained philosophers.
  4. Much greater philosophical communication among the members of the philosophical community.
  5. Adoption of the group approach to philosophical topics (as in science); almost no geniuses working in isolation.
  6. A commitment to “plainer” philosophizing: use of straightforwardly valid arguments (subtle equivocations aside), elimination of disambiguations, better explanations of jargon, less use of jargon, etc. (this holds for some subfields more than others).
  7. Much greater access to philosophical works, historical and contemporary.
  8. More tolerance for a great diversity of views.

I agree that these are indeed all good signs. We could use a better sense of what a “golden age” in philosophy might be. Previous eras might be characterized as “golden ages” because of the number of individual philosophers whose works have come through history’s filter as “great.” If we’re in or on the precipice of a golden age in philosophy, I doubt it will be best marked by more “great individual thinkers,” but perhaps by more higher-quality philosophy, and perhaps by growing consensus on a few issues.

Are we in or heading towards a golden age in philosophy? Are there other relevant indicators Frances overlooks? And what is a “golden age of philosophy” anyway?

Something I posted last year may be relevant to this discussion:

What can get in the way of recognizing great things?
(a) There are so many great things that the great things no longer stand out by being rare.
(b) The great things aren’t produced by the people you’d expect.
(c) The great things aren’t yet seen as the kind of thing you’re looking for.
(d) You do not understand or are not aware of other things that help explain why these great things are great.
(e) The great things have not had time to make their greatness easily apparent.
(f) You do not like these great things.

caddis-gif-2
(Caddis fly larvae building golden cocoon, by Hubert Duprat)

(Reminder: commenting requires a social media login or a working and accurate email address. See here for more details.)

guest
21 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

The list is splendid, but it leaves out our unparalleled ability to spread philosophical ideas beyond the academy. Never before have philosophers had such an opportunity to reach the public. This may or may not make our theories better, but if our theories have value, then sharing those theories matters. Professional philosophy exists for the sake of the public good, and we can pursue the public good like never before.Report

Bryan Frances
5 years ago

For the record, I didn’t say we are at the beginning of a golden age of philosophy. At the end of the post I wrote “I don’t know if I actually believe all that, but it’s worth thinking about.”

In addition, the next post on the blog is titled “Philosophy is Doomed”!
Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Reply to  Bryan Frances
5 years ago

A time honored technique of Academic Skepticism. “Famously, on an embassy to Rome in 156/5 BCE, Carneades argues for justice one day, and against justice the next.”
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-ancient/#CarReport

Brian K
Brian K
5 years ago

I think that list more closely describes a dark age of philosophy, inasmuch as it indicates that philosophy has forgotten what philosophy is. Seinsvergessenheit indeed.Report

JCM
JCM
5 years ago

Brian K has it entirely right. In my areas (ethics and aesthetics), there is a lot of good, competent philosophy being written; but (a) it is at the margins, and in particular it is being written by people that the changing motivational structures of late capitalism has not yet replaced, because they are relatively old. I make bold to say that I do not know a single good employable philosopher under the age of forty. (Possible exceptions are those who are as yet too young for their employment prospects to be predictable.) And (b) I can think of almost nothing written by a living philosopher that is life-changingly profound in the way that the work of canonical figures is; nothing that expresses a viewpoint that is searingly beautiful and explanatory. And although I can, on reflection, think of a few examples that I would consider praising in this way (I say nothing any stronger), they are all very old, and do not do philosophy in the way the structure of the academy encourages us to do it.

I am astonished by what is not being discussed, given the size of the profession. I take the SEP as a metric. The articles on beauty and wisdom are easily among the worst I have read on that site. There is no article on clarity, despite this being a core philosophical concept and virtue. There are not even articles on philosophy, metaphilosophy or philosophical methodology! There are only two articles on Hegel, one on him in general and one on his aesthetics. The character-string ‘spirit’ appears nowhere in the table of contents. Meanwhile, ‘science’/’scientific’ appear no less than sixty times. Current philosophy has all the self-understanding of an adolescent: it thinks it knows itself well because it has learned clichés it can trot out self-importantly when asked, but there is no serious engagement in the question. As a result, it is manipulated and entirely controlled by economic, spiritual and political headwinds that it is its duty to understand and resist. The academy no more contains philosophy than mainstream U.S. politics is democratic. Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
Reply to  JCM
5 years ago

On (b): Honestly, this is probably the most exciting time in philosophical aesthetics… pretty much ever. At least, as long as we’re talking about the philosophy of art and not just reflections on beauty. And although many of the young(ish) crowd in aesthetics are in their 40s, a lot of their work is actually very exciting; the field is reaching something of a critical mass of scholarship, and I think good things are coming its way in the relatively near future. I know a lot of recent graduates and soon-to-be-graduates in the field, and they’re top-notch philosophers all-around. The tragedy is that the job market, and philosophy more broadly, hasn’t quite caught up to the times in aesthetics yet. We’re well past the bad old days, but aesthetics/philosophy of art is just as peripheral as ever.

By the by, offhand I’d say that among living philosophers of art, Kendall Walton has a body of work that’s life-changingly profound, searingly beautiful, and mega-explanatory. Mimesis as Make-Believe alone should count as one of those. I’d also count the contributions of Stephen Davies, Lydia Goehr, Jerrold Levinson, and Joseph Margolis. While older, for the most part they’re not “very old”, and all “do philosophy in the way the structure of the academy encourages us to do it.” We could also add Linda Nochlin, if you’re willing to count her despite being an art-historian, and Arthur Danto if you can get past the fact that he died not long ago. In the younger crowd, I’d count Anne W. Eaton, Sherri Irvin, Dominic McIver Lopes, and Amie Thomasson, among many others. My undergrads absolutely *devour* their work. We can dither over membership, especially when it comes to “searingly beautiful” work (that criterion cuts out a lot of what I think is mind-blowing work in the field), but I think that we could probably agree over at least several of the contributions these people have made. Let’s not undersell the field!

Sure, none of them is a system-builder. But you don’t need to build systems to change the discourse, set research agendas, and shift paradigms and priorities. And besides, any class on the philosophy of art that sticks to the “canonical” figures is going to be criminally dated at this point.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  Michel X.
5 years ago

Hi Michel! I’m glad you of all people responded, because you remind me that I’ve recently encountered your own work and thought it excellent, and you remind me by association of some other (young) aestheticians whose work I have also admired. Perhaps I have been too harsh. But for the most part I want to dig in. I won’t defend this much, because I just did but then lost the comment and don’t want to do it all again, and because you mention a lot of philosophers and going through them all would be onerous (and I’m not competent to speak of all their work), but let me say something brief.

Davies, to give an example, I find their philosophies competent rather than good. By this distinction I mean something like, he knows the recent history of aesthetics very well, he has familiarity with relevant concepts in the philosophy of mind and metaphysics and so on, and hecan put together a well-structured philosophy paper; but he lacks that any deep understanding of art, he lacks an ability to do justice to, and deepen our appreciation of, art. Of course this is hard to defend, and in ways that are philosophically important. (I once wrote a paper on how Lopes fails to do it, but found it beyond my ability, so abandoned the writing.) Perhaps an example is how Davies utterly fails to do justice to the value of music in his ‘Musical Meaning and Expression.’ A book of sophisticated philosophy became no more subtle or perceptive than any newspaper column when it came to asking what exactly is so important about music. Davies is of course extremely well-read and intelligent; that he can talk rubbish precisely when it is most important that he talk sense I consider indicative, therefore, of deeper systemic problems with the state of philosophy as it is currently practised.

I won’t go into this any more, but I will say this: I am familiar with most of the writers you mention, and I would not say of any of them that they have written mind-blowing or life-changing stuff. I would say that they have written very (I might even say wonderfully) competent philosophy, but that this is so only within the confines of an ideology that is fundamentally misguided and which systemically leads us away from important or deep truths, and that this ideology is so obfuscatory that it puts a low upper limit on how good anything written by its lights can be.

I have to moderate this further. I love Danto and Goehr, and although I don’t know Eaton’s or Irvin’s work terribly well, I like what I’ve read of theirs. But Danto and Goehr definitely come from an older generation and ‘did their own thing,’ and Eaton and Irvin I know primarily through papers that were highly politically charged – which is not how neo-liberalism wants academics to write papers, and which I consider not ‘how the academy wants us to do philosophy.’ So I’m not sure they’re counter-examples to my point about the state of philosophy in general.

P.S. I’m astonished to hear you speak so highly of Walton. Perhaps I need to revisit his work.

P.P.S. I’m not sure this is a helpful comment. Perhaps the broad sweep of my first comment doesn’t lend itself to the sort of objection to which I can helpfully respond.Report

j
j
Reply to  JCM
5 years ago

we must not be reading the same stuff! i found analytic aesthetics, esp. philosophy of art mostly banal, historically uninformed and rarely worth reading. the last thing i read that left any mark of my mind is old stuff by danto…Report

Perplexed Job Marketeer
Perplexed Job Marketeer
Reply to  JCM
5 years ago

Some of the most interesting work in aesthetics deals with how our aesthetic experiences affect, and are affected by, moral reasoning. It truly is intersectional, since you need to know aesthetics and much of ethics inside out. Unfortunately, when those who are seeking jobs apply to those with an AOS in ethics, for example, they are marginalized and simply counted as doing work exclusively in aesthetics. I suspect the same thing happens with a lot of work intersecting with “core” and “peripheral” areas. If people who do such work are simply not able to find permanent employment, then they will have to leave the profession (it looks more and more like I will be one of these). If that happens, then I suspect the “golden age” will look that way only to those who work at the intersection of philosophy and other disciplines. Interesting and good work at the intersection of sub-areas of philosophy will eventually disappear, once young philosophers realize that such work will get them nowhere toward finding permanent employment.

What is truly puzzling is why so many people respect established philosophers (Jesse Prinz is an example–in a recent interview, he talks about how he has become interested in aesthetics and philosophy of art as it relates to his earlier work on philosophy of mind) all the more when they apply work done in core areas to peripheral ones, when young philosophers who do this kind of work are pushed out of the profession.Report

lowly grad student
lowly grad student
5 years ago

Today’s philosophers certainly have the technological edge when it comes to opportunities to reach the public, which makes it all the more disappointing that contemporary philosophy is as insular as it is. Compared to philosophers of past “golden ages”, today’s lot cuts a sorry figure. There is nothing remotely comparable to the engagement with public intellectual concerns had by the generation of 10th-11th century Baghdadi or Andalusian philosophers, or by Locke and his generation in 17th century England, or by the French philosophes in the 18th. Even when we move to modern university contexts (perhaps a fairer comparison), the relevance of today’s Anglophone philosophers to their social contexts is negligible compared to, say, that of mid-19th century figures such as Helmholtz and Droysen in Germany, or James and Dewey in the US, or the Vienna Circle in the 1920s, to theirs.

Most of the points listed in favor of us being at the beginning of a new golden age seem rather to indicate merely that philosophy has become very good at mimicking the appearances of the natural sciences. And I take that to reflect very poorly on the state of the discipline. Report

zain
zain
Reply to  lowly grad student
5 years ago

Surely this depends on where you are. In France, philosophers are rockstars…Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  zain
5 years ago

In science, according to Sagan, philosophers are star-rocks.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  lowly grad student
5 years ago

Are you sure that contemporary philosophers have less engagement with the general public than 10th-11th century Baghdad/Andalusia, 17th century England, and even 19th century Germany/New England? It certainly looks to us from the present like those periods involved a lot of engagement of philosophers with broader culture, but I suspect that a lot of that is a selection effect – what we see as the “broader culture” of those times is really just a very limited cross-section of the cosmopolitan elites. William James may have been in direct engagement with the entire community of Harvard and Princeton, but are we really so sure that he was doing better at engaging all the people outside the academy than the people who work now?

(I’m quite open to the possibility that one or two of those times may have been characterized by greater engagement with the broader world than is current, but I’m skeptical about the claim that all of those times were.)Report

paco
paco
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
5 years ago

Actually, yes. Even compared to Europe- say, Germany, France, or Italy, US is distinct in how not public its intellectuals are. This is a point about overall public culture in US that does not value intellectual work (i.e., Ted Cruz counts as an intellectual!!!), as well as about the way most philosophers work/live/conceive of what they are doing. There are very few Slavoj Zizeks here. And if you go public -as Cornel West did, you are regarded with suspicion. I am, of course, not talking about “online” activism, blogging, and such. That seems to be more the case here than in Europe.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

I believe it is a golden age, or will become one soon, but that it will not become one in the Academy for quite a while yet. There is talk here of how easy it has become to ‘reach the public’. I would suggest that it is more important that the public reach the profession, which appears to be lost in group-think.. I would agree with BrianK that it seems more like a dark age. It is changing, I think, and a revolution could occur, but I see no chance of it beginning within the profession. I do not mean to be rude by saying this but realistic.

Item 7 on the list seems critical. There is no longer a need for incestuous group-think with all the world’s philosophical literature so easily available, and if it is studied then I believe that this in itself could lead us into a golden age. Free of the university book-list at last! Report

Jim Rogers
Jim Rogers
5 years ago

So let’s recap the eight points:

1. We now have more scientific knowledge – so there is less room for philosophical speculation.
2. We have developed more formal methods of reasoning – therefore less room for waffle.
3. The quantity of philosophers is more important than their quality.
4. The quantity of communication between philosophers is more important than its quality.
5. There are no individual geniuses capable of great philosophy any more – never mind, we can get by even better with a group of mediocre thinkers.
6. At last we have recognised that philosophy is full of bullshit.
7. And now we have greater access to this bullshit than ever before.
8. Almost anything counts as philosophy nowadays.

So surely we must be in a golden age of philosophy!

Before anyone posts irate responses, I would like to point out that I have nothing against philosophy – in fact I enjoy a lot of it. Philosophy should be able to laugh at itself.Report

Bryan Frances
Reply to  Jim Rogers
5 years ago

I agree with (2). The rest? Nope.

As for other commentators:

None of what I wrote suggests that there are no lone philosophical geniuses working in isolation, or that philosophy is going to become a branch of science, or that philosophers didn’t use scientific results and ideas prior to 1950, or that the eight factors mean that there is a significantly greater chance at success in every subfield of philosophy.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

Bryan – Quite so. You did not claim so much. I think people have often been commenting on philosophy rather than critiquing your article. Goes for me anyway. It was the mention of a golden age…Report

Guy
Guy
5 years ago

Anglophone philosophy (can’t speak for the rest), is bound by market forces in every sense. So, because of all the stuff that comes from that: no, this is not a golden age. Report

Daemon Blackfyre
Daemon Blackfyre
5 years ago

1781-1936 was the golden age of philosophy. I may or not be biased.Report

Pendaran Roberts
Pendaran Roberts
5 years ago

The golden age now? Look at the job market! Seems me that philosophy is dying. Report