The Prospects For Revolutionizing Philosophy

In a recent interview, Shalom Chalson, an undergraduate studying philosophy at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) asks Frank Jackson (ANU; currently visiting at NUS) about the prospects for change in philosophy:

Earlier, you did note that the philosophy of mind was transformed in the 50’s and 60’s. Given what you’ve said about contemporary philosophy, do you envision that topics in the field can still be revolutionised, or is it getting increasingly difficult for that to be the case?

Jackson replies:

Jackson: I very much hope there’ll be big changes. It would be a bit boring (depressing?) if you thought your subject is going to be exactly the same in ten years time. But what’s interesting and encouraging is that before there’s a big change, it can seem as if things have become somewhat bogged down. I remember having conversations with colleagues shortly before the work of Kripke and Lewis became prominent. Some of them thought that nothing really interesting is going to happen now; we’ve basically explored all the options. And that turned out to be mistaken because Kripke and Lewis (and others, but those two were especially important) reshaped all sorts of issues in dramatic and exciting ways. But of course that couldn’t be predicted in advance.

What about what’s happening right now? There’s a lot of work in the philosophy of biology that’s really interesting, in part because it’s constrained by serious research in evolutionary biology. That research is throwing up all sorts of challenges which philosophers are tackling. And some of the work in bioethics is new and exciting because what’s happening is that advances in medicine are forcing us to confront issues we didn’t have to face beforehand. In a sense, the issues were always there, but it wasn’t until these advances that they became live issues. One example is genetic engineering. Another is how to justify spending large sums of money on small extensions of life expectancy in wealthy countries when smaller amounts of money would achieve a great deal more in poorer countries.

I would imagine that readers have their own ideas about where in philosophy we might see some big changes.

Perhaps relatedly, in an answer to a question about interdisciplinary work, Jackson says:

My general view is that anyone working in philosophy should know about other bodies of knowledge. They don’t have to be experts. That would be unreasonable. Once upon a time, very smart people like Descartes and Leibniz could be on top of much of the science of their day. That is not possible these days. It’s unrealistic to expect a philosopher to be an expert economist, biologist or physicist. However, I do think that it’s reasonable to expect a philosopher to have a working knowledge of other disciplines. I started out in mathematics and science, as did many other philosophers. I think that was a good thing. Some philosophers studied economics as undergraduates. And studying economics gives you a working understanding of explanation in the social sciences, which is important for understanding the nature of explanation in general, an important topic in philosophy.

I think it’s a matter of being reasonably well-educated. I think it’s a mistake to do just philosophy. This doesn’t happen in Australia and Singapore. But in some universities in England, it is possible to do an awful lot of philosophy and nothing much else. I think that is a mistake. I like the Scottish tradition where people do plenty of philosophy but other subjects as well, or take the Oxford PPE (philosophy, politics, and economics) course. That’s been a great success.

The whole interview is here.

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