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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SorenKierkegaard
SorenKierkegaard
3 years ago

I guess I understand how it’s a theoretical virtue in some sciences to have novel things to say. But is there a philosophical virtue in having exciting and new things to say? Surely the fact that our discipline would be “boring” if we investigated the same old questions doesn’t make our discipline worse in any philosophically significant sense. Does it?Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

It’s interesting that Jackson cites bioethics as a field where exciting and important work is being done, because the bioethics provides a perfect example of how the academic environment in Anglophone philosophy actively discourages such work. There’s a real prejudice against bioethics and other forms of applied ethics in our field that plays out in a number of ways. Consider that bioethics is considered a specialty and not one of the core areas of philosophy, and it’s not a specialty that the average analytic philosopher seems to have a lot of respect for. Imagine that you were at a dept. with a PhD program and your main or even only goal in hiring was to move up the Leiter rankings or even crack into them. If you could hire one of the best bioethicists alive or a metaphysician or epistemologist who was good but not great, who would you hire? And which do you think would impress the average philosopher more as far as publications from a potential hire goes: One in say a very good, but not top “generalist” journal like the PPQ or Canadian Journal of Philosophy or a publication in one of the top bioethics journals like the Hastings Center Report or AJOB? (And if you have to ask what AJOB is, the you’ve pretty much confirmed my point). I would also note that the philosophy of biology is in some sense a “specialty” field although one that many philosophers would count as being closer to “the core.” The larger issue here is that the obsession with rankings and the noxious distinction between “core” and “non-core” areas of philosophy are both inimical to the sort of exciting and important work that Jackson discusses. Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Sam Duncan
3 years ago

I’m not sure that the prejudices around “core” and “non-core” areas are a function of being designated as such. As a parallel, consider the history of mathematics in the 20th century. In the early part of the century, logic was considered one of the “core” areas of mathematics, and it was able to attract the attention of people like David Hilbert. This is partly because at the time, Cantor’s work had revealed a lot of new and simpler proofs of old results, as well as clarifying the role of the Axiom of Choice in many different fields. However, by the 1950s, logic was already becoming seen as a bit of a backwater, because countability and the Axiom of Choice were becoming part of an ordinary introductory toolkit, but more recent results didn’t seem to have application to other areas of mathematics, the way that new results in geometry, number theory, topology and the like did.

Coming back to philosophy, I think the reason that philosophy of language was once considered “core”, and metaphysics and epistemology still often are, is because people working on many different topics in philosophy have found ideas from these fields relevant to their work. I suspect that there is a growing sense that certain issues in metaethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of social science are coming to be seen to have this sort of broad applicability, and these fields may come to be seen as part of the “core” in a way that they weren’t in the 20th century.Report

arnold
arnold
3 years ago

Away from Socratic method by Plato…2500 years of note taking—equals philosophy today…
Lets try returning to Socrates during the next 2500 years—without taking notes…
…go for the direct experience, here now, living in the present …philosophy in the moment…Report

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Nice interview. But the idea that the next revolution(s) will happen on model of the 60s philosophy of mind seems wildly optimistic about the future of academic philosophy. Assumes that academic philosophy will continue to grow, or atleast remain how it is now.

But wouldn’t be surprised if in 30 years there is a drastic reduction of philosophy departments. Imagine one or two big catalysmic events related to, say, massive flooding, nuclear war, terrorism or an economic downturn, resulting in radical reordering of priorities of what should be state funded, and academic philosophy could might be unrecognizable from its present condition. In fact, this is likely the reality.

When this happens, and people need to find new ways of reconceptualizing their transformed and fastly transforming social conditions, that’s where new philosophical revolutions will come from. And many of those new ways will be how to do philosophy outside academia, or bridging academia to beyond acdemia. And then much of quine and lewis, and wittgenstein and heidegger will be much less influential and seen as the philosophy of a bygone era of innocence before the radical changes in society.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

To be fair, pretty much all articles speculating on how some feature of society will change over the next few decades contain a tacit assumption that there will not be a nuclear war in that period!Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

True. Though there is a middle ground between academia/society being roughly as it is now and nuclear armageddon. And in that middle ground, where many structures we now take for granted break down and are replaced by new social and technological upheavals, academia – especially the humanities – could be, and most likely will be, radically altered. The sooner we start appreciating this possibility, the sooner we can prepare for it.Report

arnold
arnold
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Let’s allow, “Though there is a middle ground”, to be an acknowledgement of ‘academia and society beginning the revolution, using the break downs and upheavals’–for altering our attitudes about change and observation of change–so we can continue to exist to be in face of change… Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Absolutely. Academia is still a main reservoir of philosopical knowledge (be it western or eastern, traditional or feminist, etc.). Academic philosophy to rest of society is like a group developing high end technology living in a society which is mainly pre technological. It is incumbent on those developing the high end technology to show its relevance to the people, and silly to expect the pre technological people to respect something they don’t understand or see the use of.

This is not elitism. It is simply to accept that some element of esoterism is implicit in philosophy, and that is not a bad thing. There will always be some who see ahead of the curve, that is just a fact. What can be criticized is whether those who see ahead are actually helping those who don’t see, or if they are taking an “you owe it to me to listen to me because I see more” attitude. Those with the latter attitude will surely be abandoned by the masses when the going gets very tough.

Jackson draws a distinction between the practical issue of jobs and the conceptual issue of philosophical revolutions (started by those who get to have jobs). But if the number of educated philosophers without jobs starts to vastly outnumber those with jobs, and the work condition of those with jobs deteriorates, that is likely to be a far greater engine for revolution. When will the famous people in the prestigious jobs start taking this seriously, and look beyond the mini revolutions happening in their grad seminars? Their actions matter because the masses who don’t understand philosophy nonetheless understand the prestige of Princeton, ANU and the developing liberal arts colleges outside the west.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

The point applies as well to the philosophers working to change academic philosophy along lines of gender, race, etc. What is the long term point of turning academic philosophy into a shining monument on a hill if the hill collapses? Reach out to the masses, and not just the masses on the left, but on the right. That is not possible if one is dismissive of traditional philosophy.

Academic philosophy’s main hope of survival is if it becomes a beacon of how to have rational, trusting dialogue between the left and the right. This is the ground of revolution. Without that, the progress made in philosophy departments will disappear when the departments disapper.Report

arnold
arnold
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

The revolution from phrases like, the gravity of the situation, a sense of it and a feel for it; rather than the phrase, think about it…
…Appearing In the curve as esoteric exercises–for learning to keep one’s feet on the’ ground…Report

Frank H. Burton
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Hi, Bharath, regarding your claim, “Academic philosophy’s main hope of survival is if it becomes a beacon of how to have rational, trusting dialogue between the left and the right,” I think you are referring to an existing, but new, social philosophy initiative — that of “Pluralistic Rationalism” (or “plurationalism”), or public commitment to reasoning regardless of one’s worldview. (Plurationalism is thus distinct from historical “Rationalism,” which, since its inception in the 18th century, has unfortunately become conflated with various atheistic, antitheistic and/or political worldviews, all of which are often defending using irrational emotive tactics. (This is unfortunate, because rationalism is a practice for all, not a worldview for some.)Report

Bob Dunton
Bob Dunton
3 years ago

I wonder if a more thorough knowledge of the work of other philosophers might not be as important than a working knowledge of other disciplines. Specialization seems to me to have some inherent disadvantages.Report

Bob Dunton
Bob Dunton
Reply to  Bob Dunton
3 years ago

‘as important as’Report

arnold
arnold
Reply to  Bob Dunton
3 years ago

Noting differences in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islamism, Catholicism, others–that they are connected–in forms like monks, fakirs, yogis, others…
…they could be seen as practises toward disciplines–freely existing in our world’s cultures…

Where as philosophy’s role seems to be to work with whatever is not connected in our world’s cultures…..but once connected practices can begin…
…Are we part of–connected to this universe this cosmos–a value of the highest kind and seemingly without end…Report