Philosophy’s Fit With The Sciences and The Humanities


“My aim has been to remind philosophers that their subject, whether or not ‘handmaiden to the sciences’, ought to be handmaiden also to the humanities”

That’s Roger Scruton, writing about philosoph—

Hold on a second. Handmaiden? It’s 2017. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had a handmaiden since at least 1993.

Is political science powder monkey to governments? Is civil engineering the soda jerk to our cities? Is history the Fotomate of our memories?

Not to be knocker-up to the profession, but I fear that if we don’t start using less outdated metaphors, philosophy will just continue to be whipping boy to university accountants and further perceived to be as useful to society as a donkey puncher without a whistle punk.

Moving on…

The words that started this post were written by Roger Scruton, and appear as part of an exchange between him and Timothy Williamson in the Times Literary Supplement on the role of philosophy and its relationship to the humanities and the sciences.

Scruton is worried about scientism in the humanities and how, he thinks, it excludes the subjective point of view:

Philosophy is, and ought especially to be, a handmaiden to the humanities. It should use its best endeavours to show why the attempts to rewrite religion, politics, music­ology, architecture, literary criticism and art history as branches of evolutionary psycho­logy (or still worse, branches of applied neuro­science) are destined to fail. It should be intent on distinguishing the human world from the order of nature, and the concepts through which we understand appearances from those used in explaining them. It is for this reason that I believe aesthetics to be central to philo­sophy, being the branch of philosophy that deals directly with our most studied attempts to create and discern what is truly meaningful.

When I give a scientific account of the world I am describing objects and the causal laws that explain them. This description is given from no particular perspective. It does not contain words like “here”, “now” and “I”; and while it is meant to explain the way things seem, it does so by giving a theory of how they are. I, however, am not an object only; I am also a subject, one with a distinctive point of view…

The human world—what Edmund Husserl called the Lebenswelt and Wilfred Sellars the “space of reasons”—is ordered through concepts and conceptions that vanish from the scientific description of nature. Such things as purity, innocence, tragedy, comedy, elegance and refinement are not mentioned in the book of science. They describe how the world appears to us, and they identify the occasions of action and emotion. But they drop out of every scientific theory, including the theories that explain our belief in them.

Williamson warns that “the equivocation between ‘science’ as natural science and ‘science’ as rigorous inquiry” can lead to the perception that the humanities are worthless unless they adopt or become like the natural sciences, and to the mistake that the personal point of view cannot be studied in a scientific manner:

Scruton announces that “the subject is in principle unobservable to science” because “it is not part of the empirical world”.

History is one of the humanities if anything is. Historians study human subjects, whose points of view they try to understand. Con­sequently, on Scruton’s view, the subject matter of history is not part of the empirical world. This may come as news to historians.

Mathematics, though a science, is not a natural science like physics, chemistry and biology. It supports its results by deductive proofs rather than experiments, but is at least as rigorous, systematic and reliable a search for knowledge. On this broader conception, many parts of the humanities have a good claim to be scientific… 

“We must take a scientific approach to this problem” may sound plausible when interpreted broadly, but is then used to justify applying the specific methods of natural science to problems where they are unhelpful. There is nothing scientific about making unsupported reductionist assumptions into dogmas. Natural science does not tell us that every genuine question is a question in natural science; only bad philo­sophy does. Defending the humanities requires making those distinctions. What does not help the humanities is to contrast them falsely with science, and thereby obscure the ways in which they provide genuine knowledge.

The whole exchange is here.

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some person or other
some person or other
3 years ago

Not about the main point, but: to be fair re: your point about “handmaiden”, try searching for the term on philpapers and lots of fairly contemporary stuff comes up. I think it’s still a fairly standard term for the very thing Scruton is talking about. (This will be my first, last, and only defense of Scruton.)

https://philpapers.org/s/handmaidenReport

David Wallace
David Wallace
3 years ago

Scruton: “It should use its best endeavours to show why the attempts to rewrite religion, politics, music­ology, architecture, literary criticism and art history as branches of evolutionary psycho­logy (or still worse, branches of applied neuro­science) are destined to fail. It should be intent on distinguishing the human world from the order of nature”

I would have hoped to see philosophy using its best endeavours to explore *whether*, and *to what extent*, the attempts to rewrite religion, politics etc as branches of evolutionary psychology or applied neuroscience are destined to fail, and likewise, to investigate *how much it is possible* to distinguish the human world from the order of nature.

Building the assumed conclusions of these important inquiries into the very goal structure of philosophy seems.. what’s the word? Oh, yes: unphilosophical.Report

m
m
3 years ago

I too cringed when he said that, but he’s hardly unique in making these sorts of assumptions, , as the pervasive assumption of naturalism in much (not all) of philosophy demonstrates.Report

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

What a bizarre debate. What do Scruton and Williamson mean by “philosophy?”

Do they mean: “academic philosophy”, as in which academic departments (humanities or sciences) philosophy departments should be aligned with, and which kind of jobs should be advertised in Jobs for Philosophers? This doesn’t seem to be it, since neither mentions anything about the institutions of philosophy.

Instead they seem to mean the activity of philosophy as such, as a way of thinking distinct from religion, literature, math, physics, painting, etc. But is there such a distinct way of thinking philosophically, or is philosophy just a way of thinking well? Even more strange, if there are going to be generalizations about philosophy as a way of thinking, one might expect Scruton and Williamson to reference philosophy as an activity across the world or in different times to highlight this special way of thinking. But they don’t do that either.

When they say “philosophy”, what they really seem to mean is: “the kind of thing I do which I think of as philosophy”. And “debating” just means saying why they want more people to be like them. Fine, just be honest about it. But as an intellectual argument, it is neither here nor there; it’s just confusion.Report

Thinker
Thinker
3 years ago

If I may permit myself a degree of hubris here, I might suggest that the problem is that a majority of philosophers choose to ignore, write off, or not give due dilligence to some of the most important thinkers regarding this very issue (e.g., Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty). What has resulted is the undue praise of the natural sciences as THE definitive measure of what is and what counts.Report

arnold
arnold
3 years ago

A philosopher’s use of Intension can provide for us all, through subjects in fields of tension, for sustaining life on our very-now small planet…Report

arnold
arnold
Reply to  arnold
3 years ago

Just go for it, Wikipedia-“Transparent Intensional Logic”…Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
3 years ago

A paper published today in Psych Science by Gottlieb & Lombrozo explores what underlies beliefs about the limits of science: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797617722609?journalCode=pssaReport

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

“I fear that if we don’t start using less outdated metaphors, philosophy will just continue to be whipping boy to university accountants and further perceived to be as useful to society as a donkey puncher without a whistle punk.”

the secondary meaning of ‘donkey puncher’ reaffirms your thesis hereReport

Led
Led
3 years ago

Roger Scruton can be taken as representative of “the profession” in just about no way, least of all in the up-to-date-ness of the language he chooses to use.

Anyway… I found this piece between him and Williamson remarkable mostly for how much they seemed to be talking past both each other and what most people would take to be the natural sense of the question that was posed to them.Report

Mike
Mike
3 years ago

‘Philosophy,’ like any word, can be validly defined many different ways. Consequently, philosophers are not just split into two but into innumerable sides regarding its definition; the same is true of people globally. Attempts to find the One-True-Definition of philosophy—though to do so is doubtless pleasing to human nature—seems to me a fool’s errand. I am reminded of Wittgenstein: ‘[He] sometimes spoke of “a craving for generality”—a desire to treat a variety of items as if they were essentially of the same type’ (Oswald Hanfling, ‘Wittgenstein and the Human Form of Life,’ pg. 98).Report

Mike
Mike
Reply to  Mike
3 years ago

Please delete this comment and the one to which it is replying.Report

Mike
Mike
3 years ago

‘Philosophy,’ like any word, can be validly defined many, indeed an infinity of, different ways (just as every natural language can produce an infinity of sentences). Consequently, philosophers are split into not just two but into innumerable sides regarding its definition; the same is true of people globally. Thus, the attempt to find the one-true definition of ‘philosophy’—though to do so is doubtless pleasing to human nature—seems to me a fool’s errand. I am reminded of Wittgenstein: ‘[He] sometimes spoke of “a craving for generality”—a desire to treat a variety of items as if they were essentially of the same type’ (Oswald Hanfling, ‘Wittgenstein and the Human Form of Life,’ pg. 98).Report