“We’re Going to Get More, and More Interesting, Kinds of Philosophy”


That’s, uh, me, from a conversation with Daniel Kaufman (Missouri State) on his Sophia program on MeaningOfLife.tv.

Yes, it was the event that regular readers of Daily Nous had been hotly anticipating. “Finally, we’ll have a chance to hear what Weinberg and Kaufman think!”

We start off with some talk about Daily Nous, but then move into a conversation about how to characterize what philosophers do and how philosophy makes progress.

There’s some discussion of the infrastructure of the philosophy profession and the American Philosophical Association, popular demand for philosophy, and various forms of public philosophy. We also talk about threats to philosophy and the humanities more generally, and the future of philosophy.

The quote that forms the title of this post comes towards the end of the program, where I make what may strike some readers as a number of highly implausible claims about the growth, diversification, and quality of philosophy.

Don’t miss the brief guest appearance by Dan’s dog at the 5:26 mark.

You can watch the program at the Sophia site, where there are links to some of its segments, or below.

Thanks for having me on, Dan!

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Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I enjoyed it tremendously, Justin, and hope we can do it again sometime!Report

Visiting Philosopher
Visiting Philosopher
3 years ago

Around 1:20:00 Kaufman starts talking about women philosophers: “You could argue that the women philosophers from those bad old days [mid-20th Century] are much more impressive than the current ones…”

Weinberg begins to reply: “I think this is an area over which we disagree…”

Point to Weinberg here with the statistical point he then makes, but he probably goes too far in the direction of overestimating the quality of today’s philosophers. It’s not necessarily that there are so many great philosophers around nowadays that it is hard for individuals to stand out (like Anscombe or Davidson or Putnam did), rather, it is that there isn’t as much relatively low-hanging fruit for philosophers to get credit for grabbing.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Visiting Philosopher
3 years ago

It could be that there’s a lack of low-hanging fruit, or it could also be that philosophy isn’t as interesting to the brightest minds as it was earlier, and so now most of the intellectual energy is in other areas (finance, tech, and TV writing).Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
3 years ago

As I see it, the lack of philosophical progress that Kaufman worries about is due to the fact that it has become plausible for philosophers to divorce their claims from all of their normal implications. Philosophical research increasingly seems to consist in a battle over whose views can more elegantly confirm the dictates of common sense. No nominalist suggests that we should abandon mathematics and no platonist suggests that we have a supernatural ability to sense things beyond space and time. No one who proposes a certain answer to the special composition question proposes that we should treat ordinary objects in any different way. If there aren’t people there are simples arranged people-wise, which are just as good and are in fact what we refer to when we think we are referring to people. While Lewis claimed that possible worlds are just as real as our own he also said that we should simply disregard them when it comes to the ethical and epistemological implications his view might seem to have. Nor is this proclivity constrained to metaphysics. One sees it in metaethics, philosophy of science, epistemology, and even in ethics. How many contemporary consequentialists would suggest that we should force people into experience machines if we have the tech? How many contemporary deontologists hold that we should not lie to the murderer at the door? The old, interesting versions of these views have largely been abandoned. If there is some counterintuitive implication of popular view X then someone will advance a version of X that lacks that implication. Eventually all that is left is a distinction without a difference. Either these hermeneutic maneuvers are illegitimate and we have no convincing way of showing that they are illegitimate or they are legitimate and these philosophical disputes don’t make a difference to much of anything. In either case, we’re in trouble.Report

Candlesticks
Candlesticks
Reply to  YAAGS
3 years ago

I would watch a podcast in which you are interviewed. Or maybe one you host?Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  YAAGS
3 years ago

You’re right to some degree. But many contemporary consequentialists argue that we should radically restructure our conception of philanthropy into the Effective Altruism model. Many philosophers of science argue that statistical methodology needs to be radically restructured along Bayesian lines, or that experimental design needs to be done differently. I don’t know if any contemporary metaphysicians argue for radical practical conclusions of this sort.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
3 years ago

Phil science is definitely an area where we still make interesting claims, but not universally. The general realism/anti-realism dispute is also difference minimizing and it’s hard to make out what is ultimately at stake, same as in metaphysics.

I’m not sure I’d agree about EA, though. The idea that you should try to donate your money in an effective manner hardly strikes me as being a deep insight. There’s certainly important *empirical* work to be done regarding which charities save the most lives. But that really isn’t a philosophical question by any stretch of the imagination.

On the other hand, Singer’s more purely normative claim that we are obligated to donate virtually all of our money is far more substantive and interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t see there being a whole lot of philosophical work being done to shore it up. It follows more or less immediately from the basic tenets of standard maximizing consequetialism. Deontologists and virtue ethicists are still going to reject it for standard reasons. Have effective altruism made any special progress in showing that deontology and virtue ethics are wrong that I am not aware of?Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
Reply to  YAAGS
3 years ago

Attempting always to, in Lewis’ words, “make our sentences come out true” has always struck me as a rather boring way to do philosophy.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

It would make sense to call it progress if people abandoned the dispute after realizing that all the things that made it interesting in the first place no longer hold. But often people still drag on the bitter dispute even though there seems to be nothing at stake, just because they *sound* important or deep. For instance, I think the platonism/nominalism and rationalism/empiricism disputes should both be considered dead and buried, since the platonists and rationalists have stopped making claims about our minds having supernatural capacities and this is the only thing that made their positions worth disputing. There are numbers and sets and we know things about them. Any mathematician will tell you this. Fine! Great! Let’s move on! Case closed! How do we know? Intuition and inference. How does intuition work? Ask a psychologist or neuroscientist. Fortunately, there’s no reason to think their explanation will require that there be some spooky capacity behind our intuitive judgments. Any philosophical demand to the contrary is likely confused. Want some story about how our minds “link up” to abstract objects? Our words refer to them. How do they refer? There is no further story to be told. Reference is a formal rather than a causal notion. It’s like asking how material implication works. I can give you a truth table, but if you’re after some sort of literal “link” between the antecedent and consequent you’re just confused. So there you go. Two millenia-old disputes solved. Now if only people will stop trying to resurrect them!Report

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Very interesting dialogue. Thanks to both.

At the beginning there is discussion of teaching undergrads vs doing research (engaging with fellow professionals). And later much discussion of public philosophy. But not much was said about the relation between philosophers and fellow citizens (who are mostly neither students nor fellow professionals). Academic philosophers face a big quandary here. If they relate to lay people as students, they come across as smug, as presupposing their superiority instead of cultivating a human relationship (akin to when a friend says to a psychoanalyst, “talk to me as a friend, not my shrink”). But if they relate to lay people as equals, their expertise seems to go out of the window.

If academic philosophy is to survive, academics have to cultivate a third kind of speech act of doing philosophy, beyond teaching and researching. Something like: inspiring without teaching when talking to fellow citizens. Where one kind of expertise one gains through philosophy is about how much one transforms one own habits and fears, and then that transformation is able to shine through and inspire when engaging as equals to others. This is the burden of all philosophers, academic and nonacademic.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

I appreciate your watching!

In the dialogue, I mentioned a piece that will be published (sometime!) in Philosophy Now. There, I address your main point in some detail and suggest that professional philosophy should make room for more literary forms of writing, as a basis for advancement and promotion in the profession: specifically, the essay, and fiction. This would go a long way to building a bridge back to the public, one that in previous eras was strong.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Look forward to reading the essay when it comes out. Great idea re more literary forms of writing. That’s a good way to cultivate different speech acts in communicating with fellow citizens.

I get what you mean that the connection to the public in previous eras was strong, as, I think, with Kant and Dewey in their cultures and times. Of course back then that was enabled in part by “the public” being so narrowly defined. In America, the scope of “the public” exploded post WWII. Pre WWII the public that was reading Dewey shared broadly a cultural background (ways of life, common education, etc); on top of that background, intellectual engagement was possible. Now we are missing sense of shared culture and habits, due to diversity of “the public”. So much shared embodied practice has to be in place before debate can be productive. Instead of forcing intellectual debate as if it comes first, philosophers need to roll up their sleeves and engage in the emotive and affective dimensions of shared reflection, which can in time led to productive debate. Many great philosophers of past did both: they cultivated the soil in which their ideas can take root, and didn’t assume the soil will be available ready made for them.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Agree much new, good stuff is happening. But I am not optimistic about future of academic phil, as you seem to be in your comment and in the video.

As a lay person, unless I come to philosophy blogosphere, I don’t see much philosophy in my daily life: work, family, entertainment, news. Overall culture moves as if Western phil doesn’t, and didn’t, exist. Sure, there is the Stone, etc, but that is on the margins of mainstream cultute. Lost in their research bubble, most academic philosophy ignores the vast chasm that is forming between itself and broader culture. My sense: they might be assuming their situation is still similar to Kant, Russell and Dewey, that there is an intrinsic link beteeen Wetern phil departments and Western mainstream culture. But since WWII this link has been deeply cut;, Western culture has transformed radically, while phil departments have continued in a time warp.

Academic phil benefitted from the expansion of public universities post WWII. The funding wasn’t mainly for phil, but it benefitted, which covered over the budding chasm. But once the funding starts to disappear at most public schools, it will reverberate through whole discipline due to loss of jobs. At that point, the chasm will be obvious, and the podcasts and comics won’t be enough. Though they will be a great way to transition to doing philosophy outside academia.Report