“There is no philosophical essence”


“The question I regularly encountered, and still do, is: Is that still Philosophy?”

That’s Ann-Sophie Barwich, assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington who describes herself as “a cognitive scientist and empirical philosopher & historian of science, technology, and the senses,” in a recent interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? She continues:

This undermined a lot of my confidence in the beginning. This ominous “more” of Philosophy as this invisible essence that somehow was not detected in my work. My writing was too scientific, too historical, too contemporary, too this and too that. Just never “enough Philosophy.” It took me years to realize that there is no philosophical essence. It’s an intellectual convention. Too often this conception is bound to a form of expression, how you situate yourself in relation to other sanctioned authors, not a way of asking and thinking through content. The critical switch then happened when I read people like the Churchlands and Dennett. Guess what question I read in reviews of their books: Yes, yes, nice, but is this still Philosophy? Let me reply now: If you think that it’s reasonable to tackle questions of conscious experience with, say Bertrand Russell, in the 21st century – despite the revolutionary advances in neuroscience – how can this *still* be Philosophy?

Earlier in the interview, interviewer Clifford Sosis asks what she finds appealing about philosophy. She says:

Difficult question because I developed an ambivalent relationship with philosophy. I’m deeply convinced of the value philosophical thinking has in science and society. However, its institutionalized profession disenchants me…

Many may feel that my criticism is uncharitable and that I undervalue philosophy. I hear that a lot. But it really isn’t. On the contrary, I see a much broader potential and power of philosophy than some academic debates would indicate. There’s a reason why people like Hannah Arendt eschewed the title of philosopher despite doing heavyweight philosophical thinking in her work. There is a reason why we now have philosophical articles on the proper treatment of the Churchlands (are they *really* philosophers?)just because they are doing philosophical thinking that steps out of the comfort zone of many armchairs and into the realm of science. Notably in a proactive and complementary fashion.

Philosophers tend to recognize philosophy only as what they were exposed to as philosophy. But we have become so limited in what’s been put on the curriculum and what’s been acceptable as philosophy in the higher-end journals that the necessary broader historical, global, and methodological scope is often missing. Sure, Africana and Asian philosophy have gained some momentum more recently, yet it’s still viewed as a somewhat niche expertise. It’s not niche, though.

And so I merely encourage philosophy to get out of its currently still restricted and highly contingent institutionalized self-image. If we forfeit a pluralism of what philosophy is, can be and can do, we are not just losing touch with the world, including science and society, we furthermore are actively narrowing down philosophical practice itself. Preventing that requires some serious soul-searching about a lot of traditions, including topics and styles, some of which have become far too self-complacent.

You can read the whole interview here.


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Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
1 year ago

” If we forfeit a pluralism of what philosophy is, can be and can do, we are not just losing touch with the world, including science and society, we furthermore are actively narrowing down philosophical practice itself. Preventing that requires some serious soul-searching about a lot of traditions, including topics and styles, some of which have become far too self-complacent.”
Hear hear! But it’s been going on for at least the last two generations, so unwinding it is a massive undertaking. I’d say we also need to do the hard work of newly defining – rather than merely dropping – a sense of what differentiates philosophical discourse from other kinds of discourse. Report

dawitt abraha
dawitt abraha
1 year ago

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY ?
COMMENTARY:Revised March 2020
Original by dawitt abraha
March 2013
Maui,Hawaii

A working definition of what is philosophy goes something like this.
It is a systematic examination of ideas and or feelings and other sensual experieces of our general environment to arrive at an awareness ,at an understanding and or at an explanation thereof.

I gleaned such a definition from many sources in my readings and or from my discussions.

BY DEFINITION;then ;as as human beings developed symbolism and later languages,they have been philosophizing,examining their respective environments all over the globe ,in every corner of the world.

Some individuals ,some social classes and some occupations within a given community, in many parts of the world ,may have relatively more time at their disposal to dedicate to the examination of ideas and of the environment. Some others may prove to have been conditioned with greater analytic, or verbal, or intellectual predispositions, or aptitudes towards this discipline/ this metier and hence would possibly excell at it,in every corner of our world;at that point in time.

All these situations are mutable under different political-economic structures.
Nothing seems to be endemic.

Some communities in different parts of the world may have been environmentally favored ,at that point in time to have developed written records and may have kept expansive wisdom and or philosophical archives.
We should all be grateful for those resources.

Some others have mostly wisdom and philosophical oral legends, oral history repeatedly handed down by bards,by griots,by phenomenal wise persons.

There has been significant cross bordet;intet-continental cross fertilization of ideas of concepts.
The Ancient Greek philosophical traditions were partly based on the preceding hegemonic Ancient African Egyptian intellectual traditions;for illustration purposes .

All these situations are mutable under differing political-economic structures .
Nothing seems to be endemic.
Paintings recorded on cave walls or legends stored on goatskin,on papyrus,petroglyphs,hieroglyphics are all good sources of the study of philosophy in a given culture .

The accidental historical predisposition of an industrialized culture should not be preemptively prejudicial to other forms of saving philosophical recording or record keeping.

It is my sense of poverty in the canon of philosophy to not appropriately ,duly include philosophical collections in Africa,Asia and The Native Cultures of The Americas in the general study of philosophy in many European and N American centers of learning ;similarly as well as iall over the world

What a pity and what a lacking it has been for some good time !
Things are changing .The tunnel vision and arrogance of The Western system is subsiding per force.
See for instance an attempt by Julian Baggini’s recent book HOW THE WORLD THINKS:A HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY Granta Publishers October 2018.
The development of archival collections of what is called Western philosophy and science has been subsidized and underwritten, in some materially considerable measure ,by contributions from Africa,from Asia especially during the historical enslavement of Africans for European business interests.
And more significantly in the form of the material and financial contributions to Europe during European colonization of Africa and of Asia and of The Americas.
Even,today there is a direct net outflow of materials and of financial instruments from Africa,from Asia and The Americas heading to Europe .
(See for instance Walter Rodney,”How Europe underdeveloped Africa ” Bogke-L’ouverture Publications 1972 .
Dambissa Moyo ,”Dead Aid” Penguin Books October 2010.
And former World Bank director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has stated that the first “Marshall Plan” rescuing Europe was from Africa and from Asia while the second “Marshall Plan to Europe was from The USA )

Contrarily:broadly speaking peoples and philosophers in Africa,Asia and in The Native Americas have been smart enough to willingly study all disciplines and all chapters of philosophy that is available out there.

Philosophy should not discriminate based on methods; distinguishing between methods is acceptable .
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Tebogo Mphela
Tebogo Mphela
1 year ago

Higher level thinking , without any restrictions of methods or laws. Nor style or acceptance of peers of so called philosophers.

Also I like the part she recognises African and Asian philosophy as real philosophy. Report

A drunkard in a bar, who is not Robert Gressis
A drunkard in a bar, who is not Robert Gressis
1 year ago

I’m going to put on my “drunk in a bar” hat.

Often, the philosophers who say, “philosophers who look at my scientifically informed approach to questions conclude that it’s not philosophy” also say, “you can’t learn anything unless your philosophy is empirically informed.” In other words, the naturalistic approach to philosophy is often motivated, or so it seems to me, by the belief that philosophy as it has often been done, at least in the west — conceptual analysis, intuition-mongering — is completely bankrupt. You can’t learn anything that way. So, on the one hand, they complain, “philosophers say I’m unphilosophical!” On the other hand, they conclude, “unless you do philosophy my way, you’re just wasting your own and everyone’s time.” It doesn’t surprise me, then, that they get such resistance. Fundamentally, this is a battle over the soul of philosophy.

(In fairness to them, though, lots of paradigmatic philosophers — Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant, to name a few — were extraordinarily well-informed and active in the pursuit of natural science. So it could very well be that, not only are the naturalists right that armchair philosophy is bankrupt, but also that it’s fairly unrepresentative of how philosophy has been done.)

Now, to properly justify this claim, I realize that I’d have to document a representative sample of the times naturalistic philosophers complain about being called unphilosophical, utter see how it often it’s motivated by the belief that philosophy as it has often been done is bankrupt, and then present my findings.

So, what I’ve said is hot air, just a drunkard’s bloviation. But I already admitted that in the first sentence! (Obviously, you can tell, just from the way I’ve written this post, that I’m rather friendly to empirically-uninformed intuition-mongering.) Report

Lucas voleet
Lucas voleet
1 year ago

I do like the effort to broader the concept of philosophy.

But i am not that enthusuast about this pressure to adapt philosophy to the progress of science in Piagets naturalized epistemoloy fashion. Remeber philosopher can have deep reflection abou the place pf science and historical progress of scientific paradigms without having to recognize or adapt to accepted contemporary science.(ps. Not a native english.speaker)
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Rakesh Chandra
Rakesh Chandra
1 year ago

Philosophy is sometimes Understood as a world view and sometimes as an analytical attempt to understand how things hang together in the most general sense.philosophy as an attempt to understand and science as a way to get at truth was a simple claim where it was seen as a second order a priori activity. Much limited and restrictive this had many advantages. The same people who did experimental science like bacon or wrote empirical history writing of England like Hume did not confuse their philosophical theory and arguments with their other work. The Question is not of less and more Philosophy but of academic cartography. How do we use empirical data,how competent are we in the empirical science and it’s methods. It needs honesty and modesty to understand our work .this is often confused for arroganceReport

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
1 year ago

General public: “Academics are a bunch of charlatans, especially philosophers. They have no methods, really: they just speak confidently about whatever they believe. Our friends down at the bar do the same thing, and they doesn’t expect a paycheck for it. Also, only an idiot would get a degree in philosophy. It doesn’t prepare you for anything but a job as a baristo. In real life, nobody pays you to just have an opinion.”

Philosopher: “This is a deep mischaracterization of philosophy. The work we do is highly rigorous, and the only opinions that actual philosophers are left with in the end are those that have survived the grueling criticism of our peers, who demand the best of us. On the teaching side, we cultivate an uncompromisingly critical and self-critical attitude in our students, teaching them to question everything and giving them the tools to do so. Along the way, we immunize them against dogmatism.”

General public: “Oh, cool! I didn’t know that.”

Radical philosophical pluralist: “No, wait, everyone! That philosopher doesn’t really represent the discipline as a whole. See, some of us think that there should be no limits whatsoever on what counts as philosophy, because if there are, then some mean people would get to tell people that what they’re doing isn’t actually philosophy, and that might hurt their feelings, and that’s never okay. Instead, please think of anything at all as philosophy!”

General public. “We’re confused now. What is philosophy, exactly? And what’s the use of it?”

Radical philosophical pluralist: “Again, anything that people think is philosophy is philosophy! It’s whatever you want it to be.”

General public: “So our friends down at the bar are doing philosophy after all, but just not as well as you?”

Radical philosophical pluralist: “Your friends at the bar might not have as much time to work on it as professional philosophers, but otherwise, there are no disciplinary standards that distinguish good from bad philosophy. The people who think there are standards, or that there should be, are just mean: don’t listen to them.”

General public: “So, why should we support philosophy again?”

Radical philosophical pluralist: “Because it’s good to have people thinking about things however they feel it’s best to think about them.”

General public: “Yeah, so it sounds like our friends down at the bar are doing the same thing anyway.”

University administrator: “Interesting conversation. I got sent over here by the governor, who’s been getting emails from constituents saying that this philosophy business sounds like a bunch of nonsense and that we should stop supporting philosophy departments in the state with taxpayer money.”

Philosopher: “No, please don’t do that! This radical philosophical pluralist doesn’t represent the discipline! Look, we still have standards, we still have rigor, we’re doing some important work, and we’re teaching the students great skills and dispositions… this is not a completely open-ended enterprise…”

Radical philosophical pluralist: “No, philosopher, you’re just a dinosaur who needs to get with the program. Philosophy can be absolutely anything anyone says it is, and we’re teaching a new generation to think that. Stop being a jerk.”

General public: “Wait, so why should we support this thing again? What’s the use of it?”

Radical philosophical pluralist: “Because look at the test results and mid-career salaries of philosophy majors! We must be doing something right.”

Philosopher: “Those test results come from the fact that many of us still have actual, objective standards in our courses and teach our students actual rigor. Remove that, and you’ve got nothing.”

Radical philosophical pluralist. “Stop being a jerk! Narrowly construed philosophy is on the way out.”

Lazy university student: “Oh, great! I heard from my friends that philosophy prepares you well for law school, but that it’s really hard. Listening to Radical philosophical pluralist, it doesn’t sound hard at all. Sign me up!”

Serious university student: “Well, that sucks. I was planning on taking philosophy as a major…”

Philosopher: “No, no! Look: you can’t get something for nothing! If everything counts as philosophy, there can be no standards; and without standards, success at what we happen to call ‘philosophy’ gives one nothing but the worthless degree the general public started by thinking we offer. Worse still, human laziness will lead us on a race to the bottom: without standards, slipshod work becomes a road to greater productivity and success, and there we go!”

Radical philosophical pluralist: “Stop being a jerk!”

University administrator: “This has been informative. We’re cutting the philosophy department.”

Radical philosophical pluralist: “Look, general public, at what a fascist that administrator is! Join us in protest!”

General public: “Actually, your ‘discipline’ sounds pretty stupid, so no thanks.”

Philosopher: “Grr…”
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grad student
grad student
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

“Radical philosophical pluralist: ‘Because it’s good to have people thinking about things however they feel it’s best to think about them.'”

This is trueReport

Radical Philosophical Pluralist
Radical Philosophical Pluralist
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

This is just a misunderstanding of the pluralist claim. One should distinguish questions about what is and is not philosophy from questions about whether the research in question is good or bad. The pluralism espoused by Barwich is a rejection of the importance of the former kind of question, not the latter.
This is the same mistake that played out in debates about whether creationism is or is not science. As if if it turned out that it was science would mean that we should/must teach it in schools. The appropriate response is just: if this is science, it’s really bad science.
Same with philosophy: we can still have standards of rigour, etc. while denying that it matters much whether we call what we are evaluating ‘philosophy’ or not. Whatever criteria for counting something as philosophy you adopt, I bet there will be bad work which meets these criteria, and good work which doesn’t. It seems that a policy of caring more about the latter than the former would be a pretty rational one for individual researchers, teachers, and the discipline as a whole.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Radical Philosophical Pluralist
1 year ago

Thanks for the reply, Radical Philosophical Pluralist. I agree that there can still be standards in each particular conception of philosophy. But I don’t see how this helps avoid the big problem.

Suppose I suggest the following mode of doing philosophy: a bunch of people sit in a room, and someone walks in with a question. Then, everyone shouts out a spontaneous answer to the question, without thinking, and then each writes down the answer that he or she thinks was said by the person to his or her left, while he or she was shouting something else. The papers are collected and one is chosen at random. That becomes the philosophical work of the group, and must remain unquestioned.

By the description I just gave, it is true, there are standards for philosophical inquiry. Someone who claims to be following this form of philosophy but doesn’t obey the rules I outlined would be doing poor work, by that conception. But that doesn’t prevent the whole thing from being a pointless (or at least un-philosophical) exercise. And if that sort of thing *were* allowed to stand as just a different way of doing philosophy, no better or worse than any other, then why would anyone bother with the more rigorous methods?

The survival of the discipline in any useful form depends on our ability to say, “What you’re talking about here is not philosophy, even if you think it is.” What distinguishes *radical* philosophical pluralism is an unwillingness to ever make that judgment.Report

Radical Philosophical Pluralist
Radical Philosophical Pluralist
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

It still seems that this conflates the question of what philosophy is and what good philosophy is. I don’t see why the survival of the discipline requires an answer to the former, rather than some (set of, rough) standards for the latter.
Let’s say we had some criteria for determining what genuine philosophy is. Presumably, the ‘methodology’ you described would be ruled out. But this seems to undersell the case. The problem with the method you described is that, whether it is philosophy or not, it isn’t likely to provide any insight into anything we might care about (perhaps beyond the psychology of its practitioners). That this method is ‘un-philosophical’ is the least of its flaws. We can evaluate such methods with respect to things like reliability, insight, explanatory power, guidance on how to live, etc. The further question: “but, is it *philosophy*?” seems to add nothing.
I guess I have a more optimistic view of the profession than you (and that isn’t something I say often), if you really think that the only thing ensuring that we “bother with the more rigorous methods” is that we have internalized some norms of what I must do if I want to keep calling myself a philosopher. I like to think that I am motivated by finding out what the world is like, and I doubt that your method of spontaneous question-answering is liable to help with that. So I won’t adopt it, whether it gets classed as philosophy or not. As I said above, a lot of things that do get counted as philosophy are not very good, and I will continue to try and avoid adopting the methods adopted therein. And for those things that don’t get so counted, but do adopt methods that provide insight into how the world works, I will continue to try and rely on them.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Radical Philosophical Pluralist
1 year ago

You say, “I like to think that I am motivated by finding out what the world is like, and I doubt that your method of spontaneous question-answering is liable to help with that. So I won’t adopt it, whether it gets classed as philosophy or not. As I said above, a lot of things that do get counted as philosophy are not very good, and I will continue to try and avoid adopting the methods adopted therein. And for those things that don’t get so counted, but do adopt methods that provide insight into how the world works, I will continue to try and rely on them.”

Right. But *why* are you motivated by finding out what the world is like? Suppose someone didn’t care about that, but wanted to call what he or she did ‘philosophy’ anyway. Would you say that it isn’t philosophy, because it doesn’t aim at finding out what the world is like? If so, then you don’t seem to be a *radical* philosophical pluralist. But if not, then I don’t see how this prevents the major problems I mentioned.

And *why* are many things that get counted as philosophy not very good? Because there’s no good reason to think that they will lead us to a correct understanding of what the world is like, and some good reason to think that they won’t? In that case, perhaps we can agree that that, at least, is a constraint on what can count as actual philosophy.Report

Radical Philosophical Pluralist
Radical Philosophical Pluralist
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Hmmm. It seems you are reading the ‘radical pluralist’ position more strongly than I am. I took this to be a *methodological* position: there are no constraints on what methods a philosopher can adopt. That doesn’t imply either that all methods are equally *good* or that all the *aims* one can adopt are philosophical.
On the first point, I think I’ve made my position clear already. It doesn’t seem that we gain anything be denying that work which is unlikely to lead us to a correct understanding of the world is (“actual”) philosophy. Viewing it as *bad* philosophy seems to be perfectly sufficient. I take it that Barwich allows for this, as indicated by her implied views about philosophical approaches to consciousness conducted without paying attention to contemporary work in psychology/cognitive science.
On the second, I don’t suppose that Barwich (or anyone, really) takes it that there are no constraints on what philosophy is. Playing tic-tac-toe isn’t philosophy. Baking bread isn’t philosophy. If you read ‘radical pluralism’ to deny this, then nobody is a radical pluralist. But this doesn’t seem to get at the point Barwich was raising. Whatever one thinks about Dennett and the Churchlands, they are trying to figure out what the world is like.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Radical Philosophical Pluralist
1 year ago

We might not be in disagreement here: I’m not sure.

Certainly, I have no a priori objections to calling what Dennett and the Churchlands do philosophy.

I have run into a number of people in the discipline, however, who seem to think that it’s completely unacceptable to question whether anything at all counts as philosophy. Most of these encounters have been in-person, but I believe that Andrea Nye and Kristie Dotson have more or less said as much in print.

The only point I’m making here is that there are many things that are clearly not philosophy, and many methods that are so clearly bad at achieving the aims of philosophy that they should not be counted as proper philosophical methods. I think you might agree with that?

Once that’s agreed to, it seems to follow that there’s nothing wrong in principle in questioning whether some approach is philosophical. If that’s granted, I’m satisfied. I find it worrying that some people don’t see the problem in prohibiting such questioning.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Radical Philosophical Pluralist
1 year ago

It seems to me that Radical Philosophical Pluralism is backing off to just (non-radical) pluralism. I think we all agree that there should be a plurality of approaches within philosophy. The question is whether we can say anything isn’t a form of philosophy at all. If something doesn’t count as philosophy, it’s trivially true that it isn’t *good* philosophy.

Maybe Justin’s example of pulling things out of a hat at random goes too far, because, as Radical says, that’s just totally useless. But how about a bunch of engineers showing up at an APA meeting and having sessions on building suspension bridges and the like? I think we would all say that that’s out of place regardless of the quality of their presentations on that topic. Ok, so some things worth doing don’t count as philosophy and we have to put some limits on our pluralism.
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Jamie
Jamie
Reply to  Radical Philosophical Pluralist
1 year ago

“The question is whether we can say anything isn’t a form of philosophy at all. ”

How can that be “the question”? Isn’t everyone on the same side of that question? (Barwich obviously doesn’t say that everything is a form of philosophy, for example.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Radical Philosophical Pluralist
1 year ago

@Spencer: the engineering example is obviously correct, but I think it brings out why “is this philosophy” is usually a fairly shallow question, more about the logistical need to subdivide academia than anything else.

A similar example: the quantum mechanics of individual atoms is part of physics, not chemistry, and so if a bunch of physicists showed up at a chemistry conference and had sessions on it, that would likewise be inappropriate. But there’s no very deep reason *why* that subject is part of physics rather than chemistry; if academia had been organized differently, it could have been part of chemistry.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Radical Philosophical Pluralist
1 year ago

Jamie: Maybe everyone, or nearly everyone, says they are on the same side of the question. Maybe there’s jut a vagueness inherent in saying “there’s no philosophical essence.” But certain people reliably get up in arms when you propose accounts of what philosophy amounts to that exclude activism. Like “How dare you restrict what philosophy can be!” I think once you have activism counting as a part of philosophy, there’s no good principle for excluding engineering.

David: Yeah, I agree that there’s not much at stake about where exact disciplinary boundaries are to be drawn. For example, I don’t see why certain kinds of literary theory can’t just as well be classified as philosophy, inasmuch as they concern meaning, aesthetics and interpretation. But current debates about the limits of philosophy haven’t really been about cases like that. They’ve tended to be about whether things I would consider activism can be properly considered philosophy. It’s in response to (perceived) activist encroachments in the discipline that people are most likely to claim there’s a “philosophical essence.”

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Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Justin Kalef’s dialog underdetermines the lesson to be drawn.

One lesson is that we need to polish our public relations propaganda. But making sure we’re all selling the same myths — about imparting critical habits to students and about keeping only those opinions surviving a crucible — is different from and independent of making sure we’re fairly characterizing what it is we do. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
1 year ago

To be clear, Animal Symbolicum: I’m not interested in presenting ‘public relations propaganda’: I’m interested in ensuring that the discipline continues to produce research and teaching that actually have the advantages we (rightly, it seems) tell people they confer.

We simply can’t do that if we put no limits on the sorts of things that count as philosophy.

The point I’m making shouldn’t be controversial: I’m simply saying that for any range of items R and any non-trivial property P, one can only ensure that R has P (or is even likely to have P) if one puts limits on what’s in R.Report

Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Yeah – all of this is why I made my second remark. Report

Rakesh Chandra
Rakesh Chandra
1 year ago

Tthe imaginative conversation is brilliant. At one time Hare, Russell , Hampshire and many others thought that rigorous analytical Philosophy will be an innoculation against confused,wolly metaphysics mongering of those who valorized subjectivity like Kierkegaard and the like. Many in these times of life threatening challenge would still see some merit in the publicly debated idea of truth which may not have the weight of absolute independence from human interpretative agency but is not overly culturalized. Diversity of opinion is welcome to open up fresh avenues to get right .The excess of relativism , plurality which makes communication impossible is also position where no responsibility can be assigned. If individuals and cultures are so incommensurate we can not ask for change in oppressive systems of caste,class,colour and patriarchy as ought implies can . You can’t be asked to do or tefrain from doing which you do not even understand. Liberal accommodation of illiberal veiws is also not just an accidental thorn in the flesh we need to analyse and articulate the presumption of liberal thinking. Definition of Philosophy in a restrained way is perhaps very useful for clearing up the road to recovery.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
1 year ago

Some of the criticism above seems to miss the mark. Professor Barwich isn’t (so far as I can tell from the article) advocating that any old piece of work would count as philosophy: she’s objecting to the value of working out whether some antecedently-valuable academic project is a philosophy project. (Her examples are mostly on the science/philosophy border – e.g., Dennett, the Churchlands). Her pluralism isn’t that radical: it’s an objection to too much border-policing within academia.

And in that sense, it seems reasonable enough, *especially* on the science/philosophy boundary. I’m a philosopher of physics: is my work really philosophy, or physics? It’s philosophy, in the boring institutional sense that I work and teach in a department with “philosophy” in its name ,and I mostly go to conferences, and publish in journals, that call themselves ‘philosophy’ conferences and journals. But if academia had been structured and organized a bit differently, the same criteria could have made me a physicist, without any meaningful effect on who I talk to and what I work on. Is there a deeper question about whether my work is *really* philosophy, over and above institutional classifications. It’s at best hard to see what would make that question meaningful.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

I don’t know if Barwich herself would agree that conceptual analysis/intuition-mongering style philosophy is worthless, but I’m fairly certain a lot of philosophers do (James Ladyman, Massimo Pigliucci, Dan Kaufman, Quine, I assume, and I’m guessing the list can go on and on). If they’re right–and maybe you agree they are–then what exactly is someone doing when they’re doing philosophy? When you, a philosopher of physics, philosophize about physics, what are you doing that’s different from a physicist?

Maybe a philosopher is just someone who deals with the definitions and foundational issues of another academic field? Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Robert A Gressis
1 year ago

I could give you a longish list of how what I do differs from what physicists typically do, but – and I take it this is partly Professor Barwich’s point – those differences don’t follow from some essential definition of philosophy; they’re as much about institutional and historical factors as anything else.

As for which areas of philosophy are worthless: I’d like to keep my friends, thanks, so I shan’t venture my own opinions here. But I’m pretty sure James Ladyman would agree that contemporary analytic metaphysics is philosophy – he just thinks that (some of) that bit of philosophy isn’t worthwhile. Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

That’s funny — a lot of my friends tell me what I do is worthless. I guess I hear it so much that it no longer bothers me (partly, I suppose, because I’ve come to agree with it, but can’t see how to change my life at this point). But I can see why that would make some of your friends angry.

Regardless, what do you think of my earlier suggestion — that ideally, philosophers would just be people who focus on the foundational and conceptual issues of other academic fields? Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Robert A Gressis
1 year ago

I think focusing on the foundational and conceptual issues of other academic fields is a good idea (if appropriately informed) and a large fraction of the philosophy I like most does just that. But for essentially the reasons Professor Barwich gives, I don’t think it’s usually very useful to try to set that (or anything else) out as N&S conditions for which antecedently-worthwhile academic activities count as philosophy.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

David, there are things that some people don’t count as philosophy though they probably should: no quibble there. I’m not sure I know a living philosopher who denies that.

But I know of some people who have a very, very hard time admitting that there can be some things that some people count as philosophy though they probably shouldn’t.

To deny either possibility seems foolish. I’m not putting forth, or asking for, any necessary and sufficient set of properties that all philosophy has, as I think should be clear. I’m just pointing out that not everything is philosophy, and that bad things would happen if we were to forget this, as some seem to.Report

Larry Rosenthal
Larry Rosenthal
1 year ago

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