Optimism about Philosophy


“I know a lot of people on twitter and social media complain about the current state of philosophy but I tend to be an optimist.”

That’s Gregg Caruso, professor of philosophy at SUNY Corning, in a new interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?. 

He continues:

I think the future of philosophy is strong. There is more interesting and diverse work being done today in philosophy than perhaps ever before. In fact, I can barely keep up with all the excellent work being done in areas of philosophy that never previously existed.

The days of philosophy being dominated by one or two figures (or methodologies) at a time is over, and I think that’s a good thing. Let a thousand flowers bloom, as they say.

This isn’t to say there aren’t things to be concerned about:

If I have any fears, they are not about philosophy itself but with direction of higher education, which has been moving away from providing students with a well-rounded liberal arts education and toward vocational training. This trend is bad, not only for the discipline of philosophy but for society as a whole.  

The interview, interesting throughout, ranges over Professor Caruso’s life, education, and work. You can read the whole thing here.

Thinker Analytix

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Pat
Pat
1 year ago

Long live philosophy!

Ryan
1 year ago

If philosophy is done mostly in academia, and if academia is in danger, then so too is philosophy.

Manuel Viana Furtado dos Santos
1 year ago

Let a thousand flowers bloom is an expression used during a very specific period of China’s history. It was a strategy to kill all artists and intellectuals diverging from mao’s perspective. Philosophers should be mindful of the expressions they use otherwise their optimism may be seen as ironic pessimism by mistake.

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Manuel Viana Furtado dos Santos
1 year ago

The problem of course was not letting the thousand flowers bloom, but pruning all those who don’t toe the party line.

Matt L
Reply to  Manuel Viana Furtado dos Santos
1 year ago

It’s taking us a long way away from the subatance of the interview, but I don’t really think this is right. According to Jonthan Spence, the “Hundred Flowers” (*) movement started out as a genuine attempt by Mao to allow criticism of the party and new developments, somewhat similar to Khrushchev’s “thaw” after Stalin. But, things got more out of hand than desired, and party hard-liners started revolting against the “thaw” and Mao himself, eventually leading Mao to back-track and re-instate a strict party line. But it’s not the case that this was a “strategy to kill all artists and intellectuals diverging from Mao’s perspective”, it seems.

See Spence, _The Search for Modern China_, 566-73.

(*)In my memory, and as I’ve used the phrase in the past, too, it’s “thousand flowers”, but Spence reports it as “hundred flowers”, and so I assume he’s right, as he’s the expert.

Beyond this, even if the claim I’m opposing were right, I don’t think it would be that important. It’s perfectly fine to use a phrase outside of its historical origin, when it’s developed a new meaning. As noted, I don’t think that’s the case here, but if it was, it would still be fine. Historical meanings are not taints that corrupt a phrase, never to wash off or wear away, or to magically be brought back or invoked when the phrase is used anew.

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Matt L
1 year ago

If my memory (of a course on China from many years ago) serves, the phrase as used during the Hundred Flowers movement was “let a thousand schools of thought contend, let a hundred flowers bloom.”

Gorm
Gorm
Reply to  Manuel Viana Furtado dos Santos
1 year ago

The Chinese expression was “a hundred flowers bloom” … Paul Feyerabend used the expression “Let a thousand flowers bloom” in presenting his anarchistic philosophy of science. One can be quite certain that he was being ironic, and having a bit of fun using that expression.
Philosophers should be mindful when spanking other philosophers about the expressions they use

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

I agree with Professor Caruso that there’s a lot of excellent work being done in philosophy today. But here are some grounds for doom and gloom.

The humanities in general are facing a very grim future as majors flee to subjects they think will make them more employable.

The GOP has shown an interest in limiting what academics can say. The public, which holds a low opinion of academia, especially the humanities, seems receptive to this. As the job market gets ever more competitive, it will be harder for philosophers to find time to address the public.

Increasingly, philosophers seem to see their goal not as hunting for the truth, but as advocating for positions. Increasingly, younger academics approve of shutting down opinions they disagree with. Increasingly, both academics and students are uncomfortable or unwilling to share their opinions.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

I take it that a lot of philosophy of science shows that one of the most powerful ways that intellectual communities collectively work towards the truth is by being composed of individuals that selfishly advocate for positions. This is certainly how the legal system works. There could be a problem if there really are groups of opinions that are being “shut down” in this discussion. But the intellectual ecosystem does have many spaces that also actively reward people for stating opinions that get shut down in other parts of it.

I don’t claim that the kinds of patterns that we see are optimal. Just that it’s not so obviously bad as claimed if people are motivated by wanting to see their team win rather than by wanting to get at the truth.

Matt L
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

This is certainly how the legal system works….I don’t claim that the kinds of patterns that we see are optimal. Just that it’s not so obviously bad as claimed if people are motivated by wanting to see their team win rather than by wanting to get at the truth.

This is important, but, it’s also important that in the law there are “rules of evidence” that are supposed to be followed (and enforced, though they are so imperfectly, by a “neutral” court), and rules about disclosure, production and sharing of evidence, and so on, including sharing of evidence that is harmful for one’s position. Of course, this works imperfectly, but the system wouldn’t work well at all w/o it, and we don’t have any such rules in life in general, so it’s important to not draw too close of an analogy here. Also, “Civil” legal systems don’t use the adversarial approach, as is used in Common Law systems, and it’s at least not obvious that they do a worse job at getting to the truth. (I’m not in a position to say if they do better, but I think the weaker claim, that it’s not obvious that they do worse, is pretty well supported.) This suggests that an adversarial approach isn’t _necessary_, and so if it has other bad results in an area, it might well be better to take a different approach.

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

Kenny, the adversarial system can be productive if there are people advocating for a wide enough range for positions and if there is an impartial “jury” to decide. Without that, it’s just propaganda.

Regarding whether there are opinions being shut down, that’s what both faculty and students report in polls.

Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

The comments on the “future of philosophy” reminded me of some things the late Hector-Neri Castañeda wrote in his part descriptive and part normative conception of worldview pluralism in his essay, “Philosophy as a Science and as a Worldview” (in Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal, eds., The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis?, 1989):

“The interdisciplinary connections of philosophy, the broader view of ordinary language [in comparison to ‘the monolithic days of lexicalist ordinary language philosophy’], the richer view of experience fomented by existentialism and Wittgenstein, the re-discovery of the immense treasures of the history of philosophy, have all connived to break the conventional barriers among problems—let alone philosophical problems. They have also conferred on the current practitioners of philosophy a hitherto unbeknownst freedom to apply to each problem whatever tools we deem appropriate. Thus, in current philosophizing there is a boundless methodological pluralism.

[….] All topics are available; all its applications are legitimate; all methods are feasible; all interdisciplinary connections are accessible. [….] Moreover, contemporary philosophers have never had so many opportunities for a superior training as they have today. [….]

… [I]n the practice of philosophy there are two major tendencies, each correct—up to the point where the other tendency is not joined but shunned. One is the forest approach, the tendency to see very general structural lines of the world or of experience. The other, the bush approach, is the tendency to dwell upon small aspects of experience. Each approach can be, and has been, exercised in varying degrees. This is not bad. What is bad is the policy of merely exercising the extreme degrees. [….] Fruitful philosophical experiences are combinations of the two approaches: taking a full attentive look at the forests of the structures of experience and seeing their measure and reach in their realizations in the particular trees and bushes of experience: the pervasive general in the particular; the abstract structures within the concrete empirical [for what it’s worth, I think Hilary Putnam exemplified this sort of philosophical praxis]. We want to understand the very large structures of experience, but we must understand them in their concrete settings in human life in its full social niche within the world at large—with occasional considered guesses at what things might be outside the human situation.

Some philosophers do not see the large picture of the theories or approaches within which they attempt to shed light on some small pieces of philosophical topics. This happens not infrequently in some exercises of so-called analytic philosophy: refined little lamps are set to cast the most intense lights on the smallest aspects of human experience. Sometimes the light is lost on the empty spaces surround the miniscule points under consideration. No wonder, then, that even many of those philosophers working within a school, or approach, whose scope and organization they see fully, may yet fail to appreciate the contributions by philosophers in other schools. Some fail to see the richness and complexity of human experience, yet, more importantly, some fail to see that the world is capable of being different in different contexts or perspectives [a point made rather systematically and emphatically in Jain epistemology as well as in several books on “truth” by Michael P. Lynch, among others]. Often the presupposition is straightforward: there is one world and an indivisible unity of man and world, hence, they assume, there is just one theory of the structure of man and world [thus imbibing the more intoxicating parts of scientism, crude realism, and metaphysical absolutism, in either a reductionist or idealist direction]. This … gives us the polemical approximation unity of the philosophical profession.

Here I wish neither to defend nor to attack this assumed view of philosophical truth. I submit instead a first-order philosophical pluralism: to understand human nature we need all the theories, all the models we can invent. I am not proposing a relativistic Protagorean metaphysics. I am recommending, first, a methodological theoretical pluralism [students of comparative philosophy may already be disposed to see things this way, although there is nothing intrinsic to comparative philosophy that entails such theoretical pluralism] [….]

Perhaps human-world reality is not a monolith, but a many-sided perspectival structure. Perhaps the greater understanding will be achieved by being able to see human reality now one way and now another way. Thus, we need ALL philosophical points of views to be developed and ‘developed’ is meant in earnest: the more it illustrates the harmonious unison of the encompassing Forest Approach and the riches of the Bush Approach. Hence, all philosophers are part of one team collectively representing the totality of philosophical wisdom, and individually working the details a point of view: we are ALL parts of the same human project. Looking at things this way, we realize that we need not polemicize against the most fashionable views hoping to supplant them with our own view [emphasis added]. Instead, with a clear conscience, we may urge the defenders of those views to extend them, to consider further data to make them more and more comprehensive, pursuing the goal of maximal elucidation of the structure of experience and the world. At the same time we urge other philosophers to develop equally comprehensive views that are deliberately built as alternatives. The aim is to have ALL the possible most comprehensive master theories of world and experience.

To be sure, we cannot foretell that such a plurality of view as envisaged is ultimately feasible. But neither can we prove that in the end there must be just one total view, bound to overwhelm all others. If many master views are feasible, then the greatest philosophical illumination will consist alternatively to see reality through ALL those master views. It would be still true that the greatest philosophical light comes, so to speak, from the striking of theories against each other, but not in the destruction of one theory in the striking process, but rather in the complementary alternation among them. Each master theory would be like a pair of colored glasses with different patterns of magnification so that the same mosaic of reality can appear differently arranged [this calls to mind my youthful experimentation with psychedelics!]. Here Wittgenstein’s reflections on the duck-rabbit design are relevant. The different theories of the world give us different views, the rabbit, the duck, the deer, the tiger, and so on, all embedded in the design of reality. The analogy is lame on one crucial point: the master theories of the world and experience must be forged piecemeal: with an eye on the Bush Approach, patiently exegesizing the linguistic and phenomenological data, and with another eye on the Forest Approach, building the theoretical planks (axioms, principles, theses, rules) carefully and rigorously.” [….]

Among the consequences of “pluralistic meta-philosophy” noted by Castañeda is a “later stage in the development of philosophy” in which we will be rendered fit to engage in a “comparative study of master theories of the world and experience,” or what he terms “dia-philosophy.” In other words, our master theories of philosophical structures will be sufficiently rich and comprehensive for us to be able to articulate holistic and dia-philosophical critique: “compar[ing] two equally comprehensive theories catering to exactly the same rich collection of data, and, second, assess[ing] the compared theories in terms of their diverse illumination of the data.”

“The natural adversary attitude” will take the form of “criticisms across systems or theories,” but “not as refutations or strong objections, but as contributions of new data as formulations of hurdles for steady development.”
Castañeda christens the development of master theories of the world and experience for dia-philosophical comparison “sym-philosophy:” “Thus the deeper sense in which ALL philosophers are members of one and the same team is the sense in which we are all sym-philosophers: playing our varied instruments in the production of the dia-philosophical symphony.”

Mark Lance once raised the question of the significance of axiological questions with regard to methodological issues in Castañeda’s work (and truth be told, I’ve read comparatively little of his philosophical corpus), a question he may be more technically qualified than me to address, nevertheless, I’ve added the following by way of a preliminary reply to his question.

Castañeda’s discussion of “human nature and patterns of experience;” his distinction between “foundational” problems (e.g., of mind, language, reality, and practical reasoning) and the so-called “hard problems” of “applied philosophy;” his view that the profession’s prior emphasis on certain skills of reasoning well that amounted to an evasion of important empirical and axiological questions (hence philosophers ‘tended to be arrogantly humble in the timid disregard of the important issues of human living’), and the fact that he “welcomed with profound satisfaction and cheerfulness” the increasing number within the profession that had begun working on normative questions and the “important issues of life,” together suggest he did not intend to sidestep (broadly speaking) axiological questions or, in effect, fail to accord them pride of place. His description and valorization of what he called “unlimited topical freedom” (as well as the fact that ‘all its [i.e., philosophy’s] applications are legitimate, all methods are feasible, all interdisciplinary connections are accessible) appears directly linked to his assumptions about human nature and experience and a corresponding meta-philosophical view about value pluralism (while the number of values is finite, the manner of individual and group realization of these values is in principle open-ended), including related assumptions about the nature of truth; something akin, it seems to me, to Michael Lynch’s treatment of “truth as one and many” or what has been termed ”soft realism,” hence his belief, for example, that we need to tease out the metaphysical or ontological possibility that “human-world reality is not a monolith, but a many-sided perspectival structure.”

In short, his “first order” methodological theoretical pluralism is not without presuppositions and assumptions such that his view can (if it does not already) accord pride of place to axiology within the elaboration of respective worldviews (or ‘ALL possible most comprehensive master theories of world and experience’), the emphasis being on the fullest possible development of alternative theories.

I have an indirect or implied proposal to professional philosophers that is, in part, inspired by Castañeda’s views as outlined above, suggesting that the “highest” or best form(s) of philosophy will speak to what has been called (from Martha Nussbaum to Pierre Hadot to Jonardon Ganeri) “therapeutic” and “practical” questions and topics (thus more purely speculative, highly technical [insofar as it is not rhetorically translatable into language for public fora], and largely guild-oriented subject matter would be subsidiary). I believe this would go some distance in attracting more young people into the profession, or at the very least help others cultivate a lifelong taste for philosophy (it would also help consolidate the notion of philosophy as unavoidably cosmpopolitan or global): Therapeutic Philosophy and the Art(s) of Living Together.