The Practicality of Philosophy

“There is something philistine in his demand that philosophy always answer to practical needs.”

That’s Kieran Setiya (MIT), reviewing What’s the Use of Philosophy? by Philip Kitcher (Columbia) in the London Review of Books.

[Katerina Kamprani, “Thick Fork”]

In the review, Setiya takes issue with Kitcher’s characterization of the discipline (which he suggests describes the 1960s better than it describes the 2020s), but his main point of disagreement is over the extent to which philosophy needs to be useful. Kitcher, Setiya says, wants “a philosophy of use to scientists, or which can be applied to social problems. He also wants new synthetic visions, ways of seeing the world that bring together different disciplines with an eye to human flourishing.”

There’s some appeal to that, but Setiya is concerned that emphasizing the potential practicality of philosophy distracts us from how philosophy is valuable in itself. Here’s an excerpt:

My principal objection to Kitcher’s critique, though, isn’t that he is wrong about the history or sociology of the discipline, but that there is something philistine in his demand that philosophy always answer to practical needs. Kitcher is inspired here by the pragmatist John Dewey, whom he calls ‘the most important philosopher of the 20th century’. (I suspect that Kitcher’s nostalgia for philosophers as public intellectuals is largely for Dewey himself, a singular figure in the history of American philosophy.) Dewey ‘claimed that intellectual work should conform to a social division of labour, in which the inquiries conducted should serve others outside the tiny coterie of those who undertake them’. To the charge of philistinism, Dewey and Kitcher would reply that philosophy, for them, involves more than applied ethics and contributions to active science, valuable as those are. They want a synthetic philosophy that provides ‘world-formulas’ – questions, concepts, analogies, ideals – that help us take a wider view of human life…

[I]t seems to me that the value of music doesn’t lie in its power to satisfy non-musical needs: it is valuable in itself. And the same is true of pure philosophy. It satisfies a need, but that need is philosophical and issues from a curiosity about fundamental questions that the natural and social sciences cannot answer. Pure philosophy isn’t for everyone, but neither is Philip Glass… It’s a mistake to demand that music be of use to those who are indifferent to it.

It’s difficult to argue that something is valuable in itself. But I’m not alone in finding the questions of pure philosophy both maddening and mesmerising. Against Kitcher’s plea for an end to pure philosophy, I would cite Dewey’s fellow pragmatist, C.S. Peirce, who made a rule ‘to be inscribed on every wall of the city of philosophy: do not block the way of inquiry.’

Read the full review here.

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Joseph Duvernay
7 months ago

‘…do not block inquiry…’!

7 months ago

Splendid response by Setiya. Game, set, match.

Curtis Franks
Curtis Franks
Reply to  Roger
7 months ago

“You might think that the sentence ‘The cup is on the saucer’ names two objects (‘cup’ and ‘saucer’) and specifies a relation (‘being on top of’) between them, making a fact. But what about the fact that the saucer is underneath the cup? Same objects, different relation: what could be more unlike being on top of something than being beneath it? Maybe there are two distinct relations here, holding in opposite directions. If so, what explains why they travel together? Is it coincidence? An unacknowledged law of nature? Better perhaps to say that there is just one relation between cup and saucer, a single fact that we can describe in different ways. But if there is only one relation, it would seem arbitrary to choose between ‘being on top of’ and ‘being underneath’. Is the real relation neither of these but some ineffable nexus for which we have no ordinary words? Or does this whole line of reasoning rest on a mistake? If so, what is it? These are the sorts of question that obsessed Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Frank Ramsey in the early 20th century. Russell became a public figure of the kind that Kitcher approves; Wittgenstein is read by non-philosophers; and Ramsey was a pragmatist. Yet Kitcher implies that they were wrong to pursue such questions, which have no practical purpose.”

I imagine most readers of the London Review of Books will know that Wittgenstein “pursued” questions like this, in the work of his that is read by non-philosophers, in order to lampoon that pursuit, and that the effectiveness of this literary device is what attracted the attention of those non-philosophers.

7 months ago

As one might expect from Kieran Setiya, the review contains a thoughtful and well written criticism of Kitcher’s project. But it’s also more alive to some of the merits of Kitcher’s critique than Justin’s summary might suggest. Setiya’s most fundamental point of criticism is that Kitcher’s pragmatism is philistine, insofar as Kitcher argues that philosophy should not aim at the discovery of purely philosophical truths, but rather aim to contribute to a broader process of inquiry and social reconstruction. However this risks just begging the question against Kitcher (as Setiya seems to admit, when he acknowledges that “It’s difficult to argue that something is valuable in itself”).

Ian Olasov
7 months ago

Sometimes when we want to make philosophy relevant, we appeal to a particular conception of the philosophical interests of ordinary people – namely, that they have to do with their animal and financial needs. (“They don’t have time for philosophy! They need to put food on the table. How can philosophy help do that?” That sort of thing.)

It’s important that this conception is both false and elitist. I know that it’s false empirically. I’ve talked to hundreds, maybe thousands of people at the Ask a Philosopher booth, and they bring all sorts of questions to the table. Many, maybe most of them are not practical questions. People ask about consciousness, the epistemology of math, randomness, the fundamental nature of reality, scientific realism, whether hot dogs are sandwiches, the history of philosophy, what words mean, what dreams mean, and a million other things. People are emotionally invested in these questions, but answering them one way or another won’t, generally, make them act any differently. The elitism here is in thinking that only academics are curious enough to have intellectual interests beyond how to keep warm and fill their own stomachs.

I posed this to Kitcher (less pointedly) in so many words during a Q + A at a conference. He answered by asking, rhetorically, how I could possibly know what questions ordinary people are interested in. I’m a big fan of Kitcher’s work! But the fact that it didn’t occur to him that I (or he) could have just asked them is telling.

Creature of Darkness
Creature of Darkness
Reply to  Ian Olasov
7 months ago

Yep. My intro course has a mix of “applied” philosophy and philosophy about the fundamental questions (skepticism, the mind-body problem, etc), because I think both kinds are important! When asked on my evals about their favorite readings, plenty of students say their favorite readings were those about the fundamental questions. God forbid “””ordinary people”””” are intellectually curious.

Patrick S. O'Donnell
7 months ago

I suspect Setiya is largely correct on the particulars of his critique (which makes me yearn for the Kitcher of yesteryear who penned brilliant stuff on science and democracy), but I am perhaps more perplexed than he is about the idea that philosophy is “valuable in itself,” much as I’ve been about the locution “art for art’s sake.” If Kitcher, however mistaken his characterization of contemporary philosophy, would like to see more philosophy with some relevance, however modest, to the myriad political, economic (in the sense of moral and political economy), technological/industrial, and environmental/ecological problems of our age (assuming most of us have some notion of what these are, for it would be too tedious to specify them), I’m in wholehearted agreement. And that of course does not rule out philosophers dealing with more existential and metaphysical issues, or work on more specialized topics that may in the first instance be of interest to only one’s colleagues in the profession (as long as we can—eventually—ascertain some relation or relevance to the big picture), for I’m in favor of both topical and methodological pluralism (although there should be more of the former than the latter) albeit within principled constraints: if we are capable of discerning or appreciating the motives and reasons that animate such philosophizing so as to reveal its value; its moral significance if not urgency; its possible contributions to the both the chronic and novel problems that afflict us; its warrant or justification in terms of the relief of human suffering or the pursuit of human welfare, well-being, or happiness; or its illumination of our individual and collective responsibilities or how best to pursue the both the common good and “the Good” (I’m inclined to think much of this requires utopian imagination and thought; at the link, see in particular William A. Galston’s characterization of same from his Justice and the Human Good (1980).

Some of the more conspicuous problems of professional philosophy (as I’ve noted here before) remain more or less those well identified some years ago in the edited volume by Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal, The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis? (Open Court, 1989). Personally, like Kitcher (and the late Hilary Putnam), I’m attracted to Deweyan pragmatism (that may be a peculiarly American disposition) as well as what has been loosely characterized as “therapeutic philosophy”(which, apart from, say, contemplation, self-examination and meditation, often entails what John Cottingham aptly calls ‘spiritual exercises,’ which are found in both religious and non-religious philosophical traditions) in keeping with a quote from Epictetus that I first came across in Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1994): “Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.” The diminution or amelioration of the causes and effects of human suffering or even, as in Buddhism, the possibility for the elimination or transcendence suffering on the one hand, and the achievement of human joy, happiness, or flourishing (eudaimonia) on the other, are in effect two sides of the same coin. For the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics, notes Nussbaum, “philosophy is above all the art of human life.” The medical analogy central to this conception of philosophy plays an intriguingly similar if not identical role to the very same analogy used in Buddhism (and this approach to ‘the emotions’ or the passions is what for the Buddhist falls under the larger rubric of ‘mental afflictions,’ is in many respects the same as well). “Empty and vain” is any philosophy, on this account, not conceived along the lines of an “art of human living.”

Three recent example of this sort of philosophy are Susan James’ Spinoza on Learning to Live Together (Oxford University Press, 2020), Amy Olberding’s The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy (OUP, 2019), and Agnes Callard’s Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming (OUP, 2018). (A wider sample of possible titles is found in my compilations on ‘The Emotions;’ ‘On Human Nature, Personhood and Personal Identity;’ ‘Beyond Inequality: Toward a Moral and Political Economy of Welfare, Well-Being and Human Flourishing;’ and ‘Individual and Shared (or ‘Collective’) Responsibility.’). I’ve also found some recent work on Hume’s philosophy that speak to questions of human character, virtues and vices, and collective co-existence in a “naturalist” vein to be eminently deserving of our attention. The idea the philosophy should be centrally concerned with ethically or even spiritually (normative) “ways of living” is of course likewise found in classical Chinese worldviews (Daoist, Confucian, Mohist…) and Indic philosophical schools that grew up within religious traditions (Nyāya, Vaiśesika, Sāmkhya, Yoga, Mīmāmsā, Vedānta, Jaina, and Buddhist). In Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus (Princeton University Press, 2012) John M. Cooper (and after Pierre Hadot) characterizes all of classical Greek philosophy in much the same manner: “In antiquity, beginning with Socrates … philosophy was widely pursued as not just the best guide to life but as both the intellectual basis and the motivating force for the best human life….” Of course I cannot legislate—nor do I want to—what kinds of philosophy professionals do or might practice, but I will continue to argue if not agitate on behalf of those sorts of philosophizing I find intellectually availing, politically and morally responsible if not emancipatory (as in some species of Marxism), and “spiritually” wise or liberating (from psychoanalysis to Pātañjala Yoga and Buddhism).

Chuck Taylor
7 months ago

Both are good but we are overwhelmed by pure philosophy. A better balance is needed in order for philodophy to be of value to those who are not philosophers. Calling sonething philistene is cheap name calling. Embrace the philistene or at least don’t worry about it.

Reply to  Chuck Taylor
7 months ago

Aren’t we overwhelmed by applied philosophy (all of the academy that isn’t pure philosophy)? Philosophy departments are the one place where people interested in pure philosophy can work on it professionally.

Reply to  Chuck Taylor
7 months ago

We are overwhelmed by pure philosophy?

Go on Philpapers right now, and examine the “purest” sections (say, mereological problems, realism-antirealism debate, modal metaphysics, apriori knowledge, external world skepticism…) and compare that to the sections on issues which involve intersection between philosophy and cognitive science, linguistcs, physics, biology, social psychology, economics…

I think that you’ll find the latter sections much larger than the former

David Livingstone Smith
7 months ago

Whenever I encounter the rhetoric of “purity,” I’m off the bus.

Daniel Muñoz
Reply to  David Livingstone Smith
7 months ago

This comment strikes me as a bit unfair.

“Pure” is standardly used to contrast with “applied,” as in “pure mathematics.” I don’t think the term is doing any rhetorical dirty work here. It’s not as if Setiya is insinuating that applied work is unclean, that pure work is superior, or anything like that. He’s just using “pure” as a snappy way to say “done for its own sake.”

Mark Jago
7 months ago

Kieren gets it exactly right, imho. The issue is especially important here in the UK, where there’s huge governmental and institutional pressure to pursue only the applied side of academia. At many universities, serious research is possible only through grant-funded teaching leave, but grants are increasingly available only to immediately ‘impactful’ projects. Similarly for graduate students, where doctoral funding is heavily skewed towards practical topics. Government funding for departments, via the REF, explicitly views a low-quality piece of research with high non-academic impact as being more valuable than 4x OUP monographs.

It’s undeniable that philosophy should engage with the public and contribute to the public good; but insisting that all philosophy do so, immediately and in a way that’s predictable before the research begins, is going to be highly damaging.