A Plea for Synthetic Philosophy (guest post)


“There need not be strict disciplinary boundaries between philosophy and other disciplines.”

In the following post, Catarina Dutilh Novaes, Professor of Philosophy at VU Amsterdam and Professorial Fellow at Arché at the University of St. Andrews explains and makes a case for synthetic philosophy.

This is the first in a series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.


[“Abandoned Schoolhouse” by Gary Simmons]

A Plea for Synthetic Philosophy 
by Catarina Dutilh Novaes

A few years ago, the philosopher (and prolific blogger) Eric Schliesser used the term ‘synthetic philosophy’ to describe the work of Daniel Dennett and Peter Godfrey-Smith. Schliesser presented synthetic philosophy as “a style of philosophy that brings together insights, knowledge, and arguments from the special sciences with the aim to offer a coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both). Synthetic philosophy may, in turn, generate new research in the special sciences…” Schliesser did not coin the term itself: the once influential but by now largely forgotten polymath 19th-century thinker Herbert Spencer (of ‘survival of the fittest’-fame) titled his mammoth 10-volume work covering biology, psychology, sociology and ethics System of Synthetic Philosophy.

But Schliesser can be credited for re-introducing the term to denote an approach in philosophy that has become more pervasive and widely accepted over the last two decades, namely one where philosophers engage extensively with work done in relevant (empirical) disciplines to inform their philosophical investigations and theories. Other recent examples of synthetic philosophers include Neil Levy (see his Bad Beliefs) and Kim Sterelny, who describes his book The Evolved Apprentice in the following terms: “The essay is an essay in philosophy in part because it depends primarily on the cognitive toolbox of philosophers: it is work of synthesis and argument, integrating ideas and suggestions from many different research traditions. No one science monopolizes this broad project though many contribute to it. So I exploit and depend on data, but do not provide new data” (Sterelny, 2012, p. xi). If this is a good description of synthetic philosophy, then it is fair to say that I have been (trying to be!) a synthetic philosopher for about 15 years now, so when Schliesser introduced the term, I adopted it wholeheartedly. (It is for sure much catchier than alternatives such as the cumbersome ‘empirically-informed philosophy’.)

The idea that there need not be strict disciplinary boundaries between philosophy and other disciplines enjoyed some popularity in the 20th century, in particular in the tradition of ‘scientific philosophy’ initiated by Bertrand Russell and continued by the Vienna Circle and later with their ‘heirs’ in the United States such as W.V.O. Quine (who used the ambiguous term ‘naturalism’ to describe the idea of continuity between philosophy and other disciplines) and Hilary Putnam. (Much before that, over the centuries, there was for the most arguably no strict separation between philosophy and other disciplines either; Aristotle was first and foremost a biologist.) But there was also much resistance within analytic philosophy to the idea that philosophical inquiry should in any way be informed by scientific findings (see this piece that I co-wrote on the dissonant origins of analytic philosophy). This resistance is to be traced back to G.E. Moore, who insisted that moral philosophy and ethics in particular were strictly non-scientific, purely conceptual domains. It continued with the so-called ‘ordinary language philosophers’, as exemplified by the damning critique of Carnap’s notion of explication in Strawson’s piece for the Carnap Living Philosophers volume.

To motivate a strict separation between science and philosophy, a point sometimes made is that scientists are involved in the merely descriptive inquiry of telling us how things are, while philosophers are involved in conceptual and (or) normative inquiry as well, which includes looking at how things ought to be understood, and how they ought to be. If true, this point has important methodological implications, as different methods are used for different types of investigation. Methods to investigate how things are include data collection, experiments, field work, etc. Methods to investigate how things should be include conceptual analysis, ‘intuitions’, thought experiments, etc. Some decades ago, however, this presumed neat separation was challenged by the so-called experimental philosophy approach, which prompted what might described as a small methodological crisis in analytic philosophy. Could philosophy be empirical/experimental after all? The X-Phi challenge made it clear that more sustained methodological reflection was needed, and philosophers spent much of the first two decades of the 21st century discussing the ins and outs of different methods for philosophical inquiry (see Williamson’s The Philosophy of Philosophy and the Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Methodology).

It is fair to say that scientific/synthetic philosophy ‘won’ the battle in that the Moorean rejection of engagement with empirical findings in philosophical inquiry has become much less widespread in the last decade. I speak from (anecdotal) personal experience: when I was working on the project that culminated in my monograph Formal Languages in Logic (2012), I often got remarks to the effect that it was all very interesting, but what I was doing wasn’t really philosophy. (My standard response was: well, I’m glad no one is saying that it’s all very philosophical, but not interesting.) By contrast, in later years the research that culminated in my monograph The Dialogical Roots of Deduction (2020) did not typically prompt the same kind of reaction, even though it was just as empirically oriented as my earlier work. The fact that The Dialogical Roots of Deduction won the Lakatos Award in 2022 (sorry folks, time for some shameless self-promotion!) attests to the widespread acceptance of synthetic philosophy as an approach to philosophical inquiry (though philosophers of science are, of course, from the start more amenable to the general idea of engaging with other disciplines).

In my opinion, philosophy is especially well-placed to facilitate much-needed interdisciplinary collaboration between different disciplines. It is now widely recognized that so-called ‘wicked problems’ require complementary approaches to be addressed, but each methodology has its limitations and dead angles. Experimental methods may lack ‘ecological validity’ (lab situations do not really reproduce the phenomena in the wild); quantitative methods are often not very fine-grained and may give rise to spurious correlations and ‘noise’; qualitative methods may be instances of ‘cherry-picking’ and have limited reach. Thus, what has become clear, in particular during the Covid-19 pandemic, is that triangulation of methods is essential for investigating complex problems.

It seems to me that philosophers have much to contribute to interdisciplinarity and triangulation efforts for two main reasons: philosophers are trained to engage in careful conceptual inquiry, clarifying and sharpening significant (scientific) concepts and sometimes introducing new ones (Carnapian explication, conceptual engineering); philosophers may be better able to see the forest rather than only the trees, as it were, by drawing on various scientific disciplines (as suggested in the Sterelny quote above) and noticing connections that may remain unnoticed within each specific discipline. Philosophy has much more potential for synthesis than is often recognized (even by us philosophers), and this is perfectly compatible with the centrality of analysis in analytic philosophy. (Traditionally, analysis and synthesis were viewed as two complementary rather than incompatible processes: you break things down to them put them back together again, usually in a different, more fruitful configuration.) (Note: commenting on an earlier draft of this post, Eric Schliesser remarked that my conception of synthetic philosophy differs in some important respects from his. He thinks that my conception resembles that of Kitcher’s, which he discussed in this blog post.)

True enough, there are also a number of difficulties, pitfalls and risks involved in attempting to do synthetic philosophy. For starters, the approach requires that the philosopher be conversant with various different scientific disciplines; she has to be a ‘polymath’ in some sense, which in the current scenario of scientific hyper-specialization is a formidable challenge. Secondly, there is a perennial risk of conceptual confusion/equivocation and ‘talking past each other’ for lack of a common vocabulary (a familiar problem in interdisciplinarity studies). Third, scientific studies themselves are not always reliable guides, with many important results not being replicated (see the famous ‘replication crisis’ in psychology and other disciplines).

However, while these issues are real and must be taken seriously, I submit that they should not be viewed as knock-down arguments against synthetic philosophy. (I have responses to each of them but I’m running out of space!) Sustained methodological reflection on the ins and outs of synthetic philosophy is still needed, but I hope to have established here at least that synthetic philosophy is an interesting and viable approach for philosophical inquiry.


Warwick University MA in Philosophy
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Brian Garvey
Brian Garvey
9 months ago

I very much agree with the view presented in this piece. But Novaes is perhaps a bit unfair on ordinary language philosophy. (Admittedly, I haven’t read the Strawson critique of Carnap cited here.) At its best, OLP is an empirical enquiry, looking carefully at how language is actually used. (But it does not, contrary to what Russell, E. Nagel etc. said about it, treat ordinary usage as a final arbiter of how language should be used.) Austin died relatively young, but I think he envisaged developing a more thoroughly empirical approach to what ordinary language-users actually said/did. And Ryle, in Dilemmas, explicitly says that an important role for philosophy in helping to negotiate ‘border disputes’ between different disciplines (including non-philosophy ones), much like the ‘triangulation’ that Novaes describes. Dennett was, after all, a student of Ryle, and there’s a lot more of that influence in Dennett than is generally appreciated.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Brian Garvey
9 months ago

Ordinary language philosophy can certainly be conducted as an empirical inquiry, but then it should go beyond the philosopher simply consulting their own intuitions about the meaning of expressions in their preferred languages (at best asking their colleagues down the hall). (It’s a caricature, but it’s not far off from what at least some OLPers did/do.) In this case, it would come closer to linguistics, discourse analysis and other language-oriented disciplines.

Brian Garvey
Brian Garvey
Reply to  Catarina Dutilh Novaes
9 months ago

Well, yes I would say it is a caricature. I don’t deny that people who fit the caricature exist, and that was why I said ‘ordinary language philosophy at its best’. People who attack OLP based on this caricature seem to me to miss two important things (at least):

1. Ryle and Austin did not just consult their own, or their colleagues-down-the-hall’s, intuitions about language. They spent a lot of time studying the OED – that is, the multi-volume one that is put together by experts who study language empirically, cites pages and pages of examples of a word in use over many centuries, and is very frequently updated to take in new words and new uses. This seems to me to be analogous to philosophers paying close attention to current science – recognising when there is expert opinion in a field, not necessarily taking the experts’ word as gospel, but taking it very seriously indeed. This is far better than a philosopher consulting their intuitions, and likely also far better than a philosopher’s attempts to conduct their own primary empirical research in a field where they’re not experts. (Some experimental philosophy seems to me to fall very clearly into this amateurish-research trap, as did, I think, Arne Naess’s attempts to discover ‘ordinary people’’s linguistic intuitions.) Austin was also very interested in law reports and psychological findings as sources of evidence on usage. (For what it’s worth, both Ryle and Austin were also fluent in multiple other languages, ancient and modern.)

2. In any case, the aim of these ordinary language philosophers, at any rate, was not just to determine the ‘correct’ use of a word. (The OED would very actively discourage such a notion anyway.) Rather, it was to use the nuances and variety of linguistic usage to (e.g.) highlight distinctions that philosophers fail to make (e.g. Austin on the different uses of ‘illusion’, ‘hallucination’, etc.), or to point out ways in which philosophers make highly misleading claims by using words that have a life in the world outside philosophy (e.g. Austin again on the claim that what we see is sense-data). None of that implies that philosophers should never deny distinctions or use words in a new way. But certainly Austin and Ryle thought that philosophy gets led down a lot of wild-goose chases by doing that thoughtlessly. 

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Brian Garvey
9 months ago

I’m a fan of Austin, just for the record! I also think that Strawson’s critique of Carnapian explication is significant (in particular the ‘change of subject’ worry). I didn’t mean to say that OLP is outright ‘wrong’ on this, if anything many of them raise methodological concerns that need to be taken seriously.

Brian Garvey
Brian Garvey
Reply to  Catarina Dutilh Novaes
9 months ago

I’m glad to hear you’re an Austin fan! And to reiterate: I am very much on board with your message in this piece.

Since you mentioned Quine, I’ll take the opportunity to raise something about him that puzzles me, and is germane to the issue at hand. (Don’t feel obliged to answer this question though!)

Quine is very frequently cited as a – or even *the* – primary inspiration by people who pursue the sort of very empirically-informed philosophy you’re advocating here (e.g. Dennett). And in one way, it’s easy to see why – denying the analytic-synthetic distinction, and seeing philosophy as continuous with empirical science, are powerful justifications for such an approach. But Quine’s own engagement with science is of a very vague and general kind – e.g. he believed in some kind of physicalism, and some kind of behaviourism. There’s very little appeal to any details of science. So what I’m wondering is: did Quine himself have a very different view of what the implications of his position were for what philosophers should be doing? Could it be that he didn’t think it meant that philosophers should engage with science more? Rather, did he think that, as long as philosophers’ worldview was sufficiently naturalistic, they could keep engaging in projects very disconnected from the details of science, because just in virtue of doing philosophy they would already be doing something that’s a valid part of the scientific project?

This is all very speculative, but maybe there is somebody on this thread who’s a better Quine scholar than I.

Paul L Franco
Reply to  Brian Garvey
9 months ago

On the point in this thread about Austin’s method, its relation to Arne Naess’s method, and their differing accounts of what counts as evidence: A recent paper by Siobhan Chapman was published at Synthese on this topic. Link here.

On the point about Quine’s naturalism: I’ve had similar questions. For example, why did Quine favor the resources of psychology for naturalized epistemology, but not history (and sociology) of science? It would seem that the history of science would be as central to giving an account of how science actually proceeds as psychology is. At least for this question, I think there are hints of an answer towards the end of “Epistemology Naturalized” where he derides Kuhn, Polanyi, and Russ Hanson as part of a recent wave of “epistemological nihilism” given their views on observation.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Paul L Franco
9 months ago

I agree, Quine paid lip service to ‘naturalizing’ philosophy but didn’t really do it, or at least he did not engage with a sufficient wide range of other disciplines. The title of my book ‘The Dialogical Roots of Deduction’ is a nod to his ‘The Roots of Reference’, but I always intended for my roots to be more wide-ranging and include history, socio-cultural findings etc.

Matt L
9 months ago

I was going to say something similar to Brian Garvey about ordinary language philosophy. I also think this is a bit unfair to Moore. (So many people are unfair to Moore!) But, more importantly, I’m broadly sympathetic, but with two additions/worries:

1) There’s no reason to limit this to “empirical” disciplines, at least as those are broadly understood. There are similar benefits in engaging with law, art history (and probably other art-related areas), history, and so on. I see the advantages (and potential worries) as broadly the same as with “empirical” fields.

2) There is always a big worry that philosophical work done like this will have the same relationship to the other field that statues have to pidgens: a place to display poorly digested matter. Worse yet, it can be pretty difficult for both producers and consumers to know when this is the case. Lots of care is called for here.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Matt L
9 months ago

Yes, I mean ’empirical’ in a very broad sense, including all those fields you mention and much more. Basically any other intellectual/academic discipline (but maybe excluding things like astrology, although that too is perhaps interesting as a cultural phenomenon!)

Dilectiss
Dilectiss
Reply to  Matt L
9 months ago

1) Those are definitely empirical disciplines. Now experts in those domains might be typically untrained in statistical analysis but that’s a different topic.

2) Look at AI research — AI experts often do synthetic philosophy, and they do it well. On the other hand, when philosophers try to talk about AI, they so often miss the mark by being plainly outdated (uninformed), or rather, showing a tendency to stay in their own head rather than look at what actual AI researchers say. So yes, your worry is legitimate. However, it’s only because philosophers are so often under this impression that they can just talk about anything by sitting in their armchair and reading a few papers out of context, often written by other philosophers, without properly studying their actual topic, say, by even reading a textbook written by the domain experts (rather than philosophers). Unfortunately it seems even the most prolific suffer from this so maybe it’s just something from the training of philosophers that resulted in this attitude. The so-called ‘synthetic philosophy’ itself can only be a virtue.

Sense and Nonsense?
9 months ago

Certainly much can be gained by incorporating empirical evidence and methods in philosophy, and conversely scrutinizing philosophical positions that run directly counter to naturalistic, reductive, scientific practice.

However, this piece at least leaves out that the reason which some 20th century philosophers denied the relevance of empirical methods to ethics, is that they thought (correctly I suspect) that ethics was not within the domain of sensible or properly truth evaluable propositions whatsoever.

Empirical data can help us learn interesting things for game theoretical or evolutionary theorizing (etc.) but if we think science (or anything for that matter) is going to lead us to truth about what is rational or what is ethical (simpliciter), there’s going to either be disappointment or long-standing misunderstanding.

If instead experimental philosophy is directed at pragmatic model and tool building (whether conceptual or logical), then I’m on board. Yet it seems like blurring the lines between science and philosophy risks producing iffy science as much as it promises to decrease the amount of nonsense in philosophy.

At any rate very good article.

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
9 months ago

Serendipity, Catarina, I was planning to email you an essay today that offers a bit of synthetic philosophy: Vojtěch Kolman’s “The Truth of Proof: A Hegelian Perspective on Constructivism”. He makes the case that the constructivist trend in 20th century mathematics can be understood in terms of a dialogical reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Given your interests, I thought you might enjoy it, but this essay gives me a chance to advertise it more widely.
Concerning synthetic philosophy, it seems to me that such a pursuit stands to benefit both philosophy and the special sciences. I’ll make brief case for each kind of benefit. Work on shared intentionality and the role of dialogue in the ontogeny and phylogeny of human cognition indicates that philosophers of mind have something to gain from a careful study of this literature. Here I’m thinking of Tomasello’s work, and Mercier and Sperber’s account of human reasoning, productively incorporated in your Dialogical Roots of Deduction, Ladislav Kořen’s Practices of Reason, and Jaroslav Peregrin’s forthcoming Normative Species.

Conversely, I taught a course on the psychology of morality this term, and it became clear to me that the field has a lot to gain from more attention to philosophical work. When Anscombe published “Modern Moral Philosophy”, she warned that deontological and consequentialist conceptions of duty and right became unmoored from any plausible grounding over the last two centuries, and that until we were in possession of a better understanding of the psychological processes attending moral thought, philosophers should pay more attention to ancient concerns about what it means to live well, or participate in a good life. I’ll point to two places where social psychologists appear to be subject to a critique along Anscombean lines.

Over the last two decades, Jonathan Haidt has developed a wide-ranging and conceptually sophisticated view about human moral psychology. Some of the first data in support of that view comes from “moral dumbfounding” studies: people are given scenarios where, e.g., a brother and a sister consensually agree to have sex. The studies are set up in such a way that consequentialist and deontological concerns don’t arise — the siblings use protection, only do it once, don’t tell anyone about it, etc. When asked about what makes the act wrong, subjects often get to a point where they say something like “I don’t know, it just seems wrong to me”. This is supposed to be evidence that the emotional dog is wagging its rational tail: we make our moral decisions based on hunch and instinct, not principle. Or so Haidt would have us conclude. The idea that there is a peculiarly human good that comes with a brother/sister relationship, and that the act of sexual intercourse irrevocably tarnishes that good, by changing the siblings’ relationship, isn’t so much as on the table. But there’s no question that such a response is the first sort of thing an Aristotelian would say.

Similar remarks could be made about the view advanced in Cass Sunstein’s BBS lead article, “Moral Heuristics”. At one point in that essay, Sunstein criticizes Michael Sandel’s arguments against emissions trading, or the practice of selling a company’s emissions allowances in an open market. Sunstein’s criticism against Sandel’s rejection of this practice comes by a contention that, because Sandel’s prohibition against such trading is supposed to contravene consequentialist principles, Sandel’s reasoning is not governed by a moral principle, but rather by a “homunculus” that is instinctively applying a “moral heuristic”. Once again, a perspective concerning what it is to live well simply goes missing: despite quoting passages from Sandel that clearly voice the idea, Sunstein doesn’t entertain the thought that we err in living well (collectively) if we treat emissions as a market commodity.

So three cheers for more synthetic philosophy, to the benefit of both philosophy and the special sciences!

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Preston Stovall
9 months ago

Thanks for this! Yes, the hope is very much that it will be a two-way street kind of communication between philosophers and researchers in other disciplines. I obviously think that the latter have much to learn from the former (I’m a philosopher!), and so far I’ve have many good interactions in my career with people in cognitive science, education, mathematics etc. But of course many of those people seem to think that philosophy isn’t relevant, so there’s still much work to be done to facilitate these conversations.

Neven
Neven
9 months ago
Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Neven
9 months ago

Except that my proposal is serious 😀

Neven
Neven
Reply to  Catarina Dutilh Novaes
9 months ago

Of course.

doris
9 months ago

Much to agree with here.

Indeed, defenses of “empirically informed,” “interdisciplinary,” or “synthetic” approaches to philosophy have been prominent in the contemporary literature since (at least) the 1990’s, when discussions of normativity and theoretical autonomy (partly sourced in the scientific ethical naturalisms responding to Moorean arguments) backdropped the establishment of empirical moral psychology and experimental philosophy as thriving subdisciplines.

Many participants in those discussions, I’m guessing, would take the viability of (contemporary) synthetic philosophy to have been established some time ago.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  doris
9 months ago

Very true, but I think there’s still room/need for more reflection on the different methodological implications of this ‘synthetic’ approach to philosophy, including some of the difficulties and pitfalls that another commentator in this post (Matt L) hints at.

Aaron Richardson
9 months ago

Thanks for the great post Catarina! As someone who is currently doing an MSc. in neuroscience, most everybody I talk to (philosophers and neuroscientists alike) is quite confused when I tell them that I come from, and plan to go back to, philosophy. So it’s a relief to see that might be changing! I would also like to add Patricia Churchland to your list of Synthetic Philosophers! While she called it “Neurophilosophy,” I think it would be difficult to find someone in the 20th century who did more work (both grunt work and heavy conceptual work) to integrate neuroscientific tools, methods, and means of reasoning into philosophical theorizing.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Aaron Richardson
9 months ago

100% agree on Pat Churchland as a synthetic philosopher!

Patrick S. O'Donnell
9 months ago

I am all for synthetic philosophy but believe it will likely remain rather rare (thus I hope I am wrong) insofar as the sciences are, for better and worse, far more specialized and fragmented these days (e.g., the many branches of neuroscience, physics, biology … (which, Nicholas Rescher notes, is an ‘unavoidable concomitant of progress’). Incidentally, this may be one reason Catarina took ten years, if I am not mistaken, to write her remarkable book on deduction! The point about specialization and fragementation was well-made by Nicholas Rescher in Nature and Understanding:The Metaphysics and Method of Science (OUP, 2000), evidenced, for example, in the fact that “our cognitive taxonomies are bursting at the seams.” As Rescher explains,

“Substantially the same story can be told for every field pf science. The emergence of new disciplines, branches, and specialties is manifest everywhere. And as though to negate this tendency and maintain unity, one finds an ongoing evolution of interdisciplinary syntheses: physical chemistry, astrophysics, biochemistry, [evolutionary psychology], etc. This very attempt to counteract fragmentation produces new fragments. Indeed, the phenomenology of this domain is nowadays so complex that some writers urge that the idea of a ‘natural taxonomy of science’ must be abandoned altogether. The expansion of the scientific literature is in fact such that natural science has in recent years been disintegrating before our very eyes. An ever larger number of ever more refined specialties has made it more and more difficult for experts in a given branch of science to achieve a thorough understanding about what is going on even the the specialty next door.”

A somewhat similar story can be told with regard to the social sciences, which recently saw the emergence of ethnography and new forms of anthropology and specialized branches within linguistics. Think too of economics: historical, Marxist, Keynesian, neo-classical, political economy, etc.

Polymaths who represent the pinnacle of synthetic philosophy on the order, say, of C.S. Peirce or Otto Neurath are, I suspect, a thing of the past. I am indulging in generalizations, so there will be exceptions to the rule (whether or not he is a professional philosopher, Jon Elster must be considered an exemplary polymath and a truly synthetic philosopher). It may not be too difficult to be synthetic if one is at the same time radically reductionist or neglectful, ignorant, or simply scornful of metaphysical, axiological, and psychological or philosophy of mind presuppositions and assumptions. Like a good philosopher, Catarina is cognizant of the possible or probable “difficulties, pitfalls and risks” of this ambitious methodological endeavor so perhaps I am merely stressing the scope and possible intractable nature of this enterprise. And she rightly notes the “perennial risk of conceptual confusion/equivocation and ‘talking past each other’ for lack of a common vocabulary,” something I thought about this morning with regard to how scientist discuss the concept of “nothingness,” prompted by reading an article on a technology website that breathlessly announced scientists have “created something out of nothing,” whereupon I attempted to learn just what they meant by “nothingness,” as well as survey the various conceptions of this concept among both scientists and philosophers of science. Needless to say, there is no consensus on this score and rather much confusion and ambiguity if not misuse of language. And here, of course, philosophers might provide some underlaboring but whether or not that takes on a synthetic character is another question.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
9 months ago

I didn’t spend all of ten years working on the book 😀 (Did lots of other things in parallel.) But yes, good work of synthesis is extremely laborious, so I took my time… But I’m more optimistic than you about the prospects for synthesis in the current scenario of hyper-specialization, and in any case it remains much needed. And yes, we need a more detailed reflection on criteria for what is to count as ‘good’ synthetic philosophy to avoid the pigeon-and-statue problem.

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  Catarina Dutilh Novaes
9 months ago

I did realize that it did not take, literally, ten years to write it but was exaggerating by way of reinforcing the idea of how difficult or laborious such work is. As I have never written a book (although I think I have enough materials on our dining table/my desk to write one!), I am in no position to comment on how long it takes someone else to do so! Incidentally, I am reading your book in light of Anthony Laden’s work on a or the “social picture” of reasoning in conjunction with a surprisingly (to me at any rate) large body of (interdisciplinary) literature on conversation (my focus is on the art or arts of same). Doing this kind of research brings an immense amount of pleasure and joy at a time when so much around us seems to take on an apocalyptic (or apocalyptic-like) ethos. And thanks for thoughtfully (and swiftly!) responding to all the comments.

JR Fernandez
9 months ago

A very interesting post, but a bit ambiguous or I didn’t understand it properly: would synthetic philosophy be an additional proposal for philosophical activity or the salvation for an activity that has reduced itself (argued itself out) to conceptual engineering? We have had plenty of “philosophy-of” offers, but how can we get satisfied that the pigeon-on-a-statue problem does not arise? Are philosophers being successful at convincing scientists that they are necessary?

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  JR Fernandez
9 months ago

I’m a pluralist, so I see synthetic philosophy as one more fruitful approach among others. I certainly don’t think that we should all become synthetic philosophers! It’s a division of labor kind of thing, and of course to give content to the synthesis we still need people looking at minutiae and details.

Daniel
9 months ago

This is the way I’ve always done philosophy. I’m generally not clever enough to craft incisive analytical arguments, so I’ve always settled for doing work that sees broadly informative symmetries between what might at first glance seem like unrelated domains of human knowledge. It seems what probably serves our discipline best is to strike the right balance between analyzers and synthesizers.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Daniel
9 months ago

Exactly, division of labor, we need different approaches that complement each other.

Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
Reply to  Daniel
9 months ago

Bah. Don’t talk yourself down. Synthesis deserves every bit of the respect analysis receives, if not more. A live goose is far more miraculous than a dead one, no matter how expertly cooked and carved.

Ingrid Robeyns
Ingrid Robeyns
9 months ago

There seem to be two descriptions of synthethic philosophy in this post.

If the definition of “Synthetic philosophy” is “one where philosophers engage extensively with work done in relevant (empirical) disciplines to inform their philosophical investigations and theories.” (second paragraph), then a lot of what we already do, and indeed almost all applied ethics, has been synthetic philosophy for decades. In fact, the emeritus moral philosopher Bert Musschenga (also from the Free University in Amsterdam, but I think he left before Catarina joined) for many years had a research line on ’empirically informed ethics/philosophy’. So synthetic philosophy can’t just be “empirically informed”, since that’s been around for decades, and the right term would be, well – empirically informed, not ‘synthetic’. This can’t be enough, and it is in any case nothing new for many philosophers of science and ethicists and social/political philosophers working on issues/problems.

But in Eric Schliesser’s formulation, there is another property of synthetic philosophy: “to offer a coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both)”. I have understood (and am using) the term “synthetic philosophy” also in how I have interpreted that latter aspect – namely as asking the larger questions and (in normative political philosophy/ethics) answering ‘all things considered’ questions (rather than pro tanto arguments).

I do not think a project in synthetic philosophy needs to be connected to a wider culture of other philosophical project as Eric suggests it; instead, it needs to (a) be empirical informed and thus engage with the relevant empirical material from the empirical sciences, and (b) be synthetic in that it asks the ‘all things considered’ questions or the ‘big questions’. In my understanding of contemporary analytical/systematic philosophy, (b) is what is more novel, whereas (a) is not.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Ingrid Robeyns
9 months ago

Indeed, what is novel (or at least sort of…) is the synthesis part, the thought that engagement with findings from other disciplines is not just piecemeal but guided by a central unifying idea which helps showing connections between these findings that might otherwise not be apparent and asking ‘big questions’ indeed. I had thought of including an example in the post but it was rather long already, so I didn’t. But to illustrate: my own work on deduction was guided by the key idea of viewing deduction as dialogical, which allowed me to integrate different findings and insights from different disciplines. Maybe I’ll write a follow-up post 🙂 (I remember now why I enjoyed the whole blogging thing back in the day haha…)

toro toro
Reply to  Ingrid Robeyns
9 months ago

I know it’s not how you meant it, but “emeritus moral philosopher” is a fantastic insult.

Ingrid Robeyns
Ingrid Robeyns
Reply to  toro toro
8 months ago

toro toro, in the country where you live, or in the country where Catharina, the emeritus, and I live?

toro toro
Reply to  Ingrid Robeyns
8 months ago

I don’t think it depends on any particular country; since “emeritus” is used when one previously, but no longer, occupies some role, it could be parsed as meaning that Prof. Musschenga is no longer a philosopher, or indeed no longer moral.

Again, it is absolutely clear in context that that isn’t what you mean; and apologies for any suggestion to the contrary. But it’s an amusing double entendre.

Curtis Franks
9 months ago

Folks interested in this topic might want to compare Pen Maddy’s beautiful and similarly titled essay “A plea for natural philosophy.” Especially relevant to this discussion might be the difference in how the “ordinary language” tradition shakes out on her view.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Curtis Franks
9 months ago

Yes, Pen Maddy is definitely a synthetic philosopher by my book 😀

John Paul James
9 months ago

I admire the fact that the keyword here is ‘Synthetic’. Or synthesis to Philosophy as laymen inquiries become the cognizant of Philosophies concern. Determining that judging quality of the conversation is better to promote than meriting the credentials of predecessors to have known the overlapping transcendental qualities of our modern conversation would only suggest that having a synthetic pathological affirmation would help happiness.

Jared
9 months ago

I really like and agree with the prescriptive recommendation of this post. But descriptively I don’t recognize the opposition. I’ve trained and worked in analytic ethics, of a decisively non-ex-phi orientation, for more than 15 years, including much study of the likes of Moore. But I don’t know of anyone who thinks that results in the special sciences have nothing to teach us about moral philosophy or that we shouldn’t all work together. Certainly learning empirically about the impact of capitalism bears on whether we should think it just, for example, and what we’d prescribe doing about it. The physical science of causation and the psychology of abuse bears on issues of moral responsibility, too, and the justifications of punishment. I wouldn’t have thought anyone denied this.

Nor does it look like experimental philosophy shook up very much except for those who already had a taste for that sort of thing. What does seem to me characteristic of standard moral philosophizing since Moore is that it lays claim to at least some distinctive methods and forms of inquiry that are uniquely philosophical, and that cannot be reduced to or adequately substituted by the sorts of empirical inquiry done in other disciplines. But that is just to say we all have something unique to contribute to the synthesis. A rich tapestry. Again, doesn’t everyone already agree about that?

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  Jared
9 months ago

In some corners of (analytic) philosophy, sustained engagement with findings from scientific disciplines has been more common than in others in past decades. This seems to be the case in ethics, but certainly much less so in e.g., epistemology and philosophy of logic. As I describe in the post, I’ve noticed a clear change of attitude between the reactions to my 2012 book and those to my 2020 book.
And in any case, it seems to me that we still need more systematic reflection on the methodological implications of, and criteria for, doing synthetic philosophy.

John Protevi
John Protevi
9 months ago

Hi Catarina, like you, I recognize myself in Eric’s term “synthetic philosophy.” I have a further suggestion to make, which links up with another concern of yours, expressed in a recent Facebook post: I think empirical case studies require synthetic philosophy. In so far as an empirical event is the “crystallization” of multiple dimensions or lines or processes (whatever term one prefers), then following those lines takes one into multiple disciplines. As an example, to write this paper looking at the death of an “essential worker” in the Covid pandemic, I had to go to economics, psychology, and cognitive science: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.897215/full

Of course as you say, doing this kind of work invites imposter syndrome as I could only dip in and out of specialist work. Nonetheless, I think synthetic philosophy certainly has a place in the philosophical world, even with the problem of superficiality it risks.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  John Protevi
9 months ago

Hi John, thanks! Yes, as you correctly inferred this is all related to my interest in the methodology of case studies in philosophy 🙂
And yes, on the one hand we are outsiders venturing into new terrain, but on the other hand we can actually make meaningful contributions to the specialized areas. Recently, math educator and cognitive scientist Matthew Inglis gave a talk at the expert workshop on my book on deduction, and he said that my work had helped him see connections between different things he himself had worked on, but had not noticed they were connected. It made my day 🙂 Here’s the lecture in case anyone is interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_o84Py6H-uc&t=3s

naive squirrel
9 months ago

I just recently came to consciously reflect on the practice of philosophy as requiring such a ‘synthesizing’ – this tendency of philosophers, to attempt to bring together huge swaths of information from various disciplines (to the extent possible) or at least avoid incoherence/inconsistency with well-accepted findings in other fields, to see the “big picture” in attempt to answer the “big questions” in light of as much information as possible, is what distinguishes philosophers from other academics (and what makes philosophy indispensable to higher ed). This makes philosophy seem like a loftier discipline than all the rest, but IM(H)O, it kind of is (at least, I can’t imagine doing anything in the world and seeing it worthwhile without philosophizing in any capacity). I’m not saying actual professional philosophers should rule superior (esp given the degradation of the profession today), but I think that we *all* need to prioritize this synthesizing ‘philosophical mindset’, which can be conceived (I think) in terms of what Cardinal John Henry Newman seemed to describe in his work, The Idea of a University, as the very ‘perfection of intellect’, ‘enlargement of mind’, ‘illumination’, etc., and as that which constitutes the aim of university study altogether.

Perhaps the problem of fragmentation/hyper-specialization in the sciences and so on is just this lack of Philosophy (capitalized to distinguish the general mindset from the specific discipline and its professors) – the emphasis on ‘acquirements’ (pardon if I am mistakenly recalling the term) vs. unifying and synthesizing and, well, transcending the information one learns, to strive for the objective of ‘truth’, integrating various perspectives and not getting too absorbed in one’s own specialty, is what drives the inability to communicate and triangulate, and it has (ironically) infected philosophy as a discipline, which is why (I believe) we see university’s more willing to cut their philosophy departments more than any other department. This promotion of ‘synthetic philosophy’ oddly is pointing to what I think Cardinal Newman had in mind – what’s odd about it is that it is almost being treated as another fragment itself, forming from within a deeply fragmented context (which limits its force and potential), when really it should be treated as at least partly constituting Philosophy per se, as the principle of all intellectual pursuits (at least from my perspective).

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Reply to  naive squirrel
9 months ago

Thanks for the reference to Cardinal Newman, I’ll look him up 🙂

Isabella
9 months ago

I thought running around to different sciences and forming connections/ideas was just a hobby of mine. Cool to know that I’ve been doing philosophy all this time.

How would I start connecting with scientists, though? I’m not a professional philosopher [just a nerd], but even if I was, I’m not sure how I’d reach out.

By the way, I’m of the mind that epistemologists should talk with educational psychologists. I love epistemology. When I started studying education, however, I realised contemporary epistemology is outclassed in some regards.

One area I’m curious about is making epistemology accessible by running workshops, which work students through epistemic exercises. Had to give it a fancy name: workshop epistemology.

Anyway, nice article. Take care.

Matt Tedesco
9 months ago

Thank you for this very compelling article; I very much agree! I’d like to buttress it with a practical argument: we spend a lot of time on these blogs reckoning with the closing of philosophy departments, with the depressingly common view by non-philosophers that philosophy is irrelevant, with the fact that incoming college students increasingly (and rapidly since the Great Recession) have turned away from the humanities generally. As someone who has worked at a SLAC in the upper midwest for 20 years, and who thinks a lot about the place of philosophy in an undergraduate curriculum, this synthetic approach seems to me almost certainly the way forward. I have no statistics to back this up beyond my own observations, but whenever a blog post pops up about a program closing, or (conversely) when someone shares about a particularly successful program, I often spend some time poking around their website, looking at their offerings and whether I can detect (in other programs, or all-college requirements, or whatever) philosophy’s connection to other disciplines and areas of study. And it does seem to me that there is some correlation between how programmatically isolated a philosophy department is, and whether it is thriving or at risk.

So, at any rate, I think this synthetic orientation is probably a very smart one for philosophy as a discipline to *explicitly* embrace. And I think the sooner that it’s embraced by programs that train new PhDs, and puts them in a position to go on the market able to make their synthetic capacities compelling and clear in their teaching, the better off they will be.

Raphael Neelamkavil
8 months ago

What about forgetting for some time the contributions of the many philosophers of our time or of the past, especially the kind whom you all mention, and then theorizing philosophically for ourselves without constant references to their works and notions?
Why do I suggest this? Such dependence on their work may veil our abilities to see many things. We may avoid becoming philosophical technicians and the better case of becoming philosophical technologists or philosophical experts.
I believe that synthesizing upon some good insights from the many thinkers and from the many disciplines would require also the inevitable conceptual foundations that we would be able to discover beyond these notions.
Suppose each of us looks for such foundations, and then share them on a platform. If the discussion is on these new foundations, something may emerge in each of us as genuine foundations. These need not remain forever. But we have more synthesis through such a work than when without seeking foundations.
I think the conceptual foundations on which the concept of synthetic philosophy works may thus gain a lot. I for one consider the whole history of analytic and linguistic philosophy as lacking such a rigour. You all may differ from what each one of you suggests. That is the manner in which deeper foundations can be sought. I am on such a journey.
Let me suggest a question. All these 2.5 millennia of western philosophy, we have not found the question of the implications of existence (to exist, To Be) being discussed. Plato and Aristotle have tried it, and thereafter we do not see much on this. Now if some implications of To Be are found, these could be a strong foundation for philosophy of any kind. The definitions of these implications will change in the course of time, but some core might continue to remain.
I may be talking strange things, especially for those trained mainly in analytic philosophy. If you do not find such suggestions interesting, just ignore this intervention. I continue to work on this. I do have some success.
I am aware that I may be laughed at. Since I have left the profession of teaching, I do not lose much. Moreover, getting great publishers is out of reach, but that too does not compound to much consequence if eventually one succeeds to do something solid.
I plan a discussion in ResearchGate on this idea.

J. Edward Hackett
8 months ago

While I understand the reason for philosophy to have a relationship to the sciences? These examples at the very least fail to mention process thinkers (Bergson, Whitehead etc.), pragmatists, phenomenologists (who are qualitatively empirical), and other disciplines in the humanities like history, literature, art, languages, and religious studies to name a few. So my question is by “synthetic philosophy” do we mean a collaborative effort with all disciplines or merely the social and natural sciences?

Whitehead’s Process and Reality in the very first chapter argues for the freedom to engage in speculative metaphysics that anticipates a coherence with a scientific and experiential aspects of reality. He writes books on science, religion, education etc. in many ways, he (maybe like Peirce being a scientist or James being a medical doctor turned psychologist) is already synthesizing in his lifetime. Bergson argues against Einstein. We should not kid ourselves into thinking that philosophers have always been synthesizing and it’s not unique to call for more of the same. It is strange to think that this is not philosophy and that somehow philosophy should be only of its own subject matter.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
8 months ago

Dear Catarina 
I am part of the choir to whom you are preaching, and I suppose my question is, *who isn’t*? I was encouraged to read Putnam as an undergraduate at Cambridge in the 1970s and he was definitely a synthetic philosopher in something like your sense, as were Lakatos, Popper and Russell (Russell being my teenage hero, who got me into philosophy in the first place). I have been part of the Australasian philosophical scene since 1980, and throughout that time synthetic philosophy has been the norm, if not de rigueur. It is true, that Frank Jackson and the Canberra Planners have been criticised for an excessive reliance on conceptual intuitions, but for the Canberra Planners ‘assembling the platitudes’ or clarifying our concepts is only the first step in philosophical enquiry.  We begin by clarifying our common conception of free will (for example) and then try to determine using ‘total science’ (which means just about anything that might be relevant) whether we are in fact free in something like this sense.  (‘Well we are not really free in the traditional sense of the word, but perhaps we have free will in a slightly different sense [insert theory here] which is consistent with psychology and the latest neuroscience.’ ) So who then are the NON-synthetic philosophers? People who believe in philosophy as an insulated discipline which can achieve substantial results – or maybe non-substantial but still illuminating results – without regard to, or even in defiance of, the adjacent disciplines.  This doesn’t quite fit Moore. Moore like, other intuitionist moral philosophers, thinks that we can access a range fundamental truths both about what is good or bad and about what in general we ought to do (In his view we should perform the action that will have the best consequences overall, that is the action that will produce the maximum of good and the minimum evil. ) But though the philosopher may be especially good at elucidating such truths because he or she is in the habit of thinking about them continually, they are, in principle accessible to everyone. Now Moore wasn’t particularly interested in applied ethics but many of his allies and disciples were, and since they were consequentialists this meant that they had to engage with a wide range of empirical disciplines in order to work out what we ought to do. Nobody could accuse of either Russell or Keynes of being indifferent to, or ignorant of, history, psychology, politics or economics, to the last of which Keynes was a major contributor.  In the field of epistemology, (the mature) Moore subordinates philosophy to common sense since his principal thesis is that if a philosopher argues for a conclusion that is radically at odds with common sense, that philosopher must have gone wrong somewhere along the line. So for Moore philosophy may be discontinuous with science (of which he appears to have been fairly ignorant ) but it isn’t discontinuous with common sense. He certainly rejects the idea that philosophers qua philosophers can establish radical views about the nature of reality, for example that (strictly speaking) there are no material objects or that we have no knowledge of them or that Time is unreal. That sort of thing was the preserve of the neo-Hegelian philosophers against whom he was arguing. So far as I can see there is not a single reference to any scientist in Bradley’s Appearance and Reality and he appears to think that the idea of a vacuum is conceptually incoherent. If you want a non-synthetic philosopher , Bradley is a prime example. But there is another one, far closer to home, namely Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s works are peppered with what might be called declarations of philosophical independence (or declarations philosophical superiority), all of them unjustified and most of them palpably absurd to anyone with a modest acquaintance with the history of philosophy. (Here’s a quote from Penelope Maddy: ‘This [synthetic] line of thought runs up against Wittgenstein’s stark insistence that science is entirely irrelevant. Inquiry into his reasons for this turn up plentiful evidence of his disdain for science, but no principled reason for prohibiting the Second Philosopher’s [that is, the synthetic philosopher’s] brand of naturalistic elaboration and confirmation’). So here are some Wittgenstein quotes with a critical commentary. 

4.1121 Psychology is no more closely related to philosophy than any other natural science. Theory of knowledge is the philosophy of psychology.
Does not my study of sign-language correspond to the study of thought-processes, which philosophers used to consider so essential to the philosophy of logic? Only in most cases they got entangled in unessential psycho-logical investigations, and with my method too there is an analogous risk. 

4.1122 Darwin’s theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.

4.113 Philosophy sets limits to the much disputed sphere of natural science. 

6.53 The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science—i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy—and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—this method would be the only strictly correct one. 

Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it . 
For it cannot give it any foundation either.
It leaves everything as it is. [I think that if philosophy *as Wittgenstein conceives it* were practiced honestly, it *would* leave everything – including philosophy – *exactly* as it is -– which means that Wittgenstein does not practice it honestly.]
It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it. A “leading problem of mathematical logic” is for us a problem of mathematics like any other. 
126. Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything.—Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us. [Hence philosophy can derive no assistance from scientific discoveries that come as some surprise]  
One might also give the name “philosophy” to what is possible *before* all new discoveries and inventions. [Again, philosophy can derive no assistance from surprising science. It is, of course pretty silly to suppose that anything like conceptual analysis is possible *before* all new discoveries and inventions, since as science develops, our conceptual repertoire is enlarged.] 
599. In philosophy we do not draw conclusions. “But it must be like this!” is not a philosophical proposition. Philosophy only states what everyone admits. [Hence it cannot be informed by any surprising science. ]
———————————-
The big difference between the non-synthetic Bradley and the non-synthetic Wittgenstein is that Bradley thinks that philosophy can be a *substitute* for science developing a conception of reality which is radically at odds with science, whereas Wittgenstein by setting limits to what can be sensibly said, only sets *limits* to the sciences. But this difference is not as large as might at first appear, since Wittgenstein uses claims about meaninglessness to down the science – or the mathematics – that he does not like.

Martin Krohs
8 months ago

I’m a bit late to the party but I want to say thank you, too. What you wrote indeed gives hope that things are changing for the better. I’ve been musing on similar questions after bitter experiences in the mid-1990s (that even changed my professional path). Your post, together with Eric Schliesser’s paper, helped a lot getting my thoughts together.

I’m not 100% sure as to the term “synthetic” though – I think it works, but it risks to suggest some “summing up” and to still remain somehow attached to the Compte / Spencer tradition. I played around with “integrative” to leave more room for persistence of contradictions. (This is in Deutsch, alas, and somehow quite personal. It’s on synthetic (or however) biophilosophy, but also on “how to do philosophy without a PhD”: https://mkrohs.pub/warum-nicht-dr-krohs-paraakademisch/ ).

But in the end, it’s the broad direction that counts. And I’m strongly convinced that it merits to be explored as deeply as possible. Not only for philosophy’s sake, but also for this of society and the social epistemic space, that continues disintegrating before our eyes. So thank you once again for bringing this up.