Thursday, May 15, 2008

Philosophy and Disciplinary Boundaries

Should philosophy have something to say to non-philosophers? Should philosophy be pursued only by those trained in philosophy? Should academic teachers of philosophy consider themselves philosophers in virtue of the fact that they teach philosophy? And should analytic philosophers deny that continental philosophers are philosophers at all, or acknowledge that they represent different modes of philosophizing? Cogito poses some big questions to four prominent British and US philosophers.

That last was a bit of a leading question, though Jonathan Barnes offered an amusing response:
Well, most philosophers who belong to the so-called analytical tradition are pretty poor philosophers. (Most academics who do anything are pretty poor at doing it; and philosophy, or so it seems to me, is a subject in which it is peculiarly difficult to do decent stuff. A modestly competent historian may produce a modestly good history book; a modestly competent philosopher has no reason to publish his modest thoughts.) But there's a big difference between the analyticals and the continentals: what distinguishes the continental tradition is that all its members are pretty hopeless at philosophy.

See also Barry Stroud on alternative written forms:
Poems and aphorisms do not seem to me appropriate forms for carrying out philosophical work, even if they might be used to express or summarize certain philosophical conceptions developed by other means. Dialogue is a very good way to write philosophy, but it is difficult to do convincingly. I don't see much loss in trying to write philosophy in clear, connected, sharply focused prose. I wish more philosophers would try it.

And, on a more serious note, Raymond Geuss discusses the 'compartmentalization' of philosophical sub-fields:
The question is not whether a moral philosopher should or should not be interested in logic. Of course, in an ideal world moral philosophers would pay close attention to what all other philosophers said and wrote. They would also pay close attention to advances in biology, new forms of legislation, world history, economic theory, cosmology, and literature. We do not live in such an ideal world and so for us the real question is: given the limitations on human time and attention, what is the most useful thing for a philosopher who has a primary interest, say in political philosophy, to study? Is it more useful to study logic than economic history? To say that we know that this is the case a priori, by virtue of the fact that logic "belongs" to philosophy and economics does not, is to fetishize disciplinary boundaries that have no absolute standing.

That is one quote I wholeheartedly agree with. I'm no fan of strict distribution requirements, but I suspect many grad students would benefit from faculty advisors encouraging them to take appropriate courses in related "non-philosophy" disciplines. What do you think?


  1. I'm no fan of strict distribution requirements, but I suspect many grad students would benefit from faculty advisors encouraging them to take appropriate courses in related "non-philosophy" disciplines. What do you think?

    Very much in agreement on this point (at bottom). In fact, I think we should go a step beyond this and take as default that they should, and philosophy departments should actively assist grad students in taking 'non-philosophy' courses in the field of their choice. That is, the usual presumption should be that they will be crossing disciplinary boundaries in their philosophical work anyway, whatever they end up doing, and the department should be doing what it can to give them a leg up on that.

  2. I think it crucial that philosophers have classes in non-philosophy classes related to their discipline. I can't imagine most people being able to do good philosophy of science without having engaged in the practice of science. (Indeed I think it would be beneficial for philosophers of science to have a science undergrad degree and have done some real practical research) Likewise if you are doing philosophy of mind it'd be beneficial to have a background of some psychology and biology. And color me crazy but I think everyone would benefit from a few math and physics classes if they are taking philosophy.

    Likewise, going the other direction, I think it amazingly important that scientists have some background in philosophy. So physicists ought have at least one class that goes through a bit of the philosophy of science and more importantly a bit of the history of physical theory from a philosophical perspective. Knowing the contemporary philosophical disputes would be very helpful.

    Neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and psychologists all really ought be exposed to both classic and comtemporary debates in the philosophy of mind and perhaps some philosophy of language would be beneficial as well.

    Linguists ought take a bit of philosophy of language as well.

    I think philosophy in some ways ghettoizes themselves by tending to stick with only philosophers. In a sense I agree with Quine that philosophy ought be helping science. But in practice there is still too wide a gulf between them.

  3. "I suspect many grad students would benefit from faculty advisors encouraging them to take appropriate courses in related "non-philosophy" disciplines."

    I assume that the question is not whether students would benefit, on some absolute scale, by taking courses elsewhere. I imagine everyone agrees with that. The question is whether they are better off doing this than doing more philosophy.

    The answer to that is obviously pretty debatable, and will vary from case to case. But two things you could say in support of the claim that they should stick to philosophy are that:

    (a) Sometimes these other areas can raise issues that are irrelevant to the philosophical dispute at hand. I'm sure we've all met the person who thinks that metaphysical questions are solved by physics, or the moral ones by psychology. Sometimes the empirical issues are just plain irrelevant to our subject matter, and can just distract focus.

    (b) Often studying something in little depth can give a misleading impression of the subject as a whole, and in some cases that can be worse than no knowledge at all (various Crooked Timber posts on economics has impressed this point upon me once or twice).


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