Home Sweet Soames: “Philosophy’s True Home” (NYT Re-Post, With an Afterword by Z).

1. Philosophy’s True Home, by Scott Soames.

New York Times, 7 March 2016.

Scott Soames is director of the school of philosophy at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is the author of “The Analytic Tradition in Philosophy.”

We’ve all heard the argument that philosophy is isolated, an “ivory tower” discipline cut off from virtually every other progress-making pursuit of knowledge, including math and the sciences, as well as from the actual concerns of daily life. The reasons given for this are many. In a widely read essay in this series, “When Philosophy Lost Its Way,” Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle claim that it was philosophy’s institutionalization in the university in the late 19th century that separated it from the study of humanity and nature, now the province of social and natural sciences.

This institutionalization, the authors claim, led it to betray its central aim of articulating the knowledge needed to live virtuous and rewarding lives. I have a different view: Philosophy isn’t separated from the social, natural or mathematical sciences, nor is it neglecting the study of goodness, justice and virtue, which was never its central aim.

The idea that philosophy was and still is isolated from other disciplines ignores much of its history.

The authors claim that philosophy abandoned its relationship to other disciplines by creating its own purified domain, accessible only to credentialed professionals. It is true that from roughly 1930 to 1950, some philosophers — logical empiricists, in particular — did speak of philosophy having its own exclusive subject matter. But since that subject matter was logical analysis aimed at unifying all of science, interdisciplinarity was front and center.

This was followed (in Britain) by two decades in which leading philosophers identified philosophy with informal linguistic analysis. Fortunately, this narrow view didn’t stop them from contributing to the science of language and the study of law. Now long gone, neither movement defined the philosophy of its day and neither arose from locating it in universities.

The idea that philosophy was and still is isolated from other disciplines ignores much of its history. From 1879 to 1936 the philosopher-mathematicians Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, Alonzo Church and Alan Turing invented symbolic logic, helped establish the set-theoretic foundations of mathematics, and gave us the formal theory of computation that ushered in the digital age.

In the field of linguistics, from roughly 1945 to 1975, the philosophers Rudolf Carnap, Saul Kripke, Richard Montague and David Kaplan developed ideas relating logic to linguistic meaning that provided a framework for studying meaning in all human languages. Others, including Paul Grice and J.L. Austin, explained how linguistic meaning mixes with contextual information to enrich communicative contents and how certain linguistic performances change social facts. Today a new philosophical conception of the relationship between meaning and cognition adds a further dimension to linguistic science.

Decision theory — the science of rational norms governing action, belief and decision under uncertainty — was developed by the 20th-century philosophers Frank Ramsey, Rudolph Carnap, Richard Jeffrey and others. It plays a foundational role in political science and economics by telling us what rationality requires, given our evidence, priorities and the strength of our beliefs. Today, no area of philosophy is more successful in attracting top young minds.

Far from fostering isolation, specialization in philosophy makes communication and cooperation among disciplines possible. This has always been so.

Philosophy also assisted psychology in its long march away from narrow behaviorism and speculative Freudianism. The mid-20th-century functionalist perspective pioneered by Hilary Putnam was particularly important. According to it, pain, pleasure and belief are neither behavioral dispositions nor bare neurological states. They are interacting internal causes, capable of very different physical realizations, that serve the goals of individuals in specific ways. This view is now embedded in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Philosophy also played a role in 20th-century physics, influencing the great physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. The philosophers Moritz Schlick and Hans Reichenbach reciprocated that interest by assimilating the new physics into their philosophies. Today, leading philosophers — including David Albert, Hans Halvorson, Laura Ruetsche, Hilary Greaves and David Wallace — explain quantum physics to outsiders, while conceptualizing issues in ways physicists find useful. Philosophy of biology is following a similar path. Today’s philosophy of science is less accessible than Aristotle’s natural philosophy chiefly because it systematizes a larger, more technically sophisticated body of knowledge.

Philosophy’s interaction with mathematics, linguistics, economics, political science, psychology and physics requires specialization. Far from fostering isolation, this specialization makes communication and cooperation among disciplines possible. This has always been so. William of Ockham, Descartes, Leibniz and Kant were heavily informed by the science and mathematics of their day. Locke and Hume responded to Newton not with envy and a sense of inferiority (which Frodeman and Briggle wrongly attribute to philosophers responding to 20th-century science), but with a desire to apply Newton’s lessons to their natural philosophies of mind, which were then psychology-in-the-making.

Nor did scientific progress rob philosophy of its former scientific subject matter, leaving it to concentrate on the broadly moral. In fact, philosophy thrives when enough is known to make progress conceivable, but it remains unachieved because of methodological confusion. Philosophy helps break the impasse by articulating new questions, posing possible solutions and forging new conceptual tools.  Sometimes it does so when sciences are born, as with 17th-century physics and 19th-century biology. But it also does so as they mature. As science advances, there is more, not less, for it to do.

Our knowledge of the universe and ourselves expands like a ripple surrounding a pebble dropped in a pool. As we move away from the center of the spreading circle, its area, representing our secure knowledge, grows. But so does its circumference, representing the border where knowledge blurs into uncertainty and speculation, and methodological confusion returns. Philosophy patrols the border, trying to understand how we got there and to conceptualize our next move.  Its job is unending.

Although progress in ethics, political philosophy and the illumination of life’s meaning has been less impressive than advances in some other areas, it is accelerating.  After an erosion of faith in ethical theory in the first third of the 20th century, and calls for its abolition in the middle third, John Rawls and Robert Nozick revived theories of justice in the early 1970s. Comprehensive ethical theories, including Thomas Scanlon’s and Stephen Darwall’s, have also reappeared. Even discussions of death and the meaning of life have returned, led by Thomas Nagel, Samuel Scheffler, Shelly Kagan, Susan Wolf and others. As my colleague Jake Ross observes, the advances in our understanding because of careful formulation and critical evaluation of theories of goodness, rightness, justice and human flourishing by philosophers since 1970 compare well to the advances made by philosophers from Aristotle to 1970.

The knowledge required to maintain philosophy’s continuing task, including its vital connection to other disciplines, is too vast to be held in one mind. Despite the often-repeated idea that philosophy’s true calling can only be fulfilled in the public square, philosophers actually function best in universities, where they acquire and share knowledge with their colleagues in other disciplines. It is also vital for philosophers to engage students — both those who major in the subject, and those who do not. Although philosophy has never had a mass audience, it remains remarkably accessible to the average student; unlike the natural sciences, its frontiers can be reached in a few undergraduate courses.

Far from being years of “enduring failure,” the last 150 years have been philosophy’s best.

2. Afterword, by Z.

I think what annoys me most about SS’s essay are these two things: its professional smugness, and its triumphalist whig history–i.e., self-congratulating teleological history written by the winners.

According to SS, after its initial revolutionary period (Russell, Moore, early Wittgenstein), Analytic philosophy naturally and rightly became an underlaborer for the sciences, the military-industrial-university complex, and (neo)liberal Statism, and triumphed institutionally by professionalizing: therefore it’s the greatest.

We’re the big winners and we’re the Establishment, so we’re the greatest, and the history of philosophy had to end here.

This is a perfect example of dogmatic philosophical bullshit.

(For the record, I accept Harry Frankfurt’s classical definition of “bullshit” as talking, writing, feeling and acting with a serious disregard for the truth, together with pervasive phonyness; and the other basic categories of philosophical bullshit are:

(i) incoherent philosophical bullshit,

(ii) hyper-professional, hyper-specialized philosophical bullshit, and

(iii) duplicitous philosophical bullshit.)

More specifically, what’s wrong with SS’s essay?

It ignores the historical foundations and historical nature of philosophy, even of Analytic philosophy, and turns the history of philosophy into a “look-what-happened-before-Big-Science” infomercial you can provide in 13 weeks or less to indifferent undergraduates pursuing professional careers.

It assumes the truth of scientific naturalism without argument.

It turns categorical rationality into instrumental rationality.

It naively fetishizes (later Wittgenstein’s nice term in the Investigations: “sublimes”) formal/symbolic logic, and especially classical modal logic, as per C.I. Lewis (for the systematization and logical syntax) and Carnap and Kripke (for the formal semantics of possible worlds, accessibility-relations, etc.).

I mean, logic is a necessary part of of human rationality and real philosophy alike, but conservatively extending classical Frege-Russell logic to include modal operators, an enriched semantics, and some new axioms and/or inference rules, hence some new tautologies and theorems, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of non-classical logic; and even if there were One True Logic, e.g., god-given Classical Logic–as we’re told twice-over in the latest issue of Journal of Philosophy, hey, how cool and non-Ivory-Tower is that?–it wouldn’t and couldn’t tell us how to do philosophy, without dialectical disaster, as Kant and the later Wittgenstein showed.

It turns all meaning into formal semantics of formal and natural languages, now gloriously extended by naturalized theories of mental representation.

Wow, neato. And stoopid me: I always thought intentionality was irreducibly normative.

It leaves out consciousness and its essential embodiment.

It leaves out free agency.

It leaves out real human persons.

It leaves out existential-religious questions, the problem of our own deaths, and the meaning of life.

It leaves out ethics that is not in indentured intellectual servitude to political (neo)liberalism, as per Rawls and Nozick and their epigones.

Correspondingly, it triumphantly assumes the truth and godliness of (neo)liberalism and Statism with no hint of serious alternatives to or possible arguments against either of them.

And it triumphantly assumes the coercive moralist professional standpoint with no hint of its ideological commitments and its political complicity.


If so, fuck it!–who would ever give a shit about it, except good little do-bee careerists?

If the Professional Academic State stopped paying them, they’d stop doing philosophy and find something else to do for money and social status.

They don’t love philosophy: they love their professional academic jobs, their social status, and their upper-middle-class lifestyles.

And all this from a card-carrying member of The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club, sitting on his big-ass, big-bucks Dornsife-funded professorship at USC.

David H. Dornsife made his big bucks in construction and steel. And let that be a lesson to us all.

So, according to SS, “philosophy’s true home” is not a padded armchair in The Ivory Tower.

Instead, its “home sweet home” is a cushy swivel chair in The Bauhaus Box, corporate headquarters of NeoliberalArts.com

In other words, SS and his essay pretty much epitomize everything that APP is against.

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About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.