COMPREHENSIVE PHILOSOPHY IN THE AGE OF SCIENCE
This short paper is motivated by Susan Haack’s critic of contemporary approaches in mainstream philosophy. According to her, much of today’s academic philosophy is committed with an institutionalized scientistic treatment of philosophical problems which fragments the philosophical quest in ways that make it unable to deal adequately with its real problems. I hope to add some further, more balanced explanations to her diagnosis. I also speculate about the chances of comprehensive philosophical work in this scenario, and finally, about the forms this kind of work could take in an increasingly science-dominated world.
Key-words: metaphilosophy, scientism, science, culture, society, criticism
Susan Haack criticizes current philosophy as falling prey to a scientistic-reductionist trap characterized by fragmentation, hermeticism, and ahistoricism, which she sees as an intellectual disaster (2016, 1.1). Her main complaint concerns the loss of breadth in contemporary philosophy. From Plato to Peirce, at least, the interconnectedness of different areas was an integral part of philosophical work. But it has almost disappeared in current academic philosophy. One could then ask: why interconnection? Is this a vital aspect of the philosophical endeavor? Haack’s answer depends on her particular understanding of the concept of consilience. What consilience means is that there is only one real world, which is complex and varied, but whose truths are expected to fit together. Particularly interesting is the way she thinks these truths must fit together:
Not, however (as reductionists dream), that all the other truths about the world must be derivable from some privileged sub-set of truths, but rather that they must interlock, as entries in a crossword puzzle do (2015, 1.2).
It is easy to see (taking only one of her examples) that Neo-Darwinian evolutionism interlocks with Mendelian genetics, which interlocks with molecular genetics, which in turn interlocks with geology, etc. The idea is that in the same way as different domains of science interlock with one another, as well in philosophy we should expect an interlinkage among its different sub-domains, together with its still living history and the present stage of the sciences.
This interlinkage is, she thinks, hindered by premature philosophical specialization. Here things are very different from the developed sciences. In recent science, specialization is made against a background of well-warranted theory that is needed to make it productive. In philosophy, on the other hand, we do not have this background of well-established truths, which means that premature specialization will develop based on the feeble foundations of merely speculative work, in a way that isn’t prone to move the philosopher forward. As she writes:
When premature specialization becomes commonplace, the prospects for achieving something solid to build on seem to recede indefinitely; and so, people keep themselves busy arguing over and over the same puzzles – until boredom sets in, and they set off in pursuit of a new fad. Problems are never solved, but simply abandoned. (2016, 1.2)
Moreover, our present academic system promotes what she calls perverse incentives, rewarding quantity over quality, producing too many PhDs, evaluating work by received grants, honoring publication in prestigious journals, building incredibly corrupted rankings of graduate programs, in ways that corrupt the field by “discouraging patience and painstaking and encouraging efforts to create the appearance of progress…” (2017, II). One result of this is an overspecialization that unnaturally fragments the philosophical quest:
Our discipline becomes every day more specialized, more fragmented into cliques, niches, cartels, and fiefdoms, and more determinedly forgetful of its own history. More and more journals are crammed with more and more unread, and sometimes unreadable, articles about what X said about Y’s interpretation of Z’s response to W. (2017, II)
This is my summary of Haack’s diagnosis of the maladies of current philosophy.
Although I essentially agree with her, I am not as radically pessimistic. Not all philosophical work associated with science is burdened by scientism. The speech acts theory of J. L. Austin and John Searle was surely not. The new theories of consciousness, from D. M. Armstrong to D. M. Rosenthal, Daniel Dennett, Ned Block, and Bernard Baars, have deepened the philosophy of consciousness in unquestionable ways. D. C. Williams’ trope theory points to a possible revolution in ontology whose originality could only be compared with that of the venerable traditions of realism and nominalism.
Moreover, well-intentioned scientistic reductionism in philosophy is rather an expected reaction to the development of new scientific fields and might be somewhat fruitful, even if in error, by showing its possibilities and limits. This was the case of the well-intentioned scientism of Hilary Kornblith’s naturalized epistemology, as Haack recognizes. This can well be the case of the speculative modal adventure of David Lewis’ realism of possible worlds and Saul Kripke’s theory of reference, which limits the mechanism of reference to an external causal-historical chain. Scientistic reductionism, which typically could in my view be called expansionist scientism, isn’t even something new. The rise of mathematics led Pythagoras to a form of mysticism in which the world would be constituted by values given by numbers, and the way of purification would be mathematical work, expanding the proper grasp of mathematics in ways that today have merely historical value.
In my view, Haack’s diagnosis finds its best application by showing the obstacles posed against a comprehensive philosophical approach in the context of current philosophy. This is the point I wish to consider.
A first remark concerns the origins and nature of scientism in today’s philosophy. In 1932 Wittgenstein told us in few words the reasons for his pessimism regarding much philosophy in his time. According to him:
Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the ways science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. (1975, 18)
Surely, these words echo Wittgenstein’s experience with the Logical Positivists some years earlier. He believed in philosophical comprehensiveness (Übersichtlichkeit) (1984, I #122), having in his Tractatus noted that the difficulty with philosophy is that one cannot solve any of its problems unless one has solved all the others. This means that he also saw the coherence given by interlinked concerns as a way to reinforce the plausibility of philosophical views, which scientism isn’t able to do. Interlocking among theories makes them heuristically stronger, as in the case of neo-Darwinian evolutionism, made stronger by the development of molecular genetics.
Although Wittgenstein’s own descriptive therapeutic dissolution of philosophical problems was inadequate, the problems he found in the scientistic approach to philosophy were similar to those identified by Haack. The philosophers of the Vienna Circle embarked on a kind of premature enterprise similar to that considered by Haack, for instance, by restricting philosophy to the logical analysis of language. The strategy was the standard example of expansionist scientism: explaining as far as possible by means of instruments, standards and categories developed by sciences, particularly the new logic, and paying for this the price of excluding from discussion all dissonant problems that cannot fit with the chosen methodology, like the problems of metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, etc., which makes the enterprise reductionist. Even if the heritage of logical positivism was not void, their initial goal of debunking all the old philosophical problems was a derisory failure.
Logical positivism was, in fact, only a harbinger of things to come. For the scientistic-reductionist attitude became a tradition continued by American philosophers like W. V. Quine and Donald Davidson, to give two names, until it became as today an almost invisible commonplace. It usually belongs to mainstream contemporary philosophy, and most of its practitioners are so immersed in its haze that they do not even perceive its presence. The great difference is that present-day scientistic philosophy is much less restricted. Today, there are many scientific fields and sub-fields that foster their corresponding scientistic reactions. Expansionist scientism is indeed very much welcome in a world like ours, where new ramifications of science are constantly appearing.
Attention to science, even if conditioned by well-intentioned scientism, is acceptable for the already given reasons. However, this has negative consequences clearly perceived by Haack. Present-day philosophers seem to be anxious to attain something that approaches scientific knowledge, even if by imitation, even if by betting, that is, by using the method of shooting in the dark, once leaders of their sub-domain have shown the direction supposed to be plausible. One could say that scientistic philosophy driven by science today plays a role comparable to the role of the pseudo-argumentative rhetoric common to much of 20th-century French philosophy, which was driven by their strong literary cultural tradition. However, it robs philosophy of its comprehensive goals by condemning much of its efforts to either hollowness or implausibility. The really damaging problem, as I wish to point out, is that philosophical attempts at more general syntheses are from the start excluded.
This philosophical fragmentation is institutionally fostered. In my view, the ultimate reason for this was foretold by Max Weber’s metaphor of the iron cage resulting from the process of disenchantment of the world (Entzauberung der Welt) (Costa 2018, xi-xii): increasing bureaucracy and steering towards science tends to suffocate and exclude all that belongs to the old humanistic culture and cannot be incorporated into the inevitable process of disenchantment of the world, including philosophy. The iron cage furthers scientism, as well as mass culture, as deficient but inevitable forms of re-enchantment in a scientifically and technologically loaded world. Moreover, it exchanges valuing reason for instrumental reason, which leads to a debasement of moral standards.
It is not difficult to see how it works in practice. Philosophy has for a long time been institutionalized by universities, which are today competitively directed towards scientific and technological development. Departments are evaluated within an inter-institutional dialogue on the basis of their scientific contributions by means of articles and technical advancement. This same frame that should promote science is also imposed on departments of philosophy, what means that practitioners are forced to mass produce papers and invent new (or apparently new) common problems able to be evaluated by proficient specialists. This, however, will only be an easily achievable task if the parameters of evaluation by peers remains restricted to sufficiently specialized domains of the present discussion, generally linked with some scientific field. Under such conditions, it is not surprising that overspecialized work wins the competition by the sheer force of quantity.
Not that these efforts are totally futile for the development of particularized knowledge. Philosophy can often have only a harmless limited scope. In fact, I guess it could be complementary with comprehensive philosophy in a way that recalls the way experimental physics is complementary with theoretical physics. This isn’t, however, the usual case. Scientistic philosophy, at least, is symptomatically accompanied by contempt for comprehensive philosophy. One cannot imagine, under such institutional circumstances, philosophers like Kant, Hegel, or even Peirce, who could need decades to fully develop their comprehensive views. The first two could do it in a detached cultural milieu that gave them sufficient support, and the last one had the blessing of ostracism, being forced to work outside the society of ideas. Today, if someone dares to do this kind of work, it will surely be unavailable by the narrow standards of the dominant overspecialized philosophical community, the results buried under an unimaginable amount of unchecked published academic junk. In other words, those who are able to do it, but are wise enough to understand what is happening, would not even try. And this is the real problem: the scientistic fragmentation of present-day philosophy has dessicated the intellectual soil that could allow the development of more comprehensive forms of philosophy.
To this, we can add the problem of the right minds. Why a person able to write dozens of very specialized papers in a few years would be the right person to do a comprehensive philosophical work? Now, if this person is selected as the top guardian leader of the philosophical pyramid, what kind of pyramid would we expect to be built?
Against these views, one could object that there is no alternative. The amount of knowledge now accumulated is so immense that philosophical overviews are condemned. The usual advice is: those who have tried have failed. However, are such failures an objective matter, or a sign of the times? Are they not limited by the context of discovery? Are not the demands of accuracy and of a detailed discussion of alternatives artificially exaggerated by scientistic distortions of the field?
An optimistic answer is that things are not necessarily so. It is true that human knowledge is now overwhelmingly vast. But many philosophical results are superimposed, displaced or simply misleading. And a philosopher often does not need to know all the details of different sciences in order to do comprehensive work. What a philosopher needs is often to understand the results of established science. Moreover, electronic media are giving us an increasing possibility of reaching a level of knowledge unimaginable some decades ago.
A last objection would be that the philosophical quest could be slowly and imperceptibly approaching its limits. It is possible to think that sooner or later all the apparently intangible central philosophical problems inherited from tradition will either be reassigned to science, or will be dissolved as pseudo-problems, or both. In this way, the disenchantment of the philosophical world will be completed.
This is a plausible point, particularly if we understand the word ‘science’ in a broad way, as any inquiry able to reach consensual agreement among those who are sufficiently prepared to deal with it (“consensualizable public knowledge”, according to Ziman 1968, Ch. 2). The question, however, is of knowing what kind of scientific work will replace central areas of philosophy like epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, ethics? There are two kinds of answer. If we believe in the future of fragmented scientistic philosophical guesswork, we will have reductionist results. We will, for instance, replace folk psychology with neuroscience; we will replace analytic-conceptual epistemology with naturalized epistemology as a branch of experimental psychology; or we will replace a more complex cognitivist-causal understanding of reference with more uniformizable external causal views… The alternative to this, however, is that the central sub-domains of philosophy will be developed and interlocked in the form of science in a non-reductionist form. These central philosophical realms will build scientific fields of their own, possibly as complex and well-structured as modern physics and resulting from collaborative work. I would not have any complaint against this last possibility.
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Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1984a). Philosophische Untersuchungen. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
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Ziman, J. M. (1968). An Essay Concerning the Social Dimension of Science. New York: Cambridge University Press.