David Edmonds on a newspaper column that is a testament to the breadth of philosophical ideas and their relevance to how we lead our lives.
Many newspapers have regular columns on science. But few of these columns are dedicated to a discussion of the nature or purpose of science. Almost all newspapers have regular pages devoted to sport. But it would be unusual to have an article that grappled with the meaning of sport. Yet in various ways several philosophers in The Stone Reader—a collection of short, philosophy essays from the New York Times’s philosophy blog The Stone—seek to address the existential questions, “What Is Philosophy?” and “What Is A Philosopher?”
What is a Philosopher? is the title of the first essay in this volume, written by Professor Simon Critchley who also acts as The Stone Reader’s co-editor (alongside Peter Catapano of The New York Times). Critchley’s academic career began in the UK, where he developed an interest in thinkers from the continental tradition, such as Heidegger and Derrida. Just over a decade ago he moved to the New School for Social Research where he has continued to write prolifically, on a wide variety of subjects – a recent book was on suicide – with an essayistic style that again owes more to a European than an anglo-American tradition of philosophy.
The What is Philosophy? questions hits a vulnerable spot not because philosophy has fuzzy borders. All disciplines have fuzzy borders. Science has fuzzy borders. Even activities like sport have fuzzy borders.. The International Olympic Committee classifies the card-game bridge as a sport. A recent High Court decision in the UK has determined that it is not (a decision that matters, because bridge clubs and bridge tournaments cannot now appeal for funding from a pot of money reserved for sport). Still, philosophy is notoriously difficult to define. A few years ago, on the philosophy podcast I co-run with Nigel Warburton (www.philosophybites.com) we put the ‘What Is Philosophy?’ question to 50 different philosophers and received 50 different answers. There isn’t quite the same difficulty in demarcating the rough edges of maths or French literature.
Part of the problem is historical. The meaning of philosophy has been in a state of perpetual evolution. There was a time when the sciences were situated within philosophy. Aristotle wrote about biology and in his day, Sir Isaac Newton was described as a “natural philosopher”. Since then, bit by bit, chunks of academic territory have split off, leaving the original land mass in danger of appearing like a shrunken and barren island. Physics went, then, in the 19th century, so did biology. Psychology made a successful bid for independence in the early 20th century as too did linguistics. Broadly, philosophy has become the analysis of a set of issues that cannot be resolved empirically. Bertrand Russell said in his book The Problems of Philosophy that whenever we have definite knowledge about a subject it ceases to be philosophy and becomes a separate subject.
Still, in the past, philosophy has had more interaction with the natural sciences. In that context, it’s refreshing that a recent movement, personified by a contributor to The Stone Reader, Joshua Knobe, and which calls itself “experimental philosophy”, has philosophy returning to its roots, enriching and being enriched by other disciplines, such as psychology. Experimental philosophy takes advantage of empirical data, such as surveys, to shed new light on philosophical matters and the psychological mechanisms that often underpin our conflicting philosophical instincts. Rather than relying on the philosopher’s intuitions about what conditions constitute, say, ‘knowledge’ or ‘freedom’, the experimental philosopher might conduct a study of ordinary people, who may or may not share the individual philosopher’s intuitions.
Thus in one study with collaborator Shaun Nichols, Knobe asked subjects to imagine a world entirely determined by prior events – one thing, causing the next thing, causing the next thing, causing the next thing, and so on. If the world were like this, would there be room for free will and moral responsibility? It’s an ancient philosophical conundrum. Knobe put this question to two sets of people. To one set he simply described this deterministic world, and posed the issue in a remote, abstract way. To the second set, he built in some emotive details.
In [deterministic] Universe A, a man named Bill has become attracted to his secretary, and he decides that the only way to be with her is to kill his wife and three children. He knows that it is impossible to escape from his house in the event of a fire. Before he leaves on a business trip, he sets up a device in his basement that burns down the house and kills his family.
Those given these shocking specifics were told that Bill was acting in a world governed by causal chains. Still, almost three quarters of them believed that Bill should nonetheless be held morally responsible for murdering his family. On the other hand, when the question was put in the abstract way almost everyone (86 percent) took the opposite view – thinking it impossible for someone to be held morally responsible when their actions were caused.
How does this help to resolve the conundrum of whether free will is compatible with determinism? The point, Knobe explains, is not to declare victory to one side or the other on a show of hands: instead: “the aim is to get a better understanding of the psychological mechanisms at the root of our sense of conflict and then to begin thinking about which of these mechanisms are worthy of trust and which might simply be leading us astray”. The real difficulty, of course, is to work out what criteria to use to judge whether one intuition is more reliable than another.
Philosophy began with Socrates wandering around the marketplace in Athens interrogating the people he met about the meaning of beauty and love and bravery. One common criticism of contemporary philosophy is that it has since become overly technical and remote, cut off from the ordinary concerns of ordinary people. The Stone column, which sits within the New York Times online Opinion pages, is to be welcomed as an important corrective to philosophy’s inaccessible image. It is by no means unique in its outreach ambitions. The philosophically curious can now access a variety of philosophy blogs (such as Leiter Reports) or listen to popular podcasts or tune-in to radio programmes (such as the West Coast based-show Philosophy Talk). But for The New York Times to recognize the relevance of philosophy is a coup for the subject. Since its inception in 2010 the site has had 44 million page views.
Gathered into this “greatest-hits” volume are 133 of these essays. They are, in the main, thoughtful, thought-provoking, clear-minded and jargon-free. Many of the contributors are colossi in the philosophical world, such as Tim Williamson, Tom Nagel and Simon Blackburn. Others are up and coming young philosophers such as Linda Martín Alcoff, from the City University of New York, and the brilliant London-based Amia Srinivasan, who has only recently completed her PhD (on the limits of knowledge), but has an extraordinary breadth of interests, from Kant, to feminism, to epistemology (she’s currently writing about the role of anger in politics).
In general, these essays are not the place to go if you want to find out about Plato’s Theory of Forms, Descartes’ Cogito, or Hume’s account of causation. The emphasis is rather on issues that have a more pressing claim on us. One essay by J. M. Bernstein, is entitled Hegel on Wall Street, and imaginatively formulates an argument for banking regulation drawn from the German philosopher’s 1807 tome, The Phenomenology of Spirit. A big final section is headed ‘Society’, and within this there are mini sections on such areas as guns, religion, race, economics and politics. Reflecting a decidedly liberal bent in academic philosophy, there’s an essay putting the case for vegetarianism, another on the cruelty and injustice of solitary confinement, and an essay on the danger of using drones, which draws on Plato’s description of the shepherd Gyges, who found a ring that made him invisible, and then committed murder. There’s a lovely, subtle essay on blasphemy which charts a middle ground between censorship advocacy and free speech fundamentalism.
The strongly empiricist departments within the academy, and their boasts of progress, can give philosophy an inferiority complex, and science a smug superiority. The theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has declared that “philosophy is dead”. Meanwhile the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, has described philosophy as “murky and inconsequential”. There is a famous but unfortunate quote from the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Non-philosophers especially are liable to charge philosophy with making no real headway.
This is a thought to be resisted. Although philosophy doesn’t make progress in the same way as science, out of philosophy there constantly emerge fresh, deep and exciting ideas.
Take Sam Scheffler’s Stone essay. Scheffler imagines how we would feel if we discovered that shortly after our death, planet earth would be destroyed and the human race extinguished. He claims – surely correctly – that many of the projects that currently give our life meaning (be it the activist seeking political reform, the medical researcher working on a breakthrough for cancer, or the philosopher agonizing over an article for a prestigious journal) would cease to have meaning. The motivation to pursue these projects would dry up. And Scheffler concludes that in many ways the continued existence “of other people after our deaths—even that of complete strangers—matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.” This profound insight isn’t to be found in Plato, or anywhere else in the subsequent two millennia. Of course, in Plato’s day, there were no nuclear weapons or drastic changes in climate to make human extinction a real possibility.
Aside from the question, ‘What is philosophy?’, which raises concern about the scope of the philosophical domain, there is another question addressed by several of the New York Times essayists: “who is he, our philosopher?” I use the pronoun “he” deliberately. It remains something of a mystery that philosophy is so male-dominated. In her essay (Women in Philosophy? Do the Math), the Massachussetts Institute of Philosophy professor Sally Haslanger, states that only around 20% of philosophers are women. The explanations for this disturbing phenomenon vary. Certainly a philosophy seminar can be an unusually aggressive arena, with clever but preening professors eager to flaunt their powers of logic and reasoning and taking some delight in cutting lesser mortals down-to-size. In August 2013, a New York Times article on sexism in philosophy quoted Louise Antony, a philosopher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst: “People in other disciplines think we’re just thugs”. The maleness of the profession can be re-enforcing, and implicit biases can become entrenched. Haslanger writes that people are often baffled when she tells them what she does for a living. One person laughed. When she asked why, he replied, “I think of philosophers as old men with beards and you’re certainly not that! You’re too young and attractive to be a philosopher”.
When combined with some recent high-profile sexual harassment allegations, the discipline’s maleness has prompted some internal soul-searching. And it is not just sex. The philosophical academy pays little attention to non-western philosophical traditions such as Buddhist philosophy. And there is a very low percentage of philosophers from minority communities. Haslanger states that of 13,000 full time philosophy instructors in the United States, only 156 are black. Linda Martín Alcoff, who’s pushed for greater inclusion of historically under-represented groups in philosophy, entitles her essay, “What is wrong with philosophy?”. The Stone has done much better on gender balance, but the skewed demographic raises the knotty question of whether a more balanced representation would result in a focus on a different set of issues and questions. Much of the critique of liberalism and libertarianism—and the emphasis on the rights of the atomistic individual—has come from a feminist perspective. There is a section in The Stone Reader on “family”—and all the contributors are women. Meanwhile all the contributors to the “Can Science Explain Everything?” section are male. In an ideal world one would hope for less segregated philosophical arenas.
That philosophy, of all subjects, might be riddled with biases is particularly disquieting. The philosopher likes to see himself—there’s that male pronoun again—as an unusually rational creature, operating on a higher level to others, trapped as they are by conventional wisdom and impelled by prejudice, partiality and illogicality. The record speaks otherwise. The most notorious counter-example is the 20th century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger: the extent of his anti-Semitism and his links to the Nazi party have only come to light in recent years. In his Stone contribution, Justin Smith, a Parisian-based philosopher, who argues that the concept of race is “historically tainted and misleading” and should be allowed to wither away, describes how it’s been misused by philosophers. He quotes David Hume, the brilliant Scottish enlightenment philosopher, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation”. And then, two decades on, we can read a similar passage from that other philosophical titan of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant, who, to quote Smith, “managed to let slip what is surely the greatest nonsequitur in the history of philosophy: describing the report of something seemingly intelligent that had once been said by an African, Kant dismisses it on the grounds that “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid”.
Of course, even within philosophy there have been skeptical voices to puncture the hubristic pretense of reason. Hume himself argued that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”; Nietzsche warned us to examine the origins of our value systems, and to see whose interests they serve. Innovative work in psychology by Jonathan Haidt, presented in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and mentioned in this volume, provides evidence that our moral reasoning isn’t used to evaluate our own beliefs—rather, it is a weapon to convince others of the rightness of our position. A University of California philosopher, Eric Schwitzgebel, not quoted in The Stone Reader, has undertaken research suggesting that moral philosophers behave no better than anybody else. Since their beliefs and actions are more inconsistent, in one sense they might even be considered worse. Thus, ethicists are more likely than non-ethicists to claim that eating meat is bad, but they are no less likely to eat meat.
But if philosophy is under assault from several directions, it can take pride in its virtues. High among these is a singular capacity for self-examination and self-criticism. That is does introspection so well is perhaps not surprising. After all, the issue of the scope and task of philosophy is itself philosophical. But while this volume is unafraid to tackle the questions, What Is Philosophy? and Who Is The Philosopher?, what this collection also demonstrates so admirably is the breadth of philosophical ideas and their relevance to how we lead our lives. And in the end, that is the best defense of philosophy of all.
David Edmonds is a senior research associate at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and co-runs Philosophy Bites. His latest book is Would You Kill The Fat Man?
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