what is philosophy? a status seeking answer
A few days ago, philosopher Colin McGinn wrote an op-ed in the New York Times demanding that his discipline drop “philosophy” as its name. The essence of his argument is that what used to be called “philosophy” bears little resemblance to what now dominates academic philosophy.
To understand this exercise in meaning construction and boundary work, it helps to understand what modern philosophy professors do. I think it might be described to outsiders as “using precise language to understand conceptual and logical issues.” So, a philosopher who looks at sociology might ask what we mean by “society” or “actor,” and then examine the meanings of these terms and their logical implications. If you want a great example on our blog, see Omar’s recent discussion of social constructionism.As you can imagine, that sort of intellectual work is a bit different than what used to be called philosophy, or what defines heterodox types of philosophy.
What’s at stake in this argument? I think this is an exercise in purity that uses the physical sciences as its claim for status. Consider the following passage:
Our current name is harmful because it posits a big gap between the sciences and philosophy; we do something that is not a science. Thus we do not share in the intellectual prestige associated with that thoroughly modern word. We are accordingly not covered by the media that cover the sciences, and what we do remains a mystery to most people. But it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science. The dictionary defines a science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” This is a very broad definition, which includes not just subjects like physics and chemistry but also psychology, economics, mathematics and even “library science.”
I am very partial to this argument. I think that sociology is a science in the common sense use of the term. Sociologists collect data, test hypothesis, and argue about the link between theories and observation. We just do it about people, while physicists do it about energy and matter.
But I am not about to let McGinn off the hook. I don’t think that the practice of philosophy is as pure as he makes it out to be. There are important chunks of the academic discipline that don’t fit into a physical science model. For example, there are quite a few people who do history of thought. And earlier types of philosophy are not completely divorced from the discipline.
Nor would I buy McGinn’s argument that being systematic is enough to make you into something like chemistry. Yes, philosophy is systemic, but falsifiability through logic is qualitatively different than falsifiability through experiment or observation. That’s why I’ve always thought that philosophy is akin to purely logical fields like math and pure statistics, more than chemistry and physics.
In the end, through, I approve of McGinn’s status seeking exercise. Systematic investigation of logical arguments is different than art history or music performance. As a member of a discipline whose mission is to discover what is correct, I can recognize that philosophy is also about “rightness” and less about judgment. But I am happy to let philosophy live in a sui generis position that is different than the physical and social sciences until they can show me that they are engaged with a reality that exists beyond our heads.