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.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 11, 2012 at 12:08 am

Posted in academia, fabio, philosophy

7 Responses

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  1. Thanks! Interesting starting point for much else… For now, I find a dose of humility in Tom Lehrer’s singing about “Sociology” (… they can snow all of their clients/ by calling it – heh – ‘science’ / when in fact it’s only sociology…), but in truth any pursuit can be a science without mimicking physics.

    The scientific method is the process of rational-empiricism. You need both sides of that, the analytic and synthetic, theory and practice, logic and experiment. You can have a useful tool that you do not understand – the steam engine for its first 150 years; maybe even computer chips today – but it is not science until you can explain it and make it work.

    We understand the unreality of formal logic. “Socrates is an elephant. All elephants are blue. Therefore, Socrates is blue.” But that is trivial and demeaning when contrasted with, say, Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Conjecture for which all the experimental evidence would never be sufficient.

    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.

    Again, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. You don’t need to play the piano to figure out how to write a piece that no one could perform – though you might enjoy reading it and perhaps it could be programmed via computer and synthesizer. Again, the performance validates or falsifies the claim.

    I appreciate the original post. You could write several university class courses from it.


    Michael Marotta

    March 11, 2012 at 8:54 am

  2. McGinn’s argument is not about “philosophy” as a discipline but about his specialized brand of philosophy. I’m sure that not even all his peers in “analytic” (i.e., non-“continental”) philosophy would identify with his sense of what he “does”, nor would they be so ready to discard their humanistic ethos. More importantly, however, it jettisons some of the most influential work in philosophy in the 20th century, like, say, that of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

    In the book which is perhaps most clearly “about reality”, i.e., the Tractatus, which begins with the famous sentence, “The world is everything that is the case,” Wittgenstein says (at 4.111) “Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences … Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.” (I.e., it is not a “body of knowledge” but a style of analysis.)

    McGinn just wants to found a new discipline called “ontics”. That’s fine. But the idea that philosophy should be renamed is obviously just silly (as his suggested name for the campaign, CRAP, openly suggests.) In my view philosophy is more like poetry than science. That’s also just one view, of course. And perhaps I’d be a happier philosopher if people like McGinn stopped calling what he does by the same name. But when I undertake to “write concepts down” (just like a poet undertakes to write emotions down), when I strive for the (non-)authority of the “perfect immanence of the presentation” (as Kierkegaard put it) of my philosophical remarks, whose only aim is to present (and not represent) a concept or set of concepts, I am not doing anything that anyone would or should call science. I am practicing an art.

    McGinn’s proposal is a bit like a proposal to rename poetry in the early 20th Century “imagics” or (!) “imagery” would have been (just because a particular movement, Imagism, at a particular time focused on a particular virtue of their particular style).



    March 11, 2012 at 9:03 am

  3. […] what is philosophy? a status seeking answer ( […]


  4. […] Rojas has reservations, but ultimately nods: I think [modern philosophy] might be described to outsiders as “using precise language to […]


  5. Rorty said that most of what is done under the name of philosophy in universities is actually history of philosophy. The same seems to apply for management journals quite often. History of philosophy used as an authority argument for some ot related claims.
    If philosophy is serious thinking about concepts then all good theory involves philosophizing.



    March 11, 2012 at 9:15 pm

  6. It’s nearly impossible to find well-informed people for this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks



    September 1, 2012 at 9:06 pm

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    September 1, 2012 at 9:09 pm

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