Has philosophy lost its way?

philosophyOne of the characteristics of philosophy as a field of inquiry is that — unique among human endeavors — it also inquiries upon itself. This was true since the times of Socrates and Epictetus, of course. Here is how the latter puts it in his Discourses:

“Now if you are writing to a friend, grammar will tell you that you need particular letters; but it will not tell you whether or not you should write to your friend. The same holds in the case of music’s relation to song. It will not say whether at this moment you should sing or play the lyre, or whether you should not do so. Which faculty, then, will do so? The one that studies both itself and everything else. And what is that? The faculty of reason. Yes; for this is the only faculty we have inherited that can perceive itself — what it is, what it is capable of, and how valuable it is — and also perceive all the rest.” (1.1.1-4)

This was in the context of a discussion with his students of the nature of philosophy, the practice of which is of course entirely based on “the faculty of reason.” (Nowadays we would include the cognitive sciences under the same umbrella, of course.)

Such tendency to self-examination, and even a good dose of self-criticism, is one of the first things I noticed moving (academically speaking) from science to philosophy, and it is a very refreshingly welcome one. A good example is a series of essays ran by the New York Times’ Stone blog focusing on whether the profession has an issue with gender diversity (it does, though I hardly think it is unique among academic fields, not to mention in society at large). In part as a response, the American Philosophical Association has stepped up its efforts to address the problem at an institutional level (a response that is still mostly in other fields).

Then again, self-criticism can become a fashionable attitude in and of itself, or can lead to shooting oneself in the (metaphorical) foot. That thought crossed my mind while reading an essay (also in the Stone) by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, entitled “When philosophy lost its way” (it didn’t help that the link to the essay was immediately and thoughtlessly tweeted around by well known philosophy “critics,” such as author and expert-on-everything Sam Harris and “the world came from nothing as long as I get to define nothing in my own way” physicist Lawrence Krauss).

Frodeman and Briggle do make good points, but I think they go a bit too far, potentially undermining not just their own message, but the credibility of philosophy in general. Let us take a look.

They begin by observing that philosophy has become an academic field toward the end of the 19th century, and argue that “this institutionalization of philosophy made it into a discipline that could be seriously pursued only in an academic setting. This fact represents one of the enduring failures of contemporary philosophy.”

Why did this happen? According to Frodeman and Briggle philosophy simply reacted to the surge of importance of the natural sciences, which led to “the placing of philosophy as one more discipline alongside these sciences within the modern research university … If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy, it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success and its own specialized concerns … Philosophy adopted the scientific modus operandi of knowledge production, but failed to match the sciences in terms of making progress in describing the world.”

You can see why Harris and Krauss just couldn’t wait to hit the “tweet” button on their keyboards!

Frodeman and Briggle continue: “We, too, produce research articles. We, too, are judged by the same coin of the realm: peer-reviewed products. We, too, develop sub-specializations far from the comprehension of the person on the street. In all of these ways we are so very ‘scientific.’”

This, apparently, is really bad, because philosophy ought to be understood as Socrates did: as “a vocation, like the priesthood … [because] the point of philosophy [is] to become good rather than simply to collect or produce knowledge.”

They conclude: “Like the sciences, philosophy has largely become a technical enterprise, the only difference being that we manipulate words rather than genes or chemicals … The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.”

Well, not exactly.

Let me first say where I agree with Frodeman and Briggle: yes, philosophy ought to be relevant outside of the academy; yes, philosophers ought to talk about things that matter; and yes, philosophical dialogue ought to take place in society at large.

But none of that is mutually exclusive with philosophy (also) being an academic discipline, with its own technical vocabulary, and in pursuit of its own specialized problems. Consider what happens in other academic fields: I don’t see the existence of Departments of English as somehow preventing literature from being important and accessible, nor does the existence of academic literary studies mean that people without a PhD in English cannot write excellent and highly impactful books. Moreover, there are plenty of examples of academics in those departments who also engage a broader public, simultaneously working within and outside the academy. The same can be said for art, law, business, and — of course — for the natural and social sciences. Frodeman and Briggle are simply setting up a false dichotomy here.

Moreover, I think their historical analysis is wrong. Academic philosophy did not originate in reaction to the rise of science. All one has to do is to read C.P. Snow’s famous essay on “the two cultures,” published as late as 1959, to get a clear sense that the humanities were dominant within the academy until after WWII. It was only then that the sciences began to gain the upper hand, a situation that has now solidified into the current status quo. No, philosophy became academic because all fields of inquiry went that way. In part this was probably the result of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism, as well as of demographic factors, all of which made possible a dramatic expansion of the number of people pursuing studies in arts, humanities and sciences. This in turn led to an increased professionalization of all such disciplines.

It is true that professional philosophers, by and large, work on narrower and narrower issues, in part in response to the “publish or perish” climate of the academy, and in part simply because whatever could be said of broad import about Socrates, Kant and so forth has already been said, many times over, so one needs to invent newer (and by necessity narrower) niches to claim to have done something novel, thus augmenting his odds to survive the academic rat race.

But this is true, again, in all disciplines. Before turning philosopher I was an evolutionary biologist. And I can’t tell you how many boring and irrelevant research seminars I had to sit through because so many bright people had to spend years demonstrating their credentials in order to further their career, coupled with the simple fact that there just aren’t that many Darwins around, nor that many new spectacular things to discover. As Thomas Kuhn famously put it, much science is puzzle solving, not paradigm shifting.

Should we reform the academy and push back against the tendency to put out as many LPU (Least Publishable Units) as possible? Should we encourage the next generation of academics to both aim at bigger and more salient questions and to talk to the public that, after all, largely funds their scholarship? Absolutely. But this isn’t a problem peculiar to philosophy, and to pretend otherwise is both a case of hubris (we are so cool an different from the rest of the academic lot!) and entirely counterproductive (giving more ammunitions against the relevance of philosophy to the Harrises and Krausses of the world).

Let us work together to make philosophy, literary studies, history, law, psychology, biology, physics and all the other academic disciplines both more effective at what they aim to do on the technical side and more engaged with and responsive to the general public. But let’s no pursue those noble aims by shooting ourselves in the foot and belittle the hard work of so many colleagues.

105 thoughts on “Has philosophy lost its way?

  1. Robin Herbert

    Hi SocraticGadfly,

    what he’s arguably done is said, “Here’s the whole corpus of ethics, and a fair amount of other issues in philosophy as well. Let’s honestly, seriously discuss, in light of modern findings in cognitive science, etc., how much of this applies outside of homo sapiens.”

    To me, this is a little like asking how much of the rules of chess applies outside of homo sapiens.

    I saw him I’m a discussion where he was asked, why try to do good? He answered that it was because we want to be well thought of after we are dead. Obviously aware of the weakness of the reply he added that this was at least a better reason than theists have.

    The problem was not so much that he was stumped at the question, it was that he was so completely unconcerned at being stumped by the question.


  2. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Robin,

    > he was so completely unconcerned at being stumped by the question.

    I think this is an appropriate response. There is no good answer and there can be no good answer because the question is ill thought out. We try to be good because we want to be good. Wanting to be good is largely innate, but also part of our culture. It ought to be regarded as a drive like any other, e.g. for sex, food, rest, wealth. It often competes with other drives and it often loses out. But only in psychopaths and the like is it completely absent.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. brodix

    We do good because at some level we are connected, even if current assumptions have us as “autonomous individuals.” Yes, some people do bad, but then there is cancer as well.

    If you think otherwise, try considering yourself separate from the network of relations in which you exist, both positive and negative.

    That dimple in the middle of your stomach is no different than the one on top of an apple.

    Went ahead and bought the book. Massimo, it might be a interesting subject for a thread.


  4. brodix

    One way to consider this is how the term good is naturally assumed to be a function of mutual benefit. If someone were to rob another, or kill them in battle, it would be good to only one side, with the potential of extreme blowback, such as going to jail or getting killed in reaction. As such, what we assume by good is where it has a positive feedback, rather than negative feedback. All of which is being part of that larger network of co-existance.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Robin Herbert

    I read “EveryThing Must Go”, but I don’t think I will be reading “Scientific Metaphysics”. The general scheme was 1) Adopt a single metaphysical axiom 2) Adopt a rule which makes it impossible to question this metaphysical axiom.

    In itself, I have no problem with that – it just means that they are focussed, and focus is not a thing to be dismissed in philosophy.

    The problem is that the rule just doesn’t work. They say they want to banish Putnam style “Twin Earths” but theoretical physics throws up an embarrassment of twin earths. They say they want to banish p-zombies and yet Giulio Tononi has imported the concept into neurosience (and Tegmark imports it into physics, but I guess no one is going to be surprised at that).

    We need no longer worry about Cartesian evil genii, but watch out for all those Boltzmann Brains (and every possible kind of thing allowed for by an infinity of random fluctuations or an infinity of parallel multiverses).

    They speak slightingly of the scholastics. If one of the medieval scholastics was resurrected today he would take one look at science and think he had gone to heaven.


  6. Robin Herbert

    Hi DM,

    I think this is an appropriate response. There is no good answer and there can be no good answer because the question is ill thought out. We try to be good because we want to be good. Wanting to be good is largely innate, but also part of our culture. It ought to be regarded as a drive like any other, e.g. for sex, food, rest, wealth. It often competes with other drives and it often loses out. But only in psychopaths and the like is it completely absent.

    Then he might have answered in this way, if this is what he meant.

    But his answer implies that we might murder, torture, rape for all we are worth as long as we can keep this quiet and leave a saintly reputation after we are dead.

    Wanting to be well thought of after we are dead seems like the worst possible answer to this question.

    Rousseau, I think, realised there was no good answer to the question and that it was all a matter of what each of us wanted.

    But if we just regard it as a drive then we can treat it as we do the other drives. We have a drive to eat certain foods but can ignore this drive when it suits us. We can ignore the drive to sex when it suits us. We can ignore the drive for rest when we want to get something important done. There is nothing even slightly controversial about these, but it would be highly controversial to treat the drive to be good in this way.

    Regarding the drive to be good in this way, it would be logical that we should ignore the drive to be good when it suits our purpose, when it benefits us or gives us pleasure. In fact this is probably something like what a psychopath does. Studies suggest that the idea that psychopaths completely lack the drive to be good is incorrect.


  7. Thomas Jones

    “Why try to do good?”

    I would think that Socratic would have recognized this sort of thing as akin to the response of “Mu” attributed to Joshu when a disciple asked “Whether a dog has the Buddha-nature.”

    I wouldn’t over-weigh Singer’s purported response to such a question in evaluating his contributions in pursuing ethical considerations.in real world circumstances of today.

    In a fairly recent blog entry or comment, Massimo suggested the rather confused aspect of asking him to explain his personal opposition to capital punishment.

    Some questions suggest more about the questioner than the merit of the questions. Again, context.

    As a post-script to brodix, I hope you know I meant no offense to you in quoting Wright’s one-liner. But to quote another of his, “On the other hand, you have different fingers.”


  8. SocraticGadfly

    Thomas, yes!

    Mu is a good answer.

    Evolutionary psychology, properly done, is another. I referenced the negative space version of reciprocal altruism with Dawkins yesterday. This is the classical positive space burden.

    We evolved as a social species, albeit with the cheaters lurking here and there, to do good in order for others to do good back. And in modern societies, where animal rights is considered a moral good, then the smart cookies extend their do-gooding to that.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. SocraticGadfly

    And, no, the above isn’t a cynical reason why we do good. It’s an existential reason, if any. (My use of that word, I admit, doesn’t square exactly with Sartre et al at all times, but it does generally enough.)

    Because of that, this gets back to Thomas’ mu.

    To the degree that acts of goodness are nonconscious (think of societies before dogs became common as pets, for example), there is no “why” to be explained. It’s simply part of being human.

    Per Hume, is ≠ ought, but when an “is” is already good, go with the flow and build on it.


  10. SocraticGadfly

    And, third comment?


    To the degree that acts of goodness are nonconscious (think of societies before dogs became common as pets, for example), there is no “why” to be explained. It’s simply part of being human.

    Is part of why I reject the metaphysics certainly of Christianity, and to a similar degree the other monotheistic religions, but also the Eastern religions with karma.

    There is no Western Christian original sin (Orthodoxy doesn’t really have such an idea anyway), nor the “evil way” of the two ways of Orthodox Judaism, nor the similar beliefs of Islam, nor the bad karma from previous lives.

    There’s human nature, which while at times vicious, ugly, and petty (per the late Mark Twain) is often, in small incremental ways, good and kind.

    We have nothing from which we, corporately, as a species, need to be redeemed.


  11. Robin Herbert

    Saying “Mu” to the why question about morality makes no sense, because it all depends on that. If it is simply what you like, then a large proportion of the population don’t want certain animals liberated, they want them pan fried with a bernaise sauce. If Singer wants to suggest that people are immoral for doing this, but also thinks that there is no answer to the “why” question about morality, that it is all about what you like or don’t like then he is being inconsistent. And a cow is not going to think well or badly of you after you die, especially if it is pan fried with a bernaise sauce.


  12. Robin Herbert

    I also fail to understand why the fact that my instincts come from my evolutionary history should be a factor. If I evolved to be a social animal does not imply that I should choose to be one. I also evolved to be racist, sexist, greedy etc, but I don’t choose to honour evolution’s choices in those matters.


  13. brodix


    “1) Adopt a single metaphysical axiom 2) Adopt a rule which makes it impossible to question this metaphysical axiom.”

    Maybe the axiom will be there is no universal axiom, just some very broad ones.

    What is the alternative? Keeping building out our focused fields of knowledge, with no sense of a larger order, flow, or function? Does the fate of the Tower of Babel come to mind as a logical conclusion to this endeavor?

    If you put all the grand paradigms and towering figures of the various fields together, is the outcome pre-ordained, or might there be surprises?

    Maybe some grand overarching theory doesn’t come of it, but another very useful outcome would be to puncture some of the bubbles currently floating around in various fields and who better to do that, than the general consensus among other authorities that some may have gone too far out on a limb.

    Specifically I think the world of theoretical physics could use a bit of refereeing.

    Before coming to Massimo’s various sites, I spent most of my limited interneting time and brain power arguing on the Foundational Questions blog and annual essay contests and it is safe to say the the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is alive and well in the field and no amount of basic logic is going to dislodge it.

    One would think the premise of a one to one correspondence between the model and an underlaying physical cause would have gained some degree of skepticism from that little debacle over epicycles, but not so. Now we have a one to one correspondence between the math of Relativity and this “fabric of spacetime.” Which among many other interesting features, requires this static property of time, otherwise referred to as block time. Even though it contradicts the conservation of energy.

    One of my regular conversationalists over there reached the point that he would not agree to the statement that “tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns,” after he came to realize it meant time could be explained as an effect of action, similar to temperature, rather than an underlaying symmetric scalar, as envisioned in four dimensional spacetime.

    As it seems philosophy is similarly mired in its own proscribed ruts, where do I turn? Sex, drugs and Rock and Roll?

    As for good, we really are part of a larger reality, with each of us having circles of inclusion. If we seek a broader view of reality, we need to consider the good of the larger circle. If it is only our particular cocoon of personal experience that matters, then the question is simpler and more hedonistic.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Rafe

    Mulligan, Simons and Smith wrote a challenging piece on the problem with contemporary philosophy a decade ago. Maybe still valid.


    “Philosophers, for their part, occupy themselves with in-house puzzles, ignorant of the damage their neglect is wreaking in the wider world. This kind of philosophy encourages introspection and relative isolation because philosophy is not seen as directly relevant to the scientific concerns which prevail in the wider world. As a result, once the main options have been explored, which takes between two and ten years, it becomes hard to base a new career on contributing to the debate, and so interest shifts elsewhere, on to the next trend. The result is a trail of unresolved problems.”

    “The problems are not unsolvable, nor are they unimportant, but the attempts to solve them are insufficiently constrained by matters outside philosophy conceived in a narrow and incestuous way. They are insufficiently constrained, too, by any attempt to build a synoptic system through sustained, collaborative efforts, in which philosophical theses about substance, matter, qualities, science, meaning, value, etc. would hang together in a coherent way. In positive science results are expected. In analytic philosophy everyone waits for the next new puzzle.”

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Robin Herbert

    All that the stuff about evolution tells me is that the basic instincts behind morality are just a set of brain states that push me towards behaviours which increased the probability that a distant ancestor would survive just long enough to reproduce and that I am kidding myself if is anything else than that.

    So, tell me again why Peter Singer doesn’t think I should eat meat? Just because he doesn’t like it?


  16. Thomas Jones

    Robin, the “mu” bit was more a sidebar to draw Socratic in. He is one of the few I’ve encountered in following Massimo’s blogs who has used this term, one I first came across years ago reading Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and subsequently encountered in various pieces on Zen by such authors as R.H. Blyth. I’m sure there are other regular readers here who are acquainted with it, particularly ejwinner, even though I gather he is a follower of Theravada Buddhism, and Mayahana Buddhism, I believe, had the greater impact on the so-called Zen sects.

    At any rate, the “mu” response that Joshu is supposed to have said and its interpretation are variously interpreted within the Zen sects. It’s not directly related to the question of animal rights or ethical considerations per se. It has more to do with the considerations related to both the question and the questioner.along the lines suggested by DM in his comment upthread.

    My point was simply that even if Singer “flubbed” a response to a question most beings would struggle in extemporizing a “ready” response, that fact is insufficient basis for entirely dismissing his work.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. brodix


    Yes, but now that we live in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, our perception of survival has to take in a far broader spectrum of potential considerations.


    No worries. You have to bite a lot harder than that, to get through my skin.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Robin Herbert

    Hi Thomas,

    As I said, it was not the fact that he was stumped by the question, but that he was so completely unconcerned at the question. Rather than say that there is no answer and then explaining his alternative, he gives a really weak answer. His website says he is one of the world’s leading moral philosophers, so I would certainly expect better. It was as though the question had never occurred to him before.


  19. Robin Herbert


    Yes, and so the brain states that push us towards survival behaviours that worked to Increase the probability that a particular variety would survive just long enough to reproduce in an ancient, vanished landscape are of even less relevance to us.


  20. brodix


    Well…. It does seem most people are more interested in winning their particular arguments, than seeing larger truths. Given that in those pre-modern days, this usually meant the difference between immediate death and survival, now it just means a continued paycheck.

    As Upton Sinclair put it, It is impossible to get a man to see something, if his paycheck depends on him not seeing it.

    Same factors and responses, just abstracted.


  21. Robin Herbert

    When I propose a new system be built at work, the first question I get asked is “Do we need this new system and if so, why?”. If I can’t answer that, then the project goes no further

    I ask the same of any moral system, do we need it and, if so, why? If the answer is in order that people think well of us after we die, or “There is no answer”, or “Mu” then I have to ask why do we go to the bother?


  22. Robin Herbert

    If you don’t know why you need the system in the first place, then what are the considerations for designing it? How do you know that it works or not? Singer is apparently the third most influential person in the world today, I am told. He is “frighteningly logical” I am told. And yet he can’t give this answer about the basis for the ideas he is proposing?


  23. Thomas Jones

    Brodix: no bite intended, but I’m pleased none was felt.

    Robin: Okay, let’s discount his response to the question.

    I’m afraid I still can’t fathom what seems the intensity of your apparent disdain for Singer. It’s as simple as that. I don’t object to your not buying into his ethical stances, either in whole or part. Perhaps, it has something to do with what might be perceived as a sort of “missionary” zeal in narrating his ethical vision.

    As for his “influence” on the public and his intellectual reputation among his peers, I would think the former is rather minor on a global scope and have no appreciation of the latter.


  24. Daniel Kaufman

    Thomas Jones wrote: Perhaps, it has something to do with what might be perceived as a sort of “missionary” zeal in narrating his ethical vision.


    This is why I can’t stand him.


  25. brodix


    That wasn’t meant personally, just expanding on the notion of knowledge and the hows and whys of its infinite and fundamental subjectivity.

    The reason why new systems will be proposed is because the fundamental reality is dynamic and so there will always be the upward push, counterbalanced by the downward form.

    Think in terms of time; The energy is conserved, not the form, so energy goes from past to future form, while the form coalesces and dissolves. Thus opposite directions of time. Energy toward the future. Form toward the past.

    Your mind goes from prior to succeeding thoughts, so the mind goes past to future, as thoughts go future to past.

    Just as individuals are born and die, future to past, while the species moves onto new generations, shedding the old, past to future.

    So, yes, it is wise to question the new, because it is often proposed just to fill a space, or express some dynamic, but equally so, old forms, having survived and prospered, are not objectively viewed by those who take them for granted and often outlast their essential usefulness.

    Keeping in mind that good and bad are the basic biological binary, moral codes are like programs, constructed out of enormous numbers of such binary options, which seemingly create a larger whole.

    Given the potential fluidity, age often equals gravitas, so we have these religious models, whose value is often of function of the fact they have been around for thousands of years, rather than the original events which birthed them, as there were many other religions which were equally valid for their time and place, but died out, seemingly making the ones to survive more valid, yet their survival was often their adaption to emerging realities.

    If we ever were to construct a new moral code, it couldn’t compete in terms of age and adherents, so its only possible option would be to go back and deconstruct this bottom up dynamic, taking into account the various logical fallacies, such as equating perfect with pure/ideal with absolute/top down frame with bottom up source, that often are at the core of these old models.

    Consequently the new model would have to more seriously incorporate more of what is considered an Eastern dualism, rather than just the singular western monism.


  26. Robin Herbert

    As for buying his ideas or not – I have no basis for considering their merits until I have the answer to that question. I do not personally care what is thought of me after I die. And if there is no basis, or the very question about a basis has no meaning then it is hardly worth considering an idea if even the proposer of the idea has trouble explaining what is the point of them.


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