Where Do We Go Next? — IV

Polling survey[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here. Note: this is the last entry in this 27-part series]

What do philosophers think of philosophy?

I am about to wrap up my tour of what philosophy is and how it works, which has taken us throughout these seven chapters to examine subjects as disparate as the Kyoto School and Quineian webs of beliefs, the history of progress in mathematics and the various theories of truth as they apply to the explanation of scientific progress. Before some concluding remarks on the current status and foreseeable future of the discipline, however, it seems advisable to pause and reflect on what philosophers themselves think of a number of issues characterizing their own profession.

As we have seen, we are often accused of endlessly posing the same questions, and of having more opinions floating around than the number of available philosophers. I have dealt somewhat with the first accusation above; as far as the second one goes, we actually have empirical data to falsify it, or at the least to question its alleged sweeping reach. Such data come from a rare survey of professional philosophers’ take on a number of philosophical questions, conducted by David Bourget and David Chalmers (2013). I think it is important for every profession to have a pulse of itself, so to speak, i.e., for its practitioners — at the least from time to time — to get a sense of where their field is and where it may be going, and in that respect, this whole book is one author’s contribution to precisely that sort of exercise. The Bourget and Chalmers’ paper, however, is quantitative in nature, and despite a number of possible reservations about its methodology (e.g., concerning the sampling protocol, or the fact that the multivariate analyses presented in it are rather preliminary and should really have been much more the focus of attention) it presents an uncommon chance to systematically assess the views of an entire profession. This is the sort of thing that would probably be useful also in other disciplines, from the humanities to the natural sciences, but is all too seldom actually done.

I will focus here on a number of interesting findings that bear directly or indirectly on my overall project of exploring whether and how philosophy makes progress in the conceptual space defined by its own questions and methods. To begin with, is there something to the above mentioned quip, that if there are x philosophers in a room, they are bound to have x+1 opinions (or thereabout) concerning whatever subject matter happens to be under discussion? The data definitely disprove anything like that popular caricature. Consider some of the main findings of the Bourget-Chalmers survey:

71% of respondents thought that a priori knowledge is possible, while only 18% didn’t think so (the remainder, here and in the other cases, falls under the usual heterogeneous category of “other”). There is a clear majority here, despite ongoing discussions on the subject.

However, things are more equally divided when it comes to views on the nature of abstract objects: Platonism gets 39% while nominalism is barely behind, at 38%. Superficially, this may seem an instance of precisely what’s wrong with philosophy, but is in fact perfectly congruent with my model of multiple peaks in conceptual space. Notice that philosophers seem to have settled on two “aporetic clusters,” to use Rescher’s terminology from the Introduction, and have eliminated a number of unacceptable alternatives. There may very well not be an ascertainable fact of the matter about whether Platonism or nominalism is “true.” They are both reasonable ways of thinking about the ontology of abstract objects, with each position subject to further refinement and criticism.

The reader will remember that Quine thought he had demolished once and for all the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions (one of the famous “two dogmas” of empiricism, see Chapter 3). Well, the bad news for Quine is that about 65% of philosophers disagree, and only 27% agree that such demise has in fact taken place.

One of the most lopsided outcomes of the survey concerns what epistemic attitude is more reasonable to hold about the existence and characteristics of the external world: 82% of respondents qualified themselves as realists, followed by only 5% skeptics and 4% idealists.
Most philosophers are atheists (73%), which, by the way, is a significantly higher percentage than most categories of scientists (Larson and Whitam 1997).

Classical logic, for all the newer developments in that field, still holds sway at 52%, followed by non-classical logic at 15% (though there is a good number of “other” positions being debated, in this case).

Physicalism is dominant in philosophy of mind (57%), while cognitivism seems the way to go concerning moral judgment (66%).

In terms of ethical frameworks, things are much more evenly split, with deontology barely leading at 26%, followed by consequentialism at 24% and virtue ethics at 18%. Here too, as in the case of Platonism vs nominalism, the result makes perfect sense to me, as it is hard to imagine what it would mean to say that deontology, for instance, is the “true” approach to ethics. These three (and a number of others) are reasonable, alternative ways of approaching ethics — and there are a number of unreasonable ones that have been considered and discarded over time.

In philosophy of science, realism beats anti-realism by a large margin, 75% to 12%, which is consistent with my own view that, although anti-realists do have good arguments, the preponderance of considerations clearly favors realism.

And finally (although there are several other entries in the survey worth paying attention to), it turns out that correspondence theories of truth (Chapter 4) win out (51%) over deflationary (25%) and epistemic (7%) accounts.

Bourget and Chalmers then move on to consider the correlations between the answers their colleagues provided to the questions exemplified above and other, possibly influential, factors. Here too, the results are illuminating, and comforting for the profession, I would say. For instance, there was practically no correlation at all between philosophical views and gender, with the glaring (and predictable, and still relatively small) exception of a 0.22 correlation (which corresponds to barely 5% of the variance explained) between gender and one’s views on Philosophy of Gender, Race, and Sexuality. Although the authors report statistically significant correlations between philosophical views and “UK affiliation, continental European nationality, USA PhD, identification with Lewis, and analytic tradition … [and] … USA affiliation and nationality, identification with Aristotle and Wittgenstein, and a specialization in Continental Philosophy,” these are all below 0.15 in absolute value, which means we are talking about 2% or less of the variance in the sample. There just doesn’t seem to be much reason to worry that philosophers are characterized by wildly different views depending on their gender, age, or country of origin — as it should be if philosophy is a type of rational inquiry, rather than just a reflection of the cultural idiosyncrasies of its practitioners. The opposite finding would have been somewhat worrisome, though not unknown even in the natural sciences: for instance in the case of Russian vs Western geneticists for most of the 20th century, even independently of the infamous Lisenko affair (Graham 1993).

More interesting are what Bourget and Chalmers call “specialization correlations.” Again, the full article is well worth reading and pondering, but here are some highlights that picked my interest:

Philosophy of religion (a somewhat embattled subfield) is more likely to include people who accept theism and who are libertarian (i.e., reject determinism) in matters of free will. The same people are also (slightly) less likely to embrace physicalism in philosophy of mind, or to accept naturalism as a metaphilosophy. None of this, it should be clear, is at all surprising.

Indeed, most of the strongest correlations between philosophical views and subfields are due to philosophers of religion, with a few others attributable to philosophers of science (who tend to be empiricist rather than rationalists) and scholars interested in ancient philosophy (who tend to adopt virtue ethics rather than deontology or utilitarianism).

Even more fascinating — and congruent with my general thesis in this book — are the pairwise correlations between philosophical views, which hint at the conclusion that philosophers tend to develop fairly internally coherent positions across fields. For instance:

If one thinks that the distinction between analytic and synthetic truths is solid, then one also tends to accept the idea of a priori knowledge — naturally enough.

If a philosopher is a moral realist, she is also likely to be an objectivist about aesthetic value. Interestingly, moral realists also tend to be realists in philosophy of science, and Platonists about abstract objects. It is perfectly sensible to reject moral realism in meta-ethics (44% of philosophers do), but — if one is a moral realist — then one’s reflective equilibrium should consistently lead her to also embrace realism in other areas of philosophy as well, which is exactly what happens according to the data.

If one thinks that Star Trek’s Kirk survives teleportation (rather than being killed and replaced by a copy), one also — coherently — often adopts a psychological view of personal identity.

As one would find in the natural sciences, there are also interesting differences on a given question in the opinions of philosophers who do vs those who do not specialize in the subfield that usually deals with that question. As a scientist, I can certainly have opinions about evolution, climate change and quantum mechanics, but only the first one will be truly informed, since I’m an evolutionary biologist, not an atmospheric or fundamental physicist. So too in philosophy. For instance:

Many more philosophers of science adopt a Humean view of natural laws when compared to average philosophers from other disciplines.

More metaphysicians are Platonists, though that particular differential is not very high (15%).
More epistemologists accept a correspondence theory of truth (again, however, the differential is not high: 12%).

Bourget and Chalmers even explored the relationship between one’s identification with a major philosophical figure and one’s views about certain topics. The results are consistent and not surprising, again demonstrating that philosophy is not the Wild West of intellectual inquiries:

If a philosopher admires Quine, he is less likely to accept the analytic-synthetic distinction (and more likely to reject the possibility of a priori knowledge).

Someone who finds kinship with Aristotle is also probably a virtue ethicist.

In political philosophy, if John Rawls is your guy, you are less likely to be a communitarian.

And it really ought not to be surprising at all that philosophers who like Plato are, well, Platonists about abstract objects.

Once more: looking at this data and asking “yes, yes, but which one is the true view of things?” is missing the point entirely.

Perhaps the most interesting and nuanced approach that Bourget and Chalmers take to their data unfolds when they move from uni- and bi-variate to multi-variate statistics, in this case factor and principal components analyses. This allows them to examine the many-to-many relationships among variables in their data set. The first principal component they identify, i.e., the one that explains most of the variance in the sample, they label “Anti-naturalism,” as it groups a number of responses that coherently fall under that position: libertarianism concerning free will, non-physicalism about the mind, theism, non-naturalism as a metaphilosophy, metaphysical possibility of p-zombies, and so-called “further fact” view of personal identity. If one were to plot individual responses along this dimension (which Bourget and Chalmers don’t do, unfortunately), one would see anti-naturalist philosophers clustering at the positive end of it, and naturalist philosophers clustering at the negative end. It would be interesting to see the actual scatter of data points, to get a better sense of the variation in the sample.

The second-ranked principal component is labeled “Objectivism / Platonism” by the authors, and features positive loadings (i.e., multivariate correlations) of cognitivism in moral judgment, realism in meta-ethics, objectivism about aesthetic value, and of course Platonism about abstract objects. The third component is about Rationalism, with positive loadings for the possibility of a priori knowledge, the analytic-synthetic distinction, and rationalism about knowledge. Two more interesting components (ranked fourth and fifth respectively) concern “Anti-realism” (epistemic conception of truth, anti-realism about scientific theories, idealism or skepticism about the external world, Humean conception of laws of nature, and a Fregean take on proper names) and “Externalism” (externalism about mental content, epistemic justification, and moral motivation, as well as disjunctivism concerning perceptual experience). Finally we get two additional components that summarize a scatter of other positions.

The overall picture that emerges, again, is very much that of a conceptual landscape with a number of alternative peaks, which are internally coherent and well refined by centuries of philosophical inquiry. I suspect that historically many more “peaks” have been explored and eventually discarded, and that the height of the current peaks (as reflected by the consensus gathered within the relevant epistemic communities) is itself heterogeneous and dynamic, with some in the process of becoming more prominent in the landscape and others on their way to secondary status or destined to disappear altogether.

The evolution of philosophy

It has been a long excursion across the intellectual landscapes that characterize the general practice that goes under the name of “philosophy,” a practice that has been carried out in many forms throughout the world across millennia. I have put forth the proposition that, broadly speaking and with a number of caveats and exceptions, what we call “philosophy” hangs in a series of empirically informed conceptual spaces. At times, it has a tendency to veer too far from empirical background (both folk and science-based), in which case it begins to lose relevance, and sometimes it even manages to look somewhat silly. The chief reason, I maintain, is that logical constraints are simply too broad, not “constraining” enough: logic is compatible with too many possibilities, and logical coherence is necessary but not sufficient for good philosophy. One needs a science-informed and science-compatible (though certainly not science-deferring) philosophy.

So, does philosophy, construed in the way suggested above, make progress? I think it does, in the sense of exploring and refining the sort of conceptual spaces that I have tried to describe especially in Chapter 6, and in a way that lies somewhere between science (Chapter 4) and mathematics and logic (Chapter 5), but closer to the latter two. As for the future of the discipline — qua form of intellectual inquiry, and quite aside from the politics of academia — I am optimistic, as I see it rather bright. So long as there will be people interested in thoughtful, critical assessments of broad swaths of what counts as human understanding, there will be philosophy, its current loud scientistic detractors (Chapter 1) notwithstanding.

Often philosophers themselves have advanced a model of their discipline as a “placeholder” for the development of eventually independent fields of inquiry, presenting philosophy as the business of conducting the initial conceptual exploration (and, hopefully, clarification) of a given problem or set of problems, handing it then to a special science as soon as that problem becomes empirically tractable. There are quite a few historical examples to back up this view, from the emergence of the natural sciences to that of psychology and linguistics, to mention a few. Philosophy of mind is arguably currently in the midst of this very process, interfacing with the nascent cognitive sciences.

Predictably, this very same model is often twisted by detractors of philosophy to show that the field has been in a slow process of disintegrating itself, with a hard core (represented by metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, logic, aesthetics, and the like) that is the last holdout, and which has shown increasing signs of itself yielding to the triumphal march of Science (with a capital “S”). If that is the case, of course, so be it. But I seriously doubt it. What we have seen over the last few centuries, and especially the last one or so, is simply a transformation of what it means to do philosophy, a transformation that I think is part of the continuous rejuvenation of the field. This should be neither surprising nor assumed to be unique to philosophy. Although we use the general word “science” to indicate — depending on whom one asks — everything from Aristotle’s forays into biology to what modern physicists are doing with the Large Hadron Collider, the very nature of science has evolved throughout the centuries, and keeps evolving still. What counts as good scientific methodology, sound scientific theorizing, or interesting scientific problems has changed dramatically from Aristotle to Bacon to Darwin to Stephen Hawking. Why should it be any different for philosophy?

One of the most obvious indications that philosophy has been reinventing itself over the past century or so is the dramatic onset of a panoply of “philosophies of.” While — bizarrely — I know a number of colleagues who think that philosophy of science, or philosophy of language, or any other philosophy of X barely qualify as philosophy, one can argue that the majority of the modern philosophical literature falls into those areas, rather than the core ones enumerated above. “Philosophies of” are the way the field has been responding to the progressive emancipation of some of its former branches: science is no longer natural philosophy, but that simply means that now philosophers are free to philosophize about science (and, more specifically, about biology, quantum mechanics, etc.) without having to actually do science. The same idea applies to linguistics (and philosophy of language), psychology (and philosophy of the social sciences), economics (and philosophy of economics), and so on and so forth.

Is this sort of transformation also about to affect philosophy’s core areas of metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, logic and aesthetics? It depends on how one looks at things. On the one hand, to a larger or lesser extent it certainly has become increasingly difficult to engage in any of the above without also taking on board results from the natural and social sciences. While logic is perhaps the most shielded of all core philosophical areas in this respect (indeed, it has contributed to the sciences broadly construed significantly more than it has received), it is certainly a good idea to do metaphysics while knowing something about physics (and biology); ethics while interfacing with political and social sciences, and even biology and neuroscience; epistemology while being aware of the findings of the cognitive sciences; and aesthetics with an eye toward biology and social science. Nonetheless, all the core areas of philosophy are still very much recognizable as philosophy, and will likely remain so for quite some time. But should they finally spawn their own independent disciplines, then there will immediately arise in turn a need for more “philosophies of,” and the process will keep continuing, the field adapting and regenerating.

Ultimately, philosophy is here to stay for the same reason that other humanities (and the arts) will stay, regardless of how much science improves and expands, or how much narrow minded politicians and administrators will keep cutting their funding in universities: human beings need more than facts and formulas, more than experiment and observation. They need to experience in the first person, and they need to critically reflect on all aspects of their existence. They need to understand, in the broadest possible terms, which means they need to philosophize.


Bourget, D. and Chalmers, D.J. (2013) What do philosophers believe? Philosophical Studies 3:1-36.

Graham, L.R. (1993) Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History. Cambridge University Press.

Larson, E.J. and Whitam, L. (1997) Scientists are still keeping the faith. Nature 386:435-436.


110 thoughts on “Where Do We Go Next? — IV

  1. Oh, I make my quiche crustless, kind of like a ‘thickened” egg souffle. And, I used artichoke bruschetta in the last one. THAT was good.

    On the pizza, no mozzarella at home, but I do have that Asiago I mentioned, as well as Parmesan.

    (Right now, I have in the fridge a partial pot of sun-dried tomato alfredo, from a jar, but “stretched” with that Asiago and parmesan, over whole wheat pasta with various veggies and pork loin and artichokes … very tasty.

    And, ain’t this fun?

    I like to experiment … several years ago, I sauteed diced fresh peaches in semi-homemade curry sauce …. delish!


  2. When we were on holiday in Italy some time ago, our landlady gave us these tomatoes from her garden. They were large and misshapen but they tasted so good that our picky-eater 3 year olds would pick them up and eat them raw out of the basket.

    You could just cut them up and heat them through adding nothing else, not even salt or pepper, and get a delicious pasta sauce. I was toying with the idea of smuggling some seeds back, but I am just too law-abiding.

    I have since heard that the “ugly tomato” might be a particular breed, but I have not been able to find them in Australia.

    I guess I could organise another holiday in Italy at the same agri-turismo.


  3. I would say the important works on the scientific method are, as I mentioned, Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, especially Book II, part 19, Archimedes and Euclid’s works, Grossteste’s “De lineis, angulis et figuris”, a 13th century treatise on mathematical reasoning in the natural sciences, Roger Bacon’s “Experimental Science”, also, I think, the 13th century. Oresme’s “Le Livre du ciel et du monde” contains a argument showing that they could not know on the evidence they had whether the Sun orbited the Earth, or the Sun remained stationary and the Earth rotated. People usually said that we would be able to tell if we were spinning so fast and Oresme showed that we could not. He introduces the famous ‘ship” example which is often attributed to Galileo (as are a few other thought experiments from the middle ages).

    Galileo’s “Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences ” and “The Assayer” are also important. I have left many out. Galen’s contributions on the philosophy of science were also important

    For technologies, I would imagine that the technology of square rigged sailing ships has had a far greater influence on science than the telescope, both as a means of discovery and performing experiments as well as a way of improved communications allowing greater collaboration of scientists from geographically separated ares.

    The technology of clocks is also important.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi michaelfugate,

    So philosophy and history are equals to sciences such as biology or physics as ways of obtaining knowledge? It is all one, no?

    Yes, all along I’ve emphasized the equality, necessity and entwined nature of both conceptual analysis and empirical observation. Whether that conceptual analysis is done by scientists or philosophers (or, as was more common in the past, by people expert in both) matters not. Whoever it is done by, it is best done in close conjunction with the empirical side of things — which, of course, is exactly how it is done in physics, with close relations between theoretical physicists and mathematicians and observational/experimental physicists.

    And sure, history is indeed the appropriate way of obtaining knowledge about historical events. Who has ever said otherwise? The fact that analysis of the genetic distribution of people today can inform history just adds. The best approach would synthesize genetics with historical written accounts, and archaeology and whatever else one could get. It seems weird to me that anyone would *not* see knowledge as a seamless whole in this way and want to compartmentalise it.

    In your unitary world, philosophy could inform science and science could inform philosophy – something you denied has ever happened a day or so ago?

    I didn’t deny that! Wider context to what I said:

    There is an undercurrent among philosophers (here and elsewhere) that scientists don’t do conceptual analysis, or are not very good at it, or that philosophers are far more insightful about it. For example, the attitudes attributed to physicists are often more naive and less tenable than the views they actually hold.

    I responded to a suggestion that there were cases where physicists had an established and accepted model and then philosophers who were not physicists then revealed “hidden assumptions”, that is, ones the physicists were not aware of, which then forced an over-turning of the model.

    Again, the undercurrent is that the physicists are less good at that sort of conceptual analysis relevant to physical models. So I asked for examples. No one gave any example. No, they didn’t!

    Sure, there were examples of people who were both philosophers and scientists making advances, and cases of fruitful collaboration on such issues, but no examples of non-physicist philosophers pointing out hidden assumptions (ones the physicist had missed) in accepted and established theories, that then forced revisions. My contention is that in all such cases the physicists were fully aware of and participating in the conceptual analysis. You are invited to provide counter examples (so long as they are counter examples to what I actually said!).

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Well as I’ve said, I now consider the premise to Massimo’s new book solid, though I personally have a different sort of progress in mind.

    Daniel, it’s this war itself that I consider to be the tragedy here. Yes you’re politically cleaver enough to ask me to implicate various participants in this war, though I did actually pass PolySci 101. It’s not the people involved, but the situation itself that I object to. As a Wittgensteinian, I know that you also don’t believe that the system is working properly.

    I can take philosophy as a purely critical discipline. I can also take it as I generally perceive it today, or as an exploration of reality itself. The only thing that I can’t take, is a culture which is trained to believe that its answers needn’t coincide — like it’s some kind of “art.” Epistemologically I have quite a problem with this perspective, and simply because I believe in the importance of the philosophical questions which we ask.

    Science has quickly given our species tremendous power. Who is going to teach us how to use it?


  6. Robin,

    ” It seems weird to me that anyone would *not* see knowledge as a seamless whole in this way and want to compartmentalise it.”

    Keep in mind that knowledge is all about quantification and qualification.
    Yes, at some level reality would be a seamless whole, but in terms of knowledge, it would then be a seamless blur. It would be like trying to take a picture of a statue by walking around it with the shutter of the camera open.

    Knowledge is all about distinction, delineation, contrasts, comparisons, frames, perspectives, models, maps, etc. Without all those differences and categorizations, it would just be a flatline in terms of knowledge.

    Then again, what is meant by “whole?” Does it mean all of reality is a singular entity, or that it is all networked in infinite continuity? The Big Bang Theory argues for the universe as a singular entity, but now Multiverses propose there are multitudes of other universes, presumably forming out of the same processes and possibly in contact. Which would make them entities in a larger process. Just as individual organisms are entities in a larger ecosystem.

    While an ecosystem/environment would seem to just be made up of lots of organisms, consider that the individuals come into being and eventually dissolve back into the environment. Such that their arrow of time is from being in the future, prior to their existence, to being in the past. While the process is constantly shedding old individuals and moving onto new ones, thus going past to future.

    Put it in terms of a factory; The product goes start to finish, while the process goes the other direction, consuming raw material and expelling finished product.

    Then what might be a process at one level, might be an entity at a larger level. As our bodies are processes for consuming energy, in order to exist and move, as well as information, in order to assess our movements and build knowledge into larger structures and models. As well as constantly regenerating and shedding cell structure.


  7. I honestly think that we live in a great era for philosophy to shine, there were several science-related examples on this blog too that made it clear how badly philosophy is needed. This is seen not by readers here only, but you can just check some randomly chosen arxiv papers how several times they are not called philosophy but still deal with such meta-* questions that could be united within the broad field of “wisdom loving”. Thank you for writing.


  8. From ‘Wojciech H. Zurek: http://vvkuz.ru/books/zurek.pdf

    f the unknown state cannot be found
    out—as is indeed the case for isolated
    quantum systems—then one can make a
    persuasive case that such states are subjective,
    and that quantum state vectors are
    merely records of the observer’s knowledge
    about the state of a fragment of the Universe
    (Fuchs and Peres 2000). However, einselection is
    capable of converting such malleable and “unreal”
    quantum states into solid elements of reality. Several ways to
    argue this point have been developed since the early discussions
    (Zurek 1993, 1998, 2001a). In effect, all of them rely
    on einselection, the emergence of the preferred set of pointer
    states. Thus, observers aware of the structure of the
    Hamiltonians (which are “objective,” can be found out without
    “collateral damage”, and in the real world, are known
    well enough in advance) can also divine the sets of preferred
    pointer states (if they exist) and thus discover the preexisting
    state of the system.

    He calls this ‘existential interpretation’ of QM. I find it almost as obscure has Heidegger. He seems to be saying that the ‘unknown is subjective’ which sounds like something out of my favorite BS generator. Perhaps it’s just not well expressed.

    This is the kind of place where trenchant philosophical analysis could help, but they would have to understand the math (better than I do). However, the kind of philosophy that Zurek seems to have picked up at Santa Fe institute doesn’t seem to help.


  9. Philosopher Eric wrote:

    Daniel, it’s this war itself that I consider to be the tragedy here. Yes you’re politically cleaver enough to ask me to implicate various participants in this war, though I did actually pass PolySci 101. It’s not the people involved, but the situation itself that I object to. As a Wittgensteinian, I know that you also don’t believe that the system is working properly.

    I didn’t really expect an answer to my questions, as I already knew that you know nothing about the actual profession or the people in it. Hence the vague handwavings regarding “the system” which really amount to nothing.

    The problem is that you entirely misunderstand the kinds of questions that philosophy takes up. Indeed, I’m not at all sure that you even understand that there are many different *kinds* of questions. Some admit of single, decisive answers. But many do not. And even other kinds of questions really aren’t about finding answers, but about the questions themselves, taken up again and again.

    The arts, humanities, and yes, philosophy, are largely concerned with the latter sorts of questions. When we ask “How ought I to live?” or “What gives meaning to my life?” these are not questions like, “At what temperature does water boil?” or “What is the relationship between matter and energy?” They not only are not intended to find a concrete answer, they are meant to be asked again and again, over the course of our lives. It’s in the contemplating and meditating upon such questions that our humanity is fully expressed — on the *questions* not their answers. Much as we benefit from reading and re-reading great works of literature, because each time we discover new things about ourselves, our lives, and the people around us, we benefit from entertaining these perennial — unanswerable — questions, for very much the same reason.

    Your whole approach to the subject of philosophy and its distinctive questions reflects a cramped, narrow, one-dimensional picture of human beings and our engagement with the world. Almost robot-like. But certainly not in a way that reflects even the slightest understanding of the humanities, at whose heart of which lies philosophy. (And in this I likely disagree with Massimo, in that I see far less of the sciences in philosophy than he does and think it much more firmly belonging with literature and the arts and their criticism.)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Yes Daniel, you’re entirely right about my education, and it does please me that you’ve come to know me as well as you have. I am here to learn from you what I can, though no, I won’t always accept the lessons which you present.

    As far as “questions” go, there are of course an infinite number that could be asked which make no sense whatsoever. But then regarding every one of them which do make sense, I believe that actual answers exist as well. It matters not that we idiot humans are often unable to fathom such answers. Do the arts and humanities concern various things which reside in this world, but contain no answers whatsoever? The principal of naturalism suggests otherwise.

    If the subject of epistemology were right today, then I believe that you and Wittgenstein would be just as free as you should be to define the subject of philosophy as a purely critical endeavor. But no, as I see it epistemology is not right today. Thus we define terms like “philosophy” by means of what it “is,” rather than accept whatever definition that a given theorist presents as a condition for their arguments. This is a convention which I would like amended.

    Then returning to general human stupidity concerning the questions which it asks, there is one area which I find most troublesome. I believe there to be one aspect of reality which constitutes the “value” of existence for any given subject. I refer to this as its “utility,” a concept which founds the science of economics today, and stems from the “utilitarianism” concept of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham long ago. I theorize this in a purely descriptive rather than prescriptive manner, and so mean to help any given subject, personal or social, understand the value of its existence, and so understand how to better increase its value.


  11. Eric:

    Your reply confirms pretty much everything I said. You have no understanding of the humanities or of arts and letters and their role in human life (as evinced, for example, by your weird remark about “naturalism”). And you have an equally deficient understanding of philosophy. It would be nice if you actually *sought* to be educated in these areas, from people who actually teach the subject in the University and publish in the professional literature, but it seems that you prefer simply to make assertions and statements about things you know nothing about and with respect to which you show little to no natural ability.

    Unfortunately, doing so will have just about the effect one would expect. I.e. none. Hence the obsessive need on your part to beg people to be interested in what you are talking about, which, I’m afraid, is not particularly endearing.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Massimo,

    Congratulations on doing a great thing here! This was a brave and admirable endeavour creating a unique interactive experience for readers. Standing ovation!!! This is an extremely valuable book whether one agrees with in whole, partially, or not at all. And once again I apologize for my tonal issues in the comment threads. I must admit I kind of do it on purpose as a learning tool because there is no quicker or more efficient way to learn that you are wrong about something than to brazenly assert your views in an overly confident manner, especially in forums like these. So thank you for putting up with my style of speed learning.

    I really just want mom and dad to stop fighting. As I have said before, to state that philosophy is useless, or dead, or doesn’t make progress, is itself a philosophical argument intended to make philosophical progress by settling that debate once and for all, so it is a self defeating statement. It is ridiculous to think that any of us could ever do anything without philosophizing. Empirical knowledge informs our “is” but what we do with that “is” can only be philosophized. And so everyone is a philosopher. Scientists are philosophers. Laypeople are philosophers. For this reason philosophy can not possibly ever die or be deemed useless. The only question is about how relevant and funded professional/academic philosophy in it’s current form will be to the philosophy of the future, and that is entirely up to them.

    Frankly, no one outside of academic/professional philosophy cares if it makes progress within itself, and I’m not sure why anyone would think that they should. People wouldn’t give a hoot about scientific progress within itself if it didn’t produce clear benefits to our lives outside of it’s walls. If professional/academic philosophy wants to be as appreciated by the people, and as funded by the people, as science, “making progress within itself” isn’t going to cut it. So you can sing it until the cows come home that “defining what is the good life” is not the right way to look at philosophy teleologically, but that will never connect with the people who know damn well that philosophy’s only purpose is figuring out “what is the good life?” If 2600 years of the field of philosophy has not given us a clear enough operational answer on this question yet, it’s very hard to take “makes progress within itself” as a reason to celebrate, or fund it. People need to operationally answer that question. Science can not give it to them. So if philosophy will not provide a definitive answer they will either turn to religion or they will read science to form their “is” and philosophize the rest for themselves. I don’t see a market for pros here.

    I love philosophy. I am a philosopher. And so my criticisms of professional/academic philosophy are not criticisms of philosophy itself. When I say, for example, that the science of evolution is more enlightening to me on the subject of morality than any philosophy I have ever read, I am making a philosophical statement about the value of scientific information to inform my own philosophizing on morality, not stating that science is sufficient without philosophy. You need philosophy to finish the job but not necessarily professional philosophers. Sometimes scientists and people can do the philosophizing part on their own. And they will so long as professional philosophers have come up with no definitive answers.

    All that being said I would never personally vote to cut funding for philosophy departments. For now.

    Either way, great book, Massimo. Thank you once again for a fantastic learning experience. It may not sound like it, but I really did learn a lot.

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