[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.
Categories: Nature of Philosophy