As some readers may recall, last year I published serially a whole book on this blog on the nature of philosophy (available here as a single volume). This sort of thing is an exercise in meta-philosophy, i.e., philosophizing about the very nature of the discipline. It needs to be done from time to time, but not too often, as it tends to approximate the sort of navel gazing that philosophy is (unjustly, in my opinion) infamous for.
Apparently, one of those times is now, taking inspiration from a recent debate organized by The Times of London Literary Supplement between two eminent British philosophers, Roger Scruton and Timothy Williamson. I don’t think either got it exactly right, but Scruton came much closer, in my view, than Williamson. Regardless, there was much to be learned from the three rounds of the exchange, which is why I’m bringing it to the attention of my readers and will comment on it here, focusing on the first round only.
Let’s start, then, with Scruton’s take, which opens The Times’ debate. He begins by telling us that when he attended Cambridge in the 1960s, he was immediately disabused of the naive notion that studying philosophy would tell him something abut the meaning of life. Ethics was instead dominated by the likes of G.E. Moore, who spent endless time debating the exact meaning of “good,” “right,” and “ought.” As he puts it:
“Ethics came to rest in the study of dilemmas, like that of the man who must visit his aunt in hospital on the very same day as his child is competing in the long-jump at school. The manifest facts that modern people are living in a state of spiritual anxiety, that the world has become strange to us and frightening, that we lack and need a conception of our own existence — such facts were either unnoticed or dismissed as yet more leftovers from the mental disease called religion.”
I must say Scruton is right on target here. A significant portion (though, thankfully, not all) of academic philosophy has become irrelevant to pretty much anyone else outside of academic philosophy departments (the same, to be fair, holds for English literature, or the natural sciences, but that’s another story). The damage done by so-called analytic philosophy to ethics is indeed a perfect example. We don’t learn much, if anything, from increasingly convoluted versions of the trolley dilemma, as “fun” as those riddles can be for someone who thinks such things qualify as fun.
Scruton then rejects Locke’s contention that philosophy should be a “handmaiden to the sciences”:
“Philosophy is, and ought especially to be, a handmaiden to the humanities. It should use its best endeavours to show why the attempts to rewrite religion, politics, musicology, architecture, literary criticism and art history as branches of evolutionary psychology (or still worse, branches of applied neuroscience) are destined to fail.”
So Scruton sees a major task of contemporary philosophy to contrast scientism, the ideological attitude that declares (on no scientific grounds) that only scientific questions are worth being considered, and only the methods of science (often conveniently and arbitrarily expanded to encompass all ways of human reasoning) are valid sources of knowledge and understanding. Together with my friend and colleague Maarten Boudry I have put together a collection of essays — due on December 26 from Chicago Press — on the challenges posed by scientism, and readers of this blog know why I’m very sympathetic to Scruton’s perspective (not everyone contributed to our volume is, by the way — it’s a discussion, not a monologue).
He goes on to explain that the reason evolutionary psychology’s attempt to “reduce” the humanities fails is because science is in the business of (and is very good at) providing answers couched in a third-person perspective, focused on the causality of observable phenomena. But the world of the humanities is what Wilfred Sellars (remember him?) called “the space of reasons,” and reasons (or prescriptive statements) just don’t show up in an fMRI scan.
Let it be clear that Scruton is not anti-science. He explains that this failure of science is not the result of the existence of some other, magical, realm of existence. It is simply that science isn’t in the business of doing what the humanities do. It is one tool among many at our disposal to understand the world — not just the physical and biological world, but also the world of human relations and meaning. It shouldn’t be necessary, but I hasten to add that Scruton seems to be perfectly aware that human beings are also biological beings made of physical stuff. He is not claiming that there is no place for science in studying humans and their societies. He is just reiterating the famous, and very useful, distinction that Sellars himself made between the scientific and manifest images of the world.
Scruton ends his first round by bringing up David Hume and his idea that the human mind has a capacity to “spread itself upon objects.” While this capacity is, obviously, the result of biological evolution and it is made possible by our neural apparatus, biology and neuroscience tells us comparatively little of value about what happens when we engage in such Humean activity. as Scruton puts it:
“The case is no different from the case of aspects, like the face in the picture, which is there for us in the pigments, but not really there, as the pigments are.”
Let’s now turn to Williamson’s initial response. He doesn’t start too well, as he deploys a rather cheap rhetorical trick, accusing Scruton of thinking that history is not part of the empirical world, which he smugly says “may come as news to historians.” Williamson then immediately retreats from this over the top criticism by acknowledging that Scruton has a particular — Sellars-informed — meaning of the term “empirical world” in mind, which Williamson apparently willfully misunderstood.
But the next paragraph doesn’t improve things, because, says Williamson, according to Scruton mathematics is not a science either, which it certainly is, in his opinion:
“Before proclaiming limits to science, perhaps one should get clearer on what it is. Mathematics, though a science, is not a natural science like physics, chemistry and biology. It supports its results by deductive proofs rather than experiments, but is at least as rigorous, systematic and reliable a search for knowledge.”
That’s exactly right, we should be a bit more clear on what science is, but Williamson’s approach isn’t very helpful. To begin with, there is a good argument to be made that mathematics is not a science, although it is, of course, very useful to the sciences. Williamson himself acknowledges that math is different from the natural sciences, largely using different tools, and — I will add — producing results that are not dependent on empirical observation and experiment (setting aside so-called “experimental mathematics,” which is not experimental at all, but based on brute force computer simulations).
Indeed, my detailed analysis of the nature of progress in mathematics (here, here, here, and here) suggests that it works in a fashion much more similar to logic than to science, and not even Williamson has gone so far as to suggest that logic is a science in any meaningful sense of the term. So, if by “science” we mean the natural sciences (such as physics, chemistry, biology, geology) as they have historically and socioculturally developed from the 17th century on — and I don’t see any reason why one would want to mean anything else by that word — than Williamson is way off base in his criticism of Scruton.
In fact, Williamson goes on and on talking right past Scruton, attempting to convince him that historical research is based on empirical evidence, something that I’m pretty willing to bet Scruton knows very well. Let me try to explain where exactly Williamson misses the point by way of an example that took place a couple of years ago, when I was teaching a class on epistemology across the curriculum. We were exploring claims to knowledge and understanding made by varied disciplines, from the natural sciences to the humanities, including, of course, history. I had a number of guest lecturers from different departments, and one of my colleagues delivered a particularly clear explanation of what, I think, Scruton is trying to get at. My colleague did not use Sellars’ distinction between the scientific and manifest images, but he may as well have done that.
My colleague works in the social sciences, and specifically on Colonialism. He told our students that of course he uses some of the tools of the natural sciences, from the collection of systematic observations to statistical analyses. But, he also immediately added, the picture emerging from those methods alone would be woefully incomplete. For instance, he also studies books — including works of fiction — and other testimonials written by people who have experienced Colonialism firsthand, on either side of it. These human artifacts are qualitative in nature, not really amenable to statistical and systematic analyses. But they provide exactly what Sellars was talking about as far as the human sphere is concerned: reasons. Not in the sense of “good” or objective reasons, necessarily, but in the sense of a glimpse into the human condition, into why people do things, or how they tell themselves why they do things. My colleague concluded that research areas like his are, as a result, at the borderlands between the sciences and the humanities. They certainly benefit from deploying the methods of science, but they have to use also those of the humanities, on penalty of missing large chunks of the picture. He may as well have been talking about history in the sense clearly intended by Scruton and so distorted by Williamson.
If Williamson’s definition of science is a “rigorous, systematic and reliable search for knowledge,” then almost anything human beings do qualifies. History does, and so do all the other humanities, including literary criticism and art history. Philosophy too qualifies. And that’s the problem: so many activities fit the bill that the very term “science” begins to lose meaning. Now why would anyone want that, unless he is trying to define everything else out of existence by a single, well placed sleight of hand?
Williamson becomes even more deaf to Scruton’s arguments when he brings up, of all things, semantics and logical empiricism (the American offshoot of logical positivism):
“Again, even if Scruton is right that perspectival words like ‘here,’ ‘now’ and ‘I’ do not belong in the language of scientific theorizing, the rigorous scientific investigation of their meaning was led by philosophers such as Hans Reichenbach and David Kaplan [the latter is the Hans Reichenbach Professor of “scientific” philosophy at UCLA]. They showed how to theorize points of view in semantics.”
But, again, Scruton knows and understands this very well (as it is clear also from his response after the first round). It is very telling that Williamson should bring up a philosophical approach whose zenith has passed almost a century ago, and whose major failure was precisely to attempt to do philosophy as if it were a science.
So what, in the end, is the work of a philosopher? I think philosophy is a strange discipline, by its (historical) nature at the interface of pretty much every other human endeavor. The classical core sub-disciplines of philosophy tell much of the story: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and logic. And the remainder of the story is told by the onset, beginning in the early 20th century, of a panoply of “philosophies of,” i.e., (critical, in the positive sense) philosophical analysis and commentary of the very same disciplines that used to be part of philosophy and eventually spun out into self-sufficiency: physics (16th-17th centuries), biology (19th century), psychology (19th century), linguistics (20th century), and so forth.
Philosophy can be, and is, done badly, with little understanding of other disciplines, or while ignoring those disciplines’ contributions, or by adopting an arrogant posture that is both unjustified and counterproductive. But the same can be told of a lot of other human endeavors, including first and foremost science itself. (What do you say? You’ve never encountered an arrogant scientist who blubbered incessantly about things he does not understand? Well, lucky you.)
But when it is done well, philosophy is nobody’s handmaiden, pace both Locke and Scruton. She is the connective tissue that holds together the sciences and the humanities, reminding the first of their own limits and the second of just how much they can benefit from science. It is, to use again Wilfred Sellars’ felicitous turn of phrase, the bridge between the scientific and the manifest images of the world. That’s an important job, well worth pursuing seriously and humbly.