The nature of philosophy: Scruton vs Williamson edition

Roger Scruton (left) and Timothy Williamson (right)

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.”

2nd Avenue subway’s (New York) artwork by Sarah Sze

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.

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Categories: Metaphilosophy

88 replies

  1. Robin: (A) You are the only person making a fuss; (B) I cannot explain things any better than I did in my quite lengthy comment above.

    So, I will have to leave it at that.

    Like

  2. I thought Dan’s explanation was really clear. I agree that we can’t do without teleology altogether, and that we construct narratives that provide a structure for our sense of meaning and that a complete loss of this structure could be devastating.

    I do also think however that a regular temporary release from those narratives can be an important aspect of what makes life worth living. That is my experience. When I go on a trail run in the mountains I generally experience this type of release and I feel an intrinsic drive to get back out into the mountains if I am away to long.

    Also sometimes our narratives become overly and unnecessarily demanding. I had been trying really hard to set a personal record in the marathon the couple of years, and in my last marathon the realization set in that this was becoming an unrealistic goal. It was a calming realization not a dispiriting one.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. On meaning: sometimes words (through misuse, exploitation, linguistic prostitution ,etc.) get worn out. If “meaning” seems meaningless, substitute “whatever floats your boat,” or words to that effect.

    I had six pieces of mail (the kind with stamps) today, all bearing messages saying “Very Important! Please read and respond!” They all went into the wastebasket unopened.

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  4. Part of those existential crises is that we live in a fairly atomistic society, much which is mediated by commercial media and money. It can be difficult to see through that to more organic and healthy relationships and difficult to sustain those relationships in a world that doesn’t particularly care about the health of the community, especially if it can be commodified.

    A side note on the news: You now it’s not going in a good direction when the lesser of two evils is a Trump supporter named Luther Strange.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The OP I think misreads Scruton to condemn Williamson. After all, Scruton specifically condemns scientific re-writing of politics and art history. It is a warped reading that insists it is unrealistic to think this condemnation doesn’t include political history, the most important kind for centuries. And I don’t think you can save this by conveniently limiting the offending science to evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Williamson is not talking past Scruton, he is refuting him. .

    The OP says “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.” But, limiting “science” to the model of the natural sciences is scientism, the version second only to misrepresenting the results of science for rhetorical effect (or outright making up references.)

    The case against Williamson as a liar is this: “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?”

    This is remarkable, in a bad way. It is a misrepresentation. Williamson wrote “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. On this broader conception, many parts of the humanities have a good claim to be scientific.” Williamson stated that not all parts of the humanities are scientific, I don’t know what Williamson thought the rest of the humanities were about (Trying to communicate feelings?) Neither does the OP, but the OP either doesn’t realize this, or doesn’t care.

    The claim that almost anything counts as science if it is a rigorous, systematic and reliable search for knowledge is not nearly as vague as the OP tries to imply, I think, unless you redefine rigor to mean properly citing original sources, etc…(scholarship, in other words.) If you think knowledge means finding what’s true, corresponds to reality, much philosophy explicitly rejects the correspondence notion of truth, and denies the validity of knowledge, or sees knowledge as being more than mere fact,instead a priori logical necessity. Further it is highly unlikely that philosophy is systematic. The schools of philosophy have their own bibilographies not because they are systematically addressing an issue (aka “subject,”) but because they are different traditions. Indeed, the core sub-disciplines of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics and logic are not related to each other in the kind of way sub-disciplines in branches of science are. Nor do they have the same kind of overlaps you find even in the natural sciences, like geology. It is not clear how formal logic isn’t simply a branch of mathematics. Nor is it clear that informal logic has any rigor whatsoever. As for reliable…

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  6. stevenjohnson: I think pretty much everything you’ve written here is flat out wrong. So as not to produce a comment even longer than yours, however, I’ll just mention a few things.

    Science is empirical by nature. Logic and mathematics are a priori. Thus, they are not sciences, unless you stretch the word ‘science’, which does nothing but sow confusions, as Massimo rightly points out.
    Unlike Williamson, Massimo has been both a practicing scientist and a philosopher, in both cases, of note. I trust his view of the relationship between the two much more than that of Williamson or, for that matter, someone like Coel.
    It turns out that mathematics is not a branch of logic. It would be very odd if it turned out to that logic was a brand of mathematics.
    In contrast with your crude treatment of rigor, one must observe that rigor is a context-relative concept. As Aristotle pointed out, it would be foolish to seek more rigor from a subject than is suited to it. Thus, it is foolish to criticize a subject for being as rigorous (or not) as it should be.
    Your commitment to uncritical notions of truth as correspondence and reality is quaint, but reflects a very shallow understanding of both. This is one of the most well-worn topics in this history of philosophy and is easily investigated with the help of the internet.
    I agree with you that philosophy is unsystemtic, but that strikes me as a good rather than a bad thing, insofar as it vindicates a late-Wittgensteinian view of the subject to which I am very sympathetic.

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  7. Steven,

    I stand by my reading of the Scruton-Williamson debate.

    “It is a warped reading that insists it is unrealistic to think this condemnation doesn’t include political history, the most important kind for centuries. And I don’t think you can save this by conveniently limiting the offending science to evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.”

    I honestly have no idea what you are referring to.

    “But, limiting “science” to the model of the natural sciences is scientism”

    Hmm, nope, it isn’t. I just put together a whole book on it, I think I know what I’m talking about.

    “This is remarkable, in a bad way. It is a misrepresentation.”

    Again, no. I stand by my commentary and anyone who reads the original exchange will see that it is you who are misrepresenting things.

    “The claim that almost anything counts as science if it is a rigorous, systematic and reliable search for knowledge is not nearly as vague as the OP tries to imply, I think”

    Don’t know what to tell you, I think it definitely is just as vague as I presented it.

    “It is not clear how formal logic isn’t simply a branch of mathematics. Nor is it clear that informal logic has any rigor whatsoever.”

    It is not clear at all why logic would be a branch of mathematics, and not, say, the other way around. The reality is that the two are allied but distinct disciplines, since nobody has ever succeeded in reducing one to the other. And there is a large literature on the rigor of informal logic.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Dan

    (A) You are the only person making a fuss

    I was accused of picking a quarrel after one minor comment, you declared that you found my comment incomprehensible and Massimo has accused me of condescension and berating people.

    All because I said I didn’t know what it meant for life to have meaning.

    That seems like a bit of a fuss to me.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Robin: Once again, your perception of an interaction with others is at odds with their perception of it.

    Anyway, no big deal. There is no reason why you have to engage in a conversation about a topic you don’t understand but others do. You can just leave them to it! I can’t count the number of posts I’ve never commented on, either because I do not understand the topic or because I have no interest in it.

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  10. Dan,

    What?! You find some of my posts uninteresting? I’m hurt… 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Here is the problem as Scruton describes

    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

    Scruton is suggesting that there is a direction philosophy can take that will help with this situation.

    But, as has been pointed out here, our best minds have been writing volumes on these subjects for thousands of years.

    If Scruton’s assessment of the situation is accurate then none of that seems to have helped, so what does he think philosophers can do now to help these people?

    I am not disagreeing with him on his point re scientism, I think he is spot on there.

    But if you are going to talk about philosophy providing practical help to people in distress then it needs to be spelled out clearly how this is going to happen.

    Crises, existential or otherwise, can only be addressed by first clarifying the nature of the problem.

    And haven’t some of the successes in philosophy been in analysing language to clarify problems, sometimes showing the problem was not as it seemed at first or even not a problem at all?

    So, by all means, toss out the analytic bathwater. Just be sure to grab hold of the baby first.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Robin,

    While I agree with your point, I would add that philosophy has likely helped a lot, but that it does get stuck in ruts on occasion.

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  13. Robin,

    Philosophy has done that, countless times. From Socrates and the Stoics to Sartre, Nussbaum and Sandel. Philosophy as therapy, and as a compass to navigate life, including existential crises. Whether people listen, of course, is an entirely different matter. But that affects science as well: science tells us about climate change, but about half of Americans are still tone deaf.

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  14. “Hell is other people’s narratives.” — Camus
    “Hell is other people’s mores.” — Diogenes
    “Hell is other people’s misuse of language.” — Wittgenstein
    “If I owned Texas and the philosophers’ hell, I would still live in hell and rent out Texas.” — William Tithonus Sherman

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  15. Robin: If one rejects religious teleology, what it means for a person’s life to have meaning is itself part of that person defining his or her meaning for his or her life.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Robin, you seriously misunderstand the way in which philosophy, literature, arts and the like help us with these problems. It’s not in the manner in which medicine helps.

    And of course they have helped. Profoundly. Philosophy, religion, and arts are some of the greatest sources of consolation known to mankind.

    Unfortunately, I am somewhat wearying of the conversation at this point, so I’m going to leave it at that. I have addressed the distinctive way in which philosophy addresses questions and helps us with problems on a number of occasions in essays at EA, including the one in which I reviewed and critiqued Massimo’s book on philosophy’s progress.

    Like

  17. Steven Johnson: Actually, Massimo didn’t use vague in his original comment, but he may well be right. I certainly think he’s right on the fact that mathematics isn’t a science.

    Construction of mathematical proofs isn’t the same as scientific research followed by generation and testing of hypotheses, for one thing. And, laws of physics, being based on such, aren’t the same as Euclidean postulates, etc.

    Ditto for formal logic, of course. Informal logic might be considered a bit closer to a science, as far as it usually working with real-world warrants, and being more inductive, but it’s still not a science.

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  18. Massimo

    < blockquote>Philosophy has done that, countless times.

    Yes, the successes of philosophy that I referred to.

    So why discount the analytic approach for questions of the kind Scruton talks about?

    Maybe Scruton’s colleagues were just doing it wrong. Maybe if they find themselves “endlessly” discussing the meaning of words and not getting anywhere they should move on to something else.

    The empirical approach can also be part of this. Let’s find those people who have spiritual anxiety and get a clearer idea of what they are anxious about. If we can’t find them then maybe there isn’t a problem.

    After all none of us here seem have this spiritual anxiety. I was looking around at lunch yesterday wondering how many of those office workers were sufferering from spiritual anxiety. One woman thought I was checking her out.

    How would we know that we we’re not just assuming people would have trouble handling the world as we find it today?

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I feel very predictable, but I thought Steven made a few good points that are not irrelevant to an article titled “But is it science?” I don’t want to recapitulate Massimo’s book(s), but science isn’t just empirical, and science can’t work without mathematics and logic and the a apriori. Massimo’s example of history as a mixture of both concepts and methodologies can just as easily be extended to psychology, anthropology, linguistics
    https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/science-linguistics
    and Stephen’s example of political science v. political philosophy. The area I know a bit about is public health, where one sees “mixed methods” studies that use qualitative research methods along with quantitative methods that address the domains the qualitative methods have thrown up. These researchers cite philosophers like Roy Bhaskar (who I had never heard of until I read some papers in the area), economists like Sen, ethicists and so on.

    In another area where I work, does the same person take off one hat and put on another when they assess whether an experimental design (eg mendelian randomization) truly allows causal analysis? These mathematical cum logical cum philosophical questions are also pretty central to scientific practice. Maybe any particular paper can be chopped up into 20% epistemology, 40% mathematics, 20% methodology and 20% genetics – I just don’t think the scientists engaging in this kind of epistemology (“am I justified in believing X is a cause of Y, and what does it even mean to say that X is a cause when we’re talking about FTO genotype, obesity and diabetes”) are doing it any worse than philosophers would do.

    So I don’t like the attempt to ring-fence the social sciences off as some oddity. Or attempts to argue that the previous examples are of technology as opposed to real ie abstract disinterested science.

    Eric Schliesser comments “Scruton’s sloppy terminology and the absurdities it commits him to (about various disciplinary practices inside and outside the humanities and science) are effectively ridiculed by Williamson throughout. I find witnessing such expert demolition dispiriting, too…It’s not that Scruton does not deserve being made fun of…”

    http://digressionsnimpressions.typepad.com/digressionsimpressions/2017/11/on-analytic-philosophy-and-the-nature-of-philosophy.html

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Daniel

    you seriously misunderstand the way in which philosophy, literature, arts and the like help us with these problems

    No doubt. But as I have readily admitted to not understanding what the problem is then it is no surprise that I don’t know how philosophy helps address it.

    <

    blockquote>And of course they have helped. Profoundly. Philosophy, religion, and arts are some of the greatest sources of consolation known to mankind.<//blockquote>
    It is not me saying there is still a problem. It is Scruton who thinks there is still a big problem for philosophy to address so he seems to think that efforts to date have not done whatever they were supposed to do.

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  21. Robin,

    “So why discount the analytic approach for questions of the kind Scruton talks about?”

    I’m not discounting analytic philosophy. I, and Scruton, have a problem with the increasingly less relevant and more involuted work that many in the analytic tradition have been doing.

    “After all none of us here seem have this spiritual anxiety.”

    How do you know?

    “I was looking around at lunch yesterday wondering how many of those office workers were sufferering from spiritual anxiety.”

    Sometimes I have a hard time telling whether you are serious. There are studies on increase levels of depression, people finding their life meaningless because they have increasingly less control over it and because keeping buying things is not satisfying.

    And of course these problems have been around since the dawn of human history. That’s why we have religions, and Socrates, and the Stoics, and the Existentialists.

    David,

    “I don’t like the attempt to ring-fence the social sciences off as some oddity”

    Who is doing that? Not I, nor my colleague who works in the social sciences mentioned in the OP. We are simply recognizing that there are good reasons to distinguish natural and social sciences, and good reasons to value first person, subjective, and qualitative contributions to the understanding of uman phenomena, like Colonialism.

    “Eric Schliesser comments “Scruton’s sloppy terminology and the absurdities it commits him to (about various disciplinary practices inside and outside the humanities and science) are effectively ridiculed by Williamson throughout.”

    Schliesser must have watching a different movie. And remember, I say this as a scientist, who has seen the attitudes Scruton describes first hand, unlike most commentators, including Schliesser.

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  22. spiritual anxiety — naw. Existential — sure…

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  23. Your posts? Never! But sometimes the subject is not something I’m interested in. 🙂

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  24. The other way to approach this is to try to imagine myself in the position of spiritual anxiety and think about what would help.

    Suppose that, midway through the journey of my life (and a little more perhaps) I found myself in a dark forest and the path I was following lost entirely.

    What would help?

    Literature. Maybe “Ode to a Nightingale”, which I loved so much as a teenager that I still have it by heart. But that seems to wallow in the anxiety. Maybe “Notes from Underground”?. Or Malamud’s “The Assistant”. I am trying to think of some literature that would actually help.

    Religion? I can’t see how I could get comforts from things I don’t believe, even though others manage the trick.

    Music? Surely in that pit I would simply hear pretty tunes and my troubles would still be there when the musicians fell silent.

    Art? Again, if I was distressed in that way I can’t imagine art helping.

    So if I was there – an IT guy stranded in the middle of an ocean of suburb, in debt and my industry rapidly going overseas and a family to support and knowing that if I dropped dead today there would be 7 people at my funeral. Including me. What if I was that guy and I were to think to myself – “What’s the point?”. Maybe that love is just some feelings of well-being that my brain manufactures in order to manipulate me into actions that once helped certain patterns of molecule predominate over another in an ancient vanished landscape. Maybe my love for my kids is just a kind of chemical enslavement to another organism – if I was there what would philosophy do to help me?

    Maybe a philosopher can tell me that religion can help endarken my mind and set up barriers of guilt and shame? Maybe those barriers I got from religion were part of the problem. Will he tell me that parents should encourage their children to feel revulsion for homosexuals?

    Well, OK, maybe not that guy. But who then? I don’t know. Philosophers tend to tell me that I don’t understand didley, but sometimes it seems as though it is they who don’t understand didley.

    So I am left to my own devices. I don’t go there. It is what it is and other empty cliches. If I wonder what is the point of living then I wonder why I thought there needed to be a point? Who told me that there needed to be a point? What is it that really matters? All there is is what matters to me and those around me.

    If I am in an existential crisis then I will examine it as coldly and analytically as I can. I will try to determine the actual nature of the crisis – what do I worry about, what do I fear?

    If I find no answers to these except the practical questions of debt and helping my kids to a good start in their own lives then I can address and handle those and stop worrying about questions of meaning.

    Even if my life were meaningless, purposeless, insignificant, valueless – what exactly would be the problem, if I didn’t mind? And why should I mind?

    And yet I see significance, even if just to 6 other people. I see value in what I can contribute, little as it is. And I see purpose in sending my kids out equipped to make a great life for themselves. If that is significance, purpose and value enough for me then – there is no problem.

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  25. The issue, as I saw it, is; “So what, in the end, is the work of a philosopher?”

    For all our scientific, mathematical, sociological, historical and archeological successes, it does seem the world is spinning into an environmental, political, economic, etc. abyss and the usual academic method of breaking issues down and studying everything in detail doesn’t seem to have come up with really overwhelming insights to address these serious issues. One might assume philosophy would be the field for some overarching vision, but it seems like a catfight in a paper bag to those of us on the outside. Is it any wonder monotheistic religion still has such a strong grasp on the public consciousness?

    I’ve offered up a number of ideas, but they don’t seem to ring any bells, even to the point of starting any discussions. Is it really too incomprehensible to consider time as an effect and measure of change, so that it is our sequential perception which motivates the narrative mold we try to frame reality?

    We are a long ways from understanding consciousness, so would it really be beneath academia to consider an elemental spirit, even if only to undermine the top down religions?

    Explore money as the social contract commodified and understand why it serves the function it does and why it is getting out of control?

    If anyone else has ideas to crack open the current paradigms, I’m certainly all ears, but it really does seem to be the same old go round.

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  26. Massimo

    How do you know?

    Because you all seem to be saying that you find meaning in your lives.

    As I said, those who need meaning and have it do not have a problem with meaning.

    Those who do not need meaning also do not have a problem with meaning.

    It is only those who need meaning and

    Sometimes I have a hard time telling whether you are serious.

    Sometimes I have the same problem with philosophy in general. Scruton for example.

    But I am perfectly serious and I can’t see anything wrong with the idea that in order to understand a problem you have to find and talk to the people that are experiencing that problem.

    There are studies on increase levels of depression, people finding their life meaningless because they have increasingly less control over it and because keeping buying things is not satisfying.

    Depression is a condition that requires the attention of the relevant medical professionals. Depression is not “spiritual anxiety”. Feelings of “meaninglessness” that go with clinical depression can be treated.

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  27. “I honestly have no idea what you are referring to.” Scruton attacked the attempt to apply science to history, among other things. When Williamson presented arguments showing this is nonsense, you pretended Scruton knew better, ignoring what he had said. Of course that was what I was talking about. The confusing details are not mine but Scruton’s, put there to confuse the gullible, the shallow and the tendentious readers. Williamson clearly does not think all parts of the humanities are scientific. Your insinuation that he deliberately equivocated, that he implied pretty much everything is scientific in the natural science sense is malicious, not factual.

    As for your Colonial studies friend, I very much doubt that person would dare to claim that insights from fiction, or the claims from self-reports are sufficient, much less trump more scientific evidence. It is disingenuous of you to write “But (fiction and testimony) 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.” The notion that reasons may be merely what people tell themselves about why they do things is precisely Scruton’s target, especially in his second round. Your friend does not support Scruton, but Williamson. Incidentally, political opponents of things like Colonial studies tend to concentrate their attacks on the humanities-like aspect, for good reason. The false dichotomy between science and humanities you and Scruton are committed to would leave people without any reasonable grounds for condemning great man history or Whig history or nationalistic mythology. This may be a plus for Scruton, who is apparently some sort of political crank.

    As for the issue of scientism as limiting science to the scientific method found in the natural sciences, I know that you have a deep knowledge of philosophy and natural science. I’m afraid you give every indication of lacking similarly strong grounding in the social sciences. You are in effect talking out of field, confident that your credentials in other fields are sufficient to give you authority. You didn’t even know, or care evidently, that Scruton’s version of Christopher HIll, for one, is brazen nonsense.

    Look, religion and philosophy as consolation are essentially the same thing. Philosophy may give itself the task of refuting science so that it can make people feel better. But this does not reflects no better on the philosophers than the theologians. And prolonged whining about how mean those scientistic types are just is not very dignified.

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  28. Robin,

    Depression comes in many varieties and degrees. Sometimes it is the result of existential angst.

    As for how philosophy could help someone who had the issues you describe? You need to come over at howtobeastoic.org to get an idea about how a specific philosophy does it.

    Incidentally, it is doing it for me, I did go through a midlife crisis when I needed a better compass than what I had before.

    Steven,

    “Scruton attacked the attempt to apply science to history, among other things.”

    No, he attacked a specific way to scientize history.

    “Your insinuation that he deliberately equivocated, that he implied pretty much everything is scientific in the natural science sense is malicious”

    Your grandstanding is futile, and indeed counterproductive.

    “As for your Colonial studies friend, I very much doubt that person would dare to claim that insights from fiction, or the claims from self-reports are sufficient, much less trump more scientific evidence.”

    You obviously don’t have the time to finish reading my paragraphs, jumping to conclusion in the middle of it. I never said it was sufficient, but I did say that it was necessary.

    “It is disingenuous of you”

    Please, do engage in more futile grandstanding. It’s my blog, I can take it.

    “The false dichotomy between science and humanities you and Scruton are committed to”

    We are not committed to any such dichotomy. As it ought to be obvious by what I actually wrote, as opposed to what you imagined I wrote.

    “I’m afraid you give every indication of lacking similarly strong grounding in the social sciences. You are in effect talking out of field, confident that your credentials in other fields are sufficient to give you authority”

    Bullshit, my friend. That’s precisely why I quoted my colleague, who is an expert in that field.

    “Look, religion and philosophy as consolation are essentially the same thing”

    Uhm, no they aren’t.

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