Seven years ago I officially began my career as a philosopher, being appointed as Chair of the Department of Philosophy at CUNY’s Lehman College. One of my first duties was to completely restructure the Department’s web site, which looked awful and was hopelessly out of date. So I spent my first summer on the job (well, technically, even before starting my job, which officially began at the end of August) putting together the new site. If you visit the web pages of most philosophy departments, including Lehman’s, you will notice two differences between them and those of pretty much any other academic field (including not just the natural sciences, but also the rest of the humanities): first, they will almost certainly feature either a painting of Rafael’s School of Athens, or an image of Rodin’s Thinker (those accompanying this post, up left). Second, they will have a tab labeled something along the lines of “Why Philosophy?” It is on this latter idiosyncrasy that I want to focus here.
One of the many public controversies about science swirling around nowadays concerns so-called GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms. It has become fashionable in certain quarters to bash any criticism of GMOs, regardless of whether it is directed to their alleged health implications, to their (again, alleged) long-term environmental impact, or to the (much less alleged and more concrete) market and labor practice of large GMOs producers like Monsanto.
Over the last several years we have seen a depressing list of prominent scientists or science popularizers (interestingly, almost exclusively physicists) who have made very public statements about the uselessness of philosophy, while clearly not knowing what on earth they are talking about.
Now Bill Nye has, very unfortunately, joined what can only be characterized as a peculiar anti-intellectual fray. (And no, contra popular opinion, one can be an intellectual and yet behave in an anti-intellectual fashion in certain domains.)
One of the characteristics of philosophy as a field of inquiry is that — unique among human endeavors — it also inquiries upon itself. This was true since the times of Socrates and Epictetus, of course. Here is how the latter puts it in his Discourses:
“Now if you are writing to a friend, grammar will tell you that you need particular letters; but it will not tell you whether or not you should write to your friend. The same holds in the case of music’s relation to song. It will not say whether at this moment you should sing or play the lyre, or whether you should not do so. Which faculty, then, will do so? The one that studies both itself and everything else. And what is that? The faculty of reason. Yes; for this is the only faculty we have inherited that can perceive itself — what it is, what it is capable of, and how valuable it is — and also perceive all the rest.” (1.1.1-4)
That’s the question I tackled in a recent essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine online, prompted by a conversation over coffee with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU with whom I’ve had a number of disagreements about the intersection of social science, politics, and philosophy.
Dan Kaufman (see his webzine, the Electric Agora) and I had another of our conversations over at MeaningofLife.tv, this time centering on Dan’s recently articulated skepticism about ongoing defenses of the concept of a liberal arts education in college. Here is his original article, provocatively entitled “On Some Common Rationales for Liberal Education (and why they aren’t very good).”
As you might have noticed, I have recently published a list of my contributions to other sites, beginning with Ask-a-Philosopher, and continuing with Philosophy Now magazine. Here is the third installment of this informal series, regarding my contributions to Skeptical Inquirer magazine (please note that many of these articles are behind paywall; you can either subscribe to the magazine or download them from my DropBox folder.):