April 16 2012

There Is No Such Thing As Philosophy

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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The last thing I expected to find when I began work on this book, more than ten years ago, is that there is no such thing as philosophy. Yet that, more or less, is what I did find, and it explained a lot. --- (Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason)

Gottlieb, while working as Executive Editor at The Economist, decided to approach the writing of his highly acclaimed survey (volume 1 of a projected 2-volume work) of Western philosophy, The Dream of Reason, “as a journalist ought to: to rely only on primary sources, wherever they still existed; to question everything that had become conventional wisdom; and, above all to try and explain it all as clearly as I could.”

As he worked his way through a “diverse cast of characters from the fifth and sixth centuries BC” up to the Renaissance, “philosophy  – supposedly the oldest of subjects – unraveled before my eyes.” His research led him to see philosophy as something that could not be categorized as a “single subject that can be placed neatly on the academic map.”

He sees “Western science [being] created when a few Greek thinkers – those who are known as the first ‘philosophers’ – were perverse enough to ignore the usual talk of gods and to look instead for natural causes of events. Much later on, psychology, sociology and economics came about largely from the work of people who at the time were called philosophers. And the same process of creation continues today. Computer languages, for example, stem from what was long regarded as the most tedious invention of philosophers, namely formal logic.” He cites the work of Georg Cantor, a nineteenth-century German mathematician, and his research into the nature of infinity as an example of this process. Cantor’s scientific colleagues first dismissed these studies as “mere ‘philosophy’ because it seemed so bizarre, abstract, and pointless. Now it is taught in schools under the name of set-theory.”

And so: “The fact is that the history of philosophy is more the history of a sharply inquisitive cast of mind than the history of a sharply defined discipline. The traditional image of it as a sort of meditative science of pure thought, strangely cut off from other subjects, is largely a trick of the historical light. The illusion is created by the way we look at the past, and in particular by the way in which knowledge tends to be labelled, chopped up and re-labelled. Philosophical work is regularly spirited away and adopted by other disciplines. Yesterday’s moral philosophy becomes tomorrow’s jurisprudence or welfare economics; yesterday’s philosophy of mind becomes tomorrow’s cognitive science. And the road runs in both directions: new inquiries in other disciplines prompt new questions for the philosophically curious. Tomorrow’s economics will be meat for the moral philosophers of the day after.”

The fluidity of this process, an almost auto-pilot-like disciplinary dialectic, in addition to yielding the benefit of opening fruitful lines of further inquiry, also tends to encourage a less fortunate result, at least as it impacts the formal subject of philosophy, especially in the mind of the broader public. “One effect of these shifting boundaries is that philosophical thinking can easily seem to be unusually useless, even for an intellectual enterprise. This is largely because any corner of it that comes generally to be regarded as useful soon ceases to be called philosophy. Hence the illusory appearance that philosophers never make progress.”

Yet the progress is all around us – and, therefore, rendered largely invisible. So, I guess, it’s not only spring in the air these days, but philosophy, too.

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