Thursday, March 10, 2011

the current state of philosophy

Granted, much literature produced under the head of linguistic philosophy is philosophically inconsequential. Some pieces are amusing or mildly interesting as language studies, but have been drawn into philosophical journals only by superficial association. Some, more philosophical in purport, are simply incompetent; for quality control is spotty in the burgeoning philosophical press. Philosophy has long suffered, as hard sciences have not, from a wavering consensus on questions of professional competence. Students of the heavens are separable into astronomers and astrologers as readily as are the minor domestic ruminants into sheep and goats, but the separation of philosophers into sages and cranks seems to be more sensitive to frames of reference. This is perhaps as it should be, in view of the unregimented and speculative character of the subject.

This passage appears near the end of W. V. O. Quine's "Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People?" (1979) in Theories and Things. I'm tempted to suggest removing the qualification "linguistic" in the first sentence and endorsing it as a valid perspective on the current state of philosophy.

Certainly, the trend has shifted away from "linguistic philosophy," and Quine's epithet, which arguably applied to the lion's share of the discipline shortly before he wrote these comments, does not characterize the majority of published philosophical work today. But at least during the period of the linguistic turn, there was some kind of discipline-wide consensus upon what constituted a legitimate target for philosophical analysis (language), even if there was no universal consensus about what to do about that—we might group under this movement positions as diverse as those of Carnap and the logical positivists on the one hand, and Derrida and the post-structuralists on the other (with interesting points of overlap, e.g. Wittgenstein).

Today, however, the lack of consensus on how to separate the wheat from the chaff extends beyond methods (where it certainly still exists) to the subject matter of philosophy itself. Metaphysics, for example, relegated definitively (by both formal analytic philosophers and continental postmodernists, no less!) to the scrap heap "astrology," has reemerged as a dominant subject matter in formal analytic philosophy proper!

Mind you, Quine is right that "the unregimented and speculative character of the subject" motivates a laxity and pluralism of approach which distinguishes it from (say) the natural sciences. Nevertheless, one begins to doubt the integrity of a discipline if there are whole schools of approach supposedly within it which completely dismiss each other's work. And I'm not talking here about the continental / analytic divide (which is at least reasonably well canonized in a division of journals, etc.), but about divisions within analytic philosophy itself. Arguably, the "philosophers of physics," the "contemporary metaphysicians," the "ancient philosophers," etc. have absolutely nothing to say to each other—what legitimates their presence within a single discipline? And can we bring some helpful norm to bear on this issue to kick out the pretenders and save philosophy?

A helpful comparison perhaps is linguistics, which similarly has been split into (at least) two, uncommunicative, camps since the late 60s / early 70s. The split was initially in terms of syntax vs. semantics—those following Chomsky believed in the precedence of syntax for governing surface structure, while those who split from his camp (e.g. Lakoff) believed in the precedence of semantics. Today, those who favor the Chomskian, intuition-based, approach, and those who favor empirical methods (arguably a natural offshoot of the semantic split, though certainly not aligning directly with cognitive linguistics) have different journals, different standards of evidence, and hardly communicate at all.

Still, in the case of linguistics, there is one subject matter (language), and there are a natural set of success conditions (empirical adequacy, ability to manipulate / generate relevant phenomenon (e.g. machine translation, natural language processing)). Examining the current state of the art, it's easy to see that, while sharing a subject matter, Chomskian methods are failing, while empirical methods are succeeding, on the relevant success conditions.

If philosophy as a discipline is to maintain the "unregimented and speculative character" which Quine identifies, yet nevertheless make some progress towards separating the "sages" from the "cranks" (more urgently: identifying informed, relevant, progressive work and distinguishing it from poor scholarship / noise), then it cannot limit itself to a single object of study (metaphysics, the mind, ethics, these are simply different), nor can it limit itself to a single set of success conditions (at the very least, there can be hardly any overlap between those for normative and those for descriptive branches of philosophical inquiry). But perhaps it can do this: distinguish and define success conditions within each particular subject matter.

For, if, when reading a paper in (say) metaphysics, I have no sense whatsoever of what it would mean for the project to succeed (how am I to evaluate it?), then how can I even provisionally suspect it to count as "astronomy" rather than "astrology"? And if authors within these subfields work on narrow technical questions without any sense themselves of what the success conditions of their endeavor are (and believe you me, this is widely in evidence—perhaps one can be forgiven in a paper for not listing these, since one might assume to be addressing a community which already knows, but if, when asked point blank in a talk, one cannot so provide, one demonstrates the deep vacuity of one's project), then one's subfield (and one's work) should (rightly!) be relegated to the realm of "astrology" and crank-ism, and one shunned and derided accordingly!

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