Sunday 5 June 2022

Philosophy Belongs in the Sciences, Not the Humanities: A Rant

Philosophy has traditionally been considered and considered itself a part of the humanities, with a continuity in skills and attitudes, such as an emphasis on scholarship. In many universities philosophy departments are part of larger humanities faculties and thus fall under governance institutions designed for traditional humanities disciplines like literature, history, law, and religion. This association is bad for philosophy. Philosophy is a science of intellectual inquiry and it needs institutions, methods and attitudes suited to that task.

I. Should We Do Philosophy Or Just Read About It?

Philosophy is - or should be - the systematic investigation of really difficult intellectual problems: 2nd order problems like 'What is consciousness?' that we have to work out the right questions to ask in the process of the investigation (more here). This requires skills in interpreting and creatively recombining the contributions of others (which is a part of scholarship: e.g. mining the history of ideas for philosophy), but it requires doing so for the purpose of investigating the problem at hand rather than for investigating those contributions themselves. 

In contrast, the humanities approach to scholarship is mainly concerned with reconstructing the meaning and context of canonical philosophical texts. This is completely different from the attitude and skills required for treating other philosophers' work as a resource for doing philosophy. Such 'philosophology' stands in relation to doing philosophy as the study of the history of music stands in relation to being a musician. 

This 'scholarship approach' explains several peculiarities of contemporary academic philosophy, including its biographical orientation (in which it is the philosopher who must be understood rather than the ideas that must be assessed) and the fetishisation of philosophical works themselves as aesthetic cultural objects (most pronounced in continental philosophy and the liberal arts movement).

Let me try to explain how I think the logic of this proceeds. If a philosophical work is worth studying in itself then it must be good in itself, regardless of how relevant or interesting its line of analysis seems to us these days. Thus, if you are not interested in what Aristotle or Kant or Confucius or Nietzsche are saying then that is your problem, not theirs. Our role is to study and contemplate their works with the proper intellectual humility and be appropriately amazed. Certain works of philosophy are granted the status of sacred objects in themselves, which we are supposed to orient our intellectual life around. This is an attitude more familiar from religion than intellectual inquiry. 

This turns philosophy from the science of ideas into the study of the divine (i.e. theology). Philosophers investigate the nuances of dead celebrity philosophers' published and unpublished writings seeking to answer the ultimately useless question of what they really meant. Or they pretend to do actual philosophy - i.e. address currently interesting problems - but only by treating dead philosophers as prophets. So they ask 'What would Kant say about x?' - as if correctly discerning what Kant thought or would think is an adequate answer to the question of what we should think about it. Now there is nothing wrong with developing some new idea inspired by a reading of Kant or Confucius or whoever. But an idea is not justified by its illustrious biographical pedigree. It has to stand on its own merits. 

A further consequence is cultural chauvinism and its opposite, cultural fetishism (an ill-tempered debate between which is now roiling academic philosophy). 

On the one hand, if a philosophical work is to be granted the status of being so great that it is worth studying no matter where in the world or in history you stand, this requires a grand and hubristic affirmation of its culture-transcending superiority. This is chauvinistic because it is obvious that philosophy is a culturally embedded practise in the sense that it is an attempt to address problems that humans in a particular social context find interesting and important using the intellectual resources available to them. To claim that certain philosophers (say, the ones in the traditional Western Canon) are universally important is to assert the timeless relevance of the way they framed problems and tried to solve them, which is patently ridiculous. 

Aristotle's world is dead: socially, economically, politically, and technologically no more. I have as little interest in Aristotle's reflections on the ethical challenges of his long dead world as I have in his outdated science. Neither address relevant questions. I can readily imagine that would-be philosophers even further removed from Aristotle's world than I am are even more bemused or insulted to be told they need to study Aristotle's answers to the questions he found important. It is like teaching physics by studying Democritus.

On the other hand, rejecting chauvinist arguments for the universal importance of philosophers  traditionally fetishised by Western academic philosophers doesn't automatically mean that non-Western philosophers like Confucius are therefore important (as many 'decolonialist' philosophers seem to argue).

Philosophy is culturally contingent in the same way that science is culturally contingent; not in the same way that an art form (like poetry) is culturally contingent. Philosophy is the attempt to get a grasp on the most complicated problems in the world. Such efforts must always be from some perspective since philosophy is done by people (not gods) and people are situated in some time and place. But merely because philosophy - like any intellectual effort - must always be done from some perspective does not mean that it is merely about that perspective. We should not confuse philosophy with the kind of intellectual efforts - like kabuki or opera - that really are local to cultures which create bubbles of (aesthetic) meaningfulness that can only be appreciated properly in their particular terms, i.e. from within the cultural perspectives that created them.

Nevertheless, the perspectives from which philosophy is done do matter a lot. A cynical critique of philosophy is that it doesn't make any progress since it is still grappling with the same old problems. This misunderstands what is going on. The problems we need philosophy for are continually moving and changing shape as our situation changes (as our interests and intellectual abilities shift), and so the philosopher's task of finding the right questions to ask is also changing. 

For example, like any other philosopher, Confucius tried to find and answer the right questions for his time and context (such as the challenge of moral survival under violently competing despotisms). But those questions are not necessarily good ones to ask today, under very different social and economic arrangements. And even if they were, we have many other philosophers of totalitarianism to draw from, including Confucius' intellectual descendants, so it is still not clear why Confucius should be our first resort. Nor does it make sense to care about how successful Confucius was in his own terms as a philosopher (how well his ideas stuck together), nor about his influence on Chinese society or on other intellectuals who also don't have anything interesting to offer for our time. At least, I don't think caring about those things would be an act of philosophy rather than intellectual history (i.e. 'philosophology').

The upshot of these various effects of the humanities approach to scholarship is that much of contemporary academic philosophy has been reduced to the passive study of dead celebrity philosophers and their dead ideas (like the study of dead civilisations in classics). I am not saying it isn't possible to find that an interesting thing to do with one's life. I am saying it is not the same thing as doing philosophy, and that doing philosophy is far more important and urgent. Instead of a place where the challenges of our time are engaged with by the forging and contesting of new ideas and arguments, the philosophy of the humanities offers only the shadow of such real philosophical activity in the form of reverential description and commentary on dead ideas and the tracing out of their bibliographic and biographical connections. 

II. Philosophy as the Science of Ideas

The association of philosophy with the humanities has problems beyond cultural fetishism. In particular certain thinking problems seem endemic in the humanities - indeed some of these were ones that the methods and attitudes of science were specifically developed to overcome. 

One of the most striking is that while humanities scholars seem very adept at 'discovering' new points and ideas, this is accompanied by a reluctance to evaluate and rank those discoveries (see previously). I think this comes from the qualitative rather than quantitative orientation of the humanities (a distinction I borrow from Deirdre McCloskey in a different context). Qualitative analysis is concerned with whether or not some claim is true, for example, 'Does God exist, yes or no?' Quantitative analysis is concerned with how much, for example 'How much radiation is being given off by that machine and how much danger of cancer does that correlate to?' Quantitative analysis is the kind that dominates the sciences, and the kind that is unfortunately mostly missing in the humanities and the style of philosophy associated with it. 

The problem is that if one sets oneself a qualitative (deductive) standard of evidence one will always fall short of the proof one needs to make a judgement and so one will end up with a vast number of theories and claims and no way to discriminate between them. 


1. No claim can be proven 100%
2. Therefore no claim can be disproved 
3. Any claim that cannot be falsified is equal in epistemic status to any other 
4. Therefore all claims have equal epistemic status 
Obviously humanities scholars do pick some ideas to pursue rather than others, so they are still capable of making decisions. But ultimately they have no justification to offer for their choices but subjective preferences, such as that this has some special appeal to them (see also Joseph Heath on Me-Studies), or that this is just what lots of other people are writing about. They lack the resources to argue for why some ideas are objectively better than others and hence deserve dedicated systematic inquiry (although occasionally they may make up for that lack with a forceful collective assertion that something is 'problematic'; an exercise of power rather than argument). 

On the one hand it is easy to find a way to justify any idea you happen to like as possibly worth something ('May I believe x?'). On the other hand it is impossible to convince anyone to drop an idea that they like ('Must I believe y, or can I find some excuse not to?'). The collective result resembles a bad case of hoarding: nothing ever gets thrown away and so the ratio of garbage to good ideas continues to rise. Not only are humanities scholars reluctant to give up ideas developed amongst themselves, however bad, but they also provide a second home for junk ideas that have already died elsewhere. For example, Marxian and Freudian theories are still taken seriously by many humanities trained philosophers many decades after they were systematically repudiated by the fields they originated in.
In contrast, the quantitative (scientific) approach examines the probability (probe-ability) of ideas, with a view to testing them and bringing them into competition to distinguish epistemically stronger from weaker accounts. Consider an analogy with evolution. Ideas are like mutations, new possibilities for engaging with the world. But most mutations are simply errors that cause dysfunction in the organism. We need a mechanism akin to natural selection filter out less feasible mutations (i.e. most of them) and propel the most beneficial ones to spread through the population. In the humanities this selection filter is provided by popularity, which does not track the quality of ideas (see how medicine fared under the humanities model for thousands of years). In the sciences the selection filter does track relative quality (of course imperfectly), and this is why the sciences revolutionised the business of knowledge so dramatically.
Obviously the empirical sciences have an advantage in that the world pushes back against their bad ideas in a way that it doesn't push back against bad philosophy. Philosophy is never going to have the degree of empirically driven theoretical tidiness of the natural sciences, though it may still aim to do as well as the social sciences if it can adopt the methods and attitudes for challenging and demoting under-performing theories (e.g. by adopting a more quantitative approach). A further under-utilised resource is the knowledge that the empirical sciences have generated. For example, it is astonishing how ignorant political philosophers still are about what is already known about the problems they are trying to engage with, thanks to the efforts of political scientists, economists, etc. It is also astonishing that they prefer to look to the history of (mostly western) political philosophy and to build on 'scientific' theories they prefer to believe in however thoroughly they have been debunked (see further). 
The humanities have other thinking problems too, such as their proneness to conspiratorial thinking, which I attribute partly to confusing the meaningfulness of an idea with its likeliness and partly to over-reliance on narrative explanatory models (in which only agents can cause things to happen and so human intentions have an exaggerated role in explanation). But I think I will conclude my rant here for now.

I write to get something out of my head so I can see it more clearly, and so other people can see it and tell me what's wrong with it. I do not think of these blog essays as finished works, but as an aid to thinking. In this light I welcome constructive criticism from any humanities trained philosophers who would like to help me to see where I am going wrong. One thing writing this has already allowed me to see is my own argument's reliance on generalization and essentialism rather the quantitative analysis I espouse as 'scientific'. I also note that I have far more to say about what's wrong with the humanities way of doing philosophy than I have to say about how a more scientific philosophy would work. Perhaps it is harder to adopt the scientific model in philosophy than I wished to believe (partly perhaps because it would involve much more and more tedious work than the humanities have prepared us for). But that doesn't mean it is the wrong standard. 

Update: Numerous people have disagreed vehemently with this essay, but so far all have done so by asserting their dislike for what I am saying rather than by engaging with my arguments. This is unfortunately consistent with my thesis that the humanities teaches people to disagree by disapproving of others rather than by arguing with them.