Philosophy Denial: A Trap for the Unwary

by Dr. Patrick Stokes

“There is no new thing under the sun” complains ‘the Preacher,’ the great nihilist philosopher of ancient Israel. Certainly, philosophy-bashing is nothing new. The Athenians put Socrates to death, the Alexandrians murdered Hypatia, Jan Patočka died after a long interrogation by the Czech communist secret police. Thankfully in recent years philosophers have gotten off comparatively easily. The hemlock having been quietly shelved, these days we philosophers mostly just have to put up with rockstar astrophysicists (to date: Hawking, Krauss, deGrasse Tyson) and the odd thinkpiece declaring philosophy obsolete, unproductive, or simply ‘dead.’

What’s interesting about these critiques is that they all end up falling obliviously into exactly the same trap. All end up trying to philosophize their way out of doing philosophy, like a drowning person trying to drink his way out of the water. Gary Bakker’s recent article on these pages is a splendidly illustrative example of this genre.

A standard complaint in the anti-philosophy literature is that science progresses and philosophy does not. This complaint takes at least two different forms, both of which are present in Bakker’s piece. The first is that philosophy is simply made redundant by advances in other fields, principally the natural sciences. If physics can tell us why there’s something rather than nothing, so the thinking goes, who cares what Spinoza had to say on the same topic? Why should we care about philosophers’ definitions of ‘nothing,’ ‘cause’ or ‘substance’ when the definitions that scientists use get the job done perfectly well?

To call philosophy an ‘alternative methodology’ to science, as Bakker does, misses the point if it assumes they each apply to the same type of proposition, as if science and philosophy take themselves to be two different ways of testing claims like ‘water boils at 100 degrees celcius at sea level’ and ‘no two numerically distinct entities can share all their properties.’

Bakker’s in fairly esteemed company in buying into this confusion: Stephen Hawking’s claim that physics has superseded philosophy rests on the same mistaken assumption that physics and philosophy were simply alternative, competing methodologies for producing the same type of knowledge about the same thing, both chasing the same goal, and physics won.

You can’t test the boiling point of water philosophically, and you’d be a fool to try. But equally, Leibniz’ principle of the identity of indiscernibles is not an empirical proposition. You won’t determine whether it’s true or not by observation or experiment. Neither are the propositions of logic, or ethics, or aesthetics, or even epistemology. Yet that does not excuse us from having to answer logical, ethical, aesthetic, or epistemic questions.

The second complaint is the even more sweeping one that philosophy doesn’t answer any serious questions we might have. Of course philosophy offers answers to questions all the time; the complaint is, rather, that they don’t stay answered. Bakker argues that my erstwhile Stop the AVN comrade Peter Bowditch, in defending the value of philosophy, fails to provide a single “scrap of empirical evidence – just one example of a problem it had solved.”

But that’s already to invoke a standard of success (empirical evidence) and with it a criterion for measuring philosophy against that standard (the solving of problems) that are not only tendentious in themselves – why would we assume logical, metaphysical, epistemological or ethical problems are solvable in the same way as empirical questions? – they’re a standard and a criterion that could only be defended philosophically.

For a great many of philosophy’s critics, particularly those given to the more naïve forms of scientism, this is a curious and persistent blind spot. They quite rightly defend the scientific method as a knowledge-generating mechanism so unprecedentedly successful that it overrules any and all competing methods – and in a world full of pseudoscience and associated nonsense it’s a very good thing that they do!

But you cannot use the scientific method to investigate the efficacy of the scientific method itself without falling into obvious circularity. Bakker – like a great many philosophers of science before him – appeals here to the fact that science works as a justification for taking the deliverances of the scientific method as being true. I’ve certainly no objection to that. The problem is that ‘what is true is what works’ is not a scientific proposition. It’s a philosophical one, with roots going back to pragmatist philosophers like Charles Peirce and William James.

Like many philosophy denialists, Bakker simply fails to notice that his own position, in this case a position he calls ‘empiricism,’ is itself a philosophical position, and as such can only be evaluated and defended philosophically. In fact, Bakker’s view, as he acknowledges, is really a pragmatist rather than an empiricist one: his “what works, works” is a long way from the sort of scientific realism we usually associate with what he calls ‘Rationalism.’ (It’s also very odd he thinks ‘postmodernists’ – insofar as that’s a descriptively useful term, which it mostly isn’t – dislike pragmatism. Rorty would be spinning in his grave).

That doesn’t mean this ‘Rationalist’ position is wrong. But it’s not, as many philosophically naive commentators seem to assume, simply and obviously right either. Any half-decent epistemologist with an afternoon to kill could drive a truck through any single element of the truth-standard Bakker endorses: “reliable, reproducible, consensual, evidence-based, applicable knowledge.” Can such a standard be defended? Absolutely! How would you do so? There’s only one way, and it rhymes (sort of) with ‘apostrophe.’

Of course, uninterrogated standards, concepts, and assumptions aren’t always a problem. Most of the time scientists simply don’t need to worry about questions of epistemology or metaphysics. They can do science perfectly well without them, and get further that way than if they had to constantly re-litigate questions about the epistemic and ontological basis of what they do. But questions don’t cease to be questions – even important questions – just because we’ve decided to set them aside within a given domain and for a specific purpose. And even the question of which questions are worth pursuing, being a question about value, is ultimately a philosophical one.

Even Bakker’s claim that “all meaningful philosophical problems are actually scientific problems,” quite apart from being false, is itself a philosophical proposition. Perhaps Bakker might have known that had he looked beyond the dictionary definition of positivism to learn why positivism failed in the specific ways it did. If he knew that history, he might have recognized his claim that “we have misused words to ask and answer questions that weren’t there in the first place” comes straight from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.”

Wittgenstein thought the purpose of philosophy is to dissolve such pseudo-problems, to “show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” Yet as philosophy denialists show time and time again, philosophy is a snare that only gets tighter the more you try to struggle out of it. In claiming science displaces philosophy, Bakker is in fact doing philosophy, not science. In appealing to standards of evidence against which we could judge philosophy, he’s still doing philosophy. In appealing to a (naturalistic?) standard of ‘what works’ in ethics and law he’s absolutely doing philosophy – and falling into a category mistake by trying to smuggle normativity back into a picture he insists is all ‘is’ and no ‘ought.’

That’s the really irritating thing about philosophy: not that the perplexity never ends, but that in the end philosophy itself is simply inescapable. It’s what Bakker’s doing, it’s what I’m doing right now, and it’s what you’re doing right now in assessing these competing arguments. You can do it well, or do it badly; that’s all. And in that sense, we’re indebted to Bakker for unwittingly demonstrating, yet again, the value of philosophy.

Patrick Stokes is senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and a member of Stop the AVN. His most recent book is ‘The Naked Self: Kierkegaard and Personal Identity’ (Oxford, 2015). Reblogged with permission of the author. 

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Philosophy Denial: A Trap for the Unwary

  1. Pingback: Philosophy Denial: A Trap for the Unwary | The Logical Place – theunstructor

  2. Just a short note about Rorty and Pragmatism: I think it makes more sense to think of Rorty as having engaged in a dialogue with Dewey, rather than as someone who was developing or following Dewey. Even though Rorty was often identified as a Pragmatist, much of what he had to say was actually a departure from Pragmatism.

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