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Moral Moments

Science & Philosophy: Vive la Différence!

by Joel Marks

“The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.” Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, item #127

“… seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection.” Socrates in the Meno, 81d (trans. W.K.C. Guthrie)

Every once in a while I wonder what I am doing. As a philosopher, that is. I do what I consider to be philosophy as naturally as I breathe, and about as often. I philosophize when I work at my computer, as I am doing now; but I also do it when I am walking, or driving, or swimming, or talking. Sometimes I catch myself: “Shouldn’t I be paying full attention to what I am doing and not always cogitating in this way? Shouldn’t I be more Zen?” But, then, you see, in asking that question I am philosophizing again!

Maybe it’s a sickness. There are all sorts of ways to characterize this thing called philosophy, and to dispute those characterizations. Sometimes the activity of trying to establish what philosophy is, is called ‘metaphilosophy’; for this is itself a philosophical question. The funny thing is, you can be doing something every minute of your life and still not know what you are doing. But that strikes me as a clue. Therefore, without further ado, let me propose a metaphilosophical thesis that may help to clarify what I am doing right now!

I would say that philosophy is pretty much in the same business as what we today in English refer to as science: both are methods of inquiry that involve reasoning and empirical confirmation. There is of course much to discuss about what all of that means, and furthermore to distinguish these two from yet other realms, such as religion. But in the short space available to me here I would like to highlight what I think is the chief distinction between philosophy and science, for it strikes me as being very much at the heart of what I do on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, I believe the distinction matters, since nowadays many people who are not professional philosophers, which includes most scientists, tend to take a dim view of philosophy precisely because they see it as superfluous to science.

My hypothesis is that science undertakes to generate new data to test its hypotheses, while philosophy, by and large, is content to test its hypotheses against already existing data.

Suppose one wished to investigate the hypothesis that women are more emotional than men. A scientist might then construct an experimental situation intended to arouse an emotion – for example, showing disturbing photographs or videotapes, or even perpetrating a phony scene, such as introducing a rude actor – and then measure the resultant responses among the experimental subjects, such as having them fill out a questionnaire or having trained observers count certain behaviors elicited from the subjects by the situation. Alternatively, and more naturalistically, trained interviewers could be sent out into the community to question randomly chosen respondents about episodes in their life. Finally, all data would be tabulated and statistically analyzed to yield possibly significant conclusions.

But a philosopher would approach the same hypothesis quite differently. He or she might simply think about the matter. A typical line of thought could go as follows: “There is a stereotypical assumption that women are more emotional than men. And suppose it is even true that women – at least in some societies – tend to, say, cry more than men. Does it follow that they are more emotional, even in those societies? Well, no. For example, it is equally noted – again, however truly or falsely – that men tend to get angry more (as well as more angry) than women. But is not anger an emotion, just as much as the sadness or anxiety that prompts crying? So there seems to be some kind of prejudice in the stereotype that is biasing the very notion of emotion. Hmm.” And so on … without end, really.

The philosopher could as well discuss this issue with others, to discover other ideas and observations which happened not to occur to him or her up until that point, but which are, nonetheless, commonplaces that anyone can confirm. Literature and biography are other sources of ‘data’. And even the scientific literature is fair hunting ground, for once something has become a so-called established or scientific fact (putting aside for now that these too can be questioned), then it is considered to be ‘known’, and so is on a par – from the standpoint of my proposed distinction – with phenomena that can be ascertained by personal observation, introspection, discussion, reading, and the like.

This is why philosophy may give the impression of being nonempirical, but that is only because it is concerned primarily with ‘recollecting’ or ‘assembling reminders’ (as the epigraphs at the start of this column put it) from which to draw implications or ‘put 2 and 2 together’, not because its subject matter is purely mental. Science has become a legitimate offshoot of philosophy because the means of testing hypotheses have become more technical and elaborate; and hence also, in dialectic with the development of experimental instruments, techniques, and analyses, the hypotheses being proposed have themselves become more technical. Nonetheless, there remain significant hypotheses about the nature of reality which call for careful and sometimes prolonged reflection, yet do not require, indeed would not be elucidated by, experimental or analogously regimented investigation.

Furthermore, science cannot possibly put philosophy out of business, but can only help to expand its inventory. The appearance of a ‘new fact’ in the world of human knowledge is but the beginning of an understanding of that fact. Any fact is related to other facts, perhaps ultimately to all others. It is these relations that philosophy is committed to explore.

© Joel Marks 2001

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. The Moral Moments website is at www.moralmoments.com.

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