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Philosophers on Philosophy

Philosophy Inc.

Christopher Norris offers his diagnosis of academic philosophy’s current ailments, and prescribes a cure.

I would guess that Philosophy Now has two kinds of reader, broadly speaking. On the one hand are philosophy students and teachers; those with an academic or professional as well as an intense personal interest in the subject (one hopes). On the other hand are those informed lay persons, as they used to be called, who come to Philosophy Now for all sorts of reasons, but at least in part with the idea of finding out what’s currently going on amongst the academics. The chances are that they sometimes come away baffled by the sorts of obscure debate displayed by the professionals.

Of course there is a place for technical discussions in philosophy, as in any branch of enquiry that develops analytical techniques. Still, the non-professionals might find themselves repelled by an ethos or cult of technical expertise which places such a distance between philosophy expert and genuinely interested non-expert. Yet unless philosophers manage to communicate beyond their self-enclosed specialist sphere, they are not only risking philosophy’s rapid disappearance under present economic and cultural conditions, but also failing in respect of one of its most important functions, that of acting as an intermediary between the wider public and areas of discourse where technicalities are often unavoidable and hence need explaining, from physics and biology to medicine and law (I will say more about this later). Philosophy is liable to lose its claim to public attention, not to mention public funding, by appearing routinely unconcerned with its task of promoting intelligent debate about issues that are too important, or just too interesting, to remain the exclusive preserve of a specialist few. It also runs the risk – unfortunately all too present in an academic culture so largely given over to research interests driven by the next round of assessment exercises – of becoming an inwardly-focused elite club. One effect of this is to render philosophy tongue-tied against scientists like Stephen Hawking who, in a recent polemic, proclaimed its obsolescence. (See my article countering his rhetoric in Philosophy Now 82.)

The main trouble is the narrowing of focus that has been such a prominent and, to my mind, such a damaging feature of much recent philosophical work. This seems to have come about largely through the idea that philosophy could best lay claim to academic respectability by emulating the physical sciences as far as possible, or by tackling only those well-defined, technical problems that were sure to have some well-defined, technical answer. This latter approach was Thomas Kuhn’s description of ‘normal science’ activity during those periods of relative calm between ‘revolutionary’ shake-ups. I don’t wish to go along with the popular misreading of Kuhn which ignores his stress on the comparative rarity of full-scale scientific revolutions. However, it seems to me that the discourse of present-day academic philosophy, at least in the analytic mainstream, is ‘normal’ to the point of intellectual stagnation, and that this has chiefly to do with an overly-specialised professional culture, and an over-concentration on issues that lend themselves to quasi-scientific formulation. What’s needed, I think, is a more Aristotelian breadth and catholicity of approach. This would mean that philosophers wouldn’t be so keen to advertise themselves as philosophers of or experts in some closely-specified subject.

No doubt it will be rightly said that we know a lot more than Aristotle knew about the multifarious topics he took as falling within his investigative purview. In which case (so the presumption goes), philosophers had much better pick their specialism with an eye to current trends, and should not, on pain of amateurism, aspire to a delusive multi-competence. On this view, philosophy started out as a universal discourse but was thereafter subject to a long history of independence movements, whereby its component disciplines achieved autonomy, and along with it, intellectual maturity. Probably the last discipline to break away was psychology, as empirically-minded psychologists increasingly defined their discipline so as to exclude all reference to epistemology [the theory of knowledge] or philosophy of mind, while philosophers were just as keen to reciprocate by disavowing any taint of vulgar ‘psychologism’. At any rate, there is general agreement that the exponential growth of knowledge has produced a situation in which it is no longer possible for anyone to claim expertise, or even a decent level of competence, in more than one specialist corner of one specialist field. This applies all the more in the case of philosophy, since here (so the argument goes) there is a standing temptation for some practitioners, in particular in the philosophy of science, to issue large claims on the basis of ideas that are not in line with the latest research. After all, if scientists themselves have learned to respect disciplinary markers, even for areas of closely-convergent interest such as molecular biology, organic chemistry, and genetics, then surely philosophers will be best advised not to tread on such specialist turf. Or again, they should have the proper modesty to do so only under expert guidance, and without any thought – heaven forefend! – of helping scientists to a clear grasp of conceptual issues in their field.

It seems to me that these problems of over-specialisation and the cult of misplaced expertise have typically accompanied a depersonalised approach to philosophy, where assured command of the literature associated with a given topic has replaced a deeply-felt personal involvement with it. This is apparent in the choices of topic (narrowly prescribed), the tone of address (briskly efficient), the presumed readership or audience (a small peer-group of like-minded specialists), and above all, the manifest aim (to move things forward by just enough to make one’s mark, but not so much as to run the risk of offending one’s colleagues or the wider academic community). This tendency is reinforced by the periodic scourge of government research assessment exercises, which encourage savvy practitioners to focus their efforts on short-term ‘manageable’ projects of a suitably conformist kind. Further, academic philosophy largely maintains an incentive structure whereby those who have most thoroughly internalised such small-minded habits of thought are then strongly placed, as subject panellists, to ensure that this way of doing philosophy is effectively passed on to the rising generation. It is a depressing scene, to say the least, and one that belies the constant stress on ‘research’ in an academic culture where any genuinely innovative work, raising a significant challenge to norms of belief and established reputations, amounts to the equivalent of letting the side down in a crucial qualifying match between university departments.

Meanwhile the philosopher-specialists are apt to finally disqualify themselves, as did the logical positivists before them, by imitating science but inevitably lagging behind it by any measure of substantive contributions to knowledge. Very often it is the aim of analytic philosophers to come up with concepts or arguments that are either rationally self-evident or able to claim some sort of scientific warrant. Hence the unfortunate impression often given by, say, philosophers of mind or philosophers of perception, that they’re somehow hoping to bootstrap their way by sheer analytical acuity to discoveries of the sort more typically and aptly claimed by disciplines such as neurophysiology. Hence also the tendency amongst analytic philosophers in various fields to adopt a pseudo- or quasi-scientific rhetoric in order to dismiss any line of argument that fails to comply. This practice has been the stock-in-trade of analytic philosophers since the heyday of logical positivism, when its exponents delighted in facile demolition-jobs on sundry continental philosophers, whom they typecast as wild and woolly-minded. Still, some resistance must be mustered when received ideas, or the institutional mechanisms for preserving them, are so heavily weighted toward the maintenance of a narrowly-focused professional philosophical status quo that anything too much out of kilter with the norms of reputable discourse is effectively excluded. What I should therefore like to do is recall philosophy to a sense of its vocation as a discipline that addresses itself to issues of wider concern, whether in the physical sciences or elsewhere. I also want to make the case for approaches that don’t trade on (quasi-) scientific credentials, but which instead seek to bring an informed intelligence to bear on conjectures that might otherwise receive too little critical evaluation.


Where analytic philosophers tend to go wrong is not in striving for the conceptual precision or explanatory power that typifies good physical science, nor in taking scientific methods and procedures as an object of study. Rather it is in academic philosophy’s wholesale adoption of a notionally science-led research culture, where piecemeal problem-solving is the order of the day, and there is little or no room for the kind of nonconformist speculative thought that has been a regular hallmark of major advances in philosophy, as well as in the sciences. By surrendering that crucial margin of autonomy – the space for independent critical reflection on whatever engages one’s interest – philosophy aligns itself not so much with science itself, but with a markedly paradigm-conserving, conformist type of scientific activity. In so doing, it fails to make contact with the physical sciences or other regions of enquiry in a way that might yield the highest rate of mutual benefit.

This is an idea of what philosophy can most usefully do which goes flat against the self-image routinely endorsed by its academic practitioners. I agree with J ürgen Habermas that philosophy is often called upon to mediate between various expert discourses, from mathematics and physics, via law, economics, and the social sciences, to certain challenging or avant-garde practices in the arts, at an adequate level of understanding, while having enough in common with everyday thought and language to communicate effectively between those spheres. Like Habermas, I would also want to emphasise that if philosophy is to perform this intermediary role effectively, then it will need to hold onto the particular range of critical-reflective resources and conceptual-analytic skills that constitute not only philosophy’s professional stock-in-trade but its prime vocation. Thus the last thing needed is the sort of advice issued by a neo-pragmatist or ‘post-philosophical’ thinker such as Richard Rorty, for whom ‘the tradition’ – the mainstream Western discourse of philosophy from Plato right down to his own analytically-minded ex-colleagues – has finally run out of intellectual steam, and should thus give up its deluded claims to any form of expertise. Rorty saw this climb-down as a consummation devoutly to be wished, since it would at last enable philosophers to find a voice in the current cultural conversation vigorously carried on by poets, novelists, and literary critics of a strong-revisionist persuasion. For Habermas, conversely, it is vital that philosophers should hold out against any such move to, in his phrase, ‘level the genre-distinction’ between philosophy and literature. It is only by preserving certain distinctive truth-oriented standards such as logical rigour, conceptual precision, and a constant readiness to test its claims in the court of critical reason, that philosophy is able to sustain any specific role. If philosophy did take Rorty’s route (also recommended by other jaded ‘post-philosophical’ types) then it would rapidly find itself with nothing to say, or at least nothing that could rise above the babble of other contributory voices. Also much in vogue at present is the later Wittgenstein’s idea of philosophy as a therapeutic exercise in self-abnegation, such that its sole legitimate business is to talk itself down to an acceptance of its own imminent demise through a schooling in ‘language games’ or ‘forms of life’. That this idea has recently come to exert a powerful influence even on thinkers in the line of descent from Frege and Russell, is perhaps the most striking evidence that there is, and always was, something peculiarly self-exhausting about philosophy as purely a matter of conceptual analysis. The problem was pinpointed early on by G.E. Moore, who remarked on the ‘paradox’ (although it’s more of a classic reductio ad absurdum), that a strict enforcement of conceptual analysis would quickly reduce philosophical discourse to a string of vacuous tautologies. That is to say, if one adhered strictly to the rule that every philosophical argument should meet the requirement that its truth be logically self-evident, then this would exclude them from having any factual, informative, or communicative content.

If anything, I would go farther than Habermas, by urging that a due regard for critical standards can perfectly well coexist with an increased readiness of philosophers to engage a great variety of topics encountered not only in the seminar-room but across the range of their ‘outside’ interests and concerns. This would mean an approach to these highly diverse topics which was detached enough to be clear-eyed, while reflecting a special interest in and personal commitment to them. So my case is, firstly, that one can and should philosophize about any topic that justifies the effort; and secondly, that any specialist knowledge then deployed had better (contra Rorty) be on the philosophical side rather than a matter of vainly striving to catch up with the latest advance in this or that extra-philosophical domain. Of course, if a philosopher of perception is to make any worthwhile contribution, this requires a good deal of well-directed reading around the subject in neurophysiology, cognitive science, optics, kinaesthetics and so forth,. However, the philosopher will be spending her time more wisely if she focuses more on conceptual problems as these arise in the discourse of practising scientists rather than issues at the cutting edge of research. What tends to happen when philosophers adopt the latter approach, is that they soon suffer from the same law of sharply diminishing returns that dogged the logical positivists. That is to say, they alternate between empirical-sounding claims that inevitably lag behind the science they emulate, and claims of a more philosophical, ie conceptual or analytic, sort, which have only a notional scientific import, yet which contribute little to philosophy save a heightened intellectual and cultural isolation. This applies even to developments like the present revival of causal realism, which might seem to hold out the promise of a genuine break with the legacy of vexing dualisms – subject/object, mind/world, concept/intuition, scheme/content, etc. – which was Immanuel Kant’s bequest to modern thinkers on both sides of the (likewise Kant-induced) analytic/continental rift. The realist revival marks a welcome advance insofar as it offers to reconnect philosophy with a scientific worldview some thinkers had seemed to count well lost for the sake of their pet theories. However, all too often, even causal realism takes the form of a dryly formal, at times almost neo-scholastic, disquisition on the various terms and concepts that characterise causal-realist talk.

Rorty and Hawking are both right in their differently-angled although otherwise strikingly convergent diagnoses. If academic philosophy is ever to break out of its obscure corner, then it will need to recover a sense of its relative autonomy from the sciences: ‘relative’, that is, in so far as it depends upon them for much of its subject matter and critical orientation, but ‘autonomy’ in so far as it cannot thrive in a role that denies it the right to any exercise of critical reflection beyond whatever is currently enjoined by the arbiters of reputable doctrine and method. If one thing has become clear from the troubles of analytic philosophy as practised in the philosophical mainstream, it is that any discipline whose vocation is to think creatively and critically as well as carefully and consistently is not well served by doctrinaire restraints on its freedom to speculate. The result has been not only to sap philosophy of much of its primary motivating force, but also to make certain kinds of intellectual creativity become well-nigh unthinkable because the thinkable is fenced around with a range of professional caveats. So when a continental thinker like Gilles Deleuze puts the case – and seeks to show by example – that philosophy should be in the business of creating rather than merely analysing concepts, this idea is apt to strike most analytic philosophers either as wilful provocation, or else a downright category-mistake. However, there is nothing in common between the kind of conceptual creativity that Deleuze has in mind – a range of critical-exploratory procedures as demanding as they are inventive – and the kind of thinking that Rorty recommends, with his notion of philosophy as a sub-branch of literary criticism. What Deleuze seeks to do through his various innovations is open the space for a speculative approach that invents new ways of thinking in the absence of ready-made solutions to problems that happen not to fit with current modes of institutionally-accredited thought. He operates on the premise that any putative ‘solution’ to a new problem by currently-accepted communal norms will merely try to conjure away the problem by a wave of the analytically-approved all-purpose conceptual wand.

Philosophical Problems, and Solutions

So there is something awry about the enterprise of analytic philosophy in so far as it has remained in hock to early logical positivist ideals of method and intellectual hygiene. This goes even for its current more liberal phases, after hard-line positivism collapsed under the strain of various well-known problems, not least that of being unable to meet its own criteria for making valid or meaningful utterances. Of course there is still a great deal of interesting and valuable work being done under the description of ‘analytic philosophy’, including some work that ventures into the kinds of speculative thinking that the logical positivists would surely have been dismissed as ‘empty metaphysics’. However, this thinking is thereby also no longer ‘analytic’ in any sense that would set it clearly apart from the kind of thinking that unreconstructed analytic types would unflatteringly describe as ‘continental’. My point is that these terms have for a good while now been defined only by opposition, with proponents of each attacking the other, more from a vague sense of suspicion or a blanket hostility than from any substantive issue between them that philosophers on either side could formulate in a convincing way. Now at last the situation is changing, so that some younger philosophers can quite respectably combine an analytic approach in the broad sense with an interest in thinkers such as Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, or Deleuze. As a result, those thinkers are undergoing a marked new phase in their reception, whereby they have not so much been made safe for analytical consumption, as been made available for readings of a sometimes more exacting character than typified their earlier fortunes at the hands of literary and cultural theorists. And just as Derrida, for instance, comes out of analytically-informed readings as a thinker of far greater analytic power and acuity than his detractors acknowledged, so likewise those philosophers of an analytic bent who have read him attentively, are among those who have responded to the challenge of his work by taking a fresh and innovative approach to the texts of the analytical tradition. Moreover, the continental influence is helping to change the culture of misplaced specialism that has characterised so much analytic debate. It tends to release just the kinds of speculative or creative thinking that have been largely held in check by analytical doctrine or methodology. By the same token it encourages the practice of philosophy as the kind of intensely reflective, self-critical discourse that finds two of its chief exemplars in Derrida and Adorno. So another benefit of the growing continental influence has been to open a space for reflection that had been closed off within the analytic mainstream almost as an article of faith.

Rorty is right when he says that philosophers should give up thinking of themselves as experts in this or that technical sub-branch of the discipline, as that claim often comes down to a misguided attempt to deck out their enterprise in the borrowed fineries of science. However, he is wrong to conclude from this that philosophy – rather than a certain distorted or artificially narrowed conception of it – has outlived its cultural moment, and should therefore now yield to a post-philosophical phase. He errs in supposing the academic analytic paradigm to constitute, as he likes to put it, the end of the road that philosophy has been travelling ever since Descartes took the fateful turn towards epistemology as its foundational or bedrock discipline. Rorty also mistakes the lack of self-reflective or critical capacity that typifies a good deal of analytic work for a sign that philosophy had better cultivate the kind of free-wheeling poetic openness to new turns of metaphor, modes of self-description, narrative invention, and so forth, which he sees as requiring a decisive break not only with the analytic paradigm but with the post-Cartesian tradition as a whole. Yet despite coming out very publically as one who had first espoused and then foresworn the analytic enterprise, Rorty continued to endorse at least one of its main suppositions, namely the idea of its own privileged status as the ne plus ultra of philosophy. Had he not bought into this self-estimate, he might have come up with some better alternative to his trademark endgame scenario; or at least, he might not have been led to frame so drastic and patently rigged a choice as that between philosophy as the last redoubt of fusty academicism, and literature as synonymous with all the creativity or flair that philosophy has managed to expel. There is plentiful evidence, past and present, that this is indeed a false choice, and one that numerous prominent philosophers – among them Derrida and Deleuze – have not for one moment felt themselves obliged or inclined to make. Thus, seeing where Rorty’s diagnosis goes wrong is also an aid to seeing why the line between analytic and continental philosophy cannot be drawn in any principled and consistent way. Indeed, it would be just another example of the same bad dichotomizing habit of thought if one habitually associated any signs of emergent creativity with the growing extent of continental influence on a once-resistant but now more receptive analytic tradition. Equally significant is the evidence that many analytically-trained philosophers are nowadays questioning the earlier, highly restrictive conception of their proper role in relation to the various concerns that still provide much of their subject matter. Thus the increased measure of speculative licence goes along with an increased readiness to allow philosophy the scope to exercise its critical powers beyond those previous artificial borders. Philosophically-informed treatments of very diverse topics can throw new light on those topics from unfamiliar angles, and at the same time strengthen our perhaps rather faltering sense of philosophy’s purpose and relevance. Otherwise there seems little hope of its surviving the threats currently ranged against it from so many social, cultural, intellectual, and not least, economic quarters.

© Prof. Christopher Norris 2012

Christopher Norris is Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University.

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