UPDATE: Moving to the front again, from January 10, 2005. Very interesting comments, on some very interesting ideas and questions about what exactly it is philosophers are doing. I hope some other philosophers will comment.
UPDATE: Moving to the front from December 20; this generated much excellent commentary during the holiday period, but I suspect many may have missed it, and others might have useful contributions.
I recently picked up a remaindered copy of Future Pasts: The Analytic Tradition in Twentieth-Century Philosophy, ed. J. Floyd & S. Shieh (Oxford University Press, 2001), an interesting collection of essays in honor of the late Burton Dreben, a philosopher at Harvard whose influence far outstripped his actual publications.
Dreben taught for more than three decades at Harvard during a time when it reigned supreme as the preeminent philosophy department in the United States, and perhaps the English-speaking world: this was the department of Quine, Rawls, Putnam, and Goodman which, until the 1970s, had no serious rival. Dreben's influence came partly from the impact he had on his more prolific colleagues (most importantly, Quine) but primarily from his teaching, and the opportunity being at Harvard afforded him to educate (some less sympathetic would say, "indoctrinate") both graduate students and (famously) junior faculty (most of whom would go on to posts elsewhere: several are represented in the Floyd & Shieh volume [for example, Thomas Ricketts, Michael Friedman, Gary Hatfield]).
Dreben's pedagogical impact was so great that philosophers began to speak of some young philosophers being "Drebenized," i.e., of being converted to Dreben's rather distinctive view of philosophy, and of philosophy's development in the 20th-century. (Martha Nussbaum, by contrast, has written about the gross sexism of the Harvard Department in the early 1970s, mentioning G.E.L. Owen by name, and Dreben by description--a subject, perhaps, for a different day.)
I had always heard that view represented by a dictum attributed to Dreben: "Philosophy is garbage. But the history of garbage is scholarship." The Floyd & Sheih volume has a more mild version of that saying as its motif: "Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship." In either version, the question is: why did Dreben have such a dim view of the discipline? What was this skeptical view of philosophy which so many of those "Drebenized" adopted?
John Rawls's "Afteword" to the Floyd & Sheih volume offers some suggestive remarks about "Burt" Dreben's view of philosophy. Here are some excerpts (from pp. 419, 421-422):
[Dreben] will say...that many misread Taraski's theory of truth, not understanding that Tarski is doing mathematics, proving a theorem in mathematical logic, and that Tarski's result on the theory of truth has nothing to do with philosophy. Tarski's result cannot be seen as a philosophical theory of truth, for there is no such thing. Philosophy doesn't contain such theories. Rather, it seeks understanding, and that is different....
Burt often says that there are no theories in philosophy. This goes together with his calling metaphysics "nonsense," as he often does. But what does Burt mean by saying this? One thing he means is that philosophical arguments rest on premises, or taking certain things as given--on "data," as he often says. One of Burt's favorite examples is the long dispute between Carnap and Quine about analyticity. Carnap takes as his "data" that analytic statements are true in virtue of the meanings of their terms, and he presents a theory of meaning to support this claim. The statements Carnap takes to be paradigmatically analytic, however, Quine thinks are simply obvious. Anyone can see that they are true. For Quine, there is no particular kind of way in which they are true. They are simply true. Neither philosopher can convince the other of the premises, or the "data," of his argument.
Burt would not, of course, deny the plain fact that philosophers make many complicated arguments. But he thinks that at bottom there are no arguments one philosopher can use to convince another of a metaphysical point. At the basic level, philosophers simply rely on and appeal to different "data." It is a standoff with no resolution by argument. Burt has said that Quine is a metaphysician, a metaphysician of science. By that he means that Quine doesn't argue for physicalism, or scientific realism. He assumes it and works out his view from there....
There is no theory of truth, no theory of meaning, no theory of knowledge, no theory of perception, and the rest, despite centuries of philosophers discussing these things....[T]he theory of quantification is a theory, but he stresses that it is a theory in logic and mathematics. It is not philosophy, which has to do with understanding and should lead to that....
The crucial questions in understanding Burt's view are: What is philosophical understanding? What is it the understanding of? How does understanding differ from having a theory? I wonder how I can give answers to these questions in my work in moral and political philosophy, whose aims Burt encourages and supports. Sometimes Burt indicates that my normative moral and political inquiries do not belong to philosophy proper. Yet this raises the question. Why not? And what counts as philosophy?
Rawls doesn't try to answer the questions in the final paragraph. Assuming that Dreben was not just perversely and obstinately stipulative about what is to count as philosophy and what not, can anyone explain Dreben's view? His view about the status of philosophical argument has a pleasing resonance (to my ear) with Nietzsche's views, but, as Rawls describes it, Dreben's views also sound more dogmatic than principled (e.g., why isn't what Rawls does "philosophy"?). What do philosophers think? No anonymous postings, of course.