With over 1800 votes in the earlier poll, here's what we learned about reader opinions on contemporary Anglophone metaphysics:
The vast majority of respondents were favorably disposed. 29% think it a "central and foundational part of the discipline," while another 21% deem it "an important area of contemporary research." Another 21% deem it "useful when pursued in tandem with actual scientific results" (some of them may be more skeptical otherwise), while 8% think it is only "a minor area of philosophy, but worth pursuing." But a non-trivial minority, 20%, think metaphysics is "armchair bullshit, I can't believe it's back!"
This is the first in a series of polls I intend to run to gauge who is reading and where we are as a field. The proposed answers are obviously somewhat caricutured, please pick the one closest to your own view.
A self-identified "analytic" philosopher in a non-English speaking country writes:
I was wondering if you could ask the question below in your blog. The topic is very important to professional philosophers from outside the English-speaking world and they will most likely benefit from the comments of your readers.
In ‘The Language of Publication of "Analytic" Philosophy’, Rodriguez-Pereyra argued that original research in analytical philosophy should be published exclusively in English. Assuming he is right, analytical philosophers from non-English speaking countries should stop publishing research in their native languages and start publishing in English. Assuming also that those analytical philosophers would be willing to give a fair visibility to their work, they should try to publish their research if not in top journals, at least in well-recognized ones. What happens is that if the task of publishing in well-recognized journals is difficult for philosophers from the best departments of the English-speaking world, it is even more difficult for those philosophers from outside this circle. Apart from the difficulties that stem from the very fact of writing in a non-native language, I think there are two main problems.
The first was pointed out by by Gualtiero Piccinini. He mentioned that given “the difficulty of publishing in good journals, this system actually creates incentives against publishing in good, international journals: other things being equal, those who devote their efforts to publishing in international journals will publish less than those who publish in local journals, and then they will be at a disadvantage”.
The second problem is the lack of feedback that philosophers from outside the English-speaking countries have. The rationale for this is quite simple: If one needs to publish in a well-recognized journal, one will need to have a paper worthy of it. It means one has to have a paper comparable with those produced by the best philosophers from the best departments. Those philosophers normally receive tons of feedback from colleagues and colloquia before submitting the paper. This just does not happen in (at least) some countries where people do not simply know how to give good feedback and colloquia are mostly “praise time” with no criticism allowed. The only way out is trying to get feedback from abroad. And this is just a very hard thing to get.
The natural way to do this is via e-mail: I have a draft and send an e-mail to someone who I know is interested in the topic of my paper. Well, it may be me, but most of the time I get no answers. But I can imagine what can be the common reasons: First, professional philosophers are too busy. They have their own work to manage, and are loaded with papers from their colleagues and students that they are expected to give feedback. Second, receiving such an e-mail may be a little unpleasant and invasive. So, my question is: What is the best way to ask for feedback for those who are outside the main circles of philosophy? I think a similar problem may happen with those philosophers who despite being in English-speaking countries come from small universities.
We haven't run one of these threads in a few years, and I have gotten a few requests for new ones in recent months. So let's start with ethics, construed broadly, but excluded applied ethics topics (which we can consider separately). So what do readers take to be the most lively issues of discussion currently? Signed comments will be strongly preferred; and don't just name topics, give some explanation, literature references, etc.
I usually ignore The Stone blog--its quality is, on average, low and it's a scandal for philosophy to be represented in public by a blog "moderated" by a sophomoric hack like Simon Critchley--but this piece by Paul Horwich (NYU) is timely given our recent poll. It starts on an odd note, claiming that,
Apart from a small and ignored clique of hard-core supporters the usual view these days is that his writing is self-indulgently obscure and that behind the catchy slogans there is little of intellectual value. But this dismissal disguises what is pretty clearly the real cause of Wittgenstein’s unpopularity within departments of philosophy: namely, his thoroughgoing rejection of the subject as traditionally and currently practiced; his insistence that it can’t give us the kind of knowledge generally regarded as its raison d’être.
If Wittgenstein is actually "unpopular...within departments of philosophy," then it is odd that hundreds of philosophers declared Wittgenstein "the most important" philosopher of the past 200 years! But once we get beyond the stage-setting, Horwich's blog posting is quite interesting. He writes:
Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.
So far, this is just Quinean naturalism, not anything distinctively Wittgensteinian. If you want to know what there is and what we know, well those are scientific questions, and philosophers might, at best, help tidy up the best scientific theories, but there is no "special business of the philosopher," no "a priori theories" on offer.
This attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail. Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on — and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?
If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues. Therefore traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate. But in that case, he asks, “[w]here does [our] investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble)” — and answers that “(w)hat we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.”
This is a striking articulation of what has always struck me as the non-sequitur at the heart of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein and Quine agree that there are no distinctively philosophical methods (conceptual analysis, a priori reason, intuition, etc.) for discovering "the ultimate character of the universe," but Quine's conclusion is that we should consult those disciplines whose a posterioi methods have proved fruitful at discovering these things, while Wittgenstein's is to dismiss these questions as "mere pseudo-problems."
Horwich's nice explanation of the "four related claims" Wittgenstein makes in support of his skepticism about philosophy is helpful on this score:
— The first is that traditional philosophy is scientistic: its primary goals, which are to arrive at simple, general principles, to uncover profound explanations, and to correct naïve opinions, are taken from the sciences. And this is undoubtedly the case.
—The second is that the non-empirical (“armchair”) character of philosophical investigation — its focus on conceptual truth — is in tension with those goals. That’s because our concepts exhibit a highly theory-resistant complexity and variability. They evolved, not for the sake of science and its objectives, but rather in order to cater to the interacting contingencies of our nature, our culture, our environment, our communicative needs and our other purposes. As a consequence the commitments defining individual concepts are rarely simple or determinate, and differ dramatically from one concept to another. Moreover, it is not possible (as it is within empirical domains) to accommodate superficial complexity by means of simple principles at a more basic (e.g. microscopic) level.
— The third main claim of Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophy — an immediate consequence of the first two — is that traditional philosophy is necessarily pervaded with oversimplification; analogies are unreasonably inflated; exceptions to simple regularities are wrongly dismissed.
— Therefore — the fourth claim — a decent approach to the subject must avoid theory-construction and instead be merely “therapeutic,” confined to exposing the irrational assumptions on which theory-oriented investigations are based and the irrational conclusions to which they lead.
I take it a Quinean naturalist can agree with versions of 1-3, but will view the fourth claim as a non-sequitur. If you want to know what there is and what we know, leave the armchair and avail yourself of fruitful methodologies. What is the Wittgensteinian argument against this, if there is one? Why isn't #4 a non-sequitur. (We had an excellent thread on being "Drebenized" years ago which may be relevant to this discussion.)
Comments welcome; signed comments very strongly preferred.
I closed the poll after 510 votes because it got linked by one non-philosophy site; as it is, it isn't clear to me that everyone voting was answering the question asked (about pernicious influence on philosophy), but perhaps we'll find out in discussion. In any case, here were the top 20
1. Martin Heidegger (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)
2. G.W.F. Hegel loses to Martin Heidegger by 211–124
3. Michel Foucault loses to Martin Heidegger by 253–81, loses to G.W.F. Hegel by 197–112
4. Ludwig Wittgenstein loses to Martin Heidegger by 259–112, loses to Michel Foucault by 184–145
5. Theodor Adorno loses to Martin Heidegger by 240–68, loses to Ludwig Wittgenstein by 176–120
6. Rene Descartes loses to Martin Heidegger by 263–100, loses to Theodor Adorno by 150–113
7. Friedrich Nietzsche loses to Martin Heidegger by 262–92, loses to Rene Descartes by 158–153
8. Immanuel Kant loses to Martin Heidegger by 273–85, loses to Friedrich Nietzsche by 163–155
9. Karl Marx loses to Martin Heidegger by 267–73, loses to Immanuel Kant by 160–122
10. Soren Kierkegaard loses to Martin Heidegger by 285–41, loses to Immanuel Kant by 157–111
11. Jean-Paul Sartre loses to Martin Heidegger by 270–59, loses to Karl Marx by 141–122
12. Henri Bergson loses to Martin Heidegger by 259–45, loses to Jean-Paul Sartre by 125–90
13. Edmund Husserl loses to Martin Heidegger by 286–36, loses to Henri Bergson by 122–85
14. W.V.O. Quine loses to Martin Heidegger by 273–87, loses to Edmund Husserl by 127–121
15. Karl Popper loses to Martin Heidegger by 276–73, loses to W.V.O. Quine by 135–104
16. Rudolf Carnap loses to Martin Heidegger by 272–67, loses to Karl Popper by 119–105
17. David K. Lewis loses to Martin Heidegger by 269–72, loses to Rudolf Carnap by 114–108
18. G.E.M. Anscombe loses to Martin Heidegger by 267–49, loses to David K. Lewis by 110–96
19. John Dewey loses to Martin Heidegger by 265–52, loses to G.E.M. Anscombe by 101–90
20. George Berkeley loses to Martin Heidegger by 273–54, loses to G.E.M. Anscombe by 97–86
Runners-up: J.L. Austin loses to Martin Heidegger by 266–55, loses to David K. Lewis by 117–96
Donald Davidson loses to Martin Heidegger by 278–60, loses to J.L. Austin by 115–84
I confess the results are genuinely puzzling. Mindless hate for Continental figures? Maybe. Three of my favorite philosophers are in the top ten (Foucault, Nietzsche, Marx), though I can agree that Foucault did have some pernicious influence on other philosophers. But Nietzsche? Maybe if influence based on misunderstanding counts. Heidegger, Hegel, Wittgenstein, and (I think) Kant were all in my "top ten" for most pernicious influence, but I imagine my reasons may not have been the typical ones. But Descartes? He seems to be in odd company here! I would have expected both Quine and D.K. Lewis to rate more highly, because they both are representative of a kind of philosophy that has both strong adherents and strong detractors. Perhaps they weren't deemed to be important and influential enough to qualify as having a pernicious influence?
The strength of "dislike" as measured by ranking a philosopher #1 for pernicious influence varies quite a bit, and doesn't entirely track the top 20 ranking. Heidegger, to be sure, leads with 105 #1 votes, and Wittgenstein and Hegel are next up with 49 #1 votes each. But Kant (#8 overall) is not far behind with 37 #1 votes, well ahead of Nietzsche (17 #1 votes), Marx (29 #1 votes), Foucault (12 #1 votes), and Adorno (also 12 #1 votes). Indeed, it is surelys triking that "top ten" philosophers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Adorno got fewer #1 votes than Quine (24 #1 votes), David K. Lewis (20 #1 votes), and Descartes (33 #1 votes). David Hume, who was nowhere near the top 20, received 10 #1 votes as most "pernicious." Others who appeared in the "top 20" who received relatively little intense hate: Sartre (6 #1 votes), Kierkegaard and Popper (8 #1 votes each), and Anscombe (no #1 votes). Of course, perhaps these are judgments that these figures, while "pernicious" in their influence, aren't influential enough to warrant a #1 ranking.
Comments are open for readers to explain their votes. Signed comments will be preferred. I'll weigh in with my own explanation after awhile.
In the past we've done surveys of the "most important" or "influential" philosophers of the modern era or the last 200 years. This poll is slightly different: we've taken the philosophers ranked in the top 25ish of the earlier surveys, but are now asking which of these philosophers have had the most pernicious influence on philosophy. I've limited this to serious philosophers, so no charlatans like Derrida or amateurs like Rand, but only important philosophers (no longer living) whose influence might not be deemed to have been salutary. Rank order the philosophers from most to least pernicious in their influence on philosophy (not on the world at large)(you can choose "no opinion" as well, which is certainly a tempting choice for many of these no doubt). Have fun!
Also, don't rank philosophers unless you have read them!
This is from the title essay of one of his new collections, Analytic Philosophy in America and Other Historical and Contemporary Essays (Princeton, 2014), p. 7:
[A]nalytic philosophy is not a fixed body of substantive doctrine, a precise methodology, or a radical break with most traditional philosophy of the past--save for varieties of romanticism, theism, and absolute idealism. Instead, it is a discrete historical tradition steeming from Frege, Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein and the logical positivists, characterized by respect for science and common sense, belief in the relevance of logic and language for philosophy, emphasis on precision and clarity in argumentation, suspicion of apriori metaphysics, and elevation of the goals of truth and knowledge over inspiration, moral uplift, and spiritual comfort--plus a dose of professional specialization.
A propos an earlier item, philosopher Bryan Frances (Fordham) writes: "I agree with the post about the non-career-oriented value of philosophy. Nevertheless, loads of students ask about careers and philosophy, as you know." Professor Frances kindly shared two "prezis" he made about philosophy and careers: a long version and a short version, the latter of which he says is "better for the classroom."
Anna Christina Ribeiro (Texas Tech) argues that it is. (Thanks to Miguel Dos Santos for the pointer.) Lots of areas of philosophy are under-represented in the leading departments, of course, in the sense that many departments have no specialists. Examples woudl include philosophy of law, mathematical logic, medieval philosophy, philosophy of religion, and 19th-century European philsophy. The latter neglect strikes me as particularly appalling: this is a century that includes Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, and Nietzsche, all major figures by almost anyone's accounting. Of the top ten departments (for 2011), Rutgers, MIT, and North Carolina have no one specializing in any of these figures; only NYU, Stanford, and perhaps Pittsburgh have specialists in at least two of these major 19th-century figures. Is that not as serious an omission? What do readers think? How do we evaluate the areas good philosophy departments must cover? Signed comments will be strongly preferred: full name and valid e-mail address.
This is well-said, by Scott Samuelson, who teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa:
Thinking of the value of the humanities predominately in terms of earnings and employment is to miss the point. America should strive to be a society of free people deeply engaged in "the pursuit of happiness," not simply one of decently compensated and well-behaved employees.
A true liberal-arts education furnishes the mind with great art and ideas, empowers us to think for ourselves and appreciate the world in all its complexity and grandeur. Is there anyone who doesn't feel a pang of desire for a meaning that goes beyond work and politics, for a meaning that confronts the mysteries of life, love, suffering and death?
I once had a student, a factory worker, who read all of Schopenhauer just to find a few lines that I quoted in class. An ex-con wrote a searing essay for me about the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing, arguing that it fails miserably to live up to either the retributive or utilitarian standards that he had studied in Introduction to Ethics. I watched a preschool music teacher light up at Plato's "Republic," a recovering alcoholic become obsessed by Stoicism, and a wayward vet fall in love with logic (he's now finishing law school at Berkeley). A Sudanese refugee asked me, trembling, if we could study arguments concerning religious freedom. Never more has John Locke—or, for that matter, the liberal arts—seemed so vital to me.
I'm glad that students who major in disciplines like philosophy may eventually make as much as or more than a business major. But that's far from the main reason I think we should invest in the humanities.
While Prospect Magazinedoes its thing, I thought it might be interesting to ask readers of this blog to vote on the same question concerning only philosophers, namely which ones are "engaging most originally and profoundly with the central questions of the world today." You can vote here.
I've included all those Prospect included, and a bunch of others, no doubt omitting some sensible choices, but also including some that Prospect inexplicably omitted. I've included plenty whom I manifestly do not think are meritorious, but others may disagree!
UPDATE: Whoops, Charles Taylor a (now obvious) omission from my list!
AND MORE: Another reader suggests Thomas Pogge. And yet another points out that Nick Bostrom was on the Prospect list, but I apparently missed it.
Curious, I'm not quite sure how this gets attributed, in part, to me. I would agree with a couple of those, but I think much more likely is that we have no idea what philosophical questions will prove important or central fifty years from now (though the professionalization of the discipline perhaps makes it somewhat easier to predict).
Philosophy graduate student Nick Byrd asked me to share this study he is conducting to explore the relationship between personality traits and philosophical views. He says it should take only 5-10 minutes to complete the survey.
There must be more to the "science" than what is described here:
They begin with a puppet show. In this show, a gray cat is seen trying to open a big plastic box. The cat tries repeatedly, but he just can't open the lid all the way. A bunny in a green T-shirt comes along and helps open the box. Then the scenario is repeated, but this time a bunny in an orange T-shirt comes along and slams the box shut before running away. The green bunny is nice and helpful. The orange bunny is mean and unhelpful.
The baby is then presented with the two bunnies from the show. A staff member who doesn't know which bunny was mean and which bunny was nice will offer both bunnies at the same time to the baby. The baby's mother, who is usually present during the study, closes her eyes so as not to influence the baby in any way.
Which bunny do the babies choose? More than 80% of the babies in the study showed their preference for the good bunny, either by reaching for the good bunny or staring at it. And with 3-month-olds, that number goes higher, to 87%.
As described, the result is obviously equally compatible with the hypothesis that babies are born with an innate sense of self-interest. So what's the real story here? Additional links welcome. (Thanks to Mark Couch for the pointer.)
...but I've been on the road (in California) first here and then here.
Visiting the wonderful UCR Department, as I've been fortunate to do several times in recent years, prompts some reflections on our field and also on the interests in the Continental traditions that I share with many others. There are, fortunately, lots of good places in the U.S. these days for students interested in Kant and post-Kantian European philosophy--Columbia, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Brown, BU and, in many ways, Chicago--but UCR is as good as any of them, and may be the best. It's not just that they have a first-rate group of scholars working on Kant and post-Kantian European philosophy (Clark, Keller, Reath, Wrathall)--and an impressive group of grad students as well--but that everyone in the Department is interested in philosophy, meaning that those with primarily "Continental" interests are conversant with "analytic" philosophy and other parts of the history of philosophy, and vice versa.
The term "pluralism" has, alas, been debased to the point that everyone now knows it is usually a code word for "crappy philosophy is welcome here." But if it had not been devalued, then it would apply to UCR, though I think the more appropriate appellation is that UCR is an actual philosophy department, in which everyone is interested in philosophy, even if different figures or themes are more important for some than others. When I left UT Austin some six years ago, part of the reason was that it had ceased to be a department of philosophy and had become something more like a "Department of Logic & Metaphysics," where that meant recent logic and metaphysics. That's fine, UT Austin has become a leading Department of "Logic & Metaphysics" in the recent 'analytic' tradition. I am (to the annoyance of my critics) a fan of the "analytic" tradition, but mostly I am a fan of philosophy, and most of the really important philosophy is not, by my lights, to be found in "recent logic and metaphysics".
The field needs more places like UCR. (The world needs more places with decent weather, but that's a separate issue!)
UPDATE: One current PhD student at UT Austin not working in M&E/Language/Mind/Logic wrote to say he felt the department was more supportive of his work than my commentary would suggest. I am happy to hear that, and I hope other students feel the same way.
MOVING TO FRONT FROM DECEMBER 21, 2013: THIS DESERVES MORE RESPONSES!
Signed comments only: full name and valid e-mail address. You can name more than one, but say a couple of words about each book or article you mention, why you liked it, why it's significant, what it's contribution is to a particular literature. I'll add my own at some point, but first I'd like readers to weigh in.
As a survivor from the wartime group [at Oxford], I can only say: sorry, but the reason was indeed that there were fewer men about then. The trouble is not, of course, men as such – men have done good enough philosophy in the past. What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about. All this can go on until somebody from outside the circle finally explodes it by moving the conversation on to a quite different topic, after which the games are forgotten. Hobbes did this in the 1640s. Moore and Russell did it in the 1890s. And actually I think the time is about ripe for somebody to do it today. By contrast, in those wartime classes – which were small – men (conscientious objectors etc) were present as well as women, but they weren't keen on arguing.
It was clear that we were all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down. That was how Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Mary Warnock and I, in our various ways, all came to think out alternatives to the brash, unreal style of philosophising – based essentially on logical positivism – that was current at the time. And these were the ideas that we later expressed in our own writings.
A number of interesting and/or curious claims here (I am particularly struck by the confident dismissal of logical positivism, and by the implication that Oxford no longer produces talented female philosophers), but I'm curious what readers think? Signed comments will, of course, be preferred.
Mary Midgley, aged 81, may be the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool. One moment she sits by her fire in Newcastle like a round-cheeked tabby cat; the next she is deploying a savage Oxonian precision of language to dissect some error as a cat dissects a living mouse.
I have posted it here. This will be part of a wonderfully clever series that Topoi has run for a number of years, and which is explained here:
We take a classic of philosophy and ask an outstanding scholar in the same field to review it as if it had just been published. This implies that the classical work must be contrasted with both past and current literature and must be framed in the wider cultural context of the present day. The result is a litmus test for the work itself: Failure in accounting for relevant issues raised by contemporary literature reveals that, in those respects, our classic has indeed been outpaced by later works. On the other hand, any success in capturing core topics of current discussion, or even anticipating and clarifying issues not yet well brought into focus by contemporary scholars, is the strongest proof of the liveliness of the work, no matter how long ago it was written.
I have enjoyed reading some of the previous "Untimely Reviews," including for example Brandom on Hegel's Phenomenology (2008) and Leitgeb on Carnap's Aufbau (2009). Readers not familiar with the series should check it out.
(I should note that my "untimely review" will not include that many new ideas for those who have been reading some of my other Nietzsche essays of late--I've been working on, and writing about Twilight quite a bit over the last two years.)
Continental Philosophy Farhang Erfani, a philosopher at American University, provides a useful set of links to news, events, interviews, reviews, videos, etc. related to "Continental philosophy" (broadly construed)