Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Philosophers and low self-esteem

I've noticed a sort of self-loathing combined with exceptionalism among philosophers.

What we do is theoretical, but to what end do we do theory? Philosophers of science, for instance, are sometimes cautioned not to be so presumptious as to believe that our normative statements about good scientific reasoning should guide scientists. Who are we to tell scientists how to reason or how to arrange their institutions? Who are we to even judge which practices are best? How can we know science better than scientists themselves? But if we have no legitimate means of influencing scientific practice, then what is the point of our work?

But this attitude is not just pressed on us from the outside. It is readily embraced. Some philosophers do believe that what philosophy can best contribute to inquiry is, for example, a theory of universals, and that philosophy as a whole suffers when the importance of this lofty but impractical goal is overlooked.

And what benefits are promised by a career in philosophy? What jobs are there for philosophers other than the job of training and speaking to other philosophers?

The self-endorsed view that philosophers are sorrowfully misunderstood and that we suffer for this reason was put in front of me again recently when filling out a survey for my undergraduate college, where I majored in philosophy. The survey asked the standard questions that might be needed to evaluate and update curricula: "What courses served you the best?" "Were you well prepared for graduate school?"

In addition, there was this question:
"How was majoring in philosophy a burden to you after graduation?"
Would a business college ask the same question?
"How has your accounting degree held you back in life?"
Or about a degree in science,
"How has studying chemistry changed your life for the worse?"

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