Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Do Philosophers Do, Anyway?

Not even philosophers can agree on that question. It may be the one discipline which has lost sight of its reason for being as time goes on, rather than having developed a clearer niche. Not only is there wide disagreement among philosophers about what philosophy is and ought to be, but there is hopeless confusion among many non-philosophers. At the same time, there are artists, geographers, and anthropologists who have taken on theorizing that mainstream philosophy has abandoned.

Here Hasok Chang gives his answer to the question, "What is the use of philosophy?"

A historian and philosopher of science, Chang suggests that one function of philosophy of science is to pursue the scientific questions that history contingently abandoned. Doing so is a unique form of inquiry, and an importantly educative form of inquiry, in that it requires deep understanding of history and science and the boldness to ask questions unique to philosophy.

He writes:
Even philosophers tend not to recognize critical awareness and its productive consequences as contributions to scientific knowledge. Thereby philosophy undersells itself. There is a sense in which we do not truly know anything unless we know how we know it, and on reflection few people would deny that our knowledge is superior when we are also aware of the arguments for and against our beliefs.

[I]t is not the job of the historian to develop scientific ideas actively. But whose job is it? Philosophers have no easy excuse here. It is perfectly understandable that current specialist scientists would not want to be drawn into developing research programs that have been rejected long ago, because from their point of view those old research programs are, quite simply, wrong. This is where complementary science enters. Lacking the obligation to conform to the current orthodoxy, the complementary scientist is free to invest some time and energy in developing unorthodox systems.

One clear step is to extend the experimental knowledge that has been recovered. We can go beyond simply reproducing curious past experiments...In complementary science, if a curious experiment has been recovered from the past, the natural next step is to build on it. This can be done by performing better versions of it using up-to-date technology and the best available materials, and by thinking up variations on the old experiments that would not only confirm but extend the old empirical knowledge.

[P]hilosophy can function as the embodiment of the ideal of openness, or at least a reluctance to place restrictions on the range of valid questions. Professional philosophy exists so that questions, and our capacity to ask questions, are preserved for society. These questions may come to be relevant one day. Philosophy of science exists so that scientific knowledge can be preserved and developed in a broad sense that goes beyond the current paradigms.

The primary aim of complementary science is not to tell specialist science what to do, but to do what specialist science is presently unable to do. It is a shadow discipline, whose boundaries change exactly so as to encompass whatever gets excluded in specialist science.
How can Chang's vision for philosophy of science be extended to our other areas of philosophy?

I would say that, without disagreeing with Hasok, I have a somewhat different vision of philosophy, or at least of the areas of philosophy that I find most interesting. Taking off from his description of philosophy as doing what others are unable or uninterested in doing, I think philosophers are uniquely situated to consider problems that resist disciplinary definition.

If philosophy has reached an identity crisis because over the course of two centuries, it has spun off so many of the other disciplines--the natural sciences, the social sciences, linguistics--then we can reclaim our place before and between these disciplines by taking up lines of inquiry that draw them together again. Chang is right to say that
It is absurd conceit to think that we philosophers can “think” better than anyone, so that we can step in and draw some wise conclusions from the scientific material, which scientists themselves are missing because they are sloppy or limited in their thinking.
But we do have the training in flexible thinking to be sense-makers and connectors for the work that is done inside the other disciplines. An anthropologist may be driven by her tenure expectations, her funding opportunities, and the interior compass of her research interests to pursue fieldwork. We philosophers (in our armchairs, more than likely) can find the connections between that fieldwork, what is going on in the political arena, and theories of social justice--a broader scope than disciplinary workers are free (or willing) to take up. In this way, philosophy can be relevant to concrete problems while maintaining an essential difference from other disciplines.

I should say, too, that I had the delight of meeting Hasok Chang at a conference earlier this summer which I'll plug here: the next meeting of the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice will be in summer 2011.

No comments: