Monday, December 31, 2012

The validity of philosophy as a science

To: Manuel R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Validity of philosophy as a science
Date: 6th February 2009 13:26

Dear Manuel,

Thank you for your email of 27 January, with your third essay towards the Associate award, 'On the Validity of Philosophy as True Science'.

I admire the passion with which you defend philosophy. However, there is not a lot of philosophy as such in your essay. It is much more a piece of rhetoric (in a good sense) directed against thoughtless critics of philosophy.

There is a place for such rhetoric, and I have indulged in it on more than one occasion (if you scan through the various Pathways web sites). However, there is a substantial question, concerning the nature of philosophy and its relationship to what we now term 'science' or 'the sciences', as well as the question of what is the proper method for philosophy, and the question of the objectivity and truth of philosophical theories.

Beyond this, there is a further question about metaphysics and its relationship to philosophy.

As it happens, your first paragraph is strongly reminiscent of a quote from the Preface to the first edition of Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason' (substituting 'metaphysics' for 'philosophy'):

'Time was when metaphysics was entitled the Queen of all the sciences; and if the will be taken for the deed, the pre-eminent importance of her accepted tasks gives her every right to this title of honour. Now, however, the changed fashion of the time brings her only scorn; a matron outcast and forsaken, she mourns like Hecuba...'.

In academic philosophy today, metaphysics is viewed merely as a branch of philosophical analysis, and the great metaphysical systems of the past -- such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bradley -- are regarded merely as being of historical interest. My own book, 'Naive Metaphysics' was written against this trend. Few academic philosophers would be impressed by a defence of metaphysics, offered as a defence of philosophy, and they would agree with Kant (to a large extent) that the pretensions of metaphysics need to be harshly limited, for the sake of the advancement of human knowledge.

Is philosophy a science? Although you tell the story of the rise of science in the 19th century, you fail to mention explicitly the doctrine of Positivism, according to which philosophical theories are merely anticipations of science. When a science develops, it replaces the speculations of the philosopher with the rigorous, experimentally founded theories of science. This is a challenge which you don't meet successfully.

Claiming philosophy as a 'science' isn't enough. You need to examine the methods of philosophy: for example, with the rise of mathematical philosophy in the 20th century, a 'new' conception of philosophical analysis as the proper method of philosophy developed which became the dominant paradigm in English-speaking (but not continental) philosophy.

Continental philosophers, on the other hand, seeking to defend the 'scientific' status of philosophy would look to Husserl, who claimed to have provided a new basis for philosophy in the
so-called 'science' of phenomenology. Yet, by the time one gets to Heidegger and Sartre, there is a very strong antipathy to the scientific model of philosophy, particularly in Heidegger's critique of Technology.

As you can see, this is, or has the potential to be a rather complex question. Most serious philosophers wouldn't even bother to argue with your sceptical acquaintances or your father. Much of the popular 'criticisms' of philosophy are based on mere ignorance, and not worthy of rebuttal.

What does it mean to say that philosophy is 'true science'? There are at least two different things that one might wish to argue for. The first is that philosophical inquiry yields objective truths, not opinions or expressions of an individual's world view. As such, they are contributions to human knowledge.

The second claim, which is more controversial, is that philosophy is a science, alongside physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics. Philosophers in the USA such as W.V.O. Quine have argued that philosophy is not 'a' science but rather continuous with the sciences. That is to say, there is no precise borderline between 'doing philosophy' and 'doing science'. This involves the controversial claim that, in Quine's words, 'There is no first philosophy.' ('First philosophy' was the term which Aristotle used to refer to what is now known as 'metaphysics'.)

What this means, for Quine, is that the traditional problems of scepticism (for example) are solved by considering knowledge and its acquisition, not as a philosophical problem (the need to respond to the Cartesian sceptic) but rather as a matter of scientific inquiry -- how, in fact, do human beings acquire knowledge and how is this explained in terms of Darwin's theory of evolution. The philosopher, in Quine's vision, is basically a logician offering rigorous definitions (re-definitions) of familiar concepts like 'cause' or 'meaning' which are sufficiently robust to meet the needs of empirical science.

Reading your essay, I have very little idea of which model of philosophy you would want to defend, or why. It is difficult to defend philosophy in the broad way that you have attempted to do without taking a stand, which involves agreeing with one (or more) tradition(s) of philosophical inquiry and disagreeing with others. The different traditions claim that philosophy contributes to knowledge -- our store of objective truths -- but disagree significantly in their conception of how philosophical knowledge is acquired.

There is another line you could take, which would probably be more effective against your sceptical friends etc. And that would be to take their arguments and respond ad hominem, using the method of reductio ad absurdum. 'If the argument you are using is valid, then it would also be valid to say... but... '.This is not the same as a defence of philosophy (because it is merely ad hominem) but it is instructive, and could make an acceptable essay for the Associate, if the result yields insight into the nature of and methods of philosophy.

All the best,

Geoffrey