The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Specialization in Philosophy

Justin E. H. Smith opines in the New York Times last week about the loss of curiosity in Philosophy. There are some fair points in the article, though I must disagree with his emphasis on curiosity or the lack thereof as the problem.

For one, philosophy over history has radically changed since the early days. Back in the times of Ancient Greece when the term "Philosophy" was coined, it simply meant pursuit of knowledge, in the broadest sense of the term, including math, science, ethics, ontology, logic, epistemology and so on. Over time, the pursuit of knowledge has become more specialized. This process hasn't been guided by a loss of curiosity, as Smith seems to suggest, but really is a difference in the effectiveness of truth-seeking techniques in various sub-disciplines of the pursuit of knowledge. Rapid advancement in the rigors of mathematical logic and theorems meant this field became an area of specialization on its own very early on. Later, during the scientific revolution, important thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton introduced to philosophy new techniques of observation, experimentation and mathematical rigor which permitted ideas to be more decisively tested and led to real progress in these fields. But such techniques didn't apply to all fields of knowledge-pursuit, only to certain fields. It really only applied to physics, originally, but it expanded to other disciplines. Important discoveries led to development of chemistry and biology as independent disciplines in their own right. Other disciplines now considered part of science, such as medicine, psychology and economics didn't immediately benefit from these new techniques; they advanced slowly for a while, even after the scientific revolution, but eventually they developed and emerged as their own sub-disciplines with their own specialists. As these various disciplines of math, physics, chemistry, psychology, economics, biology began to make rapid advances in their theoretical underpinnings and established understanding, they became inaccessible to the broadly curious dilettante. To be a competent physicist, for example, as has been the case for a long time, requires considerable education and training before one can expect to make substantive contributions to the discipline, and such has been the case of all of these various disciplines that have pealed off and established themselves independently of the broader pursuit of knowledge.

Some disciplines haven't benefited from these advances, especially fields like ontology, ethics, metaphysics, axiology, aesthetics and political science, fields which are now considered to be part of "philosophy." But all this "philosophy" is, really, just the leftover husk after various other disciplines have been pealed away. No real advancement has been made in these fields since the beginning. We haven't made any new advances in, say, ethics, in the past 2000 years. The reason is, I believe, because there simply are no good ways of disproving relevant philosophical theories. Assuredly, one can make a defense in support of an idea; for example, if I wanted to argue that there is a substantial dualism between mind and body, I could concoct an argument like Descartes did. All a person could do in response is refute the argument, or perhaps offer a different argument. But refuting an argument doesn't refute the conclusion (truths can be defended with fallacious arguments; pointing to the fallacies in the arguments, doesn't disprove the truth, only the argument), and any counter-argument will itself be inevitably open to refutation. Judging between the merits of various arguments and counter-arguments is highly subjective, and so we're left without any definite determination of which idea is superior. In certain scientific fields, though, we've found very strong ways of refuting theories, running experiments. For example, if you want to test out the caloric theory of heat, you run an experiment. A well-designed experiment can all but completely disprove a theory: all you have to, for example, is prove that frictional heat provides an endless supply of heat (whereas caloric theory proposes that each thing contains a finite amount of caloric heat). Positively proving theories is difficult in science and fraught with uncertainty, but the ability to get rid of bad theories strengthens the certainty behind those that remain. If we could narrow down the field of possible candidates for a theory of mind, for example, then we could focus our energy on those that remain, weeding out more bad ones and better refining the good ones. That would be progress. But we can't do that in philosohpy.

Now all of this advancement in other fields, as I said, has led to specialization, which is quite a good thing, since it allows the overall collaborative project of science to advance much more rapidly in many more directions. But it also has drawbacks, if the various disciplines and sub-discliplines and sub-sub-discliplines become too specialized, then no one will have sufficient general knowledge to integrate them and the people who become too focused on narrow disciplines might make poor theories that would be improved by taking into account the big picture. These are trade offs that science takes for the sake of greater and more rapid advancement. They're partially addressed by popularizers and generalists who try to summarize all of this knowledge and bring it to people outside of the field, but it still is a limitation. The problem with philosophy is that such trade offs don't make sense. Since philosophy hasn't progressed, for example, in the area of the philosophy of mind since the days of Descartes, all that specialization in philosophy leads to is more theories in philosophy of mind. In short, whereas in scientific fields, the great expansion in knowledge has led to expansion in specialists (since no one person can take in all this knowledge) in philosophy specialization has only been driven by the need for a person to have a grasp on all the competing and, quite frequently, equally plausible theories. Specialization makes sense if progress is being made, but not if we're just spinning out more theories.

In Smith's article, he focuses really on the problem of curiosity as plaguing philosophy. Though I would diagnose the problem somewhat differently, him and I both agree on what's fundamentally wrong with philosophy: it's too specialized, too narrowly focused. He believes that philosophers should be unafraid to research irrelevant trivia, just for the sake of curiosity. I believe that philosophers should be generalists, not just within the fields that are still left for philosophy, but within all fields. Of course, such broad knowledge means that a philosopher will never have deep knowledge within any one area, but that's what we have the scientists for. And within the area of philosophy since no advancement in knowledge nor any sort of certain conclusions are forthcoming, the exploration of broad theories of everything is just as worthwhile as the mincing apart ever more detailed theories of mind.

When philosophers specialize too much, they risk making themselves obsolete. Philosopher has too much become a discipline of very well-eduated professionals simply talking to each other, without their theories translating into broader application for the public as a whole. Within science the hope is that the specialization will lead to applications that will benefit people, even if such applications aren't immediately obvious. But such is not the case with philosophy. Only when one tries to come up with theories that really, in the broadest sense are meaningful to people and help them make sense of the complex world we live in, will philosophy be relevant. Philosophers are sort of artists of the mind, and the more tools from the great toolbox of human knowledge they can employ, the better the works of art they create.

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