Colin McGinn has written a piece for the NYT on re-branding philosophy. He suggests that academic philosophers are doing science and the term ‘philosophy’ doesn’t reflect the scientific nature of the discipline. ‘Philosophy’ instead suggests sage advice about the meaning of life and the ‘Big Questions.’ Apparently academic philosophers aren’t in the business of addressing such vague questions anymore. Rather, philosophers, like scientists, are interested in solving tractable problems. McGinn suggests that the term ‘ontics’ replace ‘philosophy’ as a more accurate moniker for what philosophers are doing, namely a systematic study of the nature of reality.
Of course, some would say that philosophy belongs to the humanities, but McGinn rejects the view that philosophy is primarily concerned with human culture. There are a lot of issues looming here, some of which might reflect the so-called Analytic/Continental divide (although this terminology has largely outlived whatever utility it might’ve had). While disagreement about what philosophy is and should be will persist, some philosophers do see the task of philosophy as essentially dissolving problems that are caused by our (mis)use of language. Once we unravel these conceptual and linguistic entanglements, we’ll see that there wasn’t really a problem there to begin with — or at least not a philosophical problem. If any genuine, i.e. empirical, problems remain, they can be handed off to the relevant sciences. At this juncture, I don’t think that the analytic and Continental traditions are too far apart.
One of the things you find when you go to grad school in philosophy, is that the ‘Big Questions’ that professors pitched you as an undergrad and that sparked your interest in philosophy in the first place, are basically absent. Instead, you find that academic philosophy is pretty deflationary. You’re either reducing philosophical problems to linguistic pseudo-problems that don’t need to be solved or redefining them as empirical problems for the sciences to solve. In other words, you’re just playing language games. Maybe instead of ‘ontics’ it would be more honest to go with ‘semantics.’ I don’t know if any proposed re-branding is going to stick. (Remember Daniel Dennett’s attempt to get naturalists to call themselves ‘brights’?) But I think that philosophers should make some attempt to define just what the hell it is that they do. Because right now, I’m confused and I’m more of an insider than most.
So we’re told by McGinn that philosophers don’t see themselves as asking timeless questions, but working on tractable problems that can be solved. Contrary to popular belief, there is progress in philosophy. This view isn’t particularly new. We’ve seen the experimental philosophy movement — which conceives of philosophy as a social science — enjoy some popularity recently. But the desire of philosophy to emulate the methodology and success of the hard sciences has been around for a while. ‘Armchair philosophy’ is term of derision both inside and outside the academy these days. This science envy is probably particularly strong in McGinn’s sub-field, philosophy of mind, which is populated by hard physicalists, like Patricia Churchland, who often sound more like neuroscientists than philosophers, traditionally conceived. And McGinn is probably right that philosophers of mind are often misunderstood by their more ‘scientific’ interdisciplinary colleagues in neuroscience, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence research. Shouldn’t we then re-brand philosophy so that it gets more respect (and funding)?
I think this is the crux of the matter. Philosophy departments have a hard time justifying their existence to administrators in these tough economic times. Without ‘practical’ courses in logic and critical thinking, philosophy departments would be hard-pressed to justify their place in the contemporary university. The university has become a business, education a commodity, and students the consumer. University is a place, not to broaden the mind or become a better, more reflective citizen of our democracy, but a place to acquire marketable skills. So philosophy departments play that game; they don’t have much choice. In the case of the sciences, the practical pay-off is more obvious and so funding is more readily available. Couldn’t the re-branding of philosophy as science be seen against this economic backdrop? The cynic in me says ‘yes.’
Of course, I’m not advocating that philosophy departments be blind to systemic economic and political realities. Part of the problem with most grad schools, and their students, is precisely blindness of this sort. We have to be realists about the contemporary university and we do have to be able to translate the value of philosophy into a vocabulary that non-philosophers and financial decision-makers can understand. But re-branding philosophy as ‘ontics’ and marketing it as a science simply seems disingenuous to me. There are other, in my opinion more honest, ways to go about it. I’ve found it useful to talk about philosophy as a genre of literature and a systematic, rational methodology. The two are not mutually exclusive, but mutually enriching. The strength of philosophy is that it combines the liberal arts and logic. I see it having a salutary effect on both liberal arts and science students. For the humanities student, philosophy provides some ‘hard’ skills, like being able to understand symbolic logic. For the science student, it provides some ‘soft’ skills, like being able to interpret the nuances of a complicated text. Both types of student leave a philosophy course with a more balanced education. I think that’s a good worth having in our society.
But perhaps my cynicism with respect to the ‘ontics’ movement is off the mark. Maybe McGinn (I’d also add Dennett and Churchland to the list) are right, and philosophy just is a science. But they certainly haven’t made their case yet. I think they’d minimally have to offer a definition of what ‘progress’ might mean in philosophy, account for the fact that there is much less consensus in philosophy than in science, and provide a stronger justification of metaphysical naturalism so that we’d have prima facie reason to accept the claim that reality, the nature of which ontics allegedly studies, is limited to the physical reality that natural science studies. Unless and until this happens, I’m happy to stick with ‘philosophy.’