Thursday, 12 May 2011

Philosophy and its technicalities

"There would be something badly wrong if work in the philosophy of physics were as accessible to a linguist as to a physicist, or if work in the philosophy of language were as accessible to a physicist as to a linguist."

It's from a brand new piece by James Ladyman in The Philosophers' Magazine on Philosophy that's not for the masses. Deserving.


  1. Good point! I never quite get why people think philosophy should be 'easy' and 'accessible'. It's technical and boring, and that's how it should be.

  2. Catarina,

    First off, let me premise this by noting that I am aware you were almost certainly being tongue-in-cheek in your comment. This is not aimed at you.

    Nevertheless, your joking comment that "It's technical and boring, and that's how it should be" does hit on a real problem with the profession. Lots of philosophy, of course, CAN be both entertaining and accessible, if done well - even logic (think Smullyan's puzzle books). And surely we should, as much as possible, communicate what we are doing to the public - after all, this would presumably be both good for them and good for us!

    One example (of many I could trot out): This is the reason I get so annoyed at people who complain about the quality of articles in the Wiley-Blackwell or Open Court popular culture and philosophy series. These sorts of publications are important, because they are the sort of forum through which the public gets its impression of what philosophy is all about (and that, of course, has all sorts of consequences - economic and otherwise - for all of us in the profession). But one rarely sees anyone who complains about the quality of papers in these volumes actually going off and writing for one, attempting to do better. Instead, the standard reaction amongst many 'famous' philosophers is that this sort of popularization is somehow beneath them.

    This is just one symptom of a larger problem - analytic philosophers are, on the whole, absolute crap at promoting ourselves or sharing what we do with anyone other than other analytic philosophers. Most other professional academics either misunderstand what we do or think it is worthless. If the other academics don't get us or don't value us, why should we expect the public to? The real shame here is that we only have ourselves to blame.

    Anyway, I'll stop ranting.


  3. Hi Roy, fair enough. But I think we must keep in mind that there are different levels in which philosophy can be formulated. Let me take physics to develop an argument by analogy; top-notch work in physics, say what is published in the top physics journals, is totally technical and inaccessible to non-professionals, and this is how it should be. But this doesn't mean that one cannot engage in explaining the main concepts and findings in terms that would be accessible to a wider audience. People do that, with various degrees of success, but that's not physics, it's popularizing physics.

    Let me add btw that I am an avid reader of so-called 'popular science' books, especially from biology; it would be pointless and a waste of time to be an avid reader of professional biology journals, but I do take a lot from them for my own work as a philosopher. My hero is Stephen Jay Gould, who was a kick-ass biologist but could also write about it in ways that made key ideas accessible to a very wide audience.

    Back to philosophy, I think there are two levels we should be looking into; how we manage to explain philosophy to a wider audience, and how we manage to convince our colleagues in other fields of the significance of philosophy (two different issues). But in any case, what will be appearing in top-notch philosophy journals, just as in the case of physics, will most likely be incomprehensible to the non-professional, and this is where cutting-edge research will be developed. This research can be subsequently formulated in more accessible terms for a wider audience, but these will not be the places where cutting-edge philosophy will be taking place.

    But I totally agree with you that our tendency to insulate ourselves as philosophers is not a good thing. It's not for nothing that most of my current research is what could be described as 'naturalized' philosophy, and I am in particular very much in touch with psychologists, cognitive scientists and linguists, who often think that what I have to say IS relevant for what they are doing (e.g. I've been invited to write a commentary on a psychology paper, forthcoming in Behavioral and Brain Sciences). The kind of philosophy that doesn't interact with other areas of scientific inquiry, that's precisely the kind of stuff that I am totally not interested in (and it includes a good chunk of epistemology, in particular).

    And I also agree with you that 'popular philosophy', just as popular science, is a valuable enterprise, for many of the reasons you pointed out. Why shouldn't top-notch philosophers write books accessible to non-professionals in the way that e.g. Hawkins did in physics, and Dehaene does in cognitive science, to name but two? But again, these two could only write these books because there was a lot of boring and technical work that had been done BEFORE, underpinning their more accessible writing (otherwise the more accessible writing would have been worthless anyway).

    I hope I made myself clear, and let me add that I did not in any way feel that this was an objection to me personally. I just thought you were raising very good points worth discussing in more detail!

  4. Catarina,

    I definitely agree that:

    (1) Popularizing is different from relating the importance of our work to other academics.

    (2) Doing cutting edge philosophy and later popularization of the philosophy are two different things, with different criteria for success, etc.

    With regard to (2), however, I am not sure they always have to be separate. In fact, I think there are areas (unsurprisingly, the less 'technical' ones) where cutting edge work can be done that is accessible to a wide audience - I am thinking of some work in moral philosophy and in aesthetics in particular here. So I don't think that the cutting edge work has to be prior to popularization in principle. But I agree that most of the time it will be.