In August 1977, the New York Times ran a profile of the philosopher Saul Kripke, then 36 years old. Aged 17, he had proved a new result in modal logic – the logic of necessity and possibility – by building a mathematical model of ‘possible worlds’. He went on to transform philosophy, reviving dormant metaphysical questions. What makes us the particular people we are? Does science tell us how the world must be, not just how it is? At thirty, Kripke gave the lectures that made his name – they were published as Naming and Necessity in 1972 – and he went on to write a groundbreaking book about Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Yet despite these achievements, the New York Times noted, he was little known outside his field. ‘Philosophy has become such an arcane discipline that it leaves most laymen gasping for meaning.’ It was also divided between two very different visions: ‘The technicians dream of one master key that could make a science of all philosophy, while the romantics dream of a “big move” that would make philosophy grab the world again and prove that philosophical intuition has not run dry.’
Philip Kitcher is with the romantics. He began his career working in relatively technical areas of the philosophy of mathematics and science, but soon turned towards contentious issues in biology – including creationism and evolutionary psychology – as well as the social nature of scientific practice. In recent years, he has written on Wagner’s Ring, Finnegans Wake, secular humanism and moral progress. His new book, What’s the Use of Philosophy?, takes stock of the discipline. What Kitcher finds in philosophy today is arid technicality, produced for an audience of insiders. He complains about the fetish for clarity and the needless use of formalism; he objects to a methodology that splices intuitions about fanciful cases with assertions of a priori knowledge (‘sprinkling fairy dust’); he accuses philosophers of not knowing enough about the sciences that pertain to their work and of failing to question whether their projects are worthwhile. What he wants is a philosophy of use to scientists, or which can be applied to social problems. He also wants new synthetic visions, ways of seeing the world that bring together different disciplines with an eye to human flourishing.
Kitcher pleads for a ‘reconstruction in philosophy’. But is his representation accurate? Doubts creep in as early as the second page of the preface: ‘Once,’ he claims, ‘philosophers were avidly read by excited members of the public.’ He doesn’t tell us when, but it can’t have been when Socrates, who wrote nothing, was prosecuted for impiety, or when Spinoza was excommunicated, or when David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature ‘fell dead-born from the press’. Kitcher’s ‘growing conviction that contemporary Anglophone philosophy has lost its audience’ suggests that he is thinking instead of the recent past. ‘Indeed, as I look back to the 1970s and early 1980s,’ he writes, ‘it seems to me that the divergence of “core philosophy” from issues of broader concern was less pronounced. Professional Anglophone philosophy then was closer to other academic disciplines. It was easier to love.’ That isn’t the way things looked to attentive outsiders. At a time when the other humanities were being transformed by feminism and postcolonial studies, philosophy was by and large an isolated, inward-looking discipline. Kitcher seems to be conjuring a time that never was.
Maybe that doesn’t matter if he is right about the present. It’s true that academic philosophy is in a state of some confusion. One would struggle to say what unifies the array of topics and methodologies that philosophers explore. This isn’t regrettable in itself: philosophy is the refuge of questions that we don’t know how to answer, and eclecticism is an apt response. In my own department at MIT, PhD theses have recently been submitted on sexual consent, values in science, the ethics of killing, the nature of language and the metaphysics of events. The methodology might be feminist, interdisciplinary, a priori, a combination of all three or something else altogether. The most recent dissertation in epistemology, a subfield for which MIT is well known, was a formal model of uncertainty about evidence, using tools from probability theory.
This sample provides a fair picture of what philosophers are up to these days. It is necessarily partial, since it omits the history of philosophy, which gives increased attention to neglected figures. And philosophers write, too, about aesthetics, consciousness, ideology, race and gender, logic and living well. There is some evidence of the ‘pathologies’ Kitcher cites: needless technicality, neglect of the sciences, the inertia of degenerating research programmes. But this is just to say that the pursuit of philosophy, like every discipline, is imperfect. Kitcher’s diagnosis is more pointed: he believes the pathologies have a common source: ‘Philosophy’s central task is seen as one of providing analyses of concepts, analyses exact enough to make the concept completely clear.’ Conceptual analysts try to explicate a concept – ‘knowledge’, ‘reason’, ‘person’ – in a way that settles its application in every possible case. Since this project is both useless and hopeless, Kitcher concludes that the work of most philosophers is too.
If Kitcher were right, we would have to either pull the plug on philosophy or administer CPR. But his account of the discipline is anachronistic. Conceptual analysis may have been central to analytic philosophy in the mid-20th century, and there are doubtless still a few diehards. But, at least since Kripke, most philosophers have turned away from the analysis of concepts and towards the metaphysical investigation of things themselves: their subject isn’t words or what they mean, but the world they represent. Contemporary philosophers of mind, for instance, investigate the nature of consciousness and its relation to physics, not the meaning of the word ‘conscious’. Conceptual distinctions help to clarify their questions, but don’t answer them; to make distinctions is not, in any case, to aim for perfect clarity.
Kitcher is also wide of the mark when it comes to the material realities of graduate school and academic employment. In the ‘Letter to Some Young Philosophers’ which ends his book, he suggests that, in the ever more difficult race for jobs, ‘adepts at “core philosophy”’ – metaphysics, epistemology and the philosophy of language – ‘are a lap or two ahead.’ But in the last few years, only about 10 per cent of advertised jobs have been in these ‘core’ areas, compared with more than 30 per cent in moral, social and political philosophy.
My principal objection to Kitcher’s critique, though, isn’t that he is wrong about the history or sociology of the discipline, but that there is something philistine in his demand that philosophy always answer to practical needs. Kitcher is inspired here by the pragmatist John Dewey, whom he calls ‘the most important philosopher of the 20th century’. (I suspect that Kitcher’s nostalgia for philosophers as public intellectuals is largely for Dewey himself, a singular figure in the history of American philosophy.) Dewey ‘claimed that intellectual work should conform to a social division of labour, in which the inquiries conducted should serve others outside the tiny coterie of those who undertake them’. To the charge of philistinism, Dewey and Kitcher would reply that philosophy, for them, involves more than applied ethics and contributions to active science, valuable as those are. They want a synthetic philosophy that provides ‘world-formulas’ – questions, concepts, analogies, ideals – that help us take a wider view of human life.
What they don’t want is philosophy without practical worth, the philosophical equivalent of pure science. Kitcher begins his book with an allegory in which musicians begin to concentrate on technical proficiency for its own sake: ‘Compared to the recent competition in which one pianist had delivered Multi-Scale 937 in under 7’10” and another had ornamented Quadruple Tremolo 41 with an extra trill,’ they reassure themselves, ‘an applauded performance of the Hammerklavier was truly small potatoes.’ What Kitcher takes to be the relevance of this ‘sorry tale’ to the current state of philosophy is clear enough. Yet it seems to me that the value of music doesn’t lie in its power to satisfy non-musical needs: it is valuable in itself. And the same is true of pure philosophy. It satisfies a need, but that need is philosophical and issues from a curiosity about fundamental questions that the natural and social sciences cannot answer. Pure philosophy isn’t for everyone, but neither is Philip Glass, and some will be intrigued by the titles Multi-Scale 937 and Quadruple Tremolo 41 – compositions I would love to hear. It’s a mistake to demand that music be of use to those who are indifferent to it.
Pure philosophy often addresses the difficulties we encounter in comprehending simple truths. Take the way words relate to the world. You might think that the sentence ‘The cup is on the saucer’ names two objects (‘cup’ and ‘saucer’) and specifies a relation (‘being on top of’) between them, making a fact. But what about the fact that the saucer is underneath the cup? Same objects, different relation: what could be more unlike being on top of something than being beneath it? Maybe there are two distinct relations here, holding in opposite directions. If so, what explains why they travel together? Is it coincidence? An unacknowledged law of nature? Better perhaps to say that there is just one relation between cup and saucer, a single fact that we can describe in different ways. But if there is only one relation, it would seem arbitrary to choose between ‘being on top of’ and ‘being underneath’. Is the real relation neither of these but some ineffable nexus for which we have no ordinary words? Or does this whole line of reasoning rest on a mistake? If so, what is it? These are the sorts of question that obsessed Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Frank Ramsey in the early 20th century. Russell became a public figure of the kind that Kitcher approves; Wittgenstein is read by non-philosophers; and Ramsey was a pragmatist. Yet Kitcher implies that they were wrong to pursue such questions, which have no practical purpose.
It’s difficult to argue that something is valuable in itself. But I’m not alone in finding the questions of pure philosophy both maddening and mesmerising. Against Kitcher’s plea for an end to pure philosophy, I would cite Dewey’s fellow pragmatist, C.S. Peirce, who made a rule ‘to be inscribed on every wall of the city of philosophy: do not block the way of inquiry.’
Because Kitcher’s book is polemical, it will, as he anticipates, prompt defensiveness and denial. The temptation is to react to his caricature by protesting that it is damaging and false. But in doing so we might miss what he gets right. I agree with him that philosophers think too little about their audience. Non-philosophers are often fascinated by the puzzling relationship of words to world and contemporary philosophers should make an effort to meet their curiosity, communicating their technical work with verve – as the biographers Ray Monk and Cheryl Misak have done.
Kitcher is right, too, that synthetic philosophy gets short shrift. Philosophers are reluctant to offer world-formulas. This is due in part to humility, but it also reflects one of the pathologies Kitcher identifies. An excessive demand for clarity can block the way of inquiry, inclining philosophers to say nothing if they cannot say it with the rigour their colleagues demand. In practice, the demand for clarity becomes a call for greater precision. Yet, as Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, ‘it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.’ Or, to quote the aphorist James Richardson, ‘past a certain point, more precision in argument becomes less, not more scientific, like measuring the diameter of a proton to six significant figures with a yardstick.’ We can concede that our world-formulas are at best approximations and continue to put them forward, or we can cease to propose them at all. Like Kitcher, I prefer the first response.
It has become traditional for philosophers of a certain age to lament the state of the discipline. The tradition even takes institutional form in the John Dewey Lectures, sponsored by the American Philosophical Association. Three times a year, a retired philosopher is asked to reflect ‘in an autobiographical spirit on philosophy in America’. Their reflections are generally dour. Sometimes they focus on threats to higher education: the shrinking job market, the pressure to publish too much too soon, the plight of adjunct lecturers. But they also lament the increasing technicality and specialisation of the field, its failure to address a wider audience and the absence of giants such as Kripke from the contemporary scene. Kitcher’s book draws on the Dewey Lecture he gave in 2021.
I have some sympathy with this way of thinking, but there are risks. My research is in moral philosophy, and work in other subfields – metaphysics and epistemology – is now sometimes too technical for me to read: I have to skip the proofs and hope at best to understand informally what they purport to show. It’s frustrating. But it’s also a function of having gone to graduate school 25 years ago and not having time to keep up. If I were reading for a PhD now, I would acquire the formal tools needed to understand this work properly. It’s a generational thing. And it isn’t as though the technicians are unable to connect their arguments to broader concerns. The dissertation on uncertainty submitted recently at MIT ends by applying its ideas to the rationality of political polarisation.
Although the work of younger philosophers can be technical, they are at the same time more interested in writing for non-academic audiences, and more capable of doing so, than I or most of my peers were twenty years ago. So while I would like to see more synthesis of the sort that Kitcher prizes, I am more sanguine about the direction in which the discipline is going. The kids are all right, or would be if they had the resources needed to do their work without undue pressure to publish – if jobs weren’t getting scarcer and tenure less secure. Books confirming the prejudice that philosophy today isn’t worth much won’t help us fight for its survival.
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