What is philosophy?

Many philosophy professors first encountered this form of question as about the  kind(s) of truth that philosophy aims to uncover and clarify.  Or so I would suppose.  Certainly for my peer group, there was also a strong and uncomfortable sense that philosophy is somehow irrelevant, but for some of us at least that was just one more very hard problem.  And against it we could balance thousands of years of human enquiry.

Yet so fast has been the change in the philosophical community that for many of us – again I am assuming – Anita Allen’s concerns about what philosophy is are now deeply important.  Perhaps  this is due to the fact that enough women are in philosophy and have experienced its exclusionary nature without being co-opted by it.  We know that acceptance  involving passing is at best a painful tool to use.

Or so it  seems here and now, and other takes would be very welcome.  But all this is a lead up to another version of the title question.  While Allen’s statement

I feel that philosophy is hoisting itself by its own petard. Its unwillingness to be more inclusive in terms of issues, methods, demographics, means that it’s losing out on a lot of vibrancy, a lot of intellectual power.”

clearly in some ways rings true, I’m wondering whether the exceptions are also significant.  To say this is not to defend philosophy against the charges of sexism and racism, but I’m wondering now how uniform the field is.

What exceptions, you might ask.  Well,  a lot of philosophy of mind has gone empirical while at the same time taking some account of the phenomenological tradition. And though the now closely related cognitive psychology is hardly a feminist stronghold, it seems a lot better than philosophy has been.  A consequence is that there are more women at conferences, though journal publication remains significantly exclusive.  Perhaps ethics has also changed; the cadre of female virtue ethicists, for example,  is certainly notable.

Such changes can actually lead one to despair, since they can make the socially regressive  attitudes of philosophy departments all  the clearer.  And such attitudes obviously create  a very major problem for combating the field’s racism.   But one might wonder whether the field is starting to fracture in a way that at least creates opportunities feminist department members might be able to use to more the field further forward.

Is it time to think about strategizing perhaps more broadly?  Any recommendations?  Additions?  Objections?

9 thoughts on “What is philosophy?

  1. This is not a fantastically coherent post. I hope it raises some questions that you will want to take up.

  2. /delurk

    I’m just a graduate student, and just starting the long (probably endless) process of learning to teach philosophy. But here’s are three ways I’d try to explain to first-year undergrads what philosophy is:
    [*] `philosophy’ isn’t any one discipline, but a collection of more-or-less overlapping disciplines — metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and logic
    [*] philosophy is a tradition defined by who is and isn’t a philosopher — things get started with Plato and Aristotle, move on through Aquinas to Descartes and Kant, and then to the contemporary Analytic and Continental traditions embodied in modern university departments
    [*] philosophy is defined by its major skills and techniques — in particular, the presentation (summary) and analysis of definitions and arguments

    All three of these are inadequate. The first makes it hard to understand what we mean by `philosophy of math’ and `philosophy of science’ (and, as a philosopher of math and science, it’s rather important to me that these be coherent parts of the discipline). The second is simply disastrously Eurocentric and androcentric unless the list of `Great Philosophers’ is greatly expanded. And while the third indicates to students what I want them to get out of an Intro course, it places a dubious focus on argumentation (is philosophy really just about `winning debates’?) and makes it analytically impossible for philosophy to have any other methods and tools.

  3. Noumena,

    Nice comments! You remind me of a (very small) realization I had about a philosopher who has produced a pretty non-rigorous book that lots and lots of people are busily ‘refuting’. In a discussion I was part of, people were clearly puzzling about how he has gotten so far (and he has).

    I think the answer is that the book is full of valuable new ideas and new approaches. That’s something in practice the community often values over rigorous argument, as the history of philosophy can also be seen to show.

  4. When Allen writes about “philosophy” in this context, I suspect that she means something more like “the discipline of academic philosophy as it’s practiced.” As a commenter on the other thread noted, “philosophy” itself is open to many different issues. However, in practice, in *actual* philosophy departments and in actual philosophical journals (especially the “best” ones), the range of questions that can be asked is quite small. Certain questions, issues, and ways of approaching problems are valued and others are not.

    So, while I think it’s interesting to ask what “philosophy” is, I also think we should keep in mind that academic philosophy, as it’s currently practiced in philosophy departments, may not embody this ideal. And when it comes to considering what discipline to study, or what kind of job to pursue, the question of the actual practice of philosophy is extremely important.

    Of course, I do think it’s important to think about, and discuss, what philosophy *should* be doing–which may include considering what sorts of questions are “philosophical” and how we are best to understand what philosophy is. But I don’t think Allen is really addressing–or critiquing–philosophy in the abstract. I think her claim is that how the discipline is practiced is limiting (and is especially limiting for those concerned with racial and gender justice). The question of whether and how the practice of philosophy can be reformed is the more difficult one…

  5. helenesch,

    I agree with your interpretation and also with the general view of academic philosophy. However, I do think there are changes; maybe the biggest is philosophy of mind, where philosophy profs are pursuing and teaching different methodologies, at least sometimes. Some philosophers actually do lab based experimental work. And the boundaries between analytic and continental are blurred at least a bit.

    Are there other fields undergoing this sort of change? I honestly think that in some ways the change takes those involved back to an era of much more engaged philosophy, but I don’t know whether other fields are undergoing some of this.

  6. I can report that epistemology is rife with competing approaches (some compatible, others not). There are those who try to analyze concepts by providing individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. Some deny that this is possible, and view our task as something different, perhaps discovering the nature of knowledge, understood as a natural or social kind (much feminist epistemology would fall in here). Some think that reflecting on ordinary language and uses of epistemic terms, such as ‘knows’, will bring great benefits. Others think that reflecting on ordinary language is a waste of time. There are formal epistemologists who employ Bayesianism and probability theory to model rationality. There are naturalized epistemologists who think that epistemology is just a branch of psychology (okay, maybe only Quine himself thought that, but Quine counts!). Others, while not endorsing the Quinean view, still think that psychology and cognitive science will help answer questions in epistemology. Others insist that no empirical results are relevant to serious epistemological questions. And the whole idea of experimental philosophy (teaming up with psychologists to design experiments to test ordinary intuitions and such!) has intrigued at least a few.

  7. John, I should think some of that tranfers over to ethics. I know of more than one job candidate in philosophy looking at ethical notions with an empirical eye. One suspects that the old guard(s) said they weren’t doing philosophy.

  8. But the thing is, in the list of options in epistemology, do you see African epistemology, or womanist epistemology, or anything relating race and epistemology? I know from experience in my own department that if you combine “Asian-” or “African-” or “feminist-” as a prefix with any mainstream field of philosophy, ranging from epistemology to metaphysics, philosophy of science, to even ethics or political philosophy, there are some faculty members who will automatically dismiss you and say “that’s not epistemology (or whatever).” If you have one sympathetic faculty member who tries to teach a course in these areas (if they even get to do so), the students will face ridicule or scorn from their other professors. (Who of course have not read a single thing written in the relevant literature but still know that it’s no good.) And if you have a student who wants to do a thesis on one of these topics, good luck getting a committee together who will be willing to pass the thesis let alone regard it as good enough work to recommend the person for a job. And if you see someone who has written on such a topic apply for your job which is listed as “epistemology”, there’s no way they will be considered to be hired because it’s not serious. No wonder the field replicates itself.

  9. I fear, Calypso, that you are describing many departments. Part of what I’ve been wondering is whether, nonetheless, the way subjects may be breaking up – or opening up – might provide some opportunities for new strategies, or the extensions of old ones. I have no idea if that’s so, but it might be worth thinking about.

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