Antics and Ontics

Colin McGinn appears to argue in today’s NY Times that the academic discipline of philosophy should change its name.  The name he prefers is  “ontics.”  Such a name would help us distinguish ourselves from the humanities and claim our rightful place as a science.  The main advantage seems to be two-fold:  All sort of useful people would take us more seriously, and It would be clear that unlike the humanities, philosophy is largely not concerned with human cculture.  No, seriously.  That’s what he says.  Of course, it could be antics, not ontics, that we’re seeing here.  I mean, does anyone really think the idea of a knowable perfectly objective reality utterly independent of human thought is a good starting point? 

Opppss!  Yes, of course they do.  See the last three of these five posts..  In fact, McGinn thinks that with the exception of aesthetics and ethics, no philosophy is concerned with human culture.  Presumably we can infer what he thinks feminist philosophy and critical race theory are not.  Ditto philosophy of science.  And so on.  But see for your self:

…  Someone might protest that we belong to the arts and humanities, not the sciences, and certainly we are currently so classified. But this is an error, semantically and substantively. The dictionary defines both “arts” and “humanities” as studies of “human culture”—hence like English literature or art history. But it is quite false that philosophy studies human culture, as opposed to nature (studied by the sciences); only aesthetics and maybe ethics fall under that heading. Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and so on deal not with human culture but with the natural world. We deal with the same things the sciences deal with — the world beyond human culture. To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities” is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human.

.. .The dictionary defines “philosophy” as “the study of the fundamental nature of reality, knowledge and existence.” We can simplify this definition by observing that all three cited areas are types of being: objective reality obviously is, but so is knowledge, and so also are meaning, consciousness, value and proof, for example. These are simply things that are.

So we study the fundamental nature of what is — being.

Ruth Barcan Marcus deserves proper recognition

From Michael Della Rocca:

Dear Friends and admirers of Ruth Marcus,

Forgive the mass e-mailing, any duplications, or omissions. As you
know, Ruth Marcus died over two weeks ago and an obituary has yet to
appear in the New York Times. This failure to recognize one of the most
prominent and pioneering philosophers of the last 60 years is
appalling. There have been multiple communications between Yale and
also NYU (Ruth’s undergraduate alma mater) with the obituary editors at
the Times. The Times has received a wealth of information from these
sources and still no obituary. I fear that they have decided or are in
the process of deciding that Ruth is not a significant enough figure to
warrant the recognition of an obituary in the Times. Don’t get me
started on this — it’s simply outrageous. Don Garrett, Diana Raffman
and I have sent to the Times’ obituary editors a strongly worded
message — see below. If you would like to endorse the sentiments in
this message please let me know and we will pass on this information to
the Times. I plan to be in touch with them again soon. Or if you would
like to write a message of your own to the Times that would be great.
The obituary editors are Bill McDonald and Jack
Kadden .

If there are other philosophers you know of who might be interested in
helping out here, please feel free to forward this message and to
encourage them to be in touch with me or Diana or Don.

Don, Diana, and I will be in touch directly with the APA leadership
about this matter so that they may contact the Times too.

Michael (and Diana and Don)

here is the message that was sent yesterday to the Obituary editors at
the Times:

Dear Mr. McDonald and Mr. Kadden,

Because time is crucial in this matter, we will be brief, direct, and

Ruth Barcan Marcus — who died, as we believe you know, on Sunday,
February 19th — was one of the central figures in philosophy over the
last 65 years. Her work advanced in multifarious ways our
understanding of logic, metaphysics, philosophy of language, and moral
philosophy. Her results in logic in the 1940’s alone — work whose
significance is still being plumbed — is sufficient for her to have a
permanent place in the pantheon of logicians. Her discovery of the
Barcan formula forever changed the way in which we must reason about
necessity, possibility, and identity. The seminal essays in which she
introduced the formula quite simply created a new field of logic —
quantified modal logic — a field which continues to thrive. Her
subsequent development of this work changed our understanding of the
reference of words and proper names and made possible much of the most
important work in the philosophy of language down to the present day.
Her pursuits in moral philosophy — embodied in what is perhaps her most
widely-cited paper, “Moral Dilemmas” — changed the way philosophers
approach the topic of moral obligation. (This paper was a focus of the
recent obituary in the _Economist_.) All of this is enough to be worthy
of recognition in the Times.

But this brief summary of Marcus’ scholarly contributions does not even
begin to touch on her powerful role in philosophy and in academia
general. She was one of the few women in philosophy and especially in
logic at a time was sexism was rampant in the field. She persevered and
succeeded not only in establishing herself in the field but in helping
to bring about changes in hiring practices so that appointments in
philosophy were no longer governed by the “old boys network”. For this
and other roles she played, the American Philosophical Association
recently awarded her the Quinn Prize for service to the profession.

I know that you have already received much information about Marcus’
accomplishments and accolades. So we will not say more about them
here. But we feel obliged to point out that the fact that an obituary
has not yet appeared in the Times indicates that you have not yet
decided whether to publish such an obituary or that — absurdly — you
have already decided not to do so. This is, in our opinion,
outrageous. The Times has, we are happy to note, provided timely
recognition of many prominent philosophers in its obituary section in
recent years. (A list of several such obituaries was sent to you by
Michael Della Rocca through Yale.) None of these other philosophers has
been more significant both to philosophy and to the profession of
philosophy than Marcus. And many of those who were recognized by the
Times were, we must say, figures who were not nearly as significant in
these respects as Marcus was. If the Times were to fail to recognize
Marcus, this would be not only an embarrassment for the Times, but it
would reveal that the Times is woefully out of touch with what are the
most significant developments within philosophy over the last
half-century or more. We do not expect the Times’ authors and editors
to be philosophers themselves, but we — as well as the cultural and
intellectual community at large — do expect the Times to be aware of
the most basic accomplishments in central academic fields, including
developments in philosophy, the oldest and most fundamental field of
intellectual inquiry.

We hope that the Times has not failed in its responsibilities. There is
still time to rectify this scandalous omission. We urge you to do so.


Michael Della Rocca
Andrew Downey Orrick Professor
Yale University

Don Garrett
Professor and Chair
Department of Philosophy

Diana Raffman
Department of Philosophy
University of Toronto