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.

24 thoughts on “Antics and Ontics

  1. I’m not sure what your criticism of McGinn is, if that’s what you’ve meant to offer. I’m also not sure what is supposed to be silly. I’m not saying you are wrong, or that it isn’t silly, but I’d like to be able to appreciate your point.

  2. I don’t have any great bit to offer because I have a hard time taking it seriously. I don’t think it has a snowballs chance in hell of going anywhere and I don’t think it’s remotely likely to help. I tend to find such naming exercises, esp. by philosophers, pretty amusing. (Dennett’s “brights” as a word for atheists comes to mind.)

    (I mean, most philosophy involves heavy textual analysis which is more at home in the humanities. But does anyone really care? Does McGuinn think philosophers are going to get a ton of new respect because they trick themselves out with scientistic trappings?)

    I think I fought “memetics” amusing too.

    Obviously, coining new names (esp. for new areas) can work, but rebranding old areas seems rarely too. I sincerely doubt anyone is going around thinking, “Oh, I’d respect you guys a TON more if you had a less fuddy duddy name than “philosopher.” It’s esp. funny to argue for this in the NYTs where, it arguably has zero chance of having any intra-professional effect.

    Does any of that help? I really just want to laugh at it!

  3. Ess Bee, thanks for asking. I wasn’t at all clear about that. On this blog we often take what can seem to be categories of perfectly objective things and argue that there’s a good dose of culture going into the categorization. So someone might say that what is real knowledge is a perfectly objective fact, but feminists have often argued that behind the classification is too frequently a picture of the human knower that abstracts from what makes the category important. One might, for example, argue that the textbooks about “S knows that P” present an completely disengaged Cartesian knower, which is a very optional construction of what is important or what we want of knowledge. (There’s a great deal more to say from the feminist point of view, and if you are interested you might look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on feminist theories of knowledge.)

    I think getting at what is the best way to think of these things is actually very difficult. So I put together “objective” and “knowable,” which also seems to be what McGinn thinks philosophy studies. That a really hard goal to reach. LOTS of philosophers reject the idea that there are such things. Kant, for example, thought there is the world as we experience it and the world as it is in itself; the phenomenal world and the noumenal world. The noumenal world is unknowable. (On one interpretation, that is.) McGinn seems to start off with the idea that Kant and others are not capable of adequately characterizing philosophy.

    Of course, he might have been writing somewhat tongue in cheek. I doubt it, though. A lot of conservative philosophers seem to think that doubts about knowing the noumenal world leads to an intolerable cultural relativism where anything goes.

  4. I love “pontificator.” It sounds like a profession for which there is a genuine need. We could get all these politicians off the networks and instead have well trained pontificators.

  5. I agree with McGinn–though I wish we could come up with a better name than “ontics.”

    It’s embarrassing to admit you’re a philosopher. People think you’re some sort of guru-therapist and that you are an incoherent, fuzzy-minded navel-gazer. Long ago when I applied for jobs in the Real World admitting to a philosophy major was worse than just saying one had a generic humanities degree. People assume that philosophy has no practical value and, indeed, ruins one for any kind of clear, rigorous thinking.

  6. The dictionary defines “philosophy”

    Whoa, I thought only the lazy undergrads who weren’t paying attention in class wrote like that. How can you be a professional philosopher and not know that what’s in the dictionary is of only tangential interest to philosophers?

  7. But heaven forfend that philosophy be practical, lest we be in danger of saying anything salient about human culture!

    I shall try to re-read the NYT piece with more patience, but after laying this ideal theoretical philosophy-as-science argument out, the author appeals to a dictionary definition? Good grief! A C+ for this writer, whose evidence is just the current report of how people tend to use terms. What is a dictionary definition if not a firm tether to contemporary human culture? This is the reason that most of us disallow dictionary definitions in philosophy papers.

  8. People assume that philosophy has no practical value and, indeed, ruins one for any kind of clear, rigorous thinking.

    They think that because they are inexperienced in asking and answering questions, they are led astray a little bit by the argument at every question, and that when these little bits are added together at the end of the discussion, a great false step appears that is the opposite of what they said at the outset.

    Of all those who take up philosophy—not only those who merely dabble in it while still young in order to complete their upbringing, and then drop it, but those who continue in it for a long time—the majority become cranks, not to say completely bad, while the ones who seem best are rendered useless to society because of the pursuit.

  9. I just don’t get how the scenario is supposed to go. To use the hoary trope:

    1) Rename dept to “ontics department”

    2) ???

    3) Profit!

    Consider the various UK philosophy depts under threat. Is renaming them to “ontics” (and thus ensuring no one knows what they are) going to help?

    Philosophy dept chair walks into the smoke filled room. The dean is sitting behind a big desk, smoking a cigar. The dean hands the chair a sheaf of pinks slips. The chair stutters, “But…we’re ONTICISTS now!! We have a BROCHURE and everything!!!”

  10. Thanks, annejjacobson. I’m definitely going to read the SEP article on feminist theories of knowledge, maybe I’m too familiar with canonical epistemic theories and I completely missed that McGinn was making a rash generalization.

    In answer to Carl, McGinn is doing a bit of ordinary language philosophy, you know, like Ryle and Sellars. He isn’t asserting that the dictionary definition is illuminating in any way, or should be taken seriously in conceptual analysis. Instead he offers the point to trace the etymology of ‘philosophy’ and mark the change in both our content and methodology. We should be more charitable reading McGinn’s piece: it is for a popular audience and it is more musing over the ever changing nature of the discipline.

  11. It’s really curious that McGinn writes “keep in mind that scientists changed their “philosophy” name too, no doubt against entrenched opposition. . .” There is an account on page 2 of Laura Snyder’s recent book explaining that the opposite was true: the name “scientist” was coined for use (by Whewell) in response to Coleridge objecting to the use of the term “natural philosopher” by those in the British Association for the Advancement of Science. (The book I refer to is Laura J Snyder’s widely-reviewed _The Philosophical Breakfast Club_, a book I loved and hope to make an assigned text next term.)

    If history is to be our precedent, then, the new name should be a matter of embracing a pejorative!

  12. Just want to say that there are lots of feminist philosophers who *do* think the idea of “a knowable perfectly objective reality utterly independent of human thought” is a sensible starting point! (Which I’m sure Professor Jacobson is well aware of, despite her joking to the contrary.)

    Another plug for Anderson’s SEP article, “Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science”: it gives a good sense of the range of metaphysical views held by feminist philosophers — and the lively debate about the implications for metaphysics of feminism.

  13. Sam A? Lots? I certainly think that there are a number who use it as a regulative rule, but McGinn goes quite beyond that. I have in mind roughly the distinction attributed to Kant in the Stanford Encycl:

    “Everything belonging to the natural kind water does so by virtue of its Lockean essence or real internal constitution,” and (G) “A benevolent God exists.” Under their constitutive uses, judgments (G) and (W) have no truth-values. Nor indeed do (G) and (W), strictly speaking, have truth-values under their regulative uses. But there is according to Kant a perfectly legitimate regulative use of judgment (W) in natural science as a principle according to which nature is judged merely as if (W) were true, in order to group all otherwise macroscopically disparate kinds of water (e.g., ice, steam, water in its liquid state, etc.) and study them with the goal of finding some unified set of causal laws that systematically explains the overall phenomenal behavior of the natural kind water (A645-647/B673-675).

  14. It’s a bit bizaree to think that human culture isn’t in fact part of the natural world, no?

  15. If he likes “ontics” then why not turn philosophy into “ontology”? Maybe not exciting enough. I like one of his other ideas–Beology!

  16. @Ess Bee,

    Fair point. But then he says that “knowledge” is just another type of “being.” I can buy that for reality/existence (although some philosophers might use the terms with a distinction in mind), but knowledge? If you’re going to put that into the category of being, you may as well just call us “‘everything-ologists’ because we study everything.” :-P

    Crypto-zoologists think that Bigfoot is real, so maybe we should call them Onticists as well.

    Say, this is a bit off topic, but does anyone have a simple account (ha!) of Heidegger’s distinction between ontic and ontological?

  17. After a few readings, I’m convinced this is an elaborate satire, and not a serious position for which McGinn is advocating.

  18. What 19 said, although it only took me one reading. It is clearly satire. He suggests CRAP for an acronym. And obviously the suggestion of rebranding the discipline is tongue in cheek. C’mon people. It’s a little embarrassing that people are getting all outraged and thinking he is serious – it plays into some stereotypes I’d rather not ignite.

  19. The title is meant to suggest it might be tongue in cheek, but I’m worried that that interpretation offends against the principle of charity. That is, it is really not the least bit funny. Well, maybe a tiny bit here or there. And it is so long.

    Jonathan Swift it is not:

    I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

    I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

    From A Modest Proposal

  20. I think he’s serious in the passages where he talks about what philosophy is, and how it’s misunderstood and philosophers should have more status, etc. I don’t see any reason to think any of that is in jest. But yes, he’s having fun in the CRAP-py passages about how a name-change would help.

  21. I’m reasonably certain that many people who identify as social scientists–cultural anthropologists, interpretivist political scientists [like me], and scholars of political culture, among others–would be surprised to learn we do not study culture because we are scientists, or that we are scholars of the humanities because we study culture. Neither is sensible.

    (I’m leaving out sociologists because I don’t know enough about in-field divisions to know which subfields are most relevant here. But I’m sure there are some that are.)

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