Is philosophy “normal science”? I am not sure what to say: I hope it is or I wish it were. But Eric Schliesser has started using the phrase as a term of opprobrium to cover all that he disapproves of in contemporary analytic philosophy. His polemic raises interesting issues, and I thought I would return to the controversy.
It started with Eric’s attack on what had up to then struck me as a rather anodyne short essay by Matti Eklund in The Philosopher's Eye. Eklund wrote that the fall of logical positivism could not be attributed to good arguments by Quine in “Two Dogmas” or Kuhn in Structure, but rather to the feeling that it had begun to be seen as “somewhat sterile.” People were ready to start exploring a more holistic view of theories. Eklund compares this to the fall of paradigms in science. People are contentedly cruising along, asking questions suggested by a particular research program and solving problems as they arise. Then, all of a sudden, for reasons that have little to do with rationality, they jump off the bandwagon and take up another paradigm.
Eklund offers two examples closer to our time, rather cleverly chosen, because (I suspect) he agrees with one and disagrees with one. Experimental philosophy, or x-phi, has taken hold, he says, because early x-phi research points to results that “armchair philosophy” cannot attain. And in metaphysics, people have begun to talk about “grounding” because they became convinced that not everything can be done with modalities.
Last November 29th, Eric reacted to this sweetly harmless commentary with barely concealed fury.
- It is a “pernicious” view "from Mt Olympus". It took me a long time to figure this out, but Eric seems to be referring Eklund’s position as editor of the Philosophical Review. (Is it really that lofty?) Eklund characterizes these paradigm shifts as “inevitable”, meaning to emphasize our impotence to resist. Eric takes this to be the hegemonic directive of a philosophical uber-boss: "Submit: you have no choice." “When you feel in charge sociologically you are wont to this,” Eric writes. With all respect to Eklund, this seems slightly exaggerated. (Mind you: there is a bit of sucking up to Eklund in the comment thread, so it’s just possible that Eric was on to something.)
- The real burr in Eric’s saddle, though, is that “this whole approach to philosophy reduces philosophy to mastery of technique to solve problems. It is a taming of philosophy to puzzles and a completely uncritical stance toward power structures, etc.”
Now, Eklund didn’t actually say anything of this sort. For he was not so much concerned to describe how philosophy operates when under the sway of a paradigm as to argue that paradigm change is extra-rational. Not unreasonably, Eric digs for the obverse: if paradigm shifts are regrettably extra-rational, he seems to ask, are you then implying that within-paradigm philosophy is happily “problem-solving”? I actually don’t think Eklund was saying this: in fact, I suspect that he meant the x-phi example to show how paradigm shifting can be a lurch into darkness.
Whatever Eklund might think, this touches on the nerve of my disagreement with Eric. What on earth is wrong with philosophy as problem solving? Consider, for example, how the contemporary conception of logic emerged in the early twentieth century. There is a paper by Warren Goldfarb which shows how many tiny advances in the 1920s, each more or less a fumble in the dark, showed the way to a complete recodification of the subject. In 1919, Russell’s view is not outlandish: “Logic is concerned with the real world just as truly as zoology, though with its more abstract and general features.” Russell's view is underwritten by a view of logic as comprising only propositions, with no “schematic placeholders.” This prevents the view of logic as abstract—the view that allows you to say, “Pick whatever domain you want, this formula is true in it.” This kind of conception requires you grasp how a domain can satisfy an open formula. Goldfarb says that the advances of the 1920s culminated in Gödel’s doctoral dissertation, in which (according to him) the notion of satisfiability is first elucidated. This notion, so central to quantified modal logic, makes possible the realism of the second half of the twentieth century.
Here is what I would say. The culture of post-war universities brought a certain professionalism to philosophy. Gone was the romantic image of the untrammelled thinker; this is replaced by the “self-tamed” philosopher, and by a view of the subject as “potentially a consensus-garnering, 'scientific' enterprise”. “Philosophy that presents itself as "very moderate" and "non-partisan" is technocratic,” Eric writes, “it is that to which I object.” And it is here that I lose the plot. I am fully prepared to entertain the view that technocracy brings some loss—we no longer have phenomena like an eager public awaiting Nietzsche’s next publication, or if we do, it isn’t in analytic philosophy. No more mad Ludwig either. But for this cost, we gain the self-suppression of ego necessary for the pursuit of truth.