Here at NewAPPS, Mohan Matthen has been advocating the Philosophy as Normal Science meme. (See here; recall my satire.) Colin McGinn seems to have jumped on Mohan's bandwagon in the NYT. (I write "seems," because I do not want to rule out that McGinn has offered a satirical reductio of the idea. I am unsure either way.) Before I offer my prudential arguments against the Matthen-McGinn approach, let me first quote the crucial passage(s) from McGinn:
Our current name ["philosophy"--ES] is harmful because it posits a big gap between the sciences and philosophy; we do something that is not a science. Thus we do not share in the intellectual prestige associated with that thoroughly modern word. We are accordingly not covered by the media that cover the sciences, and what we do remains a mystery to most people. But it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science...most of the marks of science as commonly understood are shared by academic philosophy: the subject is systematic, rigorous, replete with technical vocabulary, often in conflict with common sense, capable of refutation, produces hypotheses, uses symbolic notation, is about the natural world, is institutionalized, peer-reviewed, tenure-granting, etc. We may as well recognize that we are a science, even if not one that makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics. Once we do this officially, we can expect to be treated like scientists.
First, McGinn's argument is a classic instance of what I call "Newton's Challenge" in action. It tries to settle internal debates within philosophy by appeal to authority of science. Second, let me grant -- for the sake of argument -- that if re-branding were beneficial, we ought to consider switching from "philosophy" to "ontics." (One reason why McGinn might be being satirical, is that this has such Heidegger-ian connotations.) Maybe the APA can add a task-force to look into this? Let's grant -- again for the sake of argument -- that 'ontics' covers what 'we' do. (Of course it doesn't, but let's leave it aside.)
Third, why is McGinn's proposal foolish? The nub is in his inability to look at the costs of what it means that "we can expect to be treated like scientists." McGinn only sees the upside of this approach (again, this is why I think we may be dealing with satire). So, as somebody who works (even flourishes) in a regime that already treats philosophy as akin to normal science, let me remind us of the very likely prudential costs of being treated as a science:
- Once scientific performance metrics (citation impacts, grant getting, etc) are applied to philosophy we will be found wanting; our field is too small, and too dis-unified to survive very long in this model.
- What will be left of 'ontics' will be those interdisciplinary AOSes (Latourian network theory, bio-ethics, philosophy of computing, legal philosophy, philosophy of economics, philosophy of language, phil. mind, and a few others) that a) publish in journals that do decently in the scientific metric template. But b) these will be precisely those parts of 'philosophy' that have low connection with 'ontics'. (Metaphysics, meta-ethics, are doomed on this model.) c) This will create new and worse PR problems. We have ditched a valuable robust brand for a new brand that will seem obsolete before long. D) more important, once the philosophy as normal science approach is accepted, the hiring decisions over surviving rumps of 'philosophy' can easily migrate to professional schools or other departments.
- Very few parts of philosophy can survive when they have to demonstrate potential economic benefit (so-called valorisation of research). Unlike pure science, we cannot claim the myth that if left alone the technological fruits of our labor will rebound to society. (This is not to deny it is worth trying--certainly some examples -- especially at the roots of computing and software -- come to mind.)
Some other time I will return to the more interesting reasons for rejecting philosophy as a species of science (recall my poetic musings here).