Review of Wimsatt Re-engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings

Posted on December 31, 2007


My review of Bill Wimsatt’s recent book is now up on the Metapsychology website:

Many current philosophers, even ostensively naturalist ones, are rightly accused of doing philosophy in a way that actually keeps it hermetically closed against science. In Wimsatt’s hands, however, philosophy becomes part and parcel of science. The resulting book, even if aimed at philosophers (who are sorely in need of Wimsatt’s counsel), may therefore be read with benefit by, among others, theoretically inclined biologists and psychologists.

Near the start of the book, Wimsatt brings up Feynman’s distinction between the Euclidean and Babylonian methodological approaches. The first requires that we start from a minimal set of axioms and deduce the rest of the theorems using elegant arguments. The second has a much less ordered approach, with the various theorems being richly interconnected in ways that do not favor any of them other than that some are more richly connected to others. Just like Feynman, it is this second approach that Wimsatt favors. Wimsatt’s reason is that, to work, the Euclidean approach requires that all error be eliminated while the Babylonian approach allows for errors by offering ways to work around them. And, as Wimsatt points out, error is a given when considering human abilities. Thus, only the Babylonian approach “can be practiced (not in principle, but in fact) by real human beings with the real instruments we can bring to bear, now and in the future” (320). And it is that approach to philosophy of science that interests Wimsatt – who works in the tradition of bounded rationality that Herbert Simon gave rise to, and whose philosophy is enriched by ideas from the biology that is his main subject of study.

The rest of the review is on the Metapsychology website. My main worry about it is that I have not given clear indication of just how important I think the book is. All that I actually say is:

For naturalistically inclined philosophers, however, Wimsatt’s recommendations are vital, if they are to put their practice where their claims are.

Unfortunately, the key word – vital – gets lost in among the other words.