First philosophy and second-rate thinking

Posted on March 1, 2010

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Discussion of Fodor’s book has made me think again about why many analytically-trained philosophers fall into the kind of trap that Fodor falls into, i.e. putting forward very general philosophical arguments that, if you have an ounce of good-sense, you clearly recognise as a reductio ad absurdum of their own premises (I like the spelling ‘premisses’ – the mistakes one makes before the argument begins).

To some degree, it is simply a matter of being trained in a particular discipline. Anyone who moves into a discipline different from the one that they originally trained in is very likely to try to apply the habits of mind that formed as part of their initial training in the new discipline. Sometimes, this can be useful in that the methodology they bring with them might turn out to be very useful in the new area. This is even the case with philosophers who start to concern themselves with empirical disciplines. Often empirically-trained scientists lack the kind of care for formulating their conclusions that avoids conceptual difficulties that might dog the discipline for years. In cases like that, input from philosophers can be useful to the empirical discipline, itself. I think that biology has recently provided lots of cases of this, with philosophers helping to clarify discussions concerning species, multi-level selection and altruism. I am thinking back, in particular, to the role that Samir Okasha played in the discussion in London I blogged about about a week ago. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. There are plenty of stories about, for example, physicists who move over to biology and keep trying to apply the kind of thinking that was so successful within physics to biological phenomena. All too often the results are woeful, with the phenomena in the new discipline being gerrymandered to fit the conceptual tools of the old discipline. Which scenario is more common I would not care to venture but will, instead, consider the question of what may be responsible for the different results in the case of some philosophers.

I think that philosophers face a problem when looking at work in other disciplines that is particular to philosophy. Historically, philosophy was deemed, and not just by philosophers, the Queen of the Sciences, philosophia prima. All the sciences were seen to rely upon it, while it relied upon nothing more than the application of pure reason and maybe the most common of sensory experience. Thus, before one could really do physics, one had to get one’s metaphysics right. This was thought to be the case since metaphysics would tell us what the world was like in general, with the physicists just filling in the blanks left by the philosophers. If the philosophers, on the other hand, paid too much attention to the empirical sciences, they would be misled by the far less certain divagations of the scientists. This meant that the philosophers saw themselves as in the position to hand down judgements from on high concerning anything that might concern the sciences. And any protests from the scientists could only be motivated by the latter not having a proper grasp of the underlying philosophy.

Without going into the details of how this picture of the relationship between the sciences and philosophy formed in the first place, it is enough to observe that few philosophers would still subscribe to it these days, even in a less stereotypical form than I described. Indeed, much of twentieth century analytical philosophy has focussed upon how philosophy must work hand-in-hand with the sciences. Yet, I think that a shadow of  this kind of thinking informs much work within analytical philosophy. What Fodor does seems to be a particularly good example of it. Certainly, I do not think he would argue that philosophy has any priority before the sciences. However, in applying the kinds of arguments that he does to a particular scientific theory concerning the role of selection, he is falling into the same old bad habits of talking down to the scientists. Even if his argument was solid, which it is not, it would be a fairly general sceptical argument. As such it could be thought to imply one of two things, either much of science is badly wrong or some philosophical assumptions are incorrect and need to be reconsidered. That’s fine as far as philosophy goes, that’s what sceptical philosophical arguments are for. However, it is simply presumptuous to, in effect, say that it must be the scientists that are wrong before having thoroughly checked the philosophy. This is particularly the case since Fodor’s views on language, which ultimately lie at the bottom of his argumentation, are definitely not the only game in town and there are alternative views that do not lead to the same problematic conclusions.

What Fodor seems to have done is misinterpreted the current discussion in evolutionary biology concerning the significance of selection as connected with his much more general philosophical problem and decided that this shows that the problem lies on the scientific, rather than the philosophical side. And, just like any good ‘first philosopher’, he has proceeded to inform the biologists of what their error is. A much more productive approach would be to listen to the variety of voices that were raised in reaction to the original article and to reconsider publishing his book.

Having said all this, I should add that much of what I have said about Fodor is my interpretation and based upon my knowledge of his previous work and of the kinds of errors that analytical philosophy is heir to. Even if I am wrong about Fodor’s case, the general point stands, I think. Philosophers have to be particularly careful that, in their interactions with scientists they be sufficiently humble and avoid the tendency to talk down to them concerning the scientists’ own disciplines. Philosophy can bring potentially useful conceptual rigor to the table but the scientists are the ones who know their subject matter and, if they do not accept the philosopher’s picture of it, chances are they, and not the philosopher, are right.

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Posted in: Books, Philosophy, science