A Paper

The Science of Philosophy

What is the nature of philosophy? Two views have been influential. One view is that philosophy is “continuous with science”–a kind of proto science or a commentary on the sciences or a synthesis of them.According to this view, philosophy is an empirical discipline, though more removed from the data than typical science: it is not different in kind from physics, chemistry and biology. Thus the subject of philosophy comes under the general heading of “science” because of its methodological similarity to the regular sciences. Historically, it once contained the sciences, which eventually broke off from it, and it is still a kind of science-in- waiting–pupal science, we might say. The second view is that philosophy is quite unlike empirical science, both in methodology and subject matter: it is an a priori discipline, removed from observation and experiment. According to this view, philosophy is to be contrasted with empirical science, and is often regarded as properly one of the “humanities”. In its purest form, the second view takes philosophy to consist of conceptual analysis aimed at establishing a priori necessary truths—the antithesis of empirical science. Thus philosophy is held not to be a branch of science, having its own distinctive nature as a field of enquiry.2

I hew to the second view: philosophy is conceptual analysis. I won’t be defending this view here; I will presuppose it.My question is whether it is correct to withhold the designation “science” from philosophy so conceived: is it consistent to hold that philosophy consists of conceptual analysis and that it is a science? I shall argue that these are compatible propositions; and I shall further contend that philosophy is a science—indeed, that it can be rightly described as an empirical experimental natural science. These may seem like surprising claims, but actually they spring from obvious linguistic facts. Thus philosophy, for me, consists of the a priori analysis of concepts and it is also an empirical experimental natural science— with no tension between these traits. Moreover, all this is trivially true.

 


We associate this type of view with Quine, but Russell espoused it also. Perhaps we should add that both philosophers were prepared to jettison such parts of traditional philosophy as could not be so subsumed: what was discontinuous with science in the inherited corpus of philosophy should be consigned to the flames. In this they shared the predilections of the pruning positivists.

These are not the only conceivable metaphilosophies: one might hold that some philosophy consists of synthetic a priori propositions, in which case conceptual analysisdoes not exhaust the field; or one might favor a purely therapeutic view of philosophy in the style of the later Wittgenstein. But the two metaphilosophies I have mentioned are the most popular.

For a defense of this position see my Truth By Analysis: Games, Names, and Philosophy(Oxford University Press: New York, 2011). The position is nowhere near as narrow as we have been taught to think, once we have a properly inclusive conception of analysis.

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The Middle Finger

This digit is a fine upstanding member of the manual community, with many beneficial uses, though it must be admitted that some dubious employment has been made of it. The Order has attempted to discourage such employment, and certainly we do not allow it among our membership. In any case, no prospective member of the Cult should be put off by any regrettable misuses of the fingers indulged in by those with little respect for our manual heritage. Devotees of the hand I salute you!

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Travel

People say travel broadens the mind. But this is not quite accurate: theexperiences one has while traveling do the broadening, not the mere displacement of one’s body through space. But then it is the mental aspect that constitutes the benefit. And presumably this has to do with the richness and novelty of the experiences and thoughts that physical travel occasions. But couldn’t one have just such beneficial experiences and thoughts without physically moving? Couldn’t the mental adventure of travel be duplicated by staying put and adventuring mentally. It is said Kant never traveled from his home time of Konigsberg, but in fact he traveled very widely–in his own mind. Kant was a world traveler! Intellectual stimulation, or aesthetic experience, or moral refelction (and living), are all forms of mental travel. The dull-minded traveler learns little from hurtling through space, but the stationary thinker whose mind is free can learn an enormous amount. What broadens the mind is mind travel.

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Clockwork Orange

Reading Martin Amis’s perceptive essay on Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange in today’s New York Times made me wonder about the influence of that novel on my novelBad Patches. Alex is a gleefully evil character who narrates his own depravity in unforgettable prose. My antihero Dave also narrates the less spectacular story of his merely poor character–in what I hope is pungently memorable prose. But Alex is no purebred yob: he is a passionate devotee of classical music, which works its way into his violent acts. The uneasy relationship between art and morality is disturbingly probed. Similarly my Dave is a visual artist, from whom we might expect loftier things–he is not just an outright selfish prick. Also Alex and Dave traffic in dark and dangerous humor, which also highlights the even more uneasy relationship between morality and humor. Was I writing another version of Clockwork Orange without being aware of it (Cockwork Blue)?

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The Puzzle of Intelligence

Human intelligence–including complex language, advanced tool use, and elaborate social organization–is clearly among the most powerful adaptations ever to evolve on planet earth. So why is it unique to the human species? One would think that such a powerful set of traits would be extremely useful to almost any species, yet no others have evolved these traits. Why? In other words, why have evolved brains always been so small compared to ours? Why, say, have our primate relatives not evolved our level of intelligence? Suggestions welcome.

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Dear Usain

On reflection, I may have been a bit hard on you yesterday. I realize we have something in common: we are both “athletic” legends. You performed the “double double” by winning those four races in successive Games. I have performed the “double triple” in the intellectual Olympic games. Yes Usain, my friend, you are not the greatest of all time–I am. What am I talking about, you ask. Well, in 2011 I performed the triple, by publishing three books more or less simultaneously (for full documentation see the Oxford University Press catalogue). But in 2012 I have performed another triple–with three books finished and in the works. So, Usain, you need to match that to catch me. I am surely the greatest philosophical sprinter of all time! (Admittedly, two of my events involved books already semi-completed, so I didn’t run from scratch, but technically I ran within the rules.)  You still have the relay but that’s just an anthology, not all your own work. So I hope you acknowldge your second-place status in future. (And no, I will not run the 400 meters.)

 

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The Modesty of Usain Bolt

I was as thrilled as anyone to see Usain Bolt resoundingly win the 100 and 200 meters events. But is all the crowing and self-adulation really necessary? Why does he have keep calling himself a “legend” and the “greatest ever”? We all saw him do it. Since when did modesty become so passe? I much preferred the demeanor of David Rudisha who was also astounding in the 400 meters. There seems to be some strange insecurity in Bolt, and maybe a hint of paranoia. Congratulations, Usain–but cut the big-headed crap, please!

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Hand Philosophy

The Manifesto is a tongue-in-cheek parody with a serious message. It is connected to work I am doing on the role of the hand in human evolution. This has been explored by paleoanthropologists but not by philosophers. Specifically, what is the role of the hand in the origin of language? Can we give a gradualist account of this by examining the hand as it evolved in early human history? Tool use plays an important part.

The Cult is for those who have been struck by the hand and see in it a proper object of wonder.

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