The Death of Philosophy

It could be argued that philosophy has always had suicidal tendencies. In the age of logical positivism philosophy tried to kill itself. Philosophy is a nuisance, a headache, a source of misery. I don’t think philosophy will ever die of natural causes (though science might). It is too pressing. But I can see that its practitioners might try to put an end to it. That could succeed, as a matter of institutional reality. That would be a bad thing, but bad things happen.

9 responses to “The Death of Philosophy”

  1. Mike says:

    Just curious — what do you mean by “science might” die of natural causes?

    • I mean that science has built-in limits: either everything will be discovered one day or it will run up against the limits of scientific knowledge. Then there will be no more scientific discovery.

  2. Paul says:

    …and now I’m presuming that philosophy has no built-in limits to discovery because it doesn’t discover anything and there are no limits to philosophical knowledge because anything goes.

    (ps. I really enjoyed reading your autobiography many years ago)

    • I wouldn’t say that, but it is an interesting question whether philosophy could come to an end in the way science might. It’s hard to see how people could stop debating the central questions of philosophy because of a discovery someone made.

  3. Alan Colquhoun says:

    Perhaps if general AI were to exhibit spontaneous conformance to moral principles, doing what it (deduces it) ought to do, then we might no longer need to debate the objectivity of value?

  4. Alan Colquhoun says:

    …or expressed guilt, betraying knowledge that it was doing what it (deduced it) shouldn’t be doing.

  5. Paul says:

    I was quite surprised by your response. I thought areas of ancient philosophy (e.g. astronomy, medicine etc) were no longer part of modern philosophy because scientific discoveries had made some of the philosophical debates pointless. Presumably that could happen in the future too.

    I also don’t grasp what philosophers are doing if they don’t make discoveries. Clearly the ideas of philosophers can have powerful effects on human actions and societies. If philosophical debate isn’t about discovering the world perhaps it is about changing (clarifying) the views of the humans in that world? Is it rigorous argument, but not discovery?

    In your autobiography you devote a section to the difficulties of doing philosophy, noting that philosophers are remarkably smart but often don’t seem to make clear progress. Although science often gets stuck too progress often happens because science has many different approaches to rely on. A problem in cognitive psychology, for example, can suddenly be solved by new insights from physiology, or new experiments, or computer models. Philosophy doesn’t seem to have that range of approaches and might be why it makes less progress.

    Finally, if science is self limiting, even in an infinitely expanding universe, it is going to take an very long time to reach that limit. I believe Peter Medawar in ‘The Limits of Science’ came to the conclusion that science was not self limiting in the sense of running out of things to discover.
    However, perhaps there are aspects of science that are beyond our understanding (like consciousness or the nature of existence), perhaps because we don’t have the cognitive capacity. In that sense we will have holes in our scientific knowledge, rather like Swiss Cheese, and maybe that is where philosophy comes in….

    • This is something I’ve written a fair bit about over the years. The point isn’t that philosophers don’t make discoveries; it’s more that it’s hard to believe that longstanding philosophical problems could be resolved by a discovery. What kind of discovery could resolve the argument about free will or skepticism or the objectivity of value? About science I recommend John Horgan’s The End of Science. There will always be individual facts to discover, but general theories might be quite limited in number and type.

  6. Alan Colquhoun says:

    True. Even a super intelligent, self-driving car would need to evaluate the rights and wrongs of the ‘trolley problem’ before it could deduce what it should do. Perhaps the limits of science are more imminently evident than AI aficionados suppose?

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