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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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