Bad Philosophers

Bad Philosophers

Time for a bit of academic sociology. Who are the world’s worst philosophers? I don’t mean which individual philosophers from within philosophy; I mean academics in other fields who like to comment on philosophy. What disciplines produce the worst philosophical commentators? We have quite a full list to choose from: physicists, mathematicians, psychologists, biologists, literary theorists, linguists, neuroscientists, playwrights, novelists, and dishwashers (have I omitted anyone?). I won’t mention any names, but individuals will no doubt spring to mind. Nor will I cite compelling evidence; I will rely on my own reading and memories of encounters. Ready? I think neuroscientists come out the worst (closely followed by dishwashers, though we will discount them as lacking any academic specialty). Psychologists are slightly less bad because they keep their opinions more to themselves (glass houses and all that). Neuroscientists, amazingly, think they are cock of the walk. Literary theorists are notoriously inept philosophically, but they lack much in the way of prestige anyway, so people don’t take much notice of them (except other literary theorists). Biologists are not too bad, perhaps because they are engaged in doing real science and know the difficulties thereof (origin of life anyone?). Linguists are really not bad at all, maybe because they are quite close to philosophers of language (and some are actually pretty smart). But it is physicists that really let the side down: they have no idea what philosophy is about. They seem to think it is physics without math and observation. And they are far too convinced of their own infallibility, or at least intellectual superiority. The best, it seems to me, are mathematicians, many of whom become professional philosophers: they understand the abstract, the “non-empirical”, the infinite. They are not lab-obsessed.

It’s the method not the subject matter that makes the difference. Not what the discipline is about but how it goes about it. Academics always make the mistake of thinking that their method is the only respectable one. That’s why mathematicians are the best at philosophy and neuroscientists are the worst: the a priori versus the a posteriori—the eyes versus the brain. Neuroscientists look at and into the brain and think that is the only way to arrive at sound conclusions; mathematicians don’t look at anything but deploy their rational faculties. Numbers are not like neurons. Psychologists are methodologically insecure, so they avoid methodological dogmatism when it comes to philosophy (though there are exceptions). Biologists have to use highly inferential methods in order to reconstruct the past, so they are more methodologically lenient. But physicists with their expensive machines and their calculators think anything not methodologically like physics is illegitimate. They are also invariably closet logical positivists who don’t know they are.

What about philosophy itself—who are best and worst philosophers among philosophers? Some may say that ethicists are the worst, because they know the least about philosophy in general; and that is not wide of the mark. But I sense humility in them, which saves them from the worst excesses (they are just happy to be tolerated). Actually, I think the worst philosophers are the philosophers of physics (again!), mainly because they often are trained as physicists and then move into philosophy departments. They simply don’t know much philosophy and don’t care, but no physics department would accept them to do what they like to do. Also, they suffer from physics narcissism (the counterpart to physics envy): they think what they do is inherently better than what (real) philosophers do. Not that they are not high IQ people; the trouble is they think too well of themselves and less well of people working in other areas. If they weren’t experts in physics, they wouldn’t be let near a philosophy department (we don’t have professors of the philosophy of chemistry or physiology). Philosophers of physics are given a free pass, and sometimes even admired! Perhaps this is because they can’t and don’t do actual philosophy, that unscientific discipline. So, who is the best at philosophy among the philosophers? I am inclined to say the philosophers of logic and mathematics—that kind of area, bordering on metaphysics. Some real philosophy gets done in these areas, which are taxing and abstract, genuinely difficult, but with a degree of rigor. Philosophers of mind strike me as too ideological, too sectarian; they posture and preen but don’t suffer for their calling. Really, though, the best philosophers are the ones that do it all, and there are not many of them, for understandable reasons. They at least appreciate the full extent of the subject and are not biased in favor of one department of it over the others; they don’t believe that theirspecialty is superior to all others. It  also takes a lot of brain power to do it all.[1]

[1] I hope this piece is taken in the spirit in which it was intended, as a complete denunciation of everybody.

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