Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Just Weigh the Fish

Philosopher Robert Pasnau pens an entertaining column at The Stone about the low esteem in which philosophy is held in some academic precincts. Here's his lede:
Morale these days has fallen pretty low along the corridors of philosophy departments. From one side, we get the mockery of the scientists. Freeman Dyson calls philosophy today “a toothless relic of past glories.” According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, majoring in philosophy “can really mess you up.” Stephen Hawking declares that “philosophy is dead.” From another side, we have to cope with the apostasy of our own leading figures. John Searle describes the field as being in “terrible shape.” Peter Unger says that philosophers are “under the impression that they’re saying something new and interesting about how it is about the world, when in fact this is all an illusion.” What’s going on? Has philosophy gone horribly amiss? Or are there broader cultural factors at work, perhaps something to do with a general decline in respect for the humanities?

Philosophers have always been the subject of ridicule, both from within and without. RenĂ© Descartes thought the entire discipline — up until his arrival, at least — had failed to make any important progress. A century later, David Hume wanted to take most of what philosophers had written and “commit it to the flames.” Such scorn goes all the way back to the origins of the subject. Thales, who many consider the first Western philosopher, was reputed to have been so distracted while out on his evening walk that he once fell into a well. Falling to the bottom of a well is presumably no laughing matter, even when it happens to a philosopher. But the Thracian servant girl who discovered him is said to have reacted not with concern but scorn; she ridiculed him for being so oblivious.

Thales, as it happens, was a founding figure not just for philosophy but also for science. Indeed, the usual reason given for his fall is not that he was ogling the girl (as some readers today might suspect of a philosopher) but that he was studying the stars.

For the next 2,000 years, the sciences were assumed to be a part of philosophy — indeed, what the philosopher mainly did was to pursue science. And that is precisely what they were mocked for: always pursuing and never attaining. Pietro Pomponazzi, a Renaissance philosopher, cautioned his students that their field would be the greatest of careers but for two things. One, of course, was that philosophy did not pay. The other was that it constantly failed to achieve results, and so rather than being a serious discipline, it was more like “playing with toys.” Several centuries later, Charles II is said to have himself toyed with the philosophers, asking them to explain why a fish weighs more after it has died. Upon receiving various ingenious answers, he pointed out that in fact a dead fish does not weigh anything more.
One aspect of philosophy that makes it unpopular with some academics is that it tends to impose boundaries on them. It seeks to draw lines of demarcation separating science from non-science, right from wrong, beautiful from non-beautiful, knowledge from non-knowledge, justice from injustice, truth from falsity, meaningfulness from nonsense. This is a problem because practitioners in other disciplines don't like non-practitioners calling them out for transgressing boundaries set by the non-practitioners. In any event there's much more from Pasnau at the link.