Philosophy as Complementary Science

Hasok Chang in The Philosopher's Magazine:

What is the use of philosophy? That is a challenging question to answer in the modern intellectual landscape dominated by empirical science. There is a common impression that philosophers just sit around and engage in idle talk, while scientists make real investigations and deliver results that are useful as well as truthful. Even professional philosophers feel the pressure of the success of science and often respond with a subservient naturalism, which would reduce philosophy of mind to neurophysiology, epistemology to cognitive psychology, and metaphysics to the latest fashion in physics. A completion of such a naturalist project would be the end of philosophy as we know it; if philosophy’s subject matter is really science, then it would be best to leave it to scientists. It is absurd conceit to think that we philosophers can “think” better than anyone, so that we can step in and draw some wise conclusions from the scientific material, which scientists themselves are missing because they are sloppy or limited in their thinking.

I wish to resist this self-denigrating naturalism in philosophy, fashionable as it is these days. The relation between philosophy and science needs to be seen in a new light. A look back at the long-term history of scholarship will help us re-orientate ourselves here. There was a time when nearly all academic inquiry was called “philosophy”. But various scientific disciplines (and other practices such as law and medicine) gradually carved themselves out and left the realm of philosophy. After the departure of astronomy, mechanics, experimental physics, chemistry, geology, biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, and so on, what is left in philosophy proper seems an empty shell. Our current academic discipline called “philosophy” became restricted and defined, as it were, against its own will.

This history goes some way to explain the origin of the common notion that philosophy should deal with “deep” questions, that its discourse has to be general, abstract and systematic. This is a reaction against all the specialisms declaring their independence from philosophy. The defining feature of what remains as philosophy must be that it is not specialist but general, aspiring to universality. Transcending the vagaries of specialist disciplines also means dealing with questions that are immutable, as we go on a quest for an eternal truth.

In articulating my own conception of philosophy, I want to propose a different contrast, a different way of being counter-specialist. Philosophical questions are not deeper than scientific questions, only different. Here I take a clue from Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science, though perhaps not in a way that he would have envisaged himself. In Kuhnian terms, science does not emerge from “pre-science” until the field of legitimate questions gets narrowed down with clearly recognized boundaries. Historically this was a slow and gradual process. For a long time it was common for one and the same treatise to contain tangled discussions of metaphysics, methodology, and what we would now identify as the proper “content” of science. Philosophy once aspired to encompass all knowledge, but what is now left under the rubric of philosophy is not the all-encompassing scholarship it once was. Philosophy as practised now does not and cannot include science. But in my view that is just where its most important function now lies: to address what science and other specialisms neglect.