Philosophy Is Not a Science

256940ae6a3a0e6999b15c83549467efJulian Friedland responds to Colin McGinn in the NYT's The Stone:

[W]hat objective knowledge can philosophy bring that is not already determinable by science? This is a question that has become increasingly fashionable — even in philosophy — to answer with a defiant “none.” For numerous philosophers have come to believe, in concert with the prejudices of our age, that only science holds the potential to solve persistent philosophical mysteries as the nature of truth, life, mind, meaning, justice, the good and the beautiful.

Thus, myriad contemporary philosophers are perfectly willing to offer themselves up as intellectual servants or ushers of scientific progress. Their research largely functions as a spearhead for scientific exploration and as a balm for making those pursuits more palpable and palatable to the wider population. The philosopher S.M. Liao, for example, argued recently in The Atlantic that we begin voluntarily bioengineering ourselves to lower our carbon footprints and to become generally more virtuous. And Prof. Colin McGinn, writing recently in The Stone, claimed to be so tired of philosophy being disrespected and misunderstood that he urged that philosophers begin referring to themselves as “ontic scientists.”

McGinn takes the moniker of science as broad enough to include philosophy since the dictionary defines it as “any systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” But this definition is so vague that it betrays a widespread confusion as to what science actually is. And McGinn’s reminder that its etymology comes from “scientia,” the ancient Latin word for “knowledge,” only adds to the muddle. For by this definition we might well brand every academic discipline as science. “Literary studies” then become “literary sciences” — sounds much more respectable. “Fine arts” become “aesthetic sciences” — that would surely get more parents to let their kids major in art. While we’re at it, let’s replace the Bachelor of Arts degree with the Bachelor of Science. (I hesitate to even mention such options lest enterprising deans get any ideas.) Authors and artists aren’t engaged primarily in any kind of science, as their disciplines have more to do with subjective and qualitative standards than objective and quantitative ones. And that’s of course not to say that only science can bring objective and quantitative knowledge. Philosophy can too.