How to Make Progress in Philosophy

by Michael Lopresto

292px-MonetSadPhilosophy is one of the great sciences of reality, as Galen Strawson has said. To this I would add that philosophy is one of the most general of sciences, with the remarkable ability to cross between domains and incorporate both logical and hermeneutical methods. Mathematics and physics have incredible generality, for example, but philosophers will investigate the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of physics. But what does it mean to say that something is a science?

Science is a distinctive strategy whose aim is to uncover truths about the world. This strategy can be distinguished from other human endeavours, such as sophistry, with the pernicious aim of deceiving and manipulating, and art and criticism, with the honourable aim of facilitating aesthetic experience and communication. We distinguish good art from bad art on the grounds that bad art is deceitful and manipulative, and good art that it is, say, honest and morally serious. Equally, we distinguish between good science and bad science. Good science tends to have good philosophical foundations; scientists strive to build theories that are naturalistic, falsifiable, parsimonious, and have continuity with other theories. Bad science tends to be driven by ulterior motives; to confirm or vindicate what is already believed in a particular culture.

Admittedly, this is a slightly unusual way of talking about science and philosophy. There are social and political reasons for supposing a sharp cleavage between science and philosophy, and especially between science and the humanities. It is often said that science is inherently empirical, employing its distinctive quantitative methods; whereas the humanities are inherently perspectival and hermeneutical, employing its distinctive qualitative methods. Of course, the humanities are the most important part of a university education, as Brian Leiter has said, we all leave university to be full human beings, and the humanities are indispensible for this. This is especially important to emphasise in our pernicious culture of economic rationalism, where depressingly, the worth of the humanities needs to be constantly defended. But from another perspective, however, there are very few principled distinctions between the sciences and the humanities. Many of the sciences use rigorous formal methods, but philosophical logic and formal linguistics, for example, are equally rigorous and formal. Applied mathematics engages in abstract reasoning about the world, but equally does analytic metaphysics. Biology and Psychology build theories in their respective domains, but so do the philosophy of biology and the philosophy of psychology.

It is sometimes thought that philosophy faces a dilemma. If philosophy becomes too formal and naturalistic, it will be absorbed by the hard sciences; if philosophy becomes too hermeneutical and perspectival, it will be absorbed by the softer areas of the humanities, like literary criticism. Does philosophy have to depart from this limbo in order to make progress? In a way the answer is clearly yes; on the one hand, philosophy has been plagued by internal debates about what it ought to be like no other discipline has, but equally the autonomy of philosophy has been severely underestimated like no other discipline.

Some recent publications have embodied this dilemma. On the one hand, we have Alex Rosenberg's misleadingly titled The Atheist's Guide to Reality, which has more to do with philosophy embracing the mad-dog naturalist horn of the dilemma than it does with atheism. On the other hand, we have Paul Horwich's Wittgenstein's Metaphilosophy, embracing the hermeneutical and perspectival horn of the dilemma, standing up for the message of the later Wittgenstein that philosophers should stop trying to construct theories, and leave everything as it is in everyday life. Both of these perspectives have come from completely opposing perspectives to say that philosophy as it has been practised should end. Hard-nosed naturalists like Rosenberg have said that philosophy hasn't been scientific enough to be in the business of legitimate theory-building, while Wittgensteinians like Horwich have said that philosophical theory-building has been far too scientistic to do justice to messy realities of everyday life its hermeneutical perspective.

There is an element of truth in both of these perspectives. Rosenberg is right to claim that legitimate theory-building has to be naturalistic, while Horwich is right to take seriously the indispensible nature of the hermeneutical perspective. But both of these views fail for the following reason – that is to say that it is wrong to embrace either horn of our dilemma – and that reason is that it's wrong to privilege any one perspective over any other. The autonomy of philosophy lies in the fact that it can embrace differing perspectives simultaneously, and its utility lies in the fact that it can reconcile multiple perspectives that have hitherto seemed to be incompatible.

There is a now-great tradition in philosophy which exposes our dilemma to be a false one, commonly known as Australian Realism. This traditions has been instigated by philosophers such as J.J.C Smart, David Armstrong and Frank Jackson, and Peter Singer. To use Frank Jackson's term, philosophy is about solving “location problems”; understanding how it is that morality, intentionality and other things manifest in our hermeneutical perspective fit into a purely physical world, given to us by the naturalistic or scientific perspective. This explains why it is that philosophy has such an important role in the humanities, in allowing us to become full human beings. As humans we're curious about the nature of reality, and the perspective of physics and biology is incredibly informative in telling us who we are and where we've come from. But philosophy gives us the tools to reconcile these truths with our manifest knowledge of morality and meaning, and in the process, will likely make our knowledge of morality and meaning much more consistent and robust. Jack Smart and Peter Singer, for example, are utilitarians who've made remarkable contributions to our moral knowledge.

If I'm right, then this explains some of the great missteps in philosophy. The views of Martin Heidegger, John-Paul Sartre and John McDowell are profoundly impoverished because they privilege the first-person perspective at the cost of all others. The views of Friedrich Nietzsche, John Mackie and Alex Rosenberg are impoverished because they favour they privilege the perspective of physics and biology at the cost of all others.

Other views are profoundly impoverished because they not only privilege one perspective, but they are deceitful about the nature of the perspective they are privileging. Heidegger and Derrida are prime candidates for exhibiting such intellectual vice. Not only do they privilege one perspective, the first-person perspective, but they misconstrue what this means for other perspectives, and then go further to obfuscate the relation this perspective has to others. Where other philosophers have employed methods such as argumentation and conceptual analysis, Heidegger and Derrida have employed word-play. Where other philosophers have open to communication and criticism, Heidegger and Derrida have obfuscated their meanings and then berated, rather than engaged with, their critics for “not understanding them”. Where better philosophers have opted for the gregarious and hence self-correcting nature of philosophy, Heidegger and Derrida opted to be gurus, attracting worshipful followers who would walk around with a thoughtful expression on their face saying to themselves, “hmm, what does he mean by that?”

If we are to make any progress in philosophy, it is by not favouring or privileging any one perspective over any other, but by being ecumenical, as the Australian Realists have taught us. But equally, it is by taking lessons from history seriously, and acknowledging that some perspectives are no longer legitimate. The obfuscatory, sophistic and guru-like perspectives of Derrida, Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein are no longer on the map of serious philosophical inquiry.

Equally for the theological perspective, the arguments for the existence of god were refuted by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in his classic Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777), and it is time that we stop legitimating the theological perspective by engaging with it any more than superficially. As the Australian philosopher Huw Price has said in a review of a philosophical work trying to establish the existence of a god, “taking theology at face value would have seemed a kind of moral defeat: feeding an ancient intellectual cuckoo that would be better simply starved. The right course seemed to be to ignore its demands on my attention, and walk away.” It seems to me that philosophy has the potential to be very fruitful this century in telling us much about us as human beings and our place in the natural order.

What location problem could be more important to solve than understanding the place of meaning and morality in the natural order? I think we can be optimistic in making the progress we need in order to achieving this understanding, so long as we incorporate the right perspective and reject the wrong ones. As the Australian philosopher Michael Smith has pointed out, this project has had little history until now because we it was only recently that we have been able to engage with location problems unhampered by a false biology (the Aristotelian tradition) and a false belief in god (the Judeo-Christian tradition).