Sunday, 10 June 2007

The State of Philosophy

Thanks for taking the time to take part in this important discussion. In the next issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine, we are publishing a collection of articles on the state of philosophy today, covering a wide but not comprehensive range of particular subjects.
The purpose of this on-line discussion is to get a wide-range of opinions on the state of the subject today, both as a discipline as an academic profession. You can post your comments below. Please include your name and preferred title, and feel free to come back over the next week to follow up on what others have said. The more of a conversation it is the better, but don’t be shy of simply offering your own take. An edited version of the discussion will appear in the next issue and we will be sending copies to all who respond to our invitation to take part.
As a starter, I’d like to pick out some of the salient points our contributors to the issue have made. It is not obligatory to read this before adding your comment, but you may well find it of interest.

Writing on the state of the profession in the UK, Jo Wolff argued that, “philosophy, I think we need to acknowledge, is both thriving and, if not in crisis, then in some sort of stupor.”
“[It seems to me that philosophy reached a high-water mark in the 1970s and it may be a long time before it rises again to such a point. Consider the collection, Philosophy As It Is, edited by Honderich and Burnyeat, and published by Penguin books in 1979. It contains reprints of then recent major work over the whole range of philosophical topics. Yet it sold as a cheap paperback for use in undergraduate courses, and was even used in adult education evening classes.
“Suppose we were trying to put together a collection based on work published during the last decade. What would it contain? Could there be a collection of reprints of work of the highest, uncompromising, standards, each making a lasting contribution to the subject, over the whole range of philosophy, which one could teach to second year undergraduates? I doubt it, although it would be very nice to be wrong about this. But if I am right, what is the explanation?”

John Lachs, writing about American philosophy, says that over the last hundred years, “philosophy has abandoned its traditional tasks of providing moral guidance to individuals and assuming a critical stance toward questionable social practices.”
“The reason for this turn was the desire of philosophers to imitate science and carve out for themselves a small area of inquiry of which they and they alone could offer knowledge. This science-envy, along with uncertainty about how philosophy could adjust itself to the prevailing scientific worldview, came to dominate the work of the best practitioners in the field. To this day, philosophers have not faced up to the fact that their philosophical efforts have failed to contribute even a small fragment to the sum of human knowledge. Worse, there is not a single philosophical proposition that commands universal assent in the field.”

But things are changing. “the last thirty years have seen the emergence of critical thinking, bioethics and business ethics as primary areas of instruction embraced by philosophers.” However, one problem remains: “the politics of philosophy has created the impression that every practitioner belongs to one and only one group [analytic, American pragmatic, continental] and that the work and commitments of the groups are incompatible.”
Catherine Audard concludes her survey of political philosophy by saying:
“Anglophone political philosophy is still exciting and stimulating, but it is increasingly losing its relevance. The crisis is both political, the loss of the Rawlsian democratic impulse by many of his followers, and methodological, the lack of concern for the “political”, which is where Continental authors could contribute and are contributing. The lack of dialogue between the two main traditions is still a concern.
“Am I optimistic? I am not so sure. Mainstream political philosophy is moving too far from social criticism and struggles to maintain the right distance from the status quo, both intellectually and politically. New work is emerging, showing a greater confidence in the justification of normative issues against both factual analysis and subjective political claims, and in the fruitful relationship philosophers could and should have with sociology, history, ethics and political science. Still, economics remains the paradigm for much political philosophy at the same moment one of our greatest economists, Amartya Sen, is calling for more reflexivity and critical thinking in economics itself.”

David Archard is bullish about the health of applied philosophy, though he notes, “Inasmuch as philosophers do influence the real world of law and policy they may do so less as academics and more as incorporated members of the relevant organisations: official commissions, committees and advisory bodies, for instance.”
Archard identifies three future areas of study for the applied philosopher, questions of “what role philosophers can and should play in the formulation and implementation of public policy,” whether “applied philosophers disavow any responsibility for the public use or misuse of their work by simply claiming that after all it is only philosophy done in academic journals read, in the grand scheme of things, by very few people?” and “what a second-best practical theory looks like, especially when it is by no means obvious that we should always and in every circumstance simply strive, and fail, to bring about the best.”

Some more specific subject areas are also discussed. Carolyn Korsmeyer talks about the “turn to the body” in philosophy as a whole has had an impact on aesthetics. One effect has been t0 “minimise the traditional distinction between “high” art and other art forms such as crafts and entertainment.”
In the philosophy of religion, Anthony J. Carroll identifies the main topics of contemporary interest as being “issues raised by Heidegger about the future of metaphysics”, debates about reformed epistemology of Plantinga, and Wittgensteinian approaches to religion.
Steve French sees the central challenge to the philosophy of science to be “to enter into productive (re-) engagement with philosophy on the one hand and the history of science on the other, and retain an appropriate balance between the two.”
On the history of philosophy, PJE Kail notes that “historians of philosophy are at present particularly reflective about the aims of history of philosophy, and its relation to the aims and practices of contemporary philosophy.” He notes a shift away from treating the greats of the past as our contemporaries and more study on what their work meant in their time.
We are nervously awaiting a few more contributions, one of which will look at the place of women in philosophy today. You might also consider why philosophy, in the UK at least, remains so stubbornly white.