As a professional philosopher, there are a few standard questions one faces in pub conversations. Aside from explaining what I actually do and how you can make a living out of that, the most common question must be what philosophy is good for. To that question there are various lofty answers, often reverting to the meaning of philosophy as the love of wisdom. I wouldn’t be caught dead blurting out something like that. Philosophers in general aren’t any wiser than other academics. Most modern philosophers engage in highly specialized intellectual activities with precious little wider applicability. To be perfectly blunt, even to an enlightened outsider, much of professional philosophy can never seem like much more than a complicated intellectual exercise.
That’s what most professional philosophy is like and there’s no denying it. Every now and then there is an insight in philosophy that travels to other sciences and sometimes even the wider society. But usually this is not the case. For the most part, academic philosophy is a rather hermetic discipline that is practiced for its own sake.
That, however, presents us with an interesting question. Because out of all the students taking university courses in philosophy, only a tiny minority end up becoming professional philosophers. They will never play the specialized philosophy game. They learn a lot about philosophy, but they will never create original philosophy. Now the question is: what do they get out of studying philosophy?
Alexander Pope famously wrote that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Although there is a lot of truth in that, when it comes to philosophy, the quotation isn’t perfectly apt. Often a little learning of philosophy can be a pretty nice thing. A little learning about logic, for example, is good for anyone. Any academic can benefit from at least a little philosophy of science and many also from philosophy of language. A basic knowledge of the classics is almost indispensable in understanding the Western culture.
But more to Pope’s point, everybody in the academia also knows the bad part of a little learning in philosophy. Philosophical ideas can be a bit too exciting. They can certainly be that within philosophy: it’s almost absurd how much attention some philosophical works get. Take the Paul Feyerabend book Against Method, for example. For the fortunate ones unfamiliar with it, Feyerabend goes on to argue that since Galileo was perhaps not perfectly rational in all his work, there can be no criteria whatsoever for scientific research. Seriously, if you forget about all the fuss around the book and actually read it, it’s that bad.
Yet Against Method is an enormously widely quoted and referred book. More worryingly, it’s a book that is often quoted outside philosophy. And even more worryingly, it’s usually quoted because of the very fact that it’s a famous philosophical work. Because it is at this point that the little knowledge of philosophy becomes dangerous. When you know about Feyerabend, but don’t really know his arguments or how to evaluate them, bad things start to happen. In the worst case, you can use him as an authority to warrant your own deficient research methods.
Feyerabend is an extreme case, but the same applies to many other philosophers. I have read numerous non-philosophical scientific papers that include references to Foucault, Gadamer, Wittgenstein and Kuhn, just to name a few of the most popular choices. Only very rarely has the reference been useful in any way. In most cases it’s just using an authority to gain credibility for a non-philosophical argument. But why would a respectable scientist do that? Do they not have enough trust in the established methods of their own science?
I don’t think so. I think there is something else going on. Mentioning a philosopher is thought to bring intellectual depth to the subject. That’s also why it often needs to be a big-name philosopher. Mention a living philosopher, no matter how established, and people might ask what the relevance is. Mention Wittgenstein and it’s a totally different thing.
Except that of course it actually isn’t. There aren’t supposed to be gurus in Western philosophy, that’s one of the first things one learns in philosophical studies. It’s just that somehow that is often lost along the way; up to the point when all one can remember about philosophy are the gurus.
Then why should a non-philosopher study philosophy? For a large part because of just that. To spot when philosophy is used in a valid and relevant way, and when it’s just needless evoking of a guru. In other words, in order to be able to treat philosophers just like non-philosophers.
by Markus Pantsar, post-doctoral researcher of theoretical philosophy at the University of Helsinki.
This post is part of the weekly series: HUMANITIES TODAY- a series of provocative and interesting posts from people within the academia or the educational sector