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Contemporary Philosophy

Philosophy and Contemporary Science

Sören Stenlund
Uppsala University

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ABSTRACT: This paper is concerned with some of the differences between philosophy and contemporary science, and with the significance of these differences for the question of the nature of philosophy. Differences of particular interest here are ones that tend to be concealed and ignored through the influence of the professionalist attitudes of contemporary science, an influence that manifests itself in the prevailing normative attitude to the vocabularies and linguistic practices of professional philosophy. It is argued that this normative attitude is questionable in the light of a feature that we take to be essential to philosophy: always being open to the question of its own nature and task.

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A traditional, and still common, view of the difference between philosophy and the 'special' sciences is based upon the dichotomies universal/particular or general/special. It is said that philosophy deals with the general issues concerning some subject matter while the special sciences take care of the more specific issues. Chemistry concerns itself with properties of various chemical compounds and physics with forces and the motion of bodies, while philosophy deals with the general nature of matter, general questions of causality, determinism, etc. Linguistics deals with special, empirical questions about the nature of language, while philosophy is supposed to discover the general principles that govern all language.

The ontological question about 'what there is' in the world, is, in Quine's words, "a shared concern of philosophy and most other non-fiction genres." (1) It is the use of more general or broader categories, such as, for instance, physical objects or classes, that distinguishes the ontological philosopher's interest in what there is from the scientist's.

This 'synoptic view' of philosophy, as Moritz Schlick called it, usually also involves the view of philosophy as a science. (2) As physics studies the specific structure of matter, so philosophy studies its general nature. Quine says, for instance, that "Philosophy ... as an effort to get clearer on things, is not to be distinguished in essential points of purpose and method from good or bad science." (3) Like the special sciences, philosophy is also a science, only one of a more general character.

But Quine's philosophy represents only one, naturalistic, version of this synoptic view of the nature of philosophy. There are others, both within and outside the analytic tradition. And there is a great deal to be said about the difference between these philosophies, for instance, that the ones in the Kantian tradition are more oriented towards discovering the general conditions of human knowledge and experience, and have less to say about the general nature of reality. What I want to do here is simply to emphasize this common feature, that the philosophical questions are conceived as some sort of general questions and that this idea belongs together with the idea of philosophy as a science.

But what, then, is science? It was not very controversial to claim that philosophy is a science prior to the nineteenth century, when the 'special' sciences did not yet exist except as branches of philosophy, when, for instance, physics was still natural philosophy. The real contrast and antagonism between philosophy and science begins in the nineteenth century when some of the special sciences start to establish themselves, and some of the leading scientists no longer feel the need or requirement for a foundation in traditional philosophy, but rather begin to experience this requirement as, in many respects, an obstacle to progress. It is at this time that our problem of the relation between philosophy and the sciences emerges.

So if we think of the sciences neither in terms of some old and obsolete conception, and nor in accordance with some modern ideal picture, but rather as the activities and practices they are, or have become, during the last hundred years (that is, if we think about how scientists work, do research, write, present and discuss problems and the results of their work), we can see quite striking differences between philosophy and the special sciences that involve more than the difference between general and special orientations.

One important difference is that it is not particularly common, for instance, that physicists are concerned with the question 'What is physics?'. It is rare that scientific texts in physics are devoted to the question 'What is the nature of the problems of physics?', except perhaps in elementary textbooks when the purpose is merely pedagogical. And if such questions are touched, as in some of the writings of Poincaré or Einstein, they are usually raised in connection with problems of how one should go on with physics in the light of its most recent results, but never of how one should start from the beginning again. But this issue has been a recurrent theme in some of the most respected and influential philosophical texts. The question of what philosophy really is and should be is perpetually present in the texts, by being answered over and over again. And this is especially true of philosophical works, such as Quine's Word and Object, where it is declared that philosophy is a science. Quine is constantly presenting paradigmatic examples of how certain philosophical problems should be dealt with, and he often explains why one was mistaken in dealing with them differently. The solutions he suggests of more specific, particular problems (such as the question 'What is an ordered pair?') are also presented as contributions to the more general question of how philosophical problems should be dealt with, and as examples of the spirit in which they should be treated. The question 'What is philosophy?' is present from the first to the last chapter.

Much the same could be said, for instance, of Husserl's Cartesian Meditations, where Husserl sets out to give philosophy a radically new beginning; or of Sein und Zeit, in which Heidegger wants to give the foundation for a new fundamental science of Being; or of Dilthey's program for a new and general philosophical science of human life. Although these philosophical works are very different in other respects, they all have it in common, that the question of the nature of philosophy is constantly present in the texts.

Treatises and reports in the special sciences, on the contrary, are written in the spirit that such questions are already settled for the author's own science. That such questions are never seriously asked in scientific works, is part of what it means for a science or a domain of research to be an established science with a position in the academic organization. What physics is is already something given, and scientific texts in physics are addressed to those who know it, who want more details or who want to get on with their work.

This is not contradicted by the fact that there usually arises disagreement and discussion among scientists about methodological issues, about the interpretation of new and controversial results, about the desirable future development of their science, about new approaches and about matters of research policy. Even if such discussions are sometimes conducted in a philosophical tone of voice, they are internal discussions, which means that they are based on an extensive and unquestioned consensus about established notions, techniques and practices, and about generally acknowledged results and achievements, that must be known and respected as such by those who want to be taken seriously in the discussion. The prominent scientist's task always involves the administration of a practice or tradition and the promotion of its future development in the best way, even when changes or revisions of received views or notions are called for.

There is not the same responsible attitude towards tradition and established practices in philosophy. The most outstanding philosophers have wanted to start from the beginning anew. This is true even if we can see, in our historical perspective, that many philosophers of the past have overrated their independence of tradition. It is true as a statement of the philosopher's attitude and intent, as compared to that of the typical scientist. There is neither a comparable agreement about established results and achievements nor about crucial notions and methods in philosophy, this lack of agreement manifesting itself even in the great diversity of orientations in elementary education in philosophy in different parts of the world as compared to the corresponding situation in the special sciences. Disagreement about proposed results and achievements is something much more characteristic of philosophy, and not just in the sense that there are different views; there are often conflicting views and typically so in the case of results that reflect an attitude toward the question "What is philosophy?"

The differences between philosophy and the special sciences I have outlined here are, it seems to me, important and significant. They suggest a feature of philosophical enquiry that I take to be essential. It is the feature that distinguishes philosophy from the special sciences and other intellectual genres. It is simply this: you do not quite know what the genuine philosophical question is all about when you are confronted with it. Wittgenstein expressed it thus: "A philosophical problem has the form: 'I don't know my way about'." (4) How the problems should be dealt with is not something given, as it normally is in the special sciences. In other words, it is something characteristic of philosophy that the questions 'What is philosophy?' and 'How shall a philosophical problem be dealt with?', are themselves philosophical questions on the same level as other philosophical questions.

And I want to add that a philosophical work is alive only when these questions, directly or indirectly, are present in it. Philosophy is alive only when it is open to the problem of its own nature and task. Philosophy is alive when it is problematic in its own eyes.

It seems to me to be for this reason most of all that many of the classical and most respected philosophical texts, such as Husserl's, Heidegger's or Quine's, have become classical and influential. It is philosophical works, written against a background where philosophy itself is questioned, that have been put forward as the best examples of what philosophy is.

From this point of view one might say that the disagreement among philosophers on the question of the nature of philosophy is not obviously and in all respects a regrettable thing. We should rather be doubtful about the attitude that there ought to be agreement, or that it must be possible to reach agreement, at least in principle even if never in practice. For this ideal sense of agreement is generally understood as 'agreement on rational grounds'. And what is this, in all essentials, if not the idea of a scientific philosophical language or conceptual framework that is absolutely reliable, that is, a philosophical discourse in which the questions of what philosophy is, how problems should be dealt with, what it is that makes arguments correct, what clarification means precisely, etc., were settled and answered once and for all? But there will never be agreement on such a discourse as long as philosophy is alive.

Michael Dummett remarks that one has not yet reached general agreement about a systematic method in philosophy, even to the extent to which there is such an established method of investigation in the historical sciences. (5) Referring to this fact as 'a scandal' of philosophy, he hopes that his 'theory of meaning' will put an end to this unsatisfactory state of affairs. This is a good example of the attitude toward philosophy that I am calling into question, which is not to say that systematic methods and scientific tools have no place at all in philosophy. My point is rather that it is not particular methods, notions or doctrines that holds philosophy together, but the peculiar nature of its problems.

The greatest difficulty today with the disagreement and the discussion about what philosophy is and should be, is the difficulty of keeping the philosophical and the political issues apart. The discussion take too often the form of a struggle between philosophical party loyalties, between philosophical schools, approaches, and traditions. And there are those — among so-called postmodern philosophers — who claim that the issue in the end is nothing but a political matter. All other claims about what it is and should be is simply more rhetoric. But even that is a way of trying to put the issue to rest as something settled and finished. Note, however, that those who make such claims do not usually stop raising and discussing the question.

My main point in this paper is that the questions about the nature of philosophy and about the distinctive features of philosophical problems are themselves philosophical questions that are present in the best examples of philosophical treatises, and that this is why philosophy is not a science. This is not to say that these questions are like any other philosophical questions, but they do not belong to a division that comes, somehow, before the divisions where other more specific philosophical questions belong — even though academic education in philosophy may be organized that way. We cannot judge the nature of philosophy on the basis of the current academic organization. That is one sense in which we must keep philosophical and political issues apart.

That the questions of the nature and essence of philosophy do not belong to a different level than other philosophical questions is one reason why language is of particular importance in philosophy as compared to the sciences. A special science or domain of scientific research is characterized by having an established terminology and conceptual framework in which its problems and results are framed, and which are taken to be reliable in normal scientific work. But when a philosophical problem arises, it is not a matter of course which language or notions that can be reliably used in getting clear on the matter. A way of reacting to the question about what certain philosophical issues are all about, and how they should be dealt with, is also a way of reacting to the question about what is problematic or not in some part of our language. It is for this reason that a philosophical problem often has the character of a puzzlement or confusion.

Philosophy aims at getting clearer on things, but the first step on the road towards clarity is to recognize and admit one's confusion, and that may take some courage due to the dominance of the professionalist spirit of the special sciences, where confusion can only be something occasional and exceptional, something to get rid of as quickly as possible. Not knowing what to do or what to say, when one is expected to know, is an embarrassment for the scientist. But that attitude of a specialist or an expert is something that the philosopher must be on his guard against.

In saying that language is of crucial importance in philosophy, I am not saying (like some poststructuralist philosophers) that all language is philosophically problematic. On the contrary, most human linguistic communication is philosophically all right as it is. My point is that the boundary between philosophically innocent and problematic forms of language is not in general given in advance and independently of the situation where the problem arises. Finding the boundary may rather be a part of the problem, and the boundary is where you find it in a particular case — if you are successful.

The situation would be different if there existed, as in the special sciences, a language, a vocabulary, a conceptual framework, a systematic method, with the status of 'the established language and method of philosophy', in the same sense that there is an established language of physics, and in which philosophical issues could be rendered more well-defined. But there are many proposals for such a philosophical language and they are in conflict with one another (such as, for instance, Husserl's and Quine's), especially with regard to the way they reflect different attitudes toward the question 'What is philosophy?'.

One might perhaps speak of the language of professional philosophy as a vocabulary that is established and common to some degree. I mean the terminology and classificatory apparatus that is used in historical treatises, surveys, philosophical dictionaries, commentaries and interpretations of original philosophical works. In that language one can express what one does agree about within a certain tradition, but this language is not the language in which the philosopher is usually working with his or her problems, is articulating his or her questions in attempting to answer them. The discourse of professional philosophy belongs to an historical perspective or to the perspective of a commentator where one is giving a more or less schematic summary of philosophical ideas and thoughts in a third person attitude toward the philosophical difficulties.

It is in this discourse that the problems have the character of general problems, even in the sense of no-one's problems. A question or an answer can be classified as philosophical only on the basis of a word or an expression occurring in it. In the vocabulary of professional philosophy, the problem 'What is philosophy?' is not present as a philosophical issue, but at most as an historical issue. The answer to the question is taken as something historically given, and it is in this commentary perspective that it appears as though the question 'What is philosophy?' belongs to a different level than other philosophical questions, to a 'metaphilosophical' level.

I do not want to belittle the value and usefulness of the discourse of professional philosophy, but I would like to warn against the prevailing tendency toward having a too normative attitude towards it — a tendency that is, no doubt, due to the influence of the professionalism of the special sciences. The vocabulary and conceptual apparatus of professional philosophy is not itself philosophically innocent and reliable. It is connected with a kind of prestige and with claims that are bound up precisely with the idea of philosophy as a science, like the special sciences, only one of a more general character.

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(1) Quine, W.V.O., Word and Object, The M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Ma., 1960, p. 275.

(2) Schlick, M., 'The Future of Philosophy', in Rorty, R. (ed.), The Linguistic Turn, Recent Essays in Philosophical Method, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1967, pp. 43-53.

(3) Quine, ibid. pp. 3-4.

(4) Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations, transl. by G.E.M. Anscombe, London: Blackwell, 1974, remark 123.

(5) Dummett, M., 'Can Analytic Philosophy Be Systematic, and Ought It to Be?' in Baynes K., Bohman, J., and McCarty, T., After Philosophy, End or Transformations?, Cambridge, Ma., and London: The MIT Press, 1987, p. 212.

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