The trouble with philosophy

by Neil Rickert

This is a somewhat belated reaction to the post The nature of philosophy and its role in modern society by John Wilkins.  In that post, Wilkins was discussing the role of philosophy, and its relevance.  The comments to that post were mixed, with some agreeing that philosophy is relevant and others doubting the relevance.

As a self-declared heretic, it will be no surprise that I am in the camp that questions the value of philosophy.

We need to be clear about what we are discussing.  There’s a sense in which philosophy is a natural human activity.  We all ponder about some of the big and hard questions.  And there’s a philosophical component to scientific theorizing.  I want to be clear that I am not discussing those.  This post is about what professional philosophers do, most of them as faculty in philosophy departments at universities and similar institutions.

The trouble with philosophy is that it is something of a religion (the religion of the academy).  By that, I mean that there is a heavy dependence on tradition and very little dependence on data or on testing of philosophical theses.

Wilkins mentioned some parts of philosophy that he thought particularly relevant.

  • What is there? [Metaphysics]
  • How do we know? [Epistemology]
  • What is its value? [Aesthetics, ethics and political philosophy]

I don’t have much to say about the last of those.  But I will be commenting on the others (ontology and epistemology) in future posts.  I can grant that, in principle, those could be important.  But the trouble with philosophy is that, in this commenter’s opinion, it does both rather poorly.

In his post, Wilkins mentioned that philosophy programs “are being downgraded or even closed around the world.”  Although I am a critic, I am not wanting philosophy departments to be closed.  I don’t want academic philosophy to go away; I want it to get better.

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