Renaming philosophy.

In light of vast public misunderstanding about what philosophy involves, with most people taking it to be a wish-washy study of ‘the meaning of life’ and other such grandiose prescriptive projects, Colin McGinn thinks the time has come for a name-change:

[M]ost of the marks of science as commonly understood are shared by academic philosophy: the subject is systematic, rigorous, replete with technical vocabulary, often in conflict with common sense, capable of refutation, produces hypotheses, uses symbolic notation, is about the natural world, is institutionalized, peer-reviewed, tenure-granting, etc. We may as well recognize that we are a science, even if not one that makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics. Once we do this officially, we can expect to be treated like scientists.

Someone might protest that we belong to the arts and humanities, not the sciences, and certainly we are currently so classified. But this is an error, semantically and substantively. The dictionary defines both “arts” and “humanities” as studies of “human culture”—hence like English literature or art history. But it is quite false that philosophy studies human culture, as opposed to nature (studied by the sciences); only aesthetics and maybe ethics fall under that heading. Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and so on deal not with human culture but with the natural world. We deal with the same things the sciences deal with — the world beyond human culture. To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities” is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human…

[I]sn’t there something faintly shameful about sticking to the obsolete and inaccurate term “philosopher” when we are professionally so dedicated to using words correctly and so attentive to matters of definition? We must put our own linguistic house in order.

Fabio Rojas has reservations, but ultimately nods:

I think [modern philosophy] might be described to outsiders as “using precise language to understand conceptual and logical issues.” So, a philosopher who looks at sociology might ask what we mean by “society” or “actor,” and then examine the meanings of these terms and their logical implications…

I approve of McGinn’s status seeking exercise. Systematic investigation of logical arguments is different than art history or music performance. As a member of a discipline whose mission is to discover what is correct, I can recognize that philosophy is also about “rightness” and less about judgment. But I am happy to let philosophy live in a sui generis position that is different than the physical and social sciences until they can show me that they are engaged with a reality that exists beyond our heads.

Insofar as philosophy largely involves trying to discern ‘the way things are’ – agreed; it should certainly be thought of as closely related to science in a way few outside of philosophical circles seem to understand. But as both writers also note, it is the uniqueness of the philosopher’s tools and methods that makes this relationship hard to see. And even if this is all true, it certainly doesn’t warrant renaming the entire tradition, especially in light of there being no decent and obvious alternatives (seriously, McGinn? Ontics?)

In fact, I’d be reluctant to change the name of the discipline even if a viable alternative did present itself. After all, right back to Plato through Descartes, Hume and Kant, philosophers have always been committed to the same metaphysical and epistemological questions we ask today. In that respect, there has been little change in the general task of ‘uncovering reality’. So why try and create the impression of a disconnect with history, just because in the past century things have gotten so much more rigorous and the importance of linguistics has been realised? Philosophy is still, at heart, the subject it has always been.


HT @zackbeauchamp.


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