October 26, 2012

On the importance or unimportance of philosophy

This blog may be slightly off-topic. It is inspired by a thread on the Leiter report, in which philosophers respond in various ways to a review by veteran physicist Freeman Dyson. In his review Dyson notes the dwindling role of philosophy in contemporary culture. Some of the respondents agree that much philosophy in the English-speaking world has become an anemic and technical discipline which succeeds in engaging only its own participants, while others were more defensive, taking umbrage at the apparent insult to their profession, maintaining that there are indeed a number of philosophers who have contributed significantly to contemporary debate (Rawls was among those mentioned) or arguing that what philosophers do is truly important whether or not it is ever read by anyone outside a small circle of experts. 
                      Just after reading this I happened to come across the following philosophical example in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on metaphysics. I leave it to the reader’s judgment to decide how it reflects on the issue of the importance or otherwise of contemporary philosophy.
                      Among the problems of the “new metaphysics” is that of Tib and Tibbles:
Tibbles is a cat. Call his tail ‘Tail’. Call “all of him but his tail” ‘Tib’. Suppose Tail is cut off—or, better, annihilated. Tibbles still exists, for a cat can survive the loss of its tail. And it would seem that Tib will exist after the “loss” of Tail, because Tib lost no part. But what will be the relation between Tib and Tibbles? Can it be identity? No, that is ruled out by the non-identity of discernibles, for Tibbles will have become smaller and Tib will remain the same size. But then, once again, we seem to have a case of spatially coincident material objects that share their momentary non-modal properties.
This is meant to show, I take it, that two non-identical objects can be in the same place at the same time. The discussion seems a perfect illustration of Wittgenstein’s dictum (Philosophical Investigations § 38), according to which philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.  It seems to me that the only way to keep a discussion like the one above going is to keep the question of how words are used firmly out of view.
                      (And what’s the solution to the problem? Just don’t cut off the damned tail!)


  1. True. But hasn't someone pointed out (on that thread or in a response elsewhere) that this kind of attention to minutiae isn't new? Is the problem also one of looking at this part--call it "Minor Part"--of philosophy and taking it to be the whole? Not that I disagree that we could cut off "Minor Part" and philosophy would still exist, whatever we call the remaining bit... (And, to get away from the joke, I agree that in cases like that, language seems to have gone on holiday.)

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  3. Nice analogy! I agree that philosophy is too wide an enterprise for any summary judgment about its current state to make sense. I think there are philosophers (not necessarily those who are actually in the limelight) who have something to say that might be worth listening to by those outside academic philosophy. Just for an example, I'd like to mention Pär Segerdahl's ethics blog: http://ethicsblog.crb.uu.se/ . And then there are those who seem content to take part in a game of cleverness with their colleagues. (The danger of working in a big philosophy department is that you end up believing that the whole world is made up of your fellow philosophers.)

    For better *and* worse, philosophy is becoming more and more professionalized. This, of course, is a fate it shares with the other humanities.