LONDON CALLING BACK, #6–Is Philosophy Dead?

By Emre Kazim and Robert Hanna

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ONDON CALLING BACK, by Emre Kazim, is a series about philosophy, society, and politics, from a British and non-North-American point of view, emphasizing a new critical-dignitarian, edgy, and thoroughly push-backarian philosophical, social, and political ferment on the rise in London, recalling the heady days of politicized punk and The Clash.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, LONDON CALLING BACK has evolved into an online conversation group, aka The LCB Group, whose basic aim is to engage in philosophical dialogues, aka phildialogues.[i]

But as one of the group more informally put it, “I think that the pandemic, while stressful in many ways, has been a weirdly good moment to drill deep on patterns of thinking they’ve/we’ve had for a while, and seriously consider how they/we may want to smash these patterns.”

The LCB Group currently has 20 or so members–most of whom are 30-something, including of course people from London, but also from Germany, Mexico, The Netherlands, and the USA–and it meets weekly for an hour, with 10 or so participants at each session.

Robert Hanna (who is 60-something) leads the sessions, and Emre Kazim is the enabler/organizer.

The first two sessions focused on the topic, “Is Philosophy Dead?”

What follows below are some working notes written down before or after the two sessions.

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EARLIER INSTALLMENTS:

#4: The Rooster: A True Parable About The Rational Human Condition.

#3: “Career Opportunities” Revisited? Work, Leisure, and The Four Day Week.

#2: Invasion of the New Daleks: Alienation, Authenticity, and The Preacher on the Train.

#1: “Human Nature”

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Is Philosophy Dead?

Stephen Hawking wrote in 2010 that “philosophy is dead,” and Steven Weinberg also said similar things in the mid-90s;[ii] and other leading physicists have echoed those claims

2. Relatedly, some philosophers have talked about “the new poverty of philosophy.”[iii]

3. And similarly, other philosophers have talked about the “irrelevance problem” for contemporary philosophy.[iv]

4. All these critical claims about philosophy may look similar on the surface; but before we begin to try to answer the question, “Is Philosophy Dead?,” we should get clearer on what we mean (&/or Hawking/Weinberg mean) by the terms “philosophy,” “death of philosophy,” and “the new poverty of philosophy”

5. Here’s one extremely important thing to notice from the get-go: Hawking’s/Weinberg’s scientism,[v] where scientism is the epistemic and metaphysical valorization of the formal &/or natural sciences, but especially of the exact sciences (mathematics, physics, chemistry), aka “the hard sciences.”

–Unless otherwise specified, that’s what we’ll mean by “science” for the purposes of our discussion.

6. An early apostle of scientism, Wilfrid Sellars, wrote in 1963: “science is the measure of all things,”[vi] which of course updates a very famous slogan associated with the ancient Greek thinker, Protagoras–the notorious relativist and Sophist, heavily criticized by Plato–who said: “the human being is the measure of all things.”

7. Here’s a fairly recent article, by the philosophically-minded physicist Carlo Rovelli, that is directly relevant to the Hawking/Weinberg thesis and also to the philosophy vs. science issue–

Rovelli, C. (2018) “Physics Needs Philosophy/Philosophy Needs Physics,” Scientific American (17 July 2018), available online at URL = <https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/physics-needs-philosophy-philosophy-needs-physics/>.

Rovelli rightly points out that Hawking, Weinberg, et al. are uncritically presupposing Vienna Circle style logical empiricism/positivism and its “scientistic mindset.”[vii]

8. Here’s an important distinction: real philosophy vs. professional academic philosophy vs. classical or post-classical Analytic philosophy.

9. And here’s a provocative thesis: If philosophy (= professional academic philosophy, especially post-classical Analytic philosophy) is indeed “dead,” then it’s because science killed it by chaining it to scientism.[viii]

10. What do you think about the following argument?

(i) When Hawking asserts that “philosophy is dead” that’s neither a scientific claim nor a factual claim.

(ii) In fact, “philosophy is dead” is itself a philosophical claim.

(iii) So Hawking’s assertion is self-refuting.

(iv) More generally, as long as it’s meaningful to raise the question, “is philosophy dead?,” then (at least real) philosophy is not dead.

11. For a view about philosophy and science–and movies!–that’s sharply different from the Hawking/Weinberg doctrine, you could look at this classic piece by the radical philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend: “Let’s Make More Movies,” in P. Feyerabend, Knowledge, Science, and Relativism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), pp. 192–199.

12. In the first session, we were addressing at least five different important issues:

(i) What’s the difference between real philosophy and professional academic philosophy?

(ii) What’s the relationship between real philosophy and the sciences?

(iii) What’s the relationship between real philosophy and the arts?

(iv) What’s the relationship between real philosophy and our personal existential/spiritual concerns?

(v) What’s the relationship between real philosophy and real-world society/politics?

13. Here are two closely related issues that we didn’t touch on: (i) the relationship between real philosophy and ethics/morality, and (ii) the relationship between real philosophy and its own history.

14. Last time, we saw that the term “philosophy” from the Greek term philosophia means “love [or, more generally, passionate pursuit] (philo) of wisdom (sophia).”

And that’s a good start for getting a quick, intuitive conception of real philosophy.

But it would also be useful for us to have a more elaborated working definition of “real philosophy.”

Here’s one (perhaps contentious!, but at least substantive) definition from the Introduction to the Against Professional Philosophy blog:

By real philosophy, we mean authentic, serious, synoptic, systematic reflection on the individual and collective human condition, and on the natural and social world in which human and other conscious animals live, move, and have their being. Real philosophy fully includes the knowledge yielded by the natural and formal sciences; but, as we see it, real philosophy also goes significantly beneath and beyond the exact sciences, and non-reductively incorporates aesthetic, artistic, affective/emotional, ethical/moral, and, more generally, personal and practical insights that cannot be adequately captured or explained by the sciences. In a word, real philosophy is all about the nature, meaning, and value of individual and collective human existence in the natural cosmos, and how it is possible to know the philosophical limits of science, without also being anti-science. Finally, real philosophy is pursued by people working on individual or collective writing projects, or teaching projects, in the context of small, friendly circles of like-minded philosophers. Like-minded but not uncritical! Real philosophers read both intensively and also widely inside philosophy, and also widely outside of philosophy, critically discuss what they’ve read, write, mutually present and talk about their work, re-read, re-discuss, and then re-write, with the primary aim of producing work of originality and of the highest possible quality, given their own individual and collective abilities. They also seek to disseminate their work, through publication, teaching, or public conversation.

In view of this conception of real philosophy, we also share some serious worries about contemporary professional academic philosophy. More bluntly put, we think that professional philosophy is seriously fucked up in various ways that, ironically and even tragically, oppose and undermine the ongoing project of real philosophy.

The twofold purpose of Against Professional Philosophy, then, is, first, to provide a serious critique of contemporary professional philosophy, for the sake of real philosophy–namely, anarcho-philosophy aka borderless philosophy–and second, to prepare the way for the real philosophy of the future by featuring past or present philosophical work that is aggressively cosmopolitan and non-chauvinist, critically challenging and edgy, daringly generalist and original, fully humanly meaningful, slightly weird, and generally deemed “unpublishable” in mainstream venues.

Another, more classical way of stating the purpose of Against Professional Philosophy is that it is essentially the same as Kant’s, in the justly famous opening sentences of “What is Enlightenment?”

“Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his own self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding! is thus the motto of Enlightenment.”

In other words, we think that it’s up to all of us, as lovers of real philosophy, to dare to think for ourselves against the conventional wisdom of contemporary professional academic philosophy. But that’s only the beginning. We hope to help contemporary philosophers, whether inside or outside the professional academy, to (re)discover their true vocation as rational rebels for humanity

“When nature has unwrapped, from under this hard shell, the seed for which she cares most tenderly, namely the propensity and calling to think freely, the latter gradually works back upon the mentality of the people (which thereby gradually becomes capable of freedom in acting) and eventually even upon the principles of government, which finds it profitable to itself to treat the human being, who is now more than a machine, in keeping with [her] dignity.”

15. As something to compare and contrast with that definition of real philosophy, here’s a characteristically independent-minded and well-argued essay by the contemporary philosopher Susan Haack, called “The ‘Feminist Methodology’ Muddle,” here–

https://www.academia.edu/43588902/The_Feminist_Methodology_Muddle

The essay is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but the one most directly relevant to our conversation is her quick definition of philosophy, which she applies to science too:

Should scientists and philosophers use “feminist methodology”? No; for more reasons than I can spell out here, but first and foremost because their business is figuring things out [she also calls this “the inquiry business”] not promoting social justice [“the social justice business”].

It’s also directly relevant to note that Haack has also written a book that’s sharply critical of scientism,[ix] so she doesn’t either confuse philosophy with science, or hold that “science is the measure of all things” and therefore that science necessarily intellectually dominates or supersedes philosophy, like Hawking/Weinberg et al.

16. Directly inspired by our sessions, here’s a new essay which argues that (real) philosophy is not dead, but sharply on the contrary, not only is our best contemporary physics inherently incomplete but also, without (real) philosophy, physics is dead–

<https://www.academia.edu/44019662/The_Incompleteness_of_Physics_September_2020_version_>.

NOTES

[i] See R. Hanna, “What Can Kantian Philosophy Do For Humanity? From Leonard Nelson To Phildialogues” (August 2020 version), available online HERE.

[ii] See S. Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Vintage, 1994), ch. VII; and S. Hawking, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2010), p. 5.

[iii] See R. Hanna, “Thinking Inside and Outside the Fly-Bottle: The New Poverty of Philosophy and Its Second Copernican Revolution” (July 2020 version), available online HERE.

[iv] See R. Hanna, “How to Escape Irrelevance: Performance Philosophy, Public Philosophy, and Borderless Philosophy,” Journal of Philosophical Investigations 12 (2018): 55–82, available online at URL = <http://philosophy.tabrizu.ac.ir/article_7982_en.html>. The irrelevance problem was originally formulated by Carlo Celluci, in “Philosophy at a Crossroads: Escaping from Irrelevance.” Syzetesis 5 (2018): 13–53, also available online at URL = <http://www.syzetesis.it/documenti/archivio/anno5/f1/3%20ARTICOLO%20CELLUCCI.pdf>.

[v] See, e.g., S. Haack, Science and its Discontents (Rounded Globe, 2017), available online at URL = <https://roundedglobe.com/books/038f7053-e376-4fc3-87c5-096de820966d/Scientism%20and%20its%20Discontents/>.

[vi] W. Sellars, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” in Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality, pp. 127–196, at p. 173.

[vii] See, e.g., R. Hanna and O. Paans, “This is the Way the World Ends: A Philosophy of Civilization Since 1900, and A Philosophy of the Future,” Cosmos and History 16 (2020): forthcoming, also available online in final draft HERE.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Haack, Science and Its Discontents.

AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 485

Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 29 September 2020

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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