Susan Haack’s “The Real Question: Can Philosophy be Saved?”

Mr Nemo
13 min readOct 11, 2017

A guest authored edgy essay by Susan Haack

APP Editors’ Note: “The Real Question: Can Philosophy be Saved?” originally appeared in Free Inquiry 37, 6 (2017). “Our editor” refers to FI’s editor, Tom Flynn.


Once again — now, heaven help me, even in the pages of Free Inquiry! — I find myself “otherwise minded,”[1] the cannibal among the missionaries. Why so? I certainly share our editor’s sense that academic philosophy is in bad shape, and his concern for the future of our discipline. But his diagnosis — that, in what he sees as a kind of culture war in our profession, the side that appeals to “awe and transcendence” seems to be winning — strikes me as way off the mark; and his prescription — that we should fight back by renewing our commitment to a philosophy informed by a policy of “strict scientific naturalism” — strikes me as more likely to aggravate our ills than to cure them.

Yes, something is rotten in the state of philosophy. I’d go so far as to say, as an unusually candid friend put it a few years ago, that our profession is “in a nose-dive.” (How far can it go? What can I say? — the sky’s the limit.)[2]

How did this happen? Some of the problems are the result of changes in the management of universities affecting the whole academy: the burgeoning bureaucracy, the ever-increasing stress on “productivity,” the ever-spreading culture of grants-and-research-projects, the ever-growing reliance on hopelessly flawed surrogate measures of the quality of intellectual work, the obsession with “prestige,” and so on. And some of the problems are the result of changes in academic publishing: the ever-more-extensive reach of enormous, predatory presses that treat authors as fungible content-providers whose rights in their work they can gobble up and sell on, the ever-increasing intrusiveness of copy-editors dedicated to ensuring that everyone write the same deadly, deadpan academic prose, the endless demands of a time- and energy-wasting peer-review process by now not only relentlessly conventional but also, sometimes, outright corrupt, and so forth. Other problems, however, are more specific to our discipline: our decades of over-production of Ph.D.s, for example, the pressure we put on graduate students to publish while they’re still wet behind the ears, the completely artificial importance we give to “contacts” and skill in grantsmanship and, over the last decades, our craven willingness to sacrifice our own judgment in submission to the ranking gods of the PGR.

In an environment like this, an environment of perverse incentives that reward, not the truly serious, but the clever, the quick-witted, the flashy, the skillful self-promoter, and the well-connected, it’s no wonder that the very virtues that good intellectual work, and perhaps especially good philosophical work, requires — patience, intellectual honesty, realism, courage, humility, independent judgment, etc. — are rapidly eroding.[3] Nor is it any wonder that, in response to all these perverse incentives, over the years philosophy has become more and more out of touch with its own history, more and more hyper-specialized, more and more fragmented into cliques, niches, cartels, and fiefdoms, and more and more dominated by intellectual fads and fashions: “feminist” this, that and the other, “formal” everything, the enduring Kripke-cult, the recurrent outbreaks of galloping Gettieritis, the vagueness boom, the virtue epistemology bandwagon, the social epistemology blob, etc., etc. And — not surprisingly, given that the neo-analytic paradigm, though institutionally still well-established, seems pretty close to intellectual exhaustion — another notable recent trend has been a craze for “naturalizing” one area of philosophy after another, for “experimental philosophy,” “neurophilosophy,” evolutionary everything, and so on and on.[4]

But isn’t there also, as our editor claims, a notable renaissance of religiously-oriented philosophy? I would have thought that, if there were, I would have noticed; but I’ve seen no sign of any such trend. That’s why, in response to his invitation — explaining that, if there is indeed such a religious revival going on, I’d somehow missed it — I asked what he had in mind; and wasn’t entirely surprised when he acknowledged that such evidence as he had was, as he said, “anecdotal” — more precisely, it was hearsay. So all I can say is that, from where I sit, it looks as if, outside the religious universities. the prevailing culture in the academy (as in the country more generally)[5] is actually increasingly secular.

But isn’t recent work aimed at reconciling Dewey’s A Common Faith with the rest of his oeuvre, as our editor says, “telling”? I can only say that, by my lights, thoughtful scholarship of this kind would be a step forward, not something to be feared. Well, what about those humungous grants doled out by the Templeton Foundation — don’t they exert a significant influence? I have no evidence of this, either. It’s not just that, to judge by my (admittedly limited) experience, a good deal of Templeton’s money seems to be frittered away on conferences and lecture series perhaps best described as “much ado about not very much”; it’s also that Templeton’s religious agenda is hardly a secret — we’re all aware of it, and surely, if we have a lick of sense, discount for it.

But even if I’m wrong, and Templeton’s influence in our field really is significant, it could only be because philosophy professors have been foolish enough to buy into the idea that what we need to do good work is buckets of money for a research team, assistants, equipment, travel to conferences, and the like. Nonsense! How likely is it that a philosopher will make real headway on some significant problem because Templeton gives him millions of dollars to do so? Significantly less likely, I’d say, than if he didn’t have to waste his time meeting with his “research group” and managing a bunch of assistants and a monstrous budget; i.e., pretty darn unlikely. To be sure, landing a whopping grant will likely make you a big man on campus; and, skillfully deployed, all that money may even make you a “name” in our profession. But we all know, if we’re honest with ourselves, that the way to get good philosophical work done is not to give plausible people huge grants, but to allow serious people the freedom to follow ideas where they lead — freedom from pressure to rush the work, exaggerate their results, or reach conclusions deemed politically acceptable, freedom from anxiety that failure to conform to intellectual fashion or to defer to this or that Big Noise may make it difficult to publish in the “prestigious” journals and, more generally, freedom from demands to go along to get along.

By now, probably, some readers are rolling their eyes impatiently. Even if you’re not convinced that a growing religious influence is as important an element in the decline of our discipline as our editor supposes, they will ask, surely you agree that it’s desirable that philosophy be conducted on the basis of strict, scientific naturalism? Sorry, no: here too I have real reservations.

For one thing, by now “naturalism” (like “realism,” “relativism,” “pragmatism,” “feminism,” etc.) is so over-used and so abused that it’s more confusing than helpful. It refers indiscriminately to a whole unruly family of ideas — a family with more than the usual complement of eccentric aunts, alcoholic uncles, bratty children, testosterone-crazed adolescent tearaways, and demented great-grandpas still fighting the battles of their long-ago glory days. For another, and most to the present purpose, an ugly specter haunts the naturalist family mansion: the specter of scientism, i.e., of inappropriate, uncritical deference to the sciences.

In some senses of the word, my philosophy is certainly naturalistic. It doesn’t rely on supernatural assumptions, nor does it reach supernatural conclusions; and I haven’t the slightest inclination to appeal to awe, or transcendence. Moreover, I think philosophy is about the world, not just about our concepts or our language; so my approach is, as I said in Defending Science, “worldly”:[6] it relies on experience as well as reasoning, and is entirely open to calling on the work of the sciences where it’s relevant. In short, it represents a modest form both of naturalism-as-opposed-to-supernaturalism and of naturalism-as-opposed-to-apriorism. But, as the word “modest” signals, I have no sympathy with scientism: in particular, I don’t believe either that we can simply hand philosophical questions over to the sciences to resolve, or that only questions resoluble by the sciences are legitimate.[7] And this leaves me swimming against the rising tide of scientistic philosophical naturalisms.

Thirty years or so ago, in the wake of Quine’s profoundly ambiguous “Epistemology Naturalized,”[8] Alvin Goldman was promising that cognitive science would tell us whether the structure of epistemic justification is foundationalist or coherentist,[9] and Stephen Stich and the Churchlands[10] were announcing that science — cognitive science in Stich’s case, neuroscience in the Churchlands’ — had shown the old folk psychological ontology of beliefs and desires to be as mythical as phlogiston, so that epistemology is a pseudo-discipline, a “subject” with no subject-matter. At the time, such ideas seemed like bizarre aberrations; by now, they are so commonplace we scarcely notice how wild they are.

Quine had equivocated, using “science” sometimes to refer to our presumed empirical knowledge generally, and sometimes to refer to the sciences specifically; now, it seems, a false equation of “empirical knowledge” with “scientific knowledge” is ubiquitous. Self-styled “experimental” and “empirical” philosophers pursue Goldman’s old fantasy of squeezing substantive philosophical results out of psychological experiments and surveys; proponents of “metaphysics naturalized” — apparently forgetting questions of history, law, etc., not to mention such questions as what building the physics department is in or what they had for breakfast yesterday — confidently assure us that “with respect to anything that is putatively a matter of fact about the world, scientific institutional processes are absolutely and exclusively authoritative.”[11]

But what about the brand of naturalism most immediately relevant here, naturalism-as-opposed-to-supernaturalism? Whether construed as a metaphysical thesis to the effect that there are no supernatural entities, phenomena, etc., or as a methodological principle to the effect that we should avoid positing such things, this is entirely negative, ruling out certain kinds of approach and certain kinds of theory but silent on where we should go from there. Or so it seems to me. But our editor is by no means alone in supposing that, if we reject supernaturalism, we must conclude that there is nothing but “matter and energy and their interactions,” and that this means that philosophy must look to the sciences for answers. Even if we can articulate an interpretation in which this “nothing-but” thesis is true, the conclusion that the sciences can resolve philosophical questions doesn’t follow. Indeed, reasoning as if it did follow exactly parallels the reasoning of religious people who, asking rhetorically, “can science explain everything?” take for granted that, if the answer is “no,” then religion must fill the gaps; and it is no less faulty.

So, just as naturalism-as-opposed-to-apriorism succumbs to scientism when it falsely assumes that whatever isn’t a priori must be science, naturalism-as opposed-to-supernaturalism succumbs to scientism when it falsely assumes that whatever isn’t religion must be science. Granted, theological “explanations” don’t really explain anything;[12] but it doesn’t follow, and it isn’t true, that science can explain everything. The achievements of the sciences certainly deserve our respect and admiration. But, like all human enterprises, science is fallible and incomplete, and there are limits to the scope of even the most advanced and sophisticated future science imaginable.

Evolutionary psychology, for example, might tell us a good deal about the origin of the moral sentiments or the survival value of altruism; but it couldn’t tell us whether or, if so, why these sentiments, or this disposition to help others, could constitute the basis of ethics. Cognitive science might tell us a good deal about people’s tendency to notice and remember positive evidence and to overlook or forget the negative; but it couldn’t tell us what makes evidence positive or negative, or what makes it stronger, what weaker. Neuroscience might tell us a good deal about what goes on in the brain when someone forms a new belief or gives up an old one; but it couldn’t tell us what believing something involves, or what makes a belief the belief that 7 + 5 = 12 rather than the belief that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Francis Bacon, or what evidence warrants a change of belief. More generally, none of the sciences could tell us whether, and if so, why, science has a legitimate claim to give us knowledge of the world, or how the world must be, and how we must be, if science is to be even possible.

And the rising tide of scientistic philosophy not only threatens to leave the very science to which it appeals adrift with no rational anchoring; it also spells shipwreck for philosophy itself. We don’t need to imagine the disaster; we can watch it unfold before our eyes in Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s View of Reality.[13] His title, with its presumptuous suggestion that he speaks for all of us, should already raise a red flag. His next move — adopting “scientism” for the view that all atheists share — makes matters worse. For one thing, it’s downright perverse: “scientism” has long been a pejorative term; and anyway, we already have a perfectly good word for the view that all atheists share: “atheism.” For another, this perverse verbal maneuver glosses over the fact that by no means all atheists are motivated by scientific considerations.[14] And from then on things get, as children say, “worser and worser.” Endlessly repeating his mantra, “physics fixes all the facts,”[15] Rosenberg gleefully announces that this means there is no meaning, no values — moral, social, political or, apparently, epistemological — and, in effect, no mind: “the brain does everything without thinking about anything at all.”[16]

“Well, yes,” you may say, “this is, admittedly, dreadful stuff; but it’s not at all the kind of thing we reasonable humanists are proposing.” I’m glad to hear it; but you’re making my point for me. To my mind — yes, Professor Rosenberg, I do have one! — answering questions like “What’s distinctive about human mindedness?” “What’s the relation between natural and social reality?” “How does philosophy differ from the sciences?” “What has philosophy to learn from the sciences, and they from it?” etc., requires serious philosophical work. And serious philosophical work, like any serious intellectual work, means making a genuine effort to discover the truth of some question, whatever that truth may be.[17] If, rather than make this effort, we rely on slogans — whether on religious slogans like “Restore Awe and Transcendence,” or on anti-religious slogans like “Save Scientific Naturalism” — we will fall into what Peirce called sham reasoning: “it is no longer the reasoning that determines what the conclusion shall be, but the conclusion that determines what the reasoning shall be.” The inevitable result, he warned in 1896, will be “a rapid deterioration of intellectual vigor”; which, he regretfully continued, “is just what is taking place before our eyes.”[18] Sadly, it still is.[19]


[1] This lovely phrase comes from a description of colonial Rhode Island by contemporary critics alarmed by the colony’s commitment to complete freedom of religion. E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979; New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, 1996), p. 2.

[2] I borrow from a story told by Bernard Goldberg in Bias (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002), p. 192. Asked by a reporter asked what the problem was with his last-place team, New York Knicks guard Micheal (sic) Ray Richardson replied, “the ship be sinking.” How far could it sink? “The sky’s the limit.”

[3] On the culture of grants-and-research-projects see Susan Haack, “Preposterism and its Consequences” (1996), in Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 188–208. On the erosion of academic virtues, see Susan Haack, “Out of Step: Academic Ethics in a Preposterous Environment,” in Haack, Putting Philosophy to Work: Inquiry and Its Place in Culture (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008; 2nd ed., 2013), 251–68 (text), 313–17 (notes).

[4] Susan Haack, “The Fragmentation of Philosophy, the Road to Reintegration,” in Julia Göhner and Eva-Maria Jung, eds., Susan Haack: Reintegrating Philosophy (Berlin: Springer, 2016), 3–33.

[5] “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center (May 2015), p. 2: the fastest-growing religious affiliation is “none.”

[6] Susan Haack, Defending Science — Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), p. 52.

[7] See Susan Haack, “Six Signs of Scientism” (2012), in Haack, Putting Philosophy to Work, 105–20 (text), 278–63 (notes); Scientism and Its Discontents (Rounded Globe, 2017).

[8] W. V. Quine, “Epistemology Naturalized,” in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 69–90. For disambiguation, see Haack, Evidence and Inquiry (1993; 2nd ed., Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), ch.6.

[9] Alvin Goldman, Epistemology and Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986); roundly criticized in Haack, Evidence and Inquiry, ch.7.

[10] Stephen P. Stich, From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science (Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books, 1983); Paul M. Churchland, “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes,” Journal of Philosophy 88, no.2 (1981): 67–89; Patricia Smith Churchland, Epistemology in the Age of Neuroscience,” Journal of Philosophy 84, no.10 (1987): 544–53; all roundly criticized in Haack, Evidence and Inquiry, ch.8.

[11] James Ladyman, Donald Ross, et al., Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 28.

[12] Susan Haack, “Fallibilism and Faith, Naturalism and the Supernatural, Science and Religion” (2005) in Putting Philosophy to Work, 199–208 (text), 306–07 (notes).

[13] Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s View of Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).

[14] Richard Robinson’s An Atheist’s Values (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), for example, made no mention of Darwin, evolution, cosmology, etc., but relied substantially on the argument from evil.

[15] Rosenberg, The Atheist’s View of Reality, pp. 20, 81, 113, 162, 194, 219, 220, 220, 223, 241, 244, 313.

[16] This is the title, and the burden, of ch.8 of Rosenberg’s book.

[17] See Susan Haack, “Serious Philosophy,” Spazio filosofico 18 (2016): 395–407.

[18] C. S. Peirce, Collected Papers, eds. Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss and (vols. 7 and 8) Arthur Burks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931–58), 1.57–58 (c.1896).

[19] Thanks to Mark Migotti for helpful comments on a draft, and to William Scott Green and Elaine Sternberg for helpful conversations.




Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Wednesday 11 October 2017

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Mr Nemo

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