(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily as my new column.)
The Greeks understood philosophy as the love of wisdom. They valued theoretical knowledge to the extent it contributed to practical wisdom. Inside Plato’s Academy was a grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. But philosophy today, at least as pursued by much of the Anglo-American academy, is markedly different. For the most part, its concerns have shrunk to sub-disciplines in epistemology, paving the way for the acquisition of theoretical knowledge as an end in itself. The pursuit of wisdom seems to have left the academy and alighted on the stormy shores of self-help aisles.
The First Philosophy
Aristotle described his major work, Metaphysics (not his term for it but of a later editor), as ‘first philosophy’ and called it a study of ‘being qua being’ and ‘the first causes of things.’ In it Aristotle sought to explore the issues that were most fundamental and most general, and which framed all other investigations. Suitably enough, he chose ontology to be the principal subject matter of Metaphysics.
Ontology is the study of the nature of being, existence, and reality. It explores the most fundamental of questions: what does it mean to be and to exist; what standards do we use to distinguish what is from what is not; what properties identify a thing; how do we decide whether a thing has merely changed or ceased to exist; what makes something concrete or abstract, real or ideal, independent or dependent; what interrelationships, boundaries, and classifications do we assign to things; do numbers exist; what is the relation between language and reality; and so on.
How we answer such questions shapes, and is shaped by, the basic concepts through which we conceive our world, concepts like force, energy, motion, nature, impermanence, truth, language, space, time, history, god, mind, evil, suffering, possibility, reason, spirit, etc. These ontological concepts arise from a combination of our senses, imagination, and our being in the world, and they influence what we make of the world, as well as how we investigate it. The Greeks, Gnostics, Aztecs, Confucians, and the Hindus all differed in their ontological assumptions. Not all concepts were shared by them or were given the same interpretations.
For instance, many (but not all) ancient Hindus saw reality as a ceaselessly unfolding divine play (lila), with its countless veils of illusion (maya) that duped us into seeing reality in dualistic terms: mind/body, self/other, good/evil, etc. Time was cyclical, not linear. The natural world was not something apart from us—it was inseparable from us. Many Hindus saw their moods and passions reflected in the phenomenal world, which came to bear on the deepest concerns of human life, woven as it was into an intricate web of life. This view of reality was perhaps not the most congenial for scientific inquiry (but it was for practical reason and reflection). Science has flourished where at least a strong sense of the autonomous self, its separateness from the world, and a subject-object schema of analysis have taken hold. Similar examples can be drawn from other traditions.
In Aristotle’s day natural philosophers and their modern successors, natural scientists, have also investigated our world. It is worth noting that the basic structures, boundaries, and subject matter of what a scientific field studies also fall out of ontology—that is, scientific domains require pre-scientific ontological concepts (such as energy, force, motion, space, time, etc.) to conduct their investigations, and which allow investigators to both anchor that domain and extract objective facts from it—these ontological concepts are not so much the result of objective facts as their precondition. This is why science is said to have metaphysical foundations, and perhaps why Aristotle called metaphysics the ‘first philosophy.’
Many problems once seen as metaphysical by some traditions are now under the purview of science (in cosmology, for instance) but while the boundary between science and metaphysics remains in flux, a lot of metaphysical problems still remain inaccessible to science and include some of the thorniest problems to have confronted humans—why is there something rather than nothing; can we perceive matter as it really is; do we have free will; can natural phenomenon always be reduced to a sum of its parts; what is the relationship between the mind and the body; what is the source of consciousness; does the cosmos have a purpose.
Apart from metaphysics, a host of other philosophical questions seem impervious to science: how to live, what to aspire to; how to think about justice, ethics, and beauty; how to cope with that nameless anxiety we often feel in the gut; what ideals to prefer: liberty or order, pleasure or virtue, self or others, observation or action, temporal or spiritual, apathy or care, pessimism or optimism, self-effacement or self-assertion. Philosophy tackles all these and other ‘ought’ questions, becoming a larger inquiry in light of the sciences and in light of everyday experiences. As in ancient Greece, the role of philosophy is to bridge the gap between knowledge and wisdom.
Objective Truths and Science
Modern science is often identified with the scientific method, but it’s less clear what that means. Science has no unique methodology, says Karl Popper, who sees science as one of many human activities concerned with problem solving. What then demarcates science from non-science, such as logic, metaphysics, or psychoanalysis? Like Hume, he rejects inductive verification (e.g., lab testing) as a criterion, replacing it with falsifiability—i.e., a theory is scientific only if it can be refuted by empirical observations—while admitting that this too is not sufficient to separate science from non-science (e.g., is String theory falsifiable?). Further, theories are never proven true, only held as provisionally true until falsified. We may prefer theories that have survived the test of time, but only our reasoning, and not a method, provides the grounds for retaining a theory as plausible, such as our estimation of its explanatory force and predictive power. Moreover, saying that a theory is non-science is not necessarily to say that it is unenlightening, still less that it is meaningless. Popper even admits the worth of primitive myths in facilitating our understanding of the nature of reality.
Other philosophers of science besides Popper, such as Michael Polanyi, Hilary Putnam, and Thomas Kuhn, have variously argued that the reality revealed by science depends in part on the scientist, developing further the Kantian distinction between the noumena and the phenomena. The observations of scientists are selective, and their theories are also a function of subjective factors—their interests, expectations, and wishes—as well as of what is objectively real.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn wrote, ‘… the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds.... In one, solutions are compounds, in the other mixtures. One is embedded in a flat, the other in a curved, matrix of space. Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction.’ Kuhn pointed out the semantic incommensurability of paradigms, taxonomic and lexical, and how the meaning of scientific terms is anchored in a wider web of meaning (‘meaning holism’). Semantic gaps also appear if we consider the practice of science in different societies. For instance, what pictures of the world do Indian scientists bring to the table? In Alternative Sciences (no, it doesn’t posit an ‘Indian science’), Ashis Nandy studies two major 20th century Indians, JC Bose and Ramanujan, and sheds new light on the role of ontology in shaping how the observer sees the objects of science and math. (A short summary here would not do the study justice.)
To illustrate the central role of the observer, Putnam used a simple analogy: Let’s say I see a cop at a street corner and I mention this fact to a friend. Now if an indigenous tribal man with no policemen in his society is brought in, he may only see a man in a blue dress. Both observations are entirely factual but they reveal ‘reality’ in different ways. A fact is one thing, the picture of the world built upon it using words is quite another, which opens the door to a more nuanced understanding of the phrase ‘objectively true.’ In short, what science enables is a new existential conception of reality—anchored in the facts revealed by science but much else besides. Nietzsche noted that there are no facts-in-themselves, for a sense must always be projected into them before there can be facts. How scientists obtain and describe the facts of science is inevitably shaped by their pre-scientific ontology, paving the way for even more subjective interpretations—such as the social implications of the facts revealed by science—which helps explain why scientists are no more trustworthy or better representatives of reason in public policy debates than lawyers, politicians, or accountants.
Analytic Philosophy and Science
The awesome success of science as a means of knowledge and shaping of our world has led many to approach philosophy too like a branch of natural science. Analytic philosophy arose in 1900s Europe, in Cambridge and developed further by the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, who vehemently despised metaphysics for its non-empirical, unverifiable content, and saw it as wholly dispensable. They focused on language and logical analysis of propositions, rather than understanding the nature of human experience and existence. They aspired to a ‘science free from metaphysics’ to propel a purely scientific conception of our world.
Decades later, it dawned on some of their successors that, like it or not, all scientific understanding is parasitic upon a prior view of the world, which led them to change course and embrace the study of metaphysics. But despite Quine’s critique in Two Dogmas of Empiricism, the foundational instincts lived on. Like a congenital tick, Analytic philosophers—now dominating philosophy departments in the Anglophone world—approached philosophical problems as science did, with no reference to their history or the social context in which they arise: they reduced philosophy to technical thinking. How-to-live questions that did not reduce to empirical investigation were deemed meaningless. Is it surprising that the best known Analytic ethics is utilitarianism? And by looking up to science for intellectual affirmation, they not only shrank their canvas and exposed their lack of self-confidence but, as Putnam noted, also flirted with scientism. Thankfully, in reaction, a post-Analytic philosophy has begun to crawl out of their frog-wells in recent decades, onto a wider field and utilizing new approaches—which include embracing Continental thinkers like Heidegger—and led by folks such as Rorty, Kuhn, Putnam, Rawls, Cavell, Feyerabend, Taylor, and others.
Our scientists, however, could not care less for philosophy and the humanities today, as Bohr, Einstein, and Schrödinger once did. At the Beyond Belief conference in 2007, which I watched in its entirety, Peter Atkins, author of nearly 60 science books, proclaimed the coming reign of science and the impending demise of not only metaphysics but all philosophy: ‘We’ve got to get rid of philosophy because it is really such a ball and chain on progress ... a philosopher is really just a nuisance.’ All ‘why’ questions were meaningless, he declared, and should be abandoned in favor of ‘how’ questions. An audience member pointed out that Atkins’ proclamation was not scientific but philosophical, which only served to irritate him. Curiously enough, the theme of the conference was ‘Enlightenment 2.0.’ What’s even worse is that Atkins fitted right in with several invited luminaries, and he was invited back in 2008 to deliver the closing lecture. I was reminded of Einstein’s observation from 1944:
‘So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.’
Given the pivotal role of science in society today, it is an urgent task to humanize our scientists, so they can be more than a new class of mere technicians and ‘knowledge workers’, Brahmins 2.0. Many conflate the two, but a scientific temper is not synonymous, and is often at odds, with practical reason—while related, the former is concerned more with matters of fact and justified belief, the latter more with estimations of value and good judgment. In my view, our scientist class (especially the neo-atheist variant) suffers not from too much rationality, but from too little.
Doing the Continental
I’m inclined to agree with Simon Critchley that Continental philosophy ‘seems truer to the drama of life, to the stuff of human hopes and fears, and the many little woes and weals to which our flesh is prone.’ He finds it revealing that its enthusiastic reception in the English-speaking world has largely taken place outside philosophy departments. It may well be that some in the Continental vein employ terms that are obscure or too general, or seemingly flirt with anti-science irrationalism. This is unfortunate, not the least because they also detract from the serious, insightful, and science-friendly work of others in the tradition.
Continental philosophy, to paraphrase Critchley, is best understood as a series of rational critiques, each on our present condition that is seen to contain a crisis, a reevaluation of the ideas that have led us to the crisis, and a new approach that offers emancipation from the deadening wood of the present—a new way of seeing, then, far closer to the mission of philosophy. Notable examples of such crises include the crisis of faith (Kierkegaard), of bourgeois capitalism (Marx), of nihilism (Nietzsche), of losing touch with being (Heidegger), and of the human sciences (Foucault).
A key trend in 20th century Continental philosophy was a return to the primary concern of Aristotle’s ‘first philosophy’: the study of being. Heidegger observed that we have lost touch with being, the very thing that is at the heart of all awareness. We have run into a false and technical conception of being. In Being and Time, notes Bill Blattner, ‘Heidegger argues that meaningful human activity, language, and the artifacts and paraphernalia of our world not only make sense in terms of their concrete social and cultural contexts, but also are what they are in terms of that context.’ The subject-object model of experience, in which we see ourselves as distinct from the world and others, ‘does not do justice to our experience, that it forces us to describe our experience in awkward ways, and places the emphasis in our philosophical inquiries on abstract concerns and considerations remote from our everyday lives’—it is to ‘us’ we must return, to reflect on our pre-cognitive modes of existing and relating to the world, to uncover the pre-theoretical layer of human experience upon which our theoretical conception of the world rests. This is no simple task and is the chief subject matter of phenomenology.
Phenomenology, besides impacting almost every contemporary academic discipline (lately even analytic philosophy), as well as pop culture through one interpretation of it called existentialism, has also explained why science—confronting the immersive, holistic nature of our relation to the world that resists reductionist prodding—has had limited success and keeps running out of descriptive and predictive steam when studying the human mind, morality, psychology, aesthetics, and our social world; why the central hypothesis of cognitive science seems incorrect—that thinking consists of discrete representations in the mind and computations that operate on them; why we should stop talking of the mind as software running on hardware, etc. (See my related article on Artificial Intelligence.)
Continental philosophers in the 20th century expounded on history, culture, and society with the aim of awakening a critical consciousness of the present. They have also studied science as the privileged discourse it has become, the social construct of ‘Reason’ and its limits and dangers, the human factors outside science that influence scientific debates, and the nexus between science and capitalism and how they shape a technological view of us and our society. Such an autonomous realm lies at the heart of all great philosophy and we need a lot more of it today, especially in the Anglophone spheres. I think Aristotle would surely have agreed.