On the role of philosophy in the modern world

UPDATE 2021-12-17 17:41 +0200: Included the full exchange.

I received the following question in response to an older publication of mine. I asked for permission to reproduce the exchange, while omitting any potentially personally identifying information.

I always find it interesting when people try to find a place for philosophy in the present world, now that its domain has largely been superseded by science and its insights and methods are part of every rational field of inquiry. Leading experts in every field already use the rational methods developed historically in the philosophical tradition, to clarify concepts, look at the big picture, and discern patterns and connections. What role do you think philosophers should have in clarifying concepts, big picture thinking and discening patterns and connections that isn’t already being done by scientists, leading experts, and non-expert commentary such as good journalism?

It is indeed true that science has superseded philosophy in every field where statements can be verified. And yes, it is the case that rational methods, the clarification of concepts, et cetera, are not exclusive to philosophy or philosophers. Every field of inquiry, every area of expertise exhibits that sort of rigour. This is not a modern development either, although it is more obvious nowadays. From ancient times we have had mathematicians, engineers, botanists, and so on: experts in fields of endeavour where philosophy has no application or, if it does, its extent is not immediately obvious.

To my mind, the enduring value of philosophy consists in its capacity to abstract from the particulars and connect the dots between otherwise disparate fields of knowledge. The philosopher is often a polymath or, in other words, polymaths have a propensity or ability to philosophise. That may be because the collation of information renders conspicuous patterns that are otherwise not possible or easy to discern; patterns we may reason about in order to gain insight into some hitherto obscure theme.

Think, for example, how we got the idea of software freedom, since what prompted your question were my musings about a relevant topic. The notion of free software is not inherent to programming, engineering, or computer science, even though people in those disciplines may conceive of it and reason about it. The concept is made manifest by abstracting from the particularities of coding and by drawing linkages with other aspects of human collective experience as pertaining to coding but also in general, to eventually realise what the bigger picture is and where things are going.

It is not the job of philosophy to charter such a new domain, as that is a matter of a more specialised enterprise. Contrary to science, whose positive claims are meant to be put to the test and ultimately verified, philosophy’s description of how things stand is speculative, filled with doubt and subject to reconsideration. At least as far as I am concerned, the philosopher does not hide the fact that their role is not to make a discovery down to the last detail but simply point towards a direction that might hold mysteries yet to be revealed.

What philosophy continues to provide is its attitude, which we can summarise as “scepticism” in the interest of brevity, although I understand this is a somewhat overused and potentially imprecise term. The philosopher’s disposition is one of dubitativeness and inquisitiveness where even one’s own claims are taken with a grain of salt. Again, what I mentioned above on positive statements.

[ Read: The Dialectician’s Ethos (2020-09-30) ]

Science as such is underpinned by the same virtues. It too is a sceptical endeavour equipped with a methodological framework for the assessment of hypotheses/claims about states of affairs. Though here we must introduce an important, yet subtle, distinction between science and scientists (just as we can for philosophy and philosophers—not every philosopher is consistently philosophical in their disposition). There are scientists who go into science for its economic or social benefits; people who in their everyday life qua scientists do not practice the virtues of science, such as by not listening in earnest to so-called “heterodox” schools of thought within their field or by conflating the popularity of ideas with their cogency, and so on. Furthermore, we have scientists who are not operating in the service of science, such as those who are paid handsomely to produce dubious research for the sole purpose of supporting the agenda of some industry (e.g. tobacco, coal and oil companies, etc.).

Some scientists are like the doctor who advises against smoking yet requires a short break to light a cigarette. The point is that we should not assume that every individual lives in accordance with science just because of the fact that they have the technical training of a scientist. Put differently, science has an ethos associated with it, where “ethos” refers to the intersubjective character of a person: the way one’s actions relate to others and the overall qualitative aspects of those relations. Such an ethos requires consistency.

[ Read: Notes on Science and Scientism (2021-04-28) ]

This brings us to another function of philosophy, which Socrates described as that of a “social gadfly”. Maybe this is not the prettiest image to think about or even the most apt metaphor, though it does speak of how the philosopher must sometimes be a nuisance who reminds people that they are not operating within their limits or in accordance with the precepts they purport to live by. The philosopher can assume that role by means of tracing those abstract patterns I alluded to earlier, though not for the sake of pontificating on what the single source of truth is but only to keep people in check, else to keep them honest.

Consider, for instance, the ever-practical economist who claims to only care about facts yet blithely proceeds to draw models that assume human agency as perfectly rational (the chimera of homo economicus). The 2008+ global financial crisis can, in a way, be described as a systemic failure of overconfidence in our abilities and state of knowledge. It was a brand of cockiness not too dissimilar to this unflinching commitment to—indeed the faith in—a purely factual exchange. The economist who only cares about facts cannot possibly listen to their philosophising peer who points out the underlying hypocrisy of said cockiness: the opinion that maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do.

At times we must plot a course of action with the understanding that we labour under imperfect knowledge, where the acquisition of a fact is not tenable. Anticipating when to suspend one’s own rules and how exactly to reassess them in light of the specific constitution of the case they find themselves in, is a matter of preemptive judgement, indeed prudence, not factual analysis.

It is in those cases where philosophy can remind people of what they are supposed to be doing. To rekindle the scientist’s commitment to science, to its ethos, and to insist that one should not cling on to the technicalities of a method to the point where they forget about its inherent meaning, about the disposition towards knowledge and learning that does not take itself as flawless and its findings as final.

Put concretely, philosophy will be irrelevant once the attitude of philosophising consistently becomes the norm. This is not to imply that philosophers are a special breed of intellectual or that philosophy must somehow be granted the authority to issue edicts on how everyone should behave—that would just make philosophers cocky and prone to the hubris I implied. If anything, the opposite is true as philosophy outside the narrow confines of an academic career (the academy is not all that philosophy is about) is a thankless task that leads to marginalisation and impoverishment. So I am not defending philosophy in the same way one justifies an established order on the premise of not destroying employment positions or simply protecting one’s social standing.

Every interested party can philosophise, provided they put in the requisite effort (which is true for everything that involves a degree of sophistication). We will be better off once the distinction between the scientist or expert and the philosopher is no longer meaningful. Are we there yet? I don’t know. My encounters with experts of all sorts tell me that we probably have ways to go, though that may not be the case or general trend.

[EDIT 2021-12-17] The response I received:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic. If this was a natural conversation I would have responded to in each paragraph, and I think the end result would be very different. This exchange has prompted me to wish I had time to set up my own website like yours. Maybe next year. For now, I’ll just post my response here. Sorry it’s so long; it would be shorter if I had more time.

You rightly distinguished between philosophers and philosophy, and I noticed ambiguity in how I used the word “philosophy”. To clarify, I was not questioning whether the traditionally philosophical activities you listed (clarifying concepts, big picture thinking, finding patterns, etc.) are still important; they undoubtedly are. What I was asking was what you think the specific role is for philosophers to do those activities.

You suggested a symbiotic relationship between polymathic tendencies and philosophising. I agree, and this is confirmed in my own experience, but I don’t think this indicates a contemporary role for philosophers. Multidisciplinary work is increasingly common nowadays. It often involves experts from a variety of fields communicating among themselves for the kinds of benefits you mentioned, such as pattern finding, cross-fertilization and bigger picture thinking. I especially enjoy reading books in which each chapter is written by an expert from different field. There are many conferences involving a variety of speakers. A recent trend is for the architecture of many organisations to be intentionally desiged to encourage interaction between people from diverse fields.

You gave an example: “The notion of free software is not inherent to programming, engineering or computer science, even though people in those disciplines may conceive of it and reason about it.”

This further confirms my original statement and doubts about the role of philosophers. Ethics is part of standard training for many professions nowadays. Software freedom arose as an effort to preserve freedoms that were previously the norm, but which were being taken away as part of the increasingly aggressive commercialisation of software. It’s not hard to imagine how frustrating it must have been for this freedom to be denied. It would have been very natural for a programmer with a moral compass and a well-rounded education to make an ethical case and develop a counter-strategy in that situation.

You stated that: “Contrary to science, whose positive claims are meant to be put to the test and ultimately verified, philosophy’s description of how things stand is speculative, filled with doubt and subject to reconsideration. At least as far as I am concerned, the philosopher does not hide the fact that their role is not to make a discovery down to the last detail but simply point toward a direction that might hold mysteries yet to be revealed.”

Each of these roles: speculative description of how things stand, every level of doubt, keeping everything open to reconsideration, and speculative pointing to potential future directions, are essential to science, inherited from philosophy. In a typical research article, these are often found in the standard sections: Introduction, Discussion, Future directions, and Conclusion; and scattered throughout literature reviews and books.

You stated: “We will be better off once the distinction between scientist or expert and the philosopher is no longer meaningful. […] My encounters with experts of all sorts tell me that we probably have a long way to go.”

Is there a specific way in which you think scientists should be more like philosophers? In any field, not every person with a PhD lives up to their title “Doctor of Philosophy”, and not every field meets the same epistemological standards in its models, literature or methods. For example, I agree with your criticisms of economists and economics. Its moniker “the dismal science” rightly labels it as dismal, but calling it a science gives it too much credit. Does this suggest a role for philosophers, or is it rather a case for policy reform to enforce ethical conduct and improve scientific standards?

I noticed that you implied that you were “defending philosophy”. My question was not an attack on philosophy, and neither are my refutations. I believe that philosophy is one of the highest achievements of humanity. I cherish my own philosophy education, both formal and autodidactic, and hold it in the highest esteem. It informs my life decisions and daily thinking and it enriches my inner life. Although I struggle to find a meaningful role for philosophers in today’s world, I firmly believe there is a crucial need in the world for more widespread philosophy education, especially in ethics and critical thinking skills, so people are better equipped to think for themselves.

About turning this into a conversation: I am happy to do so and, if you want, publish the whole thing. Eponymously (with links to your web presence) or anonymously—whatever you prefer [EDIT 2021-12-17: Keeping it anonymous for now]. I just try to avoid long exchanges here [EDIT 2021-12-17: meaning on Youtube] because (i) they are virtually impossible to archive, (ii) they might be deleted at any time (it has happened before, including in a recent video about the Emacs VS Unix theme). In case you want to do so, email would be my preferred medium and once we have put everything together we can agree on the details pertaining to its publication.

About the role of philosophers: as I already wrote, if we reach a point where experts have ethics training, where their institutions implement the teachings of such training, where interdisciplinarity is the norm, where no school of thought gains prominence on the basis of social status or state/corporate funding or anything other than its own merits, and so on, then I believe there would no longer be a role for philosophers. They would become irrelevant, at best echoing what would already be standard practice.

For the rest of your post, I think we are on the same page though you seem to have a slightly higher standard of what qualifies as “science” than I do (given your point on economics that calling it a science gives it too much credit). Maybe you focus on the “hard” sciences or something along those lines? Fine by me, though then we need to make the qualification clear. Because most scientists (in the banal sense of “science” which includes economists) that influence our daily life seem to not be involved in this sort of “hard science” (or however your standard is formulated): think about all the different and conflicting guidelines on diet, exercise, etc. as well as what happens in the worlds of finance, politics, business, and so on. Maybe in those cases we do not have science-as-philosophy (in the way you have outlined), but science-as-technical-expertise where it is essentially decoupled from the ethos of science-as-philosophy. In such a case, the role of the philosopher would be to nudge things towards the direction of science-as-philosophy (and become irrelevant after the job’s done).

My comment about conversation was just an observation about how a different format would have turned out differently. There are pros and cons of each option, and I’m satisfied with the efficiency of this one. I wasn’t asking to turn this into a conversation, apart from the reply I posted. I’ve already said almost all I wanted to on the topic. I wouldn’t mind if my posts are deleted because they’ve already served their purpose in my own thinking process. It would be a bonus if anyone else finds them interesting so feel free to use my posts as you please. I’ll just briefly respond to your last comments.

I know that there is a real science of economics, but I said that economics doesn’t deserve to be called a science because it is riddled with ideology, cargo cult science, yes men and a lack of will to improve. Even if you could raise every great philosopher from the dead, I don’t think they would change the situation until the perverse incentives for poor scientific standards were changed. That’s a job for educators and policy makers, not philosophers;– unless the resurrected philosophers became educators or policy makers.

For example, I studied philosophy during my batchelor’s degree with career academics, but during my masters degree I did introductory coursework in ethics for ICT professionals, taught brilliantly by a professor relatively new to academia with about 40 years experience as a programmer. He simply introduced a set of ethical frameworks (and relevant laws), and spent most of the time discussing practical applications of these frameworks in various workplace scenarios. My undergraduate philosophy education was far more advanced theoretically, but if I had to choose just one unit to make the greatest impact in the world on the ethical behaviour of ICT employees, I’d choose that introductory ethics unit taught by an experienced programmer.