Tuesday, November 9, 2010

the death of philosophy

It's because of statements like this that philosophy as a profession is dead: "philosophy is not a quest for knowledge about the world, but rather a quest for understanding the conceptual scheme in terms of which we conceive of the knowledge we achieve about the world. One of the rewards of doing philosophy is a clearer understanding of the way we think about ourselves and about the world we live in, not fresh facts about reality." This is from an interview with Oxford philosopher Peter Hacker (see full interview here). I don't really understand what he means (and there's nothing in the article that clears it up). In any case, can't I make this same claim about the rewards of doing psychology, or artificial intelligence, or linguistics, or mathematics, or virtually any intellectual discipline that requires disciplined reasoning?

Hacker becomes downright confusing when discussing his distaste for neuroscience:

Merely replacing Cartesian ethereal stuff with glutinous grey matter and leaving everything else the same will not solve any problems. On the current neuroscientist’s view, it’s the brain that thinks and reasons and calculates and believes and fears and hopes. In fact, it’s human beings who do all these things, not their brains and not their minds. I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about the brain engaging in psychological or mental operations” (emphasis added).

Hacker makes a three-way distinction between human beings, brains, and minds, with nothing more than fluff to draw the distinction. I happily admit that I'm pretty strongly on the meat-puppet end of the spectrum, so I see no reason to posit that there exists a thing HUMAN_BEING that is somehow magically not a function of the physical stuff that makes up the human body.

But more to the point, Hacker seems incapable of discussing this in a way that is easy to follow. Exactly what is Hacker's HUMAN_BEING? I wish I had a clearer understanding of what he means. How do I objectively distinguish this from new-age hippie gibberish? It sounds remarkably similar to this passage: "It doesn't require a three-dimensional descriptive identification as the totality of it's unseen dynamics can be seen everywhere, in everything. Without the spirit, the physical and the mental would have no reason to exist as neither would be whole." This quote is from the wise sage Shirley MacLaine.

I'm a reasonable adult with a graduate level education and yet I cannot follow what should be a simple interview about what this man does for a living without encountering vague claims and incoherent distinctions. Am I supposed to sit through suffocatingly boring and pretensions philosophy seminars in grad school before I can come to an understanding of what Hacker means? If that is true, then philosophy is dead, truly.

The ironical part is that Andrew Sullivan referenced this interview with the pompous heading The Hubris Of Neuroscience. The only hubris I found in the interview was Hacker's.


techczech said...

The funny thing is I actually understand what Hacker is trying to say and agree with him up to a point. The modularization of human experience is a significant methodological problem for the modern humanities.

The reason I agree with you about the death of this pile of waffle people still call philosophy is because it claims a metaphysical primacy and is (almost) never willing to commit to a program of empirical inquiry. Wittgenstein is a case in point - he provides some inspiring hints that need to be examined in the light of actual evidence and not repeatedly rehashed by blowhards.

Show me a philosopher who uses a corpus and I might be willing to listen.

Tom Noir said...

Thanks for helping crystalize some of the reasons behind my disinterest in philosophy.

Chris said...

@techczech, yes, a corpus philosopher would be interesting.

@Tom, just trying to keep philosophers on their feet, haha.

bhekkii said...

Thank god I'm not the only one...

kinaze.org said...

Philosophy is just thinking about how we think. It's a game. Pure fun. Can be an idealistic game or a highly nihilistic one, whatever you like to play. Philosophy just likes to understand how you play it. I admit philosophy can get caught in the game when trying to recreate it, but to say it's dead? Nothing exists.

Chris said...

@kinaze, point taken, but what you're talking about is not the profession of philosophy. Peter Hacker is a long-time Oxford don who gets paid to be a philosopher. That's something altogether different. And I do think that profession is dead intellectually.

Jaren Lewis said...

Well, so far as the brain-human being split, I assume that his point as read in the meat-puppet conception (of which I'm also a fan) would mean to take into account the elements of cognition independent of the brain—e.g. the rest of the nervous system, environmental stimuli.

It's certainly unnecessarily romantic to word the distinction that way, not well-supported or -explained in the text itself, and doesn't hold up with his critique of neuroscience, but I don't know that it is in and of itself ridiculous.

Alon said...

Full disclaimer: I was a Philosophy BA before I decided to take up an empirical discipline (in order to have, as techczech says, a corpus). I no longer consider myself in the philosophy business, but I do have a fondness for the lingo and attitude that I acquired during that initial training.

With that said, I don't find Hacker's views so puzzling or obscure. The first part of the article is pretty much a restatement of the analytic creed: the role of philosophy is not to yield additional data about the world, but to question how the ways in which we frame those data (our "grammar", whether in the actual linguistic sense or in a metaphorical, structure-of-human-thought-processes, one) may lead us to assume the existence of certain phenomena in the world that may not really be there.

This can be put in far clearer terms than Hacker does, but his linguistic choices seem driven by the expectation of an audience familiar with the disciplinary tradition (he's writing for a philosophy magazine, after all), and thus likely to recognise most of the implicit assumptions in his text. This is, in and of itself, no worse than any other professional lingo.

@Jaren Lewis: hearing "spirit" (or, even worse, "soul") makes one immediately suspect Romanticism, but I doubt this is the case with Hacker. My reading is that he thinks of minds as emergent phenomena, fully caused by but not reducible to the brain-cum-nervous-system, and of human beings as second-order phenomena, emerging probably from mind+experience.

@techczech: how do you feel about the Frankfurt School? As hopelessly Hegelian as they were, their entire project was based on social research and philosophical critique mutually informing each other.

Anonymous said...

So because you disagree with a certain strand of Post-Wittgensteinian philosophy, philosophy as such is dead? On the contrary, I would assert, rigorous logical thinking is more necessary than ever, and it's clearly lacking in your post