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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Anti-naturalism in philosophy (I)

[Revised version]

To each his own. It is not for me to adjudicate on other people's activities – so long as they are not harmful or wasteful of public resources.

In these respects, academic philosophy occupies a grey area. It is dependent on public funds, though its requirements are relatively modest compared to some other disciplines. And it can be used (and often is) as a vehicle for promoting certain metaphysical, religious or ideological views, activities which will generally be seen as good by those who share the perspectives in question but harmful by others.

I have been following up recently on certain philosophical thinkers and trying to assess whether or not my initial judgements about the worthwhileness of their work were justified. (Of course, it's not just individual thinkers I am concerned with but also with the discipline.)

There are two issues here which need to be distinguished: worthwhileness (which relates to the wastefulness question raised in the first paragraph), and the issue of using the platform provided by a teaching position in academic philosophy to promote an ideologically-motivated agenda. The latter, I believe, is inappropriate and unprofessional and betrays the trust which society places in its publicly-funded or subsidized teachers. I will ignore here the most common (and objectionable) kind of bias – involving the promotion of partisan political views – and focus on the more subtle question of general metaphysical and religious attitudes.

I have to say that philosophy as it has generally been practised over recent decades does not look attractive to me: the general philosophical culture has been just too hostile to what is seen as 'scientism', and I have felt that the few who shared my views and who participated in the philosophical culture were only serving to give it unwarranted credibility (as token figures, perhaps).

Moreover, I can't imagine that Patricia Churchland's career path, for example, or even that of Daniel Dennett would be possible today. They learned their science along the way, more or less informally. Things are changing, especially with the advent of younger thinkers (such as the neo-empiricist Jesse Prinz or Edouard Machery) who are breaking down the barriers – and blurring the distinction – between philosophy and science.

But amongst those still committed to their discipline as independent and autonomous I am coming across more and more philosophers with a religious agenda. Even many apparently atheistic philosophers seem to be critical of naturalism. I just can't make sense of this except as a quasi-religious or (in some sense) ideological position. It may be that such a position is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for seeing philosophy as an autonomous and coherent academic discipline.

Note that both figures in the video debate embedded below share an anti-naturalistic outlook (though Timothy Williamson equivocates somewhat on this question). Note also the dramatic way Williamson sets up the debate – claiming that what Paul Horwich is saying, in effect, is that philosophy as normally practised is essentially just rubbish. Most academic philosophers spend their time addressing pseudo-problems while others spend their time pointing this out. On this reckoning, we should just pull the plug on the whole enterprise.


Williamson is an apparently skeptical but metaphysically-inclined logician. I respect his formal logical expertise but not his judgement in applying formal logical methods to theoretical and metaphysical questions. This general tradition of thinking, which owes not a little to Saul Kripke's work, has always struck me (I may be wrong) as profoundly misguided when it moves in a metaphysical direction, though it does have useful applications in semantics and other areas. I suspect that much of it – to the extent that it is not just game-playing – is ultimately motivated by a desire to undermine a naturalistic (or to develop a non-naturalistic) view of the world. Kripke, for example, has strong religious beliefs, and the orientation of his theoretical work is arguably related to these. It is no secret that many of today's logicians and philosophers (religiously inclined or not) are antagonistic to science.

The philosophy of language (so-called) seems to be more firmly rooted in 19th-century metaphysics than in modern linguistics. Furthermore, Wittgenstein's and other philosophers' compelling insights into what natural language is, how it works and how it can lead us astray seem to have been ignored or forgotten (except by the likes of Horwich, definitely in a minority these days).

Formal languages and approaches are valuable for their practical applications and for what they can teach us both about the nature of natural language and about thinking. But, like ordinary-language-based approaches, they can be deployed in very unproductive ways.


I will look more closely at what Williamson and Horwich are saying in my next post.