Friday, May 17, 2013

What is Philosophy?

I've just discovered (via Dan Dennett) to the work of Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of science with a particular interest in biology. I've been reading around in some of his essays and this one, "On the Relation Between Philosophy and Science", has a nice account of what philosophy is about. Godfrey-Smith offers three roles: 1) intellectual integration, 2) conceptual incubation, and 3) critical-thinking skills. He regards the first as fundamental and as the most important of the three. I agree.

Here's his basic statement of that role:
The best one-sentence account of what philosophy is up to was given by Wilfrid Sellars in 1963: philosophy is concerned with "how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term." Philosophy aims at an overall picture of what the world is like and how we fit into it.

A lot of people say they like the Sellars formulation but do not really take it on board. It expresses a view of philosophy in which the field is not self-contained, and makes extensive contact with what goes on outside it. That contact is inevitable if we want to work out how the picture of our minds we get from first-person experience relates to the picture in scientific psychology, how the biological world relates to the physical sciences, how moral judgments relate to our factual knowledge. [emphasis mine, BB] Philosophy can make contact with other fields without being swallowed up by them, though, and it makes this contact while keeping an eye on philosophy's distinctive role, which I will call an integrative role.
Note the sentence which I've put in boldface type. There are, of course, many different accounts one might give of the relationship between first-person experience and scientific psychology and Godfrey-Smith plays no favorites in this paper; he doesn't even discuss that particular issue. But he recognizes that first-person experience must be honored, and that's an important recognition.

But I want to look at some later remarks, remarks he introduces as a qualification, as it is those remarks which I find helpful in understanding my own work, my interest in philosophical matters and my lack of interest in (academic) philosophy. Godfrey-Smith observes:
When asking about what role "philosophy" has, one can roughly be speaking be asking about two things: a style of work, or a cultural lineage, something with a location in space and time. This is akin to the distinction between more typological and more lineage-based views of species and some other biological kinds. To some extent philosophy is a style of work housed within a lineage, but there is plenty of work in that style outside the lineage, and the lineage gives rise to work that is not really in the style.
I do a lot of that, "work in that style outside the lineage." In my preface to Beethoven's Anvil I referred to it as a work of speculative engineering, engineering because it is about how music is designed and constructed, in brains, social groups, over centuries of human history, and speculative because it had to be. We don't really know how music works in any of those contexts, much less across all of them. The only way to tell an inclusive story is to speculate on how it might work.

It is that element of speculation that allowed me to cross disciplines, from neuropsychology to the paleoanthropology of human origins, from aesthetics to cultural history, and from physics to, well, to philosophy. This blog is philosophy in that speculative and integrative sense. In that sense philosophy is what we need perhaps more than anything else.

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