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Philosophy in the age of science

23 March 2013

Recently I tweeted a link to an article about eminent Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam, which argued that philosophers oughtn’t be thought less of for changing their minds over the course of the careers. The articled opened with a comment about the place of philosophy in an age of science, with the obligatory over-simplifying reference to the fact/value distinction. I’ll admit that the ‘science vs. philosophy’ debate has always puzzled me, much as has the ‘science vs. religion’ debate. Since when have science and philosophy been in conflict, or even at cross-purposes? As separate expressions of the search for ‘truth’ that so defines our society, [1] are they not to be equally valued and engaged with? As fundementally different arenas of that search, are they not to be regarded as being in conversation, rather than conflict? Rhetorical questions aside, I’ve often wondered what is the actual source of the conflict. Much as I agree with the popular (among the philosophically-inclined) answer that our society’s over-valuation of scientific knowledge has led to the under-valuation of other sorts of knowledge, I hardly think that philosophy itself is blameless.

Contemporary Western philosophy has bifurbicated itself by a seemingly uncrossable divide into ‘practical’ and ‘speculative’ branches. The ‘speculative’ braches and sub-branches, which are descriptive in method, take as their subject matter topics seemingly divorced from the everyday, like ‘language’ and ‘mind,’ and ponder about them in an academic conversation. The ‘practical’ branch, normative in its method, is what we usually call ethics. Ethics, to borrow a turn of phrase from Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, is concerened with what it is right to do. It is not, leaning on Taylor again, all that concerned with what it is good to be. It is there that I think our problem arises. From the Enlightenment until 1958, when G.E.M. Anscombe inaugurated the aretaic turn with her paper ‘Modern Moral Philosophy,’ philosophy forgot what it was for. The speculative and practical disciplines inexplicably parted ways, to the loss of the everyday applicability of the former and the holism of the latter. Philosophy as an art of living, a term which I thank Costica Bradatan for recently popularising, seems to have been lost somewhere along the way.

Philosophy as an art of living, as a holistic program to discover what we ought to be, does not conflict with science. Rather it is informed by science, as scientific knowledge can only increase our understanding of the world around us and our options for reflecting on how best to live within it. [2] This model of philosophy takes as its end eudaimonia a wonderfully complicated term which I ought to explore more thoroughly in a future post and one which as variable translations from the Greek. Though the traditionally standard translation has been ‘happiness,’ the modern understanding of happiness does not emcompass the whole range of eudaimonia, so modern translators and philosophers tend to prefer ‘human flourishing’ as a more holistic rendering. When understood in this way, as the vehicle of human flourishing, philosophy surely cannot be seen as being in conflict with science. It is, rather, a partner of science in the project of human betterment and understanding.

Notes and Bibliography

[1] That admittedly glib comment about ‘our society’ is not meant as some pro-Western statement or to be denigratory of other societies. Rather it is an acknowledgement that a concern with ‘truth,’ as opposed to other valid values, defines Western society in a way which it does not others, for both good and ill. If you’re interested in this notion I suggest picking up a copy of Asad, Talal et al., Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (The Townsend Papers in the Humanities No. 2), Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009, and in particular reading the first chapter by Talal Asad.

[2] If you’re preparing to launch at me some argument employing an absolute fact-value distinction, please go pester Sam Harris or something.

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