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Philosophical relevance, irrelevantly.

April 14, 2009, 12:24 pm

Leiter asks, considering this Kristof piece:

Why do members of the educated public think that it is an objection to philosophical inquiry that it is unintelligible to them (or that it does not have immediate application to the quality of life of pigs, say), whereas no one would think to put such objections against esoteric work in the natural sciences?  Are other humanities subjected to this same expectation of “practical relevance and intelligibility”?

From discussions with other colleagues in the humanities, they are subject to the same expectation, one as old as the hills, or at least the Gorgias: how is that going to make money and benefit society?   (I think philosophers get more questions about pot.) Yet I think there’s an explanation specific to philosophy in the answer to the first question.

Esoteric work in the natural sciences is very difficult to understand, and such work does often get dismissed as impractical.  (See: Rush Limbaugh on cow farts, comments on NASA every time it pops up in the news.) But a weaker thesis seems to be true, that this kind of complaint comes up much less for a practicing scientist than it does for a professional philosopher, even if the scientist’s work is unlikely to yield immediate practical results, or even if the scientist has no practical everyday aim in mind.  Purely theoretical science gets a pass because it occurs in close proximity to practical science.   (Literally.  Down the hall.)

But to focus purely on the practical results of science as an explanation misses an interesting aspect of Leiter’s question.  Most people don’t understand quantum mechanics; most people can’t.   Most educated people can’t understand the Big Bang or the mathematics behind theories of time, but most educated people can mumble something about probability and Schroedinger’s cat and singularities.  People who study physics or mathematics professionally, therefore, are doing that.  That hard thing, that’s like this other thing that I know about, you know, but harder.

So what about philosophy?  I don’t think the problem is with content, or at least if it is, the problem doesn’t map onto traditional intradisciplinary turf struggles.  (Besides, enrollments are up in many, many philosophy departments; the students seem to like something that we’re offering…)  Rather, I think the problem is with chronic underexposure.  Most people who do learn philosophy don’t do so until college; and most people can get through college without ever taking a philosophy course.

It’s not common for high schools to have sequences in philosophy, so unlike history, literature, and the sciences, there’s no simple mental projection of what a professional philosopher might be doing.  Not that people generally understand what historians do (as eric and ari would certainly point out) or get it wrong in entertaining ways.   (The only real history concerns WWII.  And kings and battles.) But I think people think they *get* history or chemistry or neurobiology  in a way they don’t get philosophy, and I think it’s because they had a history or chemistry or biology class in high school.

Moreover, as a profession, we’ve dropped the ball in marketing our discipline publicly for the educated layman.  I read A Brief History of Time when I was fourteen or fifteen.  I have, practically speaking, no clue at all what the current issues are in theoretical physics, and couldn’t leap over the mathematics involved with a running start and a tailwind.    But I’d probably pay attention to a news article about the age of the galaxy just because I read that book.   I could go to the bookstore and read lots of popular-but-smart titles about history, even if the scholarship makes historians cringe. Philosophers tend to write for each other, and what passes for popular philosophy consists nearly entirely in books with the titles “X and Philosophy,” where X is some flash-in-the-pan pop culture phenomenon.* And books on parapsychology.**  And academic books that are hard to understand, or accessible academic books that aren’t marketed well.*** (Someone like Singer has been so successful in part because he is very easy to read.)

I’m not sure how to fix this perception problem, or even if I have the problem diagnosed properly.   And I’m curious to others’ perceptions. I tend to think philosophers have it worse than some of the other humanities.  Not that this is a competition, but it goes to my half-baked theory that lack of familiarity prompts the “you’re majoring in what?” reaction.


*I don’t have a problem with the fluffy titles in the abstract, but I do occasionally worry that my mother thinks that philosophers mostly write about the ethical dilemmas in television and movies.

** We need to get the term “metaphysics” back from the new age crystal snugglers.

*** I’ll readily admit that I lost my sense of what is an accessible philosophy book to the educated layman years ago.  And there’s probably no hope for some subdisciplines.

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