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Has Philosophy Really Lost Its Bite?

The physicist Freeman Dyson is stirring up trouble again.

Freeman Dyson doesn’t think much of philosophy, at least not how it’s practiced at universities these days. The physicist and mathematician is known for taking unorthodox stands, and he’s more than willing to wade into matters outside his bailiwick. In a recent review of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, Dyson wonders: “When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of past glories?”

This was greeted with a combination of bemusement and mild annoyance by philosophers.

A Twitter sampling:

A commenter on the philosophy blog Leiter Reports took Dyson to task for his “ignorance of philosophy.” Another thought he should focus his criticism closer to home: “Physicists haven’t exactly come up with a world-changing physicist in a while either.”

But others wondered whether Dyson might have a point. Has philosophy become overly narrow and technical, straying from its more practical roots?

Daniel Kaufman thinks so. Kaufman, a professor of philosophy at Missouri State University, argues that while Dyson “got a lot of little things wrong,” the thrust of his essay is dead-on. He believes philosophy, judging by the journals, has abandoned what’s most important. “It’s always been about stuff that everybody cares about—God, justice, beauty, good and evil. These are things that everybody has a stake in,” Kaufman says. “And I think we should discuss them in a way such that everyone can understand and benefit from that discussion.”

What actually gets published, Kaufman says, is impenetrable and mostly useless: “Philosophy is better done in the introductory-style survey class than it’s done in the journals.” Kaufman made roughly that argument in a comment on Leiter Reports, and he says he’s since received a half-dozen e-mails of support, some of them from philosophers who say they would be reluctant to voice that support publicly.

Nigel Warburton has been doing his part to raise the visibility of philosophy and to make it more palatable to the masses. Warburton is the host, along with David Edmonds, of the popular Philosophy Bites podcast, on which they interview philosophers about topics like pain, morality, and consciousness.

In an e-mail, he writes that while a handful of philosophers, like Peter Singer, Michael Sandel, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, are compelling enough to attract interest outside the discipline, they are exceptions. “Academia tends to encourage philosophers who speak to each other rather than face outwards,” writes Warburton, who is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the Open University. In addition, he writes that universities are “very good at supporting the ‘research’ of complete mediocrities whose philosophy is scarcely intelligible and certainly of little general interest.”

Brian Leiter sees it somewhat differently. Leiter, who along with running Leiter Reports is the director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago, thinks Dyson’s review displayed a “rather stunning ignorance about philosophy.”

While he more or less agrees with Dyson that philosophy is ignored in the United States, he doesn’t think that’s the fault of philosophers. “What is true, and which someone notes, is that philosophy is irrelevant in America, but all serious intellectual thought is irrelevant in America,” he writes. “It’s got nothing to do with the ‘kind’ of philosophy, and everything to do with the condition of the public culture—in the U.S., it’s in pretty poor condition!”

Leiter contends that philosophers play a more public role in Britain and throughout Europe. But neither he nor seemingly anyone else argues that they matter much in America.

I contacted several other philosophers and asked them to weigh in on Dyson’s criticism. When (and if) they respond, I’ll add their thoughts here.

UPDATE: From Jeffrey Kahn, professor of bioethics and public policy at Johns Hopkins:

My take (for what it’s worth) is that at least some of the brand of outward-looking philosophy that’s being talked about happens outside of philosophy departments and in academic units dedicated to more applied approaches such as bioethics institutes and programs. So part of the problem may be that Dyson is casting his vision too narrowly as he looks for philosophical work that “matters.”

UPDATE: The editor of The New York Review of Books, which published Dyson’s essay, says he’s not hostile to philosophy (though Leiter doesn’t seem to buy it).

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