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Against narrowness in philosophy

If you asked many people today, they would say that one of the limitations of analytic philosophy is its narrowness. Whereas in previous centuries philosophers took on projects of broad scope, today’s philosophers typically deal with smaller issues. Their interest is to consider a few problems and to examine them in detail. The result is that many philosophers tend to work in a few fields and to avoid the breadth of philosophy’s historical forebears.

While this is true of many philosophers today this isn’t true of them all. A good example of this is the philosopher Philip Kitcher, whose work covers an impressive range of subjects. He is one of the few philosophers capable of and interested in working in a number of areas.

Kitcher’s early interests included work in mathematics. He earned his undergraduate degree in 1969 at Cambridge University, focusing on mathematics and the history and philosophy of science. After this, he left for the graduate program in philosophy at Princeton University. He graduated from there in 1974 also with a focus on the history and philosophy of science.

Photo of Philip Kitcher by Patricia Kitcher. Used with permission.

In his early research he examined issues with the sciences. Growing alarmed at the rise of a series of books defending “scientific creationism,” Kitcher published his first book in response. Abusing Science: The Case against Creationism attempts to show the problems with scientific creationism. He explains how the views presented by the creationists wither once we properly understand the notions of scientific evidence, evolutionary theory, and other concepts. This early work revealed his interests in science and evolutionary theory.

Kitcher’s second book was devoted to the philosophy of mathematics. In The Nature of Mathematical Knowledge, he presents his understanding of mathematical knowledge. Following the empiricist John Stuart Mill, he argues that mathematics had its origin in our ancestors’ perceptual experiences and became extended through a sequence of rational transitions to other parts of mathematics. This account of mathematical knowledge was unique in its approach to the subject.

After this Kitcher wrote several works on issues in the sciences. This included work on the notion of scientific explanation and issues concerning the biological sciences. For instance, there are a number of concepts in biology of interest to philosophers (“function,” “altruism,” “biological determinism”) and Kitcher wrote a series of articles addressing them. Aside from his interest in understanding these areas of biology, Kitcher also made clear that he was interested in general aspects of science. In his book The Advancement of Science, he provides a general account of science and how it develops. This work was written in response to the views of Thomas Kuhn and others who challenged the traditional conception of scientific knowledge. Where Kuhn had argued that science isn’t as rational as it is presented to be in the history books, Kitcher demurred. Agreeing with Kuhn that the history of science is more complex than is often recognized, he rejects Kuhn’s more radical suggestions. Offering his own account of scientific development Kitcher claims that science is an imperfect but still largely rational endeavor. What is needed is to see that the social aspects of science do not undermine its rationality.

These are the areas for which Kitcher is previously well known. As his work has developed, though, it has taken on new directions.

In his later work he came to emphasize the role of social issues in science. Denying that science is an autonomous discipline, he urges that it should be responsive to the societies in which it figures. His Science in a Democratic Society discusses the nature of science in democracies. He suggests we need to consider the ways that science is situated in societies, since we cannot come to a proper understanding of the aims of science without considering its broader social significance.

In addition is Kitcher’s interest in ethics. He provides a detailed account of the historical origins and justification of our moral evaluations in The Ethical Project. Integrating his interest in evolutionary studies and ethics, he argues that our moral evaluations do not require religious backing or appeal to faculties of ethical perception. These evaluations are extensions from the ordinary practices of human beings as they come collectively to work out their differences in society.

These works would have been sufficient to make Kitcher—often seen as a philosopher of science—viewed as a broader figure, but Kitcher’s work has continued in other directions. Interested in the nature of human experience, he went on to discuss aspects of literature in Joyce’s Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegans Wake, including issues concerning the meaning of life. And in Finding an Ending: Reflections on Wagner’s Ring (with Richard Schacht), Kitcher explains the significance of Wagner’s opera and how it should be interpreted. These works extend beyond anything Kitcher is usually associated with in the field and show the range of his concerns.

In some respects, there is something true in the claim that many philosophers exhibit a certain narrowness. But it should be apparent by now that Kitcher isn’t one of them. His wide ranging interests reveal him to be a broader, and more interesting, figure than one commonly finds.

Featured image: Colour-composite image of the Carina Nebula by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

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