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Accessible and inaccessible disciplines: why philosophy and science are similar but are treated differently

Amongst my books is a late nineteenth century edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Purchased from a used bookshop many years ago, it contains the previous owner’s signature on the flyleaf together with a commentary: “Started Boston 1883. Began again in Salt Lake City February 1891. Began again 698 East Capitol St. Oct. 1911. Finished Nov. 1911.” I feel a bond with that reader, almost certainly not a professional philosopher, who persevered with difficult material, convinced that what was within was worth understanding. The commentary illustrates a striking difference between types of academic discipline. In some, the material, at least superficially, is accessible. In others, the door is firmly closed. Many of the creative arts fall into the first kind. Allen Ginsburg’s Howl can be appreciated by a teenager for its dark dynamics, despite the multitude of scholarly texts that deepen our understanding of that poem. In many sciences, the primary sources–journal articles–are impenetrable to nonexperts.

What of my own field, philosophy? Historically, some important philosophers, David Hume and René Descartes amongst them, combined sophisticated ideas with an elegant and accessible style. Unassisted readers struggle with other historical figures, such as Leibniz. But philosophy of the last fifty years has faced a special dilemma. Many outsiders, while recognizing that philosophy is difficult, become hostile and resentful when reading contemporary authors. Those same readers have a different reaction when faced with a journal article or even a textbook in molecular biology, acknowledging that the subject matter does not easily yield to amateurs, and rightly so. The reasons for the difficulties in both cases are straightforward–technical vocabularies, the assumption of much previous knowledge, subject matter that is remote from ordinary experience. What is puzzling is the difference in attitude by nonexperts. My Boston reader of a century ago thought that Kant was worth twenty eight years of effort and stuck with it.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell; John Maynard Keynes, Baron Keynes; Lytton Strachey, by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1915 – NPG Ax140438. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used with permission.

Behind this antipathy to philosophy lies a peculiar psychological attitude, one that I have encountered many times. It is exhibited by a wide range of readers, from Nobel prize winners to Amazon reviewers. An individual, let’s call him Horace, has been successful in some area of intellectual activity such as physics, law, or engineering. Horace then infers from this success that he is equally adept in all other intellectual domains, including philosophy. Difficulties ensue, Horace does not understand why the author is arguing for X, or even what the argument for X is, but what Horace does know is that it’s the author’s fault or the fault of philosophy in general.

Not far from Kant on my bookshelves is Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. Originally published in 1912, it was part of the Home University Library series–later acquired by Oxford University Press–and its intended audience included working men and women with only a rudimentary formal education. Over a century later, Russell’s book remains a model of clarity and creativity. It was successful in part because thousands of readers who had never been to university, including miners, steelworkers, and other industrial laborers, were willing to come to grips with difficult ideas presented by a master of English style. They lacked hubris; they knew that this was going to be hard work and stuck with it. That attitude is rarer than it used to be, hence we now have a Sparknotes version of Russell’s book, complete with a “Plot Overview.” On our side, we philosophers should stop writing notes to one another. Some have done so; there are volumes in Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series that provide lucid, occasionally brilliant, expositions of contemporary philosophical ideas that challenge the reader.

What I fear is being lost, and it results from multiple influences, is the willingness to move from being a consumer of information to being an internal participant in philosophy. In mathematics, computer packages that solve differential equations are magnificently powerful but they can easily reduce you to a willing spectator. To understand mathematics, you have to work, really work, with the material. In many areas, Wikipedia is a wonderful source of information but it rarely jolts your mind. Contrariwise, information loss can force you to think, hence the old mathematical joke that to write an advanced textbook you just remove every other line from an intermediate textbook. To gain access to the realm of philosophy, you have to struggle with ideas, many of them weird and unappealing, few of them easy. That is what my Kantian book owner was willing to do. Those who are not willing will be left permanently on the outside, staring with puzzlement at their own reflections in the philosophical window.

Featured image: Scenography of the Copernican world system by Andreas Cellarius. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 

Recent Comments

  1. Viktor Blåsjö

    Should politicians, Wall Street traders, and predatory corporate CEOs be immune from criticism from outsiders on the grounds that their work involves some technicalities that outsiders do not fully comprehend? According to the logic of Humphreys’ terrible argument the answer must be: yes.

    A more constructive way of looking at it is that critical thought from a diversity of viewpoints is a good thing. From the fact that no outsiders criticise the hard sciences Humphreys tries to infer that no outsiders should criticise philosophy either. But why not instead make the inference that it would be better if more people criticised the hard sciences too? That would make sense, unless one thinks that scientists and philosophers are infallible and have nothing to learn from outside viewpoints.

    In fact, the hidden assumption in Humphreys’ argument speaks volumes about the doctrinal assumptions of analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophers are so infatuated with the sciences and so obsessed with the idea that they are doing the equivalent of hard science that they confuse “X is how it’s done in science” with “X is the good and proper state of affairs.”

    A self-rationalised refusal to listen to critiques from anyone one deems an outsider is a recipe for insular and dogmatic thought. Humphreys is openly calling for exactly this. Yet at the same time he is baffled that everyone “from Nobel prize winners to Amazon reviewers” is critical of his field. But instead of putting two and two together he doubles down on insularity and urges philosophers to bury their heads even deeper in the sand.

  2. Karl Young

    Very nice piece. I certainly agree with the main point that it’s a shame that digging in re. reading important philosophical works isn’t more broadly encouraged these days. Though I’m not sure that the percentage of people unwilling to do so is any larger or smaller than at other times in history. Maybe it”s just that it’s easier to be exposed to the great philosophical works these days and perhaps more people try, but the same percentage as always give up in frustration.

    But if this is in fact a problem unique to today, the reasons are probably pretty complicated. E.g. the silly and pompous pronunciations by experts in other fields that philosophy has been rendered irrelevant certainly don’t help. If somebody is having a tough time getting through a work of philosophy these days, to avoid further frustration they now have the out, of saying, well xyz has deemed this irrelevant anyway. And it’s true that this isn’t the case for trendier areas like physics. Though nobody but a few people in the world will get through a paper on string theory these days, nobody will argue that that’s because it’s irrelevant (well maybe string theory wasn’t the best example here…)

    And, as briefly alluded to in the piece, philosophers could help themselves a little by trying to cut down on the density of technical jargon where it’s not absolutely necessary. E.g. though I proudly felt like an insider after looking up ceteris paribus (which isn’t very difficult these days !) sometimes just, all else equal, will do.

    Then again struggling through Heidegger somehow didn’t seem like completely wasted energy, despite many a modern commenter denouncing his writing as meaningless. So maybe there’s a fine line between principled and obtuse obfuscation via jargon and often good to just struggle on. The Zen masters certainly thought so !

  3. Allan Hayes

    I wish that I had kept such a record in the many books that I have read – or tried to read – I am now 83 – one was Aristotle’s Politics bought in Blackpool as a teenageer on a family holiday – started reading on the sands presumably, annotated but not, I confess, finished.
    What a salutary reflection on shared enquiry!
    Will the internet encourage this? I certainly find it so: this comment, for example, and as licence holder for TEDxLeicester!
    Best wishes to Oxford’s Very Short Introductions.

  4. […] Here is a brief but meaningful article on the lack of consistency in our attitudes toward science and toward philosophy (as many of us would probably have noticed in our interactions with others and through browsing related articles online). […]

  5. John Salmond

    Embarking on the global warming apocalypse, perhaps one is entitled to wonder if both science and philosophy have been delusions.

  6. ohm

    So much of contemporary philosophy is plagued by unnecessary terms and technicalities.
    There is no reason why philosophy shouldn’t be comprehensible to the layman. As is often stressed to undergraduates, the topics are complex and hard enough as they are; no reason to make things harder.

    Just to take on a minor case, philosophers could almost eliminate the use of variables and constants as 90% of the time their use is totally uncalled for and pretentious (even if the writer is unaware of the pretense).

    To demonstrate:

    Instead of-

    “x loves y if and only if x wants to be with y and cares about y”

    write-

    “A person loves another when he or she wants to be with them and cares about them.”

    or perhaps-

    “For Danny to love John means that Danny wants to be with John and cares about him.”

    Sorry for any ungrammatical English, but you get the point. And please, no nitpicking about the use of “if” in natural language vs. the technical “if and only if” that philosophers like. This just another case where philosophers refuse to use words as they are used in normal language because of a pseudo accuracy-problem which could be resolved very easily by reading pragmatically.

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