May 15, 2011


Philosophy that’s not for the masses (James Ladyman, 5/10/11, TPM)

I want to explain why I think that much of the specialisation of contemporary philosophy is not a bad thing after all. In large part my argument depends on the engagement of philosophy with rest of knowledge. I want to defend the specialisation in philosophy that is a consequence of the overlap between a subfield of philosophy and another specialised subject matter, where that may be the history of philosophy itself. This is the kind of philosophy that I am most sure is worthwhile. If there is a kind of pure philosophy that may not be valuable, it is not clear that it is anything more than an ideal form anyway, since no philosopher is an island.

Either way, it is important to distinguish between different kinds of specialisation. Some people specialise in the literature that their peer group has produced over the last 20 or 30 years, and have little knowledge of what the great philosophers of the past have said, even about their own preoccupations. This may often be a bad thing. Even worse, every subject has its blind alleys, and there are doubtless branches of philosophy with concepts and questions that we will come to see as pointless. However, it is no easier to pick winners in philosophy than in any other area. We know that the overall contribution of philosophy to human existence is so great as to be impossible to evaluate even if we only consider its spin-offs in science. This contribution comes from a subculture that thinks in a sustained and careful way about something that others take for granted, and this usually means specialising. I must confess that my defence of specialisation is motivated by my earnest wish to be allowed to spend the rest of my life thinking largely about the same nexus of issues that I have been thinking about for 20 years – although in my view that also means learning more about everything else too.

Certainly, academic philosophy can be highly specialised, and discussions often take place in what the outsider would regard as impenetrable jargon. However, this situation is not peculiar to philosophy. Who understands the terms in which mathematicians and theoretical physicists communicate, other than those with sufficient training in the relevant technical areas?

Of course, academics in the arts had to make their specialties absurdly complex because they felt threatened by the fact that while they couldn't follow physics a physicist could understand their field.

Posted by at May 15, 2011 9:34 AM

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