So on Thursday I’ll be on Philosophy Talk talking about the future of philosophy, and I’ve been thinking a bit about what exactly the future may look like.
Conventional wisdom has it, I think, that the last 30 odd years have seen an unprecedented amount of specialisation in philosophy, and the immediate future will see the acceleration of this trend. A good and persuasive statement of this bit of CW is at the end of Scott Soames’s history of analytic philosophy.
In my opinion, philosophy has changed substantially in the last thirty or so years. Gone are the days of large, central figures, whose work is accessible and relevant to, as well as read by, nearly all analytic philosophers. Philosophy has become a highly organized discipline, done by specialists for other specialists. The number of philosophers has exploded, the volume of publication has swelled, and the subfields of serious philosophical investigation have multiplied. Not only is the broad field of philosophy today far too vast to be embraced by one mind, something similar is true even of many highly specialized subfields. Link
And I basically believed this until recently. But now I think, largely because of arguments I got from Ishani, that the CW is out by 180 degrees, and that the immediate future will see less specialisation than the immediate past. I don’t mean to pick on Soames at all here; I think he’s stating what pretty much everyone believes, and that everyone believes everyone believes, etc. I.e. the conventional wisdom. I picked Soames because it’s such a clear statement. (Note he titles his epilogue “The Era of Specialization”.) And I believed it too, until recently.
I have two primary reasons for my change of heart, one theoretical, the other historical.
First, there is too much to be gained from being a generalist to imagine that in the future there won’t be a pressure towards being a generalist. In particular, there are too many specialised areas of philosophy that could be improved by some cross-fertilisation. Here’s just one example (that doesn’t reflect particularly well on me I’m afraid).
The other night at dinner I was running through a broadly Williamsonian argument against the phenomenal conception of evidence. (The conversation had got onto indifference principles, and on principle I always remind people that the applications of indifference always assume the phenomenal conception of evidence without much by way of argument for this.) Some way into this, Tim Schroeder pointed out that my way of running this argument wouldn’t go through on various conceptions of the nature of the phenomenal. And I have to admit that up to that moment, I had paid not one moment’s attention to the possibility that the metaphysics of the phenomenal might affect the epistemological status of the phenomenal. But of course it very well could.
(UPDATE: That paragraph is clumsily written. I don’t mean to imply that everyone has the particular blindspot I’m confessing to have had. That would be impertinent, and false to boot. But I do think there are some such blindspots about connections between areas of philosophy that are pretty widely shared. How many of us had thought, for instance, about the connection between the importance of free will and the importance of political freedom before reading Philip Pettit? That’s a very surprising, in retrospect, blindspot that I bet many people had. If the CW is right, there will be more of them in the future, and hence more incentive for philosophers, especially young philosophers, to be generalists.)
So I think that there are a lot of philosophical $50 notes lying around on the sidewalk, and it only requires a little bit of generalism to know they are there. The CW implies that there won’t be people who know enough about different areas of philosophy to realise the easy gains to be made by applying lessons from one area of philosophy to another. That is, it implies that these $50 notes will get left lying around. But it’s as safe a generalisation as there is in social sciences that $50 notes don’t stay lying around on the sidewalk forever. So I think the CW is wrong.
A second reason to doubt the CW comes from a crude induction on the history of philosophy. Our time period is not unique in having people in departments called ‘philosophy’ (or an equivalent word) working on extremely different subjects. The way this kind of situation was resolved in the past was by some of the people working on different subjects going off into other departments. Think of William James walking out of Emerson Hall to go into psychology, or Alfred Marshall founding the economics tripos at Cambridge as a separate subject from philosophy. A crude induction suggests that the equilibrium state of philosophy is to be relatively unified, and the mechanism by which such equilibrium is maintained is by ‘defection’.
This kind of historical reflection leads one to wonder just how much the late 20th century differed from the late 19th century in terms of specialisation. For some context, consider that the economics tripos at Cambridge was only separated out from moral sciences in 1903. Or consider especially William Stanley Jevons. Jevons is one of the most important intellectual figures in 19th century Britain, and one of the three founders of the neoclassical revolution in economics that established the economics paradigm in place to this day. And at the time he wrote his most important works, he was a “professor of logic and mental and moral philosophy”, as well one should add as a professor of political economy. And the titles are not just for show; at the same time as he was introducing marginal utility to Britain (he independently, but belatedly, discovered the idea) he was writing a logic textbook, and a somewhat important book in philosophy of science.
So in Jevons we have someone who was, by any accounting, a philosopher, and whose intellectual work was as important as anyone employed in a philosophy department in 19th century Britain, save possibly Russell. But was his work studied by all in philosophy, or for that matter by just about anyone in philosophy today? Well, I know of some contemporary work on Principles of Science, but basically no.
The history of philosophy looks to be devoid of specialists like we find in the present because we’ve cast so many of them out. I suspect more than a few people in current day philosophy will have the kind of career, and legacy, that Jevons has, of being incredibly important to fields other than philosophy. And I suspect it is inevitable over time that such Jevonian figures will come to be employed elsewhere than in philosophy departments. When that happens, the era of specialisation will start to wane.
One last thought on these lines. Many of us work on questions that are of interest to people in other academic departments, be they in linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, biology, physics, political science, economics, mathematics or something else. Here’s a sociological question.
Of the people in those other departments who care about the questions on which they overlap with philosophers, how many of them also care about more distinctively philosophical questions?
For example it isn’t surprising to find that both philosophers and linguists have opinions about the semantics of conditionals, say. It turns out also to be true that at least some linguists are interested in more metaphysical questions that are of relevance to their work, e.g. the metaphysics of events or of possible worlds. You can do work on the semantics of conditionals or action sentences without worrying too much about just what you’re talking about when you talk about events or possible worlds. But as a matter of fact, many semanticists do not take this approach, a fact which I find quite pleasing.
Now my suspicion is that philosophers whose work overlaps with non-philosophers who don’t care so much about other philosophical questions will find themselves more torn between staying in philosophy and setting up shop as a theorist in whatever field it is they overlap with. That is, they’ll feel a stronger pull to follow Jevons’s lead out of philosophy. (It should be stressed that I don’t mean in any way to disparage such a path; it isn’t an accident that I’m using a great like Jevons as the exemplar here. Perhaps Keynes would be an even better example.) But this is sheer speculation; it could well turn out that more people will leave ‘philosophy’ (i.e. departments with ‘philosophy’ in their name) if they feel they’ll still have philosophically interesting and sophisticated colleagues in their new homes.
One might suspect that this won’t mean the era of specialisation in philosophy is over, just that the era of specialisation within departments with ‘philosophy’ in their name is over. But if we have that broad view of philosophy, it’s always been full of specialists who can’t or won’t follow each other’s work. Take a broad enough view and all of psychology and economics comes into philosophy. Take an even broader view and political science and physics are part of it as well. What’s really distinctive about the late 20th century is largely terminological – that all these people working on broadly philosophical questions have set off on divergent research programs without changing the name above their departmental door as Jevons, James, Marshall and so many others before them have done.