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March 22nd, 2006

The End of an Era?

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.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

28 Comments »

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28 Responses to “The End of an Era?”

  1. Matt says:

    I at leat roughtly agree with this. But, don’t you have the chronology for James backwords? If anything wasn’t he doing psychology and physiology, and this lead him to philosophy? At the least his most read philosophy texts were all written after the Principles of Psychology. (At that time period there seemed to be quite a few people moving in both directions in and out of philosophy proper- James, Husserl, later on Schlick and Carnap and the like, in one direction, Wundt, Helmholtz, etc. in the other.)

  2. Greg Frost-Arnold says:

    Re: the first argument (there are enough $50 bills on the philosophical sidewalk to incline more folks towards being generalists):

    I wonder whether philosophy might follow the scientists’ lead again on this: scientists (often) counteract individuals’ hyper-specialization by collaborating with people who are hyper-specialists in distinct but related fields. Perhaps bringing three people together who know everything about their three respective philosophical sub-fields will generate better philosophical work than one person who knows a bit about each of those three fields. Developmental biologists now collaborate with molecular and evolutionary biologists to answer the Big Questions, but no one nowadays is a biologist simpliciter. Philosophy could perhaps take an analogous path.

  3. Allan Hazlett says:

    I think an even stronger version of the “$50 note” point could be defended. It’s not just that there are nice perks to being a generalist, it’s rather this: that, for almost any philosophical question, one does not even stand a chance of having a true opinion about that philosophical question unless one is a generalist – for exactly the reason you’re pointing out. Views in specialized subfield of philosophy X have consequences in specialized subfields Y and Z. Unless one is a reliable judge about Y and Z, one is not likely to be a reliable judge about X. (Of course whether this is a “stronger version” of the “$50 note” point just depends on how much you value $50 notes.)

  4. Brian Weatherson says:

    Matt,

    That sounds right about James. I know much more about the relevant history of econ than about the relevant history of psych, and I don’t know very much history of econ.

    Greg,

    That might be the way it turns out, but it would require a radical increase in the amount of collaborative work in philosophy. And it would require at least someone knowing that there is a potential for cross-over work here. That knowledge isn’t trivial.

    Allan,

    I agree, that’s an even stronger reason. I’m starting to doubt my claim about what’s CW…

  5. Alan says:

    Assuming that you’re right about the need to be a generalist, what advice would you give to young aspiring graduate students? Should they be reading every lemming handbook from Blackwell or Oxford they can get their hands on? Or perhaps you could recommend a list of top 3 books in each major subfield (let’s keep it to language, epistemology, mind and metaphysics) everyone should read in order to be a minimal generalist.

  6. sam says:

    i agree that there will be interesting findings that are between specializations in philosophy and between philosophy and other fields. but i think this is slightly different from being a generalist. in other words, you can be doing things that cut across different sub-fields in place now, but still be pretty narrow.

  7. matti says:

    Paths diverge. People who work on, say “philosophy of language”, need to be more specific on whether their project is one of (1) explaining symbolic representation (2) giving a perspicuous account of a fragment of (f.e.x)English (3) saying something deep about L, where L is a variable for natural languages, or maybe (4) continuing with the project of creating formal languages for specific purposes. What is, for example, a “theory of vagueness” supposed to do for us? I don’t so much think that the crucial feature is specialisation (which has always been there), but rather the divergence between those who think of themselves as studying empirical languages, those who address big philosophical questions, and those who create mathematical substitutes for pretheoretical notions.

  8. Neil says:

    I think that’s what likely to happen – what’s already happening – is that philosophy will follow psychology and the other sub-fields of cog sci. Yes, being a specialist means that you don’t know enough about abutting fields to be sure whether what they have to say matters to you. That’s why you give papes and talk to people: you find people with not the same expertise but overlapping expertise, and be guided by them. And, best of all, you collaborate with such people. Look at the prevalence of brain imaging data in social psychology, as psychologists team up with neuroscientists and neuroscientists realize there is a wealth of evidence in psychology bearing on their claims.

    I guess what really matters is not whether individuals are specialists or generalists, but whether the fields split off from one another to their mutual impoverishment, or whether sub-disciplines continue to feed into one another. My guess is we’ll see growing specialization by individuals, but that needn’t mean the loss of generality in the field.

  9. Martin Lin says:

    Allan says, “for almost any philosophical question, one does not even stand a chance of having a true opinion about that philosophical question unless one is a generalist – for exactly the reason you’re pointing out. Views in specialized subfield of philosophy X have consequences in specialized subfields Y and Z. Unless one is a reliable judge about Y and Z, one is not likely to be a reliable judge about X.” This can’t be right. Consider mathematics. Views in mathematics have consequences in computer science and physics. And yet it is not the case that unless one is a reliable judge about computer science and physics, one is not likely to be a reliable judge about mathematics.

  10. Kris McDaniel says:

    Just to echo (emphatically) some earlier points made by others: you (Brian) are a specialist, who is very, very good at what you specialize in. (You are also a remarkably broad specialist, in that you have many specialties.) Tim is also a specialist, who is very good at what he specializes in. Magic happens when two (or more) people who are very good at their respective (different) specialties interact — and good departments realize this. That’s why the best departments try to get people who are the best at what they do, i.e., the best specialists in their respective subfields. Considerations about the “breadth” of an individual are (rightly) secondary — it’s important only that the department as a whole is broad, not that its individual members are broad. (It’s important that the individual memebrs of a department are not insular, i.e., unwilling to discuss, debate, listen, or share with others in the department who do not share their specialties, philosophical background, methods, etc. But not being insular is not the same as being a “generalist”.)

    “Generalists” may know a little about a lot of things, but because they lack specialized knowledge with respect to any particular subfield, the odds of them making any sort of philosophical progress is pretty low, I’d think. I certainly would not want to be part of a department that consisted entirely (or even mostly) of “generalists” in that sense.

    “Generalists” who know a lot about a lot of things, and are capable of doing good research in many distinct subfields are pretty rare — and I doubt that it’s a reasonable goal of graduate departments to try to produce them.

    Allan Hazlett suggested a claim about the possibility of getting true opinions in philosophy. (I’m not sure he endorses it.) I don’t have much to say about this claim: I don’t have a settled opinion on whether it’s even possible to determine what the true opinions in philosophy are. Maybe that’s beyond our reach. (And in any event Martin Lin’s response to this general line of argument seems right to me.)

    But it’s obvious that it’s possible to do good, interesting, productive, challenging work in philosophy without being a generalist. It’s not at at all obvious that it’s possible to do good, interesting, productive, and challeging work in philosophy without having specialized in knowledge in some subfield of philosophy, that is, without being a specialist in something.

  11. Carl Gillett says:

    There seems to be room for lots of different intellectual styles and appraoches to blossom successfuly, so there certainly isn’t only one best appraoch professionally.

    Having said which, I always remember Colin McGinn’s words in grad school that any good philosopher needs to be a generalist and a specialist. Given the interlinked nature of key philosophical issues you better have coverage, and given the development of various fields you better have specialist knowledge.

    I am not sure of the relevance of Martin Lin’s point: the presupposition is that the relations between various sciences is analogous to that between various fields of philosophy. I do not think that is true. Philosophy looks like a very different enterprise than the various sciences and applied, technological fields.

  12. Allan Hazlett says:

    “Unless one is a reliable judge about Y and Z, one is not likely to be a reliable judge about X.”

    Probably this needs to be qualified – I’m suspicious that the mathematics example might rely on the fact that we tend to think of mathematics as unassailable. One way to qualify the principle would be to add a caveat: no one of X, Y, or Z may have epistemic priority over the others. (No one subfield of philosophy has priority over the others – Lemmings take note!).

    Better, though, is this reformulation: One’s reliability about X increases (ceteris paribus) with one’s reliability concerning domains which X has consequences for. (Same conclusion follows, it seems to me.)

    “I don’t have a settled opinion on whether it’s even possible to determine what the true opinions in philosophy are.”

    That seems like a plausible thing to think – but can’t one think that and still have an opinion about what would increase one’s chances of having true opinions in philosophy? (Example: I don’t know if it’s possible to determine what the funadmental constituents of the universe are, but I know what will increase someone’s chances of having a true opinion about them: doing such-and-such sorts of experiments, etc.)

  13. Brian Weatherson says:

    It certainly seems to me that there are many more implications of one area of philosophy to other areas of philosophy than between, say, mathematics and applications of mathematics. So I’d agree with Allan that there are a lot of ways to go wrong if you don’t attend to the odd implications of your views for adjoining areas of philosophy.

    I think that if I’m going to get called a specialist, as Kris does, we’re basically going to lose the point of the distinction. I don’t think generalists don’t know about lots of areas. Gilbert Ryle was a generalist who was also an incredibly good philosopher of mind. Philip Pettit is a generalist who is incredibly good at about a dozen different philosophical disciplines. We could use the terms specialist and generalist so that Philip counts as a specialist in everything, but that threatens to rob the terms of their meanings.

    Now Kris might be right that it’s not a good idea to try and train grad students to be like Philip Pettit. What I really think is that the best philosophical work over upcoming years will be done by philosophers like Philip Pettit. (I obviously have a vested interest in thinking that the best work will be done by people like my role models, so take all this with a boulder of salt!) But aiming to be the best often has bad results; it’s a bad idea in golf to aim to hit the perfect shot every time, sometimes you should aim to hit a safe shot. The same is true in philosophy.

    One last worry about the ‘collaboration’ point. It’s true that some blindspots can be treated by talking to other people; as my blindspot about consciousness was pointed out by talking to Tim. But it is worth worrying about trends in the discipline that will take people away from this. Now there are so many specialised conferences, where everyone knows everyone because they all go to the same conferences, that there’s not as much cross-breeding of ideas. Maybe that kind of interaction will make up for a lack of generalists, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  14. Kris McDaniel says:

    Admittedly, “specialist” and “generalist” haven’t been clearly defined by anyone party to this discussion, myself clearly included. So maybe it’s a good idea to try to do this before we discuss what the trends in philosophy have been in the past, what they will be in the future, and what they should be.

    I took a specialist to be someone who has deep knowledge of some particular subfield of philosophy, and who does intense work in that subfield.

    By contrast, a generalist is someone who although lacking in a deep knowledge of some particular subfield, “makes up for it” by having knowledge about a heck of a lot of subfields of philosophy.

    Brian has a lot of AOS’s. He’s really good at a lot of subfields, and does really good work in them.

    When someone goes up for a job, he or she lists AOS’s and AOC’s. Your specialties get listed under the AOS heading. A generalist might have fifteen AOCs, but no AOS.

    Maybe that’s not how others are using the terms. Anyways, I wouldn’t want to be in a department in which everyone was a generalist in the sense above.

    I read a lot of philosophy besides metaphysics, and have projects in ethics and the history of philosophy. (The reading list for the graduate Early 20th Century Philosophy class I’m teaching includes selections from Bradley, McTaggart, Brentano, Husserl, Meinong, Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger.) But I wouldn’t call myself a generalist, I guess. What does it take to be a generalist on your view? Or a specialist?

    With respect to Brian’s worry about conferences in which everyone knows each other, I agree – that’s a problem, and it might generate all sorts of blindspots that won’t be identified. But that kind of collaboration is not the kind I was talking about (it’s not the kind of colloboration you had with Tim) — I wouldn’t want to be in a department filled soley with metaphysicians either, let alone people who are all working on exactly the same topics in metaphysics. That sounds like the kind of insularity that I mentioned earlier — in order to contrast not being insular with being a generalist.

  15. Kris McDaniel says:

    dumb question: why is it that when I surround a word with the symbol you get when you shift+8, it displays the word in bold face? I’m not doing that on purpose, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m shouting. (It makes the text look loud :) )

  16. josh parsons says:

    Brian, hear hear on generalism. I think you’re dead right about the $50 notes. It’s not hard to become a generalist, either. Just sit in your colleagues classes and keep an open mind. Who’d‘ve thought that there was a world of people working in essentialism in ethics in desparate need of understanding the Lewis-Stalnaker semantics for the counterfactual? Or discourse representation theorists unaware that they were anticipated 8 centuries ago by late medieval supposition theory? (Just to name a couple of $50 notes I’ve found lying about. Well, more like 5c coins, really. But then if I’d found a $50 note I’d be busy writing a book about it).

    Intrigued to hear that you are a fan of Jevons. Scholarly types have told me that ch. 2 of Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (which contains, among other things, Bradley’s famous regress of instantiation) is supposed to be read by an audience familiar with Jevons’ equational logic – which is why Bradley seems to take it for granted that his readers’ first idea is going to be that the “is” of predication is identity. Perhaps I will go read some Jevons today.

  17. jake says:

    Kris,

    If you type this:

    bold italics

    you get this:

    bold italics

    It’s a little easier than using the standard HTML tags:

    bold italics

    Now stop shouting at me.

  18. sam h says:

    With respect Josh’s last comment, I think there is also something to be said for an understanding not only of the history of philosophy in order to do good contemporary work, but especially the history of philosophy within one’s own specialization. For example, it seems as though while it’s possible to do good work in philosophy of language, ideally one should not only have a really good understanding of Frege/Russell-> but also of their situation with respect to Austrian philosophy, Millian/Lockean, and medieval logics/semantics (which of course can’t be understood w/o a healthy dose of Aristotle.

    The sad thing about coming to know the history of philosophy is seeing how, like in other aspects of life, history seems to repeat itself and we keep giving pretty much the same answers to the same problems.

  19. Aidan McGlynn says:

    Brian, aren’t you perhaps understating (in fact not stating at all) the extent to which specialisation is partly forced upon us by more general intellectual specialisation? We’re increasingly wanting our best philosophical theories to be accountable in some sense to the data in some relevant non-philosophical subject: so it’s hard to write on phil math without sufficient sensitivity to actual mathematical results and practice; hard to engage with contemporary phil language (and now epistemology) without knowing some linguistics; work in phil mind might be answerable to empirical findings in fields like cogsci, and so on. But just as Soames points out in the passage you quote that it’s pretty much impossible for one person to stay on top of even a relativity specialised field in philosophy, the same is certainly true wrt modern mathematics, or lingustics, or cogsci, or the physical sciences.

    I don’t really see any reason to think that this trend of increasing sensitivity to non-philosophical subjects in developing philosophical theories will have the effect of pushing people out of philosophy departments. That we tend to expect of someone working in, say, philmath a certain amount of logical and mathematical literacy doesn’t seem much like a step towards ‘casting them out’ or anything similar but less dramatic. If anything, the opposite seems plausible; we currently value philosophers who have a solid background in relevant non-philosophical fields precisely because of the trend I’m describing.

    So while I certainly don’t deny the advantages of being a generalist in your sense, I think there are other consideration of this sort that may push the specialist trend onwards, for the foreseeable future at least. Some of these $50 dollar bills aren’t sitting on the sidewalk, they’re on top of a 8 foot wall. And that’s surely where they’ll sit til someone tall or resourceful enough chances past…..

  20. Martin Lin says:

    Carl: My point was relevant to Allan’s proposal because he was trying to infer the claim that one is unlikely to be a reliable judge concerning area of philosophical inquiry X unless one is a reliable judge concerning other areas where views concerning X have implications from the general claim that one is unlikely to be a competent judge of subject matter X unless one is also a reliable judge of any subject matter for which X has consequences. I don’t see that the general claim could lend plausibility to the specific claim if you qualified the general claim with the requirement that the different subject matters must be analogous to different sub-fields of philosophy.

    Brian: It doesn’t strike me as plausible to say that subfields of philosophy have more implications for each other than math has for physics. In any event, do we really need to go around counting the number of implications?

    Allan: “One’s reliability about X increases (ceteris paribus) with one’s reliability concerning domains which X has consequences for.” This strikes me as true. But it doesn’t have the consequence that we will see less specialization in the future. One’s reliability concerning any domains is, of course, not cost free and it may well be that the status quo is optimal.

    Generalists are great. I like to think of myself as a bit of a generalist. But there’s no need to demean the contributions of specialists. We need them too. I objected to Allan’s original claim only because it looked to entail that specialists were unlikely to be reliable judges concerning their own specialized subject matter. If this were true, then we shouldn’t specialize. But that conclusion is way too strong. I have no objection to Allan’s new claim. And I agree with Brian that if everyone were a specialist, there would be a lot of $50 notes lying around. But are we currently over-specialized? I don’t know. I certainly hope so. That would mean that there would be a lot of $50 notes lying around waiting to be scooped up and I like easy money. But for that very reason I sort of doubt it.

  21. PMo. says:

    Where can we find the online version of your conversation with philosophy talk? I do not see it on their page, but I am (as I’m sure others are) highly interested.

  22. Ken says:

    The APA philosophy talk episode probably won’t be broadcast until sometime this summer, unfortunately. We schedule our shows by the quarter and we’ve already scheduled the current quarter.

    We — that is, our production staff, not Ken and John — will edit the APA episode sometime in the not too distant future. But we won’t put it up on the archive page until after it’s been aired. (IF we put it up before our affiliates wouldn’t like us very much.) Plus I have to admit that we left ourselves an out with this one. If it had turned out that you couldn’t do a good radio show with a crowd of academic philosophers as your questioners and audience, by not putting it on the schedule right away, we left ourselves the option of just not airing it at all. But we were all pleased that it did turn out to be good radio, very good radio.

    Especially after the first segment, which started a little slowly, it e went quite well. By the second segement, Liz, Brian, and Sean were really cooking and the audience was great.

    I think our regular listeners — most of whom are not philosophers at all — will be impressed not just with Brian and Liz and Sean but also with the audience and with how articulate, smart, thoughtful and engaging professional philosophers as a group are and that we’re not nearly as weird and other-wordly as the popular imagination would sometimes have us be.

    Thanks to everybody who participated. We’ll have to do something like it again sometime.

  23. Justin Fisher says:

    As a would-be generalist, I hope Brian’s right that we aren’t about to go the way of the dinosaur.

    I’m worried, though, that the $50-bill argument doesn’t do much to establish this, because quite a few of the $50-bills are findable by people with dual specializations (e.g., language+ethics) or, as many people have noted here, by communicative collaborators. As long as there are such channels for the dissemenation and interplay of ideas across specialties it’s not obvious that we’ll need true generalists to find most of the $50-bills.

    For me, a more persuasive argument for the continued existence of generalists draws upon premises about the distinctive skills of (analytic) philosophers, and the reasonable goal of finding big pictures that coherently unite the work of our various specialists. More than the practitioners of any other discipline, philosophers are trained to map logical space, and to abstract away from debates about matters of detail (esp matters of empirical detail). This characteristic skill-set makes analytic philosophers well-suited to be generalists, and relatively poorly suited to be true specialists.

    Of course there are different amounts of abstraction and generalization. Most philosophers look like generalists in comparison to people who do related work in the sciences, but many philosophers look like specialists in comparison to other philosophers. No doubt, this is a healthy division of labor.

    I don’t think philosophy could, or should, move to a stage where there are no “true generalists” working to weave together a systematic big picture uniting work in many sciences and many sub-fields of philosophy. Wherever there are people working on distinct but related specialties, there is a need for generalists to abstract away from the myriad details that arise in these specialties, and to show how these specialties can be meshed together into a larger coherent picture. Sketching such big pictures is clearly an important job for philosophers, and it is a job for which our characteristic skills make us uniquely well-suited. Hence, it seems to me that there will be continuing work for philosophical generalists. (Yay!)

  24. low-rent pragmaticist says:

    There’s really no need to abandon analytical philosophy (it would be great to see just some basic prop. logic in use among all the blogger postmods and marxistas), or the useful, applicable, and beneficial parts of it anyways: there’s instead a need to apply AP concepts—whether formal logic, semantics, phil. of language, writing on inductivism and phil. of science—to a wider range of contexts, including politics, education, economics. No? In many ways there seems to be this tendency to resurrect metaphysics going on in AP (due to Kripke perhaps), which is a return to a sort of clericalism: face it, big private universities like Stanford or USC prefer to have some metaphysicians around, especially conservative ones, and some theologians as well. The return to a sort of metaphysical view of logic, the discussion of Fregean abstract objects, set theory . etc. occasionally seems as obscure as much of 19th century Kant and dare we say Hegelian metaphysics was.

    The sort of mid-period AP figures: Quine, Popper, Russell as well to some extent—distrusted any return to Kant or to the somewhat anthropological concerns of ordinary language; language was to be denotative, clarified, propositional in order to assist the efforts of physical scientists (and other empiricists really), and I don’t think there was much disagreement on that, whether one referred to what are known as propositions as sentences or statements.

    Kuhn also is a useful model of what a competent, analytically minded scholar could do as well, but he seems to have fallen out of favor; Dennett too has produce something which is perhaps not as dazzling as what set theorists or philosopher-remoras working with Set theory) have done, but in some sense a viable current with much empirical support. (Personally I think a Soames would be happy to bring back Kant if not neo-thomism).

  25. T. Scrivener says:

    Your proposed link between conservative universities and metaphysics, could you explain it in more detail.

  26. T. Scrivener says:

    I believe that the kind of intellectual climate encouraged by blogs and the internet might actually keep alive the waning flames of generalism, not just in philosophy but in other disciplines as well, as the blog “The valve” demonstrates. It might even fuel ultra generalism, wherein philosophers disscus theology, english professors discuss philosophy etc.

    Academia has become too professional, too bussiness orientated, and blogs might be the antidote to this.

  27. Jake says:

    Conceptualism, idealism, bad hegelianism, affirming the “a priori”, abstract objects/mental grammars: that’s how the philosophy bidness stays in bidness—read Bealer’s strange little essays for examples; i.e. possibility, contingency, and modality “exists”; therefore the a priori exists! it may rain two Mondays from now, therefore that contingent proposition (it may rain two Mondays from today) exists in some realm of unactualized possibles?? Nicht, nein, nyet.

    Quinean concepts and naturalism as a whole (and Searle also upholding a sort of naturalism, or, at least naturalized Cartesianism) are detested because those types of endeavors, not incompatible with what scientists and empirically-minded social scientists do, entail no more special status awarded to philosophy and humanities scholarship. Yet there are no plausible grounds for denying naturalism.

  28. Jake says:

    But there’s like a “academic naturalism function”; if Biff is attending various state colleges in the Midwest or South, he will get plenty of naturalism, empiricism, practical logic; at “better” state schools, say UC’s, Biff gets some Set Theory along with the naturalism, and he is probably given some au courant marxism or multiculuralism as well; but if Biff has a real rich Daddystein and makes to like an Ivy League or Stanferd, USC type of elite institution, then the Biffster’s got nothin’ but Noesis, bay-be, and even grubby logicists and mathematicians can’t interfere with his contemplation of Da Reals.

    SO Bealer, arguing for the ghost, er Der Geist, at CU, a midwestern school with fairly strong bio-chem and propeller-head departments, is a bit out of step with the Boulder cowpokes, or maybe he never quite made it to the Periodic Table, instead preferring those ol’ Kantian and Fregean chestnutz.