What Could Leave Philosophy?

I’ve been writing up some stuff on Herman Cappelen’s great new book Philosophy Without Intuitions. And it got me thinking about just what is distinctive about philosophy. You might have thought it was something to do with the use of intuitions, but Cappelen shows that isn’t right. Whatever intuitions are, there isn’t much ground for saying they are more prevalent in philosophy than in other disciplines.

So what is it? It’s not a trivial question, because there isn’t much obviously in common between what different philosophers work on. Just looking at my own colleagues, it’s hard to say what the common thread linking the work of Sarah Moss, Elizabeth Anderson, Chandra Sripada, Allan Gibbard, Victor Caston and Laura Ruetsche could be.

I sort of suspect there isn’t really a principled answer to the question of what is philosophy. Rather, the answer as to why some things are done in philosophy departments and others are not will largely be historical, turning on some fairly contingent choices that were made in the formation of the contemporary academy.

To get a sense of how plausible this hypothesis is, I wanted to run a couple of little thought experiments. The experiments concern which departments house which questions. Here’s what I mean by ‘house’. For some questions, there is an obvious department (or small group of departments) to be in if you want to work on that question. If you want to work on what needs to be added to justified true belief to get knowledge, you should be in a philosophy department. If you want to work on the power relationships between the French monarch and aristocracy in the 18th Century, you should be in a history department (or perhaps a very historically oriented political science department).

Which departments house which questions changes over time. In the distant past, physics was part of philosophy departments. In a good sense, economics only split from philosophy in the early 20th Century. At Cambridge, which was at the time the most important place in the world for both disciplines, the economics tripos split from the philosophy tripos in 1903. To the extent that cognitive science was a recognisable field in the 1950s and 1960s, it was just as much part of philosophy as anything else.

Similarly, which departments house which questions can change over modal space. In some very nearby worlds, there are very few departments we would recognise as philosophy departments, even though there is much work on philosophical questions. That’s because in those worlds there are separate departments for moral philosophy and for logic & metaphysics, as there was at St Andrews traditionally.

But let’s focus on worlds in which there are recognisable philosophy departments. Here’s the question.

  • For each sub-discipline in philosophy, how far into modal space do you need to go to find a world where it isn’t housed in a philosophy department?

I’ll put my views on this over the fold, so if you like you can think about this before seeing what I have to say.

Continue reading “What Could Leave Philosophy?”