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.

For a few areas, it is easy to imagine them being in other departments, because they already overlap so substantially with work done in other departments. These areas (and the overlapping departments) include:

  • Logic (Mathematics and Computer Science)
  • Language (Linguistics)
  • Decision Theory and Game Theory (Economics)
  • Legal Philosophy (Law)
  • Political Philosophy (Political Science)
  • Feminist Philosophy (Women’s Studies)
  • Philosophy of Physics/Biology (Physics/Biology)

Those are roughly ordered in terms of how substantial the overlap is between what goes on inside philosophy departments and what does on in other departments. It is perhaps a bit of a stretch to include Philosophy of Physics and Biology here, because physics and biology departments have on the whole moved away a bit from the kind of theoretical work philosophers do. But I think it’s easy to imagine them including more work we currently call philosophical.

It’s true that some work that’s currently done in philosophy of language doesn’t really overlap with much of linguistics. But a lot does. I think the paradigm of recent work in philosophy of language is the joint work on epistemic modals between Thony Gillies and Kai von Fintel, the existence of which is a pretty strong proof of the overlap between the departments.

I could perhaps also have included

  • Aesthetics (Literature, Art History and Music)

but that would require knowing more about what goes on in literature, art history and music departments than I actually do.

And it isn’t much more of a stretch to include

  • History of Ancient Philosophy (Classics)

There is obviously a fairly substantial overlap between classics and ancient philosophy, as evidenced by the number of very important academics that have joint appointments in philosophy and classics programs. It would require a bit of a culture change to classics to have all the work that’s currently done in ancient philosophy moved into classics, but it doesn’t feel like we’d be moving too far from actuality to imagine that culture change happening.

The next two are a bit trickier, but still could move without too radical a change to the academy.

  • History of Modern Philosophy
  • Philosophy of Mind

There are a few ways that history of modern could leave philosophy.

One is that existing history of science programs could incorporate more history of philosophy. It isn’t too hard to imagine there being much more work on Descartes and Leibniz in existing history of science programs, and if history of science included more history of economics, then Hume and Smith and possibly Locke would be included too. Once that happens, it is easy to see how a full blown history of modern program could be inside history of science.

A second involves the same thing happening inside history departments, but that is a bit more unlikely. Not completely unlikely, there is actually already excellent work in history of modern philosophy inside history departments, but perhaps unlikely.

A third involves there being more history of ideas departments, like there used to be at ANU. Again, perhaps that’s a little way from actuality.

Philosophy of mind is a little trickier, because it is such a diverse field. My sense of the most active work in the last decade could easily be duplicated by theorists who fit into psychology or cognitive science departments. Again, I’m not completely sure about the culture of psychology and cognitive science departments to say how much change would be needed to fit more philosophy into those departments, but my guess it would be a relatively small culture change.

That brings us to three fields that it would be hard to see moving en masse: Ethics, Epistemology and Metaphysics.

There are not massively distant worlds where there are departments of value theory covering basically current ethics and economics. In some of them I suspect to some extent that’s what Alfred Marshall had in mind when he moved economics out of philosophy at Cambridge. If you thought that Bentham and Mill had solved the very big questions in ethics, and that what was left to do was to work on applied questions, then you might think economics was a general department of value theory. But it’s trickier to imagine a combined economics and ethics department where Kantian views are given much more attention. And it’s even harder to imagine much meta-ethics work going on in my imagined value theory department.

Some epistemology work, especially in formal epistemology, does obviously overlap with other disciplines. But it is hard to see work on, say, the proper formulation of the safety condition on knowledge fitting into anything like current departments outside philosophy.

Metaphysics might seem easy at first, though there are some overlaps with other fields. In those decades where metaphysicians care about things like causation and laws, there is overlap with other fields. (Remember that one of the most important books on causation in recent times was written by Judea Pearl.) But in those decades, like the last one, where the focus is on meta-metaphysics, it is hard to see it fitting into non-philosophy departments.

So that’s my ranking. It doesn’t match very readily with any popular sense of what’s ‘core’ to philosophy. Epistemology and metaphysics are hardest to dislodges, but logic and language are easiest. But it does perhaps help us think about why philosophy has ended up with the fields that it has.

18 Replies to “What Could Leave Philosophy?”

  1. I’m surprised that you rank the movement of philosophy of mind so low, particularly since
    there’s a relevant but unconsidered variable here, that would quickly push philosophers out of philosophy departments into near matches: funding. This is now particularly true of those of us who are working on the periphery of cognitive science, and undertaking empirical research of the sort that requires not only time and understanding but also a well-funded lab.

    With my own research, on the nature of cognition that’s required to support intentional communication, it’s becoming harder to see how I could return to a philosophy department (I’m in a psychology department now) – even though what I do remains inherently philosophical, and even though that’s what I spend most of my time doing. The reason is simple. It’s quite straightforward to do philosophy from inside a psychology lab, since doing philosophy requires almost nothing in the form of resources, aside from a couple of papers (all available online) and the company of philosophers (who needn’t be in the same department). By contrast, doing psychology in a philosophy department would be almost impossible – not least when Interact (video coding software) costs $13k a copy, and when hiring testing time at a primate sanctuary in Africa can cost up to $1k per researcher per week. Even supposing that empirically research could be done in the summer, when teaching is over, philosophy departments simply aren’t set up to cope with resource intensive work.

    Other factors are also relevant here. For example, as long as philosophy department chairs don’t value co-authored papers with empirical scientists, then people doing such papers may have reason to defect.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that philosophy of mind is likely to become a separate department, or that it will no longer be done in philosophy departments. But it may mean that more and more of it will be done elsewhere.

    Richard Moore – Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

  2. I don’t know if you’d want to consider it a distinct field or not, but lots, possibly most, applied ethics is already housed outside of philosophy departments (and sometimes outside of academic institutions all together), and often dominated, at least in terms of publications, by people not trained by philosophy departments. So, medical schools often have medial ethics departments, and these are often dominated by doctors without training in philosophy (though such places do sometimes have some philosophers, too, as at Penn), and much medical ethics work takes place in actual hospitals, too, again, often by non-philosophers, many of whom publish in medical ethics journals. Something very similar is the case for business ethics, which is much more active in business schools. Some of this, of course, is due to the fact that philosophers tend to give little respect to applied ethics, and the other schools pay better, so people who are interested in these fields tend to migrate out of philosophy departments. An unfortunate result is that a lot (though not all) of the “ethics” work done in these fields is not very good philosophically.

  3. Hi Brian,

    Any thoughts about the converse? What subdisciplines actually in other people’s houses, are in relatively close possible worlds parts of philosophy? (I wonder whether some segments of economics might be a candidate, for example: microfoundations/formal philosophy of action). Given your overarching hypothesis, it would be interesting if there weren’t examples like this.

  4. Interesting post, Brian. I don’t, however, see how a field like the history of modern philosophy could leave the department of philosophy for a history of science program or the department of history without becoming a very different discipline. It matters a lot to how the history of modern philosophy (and I suspect that the same goes for history of ancient) is done that at least some of its practitioners don’t approach their subject from a historical perspective. Think of Michael Della Rocca or James Van Cleve. Of course such historians of philosophy are, ideally, historically informed, but their interests are fist and foremost philosophical problems as they are treated by (sometimes long) dead philosophers. It’s hard to imagine history departments opening their doors to that kind of inquiry. I’d imagine that some such historians of philosophy would rather end up in whatever department turns out to house metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Which in our world, is, of course, the philosophy department.

  5. “Political Theory,” which is often much like political philosophy except housed in political science departments, is sometimes said not to be a good fit. This is partly because much of it is really philosophy. Andrew Rehfeld wrote a provocative piece about the question (available here). The thought of spinning off parts of philosophy into other departments seems to require reflecting not only about the nature (if any) of philosophy but also about the nature (if any) of the fields housed in the candidate departments. Frankly, I don’t think much of what is currently done in philosophy departments could be done well if housed elsewhere, because (for one thing) the graduate training those scholars would have received in other departments would not include much philosophy. Lots of political philosophy, for example, interacts with questions in epistemology, metaethics, moral philosophy, philosophy of mind, etc. Certainly there are kinds of valuable political theory of which this is less true, but it would be a tragedy if the more philosophically entwined work were to shrink away. (I realize Brian is not proposing these moves!)

  6. I’m curious what you’re thinking with aesthetics, when you list three rather different departments instead of just one (as you do in the other cases). Would someone who works in aesthetics just move into a literature department? Only a small, though important, fraction of work in aesthetics concerns literature. The same could be said for art history and music.

  7. I work mostly in metaethics and to borrow a word I think I got from Mark Schroeder, metaethics is pretty intersubdisciplinary. I can’t imagine that it could be done as well isolated either from normative ethics or from metaphysics, philosophy of mind, epistemology and philosophy of language. So most of the splits suggested would be bad for metaethics, whether it leaves with one or another subfield or stays behind.

    Fields have generally left philosophy when there is more consensus about how to work on them. I think that might be something to factor in when contemplating how distant a world would have to be for a particular philosophical subfield to break off or move.


  8. Robbie, that’s the topic for the next post.

    One other big comment before I reply to all the interesting things said so far. I’m really more interested in the modal question – how easily could things have been different – than the temporal question – how likely is it that things will be different in the near future. I think that some of the accidental choices in the past have locked in a few things for the near term, so changes aren’t particularly likely. Formal semantics is going to stay inside philosophy, even though it is easy to imagine it having left as thoroughly as work on supply and demand did. So I’m not imagining, let alone advocating, philosophy chop off these fields any time soon. (It would be a huge loss for me – formal semantics is part of what I get paid to do!)

    Richard, you’re right that a lot of phil mind could (and does) take place outside of philosophy departments. But a lot, I think, doesn’t. It would take a bit of a culture change to have debates about, for instance, mental content be in other fields. Still, I suspect you’re right that this is a little low; a slightly more philosophical outlook among psychologists and we’d be able to do most of it in psych departments.

    Dave and Martin, I agree that something would be lost if these fields were located outside philosophy. But surely something is lost by having them inside philosophy too. Either none of the things that historians/political scientists study in grad school are relevant to work in history of philosophy/political philosophy, or somehow philosophers can make up for lack of grad school training while people in other fields can’t. Neither of these sounds plausible to me.

    The history case is a little special because there will always be people wanting to make arguments that they credit to great dead philosophers. And that kind of philosophy will overlap a little with historical work on the philosophical figures. So it’s much easier to imagine worlds where the historians who study Descartes and Hume have courtesy appointments in philosophy departments (like many current semanticists do) than it is to imagine worlds where the philosophers don’t care about this historical work. But I think it isn’t too hard to imagine a world where it’s simply hard to be someone like Jim van Cleeve, because your work straddles disciplinary boundaries.

    Nick, the aesthetics case is just a mess, because I don’t know enough about the relevant work. I was sort of thinking that different aesteticians and philosophers of art/music/literature could end up in different departments if philosophy paid even less attention to these fields than it does now. But I don’t know enough to know how this could work.

    Mark, that’s a good point about consensus. As I mentioned, I guess that part of why economics left so easily was that there was something of a consensus about the fundamental questions about value at the time it left. I think you can see this in how much the economists with non-consequentialist leanings would occasionally drift back into philosophical debates.

    But would metaethics lose so much if these fields were split off? It’s true that it helps metaethicists to read the work that philosophers of language do on modals, but it helps even more to read the work that linguists do. As long as there were people doing the kind of work that John MacFarlane, Jason Stanley, Thony Gillies etc do, whether they do it in philosophy departments or linguistics departments shouldn’t matter that much to the success of the meta-ethical program.

  9. Well, here’s what a historian of philosophy needs to learn in grad school in order to be a competent historian of philosophy that overlaps with what history grad students learn: (1) languages, (2) some basic historical facts about the period.

    Here is what a history grad student would have to learn in order to be a competent historian of philosophy: (1) philosophy.

    Obviously, I’m stating it in a contentious way since you are suggesting that philosophy is a contingent category and what I’m calling history could very well be called economics, physics, psychology or linguistics (or even history). But I hope my point is clear enough. You have to know a lot about the conceptual space surrounding your topic and the lines of argument connecting them. It would be a lot harder for a history grad student to learn that than for a philosophy grad student to learn Latin.

    I should also note that knowing “some basic facts about the period” is the minimum requirement for competency. Obviously, the more you know the better, but that’s often balanced against other considerations and many very good historians are not experts about the historical details to any degree that would impress a genuine historian.

    Anyway, it appears to me that the shortest route to being a competent historian of philosophy is the kind of education currently supplied by philosophy departments. Starting out in history is the long way round.

  10. Why just basic historical facts about the period? Why not much more detailed knowledge about who the important intellectual figures were, which views were taken seriously and which not, which views would have been studied at schools etc? People working in history/history of science programs on Descartes seem (at least in my acquaintance) to on average know much more about the curriculum at La Fleche than people working on Descartes in philosophy programs. That’s probably due to a biased sample on my part, but either way, it seems relevant to understanding what Descartes took himself to be arguing against, and requires much more than basic historical facts about the period.

    And I would think there’s a big (3), namely archival skills. Is everything we need for studying the figures we do (or should) study readily published? I’d be a little surprised, though this isn’t my field, so maybe that’s right. But if not, then it seems the kind of skills learned in history programs are relevant. Philosophers can (and do) pick these skills up, but so do historians pick up philosophical skills/knowledge.

  11. Could the history of philosophy be studied differently than it is today? Sure. Could it be studied exclusively by historians. Sure. Would it likely look very differently than it does today? I think it would. No doubt that in certain respects that would be for the best. Historians of philosophy could benefit from knowing more history than they do. But they would also likely know less about others things as a result of the opportunity costs involved.

    I guess there is a trivial sense in which almost any area of philosophy could leave. If it were different enough it could leave. If ethicists didn’t take Kant seriously then maybe they could join economics department. But I take it that the more interesting question is whether sub-disciplines could leave with minimal change. That is the issue I sought to address.

    Archival skills: It’s actually pretty rare for historians of philosophy to spend real time in archives but of course some do. Archival skills are serious and not that easy to acquire, depending on the period and kinds of texts one is interested in. Most philosophers suck at paleography. That is unlikely to change anytime soon.

  12. I have been peeking in at the conversation between Martin and Brian about whether history of philosophy might go in some other intellectual domain. There is no real clear answer to that. As it stands, it is already spread out over a number of departments. I know excellent historians of philosophy who teach in philosophy departments, in history departments, in history of science departments, politics departments, even in literature departments. (We have an excellent Spinozist in the English Department at Princeton. Go figure.) It is a field where people need training in a number of fields, including philosophy, history, languages, literature, and the techniques of archival research. No one has it all, and for that reason it is good to have people from different disciplinary backgrounds doing work in the area. And it is good to for people in the field to be acquainted with research in the area from the different points of view, even if their own work fits into one or another corner of the discipline. Some historians of philosophy would feel comfortable doing the work that they do in other departments, but some whose work is more directly connected with philosophical argument wouldn’t; there is no easy generalization. But even if some of us would feel comfortable in other disciplines (I, for one, would), I do think that as the academy is currently configured, there should always be historians of philosophy within departments of philosophy: it is and should be a part of every serious philosopher’s education. But that’s another conversation.

  13. Brian, I think it would be hurt by a split even if people kept reading across disciplines. One reason is that philosophers who do philosophy of language think more about what the language could be about (with the metaphysical questions that come with that) than do the more linguistically oriented among them. I’m also not sure how to extrapolate from your list of people working in the field of people whose work we could just read and benefit from even if we no longer shared a department — they all do stuff besides modals, much of it more like the work of other less linguistically inclined philosophers.

    But also worth saying, sociology matters. Who you run into at conferences and which papers you go to can effect the things that come to mind while you are working on something. I often use conferences as a way to find out about the things I don’t know enough about, often not in any subfield I’d claim competence in. But in the end I use what I learn there in metaethics. So I do think metaethics would be damaged by such a split.

    And I think the other non-ethics fields in philosophy that I mentioned inform metaethics nearly as much as philosophy of language. So in any split we’d lose something by my lights.

  14. Hi Brian,

    This may place undue emphasis on your setup, but the transition in your third paragraph gave me pause. To my ears the initial “question of what is philosophy” (or, if you prefer, the question of “what is distinctive of philosophy”) is not the same question as the “question of why some things are done in philosophy departments and others are not” (or of what is distinctive of what is done in philosophy departments).

    Presumably the questions are connected. But even if the hypothesis that the answer “will largely be historical, turning on some fairly contingent choices that were made in the formation of the contemporary academy” gets the second one right, it seems a pretty big leap to assume that it (also or thereby) answers the first — which I assume is Cappelen’s topic in the post’s setup. The rest of the post, focused as it is on departments and what they house, seems to engage the second while leaving the first untouched.

    Now, maybe a further hypothesis regarding what makes it the case that, as you say, work in meta-ethics, in meta-metaphysics, and on safety in epistemology would be so difficult to “fit into anything like current departments outside philosophy” would engage the first question. Maybe not. I’m not sure.

  15. The aesthetics/art history case is very tricky. James Elkins has a paper, “Why Don’t Art Historians Attend Aesthetics Conferences?”, in which he discusses some reasons why there are such daunting disciplinary barriers between two fields that should by all rights be much more closely integrated:


    One doesn’t have to agree with Elkins’ diagnosis here to agree with the general observation that there are currently real gaps to be bridged between philosophical aesthetics/philosophy of art and art history, art criticism, and so on. See also the book ‘Art History Versus Aesthetics’ for more discussion.

    Also, from extensive experience I am pretty sure that the culture of most psychology and cognitive science departments would make it very hard for practitioners of mainstream philosophy of mind to find an intellectual home there.

  16. I agree with what Dan has said and concede Brian’s point. The history of modern philosophy is already spread out over many departments. So you don’t have to go very far in modal space to find a world in which it is no longer done in philosophy departments. What would such a world look like. History of modern philosophy would be less concerned with purely conceptual issues and philosophers would be less concerned with their own history. Both history of modern and the rest of philosophy would be measurably different but it’s not inconceivable.

  17. Hi Brian: What Dan says is of course true, but I can’t resist adding this in response to your initial suggestion that history of science— if expanded to include history of economics— could plausibly absorb much (most?) of the history of philosophy.
    If you wipe out from the history of philosophy all history of ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophical psychology (for many of the early moderns, a different sort of project than that which would today qualify as ‘scientific’), the connections of all of these fields (and more) to early modern work in epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of science, the centrality of philosophical ethics (in differing ways) for at least some of the moderns, and the fact that a great many of them were self-consciously system builders who thought one not could not properly their work in a field like, say, epistemology absent an understanding of their work in ethics.
    Other than that… 🙂

  18. Martin might have conceded too much. I think there’s a distinction he’s drawing that I didn’t take enough care of in the original post. If something like history of modern were conceived of as part of history programs it would look very different. Which questions are pursued in the same department matters a great deal for how those questions are pursued. Even in highly overlapping fields (like semantics, game theory, etc) we see that.

    That’s to say, there are no nearby worlds where these questions are not in philosophy departments, and they are pursued in the same way they actually are. That’s worth remembering, and not something I was sufficiently careful about.

    Kate – I wasn’t planning on wiping out history of ethics! What I was thinking was that historians of science, at least some of them, study scientists as they were, not as early versions of contemporary scientists. And that includes looking what those early scientists thought were important connections between their different works.

    So at least some historians of science will talk about the role that sweeping philosophical views played in the role of people we now think of as important philosophical figures (Descartes, Leibniz etc), as well as those who aren’t as big a part of the current philosophical canon (Bacon, Newton, etc).

    That’s to say, if there’s a world where Descartes is frequently studied, but only for his works in optics and geometry, that isn’t a world where history of philosophy has moved to the history of science department, it’s a world where history of philosophy isn’t been seriously studied. I guess I don’t really think that’s a salient possibility.

    Just to give one example, historians of economics, not just historians of philosophy, talk about “The Adam Smith Problem”. I was imagining a world where there are lot more historians who care about intersections between what is and isn’t now done in philosophy departments.

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