There was a debate at the British Academy last week about whether or not philosophy is dead, apparently inspired by Stephen Hawking’s related claim that scientists rather than philosophers “have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (That really is a different claim. Discovery isn’t all there is, and not doing it isn’t the same as being dead.) The Times Higher tells us things about the debate.
According to Tim Crane, Knightsbridge professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, Professor Hawking himself proved that philosophy is unavoidable, since he put forward a lot of philosophical views. Unfortunately, these amounted to “bad philosophy, because he is unaware of it as a discipline and a practice with a history,” Professor Crane said.
Philosophers say that a lot. That’s probably because there are a lot of people doing that kind of bad philosophy.
“If you’re pro-reason,” said Rebecca Goldstein Newberger, a research associate at Harvard University who is currently a visiting professor of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities in London, “you need all the resources you can get.” Recent outbreaks of “philosophy jeering” such as Hawking’s were ill-informed, incoherent and irresponsible – faced with today’s extremes of irrationality”, she added.
I’ve seen a good many of those.
Stephen Law, senior lecturer in philosophy at Heythrop College, put the case for philosophy’s role in “raising autonomous critical thinkers”.
He asked whether, since “I have an unavoidable responsibility to make my own moral judgement, a responsibility I can’t hand over to some supposed expert… shouldn’t our education system both confront us with that responsibility, and also ensure we have the intellectual and emotional maturity we’ll need to discharge it properly?”
If recent decades had seen “great moral advances in our attitudes towards women, gay people and other races”, this was “largely as a result of our being prepared to question received moral opinion and to think things through in just the way philosophy requires of us”, he continued.
It’s also because of changes in feelings though. The two are connected, but feelings are prior, for good and ill.
And the academic discipline itself has become very conformist, Crane said.
Professor Newberger took a similar line, reflecting that she had “only managed to maintain my enthusiasm for philosophy by staying away from philosophers”.
Goldstein, he meant, but anyway it’s a good line.