My reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s ‘Does Philosophy Matter?’

This is in reply to Does Philosophy Matter?, a blog post by  Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, originally published at the OUP Blog. As I’ve argued elsewhere, much of analytic philosophy is semantically indeterminate. But in order to realize that, we have to step back from the trees, the minutiae of philosophical arguments; and look at the woods, the socio-psychological flaws of any purely theoretical discipline; where peer-review is the sole arbiter of whether the relevant discourse is making sense.

Such an arrangement has a tendency to degenerate into a mutual admiration society (notwithstanding some, largely arbitrary, internal disagreements on what is admirable). It’s not the same with the sciences (apart from purely theoretical fringes like, arguably, string theory), because they have to make predictions that the non-expert can often easily test and to some extent, understand the theory behind (e.g. that the boiling point of water changes with altitude, because of differences in air pressure).

In the applied sciences, such predictions are operationalized in artifacts (radios, cars, etc) which demonstrate that the relevant disciplines are not just ‘playing with words’ or ‘spouting hot air’. Scientists rarely acknowledge the fact, but the non-expert public is heavily involved in keeping nonsense out of the sciences, effectively acting as a second, informal, layer of intellectual scrutiny after peer review. Not so in philosophy, where you have to be an ‘expert’ (i.e, a member of the mutual admiration society) for your opinion to count.

As Sinnott-Armstrong pointed out, “philosophers talk only to their own kind and not even to all philosophers.” He goes on to attribute the public’s negative perception of philosophy to a lack of ‘outreach’ by philosophers. Perhaps it is possible for the right kind of public-relations to raise the image of philosophy in the community at large, but such an effort cannot rescue the discipline from the more serious problem of semantic indeterminacy.

Even if all of philosophy was conducted in plain and simple English (or everyday German, French, etc), the non-expert would still not be able to determine which philosophical arguments ‘work’ without detailed knowledge of the overarching debate, the sort of knowledge that only expert philosophers have (though even with that knowledge, the experts can’t agree on the soundness of most philosophical arguments!). So the lay public can never really act as that second layer of scrutiny for philosophy, the layer that actually underwrites the semantic consistency of scientific discourse.

In the case of science, you don’t have to be an expert to know that scientists aren’t generally talking nonsense, because it’s obvious even to a 12-year-old that the relevant disciplines cannot get away with much semantic inconsistency, vagueness or vacuity when launching a satellite or doing open-heart surgery. A high degree of semantic consistency is required to repeatedly pull off such sophisticated demonstrations of predictive power, particularly involving complex multi-disciplinary coordination (as is usually the case in science).

Such transparent demonstrations of technical know-how are not available to philosophy. So the public (and for that matter, philosophers) are really in the dark as to whether much of philosophy actually makes sense (the problem doesn’t lie with jargon per se, the use of ‘everyday’ language does not guarantee that the language is always used in the ‘everyday’ sense; i.e. a philosophical context is not straightforwardly an ‘everyday’ context).

There are genuine philosophical problems, and the philosophical impulse is perhaps integral to what makes us human, but philosophy cannot be called a body of ‘knowledge’ (except in the sense of historical knowledge of what philosophers have said, along with a handful of substantive arguments that most philosophers agree are sound, excluding trivial logical syllogisms and the like). It is an activity that some people feel compelled to engage in, perhaps for important reasons, but like another such activity, art, there’s no methodology for measuring ‘progress’, for cumulatively gathering ‘facts’ the way that scientists gather data.

Philosophers may well see the world differently from having done philosophy, but the same is true of artists when doing art. To call that kind of shift in perspective ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ or ‘wisdom’ is a bit of a stretch (and would smack of pretension if claimed by an artist). If philosophy’s semantic indeterminacy is not widely recognized, there is also a risk that any confusion in its discourse may be exported into other domains such as ethics or public policy, via the activities of philosophers (in a philosophical capacity) as ‘experts’ in the public sphere. Having said that, philosophers have as much right as anyone else to contribute to public life; but apart from the intellectual qualities imparted by sound scholarly training, a philosophy qualification does not grant ‘expertise’ in any domain of knowledge outside the textual history of philosophy.