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The Missing Metaphysicians

Ross Douthat speaks up about the (allegedly) missing moralists and metaphysicians in contemporary philosophy departments:

He (and his angry philosopher commenters) insist that there are plenty -- and they're right, in the technical sense. I was referencing what I think is the popular understanding of metaphysics (see here, for instance, for a useful summary of the technical/popular divide), in which it refers to a belief in the existence of immaterial beings, properties, etc. Aquinas's God, Plato's forms, Descartes's ghost-in-the-machine all fall into this category. But technically, metaphysics is a much much broader term, referring to "the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value." So one can be a staunchly materialist metaphysician, and indeed, there are many of these throughout academia. What there are not, I believe, are many philosophers in, say, the Platonist or Cartesian traditions, who entertain the possibility of souls, Gods, etc. And if I'm wrong about this -- and I am a layman, so I could be -- I'm more than happy to be corrected.
There wasn't much being taught on Gods and souls per se at Harvard, but Platonic realism about morals, properties, abstract entities, and the like certainly ways. Well, Plato's precise brand of realism about those things was only taught in history classes, but more contemporary versions of Platonism in mathematics and elsewhere certainly were taught. David Lewis, who believes in the real existence of an infinity of causally isolated possible worlds, is very much a major figure on the contemporary scene. My thesis advisor maintained an unfashionable non-reductive realism about moral properties. Explicit Cartesian dualism about mind/body issues isn't a very popular view, but neither is Churchland-style eliminative materialism. It seems to me (though I could be wrong) that most philosophers of mind try to hew to one variety or another of middle-ground position. But the issues Descartes raised are very much on the table, and philosophers treat the problems posed by consciousness for simple physicalist accounts of the mind very seriously (indeed, a bit too seriously in my opinion). They tend not to use the word "soul" except to disparage one another, but I think the basic scene would strike Ross as surprisingly similar. Methods and terminology have changed, and new puzzles have been added, but the puzzles of the ancients -- at least those that we still recognize as distinctly philosophical -- are very much still with us.

February 14, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

I note that he doesn't try to defend his claim about us absent moralists. Gee: I wonder why.

Posted by: hilzoy | Feb 14, 2005 8:16:01 PM

It's all about the Jesus for those guys.

Posted by: joe o | Feb 14, 2005 8:23:36 PM

I have no idea if Douthat's claim is true, but I would wager that alchemists and phrenologists are also hard to find in academia these days.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 8:23:57 PM

There wasn't much being taught on Gods and souls per se at Harvard ...

Perhaps not in the philosophy department, but elsewhere at Harvard you can certainly hear your fill on that subject if you are so disposed. (Morals too!)

Posted by: alkali | Feb 14, 2005 8:24:21 PM

Academic philosophy is an excellent example of what happens when an abstract discipline doesn't have clear standards as to what's good work and what isn't.

If you want to understand the nature of the mind, you'd be better off talking to cognitive psychologists.

Posted by: Matt G. | Feb 14, 2005 8:27:01 PM

If you want to understand the nature of the mind, you'd be better off talking to cognitive psychologists.

It's an unfair comparison, because this is not what philosophers do. Philosophy in the sense of truth and semantics of formal languages is as rigorous a field as they come.

My own view is that groping for a rigorous understanding of existence is a lot less interesting than having lots of evolutionary actors out doing stuff, with validity being determined by empirical success. I.e., none of us are objective truth-seekers; we're all advocates doing battle for some flawed set of beliefs. But to the extent that all the groping is doable, I'm confident that plenty of sharp minds are busy doing it.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 8:36:10 PM

Sorry, Douthat--still dead wrong. In this iteration of his views,
"metaphysics"= "belief in the existence of immaterial beings, properties, etc. Aquinas's God, Plato's forms, Descartes's ghost-in-the-machine"
and
"metaphysicians" = philosophers "who entertain the possibility of souls, Gods, etc."

Philosophers who believe in immaterial beings like properties are a dime a dozen--as Matt points out, this easily includes David Lewis, possibly the most influential philosopher of his day.

Philosophers who entertain the possibility of souls, Gods, etc. includes every philosopher I have ever worked with. Every philosopher needs to entertain these possibilities, along with even stranger and less plausible ones. It's just what we do.

Even if we narrow it down to philosophers who positively endorse (rather than merely entertaining) the possibility of souls, Gods, etc., this still covers a broad swath of the philosophical landscape. I had several explicitly theistic, indeed Christian, colleagues, at the last department I was at (Bob Adams, Marilyn Adams, and Keith DeRose at Yale), and at the job before that one, one out of the three philosophers in a small department was a practicing Christian who wrote on theology among other philosophical topics (Tom Talbott of Willamette University). That's one big Ivy and one small regional liberal-arts school--a pretty broad spectrum of the American academic landscape.

It is simply ignorance to claim that there are no philosophers who discuss souls, Gods, etc.

I just don't see why Douthat would go around making these claims without doing his homework--it's easy enough to find out the truth by looking at web-sites, talking to philosophers, doing basic research. It's not hard--it's just journalism. But clearly he is not interested in doing that.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 14, 2005 8:57:55 PM

I took philosophy degrees from two different Jesuit universities (though I am not a theist in any traditional sense), and there are certainly plenty of reconstructed and unreconstructed dualists, Thomists, soul-believers, Platonists of various stripes, you name it, in those departments. They're not so hard to find outside Catholic universities, as well. Douthat, if you are reading this, even your reduced claim is dead wrong.

Posted by: live | Feb 14, 2005 9:04:27 PM

Cognitive psychology is about patterns, about prediction, where philosophy is about absolutes. Cognitive science relies on humans being able to one day correlate every arrangement of chemicals and nueron in the brain to a corresponding mental state. Psychology has yielded unsatisfactory attempts at an explanation of mind (see behaviorism), where philosophy of mind has circumscribed the debate around, as Matthew notes, the unprovable yet uncriticizable Cartesian dualism and the Churchland style reductive materialists. The middle ground is where the answer is, but attempts to find a middle ground in the form of non-reductive materialism (kind of an oxymoron) or Davidson's anomalous monism haven't yielded promising results. They'll make progress, and a lot faster than cognitive psychologists.

Posted by: Jordan | Feb 14, 2005 9:12:16 PM

Academic philosophy is an excellent example of what happens when an abstract discipline doesn't have clear standards as to what's good work and what isn't.

This is a criticism?

Posted by: zwichenzug | Feb 14, 2005 9:18:50 PM

live:

I took philosophy degrees from two different Jesuit universities (though I am not a theist in any traditional sense), and there are certainly plenty of reconstructed and unreconstructed dualists, Thomists, soul-believers, Platonists of various stripes, you name it, in those departments. They're not so hard to find outside Catholic universities, as well. Douthat, if you are reading this, even your reduced claim is dead wrong.

Really? Where are they all, then? A few years ago, I read a piece by John Searle in which he said that only remaining substance dualist he was aware of in the general community of philosophy of mind was John Eccles. And I think Eccles is now dead. Perhaps substance dualism is alive and well in Catholic universities, but it seems to be essentially dead in the general academic world.

Posted by: Don P | Feb 14, 2005 9:34:29 PM

I think people are not recognizing what RD's criticism is. He doesn't care if XYZ current "philosopher" holds XYZ position, because who really cares? Nobody is going to read David Lewis in 20 years. Douthat wanted an old Catholic, Jesuit education, which means Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes and Kant, plus Husserl and Heidegger. The kind of education offered at Catholic schools like Catholic U or BC, and also from assorted Straussians at places like BU or St. Johns. I took a look at the Harvard philosophy website, and you aren't going to find any courses there on Descartes, Aquinas, Husserl, Heidegger, etc. I'd like to know the last time a course was given at Harvard on Spinoza or Hegel's Logic. Plenty of Wittgenstein and Kant's moral theory, philosophy of physics, etc. Which, in my opinion, is a pretty desiccated version of philosophy, not very interesting. You can argue that an education focused on the history of philosophy is stifling and curatorial and necrophilial and smarmy and so on, but I don't see why professors should subject undergraduates to what they want to study instead of what students would be better off learning.

Posted by: bjr@yahoo.com | Feb 14, 2005 9:34:58 PM

I found the Searle quote I was referring to. It's from his essay Consciousness and the Philosophers, which is a review of David Chalmers' The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.

Quote:

"I suppose most people in our civilization accept some kind of dualism. They think they have both a mind and a body, or a soul and a body. But that is emphatically not the current view among the professionals in philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neurobiology, and cognitive science. Most of the people who work in these fields accept some version of materialism, because they believe that it is the only philosophy consistent with our contemporary scientific world view. There are a few property dualists, such as Thomas Nagel and Colin McGinn, but the only substance dualists I know of are those who have a religious commitment to the existence of a soul, such as Sir John Eccles, a prominent British neurophysiologist."

Posted by: Don P | Feb 14, 2005 9:42:05 PM

Cognitive science relies on humans being able to one day correlate every arrangement of chemicals and nueron in the brain to a corresponding mental state.

Errm... no it doesn't. Like any science, it merely "relies" on its ability to present a useful model for understanding empirical observations.

Suppose for instance you find that a brain scan of trained musicians listening to music show very different areas of activity than non-musicians enjoying the same piece--which I believe does happen to be the case in fact, but anyway...

That's certainly an interesting thing to know. It justifies the existence of the field of science that originated and tested the hypothesis, and very likely increases our understanding of what the brain does. Personally, I'd go farther, and say it really does bring us closer to the truth of the matter than speculation about beauty, art, or music undisciplined by the same level of empirical testing. But even if you don't buy that, you have to concede that it's an interesting result and backs up the idea that the brain as an organ is worthy of our attention.

The mere fact that there may be lots of other things that we have failed to explain does not in any way run counter to the value of what we have explained. Some people will speculate (as I do) that it's all explainable this way, but this point is not really relevant to whether the discipline of study is worthwhile.

Therefore, cognitive science does not "rely" on some kind of absolutism interpretation anymore than classical mechanics "relies" on being applicable to domains where we now know it is not. Rather, it stands or falls on its track record of being the best way of explaining what we can observe.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 9:47:11 PM

Pardon me if this is an ignorant question, but isn't philosophy+souls,God,etc. usually called theology and studied in religious universities and seminaries? Couldn't this explain why you don't find such academics in non-religious philosophy departments?

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 9:55:19 PM

It's clear what Douthat is doing. He's just playing the David Brooks/Thomas Wolfe game where you condemn modern intellectual life for lacking moral and spiritual seriousness based solely on the fact that (as far as you know) your prefered magic words -- "soul," "God," "evil," etc. -- aren't being used as much as you'd like, or at least not in the way that you'd like to see them used. This is a rite of passage for young Conservatives. You make your mark with a big essay arguing -- what a shocker! -- that the elite educational institution from which you just graduated exactly fits the caricature of that conservatives have been relentlessly rendering of such institutions since since (roughly) *The Closing of the American Mind* was published. It's a great suck-up move.

Posted by: PJS | Feb 14, 2005 9:55:55 PM

bjr makes the utterly bizarre claim that at Harvard you won't find any courses on Descartes, which must come as news to Allison Simmons, who teaches large units on (if not entire courses every year on) Descartes last time I looked. (And yep I just checked the Course list again and Descartes is on there three times.)

By the way, if bjr wants to bet that David Lewis won't be read in philosophy departments in 20 years, I'll take that bet. Of course it's unfair because if nothing else I'll be still putting David Lewis's work on _my_ course readings, so maybe I shouldn't try this little theft.

The main point I wanted to make though is that Tad's comment is clearly correct. Douthat is confusing "takes seriously" with "believes". Philosophers take all kinds of crazy things seriously, even the wacky scholastic things Douthat believes in. Of course not many of them _believe_ in all of them, but that's no worse than having few believers in phlogiston or vital forces around. (Probably. As far as we can tell. And tomorrow someone might show we're wrong. That would be cool.)

Posted by: Brian Weatherson | Feb 14, 2005 10:05:53 PM

Don, I imagine you and Searle are right that most if not all substance dualists to be found in academic philosophy departments have religious commitments. (Citing Eccles as an example of one such thinker, which is what Searle does, is not at all the same thing as saying he is or was the only one, as you originally did.) No doubt some of these can be found outside Catholic universities; however, I do not have a list of names handy for you, nor am I going to go to any trouble to draw one up.

Are Catholic universities somehow not part of the 'general academic world'? Maybe they aren't, in the US anyway, though even that seems pretty doubtful (tell it to Notre Dame). One of the ones I attended was Louvain in Belgium, and I think it would definitely not be accurate to say that Louvain is not part of the Western European 'general academic world.'

Posted by: live | Feb 14, 2005 10:06:55 PM

"soul," "God," "evil," etc. -- aren't being used as much as you'd like, or at least not in the way that you'd like to see them used. This is a rite of passage for young Conservatives.

Ah, for the 80s, when all the young Repubs wanted was to be the next Gordon Gecko.... Alex on Family Ties... "Greed is Good"... It all just seems so darn cute in retrospect.

So, if they continue on this tack toward medieval scholasticism, do you suppose they'll eventually disavow compound interest? No, I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 10:09:28 PM

bjr: from the Harvard Dept. courses page:

"Typically, a course on Plato (Phil 104) or Aristotle (Phil 105) will be offered each year, and possibly also a topics-oriented course still focused on classical philosophy. (Courses in Classics may also be cross-listed in philosophy.) Also, each year, a course on either the Rationalists, that is, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz (Phil 120), or the Empiricists, that is, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume (Phil 121), will be offered. A course on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (Phil 129) is offered every other year."

This is entirely typical of the courses at larger universities. Smaller ones -- e.g., the liberal arts college where I taught for 9 years -- will usually offer a history survey including Spinoza, Descartes, etc.; as well as a course in classical Greek philosophy (Plato and Aristotle). Upper level courses will depend on the faculty's areas of expertise, and may be more limited, since such colleges often have departments of five or six people.

What you say is just not true.

Posted by: hilzoy | Feb 14, 2005 10:12:44 PM

also, Don, I do recall that Alvin Plantinga, who I believe has substance dualist views, was for many years a professor at Michigan (not a Catholic university, though he later did go to Notre Dame).

Also, I remember that when I was a grad student in philosophy at Arizona, Stephen Yablo (now of MIT) was visiting and gave a paper on dualism. I am not attributing substance dualism to him, but I remember that he said one of his professors at Berkeley had described himself as "an unreconstructed Cartesian dualist." Unfortunately, I can't recall which Berkeley prof. that was.

Anyhow, there's two for ya!

Posted by: live | Feb 14, 2005 10:21:22 PM

'Tis but a variation of equal time demands in biology classes. Equal time for evolution and creationism, equal time for TOJ and the Bible.

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Feb 14, 2005 10:23:56 PM

You know what, I am wrong about Plantinga and Michigan, though he did apparently spend some time at Wayne State.
Sorry about that!
I stand behind the Yablo anecdote!

Posted by: live | Feb 14, 2005 10:25:15 PM

"since since (roughly) *The Closing of the American Mind* was published. It's a great suck-up move."

"God and Man at Yale" by William Buckley(1953?) set the mold.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 14, 2005 10:25:36 PM

Last one, I promise:
Plantinga's website has him with temporary appointments at quite a few secular institutions. I'd link it but I suspect no one really cares, and rightly so.

Posted by: live | Feb 14, 2005 10:30:53 PM

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