Colin McGinn: “…it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science.”

Note: someone pointed out that McGinn’s piece is probably satire. I had suspected this, but was looking for “A Modest Proposal” type reasoning. Still, the acronym he uses for his renaming committee is “C.R.A.P.” Is that enough to make this whole thing a joke?

I’ll admit I’m not the best at spotting jokes. I did feel this piece more tragic than comic, as nothing alluded to the value of philosophy in an age which very much questions that value.

Colin McGinn’s argument that philosophy departments should be renamed is crazy. Why can’t people in philosophy departments say they study philosophy? It’s not like everyone expects people in English departments to write novels.

Still, it’s worth going through some of his observations. They don’t rise to the level of a serious case for what he wants, but they offer grounds for clarifying some issues:

Isn’t everyone employed in a university, and indeed some people beyond, a “lover of wisdom”? Most academics are not “sophists”! Physicists, say, have the attitude described as much as philosophers. But why should one particular discipline be characterized by reference to an attitude instead of a subject matter?

Literally, most academics are sophists. Xenophon’s Socrates repeatedly calls attention to the fact that he doesn’t charge for teaching because he wants to be free to work with whomever he wants to. Still, this is one of McGinn’s better points: there are people who I consider philosophic working in a variety of fields, at a variety of tasks. And philosophy – loving wisdom – is very much an attitude. Unfortunately, there’s the rest of McGinn’s proposal to consider:

(Is a chemist in love with wisdom concerning chemicals?) Moreover, “wisdom” really refers to having good judgment as to how to live one’s life, not to knowledge concerning abstract theoretical matters; and academic philosophy is only partly concerned with wisdom in that sense (ethics, political philosophy). Wisdom means practical wisdom, not scientific understanding. So the original meaning of “philosopher” misdescribes the nature of philosophy as an academic subject.

This shows a very poor understanding of the history of thought – Plato’s Republic in particular. Not that I’m going to hold a philosopher accountable for knowing all that stuff all the time. I’m deficient in key respects myself. But this is bad enough that I’d say I hope students never follow McGinn’s lead here. Sophia (wisdom) is sharply distinguished from techne (art, technique) though both used to mean roughly the same thing once upon a time in Greek. The distinction probably brought any kind of philosophy into being. You can see that very clearly in the Republic without leaning heavily on the terms. “One man, one art” (people with techne) brings the city in speech into discussion, is a ground for natural justice. The philosopher-king (one with sophia) is what you would need to bring it into being. That’s not practical wisdom. That’s theoretical wisdom dictating the practical. You can’t dodge this by saying “well, that’s political philosophy.” If Socrates doesn’t die, then it isn’t clear what we would have of philosophy. The pre-Socratics are fragments for the most part. (Moreover, in Aristotle, prudence and wisdom are again sharply distinguished.)

I’m not saying there aren’t ironies or difficulties all over the place. The point is that McGinn oversimplifies the theoretical/practical problem and wants to rest his case exclusively on what academic philosophy is now. He can’t do this, though, because the core of his thinking is simply laughable:

…it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science. The dictionary defines a science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” This is a very broad definition, which includes not just subjects like physics and chemistry but also psychology, economics, mathematics and even “library science.”

See? The dictionary calls academic philosophy a science. The DICTIONARY. It gets better:

We may as well recognize that we are a science, even if not one that makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics. Once we do this officially, we can expect to be treated like scientists.

Ah, that’s what this is about. It’s about securing the money and prestige for the discipline by playing a renaming game that will work with university administrators and pseudo-intellectuals. I obviously don’t think McGinn is completely forthright in his declaration “whether to classify ourselves as a science or an art is strictly not the issue I am considering.” Philosophy is to be renamed with reference to “physics” and “chemistry.” This would be fine with me, if it didn’t threaten the existence of the field and the reading of books much greater than McGinn’s. After all:

…it is quite false that philosophy studies human culture, as opposed to nature (studied by the sciences); only aesthetics and maybe ethics fall under that heading. Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and so on deal not with human culture but with the natural world. We deal with the same things the sciences deal with — the world beyond human culture. To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities” is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human.

It is true that Socrates characterizes philosophy as something inhuman: the practice of dying and being dead. He does this in the Phaedo, a dialogue where he explains his break with Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras held mind a dividing power. This resulted in mind being cause, as the world mind divided couldn’t be assumed a unity except inasmuch mind treated it a unity. Anaxagoras’ books weren’t good natural science, but they consistently gave a scientific-sounding description to the world. Socrates could describe his presence in jail as the arrangement of his bones a certain way. Unfortunately, one has to wonder whether “mind as cause” itself became lost in the process. Wasn’t Socrates in jail for doing philosophy, for having led a life he saw as most just?

What philosophy is about: mind as cause. What is the true unifying and dividing power of mind? Just because the practice of some in academic philosophy today takes on the trappings of scientific inquiry doesn’t mean we should abandon a name much greater than ourselves. It is true the proper study of being may lead to some conclusions far outside the scope of the humanities. It is true the practice of philosophy today seems divorced from much of what goes on in the humanities. It is also true things change, and philosophy has inherited a grand, awesome name. Maybe instead of renaming the field people can start living up to their potential.


  1. David Brooks on why tax reform is essential to the American recovery:

    A trademark battle notable for this point:

    “But it still came as a bit of a shock when the Wilsons made what they thought was a routine move to register the trademark of their hot product — a flat pretzel snack called Pretzel Crisps — and it was contested by none other than Frito-Lay, the 800-pound gorilla of the snack food market owned by PepsiCo… in its filings with the Patent and Trademark Office, Frito-Lay contends that Pretzel Crisps cannot be registered as a trademark because it is a generic term. “Like ‘milk chocolate bar,’ the combination of ‘pretzel’ and ‘crisp’ gains no meaning as a phrase over and above the generic meaning of its constituent terms,” the company wrote in a 2010 motion.”

    Hollywood underwater:

    “Beyond the hype that culminates in the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, Hollywood is contracting, battered by the same economic forces reshaping the rest of the country. Moviegoing attendance hit a 16-year low last year. The industry is beset by rapidly changing business models: the free fall in DVD sales unmitigated by digital streaming, the independent film market that is a shadow of its former self… What is less visible is the human toll of all that downsizing — the working actors, directors, writers and others like my foreclosed neighbors, trying to maintain their guild memberships, their health insurance, their mortgages. In the industry’s perverse social code, where appearances are everything, such private struggles are kept well hidden not only from public view but also within the industry itself. Failure is an affront to the accepted logic that, no matter what, Hollywood remains a lodestar of self-invention.”

    A satirical bit on super-pacs no coordination rule:

    Tricks to getting published:

    “”One by one, 12 more publishing houses saw the novel. They all said no. Just when Ms. O’Brien began to fear that “The Dressmaker” would be relegated to a bottom desk drawer like so many rejected novels, Ms. Newberg came up with a different proposal: Try to sell it under a pen name. Written by Kate Alcott, the pseudonym Ms. O’Brien dreamed up, it sold in three days.”

    The WSJ outdoes itself once again…

    “It’s easy to understand why critics focus on the gaudy awards of cash and stock that executives take home. And, yes, it’s hard to deny that some bosses get paid a lot more than they deserve. But the structure of compensation is ultimately a lot more important than its level, because it gets to the heart of how managers run companies and create value for shareholders.”

  2. One of the greatest stories ever:

    “A Texas school district has apologized for what some perceived as a racist chant from fans after one of its teams beat a rival in a high school basketball playoff game. Alamo Heights High School, which is made up mostly of white students, beat Edison High, which is predominantly Hispanic, in the Region IV-4A championship in San Antonio on Saturday. As Alamo players celebrated the win on the court, a large group of students began cheering “USA! USA!”…”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.