Friday, 30 May 2008

Philosophy, science and excitement

In a pub a few days ago, I made a bold claim (as one does). We were discussing the differences between philosophy and the natural sciences. I ventured that the method of working of most academic science was not that different from the method of working of most academic philosophy. People seek to establish small, well-defined results through a painstaking examination of the evidence. The difference is that in philosophy, the evidence is not so well-defined, nor so independent of the experimenters, as in the natural sciences. Evidence in philosophy consists largely of our pre-theoretical intuitions, and of our reflections on hypothetical cases which are designed to elicit those intuitions or to put them under pressure. We are therefore neither surprised nor distressed when different philosophers hold contradictory views, and we do not assume, although we may hope, that decisive experiments to resolve such contradictions are just around the corner.

If minute and painstaking work in philosophy does not produce the goods in the way that it does in the natural sciences, should we carry on doing philosophy in this way? Might we not be better off with grand and radical philosophies? Excited though I am by the prospect of living to see the next Descartes or Nietzsche, I think we should keep the minute work going. One cannot first resolve to produce something radical, and then produce it. One has to have something worthwhile to say first. And the minute work provides a reality check, by threatening the swift demolition of castles in the air through exposure of contradictions in their foundations. Having said that, rather more bold claims in print, clearly proclaimed rather than as one often finds having to be inferred from a criss-cross reading of the text, would be stimulating.