Philosophy Broadly Construed (Part II): An Alternative to My Suggestion

Before I get too carried away with the suggestive metaphor I introduce in Part I, I should note that there is a relatively common trope concerning the relation between philosophy and other disciplines that provides us with a very different view. Because this alternative view is relatively common and somewhat compelling, yet not obviously correct, I think it deserves to be considered here.

The view goes something like this:

People asked all sorts of questions about numbers, the physical world, what makes something alive, etc., long before they had the resources to provide any definitive answers to these questions. They went back and forth, around and around, trying out this answer and that one, and didn’t reach any real consensus amongst themselves. These questions became distinguished from other, more easily answered questions, and came to be thought of as philosophical questions. Historically speaking, each of the natural and social sciences originated from this kind of practice. Each broke away from philosophy and became scientific, however, as it began to provide determinate answers to questions that were previously considered to be philosophical. Philosophy has survived to this day, but most of the questions it began with have been successively taken over and answered by the sciences. It is left going back and forth, around and around, rehearsing age-old questions, making no progress in answering them, and reaching no general consensus among its practitioners.1

If there weren’t some truth to this story, or if it didn’t strike a chord with at least some contemporary historians and practitioners of philosophy and of the sciences, there would be no accounting for its prevalence. Accordingly, dismissing it out of hand, on the basis of my own preference for a different story, wouldn’t be productive for the purposes of articulating the broader view of philosophy I am suggesting here. Instead of doing that, I will offer some of the reasons I see for questioning the basic point on which I disagree; namely, the view that becoming a science requires, or amounts to, a break with philosophy.

As this image (so cleverly) suggests, this view strikes me as being rather anachronistic. Surely, most of us would agree that Newton was not the first to practice physics in a scientific way. Galileo, Kepler, and others had managed to put some aspects of the study of nature on rather more secure footing than had their philosophical predecessors prior to Newton’s great achievements in physics. Newton clearly sees himself breaking with certain philosophically grounded traditions of asking and answering questions about nature, but he clearly does not think that a break has already been made with philosophy or that he himself is making this break.

Newton's Principia

Image by Duncan Hull used in accordance with Creative Commons License

His most celebrated work is entitled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Whether intentionally or not, this fact gets obscured when the work is referred to simply as Newton’s Principia, and something potentially significant for an historically-based understanding of his work and of its relation to the practice of philosophy gets elided. Newton is not an outlier here. His seventeenth-century contemporaries, and the subsequent generations of eighteenth-century intellectuals who looked to his achievements as inspiration, considered themselves to be working in particular ways within a tradition of natural philosophy.2

I don’t offer this fact as conclusive evidence against the view that practices become scientific when they break off from philosophy.  It is, rather, merely a suggestion that we refrain from simply taking the received view that this is how things work as a fixed and settled starting point for thinking about contemporary relationships between philosophy and the natural and social sciences. I think that my suggestion concerning philosophy broadly construed actually gives us a better way of dealing with facts like these from the historical record.

The thinkers involved in the Scientific Revolution did transform some things about the practice of natural philosophy. They were not, as so many others at the time were, bound to approach the subject through the received doctrines found in Aristotelean-Scholastic traditions. They considered the inheritance from this tradition together with what could be taken from other intellectual traditions, and what could be observed and calculated, and they came to some conclusions that differed widely from the received doctrines of the schools at the time. To put the point far too bluntly, they didn’t simply listen to the Philosopher.3 They did some philosophy. That is, they entered into a conversation in which the voice of the Philosopher was one of many to be considered carefully, but also freely, without feeling themselves to be under the authority of any particular body that was capable of commanding them to assent.

I’ll have more to say concerning the historical bases on which I’m drawing for this view of philosophy in a follow-up post. For now, I’ll just say that the potential upshot of the position I am working out here is that it isn’t actually through some break with philosophy that the natural and social sciences begin to progress towards their current forms. The real catalyst for this historical process, and maybe also the feature of their ongoing practices that allows them to avoid falling into the catalogue of obscure and esoteric doctrines, is, well… do I dare say it? Philosophy.

This is the second of a series of posts in which I will join Chris LongAndré Avillez, and Kris Klotz in reflecting on various aspects and challenges peculiar to our work establishing the Public Philosophy Journal – a joint venture between the Philosophy Department at Penn State and the Matrix Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University.

  1. A similar characterization of the historical relation between philosophy and other disciplines can be found in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Philosophy Makes Progress“. She attributes the view to contemporary thinkers, such as the physicist Lawrence Krauss, who criticize philosophy from the standpoint of the superiority of science.  Goldstein finds flaws in this story as well, but she does so for reasons that differ from those that I consider here. I admit that the view of philosophy she proposes, namely that it aims “to render our human points of view ever more coherent” is attractive in many ways. I don’t have the space here to go into detail concerning the points in which our views appear to differ. 

  2. A brief, but helpful discussion of the category of natural philosophy in the 18th Century can be found in the first Chapter of Thomas L. Hankins’ Science and the Enlightenment.  

  3. In his writings on metaphysics and natural philosophy, St. Thomas Aquinas often refers to Aristotle simply as ‘The Philosopher’. 

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