Friday, April 28, 2023

Review: What's the Use of Philosophy?

What's the Use of Philosophy?What's the Use of Philosophy? by Philip Kitcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this brief book, Kitcher offers his take on what is wrong with the discipline of philosophy and what he thinks it needs to do to fix itself.

I think Kitcher nails many of the ongoing problems in academic philosophy: the over-formalization, the reliance on intuition and thought experiments, the superficial understanding of other disciplines (in particular science), to name a few. Another focus of his criticism is that the discipline sees itself as having a core, namely metaphysics and epistemology, that gets all the prestige, leaving the peripheral to be neglected. While I think he’s correct in broad strokes, I’m not as persuaded that these pathologies, as he calls them, are quite as ubiquitous as he suggests. He captures some general trends, but it is not clear how deep or far these go. Kitcher himself acknowledges that since he first starting working on this project, the discipline moved in more positive directions.

Two things he doesn’t mention, or barely mentions, are (1) the teacher-researcher split and (2) the prestige of stardom.

In the last chapter, he does raise the teacher-research split; but I think he’s missing the important shift in higher ed towards large parts (and majority parts) of the faculty being teaching faculty instead of research focused faculty. I think his thesis might be interesting to explore in terms of how teaching philosophy is different than being focused on cutting-edge research. The former tends to fit more his view of the direction philosophy should take: syncretic, tied into practical concerns, and with an eye towards the audience. It will typically avoid most of the formalist and technical pathologies he’s concerned with, since the classes are not pitched at that level.
In terms of (2) above, there is far too much prestige given to the big names, the big programs, and the big journals. This feeds a lot of the problems he discusses. This is general academic problem, not peculiar to philosophy. (Indeed, it might even be somewhat better in philosophy as things go.) Still, if the concern is on how to cure the pathologies, there has to be some focus on one of the major causes of these pathologies.

My biggest disagreements with Kitcher lie in his positive project. It’s far too based on (philosophical) pragmatism and a bit too focused on the extrinsic value of what philosophy does. There is a value of philosophy that is more internal: that is, it has value that is not based on how it contributes to the university and other disciplines. And I think Kitcher dismisses that too quickly. That said, the syncretic, less formalistic, more practical approach is appealing to me. I just don’t want that to be it. There is a great value in diving deeply into the details. There is a great value of streaming to the 10000-foot view. We need both. The latter is not as well value in the discipline, but it’s not a zero-sum game where valuing the syncretic, big picture view means devaluing the analytical, minute focus.

The book is quick and easy to read. It likely wouldn’t interest any not in the field, though other academics might find it interesting to look inside another discipline.

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