The Naturalism Debate and the Development of European Philosophy

By Pihlstrom, Sami | Philosophy Today, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Naturalism Debate and the Development of European Philosophy


Pihlstrom, Sami, Philosophy Today


The division between scientifically-- minded Anglo-American analytic philosophy and more literature-oriented Continental philosophy dominated twentieth century thought. These movements have a common origin, however. In order to trace them to their sources, we need not even go back to the Kantian idea of transcendental philosophy that unites them;1 we may simply travel to the early decades of the twentieth century to get a glimpse of the disagreement between Rudolf Carnap and Martin Heidegger concerning the proper philosophical method and the problems such a method may address. Such an historical approach is sketched by Michael Friedman in his recent book, A Parting of the Ways.2

Analytic philosophers', such as Friedman's, historically focused studies of their own tradition, especially of its birth on the European continent, are interesting in relation to another recent development, namely, the intensification among European philosophers of the originally more or less American debate over naturalism and anti-naturalism, a debate that significantly transforms the analytic tradition. While Americans and the English language of course continue to dominate the international philosophical scene,3 there are some signs indicating a more pluralistic future. It seems that analytic philosophy, founded in the German-speaking world (especially Vienna), is gradually reoccupying, in its "post-analytic," naturalized and more metaphilosophically concerned phase, its original homeland after several decades of primarily American dominance.4 As a recent collection of essays by German and Italian philosophers demonstrates,5 the methodological and metaphilosophical controversy over naturalism is at the heart of some of the most interesting contemporary work in and around the analytical paradigm in Europe.

The purpose of this essay is to briefly review this complex development in the light of some examples provided by Friedman and the contributors to NCP.6 I shall argue that what was left behind in the division of our philosophical scene in the 1920s and 1930s is now to be faced again in the on-going reevaluation of naturalism. We need to address essentially the same problems. In particular, the need for a "middle way" between naturalism and anti-naturalism, on the one hand, and between analytic and Continental philosophy, on the other hand, seems to be as urgent now as it was then. Friedman's own work, inspired by Kant and neo-Kantianism, is a splendid example of the kind of re-evaluation of naturalism we need;7 an analogical re-evaluation is proposed by some of the authors of NCP (e.g., Hans Jorg Sandkuhler) who defend forms of culturalism, historicism, or at least anti-reductionism, instead of reductive naturalism.

* * * *

Rather than exploring the technical questions debated in recent naturalism literature, I shall go directly into the heart of the naturalists' and their critics' disputes. The program of naturalism in recent philosophy is perhaps most lucidly expressed by Domenico Parisi in his "The Naturalization of Humans" (NCP, 75-87): human beings should not, according to the naturalist, be viewed as "special" in any (special) sense, that is, not as special or unique in any other sense than the unexciting one in which all natural kinds are special or unique simply by being different from other kinds, but should rather be "reintroduced" into nature and seen simply as natural phenomena among others, to be investigated by the exact methods of the advanced natural sciences. Wherever the use of scientific methods leads us, there we should go. It is to be expected that the advancement of natural science will reduce the apparently "special" features of humanity -- the mind, cognition, consciousness, intentionality, agency, moral motivation, etc.-to something more fundamental, eventually to the interactions between elementary physical particles.

So far so good. But what are the legitimate scientific methods by means of which human life and its typical phenomena ought to be studied, according to naturalists? …

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