Philosophical Employment: History and Prospects

By Dacey, Austin | Free Inquiry, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Philosophical Employment: History and Prospects

Dacey, Austin, Free Inquiry

During the first half of the twentieth century, most philosophers in the English-speaking world maintained a delicate division of labor between themselves and their colleagues in the science departments. Central to the division was a distinction between so-called contingent, or "synthetic" claims, and necessary, or "analytic" claims. Contingent claims were understood as assertions about reality that in principle are subject to revision in the face of new evidence, such as "Tom is a bachelor." Analytic claims were understood as assertions--like "All bachelors are unmarried"--that merely reflect our rules governing the meanings of terms, and therefore say nothing about the extra-linguistic world.

Within the then-dominant school of logical empiricism or logical positivism, synthetic claims were placed under the exclusive purview of the sciences. It was thought that, by limiting philosophy to the analysis and clarification of the logical structure of language, we could purge it of barren metaphysics--such as unverifiable speculation about the nature of causation or the freedom of the will--and thereby boost the discipline's productivity. Philosophy's job was not to tell us what things are like, but to tell us what we mean by things.

By mid-century, however, this job description began to undergo substantial modification. In 1951, W V Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" shook English-speaking philosophy to its core by discrediting the strict analytic-synthetic distinction, puncturing a barrier between factual and conceptual inquiry. During the next twenty years, as logical empiricism retreated under theoretical attack from various additional directions, some philosophers began to feel more comfortable with thinking and writing in a metaphysical mode. The tradition of American philosophical naturalism was subsequently revived in a number of popular forms, including the idea that an acceptable philosophical theory must in some way be consonant, or even continuous, with the best theories of the natural sciences. Meanwhile some thinkers acknowledged the decline of positivism but in practice continued in a positivist vein to treat philosophy purely as "conceptual analysis." indeed, distinguished philosopher of science Mario Bunge sees the conte mporary scene as one of fragmentation and disarray.

But during the last few decades, as philosophers were busy trying to discern their proper place in a post-positivist, naturalist intellectual economy a development was taking place that would threaten to answer that question for them. With the theoretical and experimental collapse of psychological behaviorism, the examination of processes like perception, memory, and consciousness had again become scientifically respectable. Advances in digital computing and artificial intelligence had given researchers powerful new tools with which to devise and test models of the human mind. Cognitive psychologists, linguists, anthropologists, and philosophers joined in an interdisciplinary effort that became known as cognitive science. Increasingly, neurobiology began to play a leading role in this partnership as researchers turned from an exclusive focus on the mind as a computer program to the exploration of how this program is actually implemented in the brain's "wetware."

Among the discoveries now emerging from the maturing brain sciences are results that challenge philosophical tradition and raise the possibility that certain time-honored problems can be more fruitfully addressed with cognitive scientific methods rather than classical philosophical methods. While philosophy goes on wondering how to put the questions, the cognitive sciences have started to answer them.

Some outstanding examples of such results can be found in the work of cognitive scientists David Noelle and Stephen Stich, linguist George Lakoff, and philosopher Mark Johnson, who have all contributed to this issue of FREE INQUIRY. Dr. Noelle explains recent research that has begun to unravel the neurobiology of "controlled behaviors," such as making choices and executing plans of action. …

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