Insecure philosophers

I thought this column by Colin McGinn in the New York Times was a cute, subtle joke. But McGinn has replied to his critics, and now I actually think he might be serious.

Here’s the idea he puts forward: let’s rename ‘philosophy.’ Let’s call it ontical science. Or ontics. There are two basic reasons he puts forward for this.

One is that the etymology of the word, meaning a love of wisdom, seems to mischaracterize the field. Lots of scholars love wisdom, he argues. Not just philosophers, but physicists, and chemists. And then he argues: do we philosophers really love wisdom? And do we philosophers really love wisdom?

Um, no, not really, probably. And yes, to whatever degree that philosophers can be said to “love” “wisdom,” I am sure molecular biologists love it, too. But who really cares about the etymology of the word? It’s not as if it means something entirely unrelated to what we do. And we’ve been using it for a while now, and it has a meaning everyone understands.

The other reason, which I suspect is what’s motivating him, is that very few people know what we actually do (in Anglophone analytic departments, which is the majority of degree-granting departments in the U.S.). So people tend to grossly underestimate or overestimate or misestimate our value.

Every professional philosopher, or student of philosophy, knows how linguistically confusing the name of our discipline can be when talking to people outside the field. They immediately assume you are in the business of offering sage advice, usually in the form of unargued aphorisms and proverbs. You struggle to explain that you don’t do that kind of philosophy, at which point you may well be accused of abandoning your historical calling — unearthing and explicating the “meaning of life” and what the ultimate human goods are. You may then be castigated for not being a “real philosopher,” by contrast with assorted gurus, preachers, homeopaths and twinkly barroom advice givers. Our subject then falls into disrepute and incomprehension.

Yes, people do think your job actually involves demonstrating that the chair you’re sitting on doesn’t exist, or that you’ve just about worked out that meaning of life. Or that for a proposition to be really philosophical, it must be only an unprovable opinion. Or that, being an academia, you’re not a real philosopher. Others start talking about Derrida or Nietzsche or Heidegger, or (heaven forbid) Ayn Rand.

Most people don’t realize that even though we deal with normative concepts at times, many of us tend to see ourselves as contiguous with the sciences. McGinn argues that we are scientists. His argument from dictionary definition is, shall we say, weak (I would criticize it in an undergrad paper). But I know what he means. Many of my papers really do amount to a form of speculative psychology. I have much more contact with academics in the sciences than in the humanities, and I read science journals far more than humanities journals. I don’t think I am a scientist, but my work is more like science than the average guy on the street, or, for that matter, the average scientist, realizes.

McGinn wants dreamers to take us a bit less seriously, and scientists to take us a bit more seriously. So do we all. A few departments have bandied about moving from the humanities section of their university to the sciences. Great! But do we need to change our name? McGinn characterizes what we do as:

My conception of philosophy is broadly Aristotelian: the subject consists of the search for the essences of things by means of a priori methods. Thus, for example, we seek the essence of knowledge by investigating what is involved in the concept of knowledge — where knowledge turns out to be true justified belief (give or take a bit). The things whose essential nature is sought range from space, time and matter, to necessity, causation and laws, to consciousness, free will and perception, to truth, goodness and beauty. There is nothing parochial about this conception of philosophy; it certainly includes ethics, aesthetics and politics.

Is that not a continuation of the work of Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, etc. etc.? Are they not philosophers? Are we shifting fields just so people won’t sneer at us so much?

Maybe instead, we could just describe what we do to more people.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Similar things could be said of linguistics — popular misapprehension of what is involved (“oh, so that means you speak 10 languages?”), less fuzzy than some other humanities (see the relationships to both neuroscience and computer science), a not-entirely-satisfactory etymology (no “study of” suffix).

    Although it seems that there’s a general tendency these days for people in the humanities to emphasize (defensively?) the more science-y aspects of their discipline. And really, is there any academic pursuit that isn’t widely misunderstood and/or oversimplified among the laity?

    • – And really, is there any academic pursuit that isn’t widely misunderstood and/or oversimplified among the laity?


  2. Nice post. If y’all do change your name, can you come up with something less ugly than ontical science? Even “physics” is a more mellifluous word. Or is the ugliness of it supposed to be part of the evidence that it’s a serious field?

    What will the philosophers of aesthetics say?

    • I actually do aesthetics! It does have a donkey bray quality, and I don’t do ontology of art, so I’m doubly offended!

  3. The word Philosophy is best followed by a possessive, like “of”. Philosophy of science. Philosophy of mathematics. Philosophy of biology. On its own, Philosophy is too vague to be defined, beyond some generalized stuff you’ve outlined. I’d even go so far as to say we should apply this “of” business to individual philosophers, Kant’s philosophy, Quine’s philosophy.

  4. A few more thoughts. Philosophy as a discipline always seems to be extractive. Consider what a philosophy of science might entail. Its first task, (speaking only as a guy who knows a fair bit about AI and nothing about a philosophy of science) would be to decide what’s actually science and what isn’t and how anyone could distinguish between them. That’s a useful application of philosophy.

    There’s Galileo with his little ramps and balls and suchlike. Newton’s back there, trying to explain how gravitation works. Both are in serious vocabulary trouble. But here comes Zeno to the rescue with the concept of the infinitesimal. Philosophy saves the day.

    • The way we see ourselves as contiguous (that is, those of us who do) is threefold. One is philosophy of science and epistemology: what constitutes evidence, how to weigh the evidence, what counts as observation, what does probability mean, what are causes, and so on.

      Another is concept clarification: a cognitive scientist can talk about, say, a belief, but usually doesn’t bother to tease out what that really means. Or a biologist can talk about a natural kind, or whatever. Philosophers clarify the concepts that scientists use.

      The other is sort of a way of stepping back and seeing the forest from the trees. So we don’t perform studies (usually). But we can look at a lot of studies on, say, what children learn and decide that it means that Locke was wrong and some concepts are innate and the tabula rasa is bunk.

  5. If science used to be called natural philosophy, that makes philosophy unnatural science, right?

    • If we renamed philosophy Unnatural Science, that would be seriously awesome.

  6. Philosophy isn’t science. Neither is mathematics.

    Neither are they really humanities. They deserve their own class: “We think about thinking about things. You all just think about things.”

    • Yes, an apt grouping might be philosophy, math, cog sci, linguistics, psych.

      • In fact, an apt grouping might be “Cog Sci.” I mean, my Cognitive Science Society t-shirt has all of those listed (well, not math, but screw them, they’re jerks), plus neuroscience, anthropology, and computer science.

        Here’s how many of my conversations have gone at parties:

        The Other Person: So Chris, what do you do?
        Me: I’m a cognitive psycholo… [suddenly, all of those conversations about Freud, people’s mothers, and requests for diagnoses pop into my head]… scientist. I’m a cognitive scientist.”
        The Other Person: What’s that?
        Me: I think about thinking.
        The Other Person: Oh, that sounds interesting. [Smiles awkwardly and then turns to talk to another person.]

        • Yeah, I think you’re generally right. But there are swaths of philosophy that don’t fall under cog sci.

          And I’m pleased to hear that other people have as much trouble with cocktail party chatter that we do!

          • Yeah, I was being silly about cog sci encompassing all of philosophy. I actually think philosophy is just fine as philosophy, because I think it works best when it’s independent.

            And I guarantee you no one, and I mean no one, has more awkward cocktail party conversations than psychologists. With the possible exception of my undergraduate abnormal psych class, I have never studied clinical psychology, but mentioning that hasn’t stopped way too many people from trying to get a free therapy session at a party.

  7. I think this all started with Rorty, right? That philosophy isn’t a discipline unto itself since every other field of inquiry engages in conceptual analysis, and evaluation of argument, logical entailment? Part of this just progress. In the olden times, everything was a branch of philosophy. As people got smarter, they learned the inherent limitations of determining the truth by merely thinking about stuff real hard.

    I’m pretty inclined to agree with BP upthread: philosophy is too broad – and by that I mean undefined – to be a discipline on its own. It really needs a qualifier – philosophy of science, say. And yet, for those who do the work, there is something so obviously distinctive about it that including it in other disciplines sorta misses the point.

    • I remember reading once that Rorty was having a conversation with someone (Jerry Fodor, maybe?) where Fodor was lamenting that he didn’t have the respect of scientists, and Rorty said he’d rather have the respect of artists.

      But yes. Lots of what’s taught at a current university used to be philosophy, until they peeled off and became their own thing.

      “philosophy of X,” though, describes a lot of what we do, but not all. Logic and ethics, for example. Some aesthetics doesn’t fall under philosophy of art.

      • Also, a lot of philosopers and grad students (at least in my department) are encouraged to widen their horizons. Take myself for example. The primary work I do is smack in the middle of value theory. (i.e. moral and politial philosophy) But both my superviosr and the head of Dept have told me to have a broader outlook and do stuff outside value theory. This is to contribute to my philosophical development and make me more attractive to future employers (because they presumably want me to be conversant in fields other than my area of specialisation).

        Let us compare to biologists. If I was doing molecular work, I would of course need to be somewhat familiar with basic (university level) physics and chemistry. However, if I am doing stuff like ecology, I wouldn’t need to know Gauss’s Law from Gibb’s Law.

        While it seems that I could be somewhat self contained when I specialise in philosophy, academic practice is about getting students to be conversant in multiple fields which need not be related to eachother.

        • i.e. it is not clear how much philosophy of X describes what philosophers actually end up doing in practice or what they are competent at.

          • That was true in my case. For aesthetics, one generally has a strong background in one art or other (I have an MA in film). But I’ve spent most of my time in grad school learning about psych and cog sci because I’m interested in that particular take.

  8. It is my philosophy that philosophy is a genre of art. For well over a century the money and academic power may have been in science, which I think has mislead the intent of many a philosopher, or Philosophy Department, to try and sound like science. This may also be greatly true of science culture itself, especially the social sciences. Besides when actually doing the scientific method, would not the rest of what even scientists do be something else? So I would even venture to speculate that science is a sub-genre of art, itself; often born from the work of philosophers, or more importantly, philosophic process (and other creative process.) For those who would think it an insult to call philosophy an art form, perhaps they have some serious emotional issues regarding the importance of art in general? I am not saying that philosophy is literature any more than I would be saying that painting is sculpture. Philosophy is one of the archetypes of human creativity, so to speak, in its own right. Its ability as a genre to root out ideas for all other genres may honor it with some special clout. It also has the power to use science in its process, and we’ve seen the power of its import in recent decades into such things as cognitive science, and perhaps physics (in the latter case probably mostly by physicists doing philosophy, and calling it what they may.) But all art forms are given to using scientific and technological advances in their work, as well as spinning off new artistic mediums. Philosophy is a creative process and like other art forms may invent whatever rules it desires to achieve its work. These may be ‘scientifically’ grounded forms of logic, but nothing says they have to be. Like other art forms, process creation is more important than actually being “right”. Besides, even scientific paradigms change workable rights into obsolete wrongs, over time. Cloaking itself as a science, hiding from modernist, and then post-modernist art approaches, we have probably missed out on some really interesting philosophical potentials. Dadaist philosophy, surrealist philosophy, etc… Not just “of”, but in of itself in its creative method. There has still managed to be a lot of good philosophy, but by employing itself from within the departmental, financial, political and other academic accounts of the university/college economy, I think it has often convoluted itself into a dusty nook remiss of its true artistic abilities, and even clarity.

    • Science also involves creative processes. And like science, and unlike art, we do attempt to be right. And we cannot just pick and choose our points. Otherwise, what’s the point of what we do? We’re trying to explain and understand the way things are, not make something new. Either the mind is identical with the brain, or it isn’t. Either euthanasia is permissible under certain circumstances or it isn’t. We have free will or we don’t. If we’re going to try and figure this stuff out, we can’t just say what is most beautiful.

      It’s not an insult to call philosophy an art form. My specialization is aesthetics and philosophy of art. It’s just inaccurate.

      Again, we’re not scientists, but not artists either.

      • Cloaking itself as a science, hiding from modernist, and then post-modernist art approaches, we have probably missed out on some really interesting philosophical potentials. Dadaist philosophy, surrealist philosophy, etc… Not just “of”, but in of itself in its creative method.

        It may be uncharitable of me, but this what happens when continental types meet analytic types. continental types perpetuall view analytic types as being scientistic. Of course, as an analytic type, I would tend to think of continental philosophy as muddled, overbown and bombastic.

  9. Well, I’m saying you are an artist(though you repress this consciousness), and historically will become “wrong” in the end, but that’s not the point. The process is the point and there might be other ways of getting at it you are missing, perhaps out of this vanity to be scientific, or at least empirical, when we are not as good about getting it right as we would like to think. You can give me all the rules you want to, but I can turn around and write philosophy which does something different, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it but try to censor me, tell others its not philosophy, etc., but in that scenario I would just be doing new or different philosophy-work from you. I really don’t care that some scientists that will respect you less once they figure out you are only an artist. That opinion would be banal, and maybe they might figure out they are only a craftsman, as in, ‘art versus craft’.

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