In recent months, and for the first time, I’ve been embarrassed to be a philosopher. Consequently, I’ve been hanging out with academics in other disciplines and keeping my background quiet. I had always assumed that philosopher was a noble vocation and the peak of intellectual achievement. Enough has happened lately to make me doubt this.
Philosophy has a problem and that problem is hubris. Philosophers pride themselves on their argumentative skills. They should have a better than average grasp of logic and a high capacity for understanding. Understanding of what? That is part of the problem. Philosophical skills are, in theory, general and transferable, so we can apply our techniques to any possible question. So far, so good.
Yet this can also generate hubris. Philosophical hubris is the belief that because of having general philosophical skills and mastery of reason and argument one is thereby qualified to pronounce on any subject whatsoever, even matters one knows very little about. Why read the literature and respect the existing traditions when one can take a razor-sharp philosopher’s scalpel to the problem and dissect it conceptually? One doesn’t need knowledge of a discipline when one can figure it all out a priori. One doesn’t need to engage with previous thinkers. Indeed, one shows one’s true genius more by ignoring and disrespecting what has come before.
Of course, I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past. I’ve written on philosophy of biology and philosophy of physics when I have no training in either biology or physics. In my defence, I’ve always tried to approach those subjects with a humble attitude and at least looked at what other philosophers of science have said. What I find difficult and problematic is when a philosopher wades in on some topic that has newly gained their attention and tries to pronounce based on First Principles, purposefully ignoring all prior work, even where it concerns an entire academic discipline. Failure is then inevitable, since it is likely that we repeat prior mistakes of other thinkers, overlook the breakthroughs that are already established in that field, or conclude something proudly that has long been known and argued in detail better elsewhere. The latter is likely the best we can hope. More probable is that we say something that was already, after due examination, dismissed for good reason. We repeat old mistakes.
Philosophers should not feel in a position to pronounce on anything that takes their fancy, and especially not matters with a long academic history. We should reject this hubris. Famously, the oracle at Delphi declared Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, supposedly because he knew that he knew nothing. For this, and other reasons, Socrates was my first philosophical hero. I’ve since had others besides but what I like about this version of Socrates is the humility. Contemporary publishers and journal editors like confident, controversial and categorical claims since they make a good read and provoke responses. But being provocative is not an automatic good in the current climate. Instead, I think it in the longer-term interest of our discipline to rediscover that Socratic philosophy of humility. A first step is to accept that whereof we know nothing, we should pass over in silence. This, I believe, is the way to rebuild the credibility and respectability philosophy once had.