By Dan Linford
Dear Mr. Nye,
My name is Dan Linford. I teach philosophy at Christopher Newport University and at Thomas Nelson Community College. I have a few publications in the discipline, but I'm not anyone terribly important. I'm young and my research has not yet been cited.
But it filled me with displeasure when I watched your recent statements concerning philosophy on 'Big Think'. The arguments that you seemed to think philosophers concern themselves with -- arguments that we cannot know the external world, trust our senses, that perhaps everything is radically subjective, or the like -- are more caricatures of my discipline than they are representative of it. It's true that we talk about those issues with our students in the effort to get them to think more deeply and critically, but I do not know any professional philosopher who would take seriously the arguments or concerns that you attributed to us. At the very least, no one would take them seriously in the way that you phrased them. If that's what you think philosophy is, then I think you should just reject philosophy outright.
Let me tell you a bit about what we do concern ourselves with. There are questions about what we should do or how we should organize society. All of those important ethical and political questions -- all of which are extraordinarily important this election season -- are philosophical questions that are not answered by the sciences. Or consider the development of logic, including Frege's extension of propositional logic in the 19th century, that allowed us to develop the tools necessary to translate all of mathematics into a formal language. Logic is an important subfield of philosophy and it allowed for the development of modern computing. Logic is still ongoing. Or consider the many concerns about how to understand and interpret our best scientific theories. For example, in cosmology, there are philosophers who work closely together with physicists in order to develop theories about our universe at its largest scales. There is no clear boundary between their work and physics. Physicists -- like Sean Carroll -- publish their research in some of the same places as Tim Maudlin or David Albert.
In my view, philosophy has nothing to do with the sort of concerns you attributed to us. I do not think I can access absolute truths. I am not a guru. I do not have access to any sort of special truths unavailable to others, or that would only be available through some sort of mystical practice. I think science is wildly successful -- more successful, in fact, than any other human endeavor. Like you, I am deeply skeptical of any sort of naively radical subjectivism or relativism.
On my view, philosophy is about the development of intellectual technologies. We do ethics and political philosophy in order to figure out how to live, interact with one another, how to form a just society, and to figure out how to ameliorate our society. We do philosophy of science in order to develop better scientific methodologies, to better interpret our scientific theories, to understand how to better evaluate competing scientific theories, and to ask other sorts of meta-level questions about science. We develop logical and critical thinking tools. We analyze concepts so that we can have a better understanding of what concepts we should employ, when we should employ them, and of the various ways that language can trick us, whether by oppression, obfuscation, or through some other mechanism. We need good intellectual technologies just as much as we need airplanes and computers. We wouldn't have airplanes and computers if philosophers hadn't already developed the intellectual technologies that enabled them.
It's often noted that areas of philosophy, when sufficiently mature, become scientific disciplines or scientific research programs. I think this is true, but that it doesn't represent a failing of philosophy. Instead, what philosophy is doing in those cases is developing intellectual technologies so that later generations of scientists can approach those sorts of questions.
Lastly, your concern about the employment of philosophy majors is ill-founded. While I can confirm that it is difficult to make a living as a professional philosopher, philosophy students do quite well after they leave our departments. Philosophy majors score remarkably well on both the LSAT and the GRE and philosophy majors find employment in a wide variety of industries. See, for example, this article from The Guardian or this one from Forbes.
Bill, we're both deeply devoted to the intellectual enrichment of our society; in that spirit, I invite you to a discussion. Let's sit down and chat about all of this. I think we'd have much to learn from each other.