The nature of philosophy and its role in modern society

Those who spend their days obsessively noting every little change in blog designs will note that I have added a big red “P” at the bottom left. This links to the Philosophy Campaign – an attempt to make philosophy more relevant to modern society. So I got to thinking… what is the relevance of philosophy today?

It certainly isn’t its ability to contribute to the commodification and managerialism of modern tertiary education. Philosophy programs are being downgraded or even closed around the world. In Queensland, where I taught, only one major philosophy department was left after the entirety of Humanities was closed at other universities. Proper philosophy programs are becoming much rarer. Even moreso if you happen to threaten an authoritarian government or lobby (the latter case a pro-Israeli lobbyist politician). Why is this?

Philosophy is generally, whether it will or no, true to its main mission statement: to corrupt the minds of the youth. Well, that’s what Socrates was convicted of. He would have said it was to make young minds think critically, and for most authoritarian governments, that amounts to the same thing. Critical reasoning skills are dangerous! Students might doubt God, or the status quo or worse, the prevailing political platform. I think one of my major mistakes was to use advertising and media as examples of bad reasoning, because that is an economic challenge to the status quo, and nobody survives that.

Philosophy is relevant in ways that do not serve the interests of those in power, on either side of politics (as if there were only two sides, another comfortable truism that serves those in power). Mostly it is a threat for the third of the three questions of philosophy. These questions are:

What is there? [Metaphysics]

How do we know? [Epistemology]

What is its value? [Aesthetics, ethics and political philosophy]

All philosophy deals with one of these three questions or more. Me, being a moral vacuum and an aesthetic sink, I tend to focus on the first two. And even this can threaten elites. Suppose we took philosophy into schools, and allowed kids to ask a metaphysical question: do states exist? If they found themselves adopting something like methodological individualism, they might infer that states have no interests or rights, and therefore governments must be constrained in their infringement of actual right-bearers’ rights in pursuing faux wars on abstract evils. Imagine that. Fortunately for the elites this will never happen, of course.

Or suppose they adopted a corporatist view of nations and held that the only true reality was the entire population. They might begin to challenge the view that oligarchies can do with state instruments whatever they wish. And so on. The thing about philosophy is that it does not block ahead of time any view so long as it is coherent. And coherent views can lead to results that people who have vested interests may not want a populace to find.

So, on with corrupting the youth! While you are at it, corrupt some elders too.

50 thoughts on “The nature of philosophy and its role in modern society

  1. I do think that philosophy as a method of critical thinking has been shunted aside in favor of teaching those things which will aid in vocations – the three “r’s” as it were.

    In secondary school, or as we say in the States, high school, I only had brief glimpses of philosophy in our English Composition course. Our teacher, a Sister of Saint Benedict, had realized that the final theme papers were improved when her students had been exposed to the basic of philosophy. I had learned very little of it until that time and followed in college with some survey courses that helped me to formalize ideas and learn how to process information.

    I am often amused when I hear some scientists devalue philosophy, as without it they would be mere collectors of data and wouldn’t be able to do anything with all their information. The data would just sit there and wait for someone to figure out that it might mean something.

    Philosophy and science are mutually dependent, in my observation, as metaphysics would be ridiculously out of touch with the real world without science. As an example of philosophy without science, I present theology.

    So, yeah, teach philosophy starting in grade one. The kids will love it.

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    1. Mike Haubrich:

      I am often amused when I hear some scientists devalue philosophy, as without it they would be mere collectors of data and wouldn’t be able to do anything with all their information.

      Oh yeah? I have never been on a cookery course, but I can still cook. Science does not need philosophy; it has the scientific method and courses in experimental design and statistics should cover the epistemological issues.

      The reason many scientists (and non-scientists!) deride philosophy is because they don’t see philosophers producing any input of value to them. A verbal mulligatawny that boils down to little more than “oh, it’s difficult, isn’t it?” or “do you really understand that?” is infuriating rather than useful. Too many philosophers seem to think that raising a question is valuable in itself; no, it’s of little value unless you have some sort of answer to that question. John raises questions about species concepts, but he also answers those (oh dear, I hope that’s not insulting?). That is useful, especially when he is a less biased observer/analyst than many of those involved.

      Mike again:

      So, yeah, teach philosophy starting in grade one. The kids will love it.

      Yes and no. Teach the critical reasoning parts of philosophy and many kids will go for it; kids love a good argument. Teach the classical philosophers and they’ll be bored rigid. As would I be. Teach the hackneyed and childish philosophical word games, like the trolley car nonsense in moral philosophy, and they’ll see it as a load of wank.

      Answers. It’s about answers. If a subject only produces questions, never good answers, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. Like arguing about which was the best cricket/baseball/tiddlywinks team of the 1930s, or whether chromium is better than nickel, or who the most interesting Duke of Burgundy was. The debate on those topics might be interesting but there’s unlikely to be a useful answer that anybody cares about or could use to progress their own work.

      Philosophers also need to be outward looking (one of the reasons why John’s stuff is so popular; it engages with stuff in the real world). Philosophers seem to get into the most awful tangles with elementary logic (modus tollens, modus ponens, etc.) which are beneath trivial if one has any feel at all for simple set theory (you know, Venn diagrams as taught to pre-teens these days) or its equivalent notational variant, basic Boolean algebra. How can you need to even discuss which of these forms of inference are valid?!

      As the earlier logic thread showed, philosophers actually need to get out there and understand how Bayesian belief systems work if they want to understand both the formal and informal nature of belief. Could many philosophers describe “conditionally independent” in a model with hidden variables? And statistics: how many philosophers understand the distinction between “effectiveness” and “efficacy” in drugs trials? And how many would immediately know the most probable outcome if you received a positive test result for a disease with a prevalence of 1 in 10000 per year when the test is 99.9% reliable?

      In other words, on a lot of things, the philosophy is being done in the target subject; the philosophers are in a corner arguing amongst themselves about precisely what sort of angels they want to place on which sort of pin-head.

      Too much philosophy is like a professional wrestling show with the protagonists flexing their overdeveloped vocabularies. It might be a good show, but nobody cares about the results.

      Mike:

      Philosophy and science are mutually dependent, in my observation, as metaphysics would be ridiculously out of touch with the real world without science.

      Is metaphysics in touch with the real world? And is it supposed to be? Physics deals with the real world (and with theoretical attempts to describe it), so that’s probably excluded from metaphysics, isn’t it? I don’t see how metaphysics contributes if it’s just people exchanging words about the nature of time or the structure of mind, for example. Physicists can do the nature of time better, and psychologists and neurologists can do the structure of mind better. Where’s the modern metaphysician’s contribution going to be?

      Mike:

      As an example of philosophy without science, I present theology.

      I’d say as an example of a complete waste of time, I present theology! There aren’t any gods, so there can’t really be a valid philosophy about it, can there? In the endless atheist/theist debates, the plaintive cry of theologians that [insert name of atheist] has not studied theology is one of the hollowest not-getting-the-point complaints one hears!

      (Of course, studying the history, beliefs, sociology, politics of religions and their societies and members are all valuable, useful and desirable.)

      The precis version: (1) critical reasoning is important, teach it, (2) for philosophers to be appreciated, they must produce answers of value to others, not just more questions, (3) practitioners in other fields often have more sophisticated philosophies about those fields than philosophers seem to appreciate, (4) just because philosophers can have an argument about something (or nothing), that does not mean that argument is useful or valid.

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      1. I am just curious about what value the scientific method would have if philosophy had not had a hand in developing it.

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  2. I wrote about this in a facebook note. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy with what I wrote. Here are a couple of very relevant paragraphs:

    Nobody cares about philosophy. That’s not just a problem for philosophy; it’s a problem for everybody. Philosophy is that form of discourse in which we engage in critical, rational, and creative ways with the concepts that are most fundamental to our lives: what is real, what is right and wrong, what is good or bad, better or worse, what can be known and how it can be known, and what really matters anyway. When we neglect philosophy, we neglect clear thinking and serious discussion, and we simply take for granted the categories and basic assumptions that are handed to us by society. Philosophy is something that we can grow and understand only so much without.

    When we divide all discourse between science, religion, journalism, and cheap editorials, we fail to get at the root of anything, and to really question our ideas as far as we should. This is most important in the areas of morality and politics because they’re not about objects that we can observe (Can you take a yardstick to justice or value?), but rather subjects that can only be addressed by a widespread conversation. This is the case in a democratic society, at least. In a more closed society, these issues would be decided for us and we would just have to take the answers we were fed. Then again, if we don’t discuss them and decide upon them for ourselves, that’s exactly what’s happening…

    For what it’s worth, I’ve also developed a definition of philosophy that I discuss on my blog. I define philosophy as a mode of discourse rather than a discipline that addresses a specific set of problems because I find it more flexible and less arbitrary:

    philosophy is discourse which proceeds through rational, critical, and creative engagement with the fundamental concepts underlying some field of human (or any other category of appropriately sapient creature) practice or experience.

    Thanks for making me aware of Philosophy Campaign. I think I’ll visit that right now.

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  3. As an example of philosophy without science, I present theology.

    As a Humanist, I’d tend to agree that theology is far too un-skeptical of itself. But I think many theologians would take offense to the caricature that they are the ultimate example of “without science.” Very few people consider themselves fideists — though too often we atheists enjoy pretending that all religious folk (scholars or otherwise) don’t give a shit about evidence.

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    1. Some theology is rigidly logical and rational within their own lights. Mind you, I don’t think it is true in any way, but it is far from being obviously irrational unscientific. Many theologians do try hard to work within the best science, and, sometimes overlooked, they always have done.

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  4. I don’t think corrupting youth is your problem. It’s the lack of overt debauchery that is keeping the kids out of philosophy. I blame Plato and Aristotle with their codifying the Greek ideal of balance and virtue. Now if you promised free beer, orgies and so on, I feel philosophy would be a world beater.
    Is hedonism a philosophy?

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  5. Philosophy also help us to understand the background of some naturalistic teachings and their roots – be it Marxism and Darwinism (they live in no compliance, see my blog entry Marxism and Darwinism).
    Philosophy is also connected with the theory of language or linguistics. One should study what an orwelian distortion Darwin uses defing terms “natural selection” or “struggle for life”. This has according some philosophers longer tradition .
    And last but not at least – is philosophy interconnected with language? Can be really Heidegger or Husserl translated into another language?

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  6. In terms of corrupting the not-quite-youth-anymore, what would be a good way to inform oneself without the rigid structure of academia? (i.e. I want to learn more but have no idea what to look at)

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    1. That depends on what aspects of philosophy you are interested in. I can make some recommendations for philosophy of science and biology (the Acumen Publishing series has some good introductions).

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      1. My main areas of interest at the moment are philosophy of science and philosophy of mind, so any recommendations on the philosophy of science would be good. Thanks

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  7. Well, I’m just a philosopher and historian of science who thinks that the shift from ‘natural philosophy’ to ‘science’ was merely a linguistic marker for a sociological development. Whether we call it science or natural philosophy, the “revolution” that sparked about 400 years ago was methodological — it was about finding ways to frame questions in way that allows experience and experiment to help us sort the wheat from the chaff among potential answers. So the attitude encapsulated by “Answers. It’s about answers,” gets things backwards. It’s about questions.

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  8. Every university student should have to take a course in philosophy and if they can’t demonstrate the ability to think critically they should flunk out of university.

    This applies especially to science students, who seem to be remarkably deficient in this skill.

    In my introductory philosophy class (1964-65) we spent several months discussing arguments for the existence of God. That was an excellent way to learn about logic and critical thinking. Almost everyone in the class was engaged in the material and read all the books. (Yes, we actually had to read books in order to pass a course.)

    From my experience in the 21st century, you would be hard-pressed to engage a substantial portion of today’s class in such a subject. Many of today’s students are intellectual luddites. They dismiss ALL philosophy as useless and some of the important concepts go right over their heads. I’ve even heard otherwise intelligent people dismiss things like the trolleycar problems because they just don’t understand the real issue that’s being raised by such examples.

    Makes you wonder what kind of education they had. Is it too late to change our education system?

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    1. When I went to *community college* introductory philosophy classes were required for those pursuing two year diplomas or going on to university for a BA/BS. I don’t know if that is still the case. IIRC, everyone had to take logic, plus one other.

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  9. Sam C;

    You actually think that modus tollens is a live issue in contemporary philosophy?

    I would think a scientist would know better than to opine fervently and at length about a subject while having a near-total lack of facts about it. Evidently not. I’m guessing you’ve never been more than mediocre at anything since undergrad at the latest, despite having a strong native intelligence, and you’ve never known why.

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  10. On a related note, I’ve been trying to make a short list of philosophers whose major works every scientist should read. It seems that a lot of scientists haven’t heard of any philsci but Popper and Kuhn, and the understanding of Kuhn is often from second-hand sources that either garble his arguments or argue for much less arguable claims. Right now, the list is Hume, Kuhn,Popper, Quine, Lakatos but there probably should be more that I’m just not thinking of or not aware of. Sugestions are welcome There should probably be someone who gives the strong Bayesian outlook but I don’t know of any single author who really encapsulates that viewpoint well.

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      1. Hmm, I’ll have to take a look at Earman’s book. I haven’t read it myself. (I wouldn’t recommend Bayes’ original paper. It doesn’t cover most of the issues that are relevant to what we think of as Bayesianism in the modern sense, and it isn’t very well written even for what he is trying to do.)

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    1. Every scientist should read Peirce’s Illustrations of the Logic of Science.

      As to Bayesians, it depends on at least two things: (1) whether you are looking for Bayesian epistemology or Bayesian statistics, and (2) whether the Bayesianism you care about is objective (like that espoused by E.T. Jaynes and Jon Williamson) or subjective (like that espoused by de Finetti).

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  11. On the three questions of philosophy, I came up with a diagram depicting something similar for the very first post on my blog.

    Some people might be interested in it (I’d probably amend it now. For example, I didn’t include aesthetics at all, which I probably should have done).

    Philosophy 101

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  12. The problem many people have with philosophy is that they see it either as claiming to tell them (or usurp their role in telling others) how to do that at which they already consider themselves the best experts, or as claiming expertise in that for which there is no evidence of any real expertise anywhere.

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    1. I hear that a lot, but rarely do I see examples. Occasionally some philosopher will get it wrong in front of scientists, but that doesn’t happen all that often in my experience, so I have to ask for examples.

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      1. I don’t know many cases of this happening professionally but I’m around undergrad philosophy majors and grad students a lot. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to deal with them try to use Godel’s theorem or the uncertainty principle in an argument and then have it be very clear that they don’t have any understanding of either. But this does seem to be rare among professional philosophers.

        I don’t know if Chris Ormell counts as a philosopher (although there may be No True Scotsman issues here) but his piece here managed to be have a surprisingly high density of incorrect statements about math and science: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=414868&c=2

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      2. I would never deny that philosophers, especially students who have a slight grasp on Gödel and Bayes and other matters (particularly mathematical ones), get things wrong, a lot. That is undeniable. But do philosophers tell experts how to behave in their own disciplines a lot? And not merely undergraduates (one could write a very funny book, with a foreword by Bill Cosby, on the stupid things undergraduates say and think), but professionals? I have documented a few cases on this very blog, but they are rare, and that is my point.

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      3. It seems hard to quantify in a useful fashion, although I agree they are rare. But from a PR perspective it takes only a handful of Ormell’s for many scientists and mathematicians to decide not to bother paying attention. This is part of a general PR problem that philosophy has. A lot of scientists dismiss Kuhn without reading what he had to say. This is I think primarily because of other later philosophers and popularizers butchering what Kuhn said or exaggerating his claims and attributing it to Kuhn. (I have so many rants related to this including the terrible abuse of the word paradigm.)

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        1. You used the “p-word”. This is a family blog, and I’ll not have that sort of language here, thanks.

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      4. Joshua, why did you have to post the link to Chris Ormell’s essay? I actually read his ignorant, incoherent and confuse ramblings about mathematics and all I can say is he does not “have a surprisingly high density of incorrect statements about math and science”, he literally doesn’t have the faintest idea about the subject. I felt mildly sick having ploughed my way through it and can’t understand for the life of me how he gets to publish such a piece of crap in the TES.

        On the subject of Gödel’s theorem, I have also had such conversations with philosophy undergraduates but also with mathematic and computer science undergraduates. I have even talked with mathematics post grads who have never even heard of Gödel let alone his theorems.

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      5. When you say “I hear that a lot”, are you referring to my claim that “.. many people … see it as …”, or to the claim which I claim that many people make? If you are asking for examples in support of the former, some of the comments here come close; for the latter (ie for examples of what causes people to believe as I described about philosophy), I suspect that a few examples such as those cited by Joshua and Jeb go a long way, and also that many people’s impressions of a subject actually come from observing not its leaders but its students who are their peers at the time their impressions are being formed – many of whom are less than stellar and also may be prone to exaggerate the importance of the discipline with which they are struggling.

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  13. I left academe some years ago (philosophy PhD and some teaching experience). I now dabble in the real world. If I am hiring, I will go for a philosopher or a historian if I can, because they are taught how to take vague and cloudy situations and (step one) give clear and articulate descriptions of them and (step two) give carefully argued reasons about them. I have found mathematicians to be poor at this, particularly the first. Scientists are better, but for some reason are not taught normal English, and I get irritated by correcting people’s prose.

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  14. Edward Ockham: is that huge generalisation an example of the carefully argued reasoning you respect? It sounds to me like you might be choosing people like yourself, to form a mutual admiration society.

    The scientists that you slag off for not writing “normal English” might be fettered by science’s demand for accuracy, something which is does not have the same primacy in history or philosophy. Scientists are taught to be wary of sweeping complexity under the carpet, but those who have taught or lectured on lower level science quickly learn to produce high level overviews with a bit of hand-waving.

    Whenever choosing people, don’t look at the labels, look for the abilities. The big advantage of a science-based education, especially in the squidgier sciences, is that it gives one a grounding in many fields (albeit not expert level, but any biologist needs to understand some biochemistry, maths, physics, computing and statistics and to be able to argue and write cogently). What comparable skill set does an academic historian or philosopher acquire?

    As for saying that philosophers “take vague and cloudy situations and give clear descriptions of them”, well, my gob is smacked. I thought philosophers delighted in looking at clear situations and claiming they’re vague and cloudy!

    There’s a thread over at Crooked Timber about female/male divides in philosophy and other disciplines in academe. The long series of comments screams with inane anecdotes, unsubstantiated generalisations, speculations and arbitrary assertions that makes one wonder if most of the commenters have any critical reasoning skills at all!

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    1. Take care with your reference class here. Not everyone or everything that calls itself philosophical is. I personally find that “critical studies”, which is largely a product of English departments or their French equivalents, is ordinarily verbosity for the sake of it. Likewise a good many things that are ascribed to philosophy were invented in sociology or even physics.

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  15. >> is that huge generalisation an example of the carefully argued reasoning you respect?

    I should have added ‘in my experience’, to be sure.

    >> It sounds to me like you might be choosing people like yourself
    I try to choose people who are able to take vague and cloudy situations and (step one) give clear and articulate descriptions of them and (step two) give carefully argued reasons about them. I don’t know whether I am able to do this. I hope so.

    >> The scientists that you slag off for not writing “normal English” might be fettered by science’s demand for accuracy, something which is does not have the same primacy in history or philosophy. Scientists are taught to be wary of sweeping complexity under the carpet, but those who have taught or lectured on lower level science quickly learn to produce high level overviews with a bit of hand-waving.

    If ‘accuracy’ means carefully prepared, or precise or exact, then philosophers are good at this. They certainly don’t ‘sweep complexity under the carpet’. They are taught to respect subtle distinctions. Perhaps I had a bad experience with scientists.

    >> As for saying that philosophers “take vague and cloudy situations and give clear descriptions of them”, well, my gob is smacked. I thought philosophers delighted in looking at clear situations and claiming they’re vague and cloudy!

    No. They will often look at situations which appear clear to others, and will see complexity or subtlety or just plain lack of clarity.

    >> There’s a thread over at Crooked Timber about female/male divides in philosophy and other disciplines in academe. The long series of comments screams with inane anecdotes, unsubstantiated generalisations, speculations and arbitrary assertions that makes one wonder if most of the commenters have any critical reasoning skills at all!

    I think you are confusing ‘philosopher’ with ‘someone on the internet’. Sounds like it. Another thing to consider is the quality of the educational institution where philosopher was trained. This varies.

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  16. A very good post. I really don’t have anything to add to it but my personal sadness at the demise of philosophy in the University. Some of my favorite courses in college were philosophy courses. And one of my worst (I had a crazy Chinese philosophy instructor).

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  17. As an outsider looking on I can see some value in teaching philosophy. But if the value is so great, why is it being marginalised? Perhaps ordinary mortals manage to stumble through life without giving the matter any thought?

    I read the Philosophy Campaign web site and it seemed as if it was written by insiders for those already persuaded. If you really want to support the spread of Philosophy you’re going to have to make it more relevant to modern life (in my opinion). Practical Philosophy courses perhaps, targeted at specific industries ? Of course selecting the content of a practical philosophy course could be a challenge, there are so many different choices…

    It could be done though. Many of the Eastern philosophies seem to be more culturally embedded.

    Still, what do I know?

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    1. The PC (love it!) project is motivating philosophers. It is not yet addressing itself directly to the outsiders.

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  18. “I hear that a lot, but rarely do I see examples. ”

    ‘who’s there – did I hear a voice, oh my god was that tree talking to me? Could it be a talking tree?’ Each time we obsess it’s another repetition in the mind….

    Pretty soon the whole town and even the ones that are sceptical say ah, there’s no such thing as a talking tree, but every time they say it they make another copy of that idea, and pretty soon the idea of the talking tree is everywhere.’

    Dennet on the Vak Vak tree and the origin of a meme.

    I don’t think mis-observation is a credible means of analysis of this type of material, though it was quite popular in 1950’s ladybird books as a means of understanding this type of narrative, but then things move on.

    Dennet presents no credible evidence for the origin of this popular folktale but does tack on some credible science to his “fiction-generating contraption”. As all the evidence for this form of narrative suggests that its purpose is one of pure entertainment, I am not sure why the context he uses it in is a religious one.

    Its a major fail in my book. But I suspect that he is not going to stand up at a conference of experts on oral narrative and seek a credible response to his views as his interests are clearly not with presenting an argument with a credible evidence base.

    I think this is a very common fault line in philosophy and one that you go to some lengths in your own work to avoid.

    It does not stop me from reading Dennet or finding him interesting on other subjects but it is very annoying and I think a common feature of philosophy. Filled with sweeping statements based on limited understanding of fieldwork.

    Perhaps even more annoying (particularly you work closer to the ground) is that it seems to manage to make interesting points despite such difficulties. So you are still obliged to read it even if it does have you spitting nails every once in a while.

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    1. So, Dennett has made an error, possibly. Is that telling specialists how to behave in their own discipline? I disagree with much of what he writes, but I can’t see him doing that latter thing.

      [Added:] Also, it pays to distinguish thought experiments, which philosophers excel in generating, from a historical account or attempt to give one. Different standards apply within philosophy than in social or cultural history, for example. Not that I think we should always use them, but they are a stock in trade. I prefer to use real cases and proper history when I can, but philosophy is not restricted to that.

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