Skip to content

The difference between philosophy and biology

Robert Paul Wolf continues his fascinating, and dare I say name-naming and body-locating, autobiobiographical memoirs of the academy and his place in it. In the latest episode he mentions Ed Wilson, the famous ant specialist, sociobiologist, and promoter of science. Brian Leiter cites the passage in which Wolf has a revelation after Wilson notes that he counted the individuals in an ant colony, and ruminates on philosophy moving to the general while science moves to the particular (which I think is not so clear as that), but I want to point out the next passage:

When our conversation about the anthill began to drag, Wilson took me into a nearby room in which there were rows of file cabinets. He pulled out a drawer at random to show me a card on which was impaled an ant. The card identified the ant as belonging to one of the more than twenty thousand species of ants that are estimated to exist somewhere or other on the face of the earth. A second eclaircissement illuminated my mind. I had a vision of thousands of English curates and amateur entomologists, each of whom had devoted much of his or her life to searching for, identifying, catching, impaling, and thus nailing down for all time one of those ant species. Here again, I saw clearly how different my field was from Wilson’s. Philosophy does not advance by the taking of thousands of tiny steps, assuming for the sake of argument that it advances at all. Instead, ages pass during which little or nothing happens, although thousands of philosophers are doing their best. Then, there is a moment of transformation — fourth century B. C,. in Greece, or the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Western Europe. Suddenly, the subject leaps forward, changing forever the way we think. As for all those good, grey, decent souls [myself included, of course] who soldier away, trying to think new thoughts, we might just as well not have existed. Great music is like this, I think. Would anyone ever play the music of Salieri had it not been for Peter Shaffer?

But Entomology is not like that at all. Every one of those file cards was the evidence of a worthwhile piece of work, undertaken, completed, and added to our knowledge of the ant. I was properly humbled. After we parted, I reflected that Wilson probably had learned nothing at all from meeting me, but I felt that I had learned a good deal from meeting him. It might not have been good for him, but it was good for me.

What Wolf is talking about is taxonomy and observation, the former of which is deprecated in philosophy as a kind of conventional necessity, and the latter of which is often treated as being something that follows, but does not precede, theory. Both of these views are, I think, completely wrong.

What Wilson and his colleagues do is first identify the kinds of things out in the world. They rarely do this on the basis of prior biological theory, although of course nobody is tabula rasa when it comes to interacting with the living world (it’s what we evolved to do, after all). They do not do this arbitrarily or because it happens to suit biologists to talk about these classes for other purposes. They do it because these things are really kinds in the world, and before they know what kinds there are, they cannot proceed in the rest of the biological enterprise.

Hence, the sort of “drudge work” Wolf is impressed by is a sine qua non for the eventual expansion of a discipline in science, and despite the Kuhnian consensus, it is neither “ordinary” science that always progresses nor does it lead to revolutions all the time or even often. It’s just the process of learning about the way the world is. Revolutions are, I suspect, always clearer in retrospect, the later the better. I don’t even think that philosophy proceed the way Wolf indicates: fourth century BC[E] is critical because of the prior discussions now lost to us or barely cited in fragmentary form. As the founding of the traditions that we call philosophy, it seems brighter, more significant, more salient, than it would if you have not read Leibniz, Hume or Kant (or Ockham, Avicenna or Aquinas). But at the time it would no more be a “transformation” than the first mammal would have been in its time.

Taxonomy is of variable importance, depending on how well studied the group of organisms; as the song says, some of it is transcendental, and some of it is really dumb. But that is also true of philosophical arguments, I think. We make “progress” when we get new techniques and topics, just like in the sciences. And it is all worthwhile.