On Philosophy

October 8, 2007

Why Publish Philosophy Papers?

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

I’ve always thought that paradigms (from Kuhn) were a poor way to understand science. The original description of science as a series of paradigm shifts implied that it jumped around essentially at random, from one way to conceptualizing the universe to another. And it implied that the work done in a period of “normal science” (between paradigm shifts) was essentially a pointless effort, only to be later wiped away by another paradigm shift. This model doesn’t really fit science for several reasons. First of all the paradigms of science are quite clearly making better and better predictions about how the world works. Secondly, the paradigm shifts themselves don’t come out of nowhere, but are rather motivated by the work done within the period of “normal science”. And, most importantly, the work done within the period of normal science is not a wasted effort. If it works (conforms to experiment) then it must be true, at least for the most part, and so an essential part of any scientific paradigm shift is taking what worked from the previous period of “normal science” and expressing it in the new paradigm (otherwise the new paradigm’s inability to reconcile itself with the established facts would count against it).

But while paradigm shifts, so described, don’t seem to fit science that well they do seem to describe philosophy, at least for the most part. And in my opinion that is at least a potential problem for philosophy. However, instead of taking a stance on this issue let me instead elaborate on why philosophy seems like it could be described as a series of paradigm shifts and the implications of that description. It seems clear to me that something closely equivalent to paradigm shifts exist in philosophy, on both small and large scales. On the small scale we have paradigm shifts in terms of which arguments are considered interesting. Simply survey the recent journal issues and compare them to older ones (Analysis is especially good for this). What you will see follows a common pattern. Some philosopher will present a relatively original argument for or against some claim. This will in turn prompt others to reply contradicting them, claiming that the argument is invalid. And then still others will reply to them, arguing that the original version, or something a lot like it, was correct. And eventually the issue dies down, not because it is resolved (unless you believe that whoever publishes the last paper on the matter should be considered the definitive judge), but simply because the two sides have dug in, isolated the premises about which they disagree, and have nothing left to say. And we have paradigm shifts on the larger scale as well, when philosophers present new ways of conceptualizing whole domains. These paradigms become popular for a time, and philosophers work within them to do work on specific issues. But eventually they are abandoned for new paradigms, which seem to have little connection to those that came before them and the work done within them.

From these observations follow the further observation that paradigms don’t seem to be intrinsically better or worse than each other. There does not seem a standard we can point to and say that on the basis of it the new paradigms can be thought to be improvements over the old, they are just different. Nor does it seem that the work done in one paradigm transfers well to others, each paradigm and the period of “normal philosophy” that follows it seems relatively independent of the rest. Of course this is not a rule without exceptions, sometimes arguments do carry over in some form, sometimes claims can be adapted to fit the new paradigm instead of the old. But it seems far more common for philosophers simply to start over, to address the problems addressed previously under the old paradigm in completely new ways motivated by the new paradigm.

If philosophy works this way it raises some interesting and possibly troublesome questions. Specifically, why do “normal philosophy” at all? Why not just spend all of our time coming up with new paradigms and new arguments? Although we may spend our own time applying the paradigms and evaluating the arguments there is no need to make public this work, since it seems that it is unlikely to be built on and thus be of any value to the philosophers who come after us. For example, every philosopher reads Wittgenstein and tries to understand his project. But no one (or at least not many) read the vast amount of philosophy done within the project by other philosophers who tried to apply Wittgenstein’s ideas. While Wittgenstein is important as the creator of the new paradigm the actual work done within it (not about it) seems largely wasted. Which brings me to the title of the post: why publish philosophy papers? The vast majority of papers are what could be considered “normal philosophy”. And if they serve no purpose why not leave them unpublished, and share simply only the new paradigms?

These questions stress a tension inherent within the way philosophy is done. Working within a paradigm and evaluating arguments implies a commitment to trying to determine whether philosophical claims are true or false (whatever that means in the context of philosophy). But the nature of the paradigm shifts implies that we don’t care about whether philosophical claims are right or wrong. I simply can’t see an easy way out of the dilemma. Either we accept that “normal philosophy” does serve a purpose and that we must escape the endless revision and starting over of paradigm shifts, and our inability to settle the validity of arguments, or we must accept that we aren’t really interested in “normal philosophy” after all, and that what matters to us is the paradigms and the problems, and not the answers, and focus on them exclusively. If we wish to escape the vicious cycle of paradigm shifts we must establish standards for the paradigms themselves, as well as the philosophy done within them, so that new paradigms can be honestly thought to be improvements over the old and so that we know what “normal philosophy” from the old needs to be saved in order to validate the new paradigm. Or, if we choose instead to accept these paradigm shifts as they are, we need to stop trying to do “normal philosophy” as if we could solve the problems in front of us, or that solving them even matters.

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