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Monday, April 18, 2011


Marinus sent me a long, very interesting email message, criticizing my dismissive attitude toward the Prisoner's Dilemma in Part Five of my tutorial on Formal Methods in Political Philosophy. I am turning that over in my mind, and will reply in a bit. But out of curiosity, I Google'd him, and found my way to an interesting thread of comments on Brian Leiter's well-known blog [] to which he had made a contribution.

Almost a year ago, Leiter started a lengthy discussion about which ten philosophers writing in English in the last third of the twentieth century will still be read a hundred years from now. I paged through a good many of the comments entered in the discussion [no, my name does not appear anywhere], and all the usual suspects showed up in the various lists -- Rawls, Quine, Davidson, Kripke, Lewis, Parfitt, etc., etc., etc., but after a while it occurred to me that virtually all the contributors were going about things the wrong way.

The first question to be asked is this: What sort of discipline do you think contemporary Anglo-American philosophy is? I think it is fair to say that there is a wide and growing belief especially among young analytic philosophers that philosophy, at long last, has graduated from being a humanistic discipline to being something very like science, with an admirable rigor, a sub-division of specializations, and a steady advance of well-confirmed discoveries. I don't myself share this view of philosophy, but then I have really been out of the game for more than a third of a century, so my opinion does not count.

If this is what you think philosophy is, then it is almost certain that in a hundred years none of the people proposed for the list will still be read seriously. Think about it. How many century-old papers in Physics or Biology or Chemistry [never mind Bio-Chemistry, a relatively new discipline] are read by practicing members of those disciplines? Maybe physicists out of piety read Einstein's annus mirabilis papers from 1905, but surely that is about the long and short of it. If analytic philosophy really has become what Kuhn called normal science, then what is being written now will be incorporated into twenty-second century philosophy, its authors all but forgotten. In Economics, whose practitioners like to flatter themselves that they are scientists because they use undergraduate math [calculus and linear algebra, with some statistics thrown in], Smith and Ricardo are honored only on Saint's Days, and even Menger, Walras, Jevons, Marshall, and Schumpeter are consigned to secondary courses on the history of the subject.

However, if you really think anyone will be reading Davidson or Lewis or Quine or Kripke or Rawls or [substitute your favorite here] in a century, it can only be because you think philosophy is, after all, a humanistic undertaking that grapples with the eternal questions of human existence and meaning, and hence flourishes by remembering its past and reading the texts that have stood the test of time.

Once you start thinking in that way, the question becomes quite complex, and it is not at all obvious who, if anyone, should be put on the list. [I say "if anyone" because looked at that way, philosophy exhibits long stretches, more than a century in many cases, during which nothing terribly memorable is written, and whether this is one of those down times remains to be seen.] I am reminded that Cicero, for example, was held in very high regard in the eighteenth century, even though today he is viewed [rightly in my opinion] as a thoroughly second-rate thinker. And I am afraid we all know what Hume said about his own Treatise, arguably the finest piece of philosophy every written in the English language.


Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Reminds me of the dialog between Spock and Kirk in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

SPOCK: Admiral, may I ask you a question?

KIRK: Spock, don't call me Admiral. Don't you remember: you used to call me Jim... Now what's your question?

SPOCK: Your use of language has altered since our arrival. It is currently laced with -- shall I say -- more colorful metaphors: "Double dumb ass on you" -- and so forth...

KIRK: You mean profanity. That's simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you if you don't swear every other word. You'll find it in all the literature of the period.

SPOCK: For example?

(Kirk thinks.)

KIRK: Oh, the complete works of Jacqueline Susan, the novels of Harold Robbins....

SPOCK: Ah... The giants.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Lovely. And let us not forget Thomas B. Costain.

john c. halasz said...

How did they make Wittgenstein disappear? (O.K., not the last third of the 20th century, if you ignore the issue of "accessibility" or reception, but a comment on the Analytic succession, nonetheless).

Erik Hetzner said...

Martin Gardner levels a related criticism of the "Hutchins-Adler" "Great books" project. That is, he criticizes the fact that they treat scientific work as a humanities project, by including technical works "so dated and often so technical that they have almost no value for any reader" (Fads and fallacies in the name of science, p. 52) In any case, it seems to my philosophically untrained mind a useful way of figuring out how scientific a discipline is: if you are expected to read the original texts, rather than modern re-interpretations, its either very new science, or it leans away from science.

Marinus said...

Thank you for your interest. Also, the googling of my name out of curiosity lead me to be curious about what a google for my name provides -- egads! There's quite a few Marinus Ferreira's around. If you were looking for my blog, though, it would be at .

J.Vlasits said...

As a "young analytic philosopher" (entering a PhD program in the fall), I want to second your claim that philosophy is, ultimately speaking, a humanistic discipline. This is not to say that philosophy in many of its subdisciplines is not continuous with science, mathematics or computer science, but rather to say that philosophy is always in the business of interrogating those disciplines, in much the same way as Plato interrogated rhetoricians and Aristotle the Presocratic natural philosophers. In other words, I think that there is a place between George Bealer's picture of philosophy as an "autonomous and authoritative" a priori discipline and the naturalists' picture of philosophy as science. From reading your work on the social sciences, I think that your view is largely similar.

Marinus said...

As for the topic at hand, I've never met anybody who believes philosophy has become a normal science, or has meant that seriously. It's very hard to me to see how they could. It would seem that current practice can't be as disconnected from its points of departure as you get elsewhere because philosophy is exactly the field where you are critically engaging with whatever it is that set you on the path you are on now. So, while physicists might not read Einstein, logicians (at least philosophic logicians) certainly read Frege and Russell -- how could they not? Since logic is the branch of philosophy which is most like normal science, but contemporary practitioners have the same reason to wrestle with Turing and Goedel on computability and other such issues as those working in the field did when those works were still published, I find it very unlikely indeed that philosophy will break as harshly with its past as other disciplines might.

there is a reason I nominated David Lewis for Leiter's question. It's certainly true that the scope of that man's philosophic achievements is really quite breathtaking. This is true about a lot of philosophers (though Lewis probably has done more for metaphysics than anybody in the past century, if not longer) though there's a lot of people you could say that of. What makes Lewis special is the scope of his wider project and the significant successes he has achieved in it. It seems to me more and more that people talk about Lewis as 'the modal realism guy', which is a little bit sad because he did so much more than that one metaphysical thesis (for instance, I wrote my honours dissertation on an application of his philosophy of language to a class of moral cases, and came to regard Convention as a work of genius). But modal realism is exactly the type of thesis that gets remembered through the ages -- it's bizarre enough to stay in your mind, and it rewards interested readers with its enormous explanatory power (and harrowing mysteries). Even if history would be tremendously unfair to Lewis and forget such fantastic papers as 'An Argument for the Identity Theory' or 'How to Define Theoretical Terms', it would be with the ignomy if misrepresentation rather than the silence of obscurity. I say that, and Lewis isn't even my favourite philosopher.

of his

Stefan said...

Dear Professor Wolff,

Reading this post a question pressed it's way into the morass of my thoughts, a question I would like to ask you, namely: do you think one could become a philosopher without reading a single line of text written by previous philosophers? Or more precisely: do you think a university education in philosophy could prepare students for writing their doctoral dissertations without ever asking them to read any of the philosophers of the past?

As dumb as this question might seem, I don't think it is.

All the best,

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Stefan, that is actually two quite different questions. I think the answer to the first one has got to be obviously yes. Surely someone could think deeply about questions that we would all recognize as philosophical, and arrive at answers that we would all recognize as deserving of serious consideration, without having read a single word written by previous philosophers. Likely? No, but then it is also not terribly likely that someone who HAS read the works of previous philosophers will think deeply and arrive at answers worth considering. In other words, not many people, regardless of their intellectual path of development, become real philosophers.

The second question is a sort of trick question. Since the dissertation is designed to gain one entry into the guild of university professors of philosophy, and since knowledge of the tradition has, at least until quite recently, been a required component of the "masterwork" by means of which one earns the title of Master Philosopher [i.e., Ph D], you might conclude that the answer is trivially and necesarily No.

By comparison, I can easily imagine someone who becomes a brilliant medical diagnostician without ever having studied human anatomy, but I cannot imagine someone earning the degree of MD without having done so.

Of course, this is a trick question in another sense. Suppose I devised a graduate philosophy program that took students through all of the important arguments in the texts of all the usual suspects, but just never mentioned their names or used their actual words. Would that satisfy the terms of your question? In one way, sure, but in another way no.

What precisely do you have in mind?

Stefan said...

Thank you Professor Wolff,

If I understand you correctly, then many - maybe the majority of - philosophy professors are not real philosophers. Is that a correct interpretation of your words?

If we imagine that someone who has never set foot in the philosophy department of a university, one day shows up with a dissertation in hand - written in his or her leisure time - would it then be possible for him or her to acquire a PhD in philosophy?

And, to answer your question "what precisely do you have in mind?": acquiring a PhD in philosophy without ever having taken any classes of philosophy is what I have in mind - if possible. Why? you might wonder. And the answer is: because I, for various reasons, would not a able to participate in a traditional education of philosophy.

Once again, thank you.

All the best,

Stefan said...

Further, you write that it is unlikely that someone becomes a real philosopher - having, or not having, read a single word of previous philosophers. But, while unlikely, in both cases, do you think it greatly, or only slightly, increases ones chances of becoming a real philosopher to have read the works of previous philosophers?

All the best,

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Stefan, several responses. First of all, remember that getting a doctorate from a recognized university is, among other things, a matter of paying money. At least in the United States [not in other parts of the world] you must take and pass for credit [and pay for] a certain number of courses as well as submit a satisfactory dissertation. None of this, obviously, has much to do with actually becoming a philosopher. Could you become a philosopher if you audited all those courses? Of course. Could you get a Ph D? No.

Just as you could certainly become a great composer without ever having heard any of the music composed before you -- it would just be almost impossibly unlikely -- so you could become a great philosopher without having read anything written before you came along. But I can tell you from experience and observation that the probability is pretty slender.

Yes, I do think most of the people who are officially "philosophers" are not so. In the US, there are eight or nine thousand Professors of Philosophy [maybe more]. Does anyone in his or her right mind think that there are eight or nine thousand philosophers in the world?

My advice to you is to read a Platonic dialogue and see what you think about it. If you learned something from it, or if it started you thinking in a new way, then read another great work -- maybe Descartes' MEDITATIONS, for example, and see whether that does anything for you.

Try it. You may like it. :)

Stefan said...

I have read plenty of Plato's dialogues, Descartes' MEDITATIONS, and many other works by great philosophers. And I do enjoy reading it - more than I enjoy reading anything else. So, my question was hypothetical. I asked because I think what makes someone a philosopher is his or her ability to solve philosophical problems, rather than his or her ability to parrot or paraphrase the words of the great philosophers, and I think you agree with me on this. So, I was curious to know how much you thought reading the works of previous philosophers would influence this ability.

I'm currently working on a paper, in which I argue why democracy as we know it is most unfortunate. To my knowledge the argument is original, also I think it's strong and soon ready for an audience (after nine years in the making). My intention is to send it to a philosophical journal, hoping they will accept it - despite my lack of a PhD in philosophy. Further, I was considering to write a doctoral dissertation, to earn a PhD in philosophy. I was (maybe naively) expecting that the professors would grant me a PhD, if my dissertation, and verbal defense, was good. If this isn't possible, I'll have to keep doing what I do, outside the walls of the university. I makes no sense. A dissertation should be judged based on the quality of the dissertation, not on whether or not the author took a certain string of courses.

If you sense the frustration luring behind these words, let me assure you it has nothing to do with you. I truly appreciate this little exchange of words.

Once again, thank you professor.

All the best,

Stefan said...

Oh, my earlier reply didn't get published. I'll try again.

I've read plenty of Plato's dialogues, Descartes' MEDITATIONS, and works of other great philosophers, and I do enjoy reading it - more than I enjoy reading anything else. My question was hypothetical, since I think what makes someone a philosopher is his or her ability to solve philosophical problems, rather than his or her ability to parrot or paraphrase the words of great philosophers. I think you agree with me on this, and I was curious to know how much you think it affects ones ability to do so, to read the works of previous philosophers.

I'm currently working on a paper arguing that democracy as we know it is unfortunate. The argument is - to my knowledge - original, and now (after nine years in the making) rather strong. I was (maybe naively) thinking a philosophical journal would publish it - despite my lack of a PhD in philosophy. Thereafter, I was considering to write a doctoral dissertation, in the hope of being granted a PhD in philosophy. If that is not possible, I will have to keep doing what I do outside the walls of the academia. But it makes no sense. A dissertation should be judged on it's quality, not on whether or not the author has taken a certain string of courses.

If you sense the frustration luring behind these works, let me assure you it has nothing to do with you. I truly appreciate this little exchange of words.

Once again, thank you professor.

wallyverr said...

A not wholly unrelated question, I hope. I'm in the process of switching weekly / fortnightly periodicals subscriptions (the usual suspects, TLS, NYRB, Economist) from print to Kindle. Are any readers of this blog familiar with a magazine called "Philosophy Now"?

It's available electronically (UK Amazon at least). The current issue's cover is David Hume's tercentenary, with five articles on various aspects of Hume. Not as a replacement for reading the primary texts, of course, but is the magazine both readable and accurate?

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

"So, while physicists might not read Einstein, logicians (at least philosophic logicians) certainly read Frege and Russell -- how could they not? Since logic is the branch of philosophy which is most like normal science, but contemporary practitioners have the same reason to wrestle with Turing and Goedel on computability and other such issues as those working in the field did when those works were still published"

This couldn't be farther from the truth. The only philosophical logicians I know (and I know quite a few) who feel that reading the original sources is necessary for their research are the ones who are also historians if logic.

All philosophical logicians read some Frege and Russell, of course, but that is because all (analytic) philosophers read some of each. Few philosophical logicians read Frege's actual contributions to logic and even fewer read Russell's -- in fact, I'm pretty sure that none of the logicians I know have given Russell and Whitehead's Principia any serious study.

And logicians certainly don't read Turing or Godel (again, unless they're also historians of logic). The way we learn about their results is by taking an introductory metalogic course, where we encounter them either in a textbook (Boolos & Jeffrey is the most widely used one) or in a professor's lecture notes. It's widely recognized that Godel's proofs of his completeness and incompleteness theorems are pretty much impossible to read -- so we study more elegant proofs that are difficult to attribute -- the now standard proofs are the result of many small improvements due to Henkin, Hintikka, and others. In fact, what is perhaps the most important lemma proved on the way to Godel's incompleteness theorems -- the diagonal lemma -- usually seems to be taught without any attribution. When I took intro metalogic, the professor just called it the "diagonal lemma" and attached no name to it. Just today, prompted by reading this discussion, I asked two logicians at my department who came up with the diagonal lemma. They of course knew what I was talking about, but neither of them knew the answer. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, I discovered, to my great surprise, that the lemma (though in a very different form from what we learn today) was actually first proved by Carnap. I hadn't known that Carnap had made any enduring contributions to logic before. Attribution just isn't the sort of thing one learns in logic very often. Every logician knows what the MRDP theorem is, but how many can tell you whose initials "M", "R", "D", and "P" here are? -- not many, I'll bet. And just about none of them will have read the original proof of it, if there even is such a thing.

And let me just make it clear that I currently work at a philosophy department, I studied logic at a philosophy department (actually, three different ones), and every logician I know has a PhD in philosophy. (As do I now--I'm no longer ABD, so I guess I should get another anonymous google account. I'm not going to give up anonymity until/if I have tenure.)