Friday, July 4, 2014


Juhani Yli-Vakkuri  offers a fascinating comment on my post about the differences among academic disciplines.  His description of present-day practices among analytic philosophers is utterly distinct from my experiences [with analytic philosophers as well as those of other persuasions].  Since I have been out of touch with academic philosophy for a quarter of a century, and out of sympathy with it for a good deal longer, I accept his description as an accurate portrayal of the current state of affairs.

Let me explain why I find the world he describes so alien.  The greatest work in what the Germans call geisteswissenschaften and the eighteenth century English called Moral Philosophy [as opposed to Natural Philosophy, or science] has always seemed to me to depend essentially both on reason and on what literary critics call voice.  It is through his or her distinctive voice that great philosophers, historians, sociologists, and yes even economists communicate their distinctive vision of the human condition.  Aristotle's voice is completely different from that of Plato, Hume's voice is nothing like that of Kant, and Marx's voice is utterly unique in the Western intellectual tradition.  Whatever cavils you may have about the teaching of A Theory of Justice, there is no denying that Rawls achieves a distinctive voice in that influential work, as did Jean-Paul Sartre, Willard van Orman Quine, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein in theirs.  All my life, I have striven for a literary voice that would capture my complex understanding of contemporary public affairs.

Necessarily, it seems to me, a co-authored work, growing as Yli-Vakkuri suggests out of collaborative discussion and intellectual exchange, cannot have an authentic and distinctive voice.  Inevitably, unless one author completely dominates the others, it will be written in the flat, correct, acceptable one-dimensional language of the Academy.  There will be no dark recesses or ironic overtones, no multi-dimensional representations of a complex, perhaps even internally contradictory social reality.  In short, in literary style, it will be indistinguishable from a journal article in Microbiology.

But if that is true, why bother?  Philosophers do not, qua philosophers, know anything in particular, save perhaps the history of their own field.  They do not do experiments, they do not make observations, they do not prove anything [although logicians do, of course].  It is for this reason, as I have observed here before, that there is little value in workmanlike uninspired Philosophy, even though there is great value in workmanlike uninspired research science.


  1. Wonderfully stated and helpful in understanding the mutilation of human beings that occurs when labor is directed by others.

  2. Isn't that like chess? That style imitates computers?

  3. You would have to ask my son, Patrick, the Grandmaster.

  4. Regretfully, I cannot read the post referred to.

  5. Tomasz Popielicki: sorry, my fault. I don’t have a blog, so the comment to which R. P. Wolff was replying linked to an empty blogger profile associated with my Gmail account (my webpage is ). Let me just summarize my earlier comment here.

    I was saying that, based on my experience, this claim in R. P. Wolff’s post of June 29, 2014 didn’t seem to be true anymore:

    "It is extremely rare for two or more philosophers to co-author a journal article or a book."

    I said that most of my own work is co-authored, and I expect even more of it to be-coauthored as I go on. Most of my friends who are philosophers co-author pretty regularly, a few of them as regularly as or even more regularly than me. When I read the post, I tried to think of philosophers I know personally who don't at least occasionally co-author, and I wasn't able to come up with any names (I'm sure there are some). I wondered if this is something (i) peculiar to my own social circles, (ii) peculiar to the fields that I work in (Philosophy of Language/Logic, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Philosophy of Mind), or if it's (iii) a manifestation of a change in the way research in philosophy is done since the time Prof. Wolff was active in in it.
 I suspected the latter.

    I don’t agree with the claim that “Philosophers do not, qua philosophers, know anything in particular, save perhaps the history of their own field”. I got into philosophy because I wanted to know things (other than history). I think I have succeeded in coming to know various things (other than history) by doing philosophy (often by co-authoring), talking philosophy, and reading philosophy. I think it’s also hard to deny that philosophy has made progress in that philosophers collectively know significantly more now than they did, say, 50 years ago. Maybe the things I’ve come to know and that philosophers have collectively come to know by doing philosophy are not deep or interesting things from the point of view of Prof. Wolff (if so, he might like Peter Unger’s new book: it’s called Empty Ideas), but if I myself were to become convinced that philosophers, qua philosophers, don’t produce any new (worthwhile) knowledge, I would lose all interest in philosophy. Why else do philosophy, if you don’t think you can come to know anything (worthwhile) by doing so?

    I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question – I’m genuinely interested in hearing other perspectives on this. In my own (non-internet) social circles it’s taken for granted that we’re trying to learn new things. I’m not sure if I’ve ever encountered the view (except on blogs and social media) that philosophers, in their research, should be trying to do anything other than to learn new facts.

    On whether or not “there is little value in workmanlike uninspired Philosophy”—which I guess is the kind that my friends and I do--I think the only way to find out is to study carefully the best work of this kind. Some of it concerns deep metaphysical questions, such as whether it’s metaphysically contingent or necessary which things there are, or the nature of vagueness. I can provide references. It’s difficult work, but I think it can be very rewarding.

    I don’t know what to say about “voice”, other than that I try very hard not to have one when I write philosophy.

  6. "Philosophers do not, qua philosophers, know anything in particular, save perhaps the history of their own field."

    Speak for yourself.

  7. I actually know a few things, qua philosopher. I include among them:

    1. At least some changing finite beings exist.

    2. For any existent x, x is identical to x.

    3. For any existents x and y, x is identical to y if and only if y is identical to x.

    4. For any existents x, y, and z, If x is identical to y and y is identical to z, then x is identical to z.

    5. For any existents x, y, and z, If x is identical to y and y is not identical to z, then x is not identical to z.

    6. I know that I know the realities expressed in propositions 1 - 5.

    So do you, at least now.

  8. Richard, I'm not completely certain whether that's sarcasm or not--I'm guessing it is--but Jeremy Goodman's and my comments were serious. (Incidentally, I think Goodman is a good example of someone who has succeeded -- a propos of the topic, often with coauthors, including Peter Fritz, Cian Dorr, and John Hawthorne -- in coming to know non-trivial truths about difficult philosophical matters.) I would recommend a couple of books to anyone who doubts whether philosophers, qua philosophers, know anything other than facts about the history of their field. One is Timothy Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy (OUP, 2007). The other is Scott Soames, Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Vol. II, (Princeton UP, 2005).

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