Tuesday, August 16, 2005

On using philosophers efficiently

I dabbled in philosophy a fair amount during my undergrad years, so I was pleased to discover a sharp and insightful blog called Maverick Philosopher, written by William Vallicella. It's hard not to love a blog with a whole category devoted to posts critiquing continental philosophy.

A couple of days ago Vallicella complained about the division of labor in philosophy. The problem, as he sees it, is that the biggest questions in philosophy are often pursued by the least careful thinkers while some of the best philosophers confine themselves to comparatively narrow topics like philosophy of science.

At first blush, this arrangement certainly appears suboptimal -- intuitively it seems as though the best philosophers should be working on the biggest problems. But in his brief post, Vallicella does not ask how this division of labor came to be. Why are these very impressive thinkers limiting themselves to narrow topics, instead of having a go at the existential stuff? I am certainly not enough of an expert to judge, but it seems at least possible that the best philosophers are attracted to the fields in which they think they are likeliest to make a meaningful contribution. If a philosopher is likely to move philosophy of science forward, but unlikely to make any contribution to a "more important" field, then being a "mere handmaiden of positive science" may no longer be "an unworthy use of his abilities", at least relative to his other options.

If this is true, then the sloppy thinkers might be attracted to the big questions precisely because they are less likely to accurately evaluate their chances of contributing something meaningful, and the lack of progress in addressing these issues might be due to their inherent difficulty rather than to the frustrating incompetence of the philosophers who pursue them.

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