Is philosophy fracturing, and what should we do about it?

I was once a teaching assistant for John Earman’s “Introduction to Philosophy of Science” undergraduate course. On the very first day of class, John put this image on the overhead projector:

John’s worry was that philosophy of science is becoming so specialized that we can hardly communicate our work to others in the field — let alone to the philosophical community at large. He made a similar remark in his 2002 PSA Presidential Address (PhilSci-Archive). What John didn’t say is what we should do about it. I suppose he didn’t know.

To investigate, I decided to participate in a conference consisting mostly of philosophers in very different fields than my own, at this year’s NCPS meeting in Charlotte. (The conference was wonderful, by the way). I tried my very best to pitch a paper on time reversal to a general audience (Draft PDF). But all things said and done, I don’t think I connected with more than a third of my audience. Discussion with a few people afterward suggested that I was thwarted by the Problem of Babel, after all.

I find it hard to believe that our concerns are that different across analytic philosophy. If so, then why is the Problem of Babel so pervasive? And what should be done to overcome it?

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9 thoughts on “Is philosophy fracturing, and what should we do about it?

  1. wolfgang

    >> I don’t think I connected with more than a third of my audience.

    when I gave a physics talk, if I connected with more than a third of my audience it would have been a great success 8-)

    you cannot easily get around the old saying that experts are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing…

  2. Jim Bowery

    Since Einstein is more in vogue than Ockham I’ll quote Einstein:

    “The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience”.

    Translated into computer age language:

    “The supreme goal of all theory is maximal lossless compression of the data.”

    So if you’re serious about overcoming the Problem of Babble, you’ll find some wealthy philanthropist(s) to support the Hutter Prize for Lossless Compression of Human Knowledge:

    Of course, this really _should_ be funded by the National Science Foundation and similar organizations world-wide, but they haven’t yet recognized the fact that intelligence is the ability to simplify.

  3. Bryan

    Wolfgang: Thanks for the support. ;)

    Jim: Interesting connection to the Hutter prize. The Problem of Babel would seem to be about translation though, and not just compression. The goal is to take data in one (specialist) language, and re-express it using only those parts of the language that intersect many (different specialist) languages. Technically, this feat is trivial: just hold a humongous class and bring everyone up to your level of expertise. What makes it difficult is that you’re never giving that class. You’re usually giving a talk. So, you must translate your work into as many common-language definitions, concepts and concerns as you possibly can. And as Wolfgang suggests, there are fields in which this is very rarely successful.

  4. Jim Bowery

    Its interesting that you bring up translation as though it were distinct from compression because it is one of the areas I’ve recently been considering pursuing as a source of funding for the Hutter Prize. Specifically, expanding the Hutter Prize corpus to include Wikipedia’s multiple language articles.

    Translation, whether between different natural languages or between different argots of technical languages, is simply the encoding of relational similarity. Indeed, pursuit of relational similarity, sometimes seen in philosophy of science circles as “structuralism”, is what led me to conceive of a large monetary prize for increasing compression of Wikipedia as a potential revolution in epistemology.

  5. Jonathan Livengood

    I wonder how much worse things are in philosophy than in other disciplines like mathematics. My guess is that the real barriers are formal education. Whereas, in mathematics one can assume some familiarity with a core of formal ideas and techniques, in philosophy, that is really not the case. For what it’s, I’d be willing to bet that you find the most severe communication problems in disciplines that have some practitioners who are strongly mathematicized and some who are not (e.g., mathematical linguists versus field linguists). But in any event, specialization is not a problem specific to philosophy. As a former teacher of mine, Stephen Pollard, once wrote in regard to mathematics and logic:

    “A bit of history may help to drive this point home. In 1868, there were about 38 recognized areas of specialization within mathematics. In 1979, there were roughly 3,400. This proliferation of subfields within areas which were themselves already fairly narrow can occur with disconcerting speed. In the early 1960s, a bright, well-read logician could, with a modest expindeture of time and mental energy, thoroughly understand any article published in the _Journal of Symbolic Logic_. By the mid-1970s, a merely superficial grasp of a _JSL_ paper had become a pleasant alternative to one’s all too frequent bouts of utter incomprehension. (A related statistic: The 1946 volume of _JSL_ contained 9 articles spread over 144 pages. The 1986 volume offered 91 articles and 1,145 pages.)” (Pollard 1990, 2)

    If I recall correctly, Rescher has made related points about the exponential growth of the sciences, at least in terms of books/articles/pages produced. I think he also notes that real, substantive breakthroughs are closer to linear, since the amount of work needed to get to the next advance becomes greater as advances are made.

  6. Bryan

    Formal education in general might be the problem. Still, I think the problem in philosophy might be different, because our concerns as philosophers are largely the same. For example, philosophers and philosophers of science alike work to clarify concepts like like the meaning of possibility, the passage of time, the symmetries of motion, and the relationship between wholes and parts. Our techniques are (basically) the same too: we’re laying out possible views, and supporting them with careful arguments. So as philosophers, I don’t see why we do such a poor job at communicating.

    I once wrote a note about what it means to do good philosophy of physics. I’m now thinking there should be an addition to the list: communication and connection with philosophy at large.

  7. Jim Bowery

    I recommend Rota’s “Indiscrete Thoughts”. It is short.

    He proposes that philosophy’s vocabulary leaves behind personalities and focuses more clearly on ideas, as does mathematics, it will progress. In particular he sees the emergence of computer science as a blessing in this regard — not because “computerism”, as Etter calls it, is the correct perspective — but because of the formal languages being developed to model relevant phenomena that transcend physics.

  8. Anonymous

    At a certain level of abstaction, I agree that the problems and methods philosophers concern themselves with are the same. The trouble is that as we get more detailed many/most philosophers think that many/most of the others aren’t focusing on what’s important regarding this or that problem or, if they are, they aren’t focusing on it in the right way (consider X-phi and its dicontents as just one little example). So little pockets of agreement and shared vocabulary show up for just about every view of what’s important and how it should be addressed. But these little pockets are always one among many and none of them seem to last for very long. I suspect that the only way you could get a philosophical Esperanto is if you got philosophers to agree on what’s important and how it should be addressed. Given that philosophy is supposed to be the one branch of inquiry where nothing goes ultimately unquestioned, I’m not convinced that that could ever happen. And I doubt it would be a good thing if it did. This might a case where the cure would be worse than the disease.

  9. Bryan

    >> I suspect that the only way you could get a philosophical Esperanto is if you got philosophers to agree on what’s important and how it should be addressed.

    You may be right, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate a philosophical Esperanto, or lingua franca, or whatever. There should be two kinds of messages communicated in each work of philosophy: one that targets the experts in the sub-field (e.g., philosophers of physics), and another that targets philosophers in general. You’re right that focusing only on the general message would be bad for the field. I’d only add that focusing only on the experts would bad, too.