15 May 2007

How Is It Relevant? How Is It Philosophy?

Questions I sometimes hear about ancient philosophy.

Suppose someone were to raise these very same questions as regards Sarah Broadie's Whitehead Lectures. After all, the Whitehead lectureship is a distinguished position, held in the past by such philosophers as Saul Kripke, David Lewis, Cora Diamond, Syndney Shoemaker and Tyler Burge. How does a discussion of naturalism and theology in Plato and Aristotle count as the same sort of endeavor? What is its contribution to a contemporary understanding of the world, or to truth?

My first reaction is to think it unfair that any particular excercise of philosophical skill should have to defend its existence in this way. Broadie's lectures were excellent exhibitions of "ancient philosophy" , that is, philosophical reflection as at work on classical texts; so her lectures can be defended on whatever grounds ancient philosophy as whole can be defended.

My second reaction is a tu quoque, and a reminder of how frail the existence of any philosophy really is. I understand Hume's Fork ("Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? ... Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?") as a demand for relevance. (Recall that Hume begins his first Enquiry defending the importance for society of the 'abstruse' philosophy he engages in.) And what havoc must we make if we approach any other Whitehead lecture with these demands. Shoemaker's ruminations on the inverted spectrum problem? Kripke's idea that the base ten number system is metaphysically privileged? Diamond's reflections on conceptual change?-- Commit these to the flames.

I am willing to bet a large sum that no paper in mathematics or natural science ever cites a Whitehead lecture.

Let's not deceive ourselves, then (or suppose that a contribution to the program of philosophical naturalism is the same thing as a contribution to natural science).

But if we can articulate criteria for excellence in philosophy, I am confident that Broadie's lectures will fare as well as anything else.