What is the role of philosophy in the postmodern era?
Answer by Craig Skinner
I am no expert in postmodernism. I will take the relevant thesis to be that progress is a mirage, search for objective truth fruitless, all accounts of reality, including science and philosophy, ‘narratives’ on an equal footing with none in a privileged position, reality constructed by us.
I disagree profoundly with all this, and suspect it will be a passing phase. I certainly hope so.
I side with Aristotle, Thomas Reid, and David Lewis (among many others both ancient and modern) in thinking that there is a mind-independent, structured reality, and we can, and do, know quite a bit about it through our senses and our powers of reason. In short, I am a Realist. Furthermore I think our concepts do not divide reality up arbitrarily, as Nagarjuna has it, with reality existing only conventionally and things having no ultimate existence, being just bits of the flux arbitrarily picked out as meaningful for us. On the contrary, I feel our concepts largely match the real structure of the world, they ‘carve nature at its joints’ as Plato said.
Thus, as regards mind-independent reality, I think electrons, dinosaurs and stars are natural kinds which existed long before we came on the scene. Of course they weren’t named ‘electrons’, ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘stars’ till we appeared, but we simply named natural categories that were already there. As regards carving nature at its joints, our concepts and names are not arbitrary: ‘electrons or trees’ is just not on the same footing as ‘electrons’ or ‘trees’ as a natural kind or category.
So, having stated the framework within which I view the world and philosophy, I can move on to the role of the latter.
Although there is no sharp division between science and philosophy, the latter concerns problems within a larger framework, problems with no agreed method of solution, problems involving conceptual issues.
First, here are two things that won’t happen to philosophy:
1. Swallowed by science (as suggested by Stephen Hawking for instance).
2. Made redundant because all problems solved.
It will become clear as we proceed why I think these won’t happen.
Once upon a time all systematic intellectual inquiry was philosophy. If conceptual clarification and agreement as to systematic methods of dealing with a problem occur, the relevant area of philosophy buds off as a science. First, physics, with Galileo and Newton. More recently, biology after Darwin. And when the latter became a science, all the old wrangles about vitalism and how life could possibly arise from inert matter just evaporated. In my view the same thing is now happening with consciousness studies — wrangles about panpsychism, how consciousness could possibly arise from inert matter, conceivability arguments etc, and all the while cognitive neuroscience is in process of taking it over.
Another area is philosophy of language. After the mixed blessing of the 20th century ‘linguistic turn’ in analytic philosophy, most of semantics and syntax is now studied in the science of linguistics, whilst pragmatics has been absorbed by social science. Finally epistemology is becoming naturalized, and centuries of emphasis on scepticism may thankfully now be over, as well as the fruitless industry of trying to make the Justified-True-Belief notion of knowledge Gettier-proof. Instead we are making progress on how humans actually acquire knowledge, how the brain (‘Plato’s camera’) captures universals, forming maps of reality (conceptual frameworks), indexing and linking them.
All this talk of parts philosophy budding off as separate sciences might tempt us to think that eventually philosophy will disappear. But there are three good reasons to think otherwise:
1. Many of the old problems have not been solved
2. As the sciences develop, and technology advances, new philosophical problems arise.
3. The fact that an area of inquiry is a science doesn’t mean it’s all ‘done and dusted’.
Let us deal briefly with each.
1. Old problems unsolved.
Examples include: time; causation; free will; meaning; truth; the nature of justice, of the good life, of moral values; the a priori (is it even a coherent notion?).
2. Physics has already provided philosophers with relativity and quantum mechanics. and no agreed philosophical account of QM is in sight. It’s unclear whether string theory and loop quantum gravity are science or philosophy. Biology/ medicine has thrown up problems relating
to transplantation, euthanasia, abortion, and genetic engineering for example, indeed whole new fields of bioethics and neuroethics. Other examples include animal ‘rights’ and climate change.
3. A popular view of science is that it deals in facts (‘scientifically proven’, ‘clinically tried and tested’ etc), in certainties. But this is not so. At the limits of all areas of enquiry, philosophical, mathematical/logical, scientific, we encounter uncertainty, incompleteness, ambiguity, paradox, maybe even inconsistency (true contradictions), and these are not just due to our ignorance. Think of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem; Turing’s Halting Problem; Chaitin’s Omega; Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle; quantum superposition and entanglement; Liar Sentences, Set Paradoxes and Paraconsistent Logic. And more to come I suspect. Enough to keep metaphysicists, ethicists, philosophical logicians, philosophers of science, and social and political philosophers busy for a long time.
Philosophy is becoming more naturalistic. Obsession with scepticism will fade, although the old sceptical puzzles will live on as exercises for the novice. Close links with science, maths, logic and politics will continue, as well as the traditional links with art and literature in the Continental tradition. Common themes in Eastern and in analytic philosophy will be further explored. Philosophy of religion remains vigorous but the emphasis has shifted to empirical study of religious belief/practice as a feature of human nature, rather than exposition of the divine attributes and justifying the ways of God to man.
I have had to be brief since this is an answer to a question, not a treatise, but I hope I have said enough to convince you that philosophy is alive and well in the postmodern era and has a rosy future.