Metaphilosophy: Inside Out — Musings on Kitcher

This is the first of what may turn into a series of reflections on Philip Kitcher’s recent article (blogged about by Keith Brown, yesterday).

First, let me say that it is often very much easier to criticize someone’s position than it is to offer a so-called positive account oneself. Second, let me say that I agree with a lot of what Philip Kitcher has to say in his article. Finally (at least in this paragraph), let me say that the first and second considerations will not stop me from also offering some criticisms of Kitcher’s views.

Now that I have so carefully distinguished criticisms of and agreement with someone’s claims, let me throw a monkey wrench into things. One of the claims I agree with, though perhaps even more strongly than he does himself, is an attempt at a self-criticism:

Much of what I have said is probably crude, simplistic, and wrong. Yet I don’t think the errors and the need for refinement matter to my plea for philosophical redirection. Whether I have the details right, it seems abundantly clear that there are important questions along both axes that philosophy should be addressing, and that much of what is taken to lie at the center of our subject has no obvious bearing on any such question. Appearances might be deceptive. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on philosophers to consider just what, if anything, makes their intended contributions worth having.

I agree: much of what Kitcher claims in the article is “crude, simplistic, and wrong.” But I also agree that it doesn’t much matter to his main point, with which I wholeheartedly agree: it is incumbent on philosophers (or anyone involved in publicly-funded knowledge production) to consider what, if anything, makes their intended contributions to knowledge worthwhile. This is precisely what we at CSID mean by accountability.

Nota bene: it surely makes a difference to the level of support Kitcher provides for his conclusion that his premises are crude, simplistic, or wrong — but that his argument needs refinement does not mean that his conclusion is false.

For now, then, rather than getting into the details of his argument, I merely want to characterize Kitcher’s conclusion.

We philosophers have lost our way. We have become bogged down in the ever more rigorous pursuit of answers to questions the worth of which is not obvious to anyone outside the bounds of our ever increasing areas of ever narrowing specialization. We think and say more and more about less and less. At present, the discipline of philosophy, in particular, and the institutional structure of the university, in general, are what allow us to defend our way of doing things. This is what we at CSID mean by autonomy.

We owe it both to ourselves and to society, however, at least to reflect on the state of philosophy. This is how we at CSID think philosophers can best address the issue of how to balance autonomy and accountability. Philosophy is, after all, metaphilosophy — at least that is my positive doctrine. Criticisms welcome!

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One Response to Metaphilosophy: Inside Out — Musings on Kitcher

  1. Keith Brown says:

    “Philosophy is, after all, metaphilosophy — at least that is my positive doctrine.”

    I like that. Your statement goes right to the heart of the contemporary tension I was pointing out between philosophy as a way of living and philosophy as a particular study. Resolute philosophizing embraces courageous transgressons of the status quo.

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