Monday, April 05, 2010
Gottlieb, Anthony. "What Do Philosophers Believe?" INTELLIGENT LIFE (Spring 2010).
There was once a website on which academic philosophers listed the curious things that strangers had said to them upon learning that they were in the presence of a philosopher. The following conversation allegedly took place on an aeroplane: “May I ask you a question?” “Yes.” “It’s a philosophical question. Is that ok?” “Sure.” “There’s a boy I fancy. Should I text him or e-mail him?” In a similar vein, also from the skies: “What do you do?” “I’m a philosopher.” “What are some of your sayings, then?” This exchange makes professional philosophers titter, because their daily work is far removed from the production of sage utterances. But the request for “sayings” was not an unreasonable one. The great philosophers of old are remembered largely by their posthumous contributions to dictionaries of quotations. How is an ordinary person to know what today’s professional philosophers think? One answer – a novel one, it seems – comes from a new survey of philosophers’ views. A preliminary analysis of the results has been published in an electronic journal, PhilPapers. Unfortunately, however, the survey was written for philosophy nerds. So here is a translation for airline passengers. First, some background. The questions are geared to what’s known as the “analytical” type of philosophy, which now dominates university philosophy departments in the West and almost monopolises those in English-speaking countries. The pioneers of this movement, which first took root in Britain in the first half of the 20th century, include Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is a broad church nowadays, but on the whole, analytical philosophy models its approach on the natural sciences. Researchers, sometimes working more or less in teams, divide problems into small pieces and try out different solutions to them one by one. The writings of the analytical school combine plain-speaking with technical terms that are precisely defined in the style of scientific terminology (or at least, they are supposed to be). This movement is often contrasted with “Continental” philosophy, which is more expansive and synoptic, tends to see itself as allied to literary, cultural and social studies, and is more likely to draw on subjective experience. The big names of “Continental” philosophy are mostly French (Sartre, Derrida, Foucault) or German (Heidegger), but the term is doubly misleading. Many of the founders of analytical philosophy came from continental Europe, too; and the stronghold of “Continental” philosophy nowadays is in fact in literary and cultural studies departments in Britain and America. The PhilPapers study, by David Chalmers of the Australian National University and David Bourget of London University, surveyed academics at 99 leading philosophy departments around the globe, over 90% of them in the English-speaking world and nearly two-thirds in America. Some 91% of the respondents thought they belonged to the analytic tradition and 4% the “Continental” one. When asked which dead philosopher they most identified with, a clear winner emerged, with 21% of the votes: David Hume, the 18th-century thinker, historian, sceptic and agnostic who was a close friend of the economist Adam Smith. Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein took second, third and fourth places. The next six spots went to philosophers from the 20th century, most recently Donald Davidson, an American who died in 2003. Plato made 13th place and Socrates limped in at 21st. . . . Read the rest here: http://www.moreintelligentlife.com/content/ideas/anthony-gottlieb/what-do-philosophers-believe.