WHAT DO PHILOSOPHERS BELIEVE?

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And what do people ask them in mid-air? Anthony Gottlieb decodes an unusual opinion poll ...

 
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, 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.
 
Of the three topics that Immanuel Kant once said were the proper subjects of metaphysics – namely God, freedom and immortality – the survey covers only the first two, perhaps because these days life is too short to bother with immortality. Free will gets a thumbs-up: only 12% of philosophers think that people’s lives are predestined. But God gets the thumbs-down: nearly three-quarters accept or lean towards atheism. This is only to be expected. Even in America, which is unusually religious for a rich country, the top echelons of those who think for a living tend to be unbelievers. A survey of the members of America’s elite National Academy of Sciences in 1998 found that only 7% believed in God.
 
A quarter of a century ago, such a survey would have had plenty of questions about language, but now there are only three (out of 30). Analytical philosophy has shifted its attention from language to the mind, which is why there is a question about zombies – though nothing about ghouls, demons or vampires. By a “zombie”, today’s philosophers mean a hypothetical being who is physically indistinguishable from a normal person but is not conscious. Philosophers argue about whether or not such a creature could exist in theory, and on the whole they are pretty undecided about it. A small majority endorse “physicalism” about the mind, which is the theory that all mental states are in fact physical states. Many of the pioneers of the 20th-century version of this view hailed from Australia, which led one philosophical wag to surmise that Australia is the only country in which it is true.
 
Contrary to a widespread caricature, it emerges that most philosophers do not go around doubting the existence of physical objects (and thus colliding with them). Some 82% of the respondents accept or are inclined towards “non-sceptical realism” about the external world, which means they believe both that physical objects exist independently of the minds that perceive them, and that we can be said to know of their existence. Some 4.8%, though, are inclined to deny that we have certain knowledge of the existence of physical objects, and 4.2% accept or lean towards “idealism”, which is the theory that matter somehow depends on mind. As for the status of so-called “abstract” objects, such as numbers, the most popular view (scoring 39%, narrowly ahead of its closest rival) is “Platonism”, according to which abstract objects have a real existence independently of our minds.
 
By a fairly narrow margin, today’s philosophers believe that judgments of artistic value are not merely matters of individual taste: 41% said aesthetic values are objective, 34% say subjective, and a quarter gave some other answer. They were not asked directly whether moral values are objective, but the responses to related questions suggest that most philosophers believe they are. Some 56% incline towards “moral realism”, which has no precise definition but implies that ethical questions have objectively right (and wrong) answers, and nearly two-thirds endorsed moral “cognitivism”, which suggests that they believe there are moral facts or truths. The results reveal little about political views, as the one question about politics is unhelpfully phrased. Respondents were asked to choose between egalitarianism (34.7%), communitarianism (14.2%) and libertarianism (9.8%); over 40% were unwilling to choose for one reason or another.
 
In five other questions 15% or more of the philosophers said they were too unfamiliar with the issue to give an opinion. Philosophy is now a highly specialised discipline. A don working on, say, ethics, may not even know the terminology used by logicians, and vice versa. This will be grist to the mill of those who feel that analytical philosophy has given up dealing with the big questions of life and is now mired in technical minutiae. But not so fast. Even Plato was attacked in his own time for treating philosophy as if it were all mathematics. And 1,800 years ago the great doctor Galen moaned about “the over-refined linguistic quibbling of some philosophers”.
 
People have always wanted philosophers to provide digestible wisdom, yet it is as true now as it was in Plato’s time that disciplined thinking is hard. So next time you sit next to a philosopher on a plane, talk about the movie, not the meaning of life. 

 

(Anthony Gottlieb  is a visiting scholar at New York University and a former executive editor of The Economist. He is also the author of author of "The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance".)

Picture credit: Arenamontanus (via Flickr)