Saturday, February 15, 2014


Even if I come up with some that I think are clever from time to time (supertruth and talisman meme, e.g.), I'm not so big a fan of coining new terms. Still, I feel I should suggest another one, philosophism.

This term is not entirely new, but the meaning I'm offering is new-ish (I doubt I am the first to use it this way, but it isn't common). I do so largely in response to the hot-button term of "scientism." Scientism has been getting a lot of play, most notably in the popular press following the 2010 publication of Sam Harris's 2010 bestselling The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

Much of the blowback to Harris's book reveals varying degrees of command of term "scientism." To wit, most of it, of course, has arisen from religious apologists. Still, a surprising amount (mostly of more careful use) has arisen within two communities of self-identifying atheists: the academic left and philosophers, particularly moral philosophers. Since leftism already has a name, I'm focusing here on the character of some of the objections made by some philosophers.

Philosophism is kind of already a word

In doing a cursory search for the term "philosophism," I've found that most define philosophism as "spurious philosophy; the love or practice of sophistry," rather tracing the word to Webster's dictionary, 1913.

There's only a little bit wrong with this definition from my perspective. One thing is that sophistry already covers the topic, and another is that it doesn't possess resonance with the intended meanings, both denotative and connotative, of scientism, which does not mean practicing pseudoscience (although the humorous term "scientifical" has been suggested for that meaning). Indeed, pseudoscientists are among the most vociferous in denouncing scientism, which they consider a major problem for the obvious reason.

I feel a parallel usage is also apropos in some contexts and regretfully may be needed, and so I'm suggesting one.

Philosophism, noun

Specifically, I suggest that the term philosophism can be taken to mean something that parallels the meaning of the term scientism, as science certainly is not the only field of thought that can overstep its bounds.
Philosophism: 2. A tendency to overassert the relevance of philosophy in other fields (that it necessarily underwrites), often including a tendency to overassert the importance for professionals in those other fields, or the public, to engage more seriously with philosophy or show it greater respect (than they do and/or than it deserves).
(3. Projection of intellectual superiority by philosophers or regarding philosophy, especially when intentional.)
There are three topics contained in these definitions that need to be addressed, and after something that shouldn't be necessary but is, I will spend the rest of this essay developing them. First, philosophy can overassert its relevance. Second, not everyone working in various fields needs to be an expert in philosophy, nor should they be. And third, intellectual superiority happens among philosophers too, and it isn't helping anyone.

The disclaimer that won't prevent the knee-jerk but should

This piece is not an attack on philosophy, nor does it encourage attacking philosophy. It is also not a promotion of scientism or of science. Particularly, it is not a tu quoque fallacious defense of scientism. Further, it is not an accusation of all philosophers. Importantly, it does recognize the importance of philosophy in practice and in underwriting other fields (including science). It does not claim that the field of philosophy does not deserve respect by professionals in other fields or the public. Lastly, it doesn't intend to fuel a turf war between philosophers and scientists, who should be working together and not bemoaning when members of either field wade into what may be the other's ponds in ways that prove substantive.

The goal of this piece is to point out that philosophers can overassert just as easily and at least as obnoxiously as can anyone else. Doing so is every bit as anti-intellectual, since this word gets dragged in, as scientism is considered to be.

(Please, of course, feel free to leave comments denouncing me as a scientismist or anti-philosophy-ist, or whatever else you want to be wrong about, but you will have missed the point--not that this has stopped you before.)

1. Philosophy can overassert

I cannot speak in absolutes that cover all people, nor do I care to. Likewise, I do not care too much about this example or that, however notable, of people who overassert for science (or some other field). See the disclaimer. What I can speak to is the fact that a great many people, probably the very wide majority of them, who are relevant to this discussion already accept that philosophy underwrites nearly every intellectual field, science in particular.

Thanks for the reminder, but...

One of the primary ways that philosophy does overassert, in fact, is by unnecessarily pointing out that philosophy underwrites this field or that. The statement that science cannot verify itself--showing strict straw scientism to be self-refuting--is a great example of this, herring-flavored canard though it is.

Of course, pointing out this fact is not really philosophistic on its own, but it is easy to stumble into the problem by going on to assert that there is an onus upon the non-philosophical expert to be extraordinarily philosophically cautious or even philosophically savvy because of it. We will return to this point shortly, as it is the second main one to develop.

It smells like a turf war

Despite my desire to avoid getting specific, a good deal of philosophistic overassertion arises in fields related to ethics and mind. These fields, of course, are the traditional and lingering province of philosophy--as was naturalism only a few hundred years ago. Of course, as we get to know more and more about the brain and its function, the dominion of science to bear upon these topics will become increasingly relevant. This doesn't eliminate the role of philosophy to serve as intellectual infrastructure for these budding sciences, but it will bind philosophers and their views in these fields to that science.

Philosophism in this regard appears to contend that a future science of morality and a future science of mind are impossible, or at least that they are utterly neutered without heavy intervention by the relevant philosophy. Further, instead being seen in the role of underwriter to those potential scientific disciplines, philosophism maintains that philosophy is the primary (at times, only) legitimate way to probe these intriguing domains. (Science can merely act as an informer for them.) These philosophistic assertions come with a variety of justifications, many of which smack surprisingly of something very like dualism.

On dualism

Speaking of dualism, another more insidious form of philosophism arises, one that is tied tightly to the extant definition of the word. Some philosophically inclined people feel that it is very important to entertain theological (or other dualistic or supernatural) arguments with tremendous seriousness, provided that they are sufficiently philosophically slick. A certain enchantment with slick arguments seems to characterize this aspect of philosophistic overassertion.

(Of course, it is important to offer sound rebuttals to as much of this specious nonsense as those interested have time and passion for, but these kinds of arguments, in my opinion, deserve far less serious consideration than many individuals give them. Also, it's worth noting that theologians appear loath, if not completely resistant, to abandoning a refuted theological/philosophical religious argument, so rebutting them should be done for a broader audience.)

I'll take a moment to illustrate why we do not need to take sophistry of this sort seriously, however slick. The attitude that theology, dualism, and supernaturalism deserve is no more than acknowledging a very remote possibility. The attendant posterior plausibility for theology, dualism, and supernaturalism, which is very low, is enough to justify not taking these kinds of arguments with much seriousness, at least not on the popular level. (What professional philosophers want to wrestle with is their professional business until a large enough contingent of them agree upon something to garner popular attention.)

This section is long enough as it is, though, and I will leave it here to say that philosophers can and do overassert the relevance and importance of philosophy. When they do so, they are engaging in a problem that deserves to be branded philosophism, with all the negative connotation they would assign to the term scientism.

2. Other professionals don't need to engage in much philosophy

Perhaps the real issue here is simply one of acknowledgement, but I don't think so. It strikes me that philosophism often crops up by arguing that non-philosophical professionals, especially scientists, should take greater care with the philosophy related to their fields, even to being savvy with it. I disagree.

Who has time?

First, an economic argument: the law of comparative advantage disagrees. It is possible that being more philosophically savvy would lead scientists, etc., to be better scientists, but the time demands on doing science (even at a modest level) are already substantial--even without having to acknowledge that many research scientists spend at least a fifth of their working year attempting to convince someone to give them enough money to still have a job next year. Philosophers have time to do good philosophy because they are philosophers, which is usually not true of working scientists because they just don't have time or the inclination that often comes with such leisure.

While it may be possible that some scientists, historians, etc., would do better to become philosophically savvy in the philosophy that underwrites their fields, it's easy to make the case that they would do better still to get better at the techniques directly related to doing their science (with the philosophy underwriting it left implicit). Philosophy is hard and takes a lot of time, particularly to do well, and scientists get the same twenty-four hours as everyone else to carve away at their increasingly specialized, technical, and challenging niches of human knowledge.

We have philosophers for a reason

Second, I don't think they should care. Philosophy is important to philosophers. Science is important to scientists. History is important to historians. Mathematics is important to mathematicians. Sometimes these fields cross each other's paths, perhaps more and more frequently as the research pushes forward and what to do with the frontiers becomes less clear. That does not imply, however, that a person in field X has to feel that field Y is all that important for them. (NB: possibly--that depends upon the field, e.g. theology.) It is sometimes in particular situations but not generally. (Some, but not all, mathematical probability theorists have, for example, a real need to understand the various (philosophical) interpretations of probability to do their work in certain circumstances.)

There is something of a double-standard here, and it is justified. Scientists have philosophy underwriting their field, to be sure, but most of them can do their day-to-day work without paying it much heed. (Compare this situation with their relationship with the field of mathematics.) Most scientists do the majority of their work very well without more philosophy than a vague nod to empiricism and utilitarianism are typically enough. Scientists need philosophy largely to clarify interpretations and some of the boundaries of their methodologies at the weird frontiers (quantum mechanical interpretations and string theory are a clear example of this). Beyond that, and for most day-to-day work in those fields, philosophy is kind of irrelevant--in the, "yeah, it's there implicitly" way. Philosophy, on the other hand, is bound by science now.

Philosophy bound

When I say philosophy is bound by science, what I mean is that while philosophers are more than welcome to do philosophy in ignorance of science, it will usually be bad philosophy--or will become so very quickly. Science is what tethers philosophy to reality more than anything else. Without science, philosophy can very quickly get a bit meta and end up effectively on acid somewhere in the stratosphere--to its major discredit. Good philosophy is bound by science now that we have it, and what's left over is the older definition of philosophism, something of a turf war within philosophy that science and other fields don't need to be dragged into.

(Mathematicians, incidentally, aren't really bound by reality and don't really care--if their axioms end up being nonphysical, I'd think most would be likely to shrug it off with a, "So what? Who ever said they were physical?" That honesty about living abstractly protects them from this criticism, not that they'd care anyway.)

Asserting that scientists need to be savvy about philosophy is only relevant when those scientists are working at the raw edges of the most forward-pushing, abstract fields in which we aren't yet sure of what is going on. Our average solar astronomer, for example, does not need to be the least bit philosophically savvy to have an effective working sense of what constitutes a good model in her field or how to interpret the solar wind data that are being collected to test those models. It would be philosophism, and a waste of her precious, underpaid time, to argue otherwise, even if she said that the only way to gather reliable knowledge about the sun is through science.

3. Intellectual superiority

Philosophy is hard. It is far easier to go wrong than it is to go right with philosophy (also true of science, but science is grounded by evidence and so the wrongness may often be more readily apparent). Therefore, it isn't surprising to find that those capable of doing good philosophy (and good science) often have a bit of an intellectual chip on their shoulders regarding other fields. Often, in fact, there are interdepartmental jokes in universities, especially the colleges of arts and sciences, poking fun about the others' clear "inferiority."

(My favorite such joke, for what it's worth, reads that the second-cheapest department in any university is the mathematics department, as all its faculty need to do their work is paper, pencils, and waste baskets. The cheapest is the philosophy department because they don't need the waste baskets.)

I would argue that the "harder" a field is, the more its members tend to feel they can dig on the others. Overcoming high intellectual barriers to entry can have this effect on our psychology, particularly in people who have couched much of their self-esteem in their intellects. This is bad enough when it discredits fields outside the imaginary circle, but it's often downright nasty when happening between them.

The hard sciences, those requiring heavy-duty mathematics, often pride themselves on being more concerned with reality than, say, the philosophy and mathematics departments, and for good reasons. In contrast, the mathematics and philosophy departments often pride themselves on being more savvy with the abstract--and here's the problem: hence more intelligent--than those in the hard sciences. Sometimes it's vocalized; sometimes it's not, but the attitudes are common nonetheless. Everyone cherishes his own field, and none more than those whose fields are hard. (What that means is "mathematical" or "formally logical," not difficult, an unfair term--I don't think I can write a novel, and so writing one would be terribly hard, but few, if any, "hard" science/math folks see literature as a "hard" field).

Thus, I don't think it's surprising that philosophers can come off as smug and intellectually self-aggrandizing. Worse, because of the way philosophy operates, it comes off that way naturally to almost everyone else, creating a challenging problem for those who would popularize philosophy.

"There's a category for that, and let me tell you how that makes you wrong."

For instance, philosophers categorize everything, often with very precise, very abstruse terms that are very difficult to get a firm grasp on. Philosophers become adept at navigating these categories, understanding their ins, their outs, their strengths, their weaknesses, there genera, and their specifics. And then, when someone talks to a philosopher about philosophical-type ideas, the philosopher immediately categorizes those ideas and can do things with the classification, often sowing doubt and leaving the person they're talking with feeling quite stupid, typically very unfairly.

Here's a tip for philosophers that would popularize philosophy: people hate that. Hate it. Work as hard as you can not do it, ever. (NB: Many of those I would suggest play at being philosophismists have great disdain for Peter Boghossian, whose main message is the kind of authenticity that gets broken by philosophical categorizing and the ensuing assumptions.)

Philosophers argue as much as lawyers

Philosophers are also trained to try and get everything right, which they seek to achieve by learning to look for holes in arguments that they then tear apart. By implication, this leaves the person holding the torn-apart argument feeling wrong, which is often sufficient justification for the philosopher to tear apart the argument in the first place. Philosophers are also trained to defend their ideas and tear down opposing ones with pitiless mental tooth and claw. So philosophers are trained to find holes in arguments, tear them apart, and they do it like second nature.

Here's a tip for philosophers that would popularize philosophy: people hate that. Hate it. Work as hard as you can to do this with extreme care. This, again, falls on the crap side of authenticity. [Indeed, a humorous one-word sentence summarizing a thesis in philosophy (presented on humor site captures something of the problem: "Philosophers will almost always lie to you to prove their point" (Link).]

Incidentally, in the sciences, despite some scientists who are jerks, evidence is always the final arbiter whenever it is available. This is not the case in philosophy or mathematics. Additionally, in mathematics, at least in the mainstream, the axioms are usually far less contentious than in philosophy, and so the proof is just the proof (most Ph.D. dissertation defenses in mathematics are just a talk about the main results of the thesis since with proofs, there's no need to argue to defend one's position). This leaves philosophy heavily dependent upon arguments, which easily become motivated ones, to defend itself, and the trait shows. Notice, philosophers who would popularize philosophy, how nearly all jokes about lawyers go.

The dark side

Sometimes the dark side comes out, though. Philosophers, particularly those enamored with their own ideas or the importance of their own fields, will at times summon an air of intellectual superiority as a subtle ad hominem against the opponents' positions. Doing so seeks to undermine confidence in the opposing argument by showing everyone how much dumber (or less savvy) its presenters are than the philosopher. This has been running rampant lately with all the references--even from Daniel Dennett!--to what undergraduates in philosophy should and shouldn't understand (but so-and-so, apparently doesn't). This is philosophism.

So here is a clear issue with philosophism and a critical part of its connotation: it is condescending. This is hurtful to any productive dialogue and the reputation of philosophy (which is already far weaker than the reputation of science and thus may suffer the insult far more grievously). Like other forms of condescension, we should endeavor to keep them to a minimum.

Bonus: Sophisticated Theologians

I will not make this section long. Sophisticated Theologians(TM) (meaning theologians or apologists who categorize themselves as philosophers or philosophically savvy) have nothing* but philosophical or philosophistic arguments (sophistry) for their God, so they are usually quite quick to play the role of the philosophist. The reason is plain: they wish to keep the relevance of philosophy in all fields overasserted so they can keep misusing it to steal opportunities to talk about theism like it is a position that deserves our intellectual respect.

*They also have their "inner witness" and "divine sense" claims not to need arguments, and they can keep it and the Great Pumpkin. Atheist philosophers insisting upon some philosophical respectability to these beliefs is a clear instantiation of philosophism.


If scientism is a legitimate word that voices a legitimate criticism, philosophism is as well and for the same reasons. It is as anti-intellectual as anything that deserves to be called scientism, and it is as bad for philosophy--and everyone--as scientism is said to be for science. Indeed, it may be worse, because whereas scientism is science overstepping, philosophism is philosophy strangling itself. Science isn't going away, however scientistic it gets, but philosophy gone philosophistic will be beaten into the margins at great cost to us all.

1 comment:

  1. >> "The goal of this piece is to point out that philosophers can overassert just as easily and at least as obnoxiously as can anyone else."

    I think that most people already know this. There are bad apples in every area of life.