I began to read Hawking's recent book 'A Grand Design' some time ago and noticed that he savages philosophy. He says '...philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics'. This annoyed me so much I didn't bother to read any further.

Assuming that Hawking is simply referring to the physical universe - what would be a good example to show Hawking & Hawking-wannabees that philosophy is still useful in the pursuit of our understanding of the physical world?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Keelan Oct 1 '18 at 19:45
  • I can't give you a cite, but Einstein was worried that he was overturning (a portion of) Kant. He worried about it. I have read a couple of things about Einstein and philosophy. He took philosophy seriously. Hawking was clearly wrong, and he did great damage with his statements, he damaged physics and philosophy. pitt.edu/~jdnorton/teaching/HPS_0410/chapters/… Interesting website to browse around in. Nassim Taleb, economist, has also made irresponsible comments. They don't know what they don't know. – Gordon Oct 2 '18 at 18:01
  • Also Werner Heisenberg had an excellent knowledge of philosophy. I own a book by a Mexican philosopher, Oswaldo Robles. A Scholastic no less! Originally in Spanish, 1943, in English 1946, "The Main Problems of Philosophy". A very educated man. Physics discussed quite intelligently. Including the developments known at that time. To say philosophers knew nothing of science of course was plain wrong. – Gordon Oct 2 '18 at 18:17

Well, certainly he should know enough not to make foolish statements like the one above.

Since science (and thus physics) is based upon the principle of controlled observation, a good knowledge of epistemology would seem to be de minimis; I suppose that a phenomenological approach seems appropriate to me, but that might be getting too prescriptive.

Certainly it would be a good idea, also, to get a good enough overview of ontology to understand why metaphysics is not reducible to physics.

  • Did you read Hawking's entire comment or just what the OP wrote? Perhaps he wasn't as foolish as you seem to think... – CramerTV Oct 1 '18 at 16:48

Hawking's claim seems reasonable. It was not until the later part of the 19th century that "philosopher" meant philosopher of philosophy. Most so-called contemporary philosophers (the academics) seem to be historians of "philosophy," and they seem content to read, re-read, re-re-read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, etc.. The irony, of course, is that no one who reads, interprets, and/or writes about, say, one of Shakespeare’s sonnets is a poet (at least not just for reading a sonnet). How does a professor of reading Kant become a philosopher? Is reading ability a qualification for becoming a philosopher? Was Kant a good reader? --It seems likely. He read Newton (that's for sure). But must we read Newton to become philosophers? Well, an introductory textbook in physics will contain more about how contemporary physicists understand the world than Newton's Principia. If a physicist were to write a book on, or perhaps an interpretation of, the Principia, wouldn't that book be classified as a “history” of physics? Yet, the philosophy section of libraries or bookstores is always filled with dissertations and/or books on (often dead) philosophers. We might wish to put the "canon" of Western thought into one section called, "Western Thought," and the commentaries on these books in a section called, "History of Western Thought." It seems unlikely that many contemporary philosophers will fit into the first section. But perhaps there is a place for the non-physicist philosophers. Perhaps contemporary philosophers are doing new, original philosophy. But isn't there this problem: haven't analysis and inquiry become scientific? That is, our world has become/ is becoming verifiably intelligible through, perhaps only through, scientific understanding. As we become more reliant upon scientific verifiability, which if you read Feyerabend isn't the same sort of verifiability that it once was ("How to be a good empiricist: a plea for tolerance in matters epistemological," from Philosophical Papers, III). It is important to note that the Feyerabends and Kuhns of the world did understand mathematical physics. They could only write what they did because they understood the mathematics. Here, it seems that philosophy provides a sort of point of view. However, it is unclear whether philosophy, in and of itself, is the same sort of endeavor as physics. That is, can philosophy stand alone? (I'm inclined to think that it cannot, and that it was not until the second half of the 19th century that a "philosopher" meant someone in the field of philosophy.)

An obvious argument against such a division would be this. “But those philosophers, who you call ‘philosophers,’ are also working off of past philosophers." Their ideas might be said to be derivative of those past philosophers. (After all, Whitehead does stipulate that all philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.) But such a statement would be comparable to “all mathematics is a series of footnotes to Euclid.” —That is clearly not the case; there was geometry before Euclid (as there was inquiry before Plato). The problem is that the inquiry has become more and more complex. The rising complexity is due to innovation, and philosophy has been unable to keep up. Hawking says, in A Brief History of Time that "in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for philosophers" (p.175). It might be said that the more complex mathematical physics becomes, the more question can be asked. But this complexity needs to be understood in order to ask the questions that either help illustrate a current problem or illuminate the way to solve a current problem (which doesn’t lead to knowledge, but greater complexity—more questions). (It might be that the more question we ask, the more we know--or that being able to ask meaningful questions is a sort of knowing.)

Hawking sees that philosophy has, for the most part, left behind the world--left behind that difficult language of mathematical physics--for greener pastures where the same, old, and stale grass never seems to stop growing. ("[I]n the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for philosophers," from A Brief History of Time). But of course, Hawking seems to concern himself merely with the philosopher's relation to the scientific world--as though that were the world. A little later on the same page, Hawking critiques Wittgenstein for apparently claiming (I can't find where W. makes this claim) that the "sole remaining task of philosophy is the analysis of language." Hawking then adds, "What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!" Regardless of whether W. said this or not, it is clear that Hawking misunderstood what is probably meant by Wittgenstein here (or at least, the circumstances in which W. might have made such an utterance.) Of course, Wittgenstein concerns himself with philosophical problems ("philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday," PI sec. 38). Thus, he sees mathematics as having fewer epistemological problems than ordinary language (perhaps because the boundaries are drawn with sharper borders). But, he also claims that mathematics is not ideal, it is normative (Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, sec. 61). Therefore, to understand mathematics is to understand a particularly useful normative language. It is likely that Hawking wants to hold mathematics, and mathematical physics, above other language; no, it is likely that Hawking wants to say something more than even that. (It is ironic, as far as I can see, that Hawking wished to criticize the direction that Wittgenstein took by essentially assuming that what Wittgenstein was aiming to criticize can be taken for granted.) But this is a somewhat different issue.

  • But it would be very surprising if a poet didn't read any poetry? TS Eliot wrote an essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', where he says "the most individual parts of his (the poet) work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously". I suspect the tradition of presenting thought in the Sciences is different than that of Philosophy. One gets books on Statistical Physics or Quantum Physics, but one doesn't get books on say Epistemology or Ontology. – Mozibur Ullah Oct 21 '11 at 1:22
  • @MoziburUllah. That is true about the poet--to an extent. For example, if the philosopher's interest is epistemology, does it make more sense to read Kant or Dirac? Who would be more relavent to the contemporary philosopher? The modern poet might get his inspiration from Keats; but to think that Keats has much to say about the modern world is misleading. Think of modern classical music (or Jazz). People mistake the beauty of Bach's St. Matthew Passion for relevance. Kant cannot say anything about the wave-particle duality. But what if the physicist read Kuhn or Feyerabend? Is that acceptable? – Jon Oct 21 '11 at 16:39
  • Keats in the poem Lamia talks about how philosophy (the will to reasoned truth) is destructive, or in another one of his phrases 'a butterfly broken on a wheel'. TS Eliot in the 'Wasteland' doesn't give reasons but simply describes the alienation and disillusionment. Surely this is of relevance to the modern world? – Mozibur Ullah Oct 22 '11 at 0:39
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    I'm pretty sure your statement, "Most so-called contemporary philosophers (the academics) seem to be historians of "philosophy," and they seem content to read, re-read, re-re-read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, etc.." is false. It may seem that way in the classroom because that's what they are teaching, but the vast majority of academic philosophers are doing original research. Just browse the faculty pages of a few departments and you'll see that the number of pure historians is pretty limited. – Nathan Oct 27 '11 at 6:10
  • @JosephWeissman. --Added some citations, although I think most people misunderstood the gist what I was trying to say.--That is my fault. – Jon Oct 31 '11 at 20:55

It certainly was ironic if not funny that he started of that book by claiming philosophy is dead and then went on for about a third of the book to illuminate to us his views on philosophy of science.

It has always been the case that those who deny philosophy existence or its importance are those most apt to assume philosophical stances without any thought or inquiry. When you investigate what his philosophical views are you are certainly amazed if not stunned

I did find it tremendously arrogant to claim that because philosophy has somehow not kept up with physics so now it is not a discipline worth pursuing. Maybe the average physicist cannot imagine why everyone in the world does not become one of them. They sure seem to think very highly of themselves. Maybe I should denounce physics for their inability to "keep up" with philosophy and therefore claim it unworthy of pursuit.

Assuming that Hawking is simply referring to the physical universe - what would be a good example to show Hawking & Hawking-wannabees that philosophy is still useful in the pursuit of our understanding of the physical world?

Well philosophy is wide and far reaching subject that it is almost hard to think of any discipline at the academy that is not effected by its inquiry.

The philosophy of religion is such a wide field affecting all critical thought on all various religions. You could spend a lifetime of study on Christian history only get to the first tenth centuries AD. Not to mention the others.

Question of ethics are another wide reaching philosophical inquiry that has thousands of years of history. How many people are not burden by the thought of what they should do and not do. The answer to that question is again important to physicist as well.

Questions of epistemology are again wide and far reaching also with a tremendous amount of history. Also with a wide amount of importance. How do we announce things to be true? What amount of evidence is sufficient for the claim of truth. This has bearing again on physics as well.

I think a better question would be... Is their a discipline at the academy that is not effected by philosophical inquiry. If I would answer that I would say a resounding NO!


In some sense, to be a reasonably working physicist, one already needs to know a number of philosophical things, mostly epistemological: what it is to 'know' something, basic logic, basic ethics (the results of ones work), objectivity. Many major and minor problems in physics (again in a lot of science) are heavily philosophical (the nature of space-time, particle-wave duality, the uncertainty principle). It's just that the people who are philosophizing over them are mostly the physicists and not the philosophers.

Hawking may be referring to a more popular conception of academic philosophy that is ivory-tower and irrelevant and outdated (that's the popular conception).

A useful thing a physicist (as well as any scientist) should definitely know are the 20thc developments in the history and philosophy of science (things like demarcation between science and metaphysics).


I agree that physicists should learn a bit of philosophy but I think the question aught to be posed much more in the other direction. I believe a large measure of why physicists like Dr. Hawking feel the way they do about philosophers is that most of them know a minimal amount of hard science and it is not infrequent that their claims are contrary to known fact. There are a few exceptions like Dan Dennet, but they are few and far between.

I happen to be a physicist who is interested in philosophy, but when I have questions that lie between the two subjects, my first response is invariably to ask the physicists I know. In fact, I did ask just such a question in the physics stack exchange; it was migrated to this forum and, while I received some scientifically oriented response, I got far less than I had hoped for.

Incidentally, I did read all of Dr. Hawking's last book and you are just as well to have skipped it as his other popular works are much better. I do agree with him that modern philosophy has not kept up with physics and it is a disappointment for people like me who would like to see both areas have strong communities.


I hardly dare respond to such a lot of tosh.

Hawking is a naive thinker who has not a clue about philosophy and he should know better than to comment. If he believes that at present university philosophy is useless then he is not alone. So do many academics, students, laypeople and university chancellors and departments are closing. So what? This is not reflection on philosophy, merely the failure of a certain method and a certain set of assumptions.

Meanwhile philosophy is alive and well elsewhere. The early quantum physicists were perfectly aware of this but Hawking is not of their intellectual stature and nor, it seems, are many physicists these days. We cannot say that philosophy is useless just because some people make no progress. The proper approach is to ask why we are making no progress and attempt to change the situation. It is no use blaming the discipline itself for our own shortcomings.

It is surely a good time for philosophers to start looking beyond a failed paradigm that is so widely-known to be of no use to man nor beast that even Hawking realises it. Were I responsible for teaching philosophy I'd advise students to stay well away from the philosophy department.

Quite why physicists make so little effort with philosophy is hard to pin down exactly but the principle reason must be the way it is done in our universities. It is an industry, not the honest pursuit of knowledge and answers, and as Hawking notes it shows.

EDIT: On reflection this is a bit outspoken. I'll leave it but apologise for being more inflammatory than necessary.


Hawking's claim, as the OP cited it, that '...philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics' may exemplify a hostile attitude toward philosophy including religion that is part of the modern culture of science.

Marc Lange, a philosopher of science, lamented the same situation when he was a physics student. He not only wanted to know the various theories and mathematical techniques to solve problems. He also wanted to know "what the universe is like in its most fundamental respects". (page x):

When questions of the kind I thought important did arise, they were often belittled with a hostility that quite surprised me. I know now (thought didn't know then) that not all physicists would have responded to my questions in this way. But I also know now (thought didn't know then) that my experience was not unique; others who at some point in their education moved from physics to philosophy underwent searing experiences very similar to mine.

The hostility to philosophy is similar to the hostility toward religion as exemplified in the "conflict thesis" claiming that science is in conflict with religion. This is how Wikipedia describes the conflict thesis:

The "conflict thesis" is a historiographical approach in the history of science which maintains that there is an intrinsic intellectual conflict between religion and science and that the relationship between religion and science inevitably leads to hostility; examples to support this thesis have commonly been drawn from the relations between science and religion in Western Europe. The thesis retains support among some scientists and in the public, while most historians of science do not support the thesis, especially in its original strict form.

One can view these expressions of hostility as part of the culture of science that developed since the 19th century. However, the existence of such a culture does not mean it can't change in the future.

The question is

Assuming that Hawking is simply referring to the physical universe - what would be a good example to show Hawking & Hawking-wannabees that philosophy is still useful in the pursuit of our understanding of the physical world?

One way to show that philosophy is still useful is for philosophers interested in science to present more philosophies of science.

Marc Lange's Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics addresses spatiotemporal locality, causation and the question of the reality of fields among other topics. Shimon Malin's Nature Loves to Hide provides a perspective on quantum physics combined with Plotinus and Whitehead. For religion, Alvin Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies attempts to turn the table on the conflict thesis with his evolutionary argument against naturalism.

Producing more works like these should help prepare a ground receptive to a change in the culture of hostility of science toward philosophy, and more generally religion, that Hawking exemplified with his claim that "philosophy is dead".

As far as the title question, How much philosophy should a physicist know?, a physicist should know enough philosophy to take a stand on what is in the three books I referenced above especially if the physicist is responsible for justifying grant funding and needing to address the public who have easier access to these works than to the science texts themselves.


Lange, M. (2002). Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Malin, S. (2002). Nature loves to hide: Quantum physics and the nature of reality, a Western perspective.

Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism. OUP USA.

Wikipedia, "Conflict thesis" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_thesis

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