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People often talk about the "end" of physics, but what about an end of philosophy?

Let me explain. My philosophy professor said that philosophy is kind of the parent discipline of all fields of inquiry and when philosophers clarify and refine questions well enough, they are spun off into their own disciplines.

I find this statement to be quite insightful. Mathematics was created by the ancient philosophers. The natural philosophers clarified their method of investigation and created natural science. Later, philosophers created the social sciences.

In modern times, cognitive psychology and linguistics are speaking to a number of philosophical questions. Certainly questions of cosmology and the like have already been taken out of philosophical inquiry.

It would seem that future philosophers will be forced more and more to reconcile their theories with mankind's great body of knowledge from other fields. They will have to become experts in those fields. And a philosopher who is an expert in field "X" might not even be considered a philosopher but a practitioner of field "X."

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    Interesting, but what exactly is the question again? What do you mean by "end"? Do you mean will philosophy answer all its questions and then simply become study of its history? Or do you wonder if all philosophers will become scientists eventually? – Mitch Nov 18 '11 at 1:54
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    And what do you mean by the 'end' of physics, while you're at it? – davidlowryduda Nov 18 '11 at 5:35
  • I am asking people to weigh in (agree/disagree and why) on my theory that philosophy will either answer all of it's questions or at least refine them into there own fields of study. I theorizing that it will happen (and is happening) slowly and organically, so that philosophers won't exactly go away. But people asking those questions will be scientists and social scientists, and I suppose philosophers would tend to be experts of historical philosophical work and have less and less to be able to add meaningfully. – Joe Nov 18 '11 at 14:51
  • The "end of physics" refers to when physicists discover and settle a theory of everything. I put "end of physics" in quotes, because one can reasonably object to the idea that it will really be the end. Certainly there is applied physics, computation physics, and branches of physics that still have questions to answer even after an all encompassing framework is found. – Joe Nov 18 '11 at 14:56
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    @Joe not to mention that not all physicists believe that an "all encompassing framework" could ever exist. – Artem Kaznatcheev Nov 21 '11 at 21:20
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I think that's a fair description of what is happening in analytic philosophy. I'm not so sure about continental philosophy. There are, it seems to me, roughly two varieties of philosophical thought:

  1. Concept clarification
  2. Concept creation

The first variety is certainly forced to eventually, as you out put it, 'reconcile [its] theories with mankind's great body of knowledge from other fields.' If a concept has been adequately clarified, then it is no longer up to philosophers to tinker with it. Consider for example how Newton's insights eventually led to the dissolution of so-called 'natural philosophy', i.e. of the idea that philosophers ought to come up with (philosophical) theories explaining the motion of heavenly bodies and so forth. Or, similarly, how after medicine began to establish how our anatomical features explain our movement and activity it was no longer up to philosopher's to explain the locomotion of corpora. I think it is fair to say that philosophers of physics these days are pretty much on a par with physicists as far as theoretical knowledge is concerned - it is impossible to cogently engage with e.g. Quantum Field Theory literature if you're not fully immersed in the formalism that surrounds it (cf. Hans Halvorson.) And that definitely confirms your intuition that a philosopher of X can only be a practitioner of X. Crucially though, that doesn't mean that this will be possible for all X. And this leads us to (2).

On the other hand, therefore, the concept-creation side of philosophy (i.e. (2)) seems to be unaffected by any possible advance in empirical disciplines. Unless humans attain a kind of omniscience about the universe that would on all counts stretch the limits of plausibility, there will always be space for the creation of new concepts to conceptualize our current state of knowledge. And that, being as it is inherently philosophical in flavour, cannot, it seems to me, ever come to an end. In short: even if you think that you have uncovered all possible true sentences relative to a certain (fixed) vocabulary, that doesn't mean you won't be able to invent new vocabularies - thereby allowing yourself to say new things. This kind of philosophy, I think it is fair to say, will never end. And since philosophy is partly this kind of conceptual creation, it is also fair to say that philosophy itself will never end.

  • Great answer! So from what you say, certain forms of philosophy are more like mathematics than physics. In other words, it has an infinite field of ideas that it can examine and tackle, and for that reason it won't end. – Joe Nov 18 '11 at 14:43
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    If you think of 'fields' as fixed vocabularies, what I am saying is that the second aspect of philosophy will always be able to expand these vocabularies, therefore saying new things, therefore philosophizing – Chuck Nov 18 '11 at 18:52
  • @Chuck - Your answer is of an idealist, even logical positivism tinge (depending perhaps on which of your competing visions we focus on). Why? Because first you emphasize concepts over the real, and second because you appear to give a certain primacy to reconciling various knowledge. Now, I don't say that philosophy does not or cannot concern itself with reconciling bodies of knowledge. Indeed, part of the methodology of philosophy involves reconciling and rendering them free of contradiction. But I protest the restriction or reduction of philosophy in such a way. Comment space too short. – danielm Dec 18 '12 at 3:00
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Redundant concepts and infinitely recursive sentences aside, I think that since the universe is finite (even if it is expanding, it is still finite at any given moment), there is a limit to the knowledge that could be held within it. Thus, in theory philosophy might come to an end. But we are so far from this, and have so little understanding about the universe, that any predictions either way are laughable. There's no way you could formulate any sort of logical argument that strongly supports an answer to your question either way; we just don't know enough yet.

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    You are going to cause a lot of confusion if you talk about a finite expanding universe. – Neil Meyer Feb 7 '14 at 13:43
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Philosophy may breed other knowledge fields and these restrict fields may come to a point in which they are completely explored. But philosophy is much more than that. Basic philosophical questions like: what is knowledge? What does it mean to say "I know" something? If someone said "Everything that is there to be known is already known", one could ask "How can you know that? If there is something we don't know, how can we know it?". And so on...

Maybe this is what philosophy is about: not coming to an end.

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