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In science, if one asks the question "What is the structure of DNA?", rarely will one get the answer "According to Watson and Crick, it's twin-helical". Similarly, a chemistry course does not begin by studying Aristotle's theory of the elements and comparing to Mendeleev. Yet almost any philosophical question is answered with "According to...", and philosophy courses are generally divided into a study of what various philosophers have said. Surely then this is the study of philosophers, or the history of philosophy? The actual philosophy is about whether an idea is right or wrong (to the extent that that is possible to determine). Anyone should be equally able to engage and answers judged on their merits, not their origin.

If it is not possible to determine if an idea is right or wrong, then why study philosophers at all, there is no objective evidence that they are any better at philosophy than laymen because no-one can judge how right or wrong they are. If we can, to some extent judge how right or wrong philosophers are (and thereby judge their relative expert status), then surely some of them must have been shown to be wrong by now and so become obsolete?

Without any objective measures, are we are in danger of reducing what would otherwise be a very important human activity (the debating of ideas) into nothing more than a elaborate exchange of celebrity idolatry?

To summarize: Does philosophy have any objective means of proving that famous philosophers are actually better at philosophy than ordinary people and are not simply idolised because of their notoriety? If it does not, how does philosophy justify its high status?

  • "almost any philosophical question is answered with "According to...", and philosophy courses are generally divided into a study of what various philosophers have said." But DNA or chemistry are "natural facts" and we study them through scientific textbook (pease, note that no one "study DNA" naively, but only after a rigorous university training, with a lot of "books reading"). "Ideas" are not natural facts that live alone, outside of the books of philosophers. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Sep 16 '16 at 10:05
  • Ideas are surely in everyone's heads and quite happily live outside of the books of philosophers. My point is not necessarily that all ideas are "natural facts" but that we should not confuse a purely academic, historical study of those which are not with a rational and useful study of those which are. – Isaacson Sep 16 '16 at 10:12
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    Contrary to what people think, Philosophy does decide between right and wrong answers. So I would contest that you're wrong on the notion (if you hold to it) that it doesn't. It does it via logic as its central tool, that's perhaps the key difference. There is an objective measure. We study Philosophers because we learn from them and move on. Metaphysics advanced in a trickle down fashion where if I came up with a problem, it'd only be started to worked upon 300 years from its advent. Why you, or anyone else thinks that Philosophy isn't in this business is beyond me. – Dennis Sep 16 '16 at 10:35
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    I think you severely underestimate the number of philosophers that lived within the last over 2.000 years. It's not like we reference every philosopher who ever lived and has written on a certain topic. But as you should cover every notable work of a chemist who has contributed to the specific topic of an essay without being blatantly wrong or completely falsified by empirical data, we should cover the corresponding philosophers as well. We can't help there were people writing important and correct things this early in our subject. – Philip Klöcking Sep 16 '16 at 16:25
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    Do you really and actually think that scientists agree these days? See how many interpretations of QM are out there! Or how many interpretations of the Big Bang Theory. And in 200 years, people will say the theories (looking into the details!) were crap, no matter the interpretation. Ask a physicist if he agrees with Newton and he will probably disagree. Nevertheless Newton's Laws are still in use today and the best way to calculate gravity within certain boundaries. The same with Bohr's atomic model. Don't pretend that 'the sciences' were consistent in all cases. Show a bit of humbleness. – Philip Klöcking Sep 16 '16 at 18:55
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First, concerning objective criteria in philosophy. Philosophy seeks truth in an area where conclusive evidence is not achievable. What remains possible is to construct theories, and support them (inconclusively, but still under objective and rational constraints) by arguments. Also involved are counter arguments, arguments for and against the presuppositions of other arguments, auxiliary theories, and so on. All this is hardly ever settled once and for all, yet it is (at least partly) objective, subject to various tests of coherence, logic and rationality.

Second, concerning the "celebrity status" of the "great philosophers". Western philosophy has been moving, for more than 2000 years, in a limited conceptual area, almost without empirical input, on the basis of pure reason alone. Countless smart people have been dealing in philosophy throughout these years. All this adds up to the realization that genuinely novel ideas in philosophy have been extremely rare. That is, I think, why the very few people, throughout history, who actually had the privilege to conceive of new philosophical ideas, are being treated somewhat like great literary authors and great artists. Their writings are being taught and researched repeatedly, to keep live connections with their extremely rare and often elusive innovations. Still, all this has to be separated from authority. There are no authorities in philosophy. Nobody has authority over philosophical truth, because philosophical truth is just truth.

No one is becoming a "philosopher" just by studying philosophy. Yet it take several years of study, before one can get one's bearings in the field. It needs learning and internalizing, somewhat like learning a new language. Philosophy cannot, in this sense, be done from outside.

  • For a group that can pick apart the most simple sentence with great rigour, philosophers are remarkably blind when looking in the mirror. For a start Nietzsche, Kirkegaard and even Descartes, to name a few, never formally studied philosophy, yet all are accepted as great philosophers. Secondly, just because most great philosophers studied philosophy does not automatically make it true that this is a prerequisite of their greatness, only a prerequisite of their publication. – Isaacson Sep 20 '16 at 7:03
  • The statement that "philosophy cannot be done from the outside" is self-fulfilling. If philosophers will not give a hearing to people not using their language then it is inevitable that no well-known philosophy will be carried out from outside their enclave, it does not say anything about the ability of others to engage with philosophy without prior study. It says lots about the attitude of those within the establishment. – Isaacson Sep 20 '16 at 7:08
  • @Isaacson 1. My remark about the need to study philosophy is separate from my remark about the great philosophers. You are mixing two largely unrelated issues. 2. Still, all the figures that you mentioned did study philosophy. – Ram Tobolski Sep 20 '16 at 11:41
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Frame challenge, Yay!

The premise in this question is wrong, at least for physics. In studying physics you do learn the canonical works of dead white guys: Newton's law's, Maxwell equations, the Cavendish experiment etc. Due to the differences in the nature of the enterprise of physics vs. philosophy you don't read direct translations of their original works, but in a more figurative sense, that is exactly what you are learning (for the most part): Newton's three laws here is just a re-hash of what Newton wrote in Principia Mathematica. As far as I can tell, every physics 101 student re-hashes experiments and concepts from the 16th century (Galileo and his contemporaries). So the idea that science is presented as "Here are these final results in a completely impersonal way and that there is no history/canon" that I read in the way you've framed the question strikes me as a mis-representation of how science is taught and done.

To answer your question, somewhat circularly, the seminal, or canonical, works in philosophy are exactly those works that philosophers have come to find useful. I'm not going to try to define philosophy more concretely than to say that those who purport to be doing it have some set of goals. Some prior works help those people achieve those goals. These end up being the canon.

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One way to look at this is through Kuhn's idea of different scientific phases (parts of the following have already been posted here). In his book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", Thomas Kuhn divides science in to 5 phases:

  1. The pre-paradigm phase: This is the primordial situation when a given scientific topic was based mostly on competing philosophical speculations. Think physics before Newton or psychology before the 20th century.
  2. The normal science phase: A specific paradigm (or theory) has been established and now scientists are engaged in confirming and elaborating on the consequences of that theory. Think Physics between the time of Newton and the late 19th century.
  3. The crisis phase: Experimental results start to seriously contradict the predictions of the theory established in the normal phase. Scientists will try to resolve these contradictions according to established theories. If they fail then science goes into the next phase. Think physics in the 1890-1910 period.
  4. The revolutionary phase: The previously established paradigm is being abandoned due to too many conflicting experiments and different paradigms and frameworks are competing to establish themselves as the new paradigm. Think of the period between 1910 and 1940 when Quantum Mechanics was being elaborated.
  5. Post-paradigm shift: Scientists agree on a new paradigm and start work on elaborating it and confirming it, thus returning to phase 2.

It is possible to look at philosophy as being concerned with phase 1 questions: A definitive paradigm hasn't been established, and there are multiple compteing paradigms. So before Newton's theory was confirmed, one had to speak of Aristotelian natural philosophy, Cartesian natural philosophy, Newtonian natural philosophy, etc...each corresponding to a different paradigm, and it was necessary to refer to these theories by the names of the people (or schools) who came up with them.

Then we move to phase 2 (normal science), where a single paradigm is established which everybody agrees on, and we no longer need to mention the name of the person of group of people responsible for the paradigm. Once a paradigm is established, that particular topic branches out of philosophy and becomes its own discipline. Hence people spoke of Natural Philosophy up until the time of Newton, but then started speaking of physics or mechanics after Newton's results were accepted as a dominant paradigm.

So to answer your question: In the pre-paradigm phase there are many competing philosophies (As you put it, it is impossible to determine who is right or wrong) and therefore it is necessary to mention the originators of each idea when discussing them (notice we don't always do that - in phil mind many people speak of physicalism, functionalism, and dualism without referring having to speak of Smart, Putnam or DesCartes all the time). Once a paradigm is established, we've agreed on which philosopher or school of philosophy was right, and then the discipline moves out of philosophy and into its own self contained science, and as a result we no longer need to refer to theories by the name of their authors.

To use your example, we say "the structure of DNA is helical" as opposed to "According to Watson and Crick, the structure of DNA is helical" because the paradigm in molecular biology has already been established, every body agrees that Waston and Crick is the correct interpretation. Compare with quantum mechanics, where there are still competing interpretations and people refer to "Bohmian quantum mechanics", "Copenhagen interpretation" and "Everett-Wheeler Interpretation".


In response to the last paragraph added as an edit (which doesn't seem related to the rest of the question):

Does philosophy have any objective means of proving that famous philosophers are actually better at philosophy than ordinary people and are nor simply idolised because of their notoriety? If it does not, how does philosophy justify it's high-brow status?

Modern philosophy, like sciences, and unlike literature or art, requires that its practitioners train in, learn and then build on a preexisting body of knowledge. In this sense, it justifies it's "high-brow" status in the same way that physics, mathematics (or for that matter classical music) do.

  • I very much like the work of Kuhn and think it provides the most accurate understanding of how knowledge progresses, but my question is (relating particularly to the last part of your answer), how does philosophy demonstrate that it practitioners have made any progress at all? Without verifiable testing of theories, practitioners are not building on a pre-existing body of "knowledge", they are building on a pre-existing body of of "stuff people reckon". In order for it to constitute "knowledge" it must be objectively verified in some way. – Isaacson Sep 17 '16 at 7:38
  • I realise it might help to provide some evidence for why I think philosophy does not occupy the space in Kuhn's "phases" that your suggest. To use a famous example, Descartes' views on the nature of conciousness are still taught in philosophy courses. This issue has, however, been largely resolved by science, look at the works of Ramachandran for example. If your theory on the place of philosophy holds true Descartes' ideas on conciousness would no longer be taught, this investigation has moved on to stage 2 and philosophy no longer plays a part in it. – Isaacson Sep 17 '16 at 8:32
  • @Isaacson Remember Kuhn admits that there is a social component to paradigms being adopted or not. Take your DesCartes example: I, for one, agree with you that he is no longer relevant see this post of mine, but for social and cultural reasons, people seem to disagree, and they think it is arrogant to dismiss DesCartes. Just look at the negative feedback I received. – Alexander S King Sep 22 '16 at 17:21
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If there is one defining characteristic common to all philosophers, it is that they see the world from a different perspective than everyone else. Philosophers are exactly the people who don't accept the given answers that suffice for everyone else. Because of that, it is difficult to entirely separate the philosopher from the philosophy. Even academic courses in philosophy tend to be taught in highly idiosyncratic manners, with divergent philosophical perspectives and syllabi.

A "great" philosopher is one whose own perspective has proved influential, generative, useful or productive to a wide number of people over a long period of time. There is no one objective standard because each new philosopher redefines the standards.

The situation is quite different in science, which by design is a single unified discipline with a well-defined, conserved, and mutually acclaimed perspective and set of standards.

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Philosophy is more often like art than it is science. It also suffers from being somewhat self referential. We can't say what any objective measure is without first engaging in philosophy to define it, and if we can't do philosophy without objective measures, then we are kind of stuck. But in practical terms we know our brains will still think about things and make logical deductions without these measures.

A lot of what we do in philosophy is we tend to look at the individuals and what perspective they are bringing to the subject. For both art and philosophy the context of the person is often quite important. What we identify out of this is the origin of certain ideas and the progression of those ideas, it also credits those people with the contributions that seem siginificant ( In science we do the same ). Significance in philosophy is about originality of ideas and the logical consequences of those ideas. Not so much the objective measure of that idea.

But there are things in philosophy where not a lot of mention is made to the origins of an idea. For example, deductive reasoning and rules of logic. They are presented much like in science / math.

The important thing here is, not whether an idea can be objectively measured, but what are the origins of an idea, the nature of that idea, the structure of the arguments, the logic, the cohesiveness, etc. As students of philosophy we can then critically examine these ideas for ourselves.

Understanding philosophy, and having the need to make decisions like.... "how do we live together as a society and what policies and laws should we have?" We have some tools to make decisions beyond purely arbitrary choices, we can make choices that have a certain structural cohesiveness.

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All of the bellow is just my believe/opinion and can’t be proven other than in discussion…

Entry point

The key to this question lays in analyzing the structure of any statement that goes like: Person Y thinks/According to Y...X (the problem at hand)...is Z (the opinion about the truth about X) and in finding out what meaningful sense such statements can possibly have.

Three examples of usage (physical world, mathematical system, philosophical world-interpretation)

The structure can be used in three ways: a) non-problematic, b) ridiculous, c) tricky.

A) The structure works great for describing a person's view on matters concerning physical world provided the opinion is not in direct contradiction with our experience. "According to Alice the cat is in the cellar, but Peter thinks that it is on a tree somewhere in Africa." I can imagine both scenarios, understand it and explain it to others as opinions of Alice and Peter. The opinions are no more than models of reality constituted by (pseudo)sensual data of which any can be in accordance with reality. They are contradictory, but understandable. What’s important is that we all share the framework of physical world when discussing this and also share the meaning of the cat.

B) The statement becomes kind of ridiculous when used in framework such mathematics or logic where a contradiction occurs. “According to Michael 2+2 equals 5, but Jane thinks that 2+2 equals 4.” Now I can’t imagine or understand Michael’s statement in any way, so what is the meaning of my statement? It inevitably shifts its meaning so that the Michael’s opinions should actually appear in quotes. According to Michael: “2+2” equals 5 or “2+2” “equals” “5” or “2+2” equals “5” and so on. I’m not actually passing on his idea, since it makes no sense to me, I’m only explaining how some words are connected with other words in some kind of Michael’s system. Michael’s system can be complicated and I can write longs textbooks about it without grasping much/any meaning. “According to Michael 2+2 is not greater than 5 but is equal to 5 in which he disagrees with Jane.” Since we are dealing with shared framework of mathematics, Michael just has to be proven wrong and taught about no more. This use of the statement is mostly ridiculous, because the speaker doesn’t understand any meaning, but can be sometimes useful in education when student are taught these empty word relationships which they can later apply to real world to fill them with meaning.

C) Finally, the case of philosophy. Philosophy is a special case for it is mostly not discussion within a shared framework of word-meanings, but is rather argument between different frameworks that share same words and insist on their constant meanings across the frameworks. These frameworks are different interpretations of the reality itself since there is no shared building block among philosophical systems but rather each of these blocks (word, notions) is defined within each framework differently. It is not possible to understand Michael and Jane at the same time. But it is possible to understand Aristotle and Heidegger at the same time. Now you can use the structure “According to Heidegger…” as in B to just explain a relationship between words without understanding the meaning. This is actually awful but seems widespread to me. But you can’t use it as in A since the framework is not shared and one author is not likely to be proven wrong for good (the cat was found in the cellar and so Aristotle is wrong and is just a historical curiosity now). You use it to name the framework by its most prominent figure and to give the quotes (quotes!) in hope that someone will actually understand the meaning. I think the structure should be mostly avoided because it tends too much to become B usage and you should explain the world-interpretation on your own (you’ll end up using the authors terms anyway) if you understand it.

Lastly, is there then no measure of the correct opinion if each makes sense only within each framework? Weirdly I believe there is. The reason why anyone becomes interested in philosophical thought is I think because there are already conflicting world-interpretations within his/hers understanding and he/she can’t stand thinking two contradictory things about what seems to be the same X to be true without trying to resolve this. Philosopher who understood at least two world-interpretations can’t probably be satisfied and tries to find a unifying one because he/she is lead by idea of one Truth and one Reality and Meaning after all. At least to me, the frameworks are never complete world-interpretations or else they would satisfactory encompass any other world-interpretations and no more thought would be felt needed. As to the objective measure: if I understood two contradictory frameworks and then someone would introduce me to a third reconciling the previous two, then I would take it for a truer one. If this great interpretation would be challenged by one tiny single idea, the two would of same value in their truth. Since it is just in relation to me that is probably not objective. The world-interpretation would have to prove itself as widely-reconciling in public philosophical discussion of which the speakers couldn’t use the statements of authors in the B manner.

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