First, let's state that obviously there will be those who'll say "what confusion" (by confusion I mean for example questions like "what philosophy has to do with science"), and for them I'll start with my own experience: as someone who studies philosophy independently, at first it seemed very odd to study philosophy to approach questions that seemed to be in the scientific realm, and I'm (very) often asked "why is [insert topic I talked about] philosophical and not scientific?" (and that's when the other person is accepting of listening to other approaches, most of the time it's more like "this ISN'T philosophy!"). And sure, you can say that I hang out with the wrong people that are simply ignorant of philosophy, but we can still see that many students are thinking the same way, at least at first (we can see it indirectly when we look at the number of majors in philosophy, as seen here, and for example in article such as this).

So now that we've shown that the issue surely exists, I'd like to propose, and ask if that can be said to be true, that the confusion comes with the rise of the analytic movement, and more precisely the logical positivism it has entailed (most of the time). (*Edit: thanks to Christopher, I'd like to emphasize that the entailment of logical positivism I mean here is mostly at the beginning of the movement, and not so much at the present day, as we know it's more complicated nowadays, but the public isn't much acknowledged about it, nor should we expect it to be.)

Let's start with the facts first: We know that philosophy has branched scientific departments over the years, notable examples from the last 200 years would be physics and psychology. We also know (I take it from a writer's note from Hugo Bergman's book "History of Modern Philosophy") that at least in the 18th-19th centuries (and probably even sooner), the public, especially the educated high society, took much interest in philosophical inquiries (the example Bergman gives is the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence).

Without saying the interest in the big philosophical questions (God's existence, life's meaning, et cetera) has significantly (if at all) decline, we obviously see a look towards answers from the scientific departments rather than the philosophy department - which, as we've stated, is natural, as philosophy branched out to those more specific departments that could probably answer questions more appropriately. But, as stated in the first paragraph, we do see a lot of confusion about philosophy's place in the academia, so we may ask, why is that? If not from lack of interest in those questions, why does the the interest in philosophy decline?

One answer would be because, as we've stated, those questions seemingly moved to the branches we talked about. But I think most of the people here would agree that answering these questions from the limited scope of the branches is wrong, as we still need the appropriate philosophical work on the questions.

But let's take a step back and see why people consider the branches to be enough to answer the questions. For me, it seemed quite intuitive that the reason is the logical positivism that was being pushed by analytic philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Carnap (I'd include Russell too, or at least his legacy) - logical positivism (in a very short and relevant description) entails that we can trust the natural sciences to solve the philosophical problems we used to have.

I can also state that it seems as though in the continental legacy this issue never rises: continental philosophers keeps on mixing science and philosophy (or mostly, metaphilosophy) without really worrying about the connection between the two, as though they naturally complement each other. (yet, our Western Civilization, or at least the English-speaking countries, is mostly influenced by the analytic movement, so we see more effect on the public from the first kind rather than the latter.)

  • This is not so big an issue today. Here is Hilary Putnam speaking at a conference via Skype. I don't know if it will be helpful but I put it here anyway: m.youtube.com/watch?v=7S1Jwcf1-gM
    – Gordon
    Jun 26, 2018 at 12:13
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    I am not sure that the phenomenon referred to is "confusion", but the decline of interest in traditional philosophy and the shift to science for answers to "big" questions are certainly not the result of logical positivism, or "analytic movement", or any other academic development. I am sure English-speaking philosophers would love to "mostly influence" their countries, but alas, most lay people hardly know what "analytic movement" is. It is rather transparent instead that the two, along with decline in religiosity, have a common cause, what is popularly perceived as success of science.
    – Conifold
    Jun 26, 2018 at 18:08
  • Analytic Philosophers would generally find your remark that analytic Philosophy entails logical positivism to be wildly, even laughably off the mark. Analytic Philosophy these days is overall probably much friendlier to the Semantic View of Theories than to positivism. Jun 26, 2018 at 21:24
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    Let us say that people look to science more for things they used to get from philosophy, and that analytic philosophy is trying to imitate science too much. How do you make the causal link between the two? Is it surprising that philosophers do what other people do rather than vice versa? Analytic turn was started, by staunch realists, before logical positivism, it went out of favor after 1950-s, it is certainly not "entailed". You are looking for the root cause of a complex socio-cultural trend, and your solution is... one of its manifestations? And long forgotten at that? Dig deeper.
    – Conifold
    Jun 28, 2018 at 23:16
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    Imitation usually goes with favoring. As for "logical positivism", you are at best labeling a trend by its vivid manifestation, although scientism always went with realism (currently physicalism) better than with positivism. The idea of "seeds" again reverses causality. It is the popularity of science at large that feeds the cultural trend, including physicalism or positivism in philosophy, and it is popular because it is seen as successful, although less so in recent decades.
    – Conifold
    Jun 29, 2018 at 16:21

1 Answer 1


The confusion in academia in respect of philosophy is due to its failure. The forums are full of professional philosophers discussing how to save their discipline from extinction since it cannot justify its existence to students, scientists or even to university chancellors. This is a tragedy caused by closed-minds and poor scholarship. Fortunately professional philosophy is a small part of the field and so the problem is local.

You say "Without saying the interest in the big philosophical questions (God's existence, life's meaning, et cetera) has significantly (if at all) declined, we obviously see a look towards answers from the scientific departments rather than the philosophy department."

The words are a little ambiguous but if I'm understanding you properly this idea is a non-starter. Anyone who looks to the science department for answers to metaphysical questions is going to be waiting until the end of time. There is a reason why physics is not called metaphysics.

I do not see a decline of interest in philosophy. I see a growing conviction that academic philosophy as currently taught and practiced is mostly a waste of time. Meanwhile there is a healthy and growing audience for philosophy on youtube where students are not asked to spend years studying failed philosophers in order to pass an exam.

I rant too much, I know, but really the situation is ridiculous. University philosophy in its traditional form is dying and a view has arisen that philosophy is forever incomprehensible. I would call it an academic scandal and the social consequences are devastating.

The 'analytic' movement is not to blame. Philosophy is philosophy and we either do it well or badly.

If I had the power I would not allow young people to study philosophy at university until the professors get their act together. On a hopeful note the professors might have to do this in order to retain their jobs if current trends continue. I honestly believe that a young person would be better off frequenting this site, asking questions and following up interesting leads, than going to university and there will be no crippling student debt incurred to pay teachers who do not know their subject.

Perhaps this it too outspoken but it is my answer. Making omelettes requires breaking eggs.

  • I obviously see your point, as I already know your stand on the matter. But still, it seem a bit odd that all of the professors teaching in universities are teaching poorly all of a sudden. This seem to be shouting "there's something deeper over here!". And for your note on the metaphysical answers in science -- this is exactly what I meant when I said that the logical positivism has led a still-on-going influence over the public's eye (including, obviously, students) that suggests science can answer those questions. This is what I'm emphasizing here. Jun 26, 2018 at 15:16
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    When you use the words "failure" and "waste of time" could that also not be part and parcel of the University today being seen as a pathway to the labor marketplace and the role of philosophers and philosophy in that marketplace not being something we know what to do with? Jun 26, 2018 at 16:24
  • @YechiamWeiss yes it definitely has a still-on-going influence over the public's eye. Hilary Putnam gave a great lecture "The Fact-Value Dicotomy and its Critics" at U College Dublin when he was awarded their Ulysses Medal. ucd.ie/news/mar07/030507_Putnam_Award.htm Unfortunately the speech has been taken down! I don't know if a transcript can be found on the internet. But keep in mind, and as you know, in America we have many, many philosophy departments, so this idea of "one" American anything was always wrong, but it has lingered in the public sphere.
    – Gordon
    Jun 27, 2018 at 1:33
  • @Gordon of course I'm generalizing here, which you can say is a wrong step, but I'd like to do it anyway because I can't comprehend the full breadth of views/knowledgements of the whole public, so I'm taking what I'm seeing and hearing a lot about to be an after-effect of a more general cause. Jun 27, 2018 at 2:47
  • @ClearMountainWay - Yes, now that universities are all about vocational training one of the main complaints against philosophy is it's irrelevance in the labour market, . But the root cause of this irrelevance is its failure to make any progress since Plato.
    – user20253
    Jun 27, 2018 at 11:51

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