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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Philosophy, "Ontics," and Professional Self-Definition

Colin McGinn has an essay this week in the New York Times’ series “The Stone,” which invites academic philosophers to write about their subject.  Since that’s how I began my career (I left a job as a philosophy professor to go to law school), I always read the column with interest, but I have been a bit disappointed by the degree to which some of the invited columnists have used their public exposure for navel-gazing.  This week’s column is a good case in point.  I want to highlight it here because of the well-known and perhaps well-worn (but certainly unresolved) debate within our own profession about whether to conceptualize our institutions as professional schools, training members of a profession, as opposed to academic departments, engaged in academic discourse of the sort that Stanley Fish has rightly said is purely its own reward and justification.   This post is mostly about philosophy, though I reckon the parable is easily enough interpreted for law schools.  It’s all below the fold.

 (I’m in the former camp when it comes to law schools, by the way, if that wasn’t clear. In my view we are in the business of training lawyers, which is a fine and socially valuable thing to be doing.)


McGinn’s column is about the subject matter of philosophy.  He thinks it’s time for a new name, because “philosophy” in public discourse usually means “pithy aphorisms that can fit on the side of a milk carton” (that’s my gloss, not his), e.g., “Ray Lewis’s philosophy is to hit the quarterback hard.” Since the explosion of experimental science in the seventeenth century (which was subject of my dissertation; more on that in a moment), “natural philosophy” has become discrete disciplines—biology, astronomy, chemistry, geology, etc.   But we still have these academic departments called “philosophy.”  So what goes on there?  

One answer would be “ethics and political theory.”  That is, attempts to provide abstract, general frameworks for thinking about the sorts of problems that regularly beset human societies and that resist easy resolution.  This is a perfectly worthy endeavor, and it’s definitely the focus of a lot of people we think of as philosophers—take, your pick: John Rawls, Peter Singer, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Joseph Raz, Michael Sandel, and on and on.  Another answer would be something like cultural anthropology.  Here we have the “philosophy of’s”—aesthetics (philosophy of art, philosophy of music), philosophy of religion.  Arthur Danto, for example.  In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, he attempts to explain the cultural phenomenon of “art” by asking how it is that a physical object takes on the social significance of an “artwork” (e.g., how does a urinal or a shovel or a black canvas become something that we hang on a wall in a museum and pay to see?).  And we have all the varieties of philosophy of science.  The most influential work in philosophy science (Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) is I think best (only?) characterized as anthropological—he provides a general, theoretical account of the culture of scientific investigation within the community of scientific investigators in order to explain, inter alia, the cultural phenomenon of “paradigm shifts” (abrupt transitions within a community of scientists from one set of theoretical explanations to another).  

Finally, we have “intellectual history.”  My dissertation advisor’s eight-year-old son once authoritatively informed me that she “is a historian, not a philosopher.”  One of the primary functions of philosophy departments—as distinct from history departments— is to preserve the history of ideas.  My dissertation was on a guy who helped found the Royal Society and was a famous “natural philosopher” in the second half of the 17th century.  He had a million ideas about the natural world, which were mostly wrong, but to the intellectual historian, that’s not what’s important; what’s important is that they were interestingly wrong; they help us see how our current menagerie of doctrines, tropes, and theories came to us along a particular intellectual trajectory, and charting that trajectory is valuable both for purely historical purposes and to help refine our current ideas and avoid unnecessary recrudescences.

So, great, right?  Philosophy departments are useful and meaningful and important?  Not to McGinn, apparently: he excludes all three categories I’ve just described from “real” philosophy.  “Real” philosophy, he claims, is a “science,” because it is an organized body of knowledge about a discrete subject matter—and that subject matter is not, McGinn is emphatic, human culture—that would be for the mere humanities, with which he does not wish to be associated.  He thinks that real philosophers study the natural world just like physicists; philosophers, he asserts, study “being itself.”   Here’s what he says:

        Someone might protest that we belong to the arts and humanities, not the sciences, and         certainly we are currently so classified. But this is an error, semantically and substantively. The         dictionary defines both “arts” and “humanities” as studies of “human culture”—hence like         English literature or art history. But it is quite false that philosophy studies human culture, as         opposed to nature (studied by the sciences); only aesthetics and maybe ethics fall under that         heading. Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and so on deal         not with human culture but with the natural world. We deal with the same things the sciences         deal with — the world beyond human culture. To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities”         is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human.

        But whether to classify ourselves as a science or an art is strictly not the issue I am considering         — which is whether “philosophy” is a good label for what we do, science or not. I think it is clear         that the name is misleading and outdated, as well as detrimental to our status in the world of         learning. So must we just sigh and try to live with it? No, we can change the name to something         more apt. I have toyed with many new names, but the one that I think works best is “ontics.” It         is sufficiently novel as not to be confused with other fields; it is pithy and can easily be         converted to “onticist” and “ontical”; it echoes “physics,” and it emphasizes that our primary         concern is the general nature of being. The dictionary defines “philosophy” as “the study of the         fundamental nature of reality, knowledge and existence.” We can simplify this definition by         observing that all three cited areas are types of being: objective reality obviously is, but so is         knowledge, and so also are meaning, consciousness, value and proof, for example. These are         simply things that are.

        So we study the fundamental nature of what is — being.


Now I have no interest in picking a fight with a distinguished philosopher here.  I love philosophy, I worked very hard for my Ph.D., and I will rhapsodize on cue about the joys of teaching philosophy. But when I read stuff like this I feel a strong need to defend the wide array of philosophical inquiry from this sort of myopic physics-envy.  

First, I just have a hard time taking seriously the claim that philosophers study the natural world, or that “being itself” is somehow being “studied” by philosophers.  Mostly this is because there are people out there who are actually “studying being itself”: they’re in the physics departments.  They’re developing mathematical models that unify the physical laws of the quantum and macro-scale worlds; they’re trying to detect, and predict the properties of, the fundamental particles that give rise to matter and energy; they’re modeling the structure of the universe itself, and their models get revised or thrown out with each new generation of telescopes and particle accelerators.  Philosophers aren’t in the room, and it strikes me as something of an insult to physics to suggest that they are.

The desire to be in that room perhaps explains the second issue, which would otherwise be puzzling: McGinn’s apparent disdain for philosophical examination of human culture.  He has excluded from the category of real philosophy, or, as he puts it, “what we do,” those who write about human culture: that’s ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, intellectual history.  I find this odd, given that those topics are the primary areas of interest for an awful lot of people with academic appointments in philosophy departments.  Indeed, in McGinn’s department, at the University of Miami, there are sixteen full-time faculty members, all of whom have listed their own descriptions of their scholarly interests.  Of that sixteen, only five in addition to McGinn himself, meet McGinn’s criteria for doing “real” philosophy (and that’s throwing in logic, which McGinn doesn’t discuss, but which I would assert is as close as academic philosophy comes to a “pure,” non-cultural subject matter), and two of those (including McGinn himself), list other areas too.  Here are the primary interest areas of the other eleven members of the department:

Ethics; history of psychology; philosophy of law; aesthetics; scientific methodology; human rights; ethics of journalism; applied ethics; ethics; aesthetics, history of philosophy.

How is all this other stuff not “real” philosophy?  And why on earth, given that philosophy departments are engaged in such a diverse array of interesting and valuable inquiry, would you want to embark on a campaign to rename philosophy as “ontics” so that no one will mistake it for a discipline that is interested in human culture? 

Now I agree 100% with Stanley Fish that academic inquiry should neither try to nor be required to justify itself in cost-benefit terms.  We should fund universities with tax dollars because we should want to live in a world that has art and literature and inquiry for the sake of inquiry.  But my goodness, let’s value these subjects for what they are, rather than pretending they are something they are not.  There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in being a commentator on human culture.

So if anyone’s gotten this far, and is waiting for something about law schools, I think one moral might be that just as philosophers are not physicists, law professors are not philosophers, and no one should be ashamed of that. 





Posted by Caleb Mason on March 6, 2012 at 11:37 PM | Permalink


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I appreciate your response to McGinn. Physics indeed!!

Posted by: Brian | Mar 28, 2012 12:06:37 AM

So is ontics (wholly) a priori physics?

Posted by: Doug | Mar 8, 2012 11:05:54 PM

Philosophy is a multifarious field in constant flux. In my humble opinion, this makes it one of the most challenging things to demarcate.

As a result, I'm tempted me to say that we ought not to try, but this would not be a particularly philosophical response; isn't the exercise of carefully identifying the line of demarcation between philosophy and other disciplines, itself, philosophy? To avoid having this comment turn in on itself, I'm content at the moment to adopt a capacious outer limit: philosophy is thinking in slow motion (from John Campbell). Philosophical naturalists might be fond of this characterization of philosophy because it has interesting (perhaps superficial?) parallels with popular behavioral science--Kahneman, Stanovich, and West's two cognitive systems, one fast and one slow. Of course, that doesn't make philosophy continuous with science, but maybe it's a start.

Posted by: Brian Sheppard | Mar 7, 2012 10:06:03 AM

I don't know how McGinn can square this position with his "new mysterianism" and his hardcore analytic streak. If we can't solve the problem of consciousness, we obviously can't even get in the door of studying "real things" in the philosophy of mind. We don't know WHAT we are doing, and to call this the study of "ontics" is laughable nonsense.

Now, McGinn gets around this in his own psychology with a "common sense" epistemology: "of COURSE we know what we're talking about," but that's so unsatisfying if you aren't in his religious camp.

And his religious camp is clearly the motivation here, and I think your assessment of "physics envy" is quite apt. He doesn't like "philosophy" because it encompasses a lot of people he disdains. He doesn't like "ontology" because it is a well-settled term with religious connotations (at least to people like him). "Ontics" sounds so lovely and sciency.

Posted by: AndyK | Mar 7, 2012 9:31:39 AM

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