Is philosophy dead?

Leading philosophers took up the challenge of Stephen Hawking’s claim that “philosophy is dead”

February 22, 2015

In 2010, Professor Hawking declared that scientists rather than philosophers “have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge”.

Philosophers argued their case at a debate held at the British Academy in London this week. According to Tim Crane, Knightbridge professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, Professor Hawking himself proved that philosophy is unavoidable, since he put forward a lot of philosophical views. Unfortunately, these amounted to “bad philosophy, because he is unaware of it as a discipline and a practice with a history,” Professor Crane said.

Greg Radick, professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Leeds, put the case for cross-fertilisation between science and philosophy.

Three of the most powerful scientific thinkers – Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Noam Chomsky – were also notably “philosophically literate”, he said. Lesser scientists could easily become “too dogmatic”, as their “teachers shut down access to foundational questions”, Professor Radick told the event, held on 15 February.

Philosophical debate, on the other hand, he continued, ran the risk of nit-picking “scholasticism” if it wasn’t “enlivened by contact with the natural sciences”.

“If you’re pro-reason,” said Rebecca Goldstein Newberger, a research associate at Harvard University who is currently a visiting professor of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities in London, “you need all the resources you can get.” Recent outbreaks of “philosophy jeering” such as Hawking’s were ill-informed, incoherent and irresponsible – faced with today’s extremes of irrationality”, she added.

Also speaking at the event, “What Is the Point of Philosophy?” organised by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation on 16 February, was Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas. She urged philosophers to address the malaise of current educational thinking where “knowledge itself is being gutted of depth and complex ideas reduced to soundbites”.

The notion of “learning outcomes”, she added, was completely “antithetical to the open-ended pursuit of truth”.

Stephen Law, senior lecturer in philosophy at Heythrop College, put the case for philosophy’s role in “raising autonomous critical thinkers”.

He asked whether, since “I have an unavoidable responsibility to make my own moral judgement, a responsibility I can’t hand over to some supposed expert… shouldn’t our education system both confront us with that responsibility, and also ensure we have the intellectual and emotional maturity we’ll need to discharge it properly?”

If recent decades had seen “great moral advances in our attitudes towards women, gay people and other races”, this was “largely as a result of our being prepared to question received moral opinion and to think things through in just the way philosophy requires of us”, he continued.

Yet despite the many benefits of philosophy, Professor Crane argued that “academic philosophy is in crisis” and no longer really hospitable to “the idea of challenging everything”, not least because the need to be published in a few top journals “encourages incredible conformism around a very narrow range of ideas”.

Professor Newberger took a similar line, reflecting that she had “only managed to maintain my enthusiasm for philosophy by staying away from philosophers”.

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