Featured Philosopher: Ken Taylor


Ken Taylor is the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Stanford, where he also directs the Symbolic Systems Program. He is cohost and co-creator, with John Perry, of the Nationally syndicated public radio program Philosophy Talk. He is currently the President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association. He is the author of many articles and a number of books. His latest is Meaning Diminished: Toward Metaphysically Modest Semantics, which is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Why Philosophy?

Ken Taylor

Philosophy is in quite a state. The public at large has little appreciation for what it is or why it matters. Undergraduates mostly shun it — at least when choosing their majors.   Philosophy graduate students, who spend years sailing into the prevailing winds, too often run aground in the brutal waters of a hyper-competitive job market. Physicists like Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson dismiss it as yesterday’s news, a dead discipline that has long outlived its usefulness. Our fellow humanists often look askance at much that we do and find few philosophers worth reading. Many philosophers themselves have come to have their doubts. It’s no secret that the philosophy professoriate is significantly less diverse than many other humanistic fields of inquiry. And that, we are sometimes told, is because philosophy is peculiarly resistant to the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. Philosophy, we are told, is a discipline full of sexism, misogyny, racism and ableism. Whatever one thinks about this catalog of presumed ills, one could not be blamed for despairing over the future of what may be the oldest academic profession.

Such despair is misplaced. Philosophy remains a vibrant and vital discipline. It is very much worth pursuing. I say this not because I derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from doing philosophy — which I do – but because I fervently believe that our collective lives together would be significantly enhanced in many different ways if philosophy were to play a much larger role in not just in our colleges and universities, but also in both primary and secondary education and even in public discourse more broadly. And in the remainder of this entry, I want to say why I think this.

First, I need to say what I take philosophy to be. I am a nominalist of sorts about philosophy. Philosophy is simply what people who call themselves philosophers do. And philosophers do all manner of things. Philosophy now is, has always been, and probably will always be a highly fragmented discipline. Some of what philosophers do is very much continuous with the sciences. Despite the protestations of Hawking and deGrasse Tyson, there are philosophers of physics whose philosophical work requires them to grapple with with issues at the frontiers of contemporary physics and cosmology. Other philosophers do things that don’t intersect with the sciences very much at all.  There are philosophers who are deeply and properly concerned with the history of philosophy and there are those who see the history of philosophy as of little relevance to their ongoing philosophical projects. Some philosophers take themselves to be addressing largely a priori matters that can be decisively settled from the armchair. Other philosophers want to take philosophy out of the armchair and into the lab. Some are content to analyze and tidy up ordinary concepts at margins. Others seek to stress ordinary concepts to their breaking points.  Some philosophers want to reconnect philosophy with broader humanistic inquiry; others recoil from the broader humanities. Some see philosophy as exhortation. Others see it as explanation.

There may be some deep unity beneath this vast surface diversity. But after all these years, I myself still can’t quite say what that unity comes to. Indeed, I tend to believe that the cordoning off of the peculiar bits of the total intellectual landscape that are currently collected under the rubric of ‘philosophy’ is mostly an accident of academic and cultural history. A hundred years or so ago, you would have found much of what now goes by the name of philosophy and what now goes by the name of psychology housed in the same department of the university. Long before that, people would have looked at you in puzzlement had you tried to draw a hard and fast distinction between science and philosophy.

My nominalism about philosophy leads me to endorse a pretty catholic vision of philosophy. I celebrate and applaud the attempts of a thousand philosophical flowers to bloom. But I am not enough of a Pollyanna to deny that at various stages in the history of philosophy, this or that mode of philosophy has enjoyed a certain hegemonic dominance. This seems to happen whenever the purveyors of this or that form of philosophy manage to seize the commanding heights from which such things as tenure, degrees, and academic prestige are dispensed. Occupying the commanding heights makes it much easier to reproduce yourself into subsequent generations. But I hope am not being naïve when I say that we ought not to overestimate the power of hegemons to reproduce themselves via brute institutional force alone. Over the long sweep of history, philosophers have executed many paradigm shifts and have declared the death of philosophy as practiced by their forebears. Though philosophy is no doubt the oldest academic profession, my colleague John Perry has rightly claimed that it has died a thousand deaths, only to rise, Phoenix like, to live again, in ever new configurations.

If you insist on asking after the true nature and essence of philosophy, it cannot be gleaned from a narrow focus on the present moment, and the local maximum in configuration space that we currently occupy. To see philosophy whole, in its real essence, it takes a longer view. One has to survey the entire dynamic landscape through which philosophy has walked over historical time and cultural space. That landscape has many branching paths, many peaks and valleys. Only the total landscape as a whole, constitutes philosophy as such. So only by limning all possible configurations of that landscape will you even begin to understand what philosophy essentially is.  And once you do take this long view, you will, I predict, be thrown right back into some version of my catholic nominalism. If one could catch a glimpse of the whole, from a perspective outside of this ever unfolding landscape, if you could regard with a certain detached equanimity, it would, I suspect, be a marvelous thing to behold.

Suppose that I am right about the nature of philosophy. Suppose that it has no fixed atemporal essence. Suppose that its true nature is revealed only in unfolding of vast dynamic landscape that spreads out over time and cultural space. Suppose that local configurations in this ever unfolding dynamic landscape exhibit no deep unity and enjoy only local stability. Then why should philosophy deserve, as I think it does, a significantly larger place in the total educational, cultural, and intellectual landscape than it currently occupies?

I answer that it is precisely the fragmented character of philosophy that makes it so deserving. Because of its many sources and diverse ambitions, philosophy is a massive and sprawling enterprise. It is fragmented and disunified precisely because it is deeply engaged with almost the entirety of the remaining elements of the total intellectual landscape. It is perhaps the most interdisciplinary of at least the humanities and probably the most interdisciplinary of all the fields of intellectual inquiry. The range of issues that philosophy has historically sought and still currently seeks to illuminate and the sources on which it draws in its attempt to achieve that illumination is breathtaking. It is philosophy that has struggled hardest and most persistently to spell out the rational foundations of the coercive powers of the state, the duties of human to human, the limits of the scientific method. Philosophy has tried to adjudicate the long struggle between science and religion, to integrate the daunting results of the natural, biological, and cognitive sciences into an uplifting or at least not debilitating picture of the place of humanity, and our deepest aspirations, into the order of things. Philosophy seeks to understand how consciousness and rationality manage to have their places in what looks to be a merely material universe. It seeks to understand what human beings can hope to know and by what methods of inquiry we can hope to know it. It seeks to understand the nature of art, the nature of beauty, the nature of truth, of language, of action, of causation. In its attempts to understand these things, it draws insight from every possible source – from the deliverances and practices of the biological and physical sciences, from the humanities and social science, from a prior philosophical reflection on language and meaning, from the phenomenology of lived experience. Nor does the philosopher seek to merely interpret, explain, or narrate the world. It is a powerful instrument for cultural criticism, one that is willing to subject even the most entrenched and comforting bits of received wisdom to the harsh light of critical self-reflection. Though Philosophy does not always generate the news, it often delivers the news. “Given what we know from this or that source,” the news-delivering philosopher will say, “you cannot have your cherished notions of autonomy or morality or god or … whatever.” But at its best, philosophy does not stop there. When the news is hard to swallow, when it threatens to debilitate us and undermine our projects, the philosopher invites us to begin anew, asking “What, then, can we have? And what can be made of what we have?”

How could such a discipline possibly be dispensed with? How could it possibly be a thing of the past?  It is always and already relevant to everything that the human mind can conceive, know, imagine, or wish for.

Too often, when outsiders look at the work of professional academic philosophy, as practiced in our time, they see very little of this. That is, in part, our own fault. We often do philosophy in very daunting keys. We have become virtuosos at manipulating technical machinery and abstruse concepts and ideas. Of course, these are valuable tools and valuable skills. They enable us to break down large problems into smaller more manageable sub-problems. They enable us to approach old problems with new rigor and clarity. The hegemonic institutional structures referred to earlier dole great rewards for those who wield such tools with aplomb.

But of course this makes it vary hard for those not already adept to find a way in. And those same institutional structures do very little to reward popularizers or explainers who might open up the riches of philosophy to wider audiences.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to decry current institutional arrangements, at least not entirely. The maturation of philosophy into a quasi-technical field is, in my view, a good thing. But there are no unmixed blessings. That which enhances the depth of philosophy, may obscure its wide-ranging relevance to human life. In a more morally perfect world, we could have it both ways. We could find a way of rewarding both the technical and conceptual virtuosity that philosophy now requires and the capacity to popularize and explain it to the non-virtuoso and we could do so without, as it were, ghettoizing the explainers.

I have long been convinced that there is a considerable unmet demand — both within the academy and outside of the academy – for what philosophy alone can deliver. We professional academic philosophers have for too long been unresponsive to that unmet demand. Here I am think of the relations between philosophy and many other fields of the humanities and social sciences. For a good while now, our fellow humanists have been feverishly rethinking many of their fundamental categories and concepts, with an eye toward more deeply interrogating and confronting urgent issues related to race, gender, identity, and culture. For better or for worse, analytic philosophers were for a long time mere bystanders on that front. Our main professional pre-occupations lay elsewhere, with matters we took to be more universal and more fundamental. I won’t say more about why.   There is admittedly a complicated historical narrative that could be told about all this, but I won’t try to construct such a narrative here.

Of course, though the demand for a set of philosophical tools for thinking more fruitfully about race, gender, identity and culture was there and unmet by philosophers, it didn’t go entirely unaddressed. It was just addressed by others. That was bound to happen, no doubt, since the intellectual landscape abhors vacuums. I will not say the others who step in in philosophy’s stead, did so altogether badly, but I do not think it was an entirely good development. The worst part of it was that certain, shall we say, “fallen away” members of the high church of philosophy, did have a bit to say. But whatever their intentions, what they accomplished was to increase the alienation between philosophers and other humanists. Indeed, they helped to confirm some of the worst prejudices of many of our fellow humanists about what we philosophers were collectively good for. “Not, much,” was the widely repeated verdict on our discipline. I don’t want to open old wounds, except to say that I regard those as the bad old days between philosophers and humanists — bad for everybody. But one of the things that bodes well for the future of philosophy, is that certain of the “substitutes” for philosophy — as responsive as they were to a genuinely unmet demand — have lost much of their initial luster. And philosophers of the highest caliber have turned their attention to vital questions that we all were once content to ignore.

I wish I could say that the same is true of the unmet demands for philosophy in the public sphere. Part of the problem is that hardly anybody is self-consciously aware that the widely experienced hunger for something more is really a hunger that philosophy is uniquely suited to satisfy. Still, I am not without hope. What we collectively need to do is simply to claim ownership of a certain niche in the cultural landscape as our own. Nobody is stopping us. Nobody is rushing to do it in our stead. So let’s just do it. In fact, it has already begun to happen. That’s what John Perry and I have been trying to do with Philosophy Talk all these years. And there are lots of others making various attempts as well. What there isn’t is lots of institutional support for such efforts.

I’ve gone on too long. I’m going to stop by admitting that I have no idea what the future holds for philosophy. But I predict that, if we don’t destroy the planet, this will be an exciting century for us – despite the many ills from which our discipline is thought by many to suffer. If all goes well, it will be a century in which the full breadth and depth of philosophy is given play both within and outside of the academy. If that happens, the intellectual and cultural landscape will be much enriched.  As Nietzsche might say, “Embark Philosophers!”

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