Paper Review: The Idea of a Scientific Philosophy

Often when someone learns I am studying philosophy of science I get a confused look in response. Even worse is when I use the term mathematical philosophy (see here, the top of page 1 for my favourite definition of mathematical philosophy), which often gets the response “math and philosophy, aren’t those opposites?!”

I’ve developed a few responses to respond to comments like this, trying to sketch the relationship between mathematics and science on the one hand and philosophy on the other. And even though it is clear when you are in the field that there is a deep connection between them, it is totally reasonable for people outside the field to be unfamiliar with that connection. Most of the philosophy people have been exposed to involves people like Socrates and Plato, or more ethics and continental philosophy. It is harder to see the connection in those areas, especially if people are more familiar with the continental side of things.

However, even if once you are in the field it is clear there is a connection, it can be a challenging and controversial to state what exactly that connection is. Some academics such as Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson have even dismissed philosophy as useless and dead.

With philosophy under attack in this way, and with the ever increasing success of the sciences, it is important to think about the role that philosophy plays in the modern world. Historically philosophy was not separate from the other sciences—it was more continuous with them, and science was simply natural philosophy. Today the fields feel more separate—the philosophy department is not the same as the physics department. What is modern philosophy, and what is its connection to science? Also, what should it be?

These are the questions that motivate Michael Friedman’s book Dynamics of Reason, the first chapter of which is The Idea of a Scientific Philosophy.

***The original paper can be found here.***

This paper is mainly a summary of the different views on the relationship between philosophy and science in historical order. It also points towards Friedman’s own take on what the relationship should be, which incorporates many of the different views into a whole.

Friedman starts by noting that both philosophy and science were born in Ancient Greece, without much of a sharp distinction between the two. This was carried on to the time of Descartes and Leibniz, who also did not have such a sharp distinction.

However, after this things began to change. Friedman takes Kant to be one of the earliest thinkers to outline a clear distinction between philosophy and science, by splitting inquiry into a kind of two-tiered system. Kant himself was a scientist as well, and did groundbreaking scientific work on the formation of the solar system.

However, instead of thinking of philosophy as continuous with science as earlier thinkers, he made a distinction between the two. Kant gave philosophy a “transcendental” status. In his system we use science to investigate the world of experience. We use philosophy to investigate the necessary preconditions of our experience. These two enterprises are related but distinct. Friedman provides a nice summary:

Philosophy, as a “transcendental” inquiry, is not only distinct from all empirical science, but it is also distinct from those elements of pure a priori knowledge, such as geometry, for example, which as present in the sciences themselves. Whereas each of the first-level sciences, whether empirical or a priori , has its own characteristic objects, philosophy, as a second-level or meta-level discipline, has no such objects of its own, but rather concerns the nature and possibility of our representations of these objects. The distinctive subject matter of philosophy is thus our knowledge of these first-level objects.

p. 8

A priori means without experience—if some knowledge is a priori you don’t need to look at the world to know it, you can figure it out just by thinking. For example, many people think that mathematics is a priori — it isn’t empirical.

Friedman highlights the two-level system of Kant’s philosophy. The sciences let us figure out stuff about specific types of things, whereas philosophy lets us figure out how we figure out that stuff. There is a clear separation.

Next in Friedman’s story of the development of a scientific philosophy comes Hermann von Helmholz. Helmholtz outlined his ideas in an 1855 address at the dedication of monument to Kant, in which he advocated returning to the tight connection between philosophy and science that Kant pursued.

However, as Friedman notes, Helmhotz’s proposal is pretty far away from Kantian views. Friedman writes

For Helmholtz himself this means that philosophy—that is, epistemology or the theory of knowledge—should work in cooperation with the latest psycho-physiological research in inquiring into the nature of the representations of our senses, and the relationship between these representations and the actual world to which they correspond…philosophy, for Helmholtz, is itself an empirical natural science—a branch of empirical psychology. In this way, Helmholtz anticipates the conception, popular in some circles today, that philosophy should become absorbed into cognitive psychology.

p. 7

So, far from returning to the Kantian two-tiered system, Helmholtz is advocating absorbing philosophy into a kind of psychology. As Friedman mentioned this kind of view is somewhat popular with some groups today. However, it is not the end of our story.

We fast forward to the year 1921, and focus on the Vienna circle, about which I’ve written a little. One of the central figures of the Vienna circle was Moritz Schlick, whom Friedman says we might call the first professional scientific philsopher. What was Schlick, and the Vienna circle’s view on the connection between philosophy and science?

Schlick’s earlier views different than his later, more Vienna circle views. Friedman summarizes his earlier views:

Philosophy, for Schlick, does not have any special relation to psychology. It is not, as it was for Helmholtz, especially concerned with the psycho-physiological mechanisms of human sense perception. Philosophy is rather concerned with the foundations or ultimate principles of each and every science, whereby each of the special sciences takes its own particular place in the total system of knowledge. Philosophy, we might say, supplies the foundational and systematic core of each of the special sciences; it is neither a meta-science (as it was for Kant) nor particularly connected with any individual specific science (as it was for Helmholtz).

p. 13

This is a third possibility, then. Whenever we push deep enough into a special science like physics or psychological, we reach a stage that requires philosophical investigation and principles.

After this Schlick’s philosophy changed along with those of the Vienna circle when he encountered Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This book, grappling with the philosophical implications of the new mathematical logic developed by Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, sketched a radically new understanding of philosophy’s role:

The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the totality of the natural sciences).

Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences.
(The word “philosophy” must mean something that stands above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.)

The aim of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts.
Philosophy is not a doctrine but an activity.
A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.
Philosophy does not result in “philosophical propositions,” but rather in propositions becoming clear.

Wittgenstein, (1992, sections 4.111-4.1112)

These rather terse and occasionally cryptic passages of Wittgenstein’s proved incredibly influential for the Vienna circle. On this view, philosophy doesn’t belong to a particular science like for Helmhotz, it doesn’t provide principles for other sciences like for Schlick, and it doesn’t investigate the preconditions for our knowledge like for Kant. Instead, it is the activity of clarifying our thought. This is yet another view on the table.

However things didn’t stay this way for long. One member of the Viena circle, Rudolf Carnap, took philosophy in a different direction. He was unsatisfied with the view that philosophy has no subject matter. Instead, he proposed that philosophy was a branch of mathematical logic:

The alleged peculiarly philosophical point of view, from which the objects of science are supposed to be considered, is abolished, just as the alleged peculiarly philosophical stratum of objects was already previously eliminated. Aside from the questions of the individual special sciences, the only questions that remain as genuinely scientific questions are those of the logical analysis of science—its sentences, concepts, theories, etc.

Carnap, The Logical Syntax of Language, 1934/37, section 72

On this view philosophy is a kind of meta-science. However, as opposed to how it was for Kant, it is a part of the science of mathematical logic. Friedman draws some interesting conclusions from this approach:

We obtain a fundamentally new understanding of the character of philosophical problems in this way. Traditional philosophical debates, such as the debate between “realist” and “idealist” conceptions of the external world, for example, do not concern matters of fact concerning which one can possibly be either correct or incorrect. Viewed in this way, as the history of metaphysics amply demonstrates, there is absolutely no possibility of resolution. Such philosophical “doctrines” should rather be viewed as proposals — as proposals to construct the total language of science in one way or another.

p. 17

This is an interesting turn. Instead of the Kantian transcendental analysis of the preconditions for science, philosophy proposes different languages with which we may carry out our scientific inquiry. Philosophy investigates the pragmatics of the choice of a language for science.

Now we fast forward again to 1962 and the publishing of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Interestingly, considering its subsequent interpretation, especially by those in the humanities, Carnap was a big fan.

Getting in to a deep interpretation of Structure would be a whole different series of posts. For a pretty decent interpretation see here. However, the following is the core, at least according to Friedman:

Kuhn outlines how the disciplines he calls science — or better, mature sciences — emerge from the “pre-pragmatic” state. Such a transformation occurs, according to Kuhn, when a number of diverse and competing schools of thought within a discipline or area of inquiry are replaced by a single model of paradigm that is “universally received” within the area of inquiry as the basis for a “firm research consensus”…It is only when such an at least relatively enduring consensus is achieved that we have what Kuhn calls normal science, and it is only against the background of such an already existing state of normal science that we can then have a scientific revolution — which occurs precisely when one such enduring stable consensus is replaced by a different one.

p. 19

This is Kuhn’s view of science — once a science matures and enters a stage of normal science, it can be disrupted by revolution and crisis. Once a new paradigm emerges it enters a stage of normal science again.

Now in this account philosophy is conspicuously missing, and it is this absence that inspires Friedman’s proposal for the connection between philosophy and science. Let’s take a look:

Science, if it is to continue to progress through revolutions, therefore needs a source of new ideas, alternative programs, and expanded possibilities that is not itself scientific in the same sense — that does not, as do the sciences themselves, operate within a generally agreed upon framework of taken for granted rules. For what is needed here is precisely the creation and stimulation of new frameworks or paradigms, together with what we might call meta-frameworks or meta-paradigms — new conceptions of what a coherent rational understanding of nature might amount to — capable of motivating and sustaining the revolutionary transition to a new first-level or scientific paradigm. Philosophy, throughout its close association with the sciences, has functioned in precisely this way.

p. 23

This is Friedman’s answer to his motivating question. Instead of being part of a particular science, or standing above or below the sciences, philosophy is a source of new possibilities for science. This is an interesting idea; I’m not yet sure what I think of it. In the meantime, I look forward to reading the rest of his book to develop my understanding of this proposal.

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