Why Philosophy Should Emphasize Interaction Over Specialization

December 9, 2007 at 10:44 pm 2 comments

In the last century, philosophy as it exists in academia has specialized itself heavily, sometimes to the detriment of its ability to interact with outside fields. Such specialization is a modern phenomenon, and it’s impact on debate in multi-disciplinary subjects like that of science and religion has been detrimental. A general philosophical background and thorough understanding of topics external to but considered by philosophy is necessary to advance debate in those subjects, but this is discouraged by specialization in philosophy.

Some might say that specialization has always existed in philosophy, and has helped rather than hindered debate. It is true that philosophers have long found rich patrons and been instated at the Academy. All the same, I would bet that increased professionalization in philosophy parallels professionalization in the sciences. The growth of Universities from the nineteenth century onward increased professional opportunities for philosophers as well as anyone else. And with this professionalization came increased specialization.

It is also true that there have been separate branches of philosophy ever since the field was formalized in Ancient Greece: metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology have long been distinct categories of philosophy. That said, there are more “philosophy of…” categories today than ever. Philosophy of science became a titled specialty through the research and Diaspora of logical positivists like Carnap and Hempel. Philosophy of action came about as a field largely through Wittgenstein and G.E.M. Anscombe. Philosophy of mind as a specialty has really taken off since behaviorist psychology imploded and neuroscience took its explanatory place.

As these specializations gained increasing recognition, schools began offering courses of study that focused on a particular philosophical segment and not others. Philosophical specialization as it exists today is a modern phenomenon.

I don’t mean to present a simplified view of modern philosophy. These different subjects I’ve introduced as my examples do not exist in a vacuum, and they are increasingly forming new and innovative combinations. But this hybridization seems only to increase the amount of specialties rather than emphasize a more universal philosophical standpoint. Bioethics, neuroethics, social studies of knowledge, and more all show that hallmark of increased specialization: graduate programs devoted to their study. These programs are certainly attractive; I’m aiming to head into one, myself. I’m just not convinced their impact on philosophy has been altogether positive.

Why am I writing this now? Where I’ve taken classes in plenty of “philosophy of…” categories, this semester I took a class on science and religion. In the class, I’ve focused on the topic of causation with a specific historical interest in the topic as it was discussed by figures that have philosophical taxonomists lying awake at night, asking their pillows, “Should I put Avicenna down as a physician? A philosopher? A theologian? Damn!” My research for the class has largely concerned itself with figures like Aristotle, Augustine, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, Averroes, and Aquinas… a formidable chronology of philosophers who blended (each in a distinct manner) philosophy, science, and theology in the examination of their world.

So I can’t help but wonder where the Avicenna of today might be found. In doing so, I’ve had the pessimistic thought that it’s unlikely that the current academic system could steer someone to a path similar to his. Interested in theology? Go to seminary! Interested in medicine? Go to medical school! Interested in metaphysics? Better head over to the Philosophical Gourmet to get a good idea of where the great metaphysicians of today are teaching! It could be that my finals-related stress is spilling over into angst regarding my future in the field, but philosophy as it has previously existed was not as easily classified as so many graduate programs. It was also not so easily classified as the philosophical want ads are these days: “WANTED: A Phd in Philosophy with a background in philosophical Logic, Philosophy of Science, and Philosophy of Language. Non-tenure track position with 3-year limited fellowship.”

Could it be that all this categorization is a bad influence on philosophy? The 20th century had did have its Renaissance figures, several of which were brilliant polymaths. This is not to mention that there are good reasons for specialization– not the least of which is the staggering increase of information that arrives each year. If I go to graduate school for philosophy of science, there is easily enough material to take up the rest of my life in debate. The same can be said for any of category of philosophy.

Where the specialization of philosophy seems to be the most damaging is where the specialization seems to pit philosophy against other disciplines. The conflict between science and religion has, at times throughout the year in my class, seemed to be transmuted to a conflict between philosophy and religion. This idea is not new. Augustine put theological knowledge over all other varieties, and there is a reason Al-Ghazali’s famous work is titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers.

Looking backwards, it seems that for every Augustine and Al-Ghazali there is an Averroes and Aquinas. There seems to be a component in the debate between the works of those authors, however, that is missing today. Aquinas and Augustine may have been theologians first, but their works also place them amongst the great philosophers. Averroes may likewise be considered more of a philosopher than anything else, but he was also a theologian, physician, and a lawyer. Their thought epitomizes the great work that can come from interdisciplinary scholarship. In considering any area where philosophy seems to conflict with another discipline, their example should be considered.

Philosophy is conducted better from a multi-disciplinary background. The most important thing to take away from such a background is the knowledge of how to take other viewpoints seriously in debate. Medieval conceptions of causation are not poorer because they came about in a theological framework, even though such a framework might not allow for the most complete explanation. Likewise, theologians should take philosophy concerning the possibility of miracles from the perspective of metaphysics seriously. Philosophy has benefited from interaction with other fields before, and the importance of this interaction cannot be overstated. In preparing students to participate in the historical debates of philosophy, academia as a whole should keep this in mind: specialization doesn’t always lead to the best explanation.


Entry filed under: Academia, Education, Philosophy.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. amelo14  |  December 10, 2007 at 11:18 am

    I really enjoyed reading your post and share many of your concerns as well regarding overspecialization. I specially liked this phrase of yours whcih summarizes the tension between philosphers and theologians:

    “it seems that for every Augustine and Al-Ghazali there is an Averroes and Aquinas.”

    In that regard the philosophy of Aristotle, which is tha basis for many of those thinkers has within many of the possible answers.

    I could not agree, however, with this phrase:

    “It is also true that there have been separate branches of philosophy ever since the field was formalized in Ancient Greece: metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology have long been distinct categories of philosophy.”

    I think that is looking back into history by using our own very specialized categories.

    I think you might be interested in reading this post of mine which questions overspecialization as well.



  • 2. donescience  |  December 10, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’ll be checking out some of yours, especially those concerning Aristotle and those concerning religion. Looks like good stuff.

    I think my mention of philosophical categories is appropriate. While many texts we have (especially The Republic) defy categorization, others are focused on specific parts of philosophy. The titles we use for these categories come from these works– Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the Nichomachean Ethics are two examples. It is of course true that his ethics are supported by his cosmology, and his cosmology compliments his metaphysics. In this way there is a blurring of boundaries of each category. All the same, Aristotle’s titled works are focused on particular topics in philosophy, and those categories have persisted to the modern day.

    The urge for categorization is a very human one- it helps us distinguish one thing from another. Neither categorization nor specialization is problematic in itself. I think we can agree that it is when OVERspecialization occurs that philosophy suffers. Any field that has specialized itself away from connections to greater topics suffers to some degree, but philosophy has an intrinsically interdisciplinary character. Because of this, overspecialization in philosophy is especially dangerous.

    Categorization and specialization are well and good, and help bring depth to a field. Overspecialization, on the other hand, has the result of attempting to dig a deep hole in sand– past a certain point, without an increase in width or attempts to shore up the dig with external materials, the sand will fill in and negate any gains. For philosophy, reaching out to other philosophical topics is equivalent to increasing the breadth of a dig and reaching for external shoring materials is equivalent to employing knowledge from other fields. With that help, hopefully the hole will get to the desired depth or else hit bedrock.


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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