The Failure of Philosophy: A Success Story

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 15 min.

This article, which deals with the relationship of failure to philosophy, originally appeared in The Gadfly (Columbia University’s Undergraduate Philosophy Journal). It’s been slightly revised (and, as with most anything I’ve written, could probably use more extensive revision). The images are of an architectural model that is not executable at the size of a building, yet represents the sorts of unattainable ideals that inform the design of buildings; designed and constructed by Sandra Bonito.

I. Introduction

sandra bonito - model - unbuildable perfection

One way of viewing the history of Western philosophy is as a gradual separating out of questions that are essentially empirical in nature from those that aren’t; the former constitutes today’s science, the latter what we currently think of as philosophy. While trust in the explanatory power of science has grown, philosophy has come to be seen as increasingly unreliable in what it can tell us about the world. This, however, is to miscast philosophy based on a scientific model. Indeed, once a philosophical question becomes addressable by some scientific method, it has moved over into the domain of science.

Philosophy as a field is largely made up of questions that have yet to, or never will, move over to the scientific domain. As such, it’s philosophy’s task to ask questions that current science isn’t prepared to ask, much less test, though it’s even more than this. The claim that I’ll ultimately be working to unfold here, as I explore various notions of failure in relation to philosophy, is that at the bottom of any field there is a level of conception, and when one works at this level, philosophy is happening, and science-like testing, falsification, etc. do not play a role.

There is a special relationship between science and philosophy, however, given their intertwined past, and neither is restricted to its home department. The two are still often mixed in various ways and, indeed, a wide range of fields borrow from either or both as needed; this tends to take the form of some combination of the conceptual and the practical, each of which guides the other. What I mean by “conceptual” is something different than theory, and is more akin to “philosophy.” This is an important distinction, and points to the ongoing role that philosophy plays, or should play, in relation to other fields. Simply put, the conceptual serves as a philosophical basis that motivates theory, which is designed to formulate a way in which to apply the conceptual to the practical. The conceptual, then, is limited only by the imagination, while theory serves to reconcile the conceptual with what’s actually possible in the world. Economics, for example, has an underlying starting point that consists in certain ethical presumptions, which economic theory attempts to formulate into a practical model. To achieve this, economics uses math and, increasingly, experimental social psychology. Underlying concepts need not always be of this sort, however, and their scope is rarely tidy.

Philosophy of physics and theoretical physics, which are at times indistinguishable from one another, motivate experimental physics, which in turn serves to inform applied physics, which is a kind of bridge between physics and engineering. Engineering, then, puts constraints on architecture in practice, which provides a fascinating example of an interdependent relationship between the conceptual and the practical. Conceptual architecture, which consists of designs that need not be buildable, serves to show what can be imagined, to inspire, or to simply provide an aesthetic experience. Architectural abstractions also serve to provide a deeper understanding of a structure’s existence in time and space, because the designer is able to remove those physical constraints.

Architecture in practice is constrained, of course, but may be motivated by impossible concepts and a wide range of deep philosophical concerns, including, for example, the ways in which we define ourselves within a context of constructed physical spaces that are otherwise usually taken for granted. We begin to see that, though science describes the laws that constrain our ability to realize our imagined world in the real one, it need not constrain our imagination. This is true of the arts as well.

I should briefly clarify what I mean by “constrain,” which gets a bit deeper into the heart of the difference between the philosophical-conceptual and the empirical-scientific. There are two broad ways in which a discipline can be accompanied by constraints on what’s possible in the world. For example, physics, as a discipline, strives to describe physical laws that are in effect whether or not there exists a human discipline called “physics.” These “laws” constrain and are a product of our physical situation (e.g., the physical phenomena we can observe). The other kind of constraint results from the human endeavor of doing physics, whether in terms of methodology and models used to execute that methodology, or in terms of the sort of socio-cultural-scientific paradigm within which practitioners are engaging in the discipline. In this sense, some of these constraints come from within physics as a discipline (methodology; models; accepted theories; limitations of human understanding), while others come from without (independent physical reality; the part of the physical universe we happen to live in; political, societal, and cultural pressures). It is the role of philosophy and science to constantly push against all such constraints, known or unknown, understood or not, though neither field is equipped for the entirety of this job.

Yet, in a world that increasingly looks to science for guidance, some philosophers are drawn to emphasizing the practical over the conceptual, not by citing data and scientific findings or evaluating scientific methodology in practice, but rather by borrowing scientific models as a way of doing philosophy. The prime current example of this comes in the shape of the so-called Experimental Philosophers, who attempt to address the philosophical domain of ethics with empirical research. But in adopting such techniques, they perhaps leave philosophy behind in pursuit of a social psychology whose results very well may yield valuable insights into human nature (e.g., surrounding the extent to which moral sentiments permeate what superficially appear to be objective assessments of facts), but is in itself not a philosophical endeavor. This isn’t to say that such data isn’t philosophically useful. If a philosopher relies on a given definition of “knowledge” on the grounds that it’s what we (“we” who?) intuitively take the word to mean in everyday usage, then it would be useful for the philosopher to learn that we generally mean the word in some other way. It seems to me that such a study would be best undertaken by a trained psychologist, even if that trained psychologist happens to also be trained as a philosopher, or collaborates with a philosopher in the formulation of questions. I’m certain there’s a happy marriage to be found between experimental disciplines and at least some philosophical projects, but I also think there are deep and important conceptual distinctions to be made between these two sorts of endeavors.

II. Philosophy as defined by failure

What does all this have to do with failure? Failure is the general sense that arises when philosophy is viewed through a scientific framework: the failure of a question to be answered or a problem solved, or the failure of a claim to even be formulated in such a way that makes it testable. The sum of this makes philosophy out to be a field consisting largely of ideas that have yet failed to migrate into the scientific domain. But this is a very wrong way to view philosophy, just as it would be wrong to say that conceptual architecture fails due to not being buildable.

One reason for this is that philosophy strives to take very little as a given. For instance, to address the question of what it is to be happy, the scientist must devise an operational definition of happiness – perhaps based on how many times a subject smiles per minute. Then there must be a definition of what it is to smile, such as the putting into motion of some combination of muscles. This definition is then bound to constraints of measurements, i.e., equipment capable of monitoring facial muscle movement in conditions that are designed to be something like the real world, which itself comes with scientifically measurable definitions. Most scientists are well aware of the limited scope of these methods, but, when studies come out about happiness, many outsiders are not. How these operational definitions are founded is not questioned by the culture at large, nor often even by social scientists who borrow from hard science, any more than the economist’s notion of economic growth as a measurable definition of individual and societal well-being is questioned.

Philosophy, on the other hand, is known to not have this sort of authority as a provider of answers, and is therefore increasingly shunned as a failed field, one whose survival depends upon the extent to which it can manage to achieve an empirical stance. This, again, is to miscast philosophy. When taken-for-granted foundational concepts, such as what it means to be happy, are brought into question by a neuroscientist or economist, philosophy is happening. When those concepts are given an operational definition that makes them empirically measurable, science is happening. The extent to which a person is engaged in and attempts to bring attention to these sorts of questions – i.e., of what’s generally taken for granted – versus engaging in investigating the testable theories that can be derived from that which such questions address, determines the extent to which the person is a philosopher or scientist, or something in between.

It’s also possible for there to be disagreement over the domain in which a question can exist, as with questions surrounding the nature of consciousness, which some argue are in the domain of one or the other, but in reality seem to belong to both. Philosophers of mind, then, often must revise their philosophical views surrounding the mind-body relationship based on scientific findings. One can draw a line in this regard from Descartes’ notions of the connection between the pineal gland and the soul (a view that was, in fact, empirically off even according to the knowledge of his time) to more current views, such as David Chalmers’ natural dualism, which provides an updated, current-science-friendly-ish dualist explanation of consciousness. Even if Chalmers is wrong, though, and consciousness can be explained in purely neurophysiological terms, most significant are his arguments that current scientific explanations of consciousness fall short, which many neuroscientists take seriously. Such dynamics between philosophy and science can make it difficult to draw precise lines between the domains, but distinctions need not be so clear cut.

III. Failure as relevant to the success of individual philosophers

sandra bonito - model - unbuildable perfection

The sense of failure I’m interested in here is that in which a philosophical – i.e., untestable – claim is taken to be false, or simply cannot be not taken seriously, even if  it is well argued. It seems that for a philosopher to become a success, such claims must play a significant role in his or her body of thought. By success, I mean influential, being read and discussed, becoming part of the canon, and so on. The history of philosophy is of course highly constituted by now-disregarded claims from philosophers who continue to influence, including more of Plato’s ideas than I could list here. Nietzsche is an interesting example as well: whether he succeeded in solving the problem of nihilism (perhaps he did, but we have failed to listen) is irrelevant to whether he succeeded in putting forth ideas about nihilism that would inform the discourse going forward.

These philosophers still have much to offer, of course, and it could be argued that their conceptual failures – though, more precisely put, their failure to shape the world according to their conceptual notions – has a lot to do with the fact their ideas are outdated, but this seems not to be true in the most interesting cases. Indeed, extreme ideas attract us, as not many of us would find a flyer advertising a debate between two moderates very sexy, nor can I imagine someone saying, “Hey, you have to read this book full of reasonable claims, it’ll blow your mind!” No, it’s the fringes we’re most interested in and that are the stuff of debate in philosophy classes. That said, let’s do a brief survey of some of the most influential philosophers of today.

Catharine MacKinnon has argued that it is not possible for a man and a woman to have sex without it counting as an instance of rape, and, furthermore, that on those occasions in which a man rapes another man, this too counts as an instance of a woman being raped. Slavoj Žižek has said that to say “I love you” is among the most evil acts one can commit, and that what we need in the world is more artificial nature (made of plastic, etc.), not less. Peter Singer has prescribed a strict lifestyle in which we all give away as much money as we can to the world’s poor, a scheme he’s since revised to increase the likelihood that people will take up his prescriptions, though it remains prohibitively strict for the majority of us. It would be a very big project indeed to do a thorough survey of the current philosophers whom we generally consider to be successful in the field, however, even without having put together such a survey, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that success comes with maintaining a balance between attention-grabbing ideas that aren’t generally taken seriously in terms of corresponding to something true in the world, and those that are.

These three thinkers have managed to become influential in philosophy and in society – consider MacKinnon’s work in international law and human trafficking; Žižek’s presence in the media, pop culture, and as speaker for the radical left; Singer’s The Life You Can Save organization and his influence on animal rights – not despite having extreme concepts that most of us wouldn’t adopt, but because of having them as a foundational guide for how these thinkers ultimately interact with the world in practice. It’s worth noting here that the discipline of philosophy itself combines the conceptual and the practical, mediated by the theoretical. At any rate, the extent to which these ideas will persist as objects of study in the intellectual canon of the future will not depend on whether their claims are true or false, just as true claims about the world don’t account for why Plato, Descartes and Kant are considered essential for study in so many universities.

IV. The failure of philosophy as a field

One might suggest that the view of philosophy described here supports the oft-encountered notion that philosophy is a dying field that currently exists only in the extent to which it is useful for science and social science, two areas by which philosophy has been seemingly marginalized. Additionally, philosophy seems to have been appropriated by the arts and humanities. One gets the distinct impression that philosophy’s value is often seen in what, for example, a political theorist, musicologist, physicist, art historian, critical theorist, and so on, can take from it – and that without some such application, philosophy in itself seems to lose traction. Philosophers are read by students of sociology, anthropology, economics, archaeology, film, architecture, photography, music, history, and on and on, and philosophers are cited in mainstream newspapers and by political pundits. However, philosophy itself is considered by many to be a dying field. One could speculate at length on this phenomenon, but to keep it very simple, I’ll refer to one possible explanation.

Philosophy has not traditionally been a pure discipline in itself. It has, over the millennia, been practiced in the service of, or in tandem with, what we now would consider to be physical science. What’s key here is that the philosophers who sought both metaphysical and physical explanations of the world were interested in figuring out how it all hangs together – the big picture. Science developed, however, and then became atomized, and those who were interested in scientific practice went one way, which demands specialization, while philosophers have continued on looking at the big picture. The aforementioned ubiquitous references to philosophers deal for the most part with thinkers who predate, or worked outside of, science as we know it today, and are considered a philosopher, mathematician, scientist, anthropologist, or what have you depending on the context imposed by the discipline in question. Often, these are presented with historical interest, such as when Descartes is spotlighted in a geometry textbook or Pythagoras in a music theory treatise, or, really, just about whenever we are meant to consider the foundations of Western thought.

So, this field of philosophy as we currently think of it is fairly new, and is finding its footing. Philosophers often try to atomize along with science, but this isn’t feasible as scientific specializations become incredibly narrow. However, philosophy continues to be constituted as a field, at least in some vague way, by this tradition of looking at how the world hangs together, and in its resistance to specialized empirical inquiry. As such, philosophy has been with us all along and will continue to be, and, as a discipline that continually repositions itself so that it can see as much of the big picture as possible, it need not fail. Indeed, philosophy cannot fail any more than music or architecture can, though the manifest appearance of these things may change. Science can’t really fail either, though it can develop into something else as methodologies and how we interpret the tangible, observable physical world change, and as more of the world becomes tangible and observable. But no matter how measurable the world becomes, there will always be still deeper questions whose essence [sic – i.e., intentionally singular] defies measurement.

V. Conclusion

To conclude, considering failure-success within philosophy the same way in which it’s viewed in lab science is to commit a category error. The result of this is to further marginalize philosophy as a residue left behind by science as it sheds its nonempirical detritus, which are in turn picked up by those who lack the discipline or intellectual rightness or rigor to pursue science – the daydreamers, those who never outgrew asking the question “why?”, and those who naively think that it’s possible to gain insight into the world by asking broad and perhaps unanswerable questions rather than only testing narrow ones.

I propose an alternative view of philosophy, in which the philosopher is not bound to being correct and is liberated by science in the way that painters were liberated by camera technology. This puts philosophers, in their many guises and with the greatest bird’s eye view across disciplines, at the forefront of thought, frees them from the constraining notions of theoretical success or failure, and allows the philosopher to go deeper than ever and to ask new questions that today’s scientists can’t formulate as scientists.

When held to the standards of science, philosophy becomes shaped by an avoidance of empirical failure. But in reality it is the difficulty in determining what failure and success mean for philosophy that underscores its importance. Philosophy, then, should be viewed as a continuation of humanity’s ongoing quest to thrive within a context largely defined by utter mystery, and by a lack of satisfactory answers as to why there is anything at all that exists, to what it means to cease to exist, and to how it’s possible that, as far as we know, we alone on this planet are aware of living in such a context. To practice philosophy is to attempt to make sense of, or at least bring attention to, the essential, foundational concepts that underlie and motivate all manner of constructive human endeavor.

In this way, concepts that provide a foundation for theory cannot be said to have failed if it turns out that they cannot be turned into adequate theory. The point of the concept is to galvanize, to guide, to push at the borders of imagination, to inspire. Theory’s point is to convert the concept into something that can happen in the world, while the concept’s purpose is to push theory to find the limits of what’s truly possible. Once the concepts become constrained by empirical methodological practice, they can no longer serve their foundational purpose. This is a kind of failure, but what has failed is not clear. It is perhaps a failure of a system to recognize the existence or function of its philosophical foundation, but it’s not the foundational philosophical concept itself that has failed.


Here is an interactive digital version of The Gadfly issue in which the original version of this article first appeared:

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