We’ve all heard the argument that philosophy is isolated, an “ivory tower” discipline cut off from virtually every other progress-making pursuit of knowledge, including math and the sciences, as well as from the actual concerns of daily life. The reasons given for this are many. In a widely read essay in this series, “When Philosophy Lost Its Way,” Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle claim that it was philosophy’s institutionalization in the university in the late 19th century that separated it from the study of humanity and nature, now the province of social and natural sciences.
This institutionalization, the authors claim, led it to betray its central aim of articulating the knowledge needed to live virtuous and rewarding lives. I have a different view: Philosophy isn’t separated from the social, natural or mathematical sciences, nor is it neglecting the study of goodness, justice and virtue, which was never its central aim...
Today’s philosophy of science is less accessible than Aristotle’s natural philosophy chiefly because it systematizes a larger, more technically sophisticated body of knowledge.
Philosophy’s interaction with mathematics, linguistics, economics, political science, psychology and physics requires specialization. Far from fostering isolation, this specialization makes communication and cooperation among disciplines possible. This has always been so. William of Ockham, Descartes, Leibniz and Kant were heavily informed by the science and mathematics of their day. Locke and Hume responded to Newton not with envy and a sense of inferiority (which Frodeman and Briggle wrongly attribute to philosophers responding to 20th-century science), but with a desire to apply Newton’s lessons to their natural philosophies of mind, which were then psychology-in-the-making.
Nor did scientific progress rob philosophy of its former scientific subject matter, leaving it to concentrate on the broadly moral. In fact, philosophy thrives when enough is known to make progress conceivable, but it remains unachieved because of methodological confusion. Philosophy helps break the impasse by articulating new questions, posing possible solutions and forging new conceptual tools. Sometimes it does so when sciences are born, as with 17th-century physics and 19th-century biology. But it also does so as they mature. As science advances, there is more, not less, for it to do.
Our knowledge of the universe and ourselves expands like a ripple surrounding a pebble dropped in a pool. As we move away from the center of the spreading circle, its area, representing our secure knowledge, grows. But so does its circumference, representing the border where knowledge blurs into uncertainty and speculation, and methodological confusion returns. Philosophy patrols the border, trying to understand how we got there and to conceptualize our next move. Its job is unending.
Although progress in ethics, political philosophy and the illumination of life’s meaning has been less impressive than advances in some other areas, it is accelerating....As my colleague Jake Ross observes, the advances in our understanding because of careful formulation and critical evaluation of theories of goodness, rightness, justice and human flourishing by philosophers since 1970 compare well to the advances made by philosophers from Aristotle to 1970.
The knowledge required to maintain philosophy’s continuing task, including its vital connection to other disciplines, is too vast to be held in one mind. Despite the often-repeated idea that philosophy’s true calling can only be fulfilled in the public square, philosophers actually function best in universities, where they acquire and share knowledge with their colleagues in other disciplines. It is also vital for philosophers to engage students — both those who major in the subject, and those who do not. Although philosophy has never had a mass audience, it remains remarkably accessible to the average student; unlike the natural sciences, its frontiers can be reached in a few undergraduate courses.
Far from being years of “enduring failure,” the last 150 years have been philosophy’s best.---Scott Soames "Philosophy’s True Home" in the New York Times.
It's to be expected, I suppose, than when one is called to defend one's achievements from critics in the public sphere, one veers into triumphalism over the extended past ("the last 150 years") and the more recent past ("since 1970"). Soames's essay is a response to a critique of the "institutionalization" of philosophy by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, who just happen to be (ahh) university professors of philosophy. Soames marshals three popular strategies. First, Soames combats the idea that after its university institutionalization, "philosophy was and still is isolated from other disciplines." He does so by offering a list of instances in which (scientific) philosophers spawned whole new research projects and echoes Clark Glymour's "manifesto" by listing a number of contributions to science. Unsurprisingly, their list of exemplars overlaps a bit (and they both express fondness for decision theory).*
To be sure, Soames and Gleymour disagree on a non-trivial feature: Glymour allows philosophers to have a heroic role (he credits Michael Friedman) as critic(s) of ongoing science but not the scientific ideal (recall) and, thereby, offer foundational criticisms of existing science in order to make future better science possible. That heroic conception of philosophy is not really available to Soames because he (Soames) insists that there is a realm of secure knowledge (in the center)--philosophical contributions are primarily sought at the research "frontier." (Once a science is "mature," there is still a glamorous job of removing methodological confusions!) Glymour, by contrast, seems to accept the older view (inscribed into analytical philosophy by Russell) that the content of scientific knowledge is never final.
Second, thus, inspired by sociology of science (and the practice of grant agencies), Soames adopts the language of secure 'core' and expanding research 'frontier' not just in his description of science, but also in philosophy. This is a rejection of the very idea of a revolution, but like the Kuhnian image of philosophy as normal science it (tacitly) rejects, it is a progressive vision of science and philosophy "advances" from immature stages to maturity. But unlike the Kuhnian, who must grudgingly admit some Kuhn losses to be located in discarded philosophical paradigms, Soames lives in a philosophical world without losses or even trade-offs. The underlying conception of history is one of an efficient market in ideas in which all the good philosophy is assimilated by recent philosophy. Even if we stipulate -- for the sake of consensus -- that this is true, it is also rather self-serving and reinforces a status quo bias. We fail, thereby, to explore the opportunity costs of institutionalization of philosophy. For even if there have been only advances (as by stipulation the empirical record shows), another institutional framework may have offered more advances or different kinds of contributions. To note this is not to agree with Frodeman and Briggle's diagnosis, but the existing empirical record does not settle the matter.
Third, Soames argument seems to entail (but, perhaps, I am wrong about this) that whatever progress has been had in professional philosophy during, say, the last century has all been accrued to analytical philosophy. This point is entirely tacit. But it is notable that some of the non-trivial philosophical ideas to be found in Continental philosophy that have contributed, say, to social science [this is an empirical point] -- e.g., governmentality, biopolitics, state of emergency, political affect, performativity, etc. -- are not to be mentioned. Other areas of philosophy (including Africana, Islamic, Chinese, etc.) are also effaced.
Finally, it's odd to read that "philosophers actually function best in universities" and then to be told about the significance of the contributions by the non-university based, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume. (The early modern period suggests that university philosophy is, on average, more solid and less daring than non-university philosophy.) In my view Soames also misrepresents Locke and Hume. While it is true of Hume that he had a desire to apply Newton’s lessons to his natural philosophy of mind (Locke's philosophy of mind largely predates his encounter with Newton), he did so to correct Newtonian overreach in various sciences and, more controversially, to undermine the prestige of Newtonian mathematical science--or so I have argued--in the name of Hume's version of the "goodness, justice and virtue," that is, a species of utility. Of course, not all interesting philosophers were primarily interested in the study of goodness, justice and virtue, but it is worth noting that without some standard of goodness and virtue (etc.) philosophy cannot offer a (non-question begging) justification of itself. "Progress" and "success" then become quite hollow.