Most academic work in all subjects is dry and dull to the outsider and contributes only a minute increment to the sum of knowledge. I expect there are people out there whose appetites for the details of snail morphology or monastic life in seventeenth century France is immeasurably greater than mine. I don’t expect them to be interested in the status of the principle of the identity of indiscernibles in the light of contemporary physics. A civilisation needs people whose curiosity about obscure matters is abnormal, if not borderline obsessive-compulsive. Charles Sanders Peirce spent hours every morning studying the Critique of Pure Reason. That is way over the top by the standards of most philosophers, because they don’t care that much about Kant. But we should all respect it just as we respect our colleagues who spend their lives trying to understand Joyce or the distribution of prime numbers, or when the Tractatus becomes nonsense, for these are all among the most important matters there are.
Philosophy is concerned with the foundations of thought and knowledge in every domain including, for example, logic, mathematics, and all the sciences, but also ethics, law, politics and historiography, as well the critical study of art and literature. It is therefore unwise to expect the average academic philosopher to do justice to the subject as a whole. Rather, it is important that some people become specialised in understanding exactly why we do not know the answers to specific questions many of which only make sense to experts. This may not amount to advancing our understanding of the meaning of life, but it is in keeping with Socrates’ conception of the philosopher as gadfly, asking awkward questions and exposing epistemic hubris. Our knowledge of the world has grown immeasurably since ancient times, and philosophers would be failing in their role if they did not specialise sufficiently to know enough to be able to point out exactly where lie the limits of our understanding.--James Ladyman (2015) "In Praise of Specialisation," @Philosopher's Magazine [HT F.A. Muller]
James Ladyman's elegant essay was recently shared, again, on social media. It is a heartfelt plea to accept the virtues of the intellectual division of labor; this is necessarily accompanied by both specialization and esotericism. What makes Ladyman's please distinctive is that rather than advocating a kind of philosophical isolationism or independence (to be defended from the proverbial arm-chair), he defends the "engagement of philosophy with rest of knowledge." In particular, he defends "the specialisation in philosophy that is a consequence of the overlap between a subfield of philosophy and another specialised subject matter." That is to say, Ladyman's conception of philosophy worth doing is one that eschews purity for a kind of intrinsic hybrid-ness.* (One can put Ladyman's position as follows: "philosophy of the special sciences just is philosophy" or simpler, 'Philosophy of X just is Philosophy.') Because philosophy deals with highly specialized, esoteric disciplines, it consequentially is highly specialized, esoteric, etc.
It is important to distinguish Ladyman's vision from the one we inherited from early analytical philosophy, which also emphasized the cognitive division of labor, specialization (including ways of dealing with the elitism inherent in this), and a certain form of esotericism. (Recall that Carnapian esotericism is compatible with clarity as a property of formal systems.) The beauty of Ladyman's vision is that it is inclusive and respectful of a wide variety of intellectual pursuits. He does so, by turning a characteristically British trait -- acceptance of eccentricity [I was reminded of this by Cogburn on Churchill] -- into the hallmark of civilization: "A civilisation needs people whose curiosity about obscure matters is abnormal, if not borderline obsessive-compulsive."
Ladyman's position is a coherent one, and curiosity about obscure matters is worth defending and is defended too rarely. But it is worth noting, even absent questions of external justification, that Ladyman's position does not offer guidance in the context of scarcity of time and money. Which obscure matters are worth attending (to next) or funding to is left aside, to the discretion of the mutually disinterested, abnormal. But their judgment on these matters is itself a product of history and cultivation, and will almost certainly reflect a status quo bias; it's this status quo that is the baseline to which we contribute minutely. So, Ladyman's position is, while noble, intrinsically conservative (as the invocation of civilisation suggests).
But Ladyman's position is accompanied with the thought that from individual focus on minutiae follow collective, big pay-offs (e.g., "most professional philosophers study tiny issues because it is only through the details that the bigger picture is revealed.) He treats, for example, separate sciences as some such pay-off from past philosophy. Ladyman is rather silent on the mechanism (invisible hand, intellectual arbitrage, intellectual entrepreneur, eclecticism, etc.?) and institutions/mores that make such by-products possible. He recognizes, for example, the fruitful role for "excellent people who mediate between academia in general and the rest of the population," and it is easy to see how on his view there may be fruitful roles for excellent people who mediate among different bits of philosophy or different bits of academia. But he takes for granted that a "market" (his word!) for the works of such mediators will exist.
Ladyman recognizes that his defense of philosophy "may not amount to advancing our understanding of the meaning of life," a project which not unreasonably he associates with the name Socrates. There are, in fact, in his essay two distinct responses to this charge, although both concede the point. I treat them in reverse order: first, he embraces another part of "Socrates’ conception of the philosopher as gadfly," which is "asking awkward questions and exposing epistemic hubris." This is fair enough (and fits my own obsession with exposing expert overconfidence). But it is worth noting that things did not end too well for Socrates. The gadfly conception is risky business. It would be nice to extend or rewrite his earlier claim about civilization as follows, A civilisation needs people whose curiosity about obscure matters is abnormal, if not borderline obsessive-compulsive, and who ask awkward questions and expose epistemic hubris. The problem is civilisation may not agree. Abnormality can be safely tolerated when it is engaged with the obscure, it cannot be safely tolerated when it asks awkward questions about ruling norms and public policy or exposes the epistemic hubris of intellectual elites. Here Ladyman's conception of philosophy runs out of resources. It may be okay to pay the price of not advancing our understanding of the meaning of life, but it is awkward if we also risk our lives doing so.
Here it may be useful to introduce Ladyman second response to the charge his conception of philosophy fails to engage in the Socratic project of "advancing our understanding of the meaning of life:"
But philosophy did not begin with Socrates. Thales is often called the first philosopher for asking what everything is made of and defending the prima facie implausible answer, water. Doubtless he was not really the first person to enquire into being, and thinkers from pre-history may also have engaged in metaphysics. It may be that the ultimate philosophical question is about the meaning of life, but it is rivalled in importance by questions concerning the nature of the universe. Furthermore, there are many philosophical questions – concerning, for example, personal identity, free will, knowledge, and the nature of the emotions – that are closely related to the meaning of life, but one might be interested in them independently of the bearing they have on it.
Ladyman does not deny the significance of the meaning of life, but it is "rivalled in importance by questions concerning the nature of the universe." He associates this practice with the name Thales. This is not an original move by Ladyman. In the Introduction to the Treatise, Hume treats Thales as the founder of philosophy. He returns to Thales in the Natural History.
It will be easy to give a reason, why Thales, Anaximander, and those early philosophers, who really were atheists, might be very orthodox in the pagan creed; and why Anaxagoras and Socrates, though real theists, must naturally, in ancient times, be esteemed impious. The blind, unguided powers of nature, if they could produce men, might also produce such beings as Jupiter and Neptune, who being the most powerful, intelligent existences in the world, would be proper objects of worship. But where a supreme intelligence, the first cause of all, is admitted, these capricious beings, if they exist at all, must appear very subordinate and dependent, and consequently be excluded from the rank of deities. Plato (de leg. lib. x.) assigns this reason for the imputation thrown on Anaxagoras, namely his denying the divinity of the stars, planets, and other created objects. (N [ZZ].1, Bea 47)
Crucially, for present purposes, Hume treats Thales as an orthodox proto-Spinozist. Unlike Socrates he is not "esteemed impious."** That is to say, from the present perspective what matters here, is that Thales can prioritize knowing the nature of the universe in an un-problematic fashion because he does not ask questions that are awkward to public life. One may say that Thales avoids awkwardness because the question of the meaning of life has been solved by (civic/religious) tradition.
Some other time I return to what Plato and Aristotle have to say about Thales (see here for my view). But here I close with the thought that philosophy today, which in part helped undermine the claims of tradition(s) of solving such existential questions, cannot outsource answering the meaning of life to tradition. For if we do, the danger is not so much that nobody will try to answer the riddle of life, but rather that those with answers will make philosophy impossible.
*He allows that 'pure philosophy' is conceptually possible, but, remarkably, does not think it is practiced: "it is not clear that it is anything more than an ideal form anyway, since no philosopher is an island." Logic turns out to have a peculiar status in Ladyman's account of philosophy.
**By contrast, while Adam Smith agrees that Thales was the founders of one of the first “philosophical sects,” (Astronomy 3.6, EPS 52), following the authority of Aristotle, Smith treats the accounts by Plutarch and Apuleius of Thales’ astronomical discoveries as historical fictions, and presents Thales’ cosmology as an anthropocentric and “confused an account of things.” (Astronomy 4.5. EPS 56; see also Astronomy 3.6, EPS 52)