Philosophers – Shut Up Now!

What is it about philosophers that they can’t resist pontificating about things they know nothing about? The examples are legion. Mary Midgley and David Stove wittering on about Darwinism and selfish genes. Simon Blackburn and Mary Warnock making a mess even of amateur political commentary. And Roger Scruton demonstrating that there’s no start to what he knows about popular music.

And the latest example? Have a look at this from an article in Issue 22 of The Philosophers’ Magazine (a title which sounds vaguely familiar):

Subjects like sociology, psychology, religious studies and history, which adjoin philosophy, all require empirical support, which is interpreted within the lines of a largely unquestioned methodology. Philosophy is the only subject in which the basic assumptions of these other subjects could conceivably be questioned, so if you don’t fall into line with the assumptions predominant in these other subjects it’s no good running to them for refuge. You’ll probably find minds even more closed there than they are in philosophy itself.

So who wrote this? Maybe a (bad) GCSE student. Nope. Robert Ellis, a philosophy PhD.

Needless to say, it is absolute, utter tosh. Sociology, for example, is rife with theoretical and methodological debate. Even at high school level, students are required to understand that there are huge differences, for example, between the way in which positivists and phenomenologists do their sociology. Method is an explicit part of the A-Level examination. Texbooks have been put together and organised around arguments about what constitutes sociology proper.

And, of course, it’s the same in the other subjects (at least the ones that I know something about.) So, for example, the history of psychology is at least in part dominated by an argument about the appropriateness of behaviourism as a strategy for finding out about behaviour and the mind.

So here’s my Message to Philosophers: Shut up!* You’re making fools of yourselves.

* You are permitted to talk quietly, amongst yourselves – though preferably not in public – about your own subject.

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