A nasty habit

The presentation of philosophers and philosophical thought in popular science articles. All too often it goes something like this: for centuries, philosophers have been puzzled by this question. Now scientists have found the answer.

The most annoying thing about this is actually that it usually doesn’t serve any particular purpose internal to the article — it is just some random way of introducing the subject matter — but that it nevertheless has devastating effects on the public perception of philosophy and philosophers. Philosophers, we learn, are mostly puzzled creatures, wondering about the world while trapped in their ivory tower. Fortunately, one of these question has now been taken on by scientists, who of course produced a solution in no time. There you go. So philosophers get bad publicity, and all just because some mediocre journalist couldn’t think of a better introduction to the topic at hand.

What is furthermore annoying is the blatant anachronism. The strict distinction between philosophers on the one hand, and scientists on the other, dates back only to the 19th century. Many of the questions philosophers have been puzzled by for centuries are actually the same questions that scientists have been puzzled by for centuries, in part because science was just a way of doing philosophy: natural philosophy. Not infrequently, the same person (Descartes or Newton, for example) would make contributions in areas we now call ‘science’, as well as in areas we are now inclined to call ‘philosophy’.

Add to this the equally anachronistic idea that ‘the question that has been around for centuries’ is in any straightforward way ‘the same question’ answered by the particular scientific result presented in the article. Questions that have been around for centuries tend to be very general (is there a beginning to the world, or no?/is there a smallest possible bit of matter, or no?/how free are we in our decisions?), whereas answers given by any particular scientific discovery tend to be rather narrow in scope. They furthermore tend to presuppose a great deal of theory. The question whether or not two particular genes are to be found on the same chromosome is not one we would expect to have been around for centuries. Sure, there may be some interesting connection between a question which has been around for a long time, and a particular scientific discovery. That’s great. But let’s not pretend that scientist (or anybody else for that matter) simply addressed ‘the same question’. In fact, in a way it might not make very much sense at all to claim that there is such a thing as ‘the same question’ that has been around for centuries. Instead it might be wise to say: here is a question which can be understood as a transformation of an earlier question (which in turn was a transformation of an earlier question…), and here is an answer we can give to the particular twist we put on this question.

If post-modernism has taught us anything, it is to be wary of anachronism. But let’s leave this for some other time.

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One Response to “A nasty habit”

  1. Here we go again… « Atoms to Zeppelins Says:

    […] we go again… … yet another article that begins with the overused sentiment that yet another question philosophers (gosh, these people must be really stupid!) have […]

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