Reply to an OUP blog post on outsider critiques of philosophy

Paul Humphreys, editor of The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Science, argues as follows on the Oxford University Press blog:

Outsiders often criticise philosophy, but they shouldn’t because philosophy is hard and outsiders don’t understand it. Just look at science: everyone knows it’s hard and no outsiders are foolish enough to think they can criticise it.

To which I reply:

Should politicians, Wall Street traders, and predatory corporate CEOs be immune from criticism from outsiders on the grounds that their work involves some technicalities that outsiders do not fully comprehend? According to the logic of Humphreys’ terrible argument the answer must be: yes.

A more constructive way of looking at it is that critical thought from a diversity of viewpoints is a good thing. From the fact that no outsiders criticise the hard sciences Humphreys tries to infer that no outsiders should criticise philosophy either. But why not instead make the inference that it would be better if more people criticised the hard sciences too? That would make sense, unless one thinks that scientists and philosophers are infallible and have nothing to learn from outside viewpoints.

In fact, the hidden assumption in Humphreys’ argument speaks volumes about the doctrinal assumptions of analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophers are so infatuated with the sciences and so obsessed with the idea that they are doing the equivalent of hard science that they confuse “X is how it’s done in science” with “X is the right and proper state of affairs.”

A self-rationalised refusal to listen to critiques from anyone one deems an outsider is a recipe for insular and dogmatic thought. Humphreys is openly calling for exactly this. Yet at the same time he is baffled that everyone “from Nobel prize winners to Amazon reviewers” is critical of his field. But instead of putting two and two together he doubles down on insularity and urges philosophers to bury their heads even deeper in the sand.

In the Middle Ages, scholastic Aristotelianism completely dominated the entire field of philosophy. It too was ever so technical, so these philosophers too could run Humphreys’ argument. If the scholastic philosophers had had their way, and no one had been allowed to criticise them who did not know the immense and pedantic scholastic literature inside and out, then we would still be in the Middle Ages today. The right way forward was to overthrow scholastic philosophy from without. Those who finally made watershed progress came at it from another point of view and very often had nothing but contempt for the established philosophies–––in short, they were the equivalent of those pesky “Nobel prize winners and Amazon reviewers” whom Humphreys want to drive out of philosophy.

Or take a contemporary example: religion. Analytic philosophers are generally strongly committed atheists. But of course they generally lack the technical expertise of a professional cleric, so the latter could use Humphreys’ argument against the philosophers: “stop dabbling in fields outside of your expertise.” Evidently in this case analytic philosophers consider it perfectly plausible that an intelligent outsider can have a more correct view of the matter than a well-versed expert. So why could it not be the same with philosophy? Why is it not conceivable that a Nobel prize winner could be able to spot misguided assumptions and systemic problems with the field more clearly than those entrenched in its belief system?

In sum, Humphreys’ argument ultimately rests on the unwarranted assumption that current academic philosophy has reached the end of history, i.e., that it will never again need the kinds of overhauls from without that have characterised virtually all of its greatest advances in the past. Philosophy would be better off if it was open to the possibility of its own fallibility. And this means being open to listening to outsider critiques of the field instead of trying to write them off as a pathology due to some “peculiar psychological attitude” among non-philosophers, as Humphreys does.