"Philosophy by Another Name"
March 4th, 2012
March 4th, 2012
Every professional philosopher, or student of philosophy, knows how linguistically confusing the name of our discipline can be when talking to people outside the field. They immediately assume you are in the business of offering sage advice, usually in the form of unargued aphorisms and proverbs. You struggle to explain that you don’t do that kind of philosophy, at which point you may well be accused of abandoning your historical calling — unearthing and explicating the “meaning of life” and what the ultimate human goods are. You may then be castigated for not being a “real philosopher,” by contrast with assorted gurus, preachers, homeopaths and twinkly barroom advice givers. Our subject then falls into disrepute and incomprehension.
These accusers have a point: What we do is not accurately described by the word we choose to categorize ourselves. So what is a philosopher to do?
I have a bold proposal: Let us drop the name “philosophy” for the discipline so called and replace it with a new one. The present name is obsolete, misleading and harmful — long past its expiration date.
The word “philosopher,” as everyone knows, means “lover of wisdom,” from the Greek. Its origin is sometimes attributed to Pythagoras, who is said to have coined it in order to distinguish people like himself from the sophists (both words have the same Greek root, “sophia”). Sophists, Pythagoras argued, are not genuine lovers of knowledge but only purveyors of rhetorical tricks, whereas another group of thinkers — those who possess a true “thirst for learning” — qualify as the real thing. This name stuck and came to be used to describe a very wide range of thinkers — anyone with a real intellectual interest. It is now, however, used extremely narrowly, at least within the academy, excluding people from most academic departments, but still applied to the few who study the subject now called “philosophy.”
Those inquirers in other fields have new names more suitable to their specificity: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and history among them. But philosophy is still called by the old highly general name Pythagoras introduced. And here we already see an obvious objection to the label: Isn’t everyone employed in a university, and indeed some people beyond, a “lover of wisdom”? Most academics are not “sophists”! Physicists, say, have the attitude described as much as philosophers. But why should one particular discipline be characterized by reference to an attitude instead of a subject matter?
Clearly, having the attitude in question is not sufficient to make you a philosopher. Is it necessary? Well, the phrase seems a bit overblown and poetical. What is literally true is that we philosophers value knowledge, like our colleagues in other departments. Do we love knowledge? One might reasonably demur from such an emotive description. And is it wisdom we value? The word sounds vaguely hokey and quaint. (Is a chemist in love with wisdom concerning chemicals?) Moreover, “wisdom” really refers to having good judgment as to how to live one’s life, not to knowledge concerning abstract theoretical matters; and academic philosophy is only partly concerned with wisdom in that sense (ethics, political philosophy). Wisdom means practical wisdom, not scientific understanding. So the original meaning of “philosopher” misdescribes the nature of philosophy as an academic subject.
The label “philosopher” applied to any seeker after knowledge persisted until around the 18th century, with everyone lumped together. Then the sciences began to crystallize and subdivide, and some linguistic innovation seemed indicated. This is when the word “scientist” came into vogue. The “natural philosophers,” as opposed to mathematical and moral philosophers, decided to call themselves by the newfangled word “scientist.” They also christened themselves “physicists,” “chemists” and “biologists” so that it was clear what part of nature they investigated. But philosophers stuck with the old name, undescriptive and misleading as it was (and still is). Whatever they were doing, it was not well described as “loving wisdom.”
Our current name is harmful because it posits a big gap between the sciences and philosophy; we do something that is not a science. Thus we do not share in the intellectual prestige associated with that thoroughly modern word. We are accordingly not covered by the media that cover the sciences, and what we do remains a mystery to most people. But it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science. The dictionary defines a science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” This is a very broad definition, which includes not just subjects like physics and chemistry but also psychology, economics, mathematics and even “library science.”
Academic philosophy obviously falls under this capacious meaning. Moreover, most of the marks of science as commonly understood are shared by academic philosophy: the subject is systematic, rigorous, replete with technical vocabulary, often in conflict with common sense, capable of refutation, produces hypotheses, uses symbolic notation, is about the natural world, is institutionalized, peer-reviewed, tenure-granting, etc. We may as well recognize that we are a science, even if not one that makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics. Once we do this officially, we can expect to be treated like scientists.
Someone might protest that we belong to the arts and humanities, not the sciences, and certainly we are currently so classified. But this is an error, semantically and substantively. The dictionary defines both “arts” and “humanities” as studies of “human culture”—hence like English literature or art history. But it is quite false that philosophy studies human culture, as opposed to nature (studied by the sciences); only aesthetics and maybe ethics fall under that heading. Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and so on deal not with human culture but with the natural world. We deal with the same things the sciences deal with — the world beyond human culture. To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities” is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human.
But whether to classify ourselves as a science or an art is strictly not the issue I am considering — which is whether “philosophy” is a good label for what we do, science or not. I think it is clear that the name is misleading and outdated, as well as detrimental to our status in the world of learning. So must we just sigh and try to live with it? No, we can change the name to something more apt. I have toyed with many new names, but the one that I think works best is “ontics.” It is sufficiently novel as not to be confused with other fields; it is pithy and can easily be converted to “onticist” and “ontical”; it echoes “physics,” and it emphasizes that our primary concern is the general nature of being. The dictionary defines “philosophy” as “the study of the fundamental nature of reality, knowledge and existence.” We can simplify this definition by observing that all three cited areas are types of being: objective reality obviously is, but so is knowledge, and so also are meaning, consciousness, value and proof, for example. These are simply things that are.
So we study the fundamental nature of what is — being. To load the dice, we might also wish to describe ourselves as doing “ontical science,” at least until our affinity with the sciences sinks in — then we might abbreviate to “ontics.” Other possibilities might include “beology” or “beological science,” “conceptive science” (like “cognitive science”), “beotics” (like “semiotics”). But I like “ontics” best: it sounds serious and weighty, it is easy to say, and it sounds like a solid science. Note that the names of other sciences are similarly peculiar: “physics” just comes from the Greek word for nature, and “chemistry” derives from “alchemy” (an Arabic word). And “ontics” will certainly not be confused with “philosophy” in the vernacular sense — so no more of that tedious linguistic wrangling about what a “philosopher” is or should be.
We can then leave the word “philosophy” to those practical sages, reputable or disreputable, that tell people how best to live, proudly calling ourselves by a name far more appropriate to what we actually do.
As a practical matter, then, I would like to launch the Campaign for Renaming Philosophy (C.R.P.) — or perhaps more accurately, the Campaign for Renaming Academic Philosophy (which has a less attractive abbreviation). I suggest meeting with other philosophers informally to discuss the question and forming small groups of people dedicated to the cause. If you are on board, start using the new terminology among yourselves, just to get accustomed to it. It might then be brought up in a department meeting, and a vote taken as to the merits of the case.
It won’t be easy to change our name. We have more than 2000 years of linguistic usage bearing down on us. There will be resistance. But keep in mind that scientists changed their “philosophy” name too, no doubt against entrenched opposition; even today the heads of some physics departments are still described as chairs of “natural philosophy.” But that was a necessary and sound decision.
Perhaps in 100 years’ time the process will be complete and our universities will all have a “department of ontics.” Don’t you want to be part of this historical movement? I believe that once the matter is seen clearly the eventual renaming will be well nigh inevitable.
Of course, there will be some sadness and regret about losing our traditional moniker — old habits die hard and “philosophy” can boast a proud history — but the benefits will outweigh the costs, just as ceasing to call the sciences “philosophy” had its pros and cons but was the wise decision in the end. And isn’t there something faintly shameful about sticking to the obsolete and inaccurate term “philosopher” when we are professionally so dedicated to using words correctly and so attentive to matters of definition? We must put our own linguistic house in order.
[Colin McGinn teaches philosophy at the University of Miami, specializing in philosophy of mind, metaphysics and philosophy of language. He is the author of more than 20 books, including “Truth by Analysis,” “Basic Structures of Reality” and “The Meaning of Disgust.”]