Note: All illustrations unique to this post are by me. This is why they are not very good. (Obviously, others are by Gary Larson.)
Maybe philosophy is an afterthought. The original meaning of the major sub-discipline of philosophy metaphysics is ‘after physics’. So (maybe) a modern metaphysician does metaphysics after the physics has been done. Before you start with the metaphysics, the physical laws have already been formulated and the physical evidence has already been understood. The laws of thermodynamics and quantum chromodynamics have already been formulated, for example, and the evidence of entropy and wave-particle splitting are already understood.
And just the same with other areas of philosophy: philosophy is after thinking about the subject by experts in it, those who focus on it. When a philosopher of mind talks about consciousness or love, they do what we might call meta-psychology: the psychological laws have already been formulated and the psychological evidence has already been understood.
And we can go on: when a philosopher works on ethics or politics, they do meta-ethics and meta-politics. When a philosopher talks about human nature, they do meta-anthropology. Philosophy of aesthetics is meta-aesthetics, and so on…
In this thinking, philosophy is what you do after you have done everything else. No matter your research area, no matter how complex, abstract, or important your work, you do philosophy only after you have:
- Thought through the theory
- Analysed the text
- Designed the experiment
- Gathered the data
- Interpreted the results
- Applied the theory
- Developed the technology
- Published the papers
- Done the tenure-track admin work
- Marketed the insights
- Given the circuit of public lectures
- … and whatever else you need to do in the discipline for that subject
But if that’s the case, what does a philosopher do? And even if we can say what they do, is there anyone who can possibly do it?
Who Can Do Philosophy
Most modern academics are overwhelmed or pressured to constantly do more of the kind of work in this list. This work is part of what they have spent their lives learning to do. Given the amount of time all the various tasks take, it may look as if there is no time to do the philosophy as well. Everything else is what you do when doing your work in a particular discipline, and everything else is what is important about the work. So, there is little motivation to do more than that – such as making time for philosophy.
For example, biologists have no time for the philosophy of biology; to do biology, they must do all the other stuff in the list above. So, who can?
Could philosophers do this work instead?
Could philosophers do the philosophy of biology? You’d think so: if anyone should be doing philosophy of X (e.g., X = biology), it should be a philosopher of X.
But there is a problem. Presumably, to philosophise about that discipline requires a serious understanding of it. If you are going to do some work after the main work is done, you must understand the work to do it. You must understand physics to do philosophy of physics, art to do the philosophy of art, and so on.
However, presumably (again) a discipline that takes years of education to master the understanding of it cannot be seriously understood by those who have not gone through that education. If that is right, to do the philosophy of X, you must have done the years of education to master X.
However, if those with the sufficient education are all and only academics doing work, and if those academics are under pressure to do the work itself, then they cannot also do the philosophy. So, whatever someone doing the philosophy is, they cannot be the academic educated to do it. That academic has no time at all for it.
But then we hit an impasse: to do the philosophy, you need that academic’s education. But anyone with that education has no time to do it.
So, there is no-one to do the philosophy. Even if there is a philosophy of X, there is no one doing the philosophy of X.
Have I gone wrong somewhere here?
Experts Have Plenty of Time to do Philosophy
Maybe I’m wrong about busy academic lives. It’s not so busy for all academics or experts. There are plenty of experts who do have time. They have time to do more than what they are overwhelmed by in university and can do the philosophy on top.
For example, there are super academics, writing several typo-less books a year, baking bread, running institutes, fixing cars, jumping off of dams to escape marshalls mistakenly pursuing them for a crime they didn’t commit, managing — sorry — giving time and love to a family, snorkelling, and advising UN policy (probably). Read any popular science book or article about your favourite subject. You’ll find them there. Some even juggle in their spare time and are in a jazz band.
Other examples: some retired academics keep up with the literature and in with the up-and-coming work of unretired academics. Some active academics aren’t in danger of falling behind in their career because they are independently wealthy.
And this maybe: one reason so much academia is time-consuming – and so philosophy can’t be part of it – is because of the tedious ‘busy-work’ of university administration. They must fill out forms, take part in committees, and advise on aspects of the university that administration staff can’t advise on. But some academics have sufficient clout or connections to get away with not doing that busy work. Or, if those forms must be filled and don’t fill themselves, their position allows them to have others do the time-consuming and unrewarding parts of their work, such as a house elf or a djinn or something.
Thus, the academic is freed up to think about philosophy questions, such as the nature of life given recent work on viruses and computer sprites; the difference between mere regularities and scientific laws; the relationship between norms and ethical obligations.
Or maybe again, many academics are magic people in a different way. They live in strange towers, have strange conferences with mind-numbed gods. Through this, they are granted powers beyond ordinary human understanding or interest. And some of that power allows them to do all the work for their subject listed above – and do the philosophy. Time and space work differently for them than for normal people.
This is all very well. But, in the absence of stats, it’s worth noting that most of these examples are small exceptions. Retired academics, wealthy academics, famous academics, super academics, warlock academics – these are a variety of ways an academic might do all that’s expected or required and also do the philosophy of the subject. But they are not the main kind of academic. So, in the main, the philosophy of a subject isn’t done by the academics of a subject. They don’t do it precisely because they just don’t have the time (as well, maybe, the motivation – but let’s assume that’s irrelevant here).
You Don’t Need to Master the Subject to do the Philosophy
Another idea: I’m wrong about the philosophy of a subject needing those who are properly educated in the subject. As a result, the philosophy is taken up by those who haven’t been deeply absorbed in the subject because they are not actually researchers in that area. Instead, they are commentators, non-researchers. They are not experts on a subject, such as physics and biology. They are philosophers of a subject, such as physics and biology. They embrace the worry. They do the philosophical work about which they are no experts.
And this might be the right one. There are philosophers of physics and biology. And indeed of politics, economics, history, literature, art, and medicine. Not all of them – few of them, in fact – are retired or independently wealthy; few have the clout or – ok – indifference to get away with not doing admin. Few if any so far as I can tell are super academics – or, even if some are, they are the exception.
So, what do these philosophers actually do? How can they do the philosophy if they are not also the primary researchers in the subjects? How can, say, a philosopher of ecology have any work to do if they have not spent years mastering ecology – and are not even doing what experts in ecology do?
What Does a Philosopher of Something Do?
Maybe the answer is this: Philosophers do not discover new things about a subject nor create anything relevant to the subject. They do not find out what is true about something actual. But they do one thing: when all the discovery and creation is done, they think about the results in a specific philosophical way.
Philosophers of a subject do not think about the subject for practical reasons, such as creating new technologies, policies, or approaches to a worldly problem. That is done in the discipline itself. For example, a group of physicists might do experiments in fluid dynamics, discover some new law of viscosity, and apply the discovery to some new technology or safety standard. An artist might find some new method of expressing an idea, and produce dozens of works under that method. An art historian might place that artist and their work in the particular story of art in their society and time, leading to different ways of curating or teaching the work.
All of that is settled and applied in the discipline by the time a philosopher gets to it. The philosopher engages with it afterwards, when it is finished.
At that point, the philosopher…
ah, the philosopher…
– to paraphrase what a physics communicator (and non-philosopher) once said to me –
…the philosopher “does whatever it is that you do”.
Presumably, experts on a subject do something practical and necessary. They do something about the actual world. Their work can be urgent, especially in fields such as ecology and medicine. Look at the climate; look at the pandemic. They work out principles for building bridges; they create works that inspire and disturb.
So (maybe) philosophers are defined by the fact they don’t do any of this. They do nothing practical. Nothing necessary. Nothing urgent, nothing about actual things. They examine the questions that are not about practical, necessary, urgent, or actual things. If those questions were like this, then the experts on that subject would examine them.
For example, a philosopher of physics does not examine the important questions of physics. The philosophy of physics is composed of leftover questions in physics such as ‘is time a substance?’ The important questions of physics – such as ‘does reality have 10 dimensions or 11 dimensions? Are there branes or are there loops?’ are examined by physicists, not philosophers. If what philosophers looked at was important, physicists would be looking at it. They don’t, so it’s not. Furthermore, physics is the most practical and immediate approach to any such questions. If physicists did examine such questions, they would answer them more quickly and successfully than philosophy does.
This has happened, at least as far as some non-philosophers are concerned. For example, some physicists (e.g., Lawrence Krauss) have looked at the question ‘how can something come from nothing’? Philosophers have looked at that for a couple of thousand years, but physicists came up with the answer relatively quickly. How can something come from nothing? Quantum vacuum.
Let’s look at this kind of answer for a bit. Presumably, the justification for why a physicist can give this answer – and not a philosopher – is because:
- Quanta and physical vacuums offer uniquely physical accounts of the relationship between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’, and this unique account answers the question. Others do not, and so can’t explain why there is something other than nothing.
- Physicists understand such physical entities as quanta and physical vacuums; philosophers do not.
- Philosophers, not understanding quanta and physical vacuums, cannot answer the question and never could. It needed physics to answer it. Until physics introduced the concepts of quanta and vacuums, there was no right way to answer this.
One can run similar breakdowns for other concerns: questions about history, society, art, the mind, life, morality, fate, and so on.
Still, there may be philosophical questions left in physics – or, indeed, any other discipline. It is only that they are the questions that are not open to expert physical research (or expert research in history, art, biology, literature, etc.). Or, at least, they are questions that make no difference to the important questions experts ask in those disciplines. Again, if they did, someone in those disciplines would be looking at them – and philosophers wouldn’t be (and wouldn’t have to be).
As such, from the perspective of the discipline itself, the philosophical questions are leftover questions. Philosophers get the leftover questions of other disciplines.
Philosophers are… What?
Who gets what’s leftover? Here are two things that get what’s leftover: pets and janitors.
Philosophers are Pets
Philosophers who work on questions in other disciplines are like pets in those disciplines. Well, as pets were in the old days – for example, a wolfhound at the king’s table, not a Bichon Frise at a dog’s hairdressers.
They get the leftovers after everyone else is finished. Philosophers must wait. Then, by the time they have access to the relevant material, all the expert questions are gone. But, still, like the chicken bones and crusts, there are some questions philosophers may investigate, and they are tolerated.
These questions are kind of like the important questions experts look at, but they lack something that makes them important. For example, they are not urgent questions, such as how do we combat climate change? instead, they are non-urgent questions, such as what is the meaning of climate? Is it something reducible in some way to weather or is it something extra over and above weather, in its own ontological category? Or, if we cannot prevent climate change, how should we live? And how ought we – the future we of the human race – remember us – the present us? As helpless? As terrible people? As ghouls, snakes in the garden? Although these may be interesting questions, there’s no need to answer them now. Any climate scientist must focus on how the climate changes and how to affect that change.
Similarly, look at physics: is time a substance? Is the arrow of time reversible in a way that is meaningfully comprehensible? Is light a material entity in the way understood by pre-20c physicists? Does physics describe real objects – independent of human thought – or merely useful objects – wholly defined by their usefulness to people, and thus dependent on human thought?
Or, is evolution sufficient to explain all the common ideas of ethics? Is a depiction or representation more basic a concept or thing than a thought?
Philosophers are Janitors
Maybe pets is the wrong idea. There aren’t scraps of similar questions left over from expert research. This implies a similar kind of question, one that is less important but still: a question that an expert might answer, just as I might eat my crusts or boil the chicken bones.
No, philosophy is more like the leftovers experts can’t use. Philosophers are janitors.
Philosophers are a necessary part of a properly functioning research. They do not do the actual research but they clean up after it. They go through the halls of other disciplines and pick up the trash. They might recycle the trash or throw it out. But what they don’t do is discover the new stuff from which the trash came. Nor do they decide what is trash (just as pets don’t). That’s up to the experts in the field. The experts decide what is worth keeping – e.g., 11-dimension brane physics – and what is not – e.g., super-substantivalism.
What philosophers do with the trash they pick up is nobody else’s business. It is, again, the leftovers – and of no use to anyone else. They are like Wall-E or the Wombles. A certain environmentalist or narrative pathos may draw our sympathy toward their activities, but it is not because what they work with is anything but junk.
I doubt anyone but obnoxious academics (there are many of those, of course) would say these things explicitly. Philosophy is still its own department in older universities, after all (although many new ones don’t have such a department).
However, no matter what people say, what matters is how philosophical questions about a subject are treated.
I think it’s worth asking: If, when an experienced philosopher (or highly trained philosopher – however you like to say it) says something about a subject, is the question treated initially as worth seriously considering – because a philosopher said it? Are their perspectives taken as weighty, possibly altering the course of inquiry? Or, never mind the philosopher themselves. Look at the question: does the expert realise ‘yes, we should be working on this. If only I didn’t have so many administration tasks to slow me down. Damn! I guess philosophers get the jump on working on them once more!”
Or is it treated as something else? For example, is philosophy a form of upscale marketing? It is sizzle for a Powerpoint presentation or BBC programme. It is mildly interesting, something to play with when there is time, but otherwise, it doesn’t really matter. Famous physicist Philip Z. Bea, in his BCB4 documentary on The Exclusive History of Important Ideas, states in voiceover:
‘What is time?’ a philosopher once asked. And he added, ‘I know, but cannot say if you ask me.’
Now, of course, we have physics, and we know what time is. Time is…. [etc.]
Or something worse for the philosopher: philosophers and their questions are blowhards mouthing off about something they do not really understand. Their question may be indulged – but, again, when you get serious, you ignore their guff.
If it’s the latter, there’s a certain irony to it. In the Republic, Plato argued that the ideal society has no artists in it. Artists mislead; they appear to create things that they do not and perhaps cannot create. For example, a poet might describe a chef making a delicious meal but have no idea themselves how to do it. A painter may depict a glorious battle never having ever fought.
Or, here is an example closer to now: late 20c and early 21c filmmakers who make films about hackers: clearly, the creators of 2001’s Swordfish have no idea what coding on a computer screen looks like.
There are other ways of looking at what philosophers do, ways more familiar to non-academics. For example, one might claim that philosophers ask the why, not the how. When a bridge is going up, a philosopher does not ask “how are you building that bridge there?” No, they ask “why are you building that bridge there?”
Except: philosophers – academic, trained, with doctorates and jobs – don’t do that sort of thing in every day life. In the example, when a bridge is being built, the why of it is done by council members, funding bodies, planners – and last I saw, close to none of them have philosophical backgrounds (and those that do, only incidentally).
Also, given how we talk about philosophy, another way of thinking is that philosophical thoughts, attitudes, and questions about something are ‘looking at the big picture’ or at what we ought to do. Yet, for what we ought to do at least, that is only a particular kind of philosopher – a philosopher of ethics. And, of such philosophers of ethics, many are not asking and answering what we ought to do. Instead, they are asking and answering what it means to believe or say that we ought to do something. For example, moral realists claim that what we ought to do, what is good, is fixed by some fact about the world; emotivists claim it is an expression of feeling, and nothing more (it’s nothing but ‘boo! to a goose’ as A.J. Ayer put it).
Furthermore, again in practice, many of those who are asked what we ought to do in particular situations where things are done are not philosophers. They are scientific experts, moral authorities such as psychologists and church leaders, and, again, people like town planners. Although there may be a philosophical component to some of their work, they are not philosophers and don’t consider the normative ‘ought’ question to be a philosophical question, moral or not.
I think that, to see what role a philosopher has, we need to look at what philosophers actually do in practice.
Philosophy of Time and Other Studies of Time
As is probably obvious, one reason I’m wondering what a philosopher does is because I am one. I wonder what we do in relation to other subjects, and to the actual world, because of my own specific research practice.
I work in the philosophy of time. I also work around perception, especially error. I’ve also worked in one way or another with researchers in other disciplines – for example, at one time or another, I’ve collaborated with or given talks to cognitive scientists, physicists, and artists. From these collaborations, I’ve met many good folk, many I would even consider friends, goodwill acquaintances, and fellow travelers.
I’ve also just published a book on the philosophy of time. Each chapter examines a different discipline from the philosophy of time; these chapters include material I’ve learned through philosophers and non-philosophers.
What I do is philosophy. I don’t do science. Even when I use scientific insights, I don’t do experiments (well… I do propose hypothetical experiments, e.g., in my 2010 paper, an experiment involving spinning people around on a chair while recording their neural activity). Nor do I simply take what scientists say and repeat them in my work (‘scientists have proven that imagination is identical to perception; thus….’). For some of what scientists say, I simply don’t understand what they say; if I don’t understand it, I am uneasy about using it. Other things they say, I think are just wrong (for reasons I won’t detail in this post).
So, am I a pet or a janitor? Are my questions leftover questions about time? Had they the time, would other experts on time be better at addressing them? Or are they the sort of questions that really are a kind of junk, with no discernible impact on important questions about time?
Well… as may be obvious, I think the questions I look at are neither. They are not leftover or junk. Other experts about time cannot easily approach them. These questions can have impact. But they are philosophical questions.
I think, like a janitor, I do clean up an area in which others work. However, I also think a janitor’s job is underrated. If I didn’t do the philosophical work, those who work quickly become unable to do their job – or, doing their job, are mired in an unnecessary mess. If there weren’t janitors, there wouldn’t be a space in which one could actually do work. This is where there is a need for maintenance. However, in some cases, there is nothing there to maintain. The discipline’s ideas aren’t developed enough yet to be treated as if they are fully up and running, or to have anything like an intellectual infrastructure to support and enable the scientific work. Where there is no real or full infrastructure already, a philosopher can still do work. But they are not like a janitor. They are like a builder or architect. (If we’re going to continue with such metaphors.)
The ‘area’ in which others work, and in which philosophers are janitors or builders, is the set of background philosophical assumptions when they do that work. That can be a messy place to work. The set of assumptions can contain assumptions that are simply wrong or contradict each other. And, being so contradictory, the work based on them can be mistaken or even incoherent.
For my work, the assumptions are about time (and, separately, error – but leave that for now). One of my central ideas is that philosophical thinking about time affects our understanding of what is possible about how things exist in time. More: it impacts our understanding of how things actually exist in time. How we think philosophically about time frames all other approaches and determines the basic elements of all other analyses and models of the world. If we get this wrong, then we can have a mistaken understanding of the world, which affects both our interpretation and our theorising about it. If we have a theory of time that is, at base, incoherent or self-defeating, we may be left with many puzzles and complexities that are only figments of our background theories, and are about nothing in the subject we are interested in (in my case, the nature of time).
I think this is impactful. But it may not be obvious unless you’re a philosopher or comfortable with the philosophical literature. I’ve no room here to detail why I think the philosophy of time is especially impactful. I’ve several examples of my thinking about it in my published work and on this site. Here is a brief list:
- The time-lag argument for indirect perception
- The structure of consciousness under relative time
- The phenomenology and reality of blurs
- The interpretation of experience as illusory or hallucinatory
- The possibility of time’s reality and the consequences of time’s reality for the independent reality of other things (including those we intuitively think of as real, like rocks and minds)
None of my arguments need specific expertise in non-philosophy. I don’t have that expertise and I make the arguments. This is the philosophy of time, not the physics or psychology of time. Nor is it the marketing of the science of time. Nor is it dumbed-down physics or psychology of time. Nor is it simpler than these disciplines or aimed at a more popular audience (as my book sales show).
Nor does it ignore those disciplines entirely. Such disciplines do play a role. For example, early on in my work (my 2010 paper), I argue that the truth of relativistic physics has an impact on what can be true about the structure of consciousness. For this argument, I had to understand some basic philosophical consequences of relativistic physics for the frame-invariant structure of physical things. I also had to think carefully about reasons for separating and uniting consciousness and correlating it with neural activity.
The argument I presented is based on reasoning about what is possible for time and space, as well as what is meant by appearances and physical things. It draws on intuitions and concepts about these first. Thus, I did bring in modern physical concepts of time as well as modern concepts of consciousness; but the work I brought to it was philosophical, not merely physical or psychological. And the conclusions are not from new work in physics, psychology, or any non-philosophical work on consciousness.
(It is also not a view I’ve ever seen a psychologist or physicist make, before or since. Indeed, no one else has made it or used it, philosophers included. It is an understatement to say it is not a common view. It is no one’s view but mine – but it is also a big part of my view, and I honestly can’t see a reason to abandon it.
Anyway – )
So, if this thought is right, an immediate consequence of one’s philosophy of time is that it alters how one understands what is in the world, including how one understands what is possible. Have a mistaken philosophical view of time and one will have, at a basic level, a mistaken view of the world and what is possible.
So, what as a philosopher of time, do I do? I guess one thing I do is take all the various philosophical thoughts about time, wherever they are buried – for example, in the background assumptions of physics, psychology, art, and everyday life. Then, I weigh them against each other given other philosophical thought wherever it is buried (again, in physics, psychology, art, and everyday life). To do this, I must engage with other disciplines and their material. But I don’t do it to play pretend at those other disciplines. Nor do I do it because I aspire to those disciplines. Nor is what I do irrelevant to these subjects.
No, I do it because I’m interested in time as it has to be, can be, and how it relates to everything else. To do that, I find philosophy best – and so that is what I do.
But I would prefer to do it in tandem with the work of others. One of my regrets for my books and my research so far is that I haven’t had the opportunity to work with non-philosophical experts in many other fields than psychology, physics, and art. Had I met experts in other fields, read a chunk of the great papers on time in other fields, and could discuss it with those experts, I imagine that something fruitful may come of it, both for philosophy and those other fields. Maybe many other experts’ assumptions about time are impacting their thinking about time there, and those assumptions are philosophically interesting. And if so, I could have brought their work into my latest book, e.g., I might have had a chapter on evolutionary theory, geology, or geography.
Yet, one might think: who has the time to research and read other disciplines’ work, including their assumptions? I’m not a super academic, I’m not independently wealthy, I’m not retired, I don’t have someone to do my admin, I… so I guess someone else is going to have to do that philosophical work about time in their particular field. Because philosophers are like others in their discipline; they don’t have time for thinking about other disciplines either. They have their own tenure tracks, admin, and so on. One may wonder: modern philosophers may be like builders or janitors. But who uses their buildings? Do they only work in derelict sites and empty lots, where no one else works?