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Philosophy as Afterthought

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?

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