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When Philosophy is Irrelevant

Neil deGrasse Tyson raised the hackles of academic philosophers everywhere when he said, earlier this week, something to the general effect that philosophy is useless. There was more to it than that, and I encourage you to read the actual transcript of the interview if you’re interested in the details, but I suspect if I were to walk up to Neil deGrasse Tyson right now and ask “did you mean to say that academic philosophy is generally useless?,” he would say that’s a fair interpretation of his remarks.

Not the first time he’s said something like this, either. Look at this exchange from last year, where a student asked Tyson if he’d rather “die now or live forever”:

If you read comments on the video, the consensus view seems to be that Tyson was heckled by somebody and shut him down. I don’t think he was heckled; I think he was asked a serious question about a no-win scenario, and he responded—as Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk famously did in response to the Kobayashi Maru simulation—with a serious answer to the effect that he doesn’t accept the validity of no-win scenarios. In other words, Tyson is rejecting academic philosophy by doing philosophy (the debate over philosophy’s relevance is itself part of a subdiscipline called metaphilosophy), so it’s safe to say he doesn’t have much contempt for the work. He just has—maybe—a dismissive attitude towards the way it’s usually done.

And sometimes I do, too. For the 21st anniversary issue of Philosophy Now, David Chalmers and Saul Kripke surveyed 75 professional philosophers (57 academics, 12 graduate students, six independent scholars) and found out some interesting facts about the current state of the field:

  • When respondents were asked to name the five most important or relevant dead philosophers, 41 names received two or more votes. Only three (Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Iris Marion Young) were women, and none of their names appeared in the top ten—which consisted entirely of white men. Since philosophy concerns itself primarily with the discussion and interpretation of dead people’s opinions, this isn’t particularly encouraging.
  • More damningly: when respondents were asked the same question of living philosophers, only three women (Judith Butler, Martha Nussbaum, and Linda Martin Alcoff) received two or more votes. While Butler and Nussbaum appeared in the top ten, the top five were all—once again—white men. (None of this should surprise you if you’ve been following the What is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? blog.)
  • Only 13% of respondents consider ethics to be one of the two most active areas of philosophy, and only 7% put the philosophy of science in that category.

It isn’t hard to understand why an astrophysicist might feel like academic philosophy has a relevance problem—but when you take what these results say about philosophy’s insularity into account, and the field’s natural inclination towards abstraction and parochialism, it would be remarkable if Tyson didn’t find academic philosophy irrelevant. And while CUNY scientist-philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has written an effective rebuttal to those elements of Tyson’s argument that aren’t accurate, the best way to confront the argument that philosophy is irrelevant is by more actively engaging with elements of the field that are directly relevant to other disciplines, and to the world at large.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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