Nagel’s Comparison and Contrasting of Philosophy and Science

(Last Revised May 18, 2017}

In today’s post, I begin our systematic engagement with Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy,* the first step in the Introduction to Philosophy Initiative introduced in “Announcing the After Aristotle Introduction to Philosophy Initiative.”

Let me start by noting that two among the questions that a potential student of philosophy might well have, and indeed should have, are:

Just what is philosophy?

and

What good is philosophy?

In this and the next few posts we will do our best, by examining and reflecting on what Nagel has to say, to attain answers to the two questions. That I say, “we will do our best,” should alert you to the fact that there are some obstacles lying in our path. That I am continuing to write, should reassure you that I think we will make some genuine progress.

Be all that as it may, in the “Introduction,” Nagel offers us three ways of determining more specifically what philosophy is. One is that of contrasting the method of philosophy with those of science and mathematics. A second is that of setting forth a set of problems that fall within the scope of philosophy and that (p. 4) “come up again and again.” The third is that of identifying what he calls (p. 5) the “main concern of philosophy.”

The present post begins the review of the first of those three ways of determining more specifically what philosophy is, the contrast Nagel presents of the method of philosophy with those of science and mathematics. He puts it as follows (p. 4):

Philosophy is different from science and from mathematics. Unlike science it doesn’t rely on experiments or observations, but only on thought. And unlike mathematics, it has no formal methods of proof. It is done just by asking questions, arguing, trying out ideas and thinking of possible arguments against them, and wondering how our concepts really work.

Comparing and contrasting philosophy with science and mathematics is a perfectly appropriate first step to take, for, like science and mathematics, philosophy is a theoretical discipline: it is a discipline within which one seeks to know something; we’ll look more closely at just what it is that one engaged in philosophy seeks to know later in the initiative’s series of posts.

That noted, let us turn then to the main topic of the present post, that which Nagel says about the method of philosophy in contrast with that of science, i.e., the set of disciplines that includes, on the one hand, the natural or physical sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology, etc., and, on the other, the social sciences of the psychology and sociology, etc. We’ll take up what he says about the method of philosophy in contrast with that of mathematics in the next post.

We have read Nagel telling us that, “Unlike science it [philosophy] doesn’t rely on experiments or observations, but only on thought.” This, however, is a complex proposition. One thing it is saying is that:

Unlike science philosophy doesn’t rely on experiments or observations.

A second thing being said is that:

Unlike science philosophy relies only on thought.

But even the first thing being said is complex. One thing it is saying is that:

Science relies on experiments or observations.

Another is that:

Philosophy does not rely on experiments or observations.

This proposition brings us to the heart of the present post’s matter. It is, of course, a perfectly respectable philosophical thesis. Indeed, many philosophers for whom one should have the utmost respect agree with it; Nagel is just one of them. But yet one can ask whether it is true, for it is not the only logically possible position that one could hold. One could also hold that:

Philosophy does rely on experiments or observations.

And indeed many philosophers for whom one should have the utmost respect agree with this latter thesis. There are major traditions in the history of philosophy that uphold the thesis that all human knowledge begins in observation, that is, in sensory experience: as it was classically put, “nihil [est] in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu,” i.e., “there is nothing in the intellect unless it will have first been in the senses.” This thesis, if true, entails the more specific thesis that “there is nothing in the intellect of the philosopher engaged in philosophy unless it will have first been in his or her senses.”

There is also an emerging philosophical school of thought, known as “experimental philosophy,” that holds to the thesis that philosophy relies on, well, experiments. We have to grant Nagel, however, that this school of thought, at least as so named, had not emerged at the time of his writing the book here under review.

There are then two logically possible positions that one can take in answer to the question of whether philosophy relies on experiments or observations, the affirmative one that philosophy relies on experiments or observations and the negative one, contradicting the affirmative answer and accepted by Nagel, that philosophy does not rely on them.

At least one of the two theses has to be true, while they cannot both be true.

Now, one might be tempted to put forward a criticism of Nagel here; indeed I myself was so tempted. That is, Nagel has here advanced the thesis that “philosophy does not rely on experiments or observations” as true, without telling us why we should accept it, rather than its opposite, as true. That is, he has simply asserted that philosophy does not rely on experiments or observations; he has not shown it. That is, again, he has presented us with no argument, no setting forth of any reason why it should be accepted as true. He has done so even as one who holds that philosophy “is done just by asking questions, arguing, trying out ideas and thinking of possible arguments against them….” Surely, however, the criticism would run, if philosophers should be engaged in “arguing” and “thinking of possible arguments against” certain “ideas,” he himself should have devoted some effort to “arguing” and of “thinking of possible arguments against” the thesis that philosophy relies on experiments or observations and in favor of his thesis that it does not. And he has not. But now, a note of caution: all that we can at present say is that he has not yet done so. He may well offer some such argument later on in the book. So, given that, even though he has not yet offered the needed argumentation, he may yet do so, we will have to remain on the “look-out” for it as we continue in our reading.

In the next post I will take up Nagel’s comparison and contrast of philosophy and mathematics.

Until next time.

Richard

P. S. The present post is part of a series of posts, that of the “After Aristotle Introduction to Philosophy Initiative,” devoted for the time being to What Does It All Mean? There is a “Table of Contents” listing the titles of and links to the posts published in the series, at:

The “Table of Contents” for the “After Aristotle Introduction to Philosophy Initiative”

*Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). The book is readily available for purchase through Amazon.com. You need only click on the following image to be taken to the Amazon site:

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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