Dagfinn Føllesdal


C.I. Lewis Professor of Philosophy
Stanford University, CA, USA

3. What is the proper role of philosophy in relation to other disciplines?

After having discussed the role formal methods can play in philosophy I will now turn to the role philosophy can play in relation to other disciplines. 

One classic view is that philosophy is a metadiscipline different from all other disciplines.  It is supposed to provide a priori foundations for the other disciplines, or to tell us what is the task and nature of these other disciplines.  Another traditional view is that philosophy is a quite different enterprise that has nothing to do with other disciplines. 

My own view is that philosophy can play a role in all other disciplines.  But which role?

General problems
Philosophy is a reflection on all aspects of us humans and the world in which we live. The various disciplines tend to concentrate on one particular sphere or one particular issue, while philosophy takes up very broad and general problems, problems that are not covered in one particular discipline.  Often philosophy will seek to clarify notions that play a role in other disciplines but are not themselves objects of study in that discipline.  Examples are notions of causality, explanation and justification.

Problem awareness
Another kind of contribution that philosophy can make to other disciplines is to make them aware of fundamental problems that are overlooked.  A good example of this is the notion of time.  Time is studied and used in very many disciplines.  Time is used as a parameter, and in many disciplines one reflects on it, how it should be measured, etc.  It is hence an example of the kind of general notions that we just mentioned.  However, time also illustrates another distinctive feature of many applications of philosophy in other disciplines.  Saint Augustine expressed it very well when he wrote: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.”  This is typical of the kind of questions that engage philosophers.  Philosophers will tend to ask questions when others do not ask them.  They will make us aware that there are obscurities and problems where we thought that everything was well.  In fact, what characterizes the good philosopher is problem awareness.  It is good if a philosopher has imagination and creativity and can communicate clearly and well.  However, problem awareness is a sine qua non for a philosopher.

Of course many people from other disciplines take up such issues and reflect on them.  They are then doing philosophy, I would say.  There is no clear line to be drawn here, and I do not regard it as important where we draw the line, or even whether we draw one.

Another important goal of philosophy is to help to clarify issues.  A large amount of intellectual activity aims at clarification, but philosophers have a special responsibility here.  Our contribution does not consist in collecting empirical material or making experiments, but in dealing with abstract and complicated issues.  What I enjoy the most are philosophers who address issues that are important and complicated, so-called "deep" issues, and who do it in such a clear way that they provide insight.  I do not regard obscurity as evidence of depth.  Obscurity is enough to turn me off.  However, clarity by itself is not enough to turn me on.  It is easy to be clear about simple issues.  What I enjoy the most are clear discussions of "deep" issues.  Our main challenge is to think about these issues in such a way that we come to understand them better.  And I agree with  Nicolas Boileau that "What one understands well, one expresses clearly."

Clarity is so important in philosophy that philosophers should regard it as part of their calling to help clarify issues that are of importance for the society in which they live. And the training of philosophers should reflect this.   I become highly suspicious of philosophers who when they write on simple issues are not able to express themselves clearly.  How shall they be able to think clearly about the difficult and complicated issues one deals with in philosophy?   

Read the remaining part of Dagfinn Føllesdal's interview in the book Formal Philosophy

ISBN-10    87-991013-1-9    hardcopy
ISBN-10    87-991013-0-0    paperback
Published by Automatic Press ● VIP, 2005

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