Haim Gaifman


Professor of Philosophy
Columbia University, NY, USA

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


I take it that  we should view this from the point of view of  analytic philosophy. But since the phrased question is about philosophy tout court let me first take the philosophical license of considering  the question itself. ‘Philosophy’ is now  applied to a congeries of writings and discussions, for which the question of role cannot be answered except in vague generalities. What ball park are we in is up for grabs;  we have “philosophy of friendship”, “philosophy of sport” and what not. Some  is done by clever  writers, a sort of intelligent journalism, which can make interesting reading  on a plane.  Adhering to a more traditional framework,  the spectrum is still extremely broad, from  Frege to Heidegger (not to mention  trendy concoctions by  Lacan and Zizek). The beginning of this story, in Greece,  may therefore be used to  give us orientation. Originally, philosophy was a total enterprise, a “theory of everything”. (It was also, for some groups, a practical way of life––an aspect I shall, for obvious reasons, ignore here.)  It aimed, naively and profoundly,  at a picture of  the world. When Hamlet says “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy” he means by ‘philosophy’ a general frame of knowledge; ‘natural philosophy’ is another  surviving testimony to the original philosophical ambition. What distinguished it from verbal art was the use of the thinking faculty as the major tool in constructing the picture.  This overall conception involved, as it  must have, systematic use of  metaphor (analogical thinking). Nietzsche  claimed that  that type of knowledge is based on worn out metaphors  and is therefore doomed to error. Large scale metaphor is indeed essential to science, which constructs the unfamiliar from familiar materials. But in science, systematic repetitive use, the very thing that kills metaphors in art, gives them life. Their survival, moreover, depends on  their  passing the repeated  severe test of success;  metaphors are refined and modified in a continuous feedback; as new forms become familiar to the professional, they serve as a basis for newer more abstract ones. (Mathematics requires  a different analysis, the fundamental role there is played not by metaphors, but by structures, or basic modes of organization;  I cannot however enter into it here.)  It has been often observed that scientific disciplines, at least some of them,  have their roots in philosophy. One can say that philosophy, properly speaking, is the enterprise that, avoiding the sacrifice involved in narrow specification and  the methodology of  experimental success,  remains faithful to the goal of “true picture”, or “basic account”. This still leaves open  the kind of building blocks  and the kind of tools employed in giving  the account. One major divide is between those that place human experience and interests at the center, most notably phenomenological philosophy (exemplified by Husserl and  Heidegger) and those who make place for  brute scientific facts, as an independent ingredient in the picture. To put it bluntly and somewhat naively, whatever the insights in Heidegger’s account, or it truths, it is  highly probable that 10 million years ago there was no Dasein , i.e., no basic structures of the existential human, and no Being of entities (unless the dinosaurs, or some extraterrestrials, were the source of some such structures); and it is highly probable that Dasein and Being  will not subsist, two hundred million years from now (unless, again, humans migrate to other planets, or there are  extraterrestrials, etc.). But there were and will be stars and galaxies, and the truth of ‘225964951 –1 is a prime number’ will not be affected (the truth of certain English statements does not require that English, or any language, exist at the time in question). Heidegger may regard this naïve claim as fundamentally misguided, since the entities of physical science are derivative: the outcome of the “objectifying” processes in the Dasein; or he might regard it as philosophically uninteresting.  But I cannot help being dogmatically impressed by such objective facts and by science’s claims (at least some of them) to reveal non–trivial  truths . This does not mean that I endorse “scientism”––a reduction of “everything” to science.  Meaning is basic; but whatever the picture, it will have to accommodate some scientific truths as a self-standing elements, not merely as  human constructs.


The science-friendly (and mathematics-friendly) attitude inclines one naturally to emphasize  clarity and precision in the choice of tools. The prime example is Frege, whose analysis of logical structure, in thought and language, was achieved by setting up, in his words: “a formula language, modeled upon that of arithmetic, for pure thought”.  This does not obviate the use of metaphors, of which Frege availed himself freely, e.g., the distinction between saturated and unsaturated entities, which marks the essential difference between objects and concepts (or, more generally, functions).  His  proposed analogy between moon, moon’s projection in the telescope, moon’s projection on one’s retina, on one hand,   and reference, sense, subjective associated idea, on the other, is a rather crude didactic aid, which is dispensable. Not so the subtle metaphor that underlies his characterization of the sense of an expression as “the mode of presentation”, or “the way the reference is given to us”. (The metaphor, I think, is often misunderstood.)


To come back to the question,  the proper role of philosophy derives from what remains of its initial ambitions, given the accumulated intellectual history of the human race, including of course science. It is au fond a way of knowing, of apprehending of “getting it”. What can this way do  for us now? Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus,  boils it down to “elucidations”,  which “…make clear and delimit sharply  the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred.” In his later period he seems, in some pronouncements, to restrict it further to a therapeutic activity that cures philosophers by dissolving their confused questions. I think that “elucidations” is nearer to the mark, provided that we interpret the terms broadly, unencumbered by the Tractarian framework. Elucidation can be a great creative project, like the elucidation of logical categories and logical structure, by  Boole, Frege, Peirce and others; or the elucidation of what algorithm means, proposed by Church and Turing. Naturally, I give examples that are nearer to my  professional interests, but the principle is wide. Conceptual clarification, an analysis of   plausible approaches and how they are related, of what is implied by this or that view, can be invaluable in ethics as it is in probability or foundational physics.  Philosophy has moreover a similar task with regards to its own history; it rediscovers, reflects on, and critically  reconstructs its past. It goes without saying that nothing is implied here concerning formal tools, whose justification depends on how and where they are used.

The answer, given from the perspective of  analytic philosophy, makes no claim of exclusivity.  In a more general perspective, any “systematic” thinking that shows us something significant, worth getting, through the use of intellectual metaphors can qualify as fulfilling the task. It may use a specially designed, dense vocabulary (the reader can judge at the end whether his or her effort was worth it). And it can be “systematic” in being non–systematic, like Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which tries to deliver the picture by an assortment of observations, thought experiments and little fables.

Read the remaining part of Haim Gaifman'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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