Thursday, November 18, 2021

Where Have All the Fodors Gone? Or: The Golden Age of Philosophical Naturalism

ETA: This post is drawing plausible criticism on Twitter and Facebook, e.g. I'm a victim of "grad school glow" (see below), it's US-centric, it leaves out influential women, Fodor wasn't really so amazing and will soon be forgotten, this post contributes to a toxic culture of ranking people's fame, etc. I think all of these criticisms are fair, so I advise reading the below with those caveats and concerns in mind.


Back in the 1990s, when I was a graduate student, giants strode the Earth! Now, Earth is rather more populated with human-sized people, or so it seems to me. I'm speaking of course of academic philosophy Earth.

What I'm wondering today is whether the apparent difference is an illusion or whether, instead, it reflects some important real difference between philosophy then and now.

While I take the illusion possibility seriously, I conjecture that it's not just illusion. I conjecture that, in retrospect, historians will come to view Anglophone philosophy from the 1960s to 1990s one of the great golden ages.

Elite Departments Then and Now

Consider three of the most elite departments of philosophy in the 1990s. Princeton boasted David Lewis and Saul Kripke, two of the most important figures of late 20th century philosophy, alongside lots of other influential philosophers, such as Sarah Broadie, John Cooper, Harry Frankfurt, Gilbert Harman, and Bas Van Fraassen. Berkeley, where I attended grad school, had Donald Davidson, Hubert Dreyfus, John Searle, and Bernard Williams (part time), to name just the four who were probably best known. Hilary Putnam, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick were at Harvard.

To make this a little more systematic, I compiled an (approximate) list of full professors at these three institutions circa 1996-1997, and then I created a comparison list of full professors from the top three ranked departments in 2021. So as not to clutter up the main post, I include it as an appendix, which you should feel free to examine now.

There are some truly amazing philosophers on the 2021 list! Ned Block, David Chalmers, Frances Kamm, Philip Pettit, Jonathan Schaffer, Ted Sider, and Ernest Sosa, for example. Some of these philosophers will, I suspect, be remembered as historically influential, continuing to draw discussion in a hundred years. I don't mean to cast shade. But -- and I think other professional philosophers will tend to agree with me about this (I'd be interested to hear in the comments if not) -- the 2021 group isn't quite the stature of the 1996 group. Ted Sider and Frances Kamm are genuinely terrific philosophers I admire immensely, but, with apologies, probably not quite as historically important as David Lewis and John Rawls. Or so it seems to me.

Illusion Hypotheses

But maybe I'm wrong. Let's consider some of the ways I might be wrong.

The Grad School Glow. I suspect the following is a real phenomenon: Philosophers who are presented as important in your undergraduate and graduate education have a certain glow about them that it is extremely difficult for others to match who rise to prominence later. I can't remember a philosophical era before Lewis, Kripke, Davidson, Kuhn, Fodor, Dennett, Rawls, Williams, etc. These philosophers have been permanent fixtures in my understanding of the field, and their work has shaped my engagement with philosophy since the beginning. Likely, this gives them a major edge over later philosophers in my intuitive level of regard.

One supporting consideration: I recall philosophers of that generation sometimes mentioning Quine, Austin, and Ryle with a kind of reverence that they never seemed to have for their peers. But I myself don't experience much of a gap between my intuitive, gut-level regard for Quine versus Lewis or Ryle versus Dennett.

The Mid-Career Illusion. Some of the philosophers on the 2021 list are still fairly young. Perhaps it's not fair to compare, say, Ted Sider now with David Lewis in 1996. By 1996, Lewis had written almost all of his influential work. Sider might still have many important works still to come.

Also, in earlier analyses, I found that philosophers tend to produce their most influential work on average at about age 44 but that their work tends to reach peak discussion around age 55-70. Philosophy proceeds slowly. Surely some of the middle-aged philosophers of today still haven't had full uptake of their most influential work.

This is a legitimate concern about this exercise. However, we can address the concern by considering only those who are super senior on both lists. My sense is that the difference remains if you exclude from the 1996 list anyone most of whose impact or uptake came after 1996.

The Diffusion of Talent. Another possibility is this. Maybe in the 1990s, the most influential philosophers tended to congregate at a few leading universities while in the 2020s talent is more diffusely spread. If so, it makes it somewhat unfair to compare three universities in 1996 with three universities in 2021.

Maybe this is true. However, I think balanced consideration suggests that this can't be the full explanation of the apparent difference between 1996 and 2021, even if we can't be quite as systematic in assessing that difference. In 1996, many field-shaping philosophers were not at Princeton, Harvard, or Berkeley, including for starters Kuhn at MIT, Dennett at Tufts, Foot and Parfit at Oxford, Nagel at NYU, Dretske at Stanford, and Fodor at Rutgers.

The Baby Boom Philosophy Bust and the Golden Age of Naturalism

While I accept that there is likely some truth to the illusion hypotheses, I'm more inclined to favor two realist hypotheses.

The Generation Hired to Teach the Boomers. The first hypothesis is demographic. The job market in philosophy in the 1960s and early 1970s was terrific! There was a great wave of hiring in academia in the U.S. during that era. Job placements often happened with just a phone call. There was a huge demand for professors, including philosophy professors, as the baby boomers started going to college and as a university education came to be seen as the standard path into the upper middle class. Universities grew enormously.

So there was a generation of philosophers born in the 1920s through early 1940s who more or less took over academia in the 1960s and 1970s, setting the agenda for mainstream Anglophone philosophy through the rest of the 20th century. They were still active in the 1980s and 1990s when the baby boomers were hitting the job market as assistant professors. Starting around the 1980s, the academic job market became much, much worse. The generation hired to teach the boomers were mid-career, dominating the field, continuing to set the agenda, and continuing to sit on coveted faculty positions. They more or less shaded out the boomers. It was almost demographically inevitable that whatever this generation of philosophers cared about would dominate the field from the late 1960s through the 1990s. The so-called "Silent Generation" was, in philosophy, anything but silent.

In a couple of previous posts, I've called this the Baby Boom Philosophy Bust. This hypothesis is supported both by demographic figures and by some citation analyses I've done of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

If the baby boomers really were shaded out, then we shouldn't expect philosophy to have recovered yet, since it's still mostly boomers who occupy the age of peak philosophical influence, that is, age 55-70.

The Golden Age of Naturalism

However, I suspect a more important historical current also contributed. Philosophy finally got serious about naturalism. Since the time of the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries, there have always been naturalistically inclined philosophers, who see human beings as purely biological organisms not radically different in kind from other biological organisms, who are skeptical of anything religious, spiritual, or immaterial, who want to account for all of human experience through the application of scientific reasoning.

However, it wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that a fully naturalistic approach came to be the dominant view in philosophy. This was probably connected with at least three scientific developments: (1.) the "modern synthesis" in biology, in which evolutionary theory was integrated with genetic theory, (2.) the rise of computers, computational theory, and information theory, and (3.) the immense social prestige accorded to physics with the rise of relativity theory, particle physics, the atomic bomb and nuclear arms race, and the space race. At risk of just throwing every major technological advance into the mix, I might also mention the rise of modern medicine and the automobile.

When naturalism was a minority view, its philosophical proponents had to focus on defending it against other types of approach. Once it became accepted as the default background view, naturalists could put much more energy into arguing among themselves, developing competing versions of it in detail. The great wave of philosophers who started publishing the 1960s really stepped up to this task, perhaps most notably in philosophy of mind, with the great flourishing of materialist approaches to cognition and consciousness.

In other words, the 1960s-1990s set before philosophers a task of immense historical importance: Make good naturalistic sense of the human condition in an academic world newly dominated by a thoroughly naturalistic conception of the universe. By demographic coincidence, there were plenty of philosophers being hired at just the right time to fulfill that task, laying the groundwork and charting out the basic moves. In this sense, I think the era will be remembered as a golden age of unusual historical importance.

Addendum, Nov. 19:

In social media discussion, several people have mentioned the scientific naturalism of Quine and the logical empiricists. Here's my broad-sweep conjecture about how the history of naturalism in the 20th century will be seen in retrospect. The scientific naturalism of the 1930s-1950s was an embattled minority view. (That's one reason the materialist conjectures of Smart and Place in the 1950s were able to make such a splash.) And the naturalist positions of this embattled minority tended toward radical extremes such as behaviorism, the complete rejection of metaphysics, and flat-footed non-cognitivism in ethics. It was in the 1960s-1990s that naturalism matured into the background dominant position and philosophers were able to recover various valuable babies who had been cast aside with the bathwater.


Princeton then: Paul Benacerraf, Sarah Broadie, John Burgess, John Cooper, Harry Frankfurt, Gilbert Harman, Richard Jeffrey, Mark Johnston, Saul Kripke, David Lewis, Alexander Nehamas, Scott Soames, Bas van Fraassen, and Margaret Wilson.

Harvard then: Anthony Appiah, Stanley Cavell, Warren Goldfarb, Christine Korsgaard, Robert Nozick, Charles Parsons, Hilary Putnam, John Rawls, Thomas Scanlon, Amartya Sen, Gisela Striker.

Berkeley then: Janet Broughton, Charles Chihara, Alan Code, Donald Davidson, Hubert Dreyfus, Samuel Scheffler, John R. Searle, Kwong-loi Shun, Hans Sluga, Barry Stroud, Bruce Vermazen, Bernard Williams (part time), Richard Wollheim.

To compare, here are the full professors at the top-3 rated philosophy departments in 2021 (from the PGR faculty lists, cutting the assistant and associate profs):

Princeton now: Lara Buchak, John P. Burgess, Andrew Chignell, Adam Elga, Daniel Garber, Hans Halvorson, Elizabeth Harman, Mark Johnston, Thomas Kelly, Sarah-Jane Leslie, Hendrik Lorenz, Sarah McGrath, Benjamin Morison, Gideon Rosen, Michael Smith. Part-Time: Philip Pettit.

New York University now: K. Anthony Appiah, Ned Block, Paul A. Boghossian, David J. Chalmers, Cian Dorr, Hartry H. Field, Kit Fine, Don Garrett, Robert Hopkins, Paul Horwich, Marko Malink, Tim Maudlin, Jessica Moss, John Richardson, Samuel Scheffler, Sharon Street, Michael Strevens, Peter Unger, Crispin Wright.

Rutgers now: Karen Bennett, Martha Bolton, Robert Bolton, Elisabeth Camp, Derrick Darby, Andy Egan, Frances Egan, Michael Glanzberg, Alexander Guerrero, Frances Myrna Kamm, Jeffrey C. King, Brian Leftow, Ernest LePore, Martin Lin, Barry Loewer, Brian McLaughlin, Jill North, Michael Otsuka, Paul Pietroski, Jonathan Schaffer, Susanna Schellenberg, Ted Sider, Ernest Sosa, Stephen P. Stich, Larry Temkin, Dean Zimmerman.

[image source]


Arnold said...

...eliminative material versus non eliminative material in appearances of purpose...

I am not a philosopher, I'm 78 and philosophy has been shaded since Socrates' "I am"...
...with all the functions we have I am could always be included, why do we forget ourselves...

Also we are here now seeing what we do, even if illusional, its what we do...
...Hasn't this been passed on for generations in Nature...

Esa said...

I believe philosophers such as Appiah, Charles Mills, Sally Haslanger, and Miranda Fricker, will have a long lasting impact similar to those mentioned above as part of the gold period. They have clearly changed the face of philosophy, comparably to what e.g. Kripke and Lewis did.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! Yes, It does seem that a huge change in philosophy in the 21st century has been the broadening of perspectives represented by thinkers such as those Esa mentions. Maybe in the long run that will prove as important or more important than the naturalist/materialist turn.

David Duffy said...

Samuel Delaney mentions that the majority of all poets who ever lived are probably alive today, and what does that say when we think of the list of "great poets". That is, are there currently a dozen Kants floating around that no-one pays any attention to? I am sure there is a Doomsday type argument you can make about the end of philosophy.

Serdal said...

I am very skeptical of the omnipresent assertion that "in the second half of the 20th century, a fully naturalistic approach came to be the dominant view in philosophy."
I have yet to see any remark against it in the literature or in person. However, if Quine is one of the leading figures in contemporary naturalism, how could that assertion be possible?
I ask this question because of the minimal reception of Quine's overall philosophy. Just think about:
his across-the-board fallibilism.
his thoroughgoing pragmatism.
his uncompromising fight against the analytic and the synthetic distinction.
his sincere openness to extreme claims such as telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, or knowledge by dream.
And his continuity thesis concerning philosophy, common sense, and science, which he conceives in a shockingly broad sense.
How many philosophers do agree with Quine on all these five points? I am, of course, excluding the philosophers of cognitive science and biology in that the percentage is probably much higher in there than the rest of analytic philosophy.

Jonathan said...

I was wondering how the awesomeness of the 1960-1990 philosophers fares with skepticism about the progress being made in philosophy. One might argue that if these philosophers were really so awesome then that will be reflected in their influence on the field's progress, in general, and in comparison to earlier periods.

Ryan Muldoon said...

How much of this is just taking advances of major advances in logic? New methods made new work easier to do. The low hanging fruit on those tools has been picked, but we're in the midst of another shift in methods. I would bet that we'll see the impacts of that sooner rather than later (or rather, we're probably seeing it right now but are too in the middle of it to tell).

Arnold said...

Is right now, in the middle, the new logic method...
...seems practicable....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

David: There are two things that make for a "Kant". One is something like philosophical skill. The other is something like profound influence. The Doomsday-style argument seems plausible to me for the skill component. The influence part is much less clear, however, and it's even possible that with so many excellent philosophers alive it's harder for one to stand out in the way influence might require. (However, I do think that smallish differences in influence can be greatly magnified in historical retrospect:

Serdal: I have a broader and in some respects weaker sense of "naturalism" in mind than strict adherence to Quine. For example, I don't see why rejection of the analytic / synthetic distinction must be central to naturalism. The logical empiricists were also naturalists in the broad sense I intend and tended to accept that distinction.

Jonathan: Right. Here's my historical conjecture. In the 22nd century, people will look back at the period and credit the philosophers of that era with sketching out the basics of a plausible, thoroughly naturalistic philosophical worldview -- an extremely important type of philosophical progress.

Ryan: Yes, probably the advances in logic were also an important part of the story. I'm curious what new methods you think are promising.

Arnold said...

Nov 19 addendum question... the states of metaphysics and mindfulness...

David Wallace said...

This isn't 'Anglophone' philosophy: it's specifically US philosophy. Why isn't Oxford in the top 3?

(That's a loyalty-inspired comment, not something I think really affects your thesis one way or another.)

Matti Meikäläinen said...

The effects on philosophy of the broader trends in intellectual history is insightful. E.g., biology’s maturing, rise of computational theory, and prestige of physics, as you suggest. May I suggest also that the huge impact of WWII, specifically the discovery of the death camps, ought to be included as well. For example, it is well documented that it affected the thinking of Anscombe, Midgley, Foot, and Murdock who were instrumental in helping to crack the hold of non-cognitivism in ethics.

David Potts said...

Is it ironic that you ask where have the Fodors gone and then attribute the productivity spurt of the 1960s-1990s to naturalism? Fodor never seemed particularly naturalistic to me, even before publishing his attack on Darwinism.

I think you're right that this was a golden period. Rather than focus on supposed great philosophers, think about the paradigm shifting developments of this time: the cognitivist revolution in philosophy of mind; direct reference in philosophy of language; possible worlds metaphysics; the intentionalist revolution in philosophy of perception and mind; anti-naturalism about consciousness, intentionality, reason, etc.; anti-"view from nowhere" developments in philosophy of language (indexicals, demonstratives, etc.); Bayesian epistemology; knowledge-first epistemology.

With the exception of cognitivism, none of this existed in 1970, let alone 1960. I think much of it will be of enduring positive impact. None of it needed 20 years to be recognized, either. What has there been comparable since 2000?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

David W: My starting point was citation rates in the SEP, according to this analysis:
I didn't strictly follow the list, judging in part on my own memory, surely biased by my California education. One could definitely make the case that Oxford was more prestigious than Berkeley at the time, but with Davidson and Williams at numbers 5 and 7 on the SEP list -- plus my own institutional loyalty! -- I decided to go with Berkeley.

Matti: Interesting thought about death camps! It could be that World War II encouraged a re-engagement with substantive ethics.

David P: I am using a fairly broad sense of "naturalism" here, in which Fodor would be a paradigmatic figure in contrast with, say, a metaphysical substance dualist. I like your suggestion of shifting to focus on those topics rather than the names of particular philosophers. Names are a little easier to track and quantify, but it's really more the rise of good treatments of those *topics* as a collective enterprise, with people like Lewis, Putnam, Fodor, and Kripke leading the way, that constitutes the major achievement. I'm not sure what you mean by the anti-naturalism of this period (maybe because we think differently about what naturalism is). Knowledge-first I think of as more 21st century, at least in its uptake.

Arnold said...

500 years of searching-understanding our place in space has possessed everyone...

If possessiveness is our thinking and feeling of ourselves...

Can philosophy relate thinking, feeling, place as possessions of our place...

And would these relations/relationships provide more towards our common will to be...

Carin Robinson said...

You have mentioned the giants indeed, for a certain slice of very dominant philosophy (forgot about Carnap, though, which seems a huge oversight in terms of the struggle Naturalism has had. But nevermimd). I do think your proposed counter arguments do much to convince me that these 'giants' are not giants in an absolute sense. They are for me (very much in my work) and for you, but I just know they are already vestiges for some others, perhaps younger than I am. I look at my bookshelves - containing all these giants - and I suspect these shelves are lacking. I just don't know in what.

Brad said...

Incidentally, during the period you talk of - 1960 to 1990 - Kuhn taught at both UC Berkeley (until 1964), and Princeton (1964-1979). It was only after that point that he was at MIT.

Ununilium said...

As a philosophy student from Germany, I am a little (positively) surprised by this list of philosophers. Surely, everybody studying philosophy today has heard about Rawls, Nozick or Putnam. But one could probably graduate from BA in Philosophy here without ever having heard of Kripke, Chalmers or Van Fraasen.
So I'd love to hear your opinions about the general evaluation of the second half of the 20th century when it comes to philosophy. How will future generations evaluate this Golden Age of Naturalism in the anglosaxon tradition in comparison to let's say Habermas or Foucault?
My critique would be that many of the philosophers that were named here, published their major contributions in a rather narrow field. But please correct me if I am wrong.
So how would a student from the end of the 22nd century even evaluate those contributions, given the challenges that we need to anticipate (climate change, social unrest, inequality, etc.)?
Thanks for that great article!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ununilium: One of the motivating thoughts behind this post was the thought that one of the things the 20th century will be known for is the reconciliation of philosophy and science and in particular its success (or apparent success) in finally fitting the mind, meaning, and ethics into a thoroughly naturalistic picture of the world. This is of course a major philosophical accomplishment, and even if one thinks it fails, it is certainly a bold and important effort. This reconciliation was led by philosophers such as those named, though to a substantial extent is was a collective effort. Fodor, Kripke, Dretske, etc., might not be specifically remembered except by specialists -- or maybe one (David Lewis?) will come to be seen as emblematic of the era in the "winnowing of the greats" (as I've called it elsewhere). But my *guess* that that the naturalization of philosophy will in the long run prove the most historically important aspect of 20th century philosophy.

Habermas and Foucault are also great philosophers, and they will likely also be remembered. Not only one thing was happening in 20th century philosophy! Perhaps Foucault has more philosophical charisma and more of a broad view of philosophy than the main analytic philosophers, so if you think of philosophy in terms of the history of *individual philosophers* instead of broad movements, it still wouldn't surprise me if he were better remembered than anyone in the recent Anglophone tradition.