Thursday, April 28, 2022

Will Today's Philosophical Work Still Be Discussed in 200 Years?

I'm a couple days late to this party. Evidently, prominent Yale philosopher Jason Stanley precipitated a firestorm of criticism on Twitter by writing:

I would regard myself as an abject failure if people are still not reading my philosophical work in 200 years. I have zero intention of being just another Ivy League professor whose work lasts as long as they are alive.

(Stanley has since deleted the tweet, but he favorably retweeted a critique that discusses him specifically, so I assume he wouldn't object to my also doing so.)

Now "abject failure" is too strong -- Stanley has a tendency toward hyperbole on Twitter -- but I think it is entirely reasonable for him to aspire to create philosophical work that will still be read in 200 years and to be somewhat disheartened by the prospect that he will be entirely forgotten. Big-picture philosophy needn't aim only at current audiences. It can aspire to speak to future generations.

How realistic is such an aim? Well, first, we need to evaluate how likely it is that history of philosophy will be an active discipline in 200 years. The work of our era -- Stanley and others -- will of course be regarded as historical by then. Maybe there will be no history of philosophy. Humanity might go extinct or collapse into a post-apocalyptic dystopia with little room for recondite historical scholarship. Alternatively, humanity or our successors might be so cognitively advanced that they regard us early 21st century philosophers as the monkey-brained advocates of simplicistic views that are correct only by dumb luck if they are correct at all.

But I don't think we need to embrace dystopian pessimism; and I suspect that even if our descendants are super-geniuses, there will remain among them some scholars who appreciate the history of 21st century thought, at least in an antiquarian spirit. ("How fascinating that our monkey-brained ancestors were able to come up with all of this!") And of course another possibility is that society proceeds more or less on its current trajectory. Economic growth continues, perhaps at a more modest rate, and with it a thriving global academic culture, hosting ever more researchers of all stripes, with historians in India, Indonesia, Illinois, and Iran specializing in ever more recondite subfields. It's not unreasonable, then, to guess that there will be historians of philosophy in 200 years.

What will they think of our era? Will they study it at all? It seems likely they will. After all, historians of philosophy currently study every era with a substantial body of written philosophy, and as academia has grown, scholars have been filling in the gaps between our favorite eras. I have argued elsewhere that the second half of the 20th century might well be viewed as a golden age of philosophy -- a flourishing of materialism, naturalism, and secularism, as 19th- and early 20th-century dualism and idealism were mostly jettisoned in favor of approaches more straightforwardly grounded in physics and biology. You might not agree with that conjecture. But I think you should still agree that at least in terms of the quantity of work, the variety of topics explored, and the range of views considered, the past fifty years compares favorably with, say, the early medieval era, and indeed probably pretty much any relatively brief era.

So I don't think historians will entirely ignore us. And given that English is now basically the lingua franca of global academia (for better or worse), historians of our era will not neglect English-language philosophers.

Who will be read? The historical fortunes of philosophers rise and fall. Gottlob Frege and Friedrich Nietzsche didn't receive much attention in their day, but are now viewed as a historical giants. Christian Wolff and Henri Bergson were titans in their lifetimes but are little read now. On the other hand, the general tendency is for influential figures to continue to be seen as influential, and we haven't entirely forgotten Wolff and Bergson. A good historian will recognize at least that a full understanding of the eras in which Wolff and Bergson flourished requires appreciating the impact of Wolff and Bergson.

Given the vast number of philosophers writing today and in recent decades, an understanding of our era will probably focus less on understanding the systems of a few great figures and more on understanding the contributions of many scholars to prominent topics of debate -- for example, the rise of materialism, functionalism, and representationalism in philosophy of mind (alongside the major critiques of those views); or the division of normative ethics into consequentialist, deontological, and virtue-ethical approaches. A historian of our era will want to understand these things. And that will require reading David Lewis, Bernard Williams, and other leading figures of the late 20th century as well as, probably, David Chalmers and Peter Singer among others writing now.

As I imagine it, scholars of the 23rd century will still have archival access to our major books and journals. Specialists, then, will thumb through old issues of Nous and Philosophical Review. Some will be intrigued by minor scholars who are in dialogue with the leading figures of our era. They might find some of the work by these minor scholars to be intriguing or insightful -- a valuable critique, perhaps, of the views of the leading figures, maybe prefiguring positions that are more prominently and thoroughly developed by better-known subsequent scholars.

It is not unreasonable, I think, for Stanley to aspire to be among the leading political philosophers and philosophers of language of our era, who will still read by some historians and students, and still perhaps viewed as having some good ideas that are worth continuing discussion and debate.

For my own part, I doubt I will be viewed that way. But I still fantasize that some 23rd-century specialist in the history of philosophy of our era will stumble across one of my books or articles and think, "Hey, some of the work of this mostly-forgotten philosopher is pretty interesting! I think I'll cite it in one of my footnotes." I don't write mainly with that future philosopher in mind, but it still pleases me to think that my work might someday provoke that reaction.

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Quill Kukla said...

I think one problem with this as an aspiration is that it turns us away from time-sensitive topics that may well be pressingly important. It biases us towards more abstract philosophy that doesn't engage with the problems of the moment. There is of course room for and value in such abstract work, but I think that we have to be careful not to glorify it at the cost of more engaged work, or too assume that longlastingness is a proxy for importance.

I've written both kinds of philosophy. I've written papers on truth, the nature of representation, and the nature of agency, topics which might still be relevant to philosophical debates in 200 years - these debates have certainly lasted longer than that so far. But my most cited papers, and the ones that seem to have had impact beyond academia, are on things like breastfeeding policy, risk management in medical care, and so forth, which are just not going to speak to people in a totally different social and technological context than ours. I think this work is at least as important as the more abstract stuff I do - most days I think it is more important. I'm writing on covid and vulnerability right now and it feels super important, but boy do I hope it's irrelevant in 200 years.

Kyle Thompson said...

Great article! And who wouldn't want to be a footnote in some super important work written centuries from now!

I can definitely see why someone would want to be read 200 years out, but I have begun to increasingly conclude that my most meaningful contribution to philosophy is and should be—and I understand how this might be construed as excessively sincere or cheesy—the philosophical discussions I co-create through teaching. Of course, there are "texts" we more formally produce when we publish, speak, etc., but I'm inclined to think of courses and their embedded conversations as texts (not unlike how Geertz frames anthropological analysis in "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," which happens to be a text I'm currently teaching). The philosophizing isn't on my PowerPoint slides, or in my marginal feedback, but in the larger scholarly conversation that I co-produce in teaching, discussing, grading, and questioning ideas throughout a class. It can be read as a text—and this is true of any course, of course—as having certain structural elements that, while someone outside the course couldn't cobble them together and read them 200 years on, act as a medium for the articulation, interrogation, and discussion of philosophical ideas. And, it is this philosophical work—my teaching—I am most proud of, because it is live, real, responsive to our present moment, and self-contextualizing (i.e., someone participating in the discussion understands the context of the discussion because they are in it, whereas a scholar down the line would struggle to accurately grasp the context of remarks were they, though they aren't, recorded).

I suppose that is where I part ways with some metaphilosophical views: I largely view philosophy as an activity that, in essence, represents a genuine, live wrestling with aspects of the human condition rather than a progressive domain of inquiry in which problems are solved, "worries" are quelled, and grand contributions are made (even if those things all do happen from time to time). So, the abject failure for me would be if my students found me distant, arrogant (or excessively so?), or more interested in publications than conversations. But, to each their own, I suppose.

Arnold said...

The object/objectivity of "philosophy of evolution and evolution of philosophy"...

Being here now is a different state of evolution...
...that things change is different than seeing things change...

Towards the imposition of value in all things...

Good stuff, thanks...

D said...

I expect that people in the future will be interested in what philosophy of the mind looked like as AI started to be developed.

Kevin Reuter said...

I suspect that hardly any physicist (or any other natural scientist, for that matter) would be concerned with whether or not their work is read in 200 years time. That is not the point of their work. The point is to advance science.

Why is philosophy still so obsessed with big names and individual works? I very much hope we will not care in 200 years time what Stanley wrote, not because his work is not interesting, but because tying ideas too much to individual people is detrimental to the field. If he makes a positive contribution to philosophy that carries on through the centuries, then I would say that he was a successful philosopher (historically speaking).

I wish we were more like my idealized physicist.

Philosopher Eric said...

I’m in agreement that in two centuries time current philosophers should be virtually forgotten for the most part, and regardless of any ideas that make them famous today. Historians and otherwise interested people should delve into our situation a bit, though with a hindsight that diminishes their curiosity beyond grasping how things happened to be during periods like this one. People such as Chalmers and Dennett should be considered utterly unimportant given that future people should have various verified answers which render their ideas merely quaint. Some of their names should remain essentially as representations for the ways that philosophy continued to fail.

But wait a minute… isn’t this a field in which nothing has ever nor will ever get figured out? Isn’t philosophy somewhat like an art to potentially appreciate? Why wouldn’t people two centuries from now still be curious about our beliefs given that they should be just as perplexed regarding its perpetually enduring questions? Actually I consider that understanding to be false. I believe that various things will get figured out in the field, and not for the sake of philosophy itself, but rather for the sake of science. Without effective principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, fields such as psychology, psychiatry, sociology, cognitive science, and so on, are left with too weak a foundation from which to effectively advance. Apparently harder forms of science are simply less susceptible to foundational problems, though wherever they do go off the rails (and people like physicist Sabine Hossenfelder discuss these places), future philosophy should help.

It’s difficult for me to say when certain philosophers will find success on this front, since I’m not aware of any who even discuss it today. It seems to me that those who do eventually succeed here however, will two centuries from now be remembered with a reverence on the order of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein.

chinaphil said...

This struck me as an odd thing to say:
"how likely it is that history of philosophy will be an active discipline in 200 years."
Because why "history of philosophy"? Philosophy looks from the outside like the one subject in which you can actually do philosophy by reading and engaging with writers from 200 (2000!) years ago. It's almost philosophy's most distinctive feature. You can't do that in the sciences, and I don't think it really happens in the other humanities. I don't see big new publications by historians on Thucydides, or by political scientists on de Tocqueville. But you can still publish a major new book on Kant.
So you could understand Stanley's claim as a desire to do *that kind* of philosophy: the kind that goes into the forever reading lists. There surely are other kinds of philosophy as well, and if there's a problem with Stanley's post, it's that he's implying a clear hierarchy of importance, and suggesting that someone who isn't writing "forever books" is being less of a philosopher. You could reject the hierarchical implications of what he says, but still accept the idea of doing the kind of work that goes into the long-term canon as one legitimate aspiration (among many).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi folks! Thanks for all of the interesting comments.

Quill: Yes, I completely agree with all of that, and thanks for your excellent work on both kinds of topics!

Kyle: I'm inclined to agree that for most of us our biggest impact is through our teaching, both the short-term effects it has on students but also maybe too for the subtler long-term effects it has on how they approach the world later throughout their lives and then, through that, in rippling outward effects on others. Near the end of your comment you invite the idea that publications are aimed at solving problems rather than in being conversations. Here I'd disagree. I think publications can also aim at opening up questions, or revealing new possibilities, that hadn't been as vividly appreciated before, and thus generating new conversations, rather than solving. I think of this as the philosophy of opening rather than closing.

Kevin: I think there is a bit of a different between the sciences and philosophy here. Scientific contributions are typically absorbed and improved on, while philosophical contributions retain a uniqueness that says something about the culture of the era and the worldview of an individual. Many of the philosophical debates are not solved, but rather elaborated in a wide variety of directions, and older elaborations can still have relevance and distinctive value in a way that it's harder for older scientific contributions to have. For these reasons, I think philosophy does and should tend to stay better in touch with its history than the sciences do. That said, I agree that there's something unfortunate about the culture of lionizing big-name geniuses.

Phil E: You are more optimistic than I that the big philosophical questions will be definitively figured out! I think part of philosophy is about finding the boundaries of possible knowledge -- and there must always be boundaries -- and then trying to peer into the mists beyond them. There will always be philosophical questions whose definitive resolution escapes us, and that will include some of the questions (but probably not all of the questions) we recognize as philosophical today.

Chinaphil: Yes, I agree about engaging with older figures. History of philosophy is different from history of science or history of history in the sense that there's more of a sense of active engagement with the thinking of the older figures, continuing the dialogue, seeing how their ideas still contribute fresh insights into continuing conversations. This is, I think, because philosophy pushes at the boundaries of what is perennially both important and beyond definitive resolution. And I agree that there's nothing wrong with aspiring to have one's books become canon alongside Plato, Mengzi, Hume, Kant, etc. -- though probably anyone should realistically view that as a longshot and not devalue themselves or others who don't accomplish that.

Philosopher Eric said...

I suppose that I must seem optimistic to you right now professor, though let me moderate your interpretation of my position just a bit. This proposed future community would not provide science and humanity with “definitive” answers, but rather with “effective” answers. I do not propose for us to ever break the barrier of possible knowledge. Effective foundational positions should be all that scientists will need in order to do their jobs much better than they have in the past, especially on the soft side. And it does seem to me that various effective agreed upon answers should be quite possible for certain specialists to provide scientists with should such communities emerge for that purpose. I consider this virtually inevitable some day.

You’ve written before about how metaphysical speculation always ends up leading a given theorist into all sorts of ridiculous conclusions, and I do agree that this is where things seem to generally go. The only notable metaphysician who has given humanity something sensible as far as I know would be René Descartes when he said “I think therefore I am” (though yes, he then proceeded to get ridiculous under the Catholic doctrine (not that he shouldn’t have under the circumstances, but still)).

Beyond Descartes’ enduring enlightened metaphysical observation however, let me submit the following: To the extent that system based causal dynamics fail, nothing exists to even potentially understand. The thought here being that causality is what would exist to potentially understand, and so without that, quests to grasp should be pointless anyway.

What I think this principle would effectively do for science is break it into two separate forms — both “natural” and “natural plus” varieties. Thus without all sorts of non causal and thus non comprehensible notions floating around the natural form, such scientists might do better than they’ve done in the past. This is one potential example of how various “effective” rather than “true” principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and/or axiology, might help scientists do what they do better than they have in the past.

Nicholas Krause said...

I don't think lots of post Lewis analytic philosophy will be read in the 23rd century for various reasons. Honestly probably the biggest things currently that may be still read is parts of philosophy of race and queer/feminism theory. Probably if your talking metaphysics the two things that will be read the most from the last 2 centuries i.e. 20 and 21st are phenomenology and psychoanalysis theories or post-structualism.

Hasen Khudairi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Don't know how much work willl be *read*, but a lot will be downloaded from perhaps mentioned.

Ryan Clark said...

I'm not actually an academic or a philosopher, but I do hang out on Twitter with some philosophers, such as Philip Goff and Keith Frankish (the odd couple), and I'm pretty sure that many of my super-insightful Tweets will be discussed 200--nay!--500 years from now by many philosophers and their students!

For example, I introduced a new term into the philosophical lexicon just today! Let's just say, you're going to be hearing a lot about "epistemic strong emergence"™ in the coming days, weeks, months, and years!