Philosopher Garry Dobbins Defends His Calling

My last five columns explored philosophy’s purpose. The series was provoked, in part, by the claim of physicist Stephen Hawking that science has rendered philosophy obsolete as a truth-seeking method. Even some philosophers are worried about how, or whether, their field achieves “progress.” My friend Garry Dobbins, a philosopher at Stevens, responds to these issues below. –John Horgan

Those who don’t take the trouble to spend the years of study necessary to master the science, who give out as their opinion the claim that global warming is a hoax, are not to be taken seriously.

I myself would not like to think that my considered opinions are justly to be ignored in such a way. How much philosophy has Hawking read? Has he read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit? Or Wittgenstein’s late work? What about Plato’s Theaetetus? If so I’d like to know why, in face of these works, he says philosophy is not concerned with truth? And if not, what can his opinion of philosophy be worth?

Nietzsche and Wittgenstein both observed that language itself seems to suggest to us that things, including our thoughts about things, must be thus and so, in many instances, where in reality the logic, or as they call it “grammar,” is in fact misleading, and things are not, as our thoughts too are not, as we take them to be. Those who think they can take the word “progress” from where it does make clear sense, and then simply stick it to philosophy and expect it to make the same sense, are laboring under precisely such a grammatical illusion. Wittgenstein replies to those who say philosophy makes no “progress” by observing that so “long as there is still a verb “to be” that looks as though it functions in the same way as “to eat” and “to drink,” as long as we still have the adjectives “identical,” “true,” “false,” “possible,” as long as we continue to talk of a river of time and expanse of space etc., etc., people will keep stumbling over the same cryptic difficulties and staring at something that no explanation seems capable of clearing up.”

Then another point: if the discipline of philosophy aims to produce, and does in some measure succeed in producing greater clarity – as well of whatever we are thinking about and too what in us hinders, obscures, or distorts the quality of our thinking–isn’t this of value? Couldn’t we even and fairly say that the sciences – consider only physics for example – has made what its idolaters call “progress” only insofar as, over time, and responsive to new experiences, the likes of an Einstein had the impudence – the word he himself used in this connection – to repudiate the received wisdom in favor of a greater clarity over a wider conceptual landscape?

Then too the word “truth” has rather a checkered history, but in the case of the sciences it isn’t a word that can be used without mystification, for as Thomas Kuhn was not the first to note, Heinrich Hertz having made essentially the same point in the late 19th century, scientific theories can’t be said to be true, at all. They are “models” we use for various purposes, some of them no doubt of great practical interest, and value: but they are not “truths” in any obvious sense of that word.

We find in Aristotle’s physics, for example, not a truth or falsehood, but a more or less fruitful way of looking at some things not considered from Descartes’, or Einstein’s, point of view. Different perspectives reveal to us different things: different features or dimensions of whatever the issue is at hand. And so we might find it more useful to us to study and reflect upon a partial truth than something that is true, without qualification.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which belongs to the College of Arts & Letters.