“Very often, parallelism is not an option in philosophy”

it’s a philosopher Frank jackson (ANU), in a recent interview published in The Undergraduate Philosophy Journal of Australasia.

[Bradley Kickett, “Inlet” (detail)]

One of the investigators, Thomas Spiteri, asked:

Throughout your career, you have made major contributions in various fields. Do you have any thoughts on hyper-specialization and the disappearance of “generalists” in philosophy?

Here is Professor Jackson’s full answer:

Of course, I’m in favor of having broad interests but, as a friend of mine who is both a good tennis player and a good singer said, “who wants to be the best singer among the players of tennis and the best tennis player among singers’?

The reason for having broad interests in philosophy is not so much that it is a good thing in itself, but that often it is necessary to have broad interests. Philosophical issues often cross the boundaries that we mark with subject names in departmental subject offer lists. Here are some examples.

i) Ethics are linked to action. Decision theory is linked to action. It makes perfect sense to ask what we might learn from decision theory when we examine ethical issues.
ii) Certain points of view in ethics have implications in metaphysics; if correct, there are properties that go beyond those that appear in accounts of what our world looks like and that come from the sciences (and perception if it is that). This means that work in ethics encroaches on metaphysics.
iii) We often use sentences to express how we think things are. The examples are the sentences I am writing at the moment. The theories of reference for the words contained in the sentences must make sense of this fact. The result is that the philosophy of belief is inextricably linked with the philosophy of language.
iv) Meta-ethics concerns, among other things, the semantics of a certain class of sentences in a natural language, as pointed out by RM Hare when he called his major contribution to meta-ethics “the language of moral ”. There are, that is to say, questions of ethics which are also questions of the philosophy of language.

I could give more examples but I hope the message is clear. Very often, parallelism is not an option in philosophy. This is one of the reasons why philosophy can be difficult. But of course sometimes specialization is fine, and indeed that is the way to go.

I do think, however, that it’s worth distinguishing the kind of specialization that is great from something that isn’t such a good thing, and maybe that’s what you had in mind when you were talking about hyper-specialization. Philosophy is about issues – the nature of consciousness, the objectivity of value, the authority that comes from being democratically elected, etc. Philosophers can get too involved in the ins and outs of either dispute in the newspapers, why this or that objection to what they themselves have said is wrong, and reassuring readers that ‘they have read a lot of articles on the subject that they have been writing about.

Related to this is Jackson’s response to a previous question, from interviewer Will Cailes, about his philosophical interests:

I have broad interests. One of the reasons is that I like to “move on”; you could describe it as if i was easily bored, but that would be, i think, unfair. What happens is that I’m interested in a particular problem – say, the semantics of conditionals – maybe because I read an article on the topic or spoke to a colleague. I then think seriously about the subject and do some serious reading, and one of two things happens: I judge that I have nowhere but I hope I have learned something nonetheless, or I judge that I have nowhere. have somewhere and I post on the topic. So I look for something else to work on. One downside to this way of doing philosophy is that I always feel like I haven’t read as much as I should have on a given topic. The upside is that sometimes, sometimes, I see connections between what can appear to be separate topics. As I move between topics, I see links that can easily be missed.

The interview covers several aspects of Jackson’s life, education and work. you can read everything here.


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