- Philosophical matters are those that demand answers that can stand up to all things considered and hence cannot be addressed without suspending the enabling assumptions of any more specific field of science or inquiry. Wieseltier seems to believe that these matters are the exclusive province of philosophers, professionals who have been licensed to hold forth on them because of some advanced training in the humanities that qualifies them to do this important work. That is a common enough illusion, fostered by the administrative structures of academia, and indeed many (paid, professional, tenured) philosophers cling to it, but the plain fact is that every discipline generates philosophical issues as it advances, and they cannot be responsibly addressed by thinkers ignorant of the facts (the findings, the methods, the problems) encountered in those disciplines.
A philosopher in the sub-discipline of aesthetics who held forth on the topic of beauty in music but who couldn't read music or play an instrument, and who was unfamiliar with many of the varieties of music in the world, would not deserve attention. Nor would an ethicist opining on what we ought to do in Syria who was ignorant of the history, culture, politics and geography of Syria. Those who want to be taken seriously when they launch inquiries about such central philosophical topics as morality, free will, consciousness, meaning, causality, time and space had better know quite a lot that we have learned in recent decades about these topics from a variety of sciences. Unfortunately, many in the humanities think that they can continue to address these matters the old-fashioned way, as armchair theorists in complacent ignorance of new developments.
Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or "problematics" to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the "scientizers" (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can't defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.
- Before describing some dangerous places in Philosophyland I should say a few words about its geography. Philosophyland is situated in a large plain at the very centre of the confederation of disciplines commonly known as the Republic of Science. It is surrounded by mountains inhabited by the various sciences, such as the Mountain of Physics, the Mountain of Biology and the high and inaccessible Mountain of Mathematics. In fact all the other disciplines have a border to Philosophyland, but most of these border areas are very sparsely populated.
The volunteer border-guard is the most disorganized troop of fighters that mankind has seen. They all have different opinions on the location of the border that they have sworn to defend. Many of them try to reduce rather than extend the territory they are supposed to defend. “This is not philosophy”, they shout at colleagues transgressing what they consider to be the border-line. “Do not enter that terrain, it is not for philosophers.” The border-guard has never in historical times united to fight a common enemy. Instead, they engage in innumerable skirmishes among themselves. Due to their ineptness, the borders of Philosophyland have in practice been decided by the more well-organized troops of the neighbouring disciplines.
I strongly advise you not to enrol in the philosophical border-guard. Personally I am instead a member of another troop of volunteers, the Joint Defence Forces of the Republic of Science. This is not the occasion to expound on its glorious mission, but talk to me afterwards if you wish to enlist.
The surrounding mountains of learning can be seen from virtually everywhere in Philosophyland. Many philosophers use optical devices to study them closely, or even visit them on occasions. But quite a few philosophers have developed a deep-seated aversion to any form of dealings with territories outside of Philosophyland. Some of them cannot even stand the sight of the mountains, and therefore move to places where they can see as little of them as possible. Most of these philosophers eventually end up in the Dark Cave, a large underground formation in the middle of Philosophyland. It is the only place where one cannot catch even the slightest glimpse of the mountains. Since it is completely dark you cannot see anything else either.
A visit to the Dark Cave is a surreal experience. Among its inhabitants, the philosophical cavemen and cavewomen, disagreements are even harsher than among philosophers elsewhere who at least tend to agree on that which they can all see. Some of the cavepeople do not want to hear at all about any mountains. Others talk incessantly about mountains, but only the mountains of their own imagination. All that matters to them is what some mountain might thinkably contain, not what the real mountains are like. In the cave you can for instance meet epistemologists exploring the knowledge of infinitely intelligent creatures without memory, metaphysicians studying causality in a world with three time dimensions and one space dimension, and moral philosophers investigating the moral life of twin monsters such that each of the twins can only become happy if its counterpart becomes unhappy to the corresponding degree.
There is a sure antidote against the compulsive urge that has driven so many all the way to the Dark Cave. That antidote is philosophical mountaineering in the form of regular visits to the high mountains of learning that surround Philosophyland, preferably with a local guide willing to explain some of the wonders to be seen there.