Before offering some final words, I want to thank the editors for inviting me to share my thoughts this week about The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychology of Well-Being.
A quick recap of the week’s events:
In The Myth of the Great Divide, I laid out my goal for the week: to argue that the Great Divide between descriptive science and normative (branches of) philosophy is a myth.
In R-E-S-P-E-C-T, I introduced the basic respect assumption: Philosophers and psychologists who seem to be studying well-being are studying well-being. This led in short order to the inclusive approach: Figure out if there’s something that philosophers and psychologists who are studying well-being are all roughly right about. Whatever that special something is, it’s probably well-being.
In A Fine Mess, I argued that psychologists studying well-being are studying Positive Causal Networks. PCNs are self-maintaining networks of feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments people tend to find pleasant or valuable.
In Feelin’ Groovy, I adduced the network theory of well-being: A person’s well-being is made up of her PCNs and PCN fragments. I also defended the network theory against two objections: (1) PCNs aren’t necessary for well-being, and (2) PCNs aren’t sufficient for well-being.
In The Normative and the Descriptive, I argued that the network theory, despite explaining well-being in purely descriptive terms, can account for normativity. The intuitive argument was: (1) well-being is PCNs and PCN fragments; (2) well-being is valuable; (3) therefore PCNs and PCN fragments are valuable. Premise (2) is supported by intuition. (NB: Here’s a benefit of not having been too hard on intuitions.) What’s more, on various respectable views of normativity, the network theory can explain the value of well-being.
There is a no Great Divide separating science from the normative branches of philosophy.
The Great Divide is not buttressed by an epistemological distinction between the way philosophers and scientists study well-being. The inclusive approach says that the evidence for a theory of well-being comes from both scientists’ observations and experiments and philosophers’ intuitions. And the network theory receives support from both sources of evidence.
Some philosophers will try to preserve the Great Divide by relying on a semantic distinction – no compendium of descriptive concepts can ever have that authority, that “oomph,” that je ne sais quoi that make our normative concepts so special. If that’s true, that’s a very interesting fact about our normative concepts. But this semantic fact by itself cannot support the Great Divide.
Once you recognize that a significant line of evidence for a theory about the nature of well-being comes from the observations and experiments of scientists, then you’ve got to live with the possibility that the world’s not going to conform to your ideas of it. The true theory of what well-being is might not deliver that je ne sais quoi that’s in your concept of well-being. C’est la vie.
Once the epistemological thesis maintaining the Great Divide falls, the semantic divide – as real as it might be – is just too flimsy to prop it up on its own.
Bertrand Russell offered a dramatic myth about the history of Western philosophy that goes something like this: For centuries, every systematic study into the nature of the universe was philosophy. Then in about 1600, the sciences began to develop successful theories and empirical methods, and they began annexing great swaths of philosophy’s lands. Today, philosophy is no longer a colossus that dominates the world. We’re Luxembourg.
Given Russell’s Myth, the Great Divide serves an important purpose. It keeps the hordes at bay. Science might snatch from us all there ever was, is or will be. But it can never take from us What Ought To Be. Philosophy has sole and absolute power over the normative.
If we buy Russell’s Myth, it looks like I’m doing my best to open the gates and share perhaps our greatest treasure with the scientists. By suggesting that we tear down the wall dividing Ought from Is, have I proven myself a traitor to philosophy? No. But to see why, we have to see Russell’s Myth for what it is. A myth.
There’s enough truth in Russell’s Myth to make it convincing. But it misleads.
It’s a mistake to think about intellectual disciplines on analogy with sovereign nations battling for territory. It’s more useful to think of them as engaged in a cooperative venture. A big reason evolutionary biology is so epistemologically solid is that it has so many connections with other disciplines. It receives support from (among others) physics, chemistry, geology, and other branches of biology. And in turn, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
There is one way that intellectual disciplines are like sovereign states: Trying to build impenetrable walls around your territory is not a sign of a health and strength. It’s a sign of weakness and disease.
Are there subject matters that are philosophy’s only and always? Maybe. But this isn’t something we should be worrying about.
If you’ve taught philosophy for a while, you’ll have had the “But what am I going to do with a philosophy major?” discussion. And you’ll have told countless bright students that while the study of philosophy doesn’t train you to do a particular job, it does give you some really valuable skills that many employers will find very useful.
And you know what? There’s evidence that this is exactly right. Students of philosophy should go out in the world with confidence in their own talents and in the skills they’ve acquired by studying philosophy.
Instead of building walls, perhaps we’d do well to heed our own advice.