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Relations to other Intellectual RealmsModern Times

What one might term the conversion of philosophy from the quest for wisdom to the more prosaic pursuit of conceptual analysis, or the abstract clarification of the claims of more important scientific theories, is a marked feature of the philosophical thought since the turn of the nineteenth century. Since Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), philosophers have become more limited in their intellectual ambitions and, at times, have dispensed with the pretensions of their subject to be a synoptic discipline, or else to propose something of enduring value or pertinence on the subjects of God, ethics, and beauty. For good or ill, modern philosophy has preferred to restrict its purview to those matters that can be demonstrated to be legitimate objects of discourse and has eschewed ways of talking about issues that are deemed to lie outside the boundaries of sense meaning.

The prominence of such views, especially in the English-speaking world, eventually led to a recasting of the relationship of philosophy to other subjects of intellectual concern. In those quarters where the influence of scientism has been unyielding, there has been widespread support for the view that philosophy can never pretend to emulate the accuracy, reliability, and verisimilitude of valid scientific theories. Going on from there, some thinkers have taken the further step and argued that there are no perennial philosophical questions, and that traditional philosophical puzzles concerning the nature of the mind, the structure of the world, and the moral qualities of human beings have either been resolved or else superceded by advancements in physics, biology, and psychology. For these thinkers, there is nothing special about philosophy, and there is nothing to privilege it over and above other branches of intellectual inquiry. A well-known position associated with the work of the American thinker Richard Rorty (b. 1931) has even suggested that philosophy has expired through exhaustion. Now that science has demystified the world and resolved the perennial mysteries, what else is there for philosophy to do? Given the end of philosophy, Rorty has suggested that scholars turn to subjects such as literature in order to make sense of the seeming intractabilities of human worldly existence.

Yet Rorty's position, though it is based on a set of metaphysical commitments that are widely shared by contemporary philosophers, is by no means universal, and despite the blandishments of fashion and novelty, the daily grind of philosophical speculation still goes on. Few are persuaded that the subject first commissioned by father Thales (c. 625–c. 547 B.C.E.) and so suggestively ameliorated by Socrates and his successors is really at an end. What is perhaps significant about this phenomenon is the fact that the very practice of philosophy, whether it be in dialogical or in written form, helps to ensure the impression among practitioners of the subject that the discipline is really quite different from every branch of the humanities, sciences, and theology. Why is this so? It really comes down to the type of question, the supporting framework of reference, and the variety of answer that it invites that identify and individuate a question as a philosophical question. Socrates understood this and the Sophists did not. That each generation of his successors has attempted to honor the special nature of the discipline he did so much to create stands as testimony to the fact that philosophy will always enjoy a vicarious relationship to other branches of human learning.


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M. W. F. Stone

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthPhilosophy - Relations to other Intellectual Realms - After Plato, Medieval And Renaissance, Early Modern, Modern Times, Bibliography