What is synthetic philosophy? A response to Eric Schliesser

Much current philosophy is done in what could be called a piecemeal fashion. Rather than plotting huge systems of thought, many of us work on details by trying to tackle issues that can be handled in the length of a paper. Of course, the details or pieces are still parts of larger projects, but most of the time these projects are not philosophical systems. Nevertheless, there are some philosophers whose approach strikes me as resulting in a sort of system. My favourite example is Ruth Millikan. Not only did and does her work shape the landscape in philosophy of mind and language; rather her biofunctional approach provides underpinnings that run through all the details of her work and that even inspire novel accounts in other fields of philosophy. Perhaps it is no coincidence that other philosophers working in the tradition of naturalism appear systematic in a similar fashion. In an intriguing blog post on the work of Daniel Dennett, Eric Schliesser has coined the term synthetic philosophy:*

“Synthetic philosophy is the enterprise of bringing together insights, knowledge, and arguments from the special sciences with the aim to offer a theoretically (reasonably) unified, coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both). It may, in turn, generate new research in the special sciences or a new science connected to the framework adopted in the synthetic philosophy.”

Note that Eric Schliesser does not simply speak of a kind of survey work or journalism about science. Rather he takes this approach to be a philosophical category or trend in nuanced opposition to analytic philosophy. In highlighting the traits of unification and connection to a wider culture, his description strikes me as a tacit appeal to the old-fashioned idea of a philosophical system. However, a distinctive feature of synthetic philosophy is that it is to be informed by what he calls “special sciences”. Having a “kinship” with early modern natural philosophy, its current version promises “new cognitive tools … for the special sciences and philosophical reflection, including (ahh) the development of useful new myths.”

But what kind of category is synthetic philosophy? Given that we are still in the grip of a highly problematic divide between analytic and continental philosophy, baptising emerging trends is not an innocent matter. Such baptising or coinage is involved in canonising. So what are the boundaries of synthetic philosophy? Is it a trend within or going beyond the divide? In view of Millikan, Dennett and others that people have named in discussion, this trend seems to emerge from naturalism in its Darwinian branches. “Naturalism” is said in many ways, but if unification and being informed by the special sciences are its main traits then we should perhaps be hopeful that it surpasses some of the old divisions. That said, I have at least two worries about Eric Schliesser’s coinage:

  1. Which of the special sciences does Eric Schliesser have in mind? Are the humanities included?** Aiming at unified explanations, many branches of naturalism would probably tend to exclude them. The term “special sciences” is of course itself problematic in that it lends itself to restrictions or even reductionism. But if there are restrictions in place, they should be there for a reason. As it stands, it is unclear whether synthetic philosophy is supposed to be merely a certain way of doing philosophy (building explanatory systems and being informed by special sciences) or the systematic development of a programme (unifying certain branches of naturalism).
  2. If we want to think about categorising emerging branches of philosophy, it might be problematic to tie these branches too closely to names of individual philosophers.*** In addition to the danger of feeding into the genius cult, there are good reasons to resist seeing philosophical or intellectual developments more generally as the achievements of a single person. One reason is that doing philosophy is essentially dialogical, happening between and not inside people. But if we accept this point, then what is it that distinguishes synthetic philosopjy from the piecemeal fashion alluded to in the beginning?

Now if we accept that philosophy is not the work of geniuses, then what is it that creates the synthesis in synthetic philosophy? If it is not the person, is it perhaps a programme after all? Or the union of philosophy and other disciplines? But which ones? Why is synthetic philosophy not just philosophy? – One way of tackling these worries would be perhaps to drop the label “synthetic philosophy” and just continue to speak of (Darwinian) naturalism. Another way would be to see this trend indeed as a “way of doing” philosophy. But then there can’t be a principled reason to exclude any field of study. In this case philosophical conversations invoking arguments from history or literature would be in the same business as those invoking biological or physical theories: synthetic philosophy.


* Note that he notes that Herbert Spencer might have introduced the term. See also ES’s previous posts on Rachel Carson and Peter Godfrey-Smith.

** ES suggests this when saying that “Dennett brings Darwinian theory to bear on and connects existing work in offering empirically informed, but still speculative accounts of the origins of mind, language, and life (most of which already deeply influenced by Darwinism) and to open up a new meta-science of culture, memetics, that can draw upon and re-orient existing cultural studies and human/social sciences.”

*** Of course, ES is well aware of this problem and alludes to this when noting that in “Dennett’s case, Darwinisms provides the synthesizing glue. This is no coincidence because Darwin himself is the hard-to-classify (among the) last natural philosopher(s)/naturalists or (among) the first synthetic philosopher(s) (if Spencer had not jumped ahead of him).”

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