Is Philosophy dead?

Is Philosophy dead?


On the 17th May, 2011 the Daily Telegraph reported:


Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, has declared that “Philosophy is dead”.

Speaking to Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire, the author of 'A Brief History of Time' said that fundamental questions about the nature of the universe could not be resolved without hard data such as that currently being derived from the Large Hadron Collider and space research. “Most of us don't worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead,” he said. “Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”

Prof Hawking went on to claim that “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” He said new theories “lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it”.


So the key question, in light of this year’s Reith lecturer’s claims: is Philosophy dead?

To be fair Hawking is not claiming that Ethics is dead but only those aspects of Philosophy traditionally known as Cosmology. Nevertheless there is a clear trend towards seeing Science as the ‘answer’ to our problems when used alongside Reason. This comes out in the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief In British Public Life (2015), which draws upon some research by the British Humanist Association. The research states that 62% of respondents agreed with the statement:

Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe

And that the same percentage states:

Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong




Indeed the BHA’s website states that Humanists:


Look to science instead of religion as the best way to discover and understand the world.


I would like to explore a number of avenues:


  1. the issue of the nature of reason and Rationalism
  2. nature of Science and how we talk about Science
  3. critiques of the Enlightenment and the problem of Science, from one concrete example
  4. I’d like to return to our question: is Philosophy dead?


The great exponent of reason in the modern age is, without doubt, Immanuel Kant. The publication of his Critic of Pure Reason in 1781, and the second edition in 1787, has to be one of the landmarks of western Philosophy. The book is rarely read, in my experience, but often drawn upon. In Book Two he sets out three questions that Reason has:


  1. What can I know?
  2. What should I do?
  3. What can I hope?


Importantly, Kant believes that I can only know what I can experience – all knowledge begins with experience. Of course there are things beyond experience and Kant explores the relationship between Mathematics and Reason – especially in relation to a priori intuition.


It is not my intention to do a detailed analysis of Kant, that is not my topic, but it is worth acknowledging the impact that Kant has on subsequent thinking especially about what can and cannot be spoken of – something which reaches a pinnacle in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus which starts with the statement: the world is all that is the case; and ends with the statement: what cannot be spoken of must be passed over in silence. But before we go any further I’d like to focus on Kant’s four Antinomies.


As part of Kant’s Transcendental Dialectic he asks four questions:


  1. Does the cosmos have a beginning and end in terms of space and time or is it infinite in both regards?
  2. Is matter composed of atoms that cannot be further divided or is matter infinitely divisible?
  3. Is causality in accordance with the laws of nature the only causality or is it possible that humans can exercise freedom to cause things?
  4. Is there within the cosmos an absolutely necessary being, either as part of it or as the cause for it, or not?


Using the concept of an appeal to law where both cases can be argued from the law (antinomies) he says that it is impossible to know the truth because there is evidence for both positions in response to each question. Therefore he states that these metaphysical questions are beyond the scope of reason – in fact they act as roadblocks to reason. The consequence of this is to reduce the metaphysical to the regulative. What we can say is that there must be moral imperatives based on logic, here in reaction to Hume’s claim that morality is a feeling, what enforces these imperatives is acting as if God existed, as if there was heaven and hell to reward the good and punish the evil – but we have no reason to believe that these beliefs are in anyway true, they are merely useful.


But Kant’s work also takes western Philosophy on a route that leads to what I shall call the ‘hypostatisation of Reason’. Reason becomes something that Human’s can aspire to. Therefore we get phrases in common parlance such as: ‘Reason dictates’ or, to quote Professor Brian Cox on The Infinite Monkey Cage some years ago:  why can’t we just follow Reason? The presumption here being that Reason is both neutral and obvious at the same time.


Whilst this appears to have its origins in Kant it has, in fact, deep roots in Western philosophy going back to Medieval scholasticism, itself based on the responses of Christian thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo who were building upon classical philosophies. A key point for Kant’s concept of Reason, something that comes out the Ipsos-Mori poll for the BHA, is the reference to Natural Law Theory which has its origins in the writing of Aquinas. It is important to recognise that we are always in danger of reading back Aquinas into Aristotle and really ignoring what Aristotle was saying. Aquinas holds that by looking to human nature we can determine how human beings should act. Here there is a concept of normative human being not present in Aristotle. Importantly, there is no real concept of the ambiguity of human nature in this construct – although there is dispute as to what constitutes human nature amongst philosophers and anthropologists.


Of course there is also the tradition of the hypostasisation of Wisdom seen in Biblical literature and the works of Philosophers such as Boethius. In Kant Reason effectively replaces Wisdom; wisdom for Kant, as Jimmy Rising at MIT states: Wisdom is found in the will to follow the right rules, which is the sort of opinion which necessarily drives toward action, but it is not the action itself.


In the context of wanting to distance themselves from Western Rationalism the Slavophil movement, especially Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireyevsky and Pavel Florensky, distinguish between humans being ‘rational animals’ and ‘rationalising animals’. In doing this they deconstruct the concept of Reason as something that is a fiction projected by Western thought. Rather we rationalise on the basis of other factors and those factors shape what we consider rational. Therefore the ‘rational thing’ is not obvious unless we understand those factors. We will return to this in terms of French post-structuralist thought later.


What Rationalism did provide, though, was a framework for Science to develop, especially in terms of Empiricism and providing a hermeneutic of suspicion in relation to evidence.


What is important for us is that Science, to what extent that exists other than ‘method’, starts to challenge traditional beliefs and presents itself as a new paradigm for understanding the universe and ourselves. Part of this paradigm is the methodological presumption that the universe is somehow a ‘closed system’ and the reason for all things can be determined by looking within that system – hence Science cannot speak of what is beyond the empirical.


Of course that doesn’t work out in practice. Mathematics has been seen to be a special case – see Russell and Whitehead on this is their Principia Mathematica or AJ Ayre in Language, Truth and Logic and The Problem of Knowledge. But what is to be made of theoretical Physics? Is it truly a science? How would we ever know? The same applies to Cosmologists, as they always have to go beyond the empirical. Here we rely on the seduction of ‘theory’.


Angell and Demetis in Science’s First Mistake explore the problem of scientific knowledge and its relationship to theory. They critique the view that it is possible to have a ‘theory of everything’ given that we can’t look at everything at once – we would need to be external to everything to have any meaningful view. The act of looking itself is an act of distortion and the problem with works such as A Brief History of Time is that of epistemology. We can theorise but we can never know, even our instruments which give us data about the universe can only be presumed to be indicating reality as opposed to be telling us what really is there. Interestingly, Angell and  Demetis’ work applies the hermeneutic of suspicion to Science but in a way that challenges many scientists. Likewise, along with Popper before them, they recognise that Scientific theory and knowledge is only ever inductive. It can only ever be as good as the latest evidence. But, and this is important, Science is not used in this way. Rather it oscillates between proclaiming certainty and uncertainty. 


Not to get too hung up on the question: is there such a thing as Science or are there inter-related disciplines we call Science? There is another pressing question in relation to what the limits of Science might be. McGrath and others want to state that Science can tell us the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’. Simply, to state that there is no ‘why’ seems rather unsatisfying. We simply move into a form of infinite regression in need of Occam as its barber.

Was there really Enlightenment?

Perhaps the greatest critic of the Enlightenment, and all that it entails, has been John Gray. He has consistently challenged the idea of progress, the modernism that underpins it and its utopianism. I would like, though, to offer a definition of modernism.


Firstly, it is predicated on the belief that we, as a society and civilisation, are progressing and that the ‘new’ is better than the ‘old’. Here we find a key pillar of neo-liberalism in that the new is always more desirable than the old – if not, why do people want the latest iPhone and why is there a crisis if Apple’s sales and profits have dropped?


Secondly, that Science and Industry are not only signs of progress but are agents of progress. To this extent governments put vast amounts of money into Science as a way of promoting industry – as can be seen from the current situation with HE funding where Philosophy gets virtually nothing. Implied within Industry is the business model that develops with it, input-output-maximisation-profit-reinvestment-input and so on. The ubiquity of this model is seen in the marketization of public services such as schools and universities.


Thirdly, modernity is to do with Reason as opposed to superstition and irrational beliefs. This can be seen in the work of people such as James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which sees us moving from magic to religion to reason.


Fourthly, something that I think is often missing in our construct of modernism, the idea that there is such a thing as ‘human nature’; and, that such nature is a constant simply modified by its context. For an interesting critique of this see Geertz: The Interpretation of Cultures.


In short, the Enlightenment leads to the Industrial Revolution, which is enabled by Science and consequently we have progress. This grand-narrative becomes the intellectual construct for modern humanity and it becomes so self-evident we can’t imagine any real alternative other than forms of regression – even the Socialism of the Soviet Union becomes state capitalism and China has moved from Maoist Communism to neo-Confucianism with a lively stock exechange.


Within this move to the modern something else happens, signalled clearly by Kant: Theology dies and Philosophy replaces it. In fact in Kant the study of Theology comes under State regulation along with Law. If you don’t believe me have a look at what is progressively happening to Religious Education in schools as it moves from the Theological to the Phenomenological to the Philosophical. Similarly, whilst Philosophy departments in universities have been hit hard Theology departments have suffered worse and, interestingly AC Grayling’s: New College of the Humanities in London has no study of Religion or Theology, as they are not deemed to be proper areas of academic enquiry – especially the latter.

An example of Reason, Science and Industry as perfect storm

Back to my post-structuralist critique. Derrida explores the origins of the Holocaust. He makes a number of claims that it was a consequence of modernity, including reason, science and industry. I’d like to explore this further.

The Science

By the 20th century, based on the work of Darwin and others, the theory of evolution was becoming widely accepted in both scientific communities and by society in general. I am sure that no one here either questions the theory of evolution, whilst some of you might be rather hazy about the specifics.


Similarly, genetics had been growing from the 19th century starting with the work of Gregor Johann Mendel (d. 1884). Today we are so advanced in this field that we can talk about gene-therapy and gene-splicing as well as posit a whole series of characteristics that we have inherited genetically from our parents. The nature/nurture debate carries on apace, though.


From the 18th and 19th century there had also been growing the discipline of Social Anthropology. Due to European expansion and the fascination with new cultures there came the desire to describe and study people who were very different to ‘us’, especially in trying to understand our origins. Social Anthropologists catalogued different peoples styling some primitive and others aboriginal. This included folklore as well as descriptions of lifestyle. Edward Said rightly described this western cultural perspective as Orientalism.


In brief this is the science.


If Science should inform us about the nature of the world and the nature of what it is to be human it follows that we should use Reason to know what to do with that Science. Science is often seen to be morally neutral (see the conversation held between Edward Goldsmith and Lewis Walpert of UCL: although its application might have ethical consequences. Nevertheless, it makes sense to look at the evidence and ‘do the reasonable thing’. Here, according to Derrida, is the reasonable thing:


  • If the theory of evolution is true then it follows that the processes of evolution cannot have stopped. Hence, it follows that humans themselves are evolving, if not all some – not all the great apes became human. As Nietzsche posits there must be an Übermensch on the horizon. Logically this being would have moral authority, not simply power, over lower forms of humans. This is logical-rational.
  • So what is stopping human evolution? Surely, the problem is genetic. What we need to do, as we have the technology, is eliminate poor or bad genes and maximise the best or good genes. The best way to do this is to get rid of the bad genes by selective breeding and, where necessary, stopping breeding altogether. Marie Stopes (1880 – 1958) was a strong proponent of eugenics as a solution to the nations ills.
  • But how do you work out which groups of people have the right genes and which the defective? Social Anthropology comes to our aide. It is possible to arrive at a hierarchy of peoples with the aboriginal at the bottom and the flower of western culture at the top. The nation needs to eliminate those of greatest threat first and two distinct groups come to the fore, Jews and Gypsies. Interestingly, if you look at the criminalisation of homosexual (male) relationships in England the two key Acts are the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. Before that time the law way much more ‘seasonal’, in the 17th Century King James I appears to have had three male lovers. So why the 19th century? It has been argued that the theory of evolution emphasised the importance of ‘breeding’ and those who couldn’t or wouldn’t were obviously errant or faulty (the Origin of Species was published in 1859). The Nazis had much the same thought. Based on the evidence it was obvious that some were ‘faulty’ and therefore less than those who were the new normal.
  • It also follows, from Nietzsche that there is a moral dimension to this. We have a duty to ensure the best future for our species and we have the means to do this through sterilisation, incarceration and death. All of these can be seen as a kindness to the human race, if not kindness to those who believe themselves to be human but patently are not. Finally, the power of German industry can be brought to bear to create a better world – one without people like me!


Derrida sees this as perfectly rational, perfectly based in Science and perfectly evil.

What has this to do with the death of philosophy?

Hawking is claiming – even in a limited way – that Science is somehow a neutral exercise, which has the capacity to inform decisions that we make as humans both at a practical level and in terms of meaning and purpose. What Hawking does not appear to be taking seriously is the issue of the interpretation of evidence. The data might lie before us but how we interpret it is something which is value laden (to reference Popper).


One flaw, exemplified by the government in terms of the de-regulation of schools into academies, is that we believe that people will do the reasonable thing because they would do what I would do (me being the most reasonable person I know). Hence, the shock of ministers when head teachers don’t make the choices and decisions they would make.


The key questions aren’t about encountering the world, they are about how we make sense of that encounter. What is the prism through which we order our experience? To recognise the prism is to recognise we stand in a specific place and that that place shapes our interpretation of experience, which then shapes what we take to be evidence. When someone sees order and another sees chaos the question has to be: why?


There is a further question, though. Is the denial of philosophy simply another form of philosophy? Similarly, was Nietzsche’s death of God simply another form of apophatic theology? The problem inherent in Hawking’s position, and the position of those who hold to what has been called Scientism, is that they are philosophical stances in their own right. Hence, if philosophy is dead in Hawking it has seen its resurrection – with Hawking cast in the shape of Doubting Thomas.

In conclusion

The idea that Science and Reason are somehow value free is to assume a naïve view of human experience in relation to the world. What Philosophy is there to do is to challenge those naïve views, whether it is interrogating the use of language, the nature of knowledge, the nature of knowing and the sense that we make of ourselves in relation to the cosmos. Rationalist philosophy has its roots in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume and Kant, among others, but they themselves are bounded by time, space and culture – not somehow mystically free of them. The fiction of Free Thinking, as if that was possible, remains with us in our culture – apparently there is one Free Thinker according to the 2011 Census in Bath and NE Somerset but sadly not one Realist!


I’ll leave it there.


David Hampshire

University of Warwick

March, 2016