In a monumental post on Stephen Toulmin, Michael Blowhard writes:
The impression I’ve gotten from a few timid looks into up-to-date philosophy is that it’s a matter of filling in the few remaining (and really tiny) squares — an activity for specialists and tenured-prof-wannabes only. Between you and me, and off-the-record only, my philosophy-prof friends giggle at the idea that anything major remains to be done in modern Western philosophy.
So what are philosophers good for? I think this requires a good long answer that I’m not going to take the time to assay, but it’s a question that deserves some reflection. Michael seems to be under the impression that the dialectic of the traditional problems of philosophy–free-will; realism vs. anti-realism; mind/body; etc.–is worn out. I agree, but that’s because I think there are right answers to this questions, or at least ways of framing them that dissolve the question (that shows the fly the way out of the fly bottle, I should say). And I think that the correct answer to many of these questions has practical import. If we get it right, it changes how we live, or at least stops us from worrying about something we shouldn’t have been worried about.
My naturalistic bent leads to me see the role of philosophy as that of clarifying traditional questions to the point that they can be approached with the tools of scientific method. When that occurs, a lot of the philosophy drops out. But science remains a kind of applied philosophy that requires the right kind of conceptual and inferential framework for asking the right questions, and for interpreting the results of experimentation. Philosophy of physics is an interesting field, for instance, because physics turns out to be so weird, and requires philosophical counsel.
And science tells us things that settles old philosophical disputes, and that helps reframe old scientific questions. Human beings are not, we now know, a blank slate. And the sciences of human nature help us reconceive old questions. The kinds of social order that are possible depends on what human beings are like, and we are learning a lot about what human beings are like. Philosophers, if they are doing there job, ought to be applying the results of the best relevant science and showing how that changes the way we think about old questions.
Anybody have any good ideas about areas where philosophers are making a really important contribution to knowledge, other than just filling in a few really tiny squares?