Friday, December 17, 2010

The first Wikipedia philosophy article

Joseph Reagle has managed to reconstruct one of the earliest versions of Wikipedia (dating from 2001). As he says, it is a weird mixture of philosophy, geography, the United States and a huge collection of articles on Atlas Shrugged. I have copied the original article on philosophy below, probably written by Larry Sanger. It is an interesting question whether the article is better or worse than the one that exists now. While the present article has many more lists and extensive cross-references, the original article tries to get to the heart of what philosophy really is. Sanger mentions two standard theories about this. The first is that philosophy is essentially a priori. The natural habitat of the philosopher is the armchair, rather than the laboratory, or a field trip, or a museum. I think this is correct. The second is that the scope of philosophy has got ('gotten') much narrower over time. As problems got solved, they got moved out of philosophy and into the departmental sciences, until what is left is a core of apparently intractable problems (some or all of which may be solved in time, just as the problems of physics and psychology have been 'solved'). I don't think think this is correct. And more later, as I like to say.
Consider first how to distinguish philosophy from science -- from disciplines
like physics and chemistry. Well, it?s not part of philosophy to do
experiments. Experiments play little, if any, role in the solution of
philosophical problems. Now someone might object to this, if he knows much
about the intersection of philosophy and science. He might say, "But
philosophers are often referring to and interpreting the scientific work of
physicists, who do experiments about space and time and quantum mechanics.
And they are often referring to experimental work done in psychology when they
discuss philosophy of psychology."

There?s no doubting that
philosophers sometimes interpret and refer to experimental work of various kinds
-- especially in the philosophies of the different sciences. For example,
in philosophy of physics, or philosophy of psychology. But that?s not
surprising of course: the purpose of those branches of philosophy, branches like
philosophy of physics, is to help interpret the philosophical aspects of
experimental work. But at any rate it?s not the philosophers, in their
capacities as philosophers, who do the experiments.

There is a
basic historical reason why philosophy is not experimental. Originally,
"philosophy" meant simply "the love of wisdom." The "philo-" part comes
from the Greek word philein, meaning to love, and the "-sophy" part comes from
sophia, or wisdom. Originally the scope of philosophy was all abstract
intellectual endeavor. Even up until early modern times, the people we now
call "scientists" were referred to as "natural philosophers," i.e., philosophers
who study nature. Over the years, the scope of philosophy has gotten
smaller and smaller, as different sciences have spun off and become independent
disciplines in their own right. Some relatively early "spin-offs" were
physics and chemistry; more recently, just within the past 100 years, psychology
has spun off.

So of course one might wonder how thinkers knew or
sensed that a new discipline was to be treated as independent from
philosophy. The answer is that the discipline began to be prosecuted using
rigorous methods of observation and experimentation. Philosophy in its
core sense, the sense that remains today, is essentially something that one
should be able to do from one?s armchair, surrounded, at most, by some books
that scientists write. But be careful thinking about this. I
emphatically do not mean that philosophy is totally non-observational, or
non-empirical. Certainly philosophy makes use of, in a really essential
way, observations about the world. But they are, we might say, very
general observations -- observations like "It seems to me I make free choices"
and "It seems to me that killing another person, if ever necessary, requires a
really good excuse." Observations like this take a great deal of
investigation to make; they require careful attention. But most (not all)
philosophical topics require no more specialized knowledge than the average
educated person has; except perhaps specialized knowledge about philosophy
itself.

So philosophy is not experimental and its observations are
only very general, broad observations. And that is what makes it different
from natural sciences like physics, and social sciences like psychology.
So mind you, some people confuse philosophy and psychology, but they are
different. Philosophy does study the mind (and it also studies other
things besides the mind, too), just as psychology does. But the study of
the mind involved in doing psychology involves careful, specific observation of
particular mental phenomena, and experimentation; philosophers think about more
general aspects of the mind, questions like, "What is consciousness? What
is the mind itself?"

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