Another outsider looks in on philosophy: this time it is historian of mathematics Michael J. Barany
Some background: I work on the boundaries of education and psychology, with a particular interest in the cognitive processes involved in mathematical thinking. A few years ago I got interested in how professional mathematicians go about their work, which drew me into the rather curious philosophy of mathematical practice community. As a result of this connection I sometimes turn up to philosophy conferences and very occasionally write articles for philosophy journals and books.
I thoroughly enjoy engaging with philosophers. You are fascinating people. I think your best feature is your apparent willingness to give serious, careful and rigorous consideration to ideas that would be rejected without thought by normal people for being utterly absurd. For example, at the last philosophy conference I attended I was convinced, by what seemed to be a watertight argument, that society should give serious consideration to going back to using Roman numerals. Later at the same event I heard an hour’s talk on the proposal that there is a largest integer to which it is simply impossible to add 1. Enthused by these crazy experiences I returned to my home department and tried to recount the ideas and arguments to my colleagues. Sadly this was not a success, and soon I became known as an unhelpful oddball.
What I find most interesting about my enthusiastic reaction to mixing with philosophers, is that it seems quite at odds with the reaction you see when philosophers are forced to mixed with each other. This does not appear to be a discipline at ease with itself. This can easily be seen by studying the stories that make it onto Leiter’s blog. The impression one gets from reading that site is that half the philosophers in America are sex pests, and the other half are arrogant bullies who spend their lives writing rude book reviews. I suppose it’s just about possible that I’ve stumbled across the only corner of your discipline where most people seem to be both interesting and friendly, but it seems improbable.
An important thing to remember is that all disciplines have this kind of self doubt. For instance, in the last few years psychology has been going through a methodological crisis of confidence provoked by a few high-profile failed replications, and a couple of even higher-profile fraud cases. It’s left everyone with the nagging feeling that perhaps everything we thought we knew might be false. Not content with that dismaying confidence sapper, we now learn that the discipline’s primary learned society seems to be implicated in torture.
I suppose my message to philosophers is that things look much worse from the inside than they do from the outside. From my highly naive vantage point, you come across as an interesting and impressive bunch. I’m sure this observation won’t bring an end to your introspective self-flagellation, but I hope it’s at least marginally cheering.