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Philosophy by Another Name?

Posted on Mar 10, 2012
oshkar (CC-BY)

A bust of the classical Athenian philosopher Socrates.

A British philosopher suggests that popular confusion over what philosophers do requires the epochs-old discipline follow the suit of other academic subjects and update its name.

Far from the woo-woo practices of ancient mystics and modern-day dispensers of folk advice, University of Miami philosopher Colin McGinn points out that his professional peers are scientists who practice a “systematic, organized, rigorous” study of a particular subject. Therefore, their work should be set apart from the generalized love (philo) of wisdom (sophia) that any seeker of knowledge possesses.

His suggestion? “ontics,” or “ontical science.” Read his article in full to discover why and his response to the comments it has provoked to see where the discussion is going. —ARK

Colin McGinn:

Our current name is harmful because it posits a big gap between the sciences and philosophy; we do something that is not a science. Thus we do not share in the intellectual prestige associated with that thoroughly modern word. We are accordingly not covered by the media that cover the sciences, and what we do remains a mystery to most people. But it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science. The dictionary defines a science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” This is a very broad definition, which includes not just subjects like physics and chemistry but also psychology, economics, mathematics and even “library science.”

Academic philosophy obviously falls under this capacious meaning. Moreover, most of the marks of science as commonly understood are shared by academic philosophy: the subject is systematic, rigorous, replete with technical vocabulary, often in conflict with common sense, capable of refutation, produces hypotheses, uses symbolic notation, is about the natural world, is institutionalized, peer-reviewed, tenure-granting, etc. We may as well recognize that we are a science, even if not one that makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics. Once we do this officially, we can expect to be treated like scientists.

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By Writeonwater, March 12, 2012 at 12:35 am Link to this comment

Mr. McGinn has not convinced me yet. I admire his
drawing attention to the matter but he losses me when
he says of his new name “it sounds serious and
weighty, it is easy to say, and it sounds like a
solid science” his statement and indeed whole article
begs for prestige associated with mere words. Merit
should be granted only for results. Admiration
without understanding is unreasonable. I think McGinn
has the cart is in front of the horse.

His idea seems to be a solution to the wrong problem.
Is the issue lack of respect or lack of interest?  If
the issue is the latter then McGinn’s solution will
be impotent call philosophy what you will.

It’s more important to show how philosophy affects
peoples lives.  When J.M. Keynes said “Practical men,
who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any
intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of
some defunct economist.” The same could be said of philosophers. The public is subjected to constant
influence and much of it is against their interests.
But they can’t spot a fallacy that was exposed as
invalid reasoning 200 years ago. This makes them
(non-peer reviewed philosophers aka the public)
victims of market research that is seductive to
habits of mind. Do we not hear the echoes of Carlyle,
Rousseau, and Spencer almost every day in the news?

To me Philosophers are shepherds of knowledge through
criticism. They seek the best knowledge by offering
new views and searching for and destroying errors in
concepts, descriptions, and thesis etc. and in so
doing they cannot help but expand the limits of

What will be gained really if asked, “what do you
study?” If you say Ontics the next question “what is
that?” Then you say your sub group epistemology,
hermeneutics, ethics etc. and then assuming they have
a clue they say “oh, your a philosopher”

What do most people call a paid sensual caregiver?

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By jimmmmmy, March 11, 2012 at 5:00 pm Link to this comment

i’m embarrassed i just reread the article and finally got some of the humor, forgive me i’m old, and cranky

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By ReadingJones, March 11, 2012 at 4:14 pm Link to this comment

Whether Diesel Mechanics or Icthyology, or Shooting
Pool the real thing recognizes the wannabe, sometimes
with covert amusement. Dry jokes and leg pulling are
legitimate objects of study.

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By heterochromatic, March 10, 2012 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment

McGinn is pursuing a line that better philosophers already have identified as a
subset of bovine nutritional science.

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By litlpeep, March 10, 2012 at 6:00 pm Link to this comment

Oh, what’s wrong with onticology?

For that matter, why not try academic anticology?  After all, it’s all about rhetorical games of antics, often called other things - sociology, psycology, biology, physics, political science - you name your favorite antics game, and the game’s favored anticologists will come after you.

You’re not anticorrect.

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By Maani, March 10, 2012 at 5:53 pm Link to this comment

Hey, we could call torture “enhanced interrogation techniques,” transfer of prisoners for torture in other countries “extraordinary rendition,” and the evisceration of the Constitution and civil liberties “security.”...oh…uh…we’ve already done that…

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By gerard, March 10, 2012 at 5:48 pm Link to this comment

Postscript:  If we permit “freedom of informationo” to be changed into “Get Wikileaks!”, the next step will be to change “waterboarding” to “hydroponics”  and then nothing much will matter anymore
  (For the next 50 years I hope every single U.S. citizen buys a good dictionary and uses it; otherwise none of us will have a clue as to what’s going on. Words and their meanings are possibly more under assault from government Humpty Dumptys now than at any previous time in our history.

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OzarkMichael's avatar

By OzarkMichael, March 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm Link to this comment

We may as well recognize that we are a science, even if not one that makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics. Once we do this officially, we can expect to be treated like scientists.

Lets make the author’s day. Imagine how thrilled he would be if we all chipped in and bought him a white lab coat with his name embroidered in red above the left chest pocket.

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By David, March 10, 2012 at 3:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

McGinn is not exactly a good philosopher, but gah,
let’s please give him at least a bit of credit:


Read the article again… the whole thing is a humor
piece for an audience that McGinn hoped would
understand irony.

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By Maani, March 10, 2012 at 2:11 pm Link to this comment

When did I go to sleep and wake up in Wonderland?  Changing the name of an entire field of study because the average person is too uneducated or undereducated to understand what the field is about?!  How about, instead, we start re-funding the “humanities” (and the arts!) in high schools and colleges (and maybe even junior highs) so that students will know what philosophy is, and then, as adults, they will be able to engage in actual conversations about it?!  Or is that REALLY too much to ask?

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By gerard, March 10, 2012 at 1:34 pm Link to this comment

Excuse me for insisting upon some degree of relevance to pressing concerns of the day—but I can’t think of anything less relevant than changing the category name “philophy” to “ontics. What’s the name of your planet?  How much does it cost to live there?  Are there any wars? Do they use money? Do they rape women? What about universal health care?

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By jimmmmmy, March 10, 2012 at 9:46 am Link to this comment

i watched mr mcginn, i think its the same guy, on the atheist tapes which i recommend to those seeking knowledge. however he seems avoid what is happening in all u.s. colleges since they became corporate, for profit. their is now in these schools only one philosophy being inculcated, christo-capitalism. all other philosophys to paraphrase grover norquist [a most effective american phiosopher ] “any competing philosophy must be strangled in the bath tub,” [that is defunded]many good alternate philosophy have been forced out or fired in the last 30 years or so. i guess writing article like this one helps him retain his job.[  pretending there is a vibrant and varied discourse going on in these networking and degree factories.]

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