What do philosophers think, and what are they experts at?

December 19, 2009 at 8:15 pm 1 comment

Bryan Caplan highlights “the most fascinating opinion poll I’ve seen in years“—a survey of 1,803 faculty members in college and university philosophy departments, as well as 829 philosophy graduate students, about “classic and modern controversies,” such as their acceptance or rejection of a priori knowledge, free will, physicalism, and various approaches in normative ethics, including  deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics.

Two of the more interesting findings have to do with the political orientation of philosophers and their views on religion. The consensus on the second issue: God is dead. Rather, there is no God.

(Percentages are rounded to whole numbers and totals do not equal 100 because other options were omitted. For the entire list of results from the PhilPapers Survey, click here.)

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?

God: theism or atheism?

  • Accept atheism 58%
  • Lean toward atheism 12%
  • Accept theism 12%
  • Lean toward theism 5%
  • Agnostic/undecided 6%

In his post, Caplan also references a survey he undertook with professional philosophers: What are philosophers expert at?

One of the perks of attending the Social Philosophy and Policy conference was that I was able to ask philosophers the critical question: “You philosophers are definitely experts at something. But what is that something?”

Profs and grad students alike largely seemed to accept the following list of topics where members of their occupation actually have expertise:

  • Accurately describing the views of other philosophers, living and dead.
  • Checking arguments for logical validity/internal consistency.

No one claimed that the philosophy profession was good at figuring out true answers to philosophical questions. One even claimed the the primary product of philosophy is “broken arguments.”

Furthermore, no philosopher made an argument analogous to one economists often make: “Outsiders underestimate the degree of consensus because our debates focus on marginal controversies.” This would have been an awkward argument to make to my face, since the participants literally spanned the range from radical Kantianism (“Consequences are morally irrelevant”) to fanatical Singer-style utilitarianism (“There is no fundamental moral difference between killing and letting die”).

The upshot: Many philosophers believe that they personally have virtually all the answers. (Witnessing their disputes was an… experience). But few philosophers believe that their profession has more than a handful of answers.

PhilPapers also conducted a concurrent metasurvey of 438 faculty and professional philosophers and 210 philosophy graduate students who made predictions about the results on the survey. This answers the question of what philosophers think philosophers think about.


Entry filed under: think. Tags: , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. jleeger  |  December 21, 2009 at 2:38 am


    I think culture follows the Way everything ultimately follows. One day, the “philosophers” will come around and say:

    Before I studied the Way a tree was just a tree, and a mountain was just a mountain. When I began to study the Way a tree was no longer a tree and a mountain no longer a mountain. Now that I have “mastered” the Way, a tree is just a tree and a mountain is just a mountain.

    Besides, don’t they know that “philosophy is dead?” The “last philosopher” died in 1900…


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

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