By Robert D’Amico

Presidential Address of the 49th Annual Meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association

Robert D’Amico, University of Florida

I will explain my somewhat odd choice of title in a moment. But let me begin with some words of thanks. I want to thank Nate Andersen and Eckerd College for hosting the 49th meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association. It is a lovely venue for this conference. And a special thanks goes to Shelley Park for organizing this superb program and pulling it off with such apparent ease. Finally, and I fear this is a much too belated thank you, let me recognize Sally Ferguson whose contributions have been invaluable as secretary of our organization, and I worry over how near that possible world is in which she is no longer secretary of the Florida Philosophical Association.

A presidential address of this sort has its own special problems and all the more so for the discipline of philosophy. I suppose I envisage such a talk as somewhat on the model of an after- dinner drink—what Italians helpfully call a “digestivo.” Such a drink and such an address, if either lives up to its name, should have the following qualities—short, an agreeable but nevertheless interesting after-taste, no stomach upset (the expressive term for that unwished for after-dinner result in Italian is “agida”) and, most importantly, not put one’s audience to sleep.

There may simply be no such talk and specifically no such talk for philosophy. Philosophers were put on earth, I suspect, to cause irritation to themselves and others, often by assaults through length and tedium (you can see how difficult it is to avoid the “agida-effect”). But, as you will see, what philosophers do is actually part of my topic this evening—so there is nothing more to say by way of making excuses in advance, I’ll just jump into it—by the way did I mention “short?”

First let me make the title somewhat less strange by offering the very passage that inspired my choice of words. I won’t say who wrote it for at least a moment, so you can hear it without knowing its author. It dates from 1934.

In all our general thinking, whether with metaphysics itself or in the natural sciences … we seem invariably to come upon some philosophic, non-empirical problem which cannot be permanently swept away.1

As we will see in a moment, the author identifies this with the question of whether there is a “defensible province” for philosophy. It is a question so close, so nearby that it does not easily come into focus, but at the same time somewhat of an embarrassment when it does. It is also a question prone to elicit groans of “not that again!” I cannot answer this question this evening (you will be relieved to hear), maybe never, nor even begin to answer it this evening. Rather, the task this evening is to ask it anew, hopefully somehow afresh (these kind of questions have a way of being so near they get tired and stale) and perhaps to say a few words about why and how to ask it.

The question is, specifically, whether there is an inquiry that falls to the discipline of philosophy alone and that philosophy has the authority to carry out—not the sciences, not common sense, not religion, not poetry, not literary criticism, not sociology or psychology—a province such that philosophy is not simply a chapter in the textbook of these other disciplines.

What other discipline seriously asks such a question? Furthermore, to ask seriously such a question, for it not to be simply taken for granted that there is such a province and such authority (how even to begin, we might wonder, without having a subject matter taken for granted?) is to perhaps already betray that the answer is “no.” The suspicion is that if one asks such a question, one already knows the answer. It is this sense of philosophy as deeply, irremediably and utterly adrift, in doubt of itself so fundamentally, that likely inspires the knee-jerk anti-philosophical mood so prevalent these days. Maybe those among us who think the answer is not obviously “no” or who think there is a philosophical task neither spiritualists nor scientists can do, can take some solace in how recent it is that we find ourselves perplexed by this basic question. But it does give one pause— especially when the expressions of bitterest contempt for philosophy’s autonomy come from inside.

These currently fashionable anti-philosophical “riffs” form a somewhat monotonous chorus themselves.


Philosophy once and for all abandons this forlorn conception itself as a separate discipline and finally disappears into the work of the natural, social and/or biological sciences (a position so pervasive and capable of so many variations that it warrants its own ugly name these days— “eliminativism” or worse “eliminative naturalism”).


Philosophy embraces and affirms its status as a non-discipline. Not having a genuine subject matter is not the occasion for any serious reflection, rather it is the occasion for self-promotion. Philosophy becomes a transgressive inquiry freed from those illusory boundaries and foundations, glorying in the intellectual promiscuity that was once its shame (a position so pervasive and capable of so many variations that it warrants its own ugly name these days— “post-modernism”).

I am getting ahead of myself here (and perhaps being unfair to hosts of unnamed fellow scribblers, but then I am allowed such liberties given my role this evening). I should now reveal the author of the above quotation. It is Quine from his 1934 lecture series on Carnap. I think the quotation is a bit of a surprise, and I think the whole lecture series quite brilliant, if largely unread.

In confirmation of my comment about the nearest questions being hardest to focus upon, it seems that those early decades of the last century—so critical to our current philosophical understanding—remain a virtual terra incognita combined of equal portions of our inability often to simply read what is in front of our eyes or to see the forest for the trees (I will stop with tired perception metaphors now). Of course, I do not quote Quine above while simultaneously trying to induce in you and myself amnesia as to what came later—we always read, in the way I am trying to get at tonight, while aware of what comes later.

Later in the lectures Quine says the following about what he understands to be Carnap’s central project:

Carnap’s purpose is not merely to advance a negative doctrine, not to construe philosophy as trivial: his concern is rather to clear away confusion and lay the foundation of [an] . . . analysis, criticism and refinement of the methods and the concepts of science that Carnap regards as the defensible province of philosophy. 2

We thus have the other part of my title for this lecture.

Quine’s discussion is surprisingly fresh, historically informed, guided by great charity toward Carnap, and precocious (in 1934 Quine was 29). But a full discussion of this work is of course for another day, as I am admitting is a full discussion of the question. I introduced this aside concerning a young Quine discussing Carnap so that I may put the following different slant on the question I cannot answer this evening.

Does the question tell us something about philosophy in the twentieth century that we continue to miss? I believe it does so and I want to say a few words about that point while not axe- grinding for any specific philosophical view (even though, as the dialectic of this topic demands, a philosophical view is required to answer fully the question of the status of philosophy). There is a comment by Charles Sanders Peirce that I always liked. In one of his lectures he stops to warn his audience—“people who want philosophy ladled out to them can get it elsewhere. There are philosophical soup shops at every corner, thank God!”3Since we don’t live in New York City the claim about soup shops on every corner is an anachronism, but we all know precisely what he means. Thus I’ll not ladle out soup this evening (and hopefully that is the last of the food metaphors).

It is hard now to recall fully or to understand fully the anger—perhaps it was all displaced anger—that once raged about studying the history of philosophy. I know part of this from experience, but also from those of a previous generation who hit it full blast when they entered graduate school in the late 1950s and early 1960s where, as was once said to me, “being caught reading anything in the history of philosophy was the equivalent of being caught reading pornography.”

In a volume called Owl of Minerva, a collection of philosophers reflecting upon philosophy (a guaranteed cure for insomnia if there ever was one), there is a strange, even somewhat hallucinatory essay by Paul Ziff, “How I see Philosophy.” I am fairly sure these mere three pages by Ziff cannot be understood properly today, at least not by those who either did not understand of what Ziff is making fun or cannot reconstruct the context of the way in which it is written. Ziff in part makes fun of the names of past philosophers. Here is just a bit of it, to get its flavor:

Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite Meister Eckhart Maimonides Godël Peirce Little Orphan Annie Gregory Thamaturgogo Herbrand Skolem the Green Hornet and the Shadow. Because it’s not what one reads but what one makes of it? So we need and we gotta hab a deep hole foh to put in all de deep thinkers. Who we put in furst? It doan mattuh. Dump dem in! Der goes Kiekeebore. Bye Begel! So long Sartre! Dig dat Highdigger!4

You get the idea. For those who know and love the world of New York City ethnic intellectual life, it is immediately recognizable as the Yiddish “history-schmistory” response.

Though this “goodbye to all that” tone dismissing an enfeebled and much worse enfeebling past is now largely out of fashion, I am just as concerned (maybe more concerned now) with the way in which the study of the history of philosophy is often defended these days. It is unhelpful and misguided to entangle the study of the history of philosophy with quite extraordinary claims for its power to solve philosophical problems or to confront us with imagined problems with respect to such study—all promoted for what I fear are poor reasons. Let me just list some examples, again unfairly.

There is some pervasive worry about the need for a methodology for such studies that occasions the use of the term “hermeneutics”: and it consists of advice that sounds a lot like the following: “you have to read the whole book and understand who and what its author is talking about before you can understand any one sentence in the book, but of course you can only begin reading it a sentence at a time.” Yes, I see. There is also now a widespread flirtation with a kind of skepticism denying that we can understand any other philosopher or any other text (to be more fashionable for the moment). There are also very grandiose claims of purported sociological, economic and even biological explanations for the philosophical positions once held—claims for which “uncharitable” hardly seems strong enough. Instead of wearing out my welcome here by doing my own version of a “hermeneutics-schmermeneutics” response to all this, let me give an example of what I mean by this misleading conception of the history of philosophy by returning to both Carnap and my original question.

Peter Gallison, historian of science, intellectual historian, and philosopher of science, in “Constructing the Modern: The Cultural Locution of Aufbau” claims we deeply misunderstand Carnap’s term Aufbau (you will also note that the gerund in the title marks this essay as properly au courant). Specifically, Gallison claims,

[T]ranslating Aufbau as ‘rebuilding’ or ‘reconstruction’ fails to capture the novelty of what these many authors [reported in the article is Gallison’s research in journal articles between 1919 and 1927] hoped would come to pass. On new, and for the first time firm foundations, they would erect a political, philosophical and aesthetic world separate from everything that had come before. It would (in most instances) be socialist, internationalist, practical, and deeply scientific and technological. As a shorthand designation, I will refer to this cluster of usages as the left-technocratic period of Aufbau.5

There is much more to say—not for tonight, alas—and even Gallison concedes there are concerns about precisely what he has shown in the article. He admits that he has not given a conceptual analysis, and that seems right since little discussion of Carnap’s work is found in the article. Nor does he provide a causal analysis, and I have already said what I think of such efforts. But he does claim that he has discovered this famous philosophical work’s “cultural meaning.” He describes cultural meanings as not “entirely aleatory,” but also neither “fixed forever” nor “arbitrarily chosen.”6

Being of a somewhat simpler mind I pose a much simpler problem concerning Gallison’s essay than these complicated and of course important questions bothering him. Is Gallison correct about what Carnap’s philosophical project was? Gallison leaves it implicit but appears to assume throughout that Carnap hoped to carry out a “phenomenalist reduction” in support of logical empiricism in The Logical Structure of the World. This picture of the book is of course the view of the older Quine, but we can see the seeds of an alternative view in the young Quine I began discussing. Perhaps Carnap wrote the Aufbau while remaining neutral between philosophical positions hoping, in that way, to craft a language that could adjudicate philosophical arguments.

I am not treating this issue as settled; it is of course like many such interpretative problems open to further debate, but I am stressing that Gallison’s project simply misses the mark by begging or avoiding such a central question. The basic question it fails to ask about Carnap’s book and career is a variant or cousin of my question this evening.

To conclude: our recent past has been understood for many decades now as a divide between or a quarrel between two traditions, analytic and continental philosophy. I will not make comments about what is lacking in such a contrast and what has become furthermore an extremely tired story these days. (After all, saying that there were “empiricists” and “rationalists” in the 17th century is not wholly wrong, it’s simply deeply wrong-headed.) My point is that the landscape of that century which landed us in the present changes quite dramatically if my question is posed first and foremost. For instance, some who are classified in these two different traditions turn out, from the vantage point of my question, to be in fundamental agreement—and some of those classified in the same tradition turn out to be in fundamental disagreement. I find that interesting.

I have done what I can for now—but let me close by evoking the memory of the Presidential addresses of my friends and colleagues Aron Edidon and Kirk Ludwig, with this final, barely rhyming couplet:

Having struggled to sketch philosophy’s arc,

In relief, I pass this gavel to Shelley Park.


Works Cited

Gallison, Peter. “Constructing Modernism: The Cultural Location of Aufbau.Origins of Logical Empiricism. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Volume XVI. Eds. Ronald N. Giere and Alan W. Richardson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 1996.

Munitz, Milton, Contemporary Analytic Philosophy. New York; Macmillan. 1981.
Quine, W.V.O. Dear Carnap, Dean Van: The Quine-Carnap Correspondence and Related Work. Ed. Richard

Creath. Berkeley: U of California P. 1980.

Ziff, Paul. “How I See Philosophy.” Owl of Minerva. Eds. Charles J. Bontempo and S. Jack Odell, New York: McGraw-Hill. 1975.

  1. W.V.O. Quine, Dear Carnap, Dean Van: The Quine-Carnap Correspondence and Related Work, ed. Richard Creath (Berkeley: U of California P, 1980): 88.
  2. Quine 102-103.
  3. Milton, Munitz, Contemporary Analytic Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1981): 26.
  4. Paul Ziff. “How I See Philosophy,” Owl of Minerva, eds. Charles J. Bontempo and S. Jack Odell (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975): 224-225.
  5. Peter Gallison, “Constructing Modernism: The Cultural Location of Aufbau,” Origins of Logical Empiricism. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. XVI, eds. Ronald N. Giere and Alan W. Richardson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996): 17.
  6. Gallison 41.

Robert D’Amico

Robert D'Amico is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Florida. His research has focused on issues in philosophy of the social sciences and the history of late 19th and early 20th century philosophy.