What's the opposite of philosophically conservative? 
In summarizing his philosophical approach to the photographer Steve Pyke, David Lewis said, "I am philosophically conservative: I think philosophy cannot credibly challenge either the positive convictions of common sense or the established theses of the natural sciences and mathematics."*

This seems like an odd thing to say, and I suspect that it summarizes why David Lewis' work has always made me a little uneasy. He conceives of philosophy as doing something separate and outside ordinary or scientific enquiry. Such an approach makes metaphysics a matter of window dressing our beliefs, without any possible influence on what the main doxastic inventory is.

Of course, this kind of conservatism is not unique to Lewis. I gave a job talk once and, during the question and answer period, an epistemologist in the audience objected to my argument on the grounds that it might lead us to disagree with scientists about some things and (he said) he would not want to tell scientists that they were wrong. The best reply to such an objection: But what about when scientists are wrong? It would be perverse not to point that out.**

Diametrically opposed to Lewis' approach is a kind of eliminativist naturalism according to which responsible philosophy is just science that happens to be done in a department called 'Philosophy'. Quine is the posterboy for such an approach. This kind of eliminativism is conservative in its own way, because it means that there is nothing that philosophy as such can add to science. There ends up being no philosophy as such at all.

A natural middle position is to say that philosophers typically address different questions than scientists do. Moreover, the methods appropriate to those questions are not identical to methods appropriate to the natural sciences. There is no sharp boundary between the scientific and the philosophical (Quine is right about that) but there is sufficient difference on either side of the boundary that the existence of philosophy departments is not just as arbitrary administrative fact about universities. Yet the porous nature of the boundary means that the enquiries can have things to say to one another.

Philosophy of science must accept science as for the most part OK. If it yielded total, utter scepticism, then it would stop being philosophy of science and becomes something else. (Mysticism, maybe.) But the qualifier 'for the most part' is important. Philosophers can call into question parts of science. Philosophers of science might even challenge and overturn some canonical examples of good science; what they can't do is overturn all of them.


A further aside: It's odd that Lewis invokes the "convictions of common sense", as if common sense consists primarily of a paddock of inviolate beliefs. As I have argued elsewhere it is better to think of common sense as a commitment to giving prima facie trust to certain methods and inferences. For example, seeing x is prima facie reason to believe that x exists. The same holds for the sciences: They are in the first place a matter of method rather than a matter of conviction.


* HT: Steinblog.
** I do not recall what answer I actually gave. I recall being shocked by the objection, and I might just have said "Really?!?"

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