TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Critique of Philosophical Naturalism

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Lukas Szrot looks at Dale Riepe’s “The Collapse of Philosophical Naturalism” from Telos 3 (Spring 1969).

Given the rich and diverse history in the discipline of philosophy, many a practicing philosopher might justifiably remark that insightful philosophical inquiry must withstand the test of time. Though “The Collapse of Philosophical Naturalism” was published in Telos in 1969, many of its insights remain highly relevant to conversations that continue in philosophical and sociopolitical circles today. Dale Riepe issues a damning critique, examining four at once distinct and kindred flaws in philosophical naturalism.

The first criticism lies in the circularity of its methodology, “a game of ring-around-the-rosie in which the scientific method is constantly applied to itself” (83). Here Riepe reveals an underlying epistemic caveat tied intricately to the problematic nature of naturalist methodology. Though the scientific method is celebrated for its singular potency in unlocking the secrets of Nature, a philosophical orientation which weds itself to the scientific method effectively loses the epistemic means by which to criticize the same said method. Thus, anticipating the collapse of naturalism, “A philosophy of the future will use scientific method in a critical way. One cannot easily imagine a future in which scientific method is ignored. The criticism comes not from experimental elements alone, but from the interpretation of social and historical experience. Scientific method does not interpret; only those who use it do. Yet socially speaking the interpretation is as important as the method itself” (84). There is a social dynamic in play behind Riepe’s manifold critiques of naturalism, and a tacit anticipation of a new sociology of scientific knowledge and science studies as a burgeoning field of (post)modern intellectual endeavor. The sociohistorical context in which interpretation takes place is simply ignored by the naturalist “theory of society where everything will be improved by education in scientific method” (82). Naturalism amounts to cultural myopia, a narrowing of epistemic vision; the imposition of a priori limitations on what can be known, what should be investigated, and what philosophers ought to do. With this disposition, one finds a society that comes sculpted by the tools of the scientific method upheld as utopia.

Riepe turns next to an ontological shortcoming of naturalism and its repercussions, for naturalism “has failed to given an account of the nature of reality, but instead has said ‘let science, the Almighty New God, do it.’ Science of course cannot do it since this is the job of philosophy” (85). Naturalism explicitly rejects the onto-epistemic potentiality of the dialectic in favor of scientific actuality, adopting the scientific standpoint(lessness?) of studying what is at the expense of what could be. This is a vision of philosophy shackled to rather than liberated by scientific progress. For the naturalist, the nature and scope of reality is exhausted by appealing to the scientific method and only that to which it can be applied. Naturalism thus evokes a sort of Marcusean “One-Dimensional Thought,” an implicit loss of the will, and ability, of the thinking person to imagine that the world could be otherwise, dismissing or denigrating structural change in favor of safe, steady, comfortable, career-building reform.

In what fertile ground can the seeds of naturalist philosophy be planted? What does naturalist philosophy qua philosophy have to offer? “In short, by his stubborn refusal to do philosophy instead of attitudinizing about scientific method he gives valuative philosophy by default to the supernaturalists (whom he abhors), to the idealist (whom he claims to have replaced), to the subjectivists (who daily get less impressed with scientific method), and to the materialists who are trying to undermine the establishment he endeavors to protect” (87). In drawing a sharp line between fact and value, and then placing philosophy firmly on the side of fact, what then is left for the naturalist philosopher to do except to stand on the sidelines, a cheerleader to the scientists, having rejected the bulwark of fruitful philosophical inquiry and its centuries of accumulated history upon which rests the knowledge of the Western world? Is it the duty of philosophers, in light of the staggering expansion of science, to now relegate themselves to clearing the ground for its advance? “Somewhere along the line, as Schopenhauer has said, the methodological knife must be used for cutting something since it cannot cut itself” (88). For Riepe, the fetishization of the scientific method leaves the philosophical naturalist with less and less interesting work to do.

In the tradition of philosophy as a potent vehicle for consciousness-raising and questioning authority, what can naturalism provide? Central to the philosophical approach of the ancients were questions such as “What constitutes the Good Life?” and “What ought we to do?” Here, what pronouncements can naturalism provide? “Naturalism recommends that philosophers make the following ought statement: you ought to rely on scientific method! The abrogation of the philosopher’s role as social critic has led to the collapse of naturalism” (89). In his fourth criticism, a theme recurring throughout the article before building to a climactic catharsis, Riepe appeals to a transformative element in philosophical discourse, its singularly potent ability, as reflected in the traditions of social philosophy, social theory, and critical theory (among others), to liberate, to guide, to transcend. The naturalist rejects this responsibility, and with her rejection, surrenders her social relevance, losing with it her real stake in “The Great Conversation” of philosophical discourse.

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