Your favorite interesting, specific question in philosophy
September 6, 2009 4:54 PM   Subscribe

Philosophy Filter: What are some fresh and interesting questions or topics in philosophy?

I don't know if there are many philosophy nerds on MetaFilter (at least relative to other kinds of nerds), but I thought I'd give this a shot. I'm looking for topics that you wouldn't necessarily learn about in the usual undergraduate philosophy courses. I'd prefer these to be pretty specific, like these examples:

1. The "philosophy of information", which covers both the application of methods and ideas from computer science to philosophy and philosophical issues about what information is (especially in the work of Luciano Floridi)

2. Attacks on virtue ethics based on psychologists' claims that human character traits are much less stable than we think (summarized in e.g. the recent popular book Experiments in Ethics by K. Anthony Appiah)

More like these please! Really, any issue in philosophy that you find interesting would help. Bonus points for relevance to any timely issues outside of philosophy (in politics/society, science, etc).
posted by k. to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
John Searle's philosophy of society, most notably expounded in his book The Construction of Social Reality, and continued in the last chapter of Freedom and Neurobiology.

You might also like Thomas Nagel's Mortal Question, which takes an analytic approach to topics that are more commonly addressed by continental philosophers: "death," "the absurd," "sexual perversion," etc. Speaking of Nagel, his book The View From Nowhere is some of my favorite philosophy; it's about the complex interconnectedness of the subjective and objective. That might be a good book to read along with Searle's The Construction of Social Reality.

Another suggestion: Martha Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thought. The subtitle sums it up: "The Intelligence of Emotions." It's a huge, sprawling book, so you could just read the first chapter to pick up her basic theory of emotion. Later chapters deal with more specific questions like emotions in music, animal emotions, etc.

Here's a twist on traditional ethics: the philosophy of evil. Susan Neiman, Mary Midgley, Jacob Needleman. (Needleman draws heavily on religion, which might be a good or a bad thing.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:17 PM on September 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Techy stuff in formal epistemology.

Techy stuff in philosophy of language.

Stuff about the notion of the fundamental.


There are a number of philosophy blogs, usually by young people (grad students/young faculty). Check out
Thoughts, Arguments, and Rants
Metaphysical Values
They're examples of blogs that frequently contain actual philosophical discussion (as opposed to gossip & faculty moves, tracked in Leiter).
posted by kestrel251 at 5:42 PM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks Jaltcoh, those are pretty good. I actually have Midgely's book on evil, though I'm not sure what the study of evil in particular adds to ethics in general. Upheavals of Thought is really huge, but it's an interesting topic.

kestrel251, I'm looking for something a lot narrower. But I'll have a look at the blogs.

I should add that I'm looking for issues more than for specific books (which may cover a lot more than one issue of the size I have in mind).
posted by k. at 5:56 PM on September 6, 2009

Check this out.
posted by JohnR at 5:56 PM on September 6, 2009

At what point do we have to stop thinking of computers as being tools, and start thinking of them as being slaves? At what point do we have to consider granting them civil rights? And if we do, then what does "death" mean for such a computer? What does it take legally to declare a computer citizen to be dead?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:09 PM on September 6, 2009

This Wikipedia page on metaontology kind of sucks, but that just shows you how new the field is. Sure, the only people it really talks about are Carnap and Quine, but the field's been seeing a lot of new rumbling. Just searching google for 'metaontology' will bring up some article abstracts and what-not that might help you get more information. And Metametaphysics is a brand new book out that's filled with articles on the subject.

Another area that's been taking off (especially since, say, the 1970s) is the philosophy of fiction. This is a field that deals with several different types of issues. On one hand, you have metaphysical questions, like what fictional characters are and what fiction is. On the other hand, you have questions into how it is possible for us to have emotional responses to fictional characters. On your crazy third hand, you have questions into the interplay between fictional stories and ethics. It's really hard to find good sources on the philosophy of fiction, but here's a pretty good write-up of the emotional questions relating to fiction.

I can answer (some) questions about either area, if you care.

But, all in all, probably one of the biggest, most sought after, and more lucrative areas in philosophy right now is bioethics. Oh, and also big is business ethics.
posted by Ms. Saint at 6:17 PM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm looking for topics that you wouldn't necessarily learn about in the usual undergraduate philosophy courses.

Thomas Aquinas
posted by keith0718 at 6:24 PM on September 6, 2009

Response by poster: Ms. Saint: I have to admit, I kind of hate metaphysics, and ontology in particular. This is because it seems to be what could be described (euphemistically) as "closed under implication", but I would love to find a counterexample if there is one. I'll do a search for those metas and see what comes up.

The fiction idea is good one; thanks.

("Lucrative areas in philosophy"--ha! Good thing this is not because I'm applying to grad school.)
posted by k. at 6:36 PM on September 6, 2009

One thing I find interesting is Nick Bostrom's Simulation Hypothesis.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:55 PM on September 6, 2009

I like the p-zombie, myself.
posted by adipocere at 8:06 PM on September 6, 2009

From what I understand, medical ethics is a hugely important and growing field, with a lot of scholarship and also practical implications. A friend is writing his thesis on something like identity and physical 'impediments,' and how health care can be delivered to the person as an individual and not as a measurement against some standard norm. (Anything about that that doesn't sound very impressive or doesn't make sense is due to my remembering and explaining project he explained to me!)
posted by Salamandrous at 8:21 PM on September 6, 2009

What you should probably do is look at the syllabi for graduate-level philosophy courses at good departments. Professors use their upper-level courses to discuss material that they're working on at the time, so the cutting-edge stuff will be there. Syllabi will also give you reading lists.

Topics that have been taught in my department in the past year include: the semantics of questions, the difference between knowledge-how and knowledge-that, simulationist theories of mindreading, the role of intuitions in science, the situationist attack on character traits (which you mention), dispositions and their relation to propositional attitudes, the relation between high-level and low-level sciences, how to give an account of vagueness, whether propositions are structured, where the normative content of the law comes from, whether preferences are transitive, what kind of sense can be made of saying that ethics is reducible to the physical, etc. All interesting topics, all pretty current.
posted by painquale at 8:49 PM on September 6, 2009

You'd probably be interested in the nominees for the 3 Quarks Daily philosophy prize. They seem to be largely blog posts from various philosophers, although I've only read a few. I found this one on an ethics of honor interesting.
posted by amtho at 8:51 PM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

The P-zombie is already mentioned, but not the dread utility monster (which gets at the heart of intersubjective experiences, and is a wonderful dig at those latte-sipping foodie hipsters)

Since you were interested in the philosophy of fiction, I can also heartily recommend Eco's Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. It's a great and accessible (but not pop-philosophy) book.
posted by zpousman at 9:57 AM on September 7, 2009

The Churchlands and neurophilosophy.
posted by ifjuly at 1:15 PM on September 7, 2009

What are YOU interested in? Why do you want to go to grad school in philosophy? That would probably help us give you some things to look at. What are some papers that have turned you on in courses you've taken? You say you don't like ontology; as it is right now, a lot of contemporary ontology is the working out of very complex systems of conditionals ("if x, y, z, then what follows?"), is that what you mean by its being closed under implication? Say what you dislike about that; what would you prefer?
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:57 PM on September 7, 2009

No, I've misunderstood you; you meant that you aren't applying to grad school. Ok. Then what are your interests, why are you interested in specifically new questions? How recent do you want them to be?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:13 PM on September 7, 2009

A lot of the 'applied' research these days increasingly requires specialized outside knowledge. What else do you like/are you good at besides philosophy?
posted by Kwine at 6:42 AM on September 8, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions, everyone. If people are still reading this:

LobsterMitten: What I mean about ontology is that it may be intrinsically interesting to some people, but it's not interesting to me because it seems to have no consequences outside of ontology, let alone outside of philosophy.* I may be wrong because I've never really studied it directly, but this is the impression I get from the bits I've picked up when studying other topics in philosophy. For example, it makes no difference whether "mathematical objects" really exist in some technical sense; math works just fine either way.

Kwine: I'm mainly interested in how philosophy can benefit people in some way (including indirectly by its effect on other fields). I have some specialized outsider knowledge in math and related subjects. I know a bit about art (pictures) but not so much about music and literature. The interaction between moral/political philosophy and real political situations (if there is any!) also interests me.

*This isn't technically closure under implication; I guess it's more like closure under "derivation of consequences": when p is ontological and p->q, q must be as well.
posted by k. at 9:27 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ah, ok. Two quick corrections - ontology has lots of consequences in other areas of philosophy, for sure. Also I don't think the small phrase at the end of your answer means quite what you want it to mean.

But I can certainly accept that you're more interested in practical things, or applied philosophy! Here are a few thoughts on things to look into:

You might be interested in an overall worldview called "pragmatism" (which has been a term attached to a few somewhat different views over the years). Not that this will yield particular questions, but it might unify some of your thinking on your overall outlook on philosophical questions.

Here's a big laundry list of ethical and philosophical topics that pertain more or less to current times...
Applied ethics has lots of questions raised by new technologies, for example medical ethics about the end of life, severe disabilities, etc; bio-ethics about research that harms or kills animals, cloning humans, etc.

This is more metaphysics but: ways our understanding of what's essential to a human or a good human life will change as various life functions start to be mediated by technology (eg having a close relationship with someone you've never met across the world; or spending time engaging socially with AIs; designer drugs that could artificially create religious experiences). More metaphysics/metaethics: To what kinds of entities do we have moral obligations? Presumably humans, but how human-like must something be before we're obligated to it -- what about higher animals, or robots like Data on Star Trek? This may come to be a pressing question sooner rather than later.

Political philosophy - there's an area of social/political philosophy called "just war theory" which is about whether/when a war is just/proper, that has seen a lot of work in the last ten years for obvious reasons. The ethics of humanitarian aid and humanitarian military intervention (eg to stop a genocide). The ethics of torture and treatment of prisoners. Rights of minority cultural groups (eg language rights of groups within the EU) and how to understand what's a cultural group and why that entity should have rights. Some of the tougher consequences of egalitarianism (the view that all people should be treated equally).

Something called "cosmopolitanism" in our understanding of political rights; how do we reconcile the different conceptions of the "good" for individuals that arise from different cultures which are now clashing (eg Muslim immigrants' cultural experience in France), being respectful of different cultures while at the same time maintaining that some things are ruled out by the intrinsic rights and dignity of the individual?

Liberalism (not the version they talk about on tv talk shows), which has been the dominant political philosophy for a long time (look up "John Rawls" in wikipedia and go from there) has various tricky problems - the short version is, it advocates tolerance for each citizen's belief system, but what can it do about people whose belief system is anti-liberal, for example people who think the nation should be a theocracy? Another tricky problem for Rawls's view is what to do when you get a bunch of nations together, since his original view was meant only to deal with the single-nation case. He addressed this problem in a book, but then he died, and scholars have been trying to work out whether his solution is any good or if it can be improved on.

Philosophy of art (and music and literature) comes under the general umbrella of "aesthetics"; I don't have any great suggestions there although it's a live area. Just offering the search term.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:12 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

From my own experience, the philosophy of collective intentionality (and the nature of social reality generally) is pretty hip, and you probably wouldn't come across it at all as an undergrad.

Related to that is extended/enactive/embodied cognition (check out Alva Noe's books in particular). It'll take neuroscience a while to catch up with that one.

The philosophy of emotions is also fairly fashionable, but I'm not sure its really waiting for more breakthroughs (since I've already made them).

And in general 'experimental philosophy' is quite fashionable- tends to be particularly concerned with challenging our moral assumptions from what I can see.

I also hear lots of talk about the philosophy of biology, but I don't know much about it (I think it includes things like 'what is a species' 'is race real?'

I would say that anything informed by up to date advances in the empirical sciences is part of a growing trend in philosophy.
posted by leibniz at 7:08 AM on October 2, 2009

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