The Problem of Specialization

 Posted by on 6 October 2004 at 10:06 pm  Uncategorized
Oct 062004

For the past few months, I’ve floundered about in my attempts to determine even a broad area for specialization in philosophy, i.e. history of philsophy versus metaphysics and epistemology versus ethics. To some extent, I’ve resisted the push for specialization. Such seemed premature while I was still only an M.A. student. In addition, my broad range of interests, as well as my demanding conception of the range of knowledge required for good philosophy, created some reluctance. The limits imposed by the departed-but-not-yet-replaced faculty in the Philosophy Department at Boulder were also daunting. I was quite unhappy and frustrated with my apparent options — and quite worried in light of the impending doom of my dissertation. Ethics seemed too derivative and fluffy, despite decent job prospects. Metaphysics and epistemology seemed to involve a tangled, floating mess of contemporary literature. The history of philosophy too often seemed pedantic, pointless, and disheartening. Oy! What to do!

My months of frustrated contemplation finally came to an end today in one of those obvious-in-retrospect epiphanies. My basic conclusion was that I ought to focus on ethics. (Oddly enough, that’s the possibility that I’ve most resisted over the past few years. Then again, perhaps the required resistance is a measure of the strength of my recalcitrant interest.)

As some of my past work indicates, my interests in ethics are substantial and enduring. I am quite eager to work on topics like moral development, major and minor virtues, the structure of moral arguments, the Objectivist meta-ethics, conflicts of interest, and so on. I’m also quite interested in the “classical ethical theories,” i.e. the ethics of Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Mill. Yet the particular topics of ethics are not the only draw. Ethics is quite amenable to integration with outside interests such as psychology and history. Much of epistemology is also normative by way of virtue of rationality. But perhaps most importantly, ethics engenders a certain healthy approach to philosophy as relevant and important to human life. Of course, that’s hardly universal to contemporary ethics, but it’s more common than in the history of philosophy or metaphysics and epistemology.

Interestingly, as the thought of ethics developed in my mind, my intellectual interests began to take on a clear hierarchical structure. A well-developed understanding of the history of philosophy, a rational metaphysics and epistemology, and a reasonable knowledge of related outside disciplines (like history, economics, science, and psychology) are means to the end of developing thoughtful, well-grounded answers to normative questions. Knowing that hierarchy, my general studies can proceed in a much more focused and purposeful fashion, which is delightful. Plus, I now have a clearer understanding of the necessity of such study, for without the philosophic foundation, integrative principles, and inductive data it provides, I would lapse into ethical fluff.

Of course, none of that is set in stone — yet it does seem to be the solution to the problems I’ve been wrestling with for the past few months. Although I don’t resent the time I’ve spent on both metaphysics, epistemology, and the history of philosophy, it does rather suck to be wrong again. Ah well, at least knowing that I’m wrong is a step above simply being wrong.

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