It’s a question many skeptical parents have asked their first-year philosophy majors – what, exactly, do philosophers do? It’s a fair inquiry, says Penelope Maddy, Distinguished Professor of logic & philosophy of science at UCI, and a particularly appropriate one to make in a field that’s very intent is to question our assumptions about most things.
As one of the leading philosophers of mathematics and logic, Maddy has spent her nearly 40 year academic career studying the methods of mathematics – specifically the proper ways of defending the fundamental assumptions from which our mathematical proofs begin.
“They have to start somewhere, after all,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in methodology, the study of the ways we go about pursuing knowledge in various fields and what makes those methods reliable (or not). For example, many of my colleagues in LPS study the methods of natural science: how are scientific theories developed and confirmed?”
More recently, she’s pushed the question back to the proper methods of philosophy itself -- to the methodology of methodology, you might say, or the philosophy of philosophy.
It’s the topic of her new book, aptly titled What Do Philosophers Do? and it’s available online. In it, she takes up the leading arguments of radical skepticism through an examination of a range of philosophical methods employed.
“How do philosophers go about their business? Which of these methods are reliable, productive? I use the threat of skepticism about our knowledge of the external world, a venerable philosophical challenge going back to the Greeks, as the test case for this study,” she says.
Her goal is to show people what philosophers do by doing it in a way that’s accessible to a general audience.