I’ve noted in a previous post that I delivered a lecture this afternoon at the National Association for Quality’s annual educational conference.  My topic was on the applications of ethical thinking to the cultivation of a culture of quality in healthcare.

During the presentation — which, I fear, bored most of my audience — I found myself stressing again and again a problem that spreads far beyond ethics and quality: that most of contemporary moral philosophy is dangerously out of sync with an average person’s thinking.

I made the point mostly to emhasize that unlike most other disciplines, today’s theoretical ethics, as a discipline, doesn’t translate well into practical ethics. 

But the point runs deeper than that.  Before the “linguistic turn” in philosophy, most philosophical problems could be understood by a reasonably well-educated person.  But to get through cutting-edge philosophy, one needs advanced training in either mathematics (to handle symbolic logic) or linguistics and mathematics (to handle language). 

I saw this during my graduate seminars.  The world of philosophy that I thought I knew from private reading and from undergraduate coursework was almost wholly unlike the complex beast that lurked in the seminar room.  There, just about everything — ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology — seemed to reduce to formal logic and linguistics, which in turn presupposed an expert-level grasp of calculus.  Math = logic = basis of philosophy.

There are some reassuring blips on the radar screen that suggest the tide is turning, but the damage done not just to the discipline, but also to a world that (whether it knows it or not) depends on philosophy, is incalculable.  Even with symbolic notation.

In parallel fashion, there is a growing understanding that string theory as the end-all, be-all of theoretical physics may be a fool’s errand.  In the current edition of The Economist, there appears a review of two recent books that attack string theory as being non-scientific and a detriment to the advancement of bleeding-edge physics.

Let us hope the trend continues.

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