Interview with Mario Bunge – philosopher and physicist
Enjoying reading his books and philosophical inquiries for years it was a big pleasure and even a greater honor for me to interview Mario Bunge.
Those who are not familiar with Bunge’s work, will be interested to read a short and incisive characterization. – Bernulf Kanitscheider – a renowned German philosopher of science – once highlighted the importance of Bunge’s philosophy impressively by using some metaphors:
Mario Augusto Bunge is one of the few extraordinary personalities who have managed “to essentially shape the intellectual geography of an era of science”. Mario Bunge is a member of the small circle of important philosophers of science whose works have become “milestones in the life of the spiritual landscape of world philosophy”.
In a series of posts based on my interview I try to give an impression of what Bunge once was pointing at when he wrote about philosophical problems:
“The Big Questions come in bundles, not one at time.”
Mario Augusto Bunge’s Background:
Born in Buenos Aires in 1919, Professor Mario Bunge earned his doctorate in physico-mathematical sciences from the National University of La Plata in Argentina, and has been a professor of theoretical physics and of philosophy. He joined McGill University in 1966, was given a named chair, and was recently made an emeritus professor. He has also been a visiting professor in numerous countries including the USA, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Switzerland, and Australia. Professor Bunge holds 19 honorary doctorates and four honorary professorships, is a member of four academies and a Prince of Asturias laureate, and ranks #43 in the AAAS‘ Science Hall of Fame. He has authored over 400 papers and more than 80 books on quantum theory, philosophy of science, semantics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, political philosophy, and science policy.
To start with – in a nutshell:
What is philosophical competence?
Professor Bunge: In your penultimate book, published in 2012 („Evaluating Philosophies“) – you had a look at a question, which is – to your opinion – constantly asked by laymen looking at the field of philosophy. I would like to start making use of exactly this question:
? – How is the value of philosophies to be assessed?
Do you think that good philosophies must be useful, or perhaps have even to pay off?
In my view, philosophies can be good, bad, or indifferent, according as they help, obstruct, or do neither to the advancement of knowledge.
The reward is not pecuniary but cultural. For example, the French Enlightenment favored the advancement of science and technology, whereas phenomenology and existentialism obstructed it, and Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy did not solve any problems of knowledge because it focused on words. In any case, the rewards and punishments are cultural, not pecuniary. However, this is not to approve of academic mercenaries, like the Catholic and Marxist philosophers who taught what the powers that be ordered them to teach. Original philosophy is always “deviant” or even subversive. Remember that Thomas Aquinas’ teachings were initially condemned as heresies by the Church.
? – Your claim seems to be that a philosophy is to be assessed by precisely defined
performance criteria: What do your colleagues think of this kind of pragmatism?
Most philosophers today avoid taking firm stands on anything. They find that it is safer and more rewarding to write comments on commentators than to invent new ideas. Most contemporary philosophers are conservative and eager to keep their jobs.
Today philosophers are often criticized because they obviously have „maneuvered“ their discipline into a kind of “secondary” world. Many philosophical writers have retreated to „otherworldly niches“
- being confronted with dynamically developing sciences, they don’t understand
- being confronted with ideologies, which they don’t dare to face
- being in fear of the infuence of publicly worshiped „intellectual giants“ like news
commentators and journalists, financial experts, economists, policy experts,
intellectuals, artists, celebrities, etc.
They seem to have taken the function of an aesthetic and intellectual window dresser making it less painful for us to look at a harsh, in their eyes unchangeable world.
? – Is it true that philosophy actually has lost her „kingdom“? Are philosophers today like that person, that was once immortalized by Paul McCartney in a Beatles song – are they „fools on the hill“? Are there any important skills philosophers have that other cultural or key personnel does not own?
That is very true. Even philosophies who have denounced pseudosciences like psychoanalysis, have condoned pseudoscientific economic theories like neoclassical microeconomics. It is far safer and easier to criticize Freud and Jung than to criticize Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, because the latter are backed by political movements whereas the former are not. Much the same holds for Creationist cosmologies and “intelligent design”: anyone who writes in favor of them can hope to get a Templeton Prize or at least subsidy.
? – Obviously, philosophy is not a uniform field. There are philosophical paradigms that compete with each other. The more important it seems to be to learn to recognize philosophical competence.
Philosophical competence is hard to judge, and at any rate philosophical juries are very different in different cultures. In my view, a competent philosopher is not an erudite but one who proposes valuable insights about interesting problems – just as in science and technology. In the scientific community you find competent teachers and original researchers, just as in the musical community you find many good performers but very few good composers.
? – How convincing are competent philosophers in situations in which they have to discuss their arguments? Are the best of them able to win an “elevator pitch” by getting across their messages in 120 seconds?
Sorry, I don’t understand the question. In any event, I don’t believe in instant philosophy, because interesting problems take a long time to understand and work out. Just think of the problems of truth and justice.
Source of Mario Bunge’s portrait photos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zX3qSq1FkEc
(youtube video by www.intramed.net)