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Introduction to formal philosophy
Kjeldahl E., Hansson S., Hendricks V., Springer International Publishing, New York, NY, 2018. 733 pp.  Type: Book (978-3-319774-33-6)
Date Reviewed: Sep 1 2020

The physicist Richard Feynman, famed in nonscientific circles for his autobiographical books describing his scientific adventures, as well as some of his more popularly accessible lectures in physics (originally delivered to undergraduate classes at the California Institute of Technology in the early 1960s), was quite vocal in his lectures and writings about what he felt was the pointlessness of philosophy in actual scientific pursuit. But while the practicing scientist may have little need for philosophy, Feynman is believed to have said that the philosopher cannot afford to ignore the science of her times (or so I recall from a quote mentioned by the neuro-philosopher Patricia Churchland in an interview from the 1990s). This is by no means a feeling universally shared among philosophers, as one member in the online Philosophy Stack Exchange site put it (ironically paraphrasing a quote of Feynman himself): “[Science] is as useful to philosophers as ornithology is to birds” [1]. But between these extremes lies a range of positions where philosophers can, and have, incorporated scientific advances of the preceding and current eras into their worldviews, a notable example being Patricia Churchland’s close collaboration with the neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski [2]. Another is the formal philosophy program that is showcased by this book.

The term “formal philosophy” appears to have achieved common parlance since the posthumous publication, in 1974, of a volume of collected papers by Richard Montague pertaining to philosophy and language [3]. However, its aim, namely to explicate philosophical conundrums using formal systems (that is, a system having a number of axioms and a logical calculus, or a set of operating rules, that allows one to infer all valid statements that are allowed by the axioms and rules), is present as early as the late 19th century and early 20th century in the works of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. Indeed, some aspects of formal philosophy discussed here can be traced even earlier, for instance, the attempt of George Boole to create a mathematically rigorous language for logical argumentation (which has provided the lingua franca for the present Information Age). It is therefore important for students of philosophy to be at least aware of, and to some extent familiar with, the broad counters of formal philosophy, even if they do not agree with its aims.

The present book is an edited collection of 39 articles, each focusing on a certain aspect of philosophy that has been subjected to formalization to some extent. Given that the average length of these articles is less than 20 pages, the aim is not a detailed exposition but rather a summary of the key ideas and results from different areas. These can be broadly classified as belonging to the traditional concerns of philosophy, that is, logic (reasoning and inference), metaphysics (including the philosophy of language), epistemology and ethics (value theory and moral philosophy), as well as philosophy of science and social philosophy (which mostly focuses on decision theory and collective choice). The one area of classical philosophy that is conspicuous by its absence is aesthetics, a lacuna which, no doubt, will be rectified soon by enterprising formal philosophers.

The introductory chapter, written by editor Sven Ove Hansson, is definitely the volume’s pièce de résistance. Newcomers will find the explanations of basic concepts and historical context indispensable. Indeed, although the book is part of the “Springer Undergraduate Texts in Philosophy” series, this is one of the few chapters of the book that could actually be included as part of an undergraduate course in philosophy; most of the book’s chapters demand a certain level of familiarity with formal systems that many philosophy undergrads don’t have. On the other hand, many chapters could be included in a seminar course on the philosophical underpinnings of formal languages, for example, the graduate program in theoretical computer science at my own institution.

The individual chapters (other than the introductory one) are often quite focused, so as to be of interest only to those readers whose area of specialization is covered. For example, I found the chapter by Hannes Leitgeb on the use of artificial neural networks as models for logical reasoning quite instructive; that being said, his 2005 paper is a far easier read for beginners [4]. Prasanta K. Pattanaik’s chapter on social choice and voting, while well written, is somewhat predictable as it goes through the rather well-trodden example of Arrow’s impossibility theorem and voting rules, topics that have been thoroughly covered in numerous essays and books.

Thus, while fulfilling the need for a comprehensive reference in the area, as far as an introductory text in formal philosophy targeted to newcomers is concerned, I think we will have to wait for another volume in the future, possibly one written by Hansson that expands on his introductory essay.

Reviewer:  Sitabhra Sinha Review #: CR147050 (2102-0026)
1) Philosophy Stack Exchange Network. Accessed 08/06/2019.
2) Churchland, P. S.; Sejnowski, T. J. The computational brain. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1992.
3) Thomason, R. H. (Ed.) Formal philosophy: selected papers of Richard Montague. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1974.
4) Leitgeb, H. Reseaux de neurones capables de raisonner. Dossier Pour la Science 49, (2005), 97–101.
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