Putting Philosophy To Work by Susan Haack (book review).

I wasn’t sure what to make of Susan Haack’s book, ‘Putting Philosophy To Work’, mostly because I suspect that I thought it was applying philosophy to something than discussing the practices of other people. Throughout the chapters, Haack is an advocate of honesty in everything, citing science as an example. I’m not wholly sure on this, mostly because when it is set to be applied into the likes of technology, then it is often put into people’s hands who might not be so honest to its uses they want to apply it, especially when a profit margin is concerned. The same applies to ‘truth’ as well because that is definitely in the eyes of the beholder or rather the person who asserts what they are saying is correct. Letting it become too simplified is the same thing that can happens to lies, as you can have a white lie to protect someone and deeper shades for self-interest. The way I’m reacting to this book already should tell you about it which I suspect is Haack’s intention, to make you react than just read her book. I love the joke of two behaviourists meeting and one greets the other with, ‘Hi! You’re fine, how am I?’ She will question your ego.


In the middle of the book, it becomes clear what Haack is focusing on with regard to science and ethics but I think she’s hitting how the companies who hire scientists see profit over everything else. If anything, there’s a good argument that in the development of medicines that it needs better regulation and test results are assessed far better before anything is allowed on the market. This includes looking at the negative results that some companies tend to dismiss as irrelevant when the majority of results are favourable which is playing with statistics. As we all know, not all medications are suitable for all people and having a profile for those whom it shouldn’t be given would be handier for doctors in matching medical to patients. It might actually save lives that way.

Rather oddly, Haack refers to thalidomide in all but name were the effects on giving the medication far too early in pregnancy. Bill Gates pushing for shared research before donating money to finding a cure for AIDS has pushed somewhat but it really needs to go across the board. Avarice when it comes to people’s health should worry everyone even if it s a regular occurrence. There’s room to make a profit in medication without biting the hand that will buy it off you with over the top prices limiting use. A cheaper price will at least ensure more hospitals can buy the product and spread some good promotional PR at the same time.

None of this is helped by the fact that there is so much research going on that everyone can’t keep up with what is going on. Although not said, Haack makes a good argument for some form of independent organisation to provide organised research source for checking up on things in the professions. I mean, there’s a lot of scientific journals out there but I doubt if any scientist can remember everything they’ve read on their own subject let alone can go back to it later or cross-check against other subjects where it might have a use.

When it comes to expert witnesses, Haack makes a good argument regarding a better declaration of them not being beholden to companies or at least not those in a particular court case. Considering that the defence or prosecution brings such people in for a fee means that they are matching a person to what they want to be heard. I would love to see a change where an expert witness is paid for by the court so they are truly independent of either side when expressing their knowledge. It might even pay to have more than one expert when there is any controversial evidence by this method.

Any scientific hypothesis comes from recognising that there is evidence for something going on and then to investigate what and seeing how repeatable it is. I doubt if any scientist pulls ideas out of the air. I might do something like that as a writer but if you track the roots of the idea, chances are that there is some evidence of something I’ve read or watched and free association with it.

I’m a little confused by ‘intellectual integrity’ because both have to be taught to anyone if they are going to apply principles to anything. I do think it would help enormously if philosophy was taught at schools than left to university grades because it would stop it looking like a mystery subject reserved for people who want a degree in it.

We take being cynical, questioning everything, as a natural course in the UK although I can appreciate that in the USA, this is seen as scepticism and not believing anything which probably explains how creationism got a foothold when it didn’t over here.

As you’ll note from the above, I’m tending to react to this book than tell you much about it. Haack’s book is a demanding book. Whether she likes it or not, I do think that is the need for philosophy. You’re not supposed to be a sponge in absorbing the knowledge and go on with your life. You’re supposed to read and then react and even do something when you think that a point is being made. That being the case, the length of the review speaks for itself. In some respects, this book will also be a heavy read so take your time reading and digesting it. If you come away pondering on the honesty of other people compared to yourself then that’s just one useful lesson learnt.

GF Willmetts

April 2014

(pub: Prometheus Books. 345 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: $23.00 (US), $24.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-61614-493-7. Ebook: $12.99/ISBN: 978-1-61614-494-4)

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com

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