Saturday, September 17, 2011

What the Crap Is Philosophy?

     This entry was prompted by a conversation I had with a good friend the other day.  Out of the conversation it became quite evident that outside of my ivory tower the unwashed masses have a misconception of the very important world...nay...universe-changing work that philosophers do.   I was actually surprised at how worked up  I got (very unphilosophical of me to do so) by some of the misconceptions; so much so that as a response I ended up composing this short essay on my ideas of what philosophy is and what it isn't.  This is by no means an all inclusive account, and to some degree (I'll admit it) it is a somewhat idealized account but I think it captures that for which philosophy and philosophers strive.

      In your note you made some other points about philosophy and people's motivations. I'd first like to clarify a misunderstanding of what philosophy is. "Philo" means "love", "sophia" is "knowledge" or "wisdom". A philosopher is one who loves knowledge and/or wisdom. From this it is important to understand that a good philosopher isn't committed to a particular position. A good philosopher seeks truth, and much like a good scientist, can use a provisional hypothesis as a starting point for that pursuit. If that hypothesis falls pray to counter argument or contradiction then we either rework it or reject it. If you study the history of any philosopher you will see that his early ideas are often very different from his later ideas. You will not find a philosopher who began with a position and stuck to it despite objections and conter-examples. This is dogmatism and belongs to the realm of fanaticism and religion not philosophy.
       Another misconception about philosophy is that we just argue with logic to prove a point. This is nominally true but does not capture the enterprise of philosophy. To use the tools of argument and the rules of logic purely for the purpose of dogmatically defending a point belongs to the realm of sophistry, the origins of modern lawyers (In ancient Greece “sophist” was a derogatory term used against those who were employed by the rich to use their skills in argumentation to argue for the rich and powerful). Lawyers are not concerned with truth but with winning their arguments. Conversely, philosophers are concerned with truth and use argument to test the strength of hypotheses. If a hypothesis doesn't withstand argument we modify it or reject it. Once again if you study the history of any philosopher you will see this is what happens. This is a formal practice in both philosophy and science. You publish a paper. Your peers criticize it in written form, you try to reply to the criticisms. If you can't reply then you modify or reject the hypothesis. This happens all the time.
      It is quite possible that you disagree with the methods of philosophy, but that is another philosophical matter (you can actually take courses on the philosophy of philosophy) probably under the rubric of epistemology. The bottom line is this: in philosophy, as in most disciplines there is a consensus on what counts as evidence, what counts as correct argument form (formal logic). You could argue that this excludes other purported ways of knowing such as “faith”, intuition, or really really, really strong belief. That's fine, but generally these other methods haven't proven themselves as fruitful as those accepted within philosophy and have therefore been long ago discarded as an acceptable norm in a philosophical argument.
      Regarding your comment about the motives of others and their concern for truth, Hume would agree with you, and so would many psychological studies. It even has its own term in psychology: motivated reasoning. Most people begin with a position and when they are subjected to countervailing evidence, rather than modifying their position as we would expect, they reject the evidence and further entrench themselves in their view. This is because most people are emotionally attached to their position, not the quest for truth. Their beliefs define who they are and releasing a central belief is painful and is an admission of fault. Philosophers aren't emotionally committed to any particular beliefs. We are committed to a method and we are committed to approaching truth as best as can be expected from fallible humans.
      Regarding the everyday person's interest in philosophy, I am going to disagree with your assessment that most people aren't interested. Anytime you see a long string of comments on someones facebook page, blog, or hear a passionate discussion, you can bet that it involves a philosophical issue. Just because the issue wasn't raised in a classroom does not preclude it from being philosophy. Now, of course not everyone is interested in every area of philosophy but everyone has some philosophical curiosity and inclination, otherwise they wouldn't be human. Most people are concerned with the original question of classical philosophy, which is "what does it mean to live a good live"? (i.e. what are the necessary conditions).
      So, to summarize good philosophy (again, as with science) is not a competition about who's right and who's wrong; it is about a commitment to a method of inquiry and a commitment to seeking truth. You might disagree with the deliberate methods of logic and hypothesis testing for choosing one set of beliefs over another but seeing who can scream louder has yet to yield better results.
     Finally, to repeat, I will always be grateful to you if, when I am unclear in my explanations, that you let me know where and (if possible) why, and I'll do my best to improve my explanation...
     Thanks for reading my actually means a lot to me to have you read it,


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