Why I love philosophy*

Philosophy has come under attack a bit on this blog. Martin is worried about the unnecessary termino-logical contortions philosophers seem to love putting themselves through in making simple points, and Frank Weyns has argued that philosophy constitutes a wild-goose chase for absolute truth. (THIS MAY BE A LITTLE UNFAIR. FRANK WEYNS’ POSITION ON THIS WAS MORE NUANCED THAN I GOT ON FIRST READING…PERHAPS CLOSER TO THE ONE I OUTLINE HERE THAN I NOTICED. (edit)) He has also claimed, in a response to a post of Katy’s, that feminist philosophy is impossible.

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In this post I shan’t argue against either of these claims about the nature of philosophy (directly). Rather I’ll put forward a different view, my own, which is contrary to those mentioned above. The reader can decide for themselves.

Is philosophy the search for absolute truth? Maybe. Is there any such thing? Maybe. Either answer to the latter question (yes or no) is to my mind hubristic – rather as any definite answer to the question of whether or not there is a God. The only respectable position on such matters is either agnosticism or a self-professed confession of faith.

While I think philosophy might be a search for absolute truth, and that that search may or may not be futile, it is not the reason I love philosophy.* Nor is it the reason I think philosophy should (and I think it should!) be pursued.

I think of philosophy as a discipline whose principal aim is the challenging of any and all preconceptions simply in order to open up new avenues of thought and enquiry. Forget about absolute truth: Descartes argued that there were two completely inseparable realms, the mental and the physical, of which the mental is in some sense prior; Kant that the mind has an essential role in the constitution of the physical world; Berkely that there may be no physical world whatever. These assertions may (for all we know) be true or false – scientists have yet to disprove esse ist percipi. What is interesting (for me) is not whether they are really true or false, but the ideas themselves – seeing how these ideas fit into a world view, how attractive or inattractive that world view might be, how they challenge basic preconceptions that people (now and/or then) have taken to be obvious. Such enquiry first reveals limits to what we can know about the world, and then fills in the gaps exposed by those limits with arguments that should, I think, be judged not by whether or not they take us closer to absolute truth (whatever that may or may not be), but rather by a) their deductive rigor (they must, pace Martin, be at least logically consistent)and b) aesthetic constraints like elegance, simplicity, conformity to common sense, and so on.

This sort of radical challenging of basic preconceptions** is in fact common to the very best human achievements in science, philosophy, art, music, literature, and mathematics (to name a few). Whether or not we call certain people working these fields “philosophers” comes down to a terminological quibble; and of course not all mathematicians, scientists or what have you are philosophers even in this sense. But some (by my definition here) certainly are. I think there is a plain difference between those mathematicians who, for instance, use antecendently established algorithms to code up secrets and those mathematicians who behave more like philosophers, who challenge basic mathematical preconceptions (does -1 have a root? Are there infinite numbers?). Like stories could be told for other disciplines (think of the humdrum scientist working on hair-care products as opposed the theoretical physicist who suggests there may be things neither wave nor particle), and in each case folks of the latter “philosophical” kind tend to be the truly great ones (e.g Kurt Goedel in maths, Wittgenstein in philosophy, Albert Einstein/Werner Heisenberg*** in physics, James Joyce in literature, Arnold Schoenberg in music, Malevich in art to name some contemporaries).

To my mind this view of philosophy makes it plain that feminist philosophy is possible and distinct from political feminism. Political feminism is concerned with actively furthering progress in terms of women’s rights and so forth; but a feminist philosophy involves challenging preconceptions people might have in various areas of thought – either in terms of ideas about the feminine, or ideas that do not include the feminine explicitly but perhaps should do. As an example of this sort of preconception, Frank Weyns wrote in a comment in support of his views about the impossibility of philosophical feminism:

Philosophy admirably concerns itself with human nature in general, i.e. it tries (or should try) to understand what is common across that broad spectrum we call the human race, i.e. it should continue to try hard to abstract from human specifics that relate to how individual political segments of society aspire to politically differentiate themselves from the human race in general..

Why this preconception of human nature as ungendered? One might think that part of what it is to be human is to be gendered, and thus that an exploration of human nature will involve understanding the essence of each gender and their relations; or one might think that the homogenized ungendered view of human nature is correct, but that (since most “great thinkers” of history have been white european males) the current ungendered view is in fact unnecessarily biased towards men. I think these avenues of overtly feminist philosophy can and should be explored****; for philosophy just is (on this view) precisely the exploration of such avenues, for no reason other than that they are there. Doing so is (to my mind) of great intrinsic value, and the reason I ❤ philosophy.*

*For etymologists: note the meta-love here 🙂

** of course the same constraints do not apply; but certainly great musicians, artists and so on challenge ones preconceptions in those areas.

***http://www.naturalthinker.net/trl/texts/Heisenberg,Werner/Heisenberg,%20Werner%20-%20Physics%20and%20philosophy.pdf

**** checkout SEP on feminist philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology & so on.

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11 thoughts on “Why I love philosophy*

  1. I sympathise with your views more than may have been apparent at first, Chris. My main point is actually that much academic philosophy does not take that project of enquiry and the need to challenge conceptions you allude to far enough. In so doing it gets lost in linguistic muddles that prevent us from gaining more clarity on possible answers to philosophical questions. I believe it should go one step further and inquire not just into the phenomena themselves and challenge the attendant current conceptions, but also challenge the concept of conception itself, so to speak, to inquire into the language that is used to express those phenomena, i.e. deepen the inquiry and analysis, and (re-)learn the wise lessons of the ordinary language philosophers and of cognitive linguistics. In short: to recognize that true philosophy of language is really linguistics, broadly defined.

    The topic of so-called ‘philosophical’ feminism is (somewhat) related to this: modern day philosophy, and, more specifically, ethics, laudably starts from a premise of human equality: in spite of very apparent biological differences, philosophy is committed to not making a philosophical (i.e. a primarily ethical) distinction between female members and male members of the polis. Those who insist on a philosophical (vs. a (very legitimate) political) role for feminism paradoxically introduce into philosophical discourse a vocabulary that actually creates and accentuates a distinction that philosophy, to its credit, refuses to make, for sound ethical reasons, any more than it would like to introduce (ethical) distinctions based on height, weight, colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. in answering the Socratic philosophic project of ‘how to live’. Although there are indeed biological distinctions, and although they do have sociological and political consequences, it would be good to keep that matter firmly outside of philosophy and leave it to the domain of politics where it originates, a matter for ‘special interest groups’, and to those disciplines that study these social phenomena: sociology, political theory and psychology. Maintaining that conceptual distinction in ethics/philosophy only exacerbates the issue. Let’s not do that: gender issues do not belong in philosophy – the (ethical) universe is only gendered because people have decided to make that conceptual (ethical) distinction, mistakenly: it perpetuates a political problem rather than solves it. Let’s leave those distinctions to areas of social activity where they feel that making those distinctions is a worthwhile pursuit: to religion, to politics, etc. And, of course, to the study of biology, sociology, politics and psychology.

    • Thanks for your comments, Frank.
      What do you mean by challenge the concept of conception? By a “preconception” in a given field I meant a generally accepted or apparently obvious assumption or belief. For instance many hold that there are tables, or that some things are morally wrong, that democracy is an inherently better mode of governance, &c&c&c. Challenging such preconceptions and arguing against them will inevitably require conceptual clarification; this is much of what analytic philosophers involve themselves in. If, when you express your desire for philosophers to challenge the language in which they do philosophy, you are suggesting they conceptually clarify their methods of conceptual clarification, then I’m going to suggest it ain’t turtles all the way down. Sometimes we have to take things for granted.

      Re. philosophical feminism: that’s a neat statement of your view. My point was that it ain’t the only one, and that there are projects of explicitly feminist philosophy that should be pursued. For example: the project of assessing whether one is or is not born a woman. Would you agree?

      • I agree that one of philosophy’s tasks is that of conceptual clarification – again, all I am saying is that philosophy does not take that task far enough as it is insufficiently critical (insufficiently challenging, in your earlier words) of the act of conceptual clarification itself: (1) it assumes there are fixed words and dichotomies that refer to things-in-the-world and then sets out to clarify those words and analyse those dichotomies, and (2) in attempting to clarify those words, to get to grips with what they mean, it merely logically contextualises those words. Linguistics teaches us that this is (1) a misconception and (2) an impoverished notion of conceptual analysis that is strictly limited to the armchair game of logical contextualisation where philosophy-as-conceptual clarification looks at how those words are/can be used, by looking at their semantic behaviour, i.e. at how they function in grammatical constructions, and how those grammatical constructions can avoid running into issues of clarity and logical coherence. It quietly assumes those words and dichotomies always actually stand for real things that exist, that there is a metaphysical vocabulary that is just given to us, and that philosophy’s task is to clarify that vocabulary by performing so-called conceptual (logical) analysis on it. It is this flawed view of how words come to mean anything as well as the limited scope of the attendant analysis that I despair of. A few examples:

        – the Whiteheadian footnotes G.E. Moore wrote to Plato, so many centuries on, was still making the same linguistic mistake Plato originally made: to derive from those things we adjectivally qualify as ‘good’ a noun that is ‘the good’, or ‘goodness’ (and similar or related notions) and assume, for no good reason, that this notion stands for something ‘out there’ that we can inquire into, by using grammatical constructions that mistakenly assume this derived, artificial notion of ‘the good’ semantically behaves in ways that are similar to regular nouns that refer to natural phenomena that we really can (and successfully do) inquire into.

        – the popular philosophical party game of Socratic elenchus, predictably resulting in aporia: this is an extension of the above point (but laudably conducted in a spirit we can hopefully call Socratic irony) where acts which we adjectivally describe as courageous, just etc are turned into instances of ‘courage’ and ‘justice’, i.e. where this strange inversion of turning multiple instances of the use of an adjective into the false assumption there is a noun that refers to something ‘out there’ (e.g. courage) of which the adjectival instances are but examples of that common ‘essence’ we can inquire into. The reason these Socratic exercises always end in aporia is because no-one ever succeeds in giving a satisfactory definition of those artificially derived nouns. Modern-day cognitive linguistics offers explanations of this phenomenon that relate to the social origins of language, the exhortative nature of proto- language: the use of words like ‘the good’ and all its attendant Greek ethical notions (courage, justice, etc) originate in primitive ex-pressions, of noises whose meaning is purely social signalling, of cries of agreement or dissent, of admonition or encouragement: i.e. they do not relate to descriptively accurate, logically correct instances of ‘the good’, of the virtue of ‘courage’, etc

        – the metaphysical inquiry into the nature of time – is time real? Again, the endless so-called metaphysical debates about this, where the answer to the question is quite straightforward for people with only an elementary knowledge of physics: velocity is equal to the distance travelled (i.e. the spatial change) over the time that has elapsed to travel that distance, therefore time = distance divided by velocity = change / rate of change. Both spatial (distance) change and rate of change (velocity) are very real, as we (I exclude people who suffer from the affliction of Cartesian radical doubt here …) experience them unmistakably. To define time as the visible, measurable spatial change divided by the rate at which that change happens still leaves us with something very real, although derived from primary experiences of change and velocity (the latter can further be articulated as momentum (colloquially assessed as (colloquial) ‘force’, as ‘physical impact’ of change) divided by mass, another very real quality).

        – the essentially poetic nature of ethics: so-called ethical theories can most accurately be described as the literary genre of poetic utopian narrative, i.e. descriptions of imagined (not necessarily imaginary) worlds that we (genuinely, legitimately) believe would suit us better. Treating them as ‘theories’, again, seems misguided. They are poetic narratives in that they inspire us to do certain things that appeal to us when described that way, and we hope that everyone else will be equally inspired. Here the model of philosophy-as-conceptual analysis is not only misguided but also too limited to describe what goes on: consistent with poetic practice new words are coined, i.e. invented, at some point in history (virtue, rights, justice, equality, liberty, etc) and used in aspirational narratives that accord better with how we would like to see ourselves and our communities. These, in turn, are based on our changing habits of self-description (as Homeric heroes, as sinners fallen from Christian grace, as subjects of Allah, as rational agents obeying the command of reason, as self-actualizing romantics and existentialists, as evolutionary biological aggregates of molecules, as economic agents, and latterly, increasingly as agents who have ‘life-styles’ defined by jobs, hobbies and retail preferences). I.e. in this case, philosophy-as-conceptual-analysis misses the main point of ethical discourse as a creative act of (serious) poetry. Conceptual analysis (coherence etc) obviously still has a role to play here, but it is a secondary role which owes its existence to (ratio-)poetic acts of imagination. This seems to account for the anaemic character of much modern Anglo-Saxon ethical philosophy (as opposed to the more visceral, poetic nature of Continental philosophy (my earlier post)): mistaking ethics as an epistemological pursuit of facts of the matter is due to a misunderstanding of the linguistics, the literary and philological aspects of this “genre” (and, for the sake of clarity, I do not wish to undermine the vital importance of ethics by calling it a genre).

        Finally, to answer your question about being born a woman: if that is a question for philosophy then it certainly is not the kind of question that relates to feminism as such, in my view. It points to the distinction between epistemology and ethics: i.e. making that distinction as a matter of fact, rather than making that distinction because we have reason to believe that makes an ethical difference, that female ethics are different from male ethics. As I consider epistemology (and whatever we can salvage from metaphysics) as co-extensive with natural science, i.e. as part of naturalized epistemology, where the philosophers work at the conceptual end of the spectrum from the armchair, and the scientists roll up their sleeves to go into the empirical field, and they meet each-other halfway to align their conceptions, I do not see this as a philosophical question, any more than I see it as a scientific question: I do not think anything is gained (and much is actually lost) when we make those unfortunate (and very recent!) distinctions. By and large, people are born male or female, although there are cases where the biological criteria for establishing that may not allow us to be as emphatic as we can be in the majority of cases. However, again, these things are matters of linguistic convention: we poetically, conventionally call those people / ourselves male or female, men or women, as we like. Analytical philosophy can then go to work on pointing out potential logically incoherence in the variety of uses of those terms. The community may then find those logical contextualisations worthwhile or not. The latter is largely a matter of poetic preference (very broadly defined).

  2. Frank,

    These are all v. interesting points! W/o time to fully respond, let me pick a representative – time.

    You’re painting a picture on which time is a sort of measure of change. Relativity theorists will tell you it is a dimension like the three familiar from space. Which of these definitions to take as primary seems like a question for philosophers interested in the concept of “time”. Much as metaphysicians might ask whether there really are tables as well as particles arranged tablewise, metaphysicians might ask whether there really is “time” – the measure you speak of – on top of the fabric of space-time. That’s a valid philosophical project.
    Just because time is defined (by you) as the rate of change, where change is real, doesn’t mean it too is “real” (whatever that means). For instance you might think that, although many real things are over a metre, that there is no such thing as “a metre”. Much as although there are many (real) things we can identify as superman, there is no such thing as superman.

    • It continues to come back to the same point: these (above) comments suffer from the same confused disregard for the serious linguistic thorns in philosophy’s side: it is not linguistically clear what you mean by ‘is real’, ‘exists’ and ‘is’ (in that particular sense), it literally lacks meaning, and hoping to avoid the necessary linguistic scrutiny by calling this ‘metaphysical inquiry’ as an excuse for not doing the hard and necessary work on clarifying what it means to use those 3 words/expressions, constitutes avoidance, non-philosophy, sophistry, scholastics, i.e. all unhelpful practices that I believe show a lack of respect for the true spirit of inquiry that lies at the origin, the very heart of an oft-neglected noble ancient Greek project. Much of philosophy still seems committed to challenge just about everything …. except its own foundation: language, i.e. the subject matter of linguistics, the hard-won area of expertise that is the domain of the linguists.

      The point about time is another good example: using the time dimension as a metaphorical analogy, an extension of the 3 spatial dimensions is, again, linguistically ill-advised, as the initially analogous semantic behaviour of that word (time) breaks down at a critical stage, it belongs to a different ‘category’ that does not throughout behave semantically in a way that is identical to the 3 spatial dimensions, i.e. the analogy only works partially and is, therefore, an unsound basis for a scientific theory in the longer run: it goes some way, as relativity was able to establish, but it led Einstein himself into conceptual muddles that only linguistics could shed a productive light on (please see the relevant chapter in Lakoff and Johnson’s “Philosophy in the Flesh” on this, and similar works) in a growing school of linguistically responsible thought.

  3. Frank,
    You gave an argument that time was obviously real coz physics. I responded to it, in part with doubts about whether “real” really made much sense. I agree that it may not. Many philosophers do too. The question of whether or not philosophical conceptions of reality or existence make sense has recently been pursued at some length in the burgeoning philosophical discipline known as “meta-ontology”. For a paper (I do not endorse) in this tradition, see Kit Fine’s “the question of ontology”. So you’ll be happy to know your concerns are being addressed.

    You might say: well, those meta-ontologists who are asking what real really means are really using their own philosophical methods which are in need of challenging!

    I agree, sort of. My position here is quite narrow. I hold

    a) any and all preconceptions should be challenged, coz that’s philosophy.
    b) any philosophical enquiry requires preconceptions – not all can be challenged.

    These two are consistent. We cannot challenge all preconceptions *at once*. Moreover some are uninteresting to challenge in the context of certain arguments. For example, you might want to know if numbers exist in the same sense the sense in which tables and chairs exist. In the context of that enquiry, it is may be necessary to take for granted that they do. Or that we know what tables and chairs are. Otherwise you never get started.

    To summarize, I agree that we should look at the role language plays in metaphysical debate: disagree that it’s not being done: and believe there are limits to the *interest* (though not the validity) of challenging presuppostions of presuppositions of presuppositions…

    • Interesting article – thanks for the reference! This is going the right way 🙂 There is good hope for a brilliant future of philosophy when die-hard old-school metaphysicians like Van Inwagen start taking notice of what Ordinary Language Philosophers like Austin say, and attempt to articulate what they believe a neo-pragmatist naturalist like Quine was doing – it’s just that it’s taking so long! 🙂 Encouraging signs. Maybe something is indeed afoot … I mean, when the Bertrand Russell (!) Professor (Huw Price) is bringing a rortean version of pragmatism to Cambridge things are CLEARLY moving …

      • If I may tiptoe into this exchange albeit a bit late, I would like to say, Chris, that I like your position as you state it:

        “a) any and all preconceptions should be challenged, coz that’s philosophy.
        b) any philosophical enquiry requires preconceptions – not all can be challenged.”

        The message I take from this is that we need to be quite clear which preconceptions we are not challenging for any particular argument. The crux of any argument might hinge on a common understanding of those preconditions. In other words, we need to know that participants in the discussion have a common understanding about which preconditions are not being challenged and what this implies for the argument.

        Presumably this is why philosophers are satirized as answering any question with, “It all depends on what you mean by…”

        So, philosophers do perhaps three things:
        1) They set the base from which they want to create a theory. The axioms etc
        2) They build up a theory on that base. Logical systems etc
        3) They explore the usefulness of the base. In other words they might go down so to speak to see how this base and its logical consequences match empirical reality.

        2) is an analytical journey.
        3) is an empirical journey.
        1) is “let’s decide where to start our journey from”.

        Great confusion can occur if these activities 1), 2) and 3), get entangled. And I would suggest this sort of confusion is common to all human discourse.

        Frank is presumably arguing that analytic philosophy is not paying enough attention to the base or the language it uses from which it is working, because if it did, it would find many of the solutions to its problems were solved. Of course, that exercise of disentangling is itself a philosophical one for which linguistics might be useful. I think that Frank, would say that all you need is the linguistics.

  4. well, let me clarify “what Frank would say”, Frank would say (sorry to sound pompous – tongue-in-cheek, as ever…) that in light of his (3rd person!) earlier post on why Socrates, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein taken together define the field of philosophy, talk about “axioms” and rhetorical comments like “of course … is … philosophical” are misguided: I believe they constitute a profound misunderstanding of what philosophy is about… if philosophy would like to avoid being accused of platonic, cartesian, russelian, etc mathematics envy, of passive-aggressively trying to delineate that last little segment of academic territory that (anglo-saxon, i.e. analytical) philosophy would desperately like to claim as its own, it can only go one of 3 ways: question the meaning of every important word without ever expressing a view (Socrates), take a confident ‘poetic’ stance on these same notions and be confident its poetic, expressive power will change (the meaning of) the way people talk about things (for the better) (Nietzsche and the continental tradition), or address this linguistic question head-on and say out loud that meaning resides in how language is used (Wittgenstein, in his hand-off of all things philosophical to the linguists…). I tend to agree with Quine that (anglo-saxon) philosophy is continuous with (empirical) science, it is the conceptual side of science, whereas “actual” science is at the empirical side of that continuum, or as Dennett would say: [anglo-saxon] “philosophy is doing science without having to do the dishes”: in short, ever since philosophy in this part of the world signed its death warrant by becoming ‘analytical’ (anglo-saxon) rather than staying poetic (continental) as I believe it should, its territory is dwindling, its significance is waning, and in the end it will have to justify why it is being funded out of a different tax-payer funded budget than science… and it will refuse to answer that question, making things worse for itself. Meanwhile, over in the other corner of the anglo-saxon philosophy departments, where homage is paid to Nietzsche, it will continue to be done in the fashion of Ken Gemes and similar: philosophy as extended obituaries to the greats who defined the tradition, philosophy as philosophology: not “doing” philosophy, but talking about those who did. Infinitely sad, but so very true.

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