On Philosophy

September 26, 2006

Is Philosophy a Confused Discipline?

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:26 am

This may seem like a strange question, but perhaps not an unreasonable one considering that there are two different approaches to philosophical questions, and it is easy for us to confuse one for the other (aided by the fact that philosophers often fail to explicitly state which approach they prefer). One approach is to view philosophical questions as about our concepts and the other is to see them as about the world, and answers to given by these approaches can be as different as night and day.

Personally I approach philosophical questions as about the world. I do see our concepts as interesting, and worthy of consideration, but I also feel that they are best studied by psychologists. One reason to engage in philosophy in this fashion is because the answers, if correct, reveal truths about the world, independent of people and their ideas. The concepts people have change over time but the structure of the natural world does not (to the best of our knowledge), and so by working in this way we can hope that our conclusions will have lasting significance. Another reason not to approach philosophical questions as about concepts is that many of our concepts have been shown to be paradoxical, possibly even all of the philosophically interesting ones (our concept of identity over time is the most easily shown to be paradoxical). Such inconsistencies are even more likely to be found when we attempt to reconcile concepts as employed by different people. The natural world, however, does not contain paradoxes (again, to the best of our knowledge), and so while working with concepts can problematic studying the world is much less so, since when our concepts conflict we can simply reject them as wrong.

Of course approaching philosophical question as about concepts has some points in its favor as well. For one we might believe that a study of our concepts must be prior to any other kind of investigation, and thus that we must settle disputes about our concepts themselves before we move on to examine the rest of the world (Husserl could be read as taking this position). We might also be motivated to approach philosophical questions in this way because we feel that our concepts play a central role in our life, and that by examining them we can resolve “human problems”. Even though our solutions might not be good for all eternity they can still be useful to us now. Finally, we might feel that answering questions about the world is the domain of science, and that philosophizing in that realm is an invitation to look foolish when confronted by later evidence.

So perhaps both approaches have their merits (even though I prefer by far taking philosophical questions as about the world). What is a problem, as mentioned earlier, is when they are mixed together, specifically when philosophers tackling the same questions and publishing in the same journals take different approaches. This is a particularly severe problem in my area of interest, the philosophy of mind (of course epistemology, metaphysics, ect suffer from this problem as well). Some approach the study of consciousness as the study of the concept of consciousness, which, I will admit, is that consciousness is independent of the body, ect. Others, myself included, study consciousness as something that is part of the world, meaning that our intuitions, and pre-analytic conception of it, may be drastically wrong. But of course philosophers don’t label themselves as taking one of these approaches, and so the arguments of one approach are used in an attempt to rebut the position of the other approach (for example, my previous post shows how the argument that consciousness is conceptually independent of the physical world fails when we are interested in the consciousness that exists here and now).

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