On Philosophy

December 20, 2006

Three (Four) Things Philosophy Is Not

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 5:37 pm

Philosophy is one of the most often misunderstood disciplines, in the sense that many people have very little idea what philosophy is about. Partly this is philosophy’s own fault, since there is no uncontroversial summary of what the discipline is really about. Below I have outlined some of the most common misconceptions about philosophy. I haven’t seen too many of them show up here (in comments), so perhaps this might not be helpful to you dear reader, but at least we can have a good laugh together at the expense of the people who do make these mistakes.

1: Philosophy is not postmodern (philosophy is not an art form)

I don’t know if you have come across any postmodern writings. If you haven’t consider yourself lucky. Postmodern prose is easily identified because it is inscrutable, almost to the point where understanding it becomes impossible. In terms of content post-modern pieces are usually rather weak, seemingly relying on their difficulty to be understood in order to be taken seriously. Postmodernism is a style, and ideally philosophy shouldn’t have a style. Philosophy is supposed to be written as clearly as possible. Often it fails short of this ideal, sometimes because the terminology that has become commonplace is difficult for the beginner (I always thought “intentionality” was an especially poor technical term), and sometimes simply because we have trouble expressing difficult ideas. But these are failings, and not things to be proud of. And the best philosophers are often easy to understand (Descartes, for example, is usually quite clear, when one disagrees with Descartes at least there is no confusion about what one is disagreeing with); often opaque writing simply masks weak ideas or weak arguments, and I think this is the case with postmodernists, who make rejecting rationality and objectivity one of their primary themes.

2: Philosophy is not opinion

Confusing postmodern writings with serious philosophy is my pet peeve, but it is not the most common misconception people have of philosophy. That honor belongs to thinking of philosophy as simply expressing opinions. Such people think they can simply lay down statements about what they believe and have it be considered good philosophy. But philosophy is much like science in that it is accepted that there is only one right answer to the questions that are dealt with by the discipline (at least to most questions). When two philosophers disagree one (or both) of them must be wrong, and by arguing with each other (through publications) we attempt to discover which is right, whose ideas are closer to the truth. Thus what is most important in philosophy is the arguments supporting a position, since these allow the position to be criticized, defended, and approved. Without an argument we aren’t really doing philosophy. (For example, this piece isn’t philosophy, properly speaking, since I am not arguing for a specific position, but instead pointing out things that should be obvious.)

2b: Philosophy is not friendly to blind faith

This is really just an extension of the above point, since faith is basically a opinion held sufficiently strongly. In any case simply stating that you believe that the world is a certain way is not enough to be a philosophical position (could be a religious one though). Often people who see philosophy in this way expect philosophers to defend their beliefs against the progress of science, and this is something that simply cannot be done, since even if philosophy and science were in disagreement science would win. Yes, it’s another of my pet peeves. Perhaps I should have entitled this piece: my top philosophy pet peeves.

3: Philosophy is not literary criticism

The final misconception of philosophy that appears on a regular basis is seeing philosophy as primarily a commentary/a response to the “great” philosophers. In some ways there is a grain of truth to this, since, to paraphrase Isaac Newton, we are only able to see as far as we do because we stand on the shoulders of giants. And this means that in many philosophical works mention must be made to what has come before, in order to throw away bad ideas and to point out what should be retained. But philosophy is more than simply analyzing the ideas of others, philosophy, done right, creates something new on that foundation. If philosophers didn’t there would be no point in having their own department, the comparative literature classes could simply add Hume to the syllabus and be done with it.

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