On Philosophy

April 19, 2007

Synthetic Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

To me it is obvious that analytic philosophy is the most promising of the current approaches to philosophy, because it favors the careful and detailed analysis of philosophical topics, and conclusions are developed by logical argument from widely accepted premises. What makes this method attractive is that logical argument and careful analysis are relatively easy to debate. If someone points out a flaw in the argument or a counterexample they have a good chance of being right; the way the argument is developed it probably is a flaw or a counterexample. Of course in many cases these flaws are easily remedied, or merely reveal something unclear in the original formulation. But at least progress can be made, by discovering such flaws we can improve our positions by repairing them. And when we come across a deep disagreement what is often revealed is that there is disagreement with regard to some fundamental premise; which opens the door for arguments about the validity of that premise, and hopefully to making some progress there as well, by establishing the validity or invalidity of the premise.

But there is a serious problem with the stated purpose of analytic philosophy. The goal of analytic philosophy, officially, is a careful and logical analysis of our concepts, possibly resulting in improvements to those concepts, bringing them more in line with our intuitions. If that really was the purpose of analytic philosophy then it would be relatively useless, because it wouldn’t have any practical value. Even if you have a valid argument, if your premises are false then your conclusions will be as well. And building analytic philosophy upon our concepts or intuitions is starting from very dubious premises. Sure, some of our simpler intuitions are reliable, especially when it comes to the macroscopic physical world. But beyond that they become less certain. And if we build an analysis upon an intuition that doesn’t reflect the way the world actually works (such as: there must be some enduring substrate for change) then any conclusions motivated by that intuition will also be flawed reflections of reality.

Fortunately for analytic philosophy many, possibly most, analytic philosophers ignore that stated purpose. We often find analytic philosophers working to establish completely counterintuitive claims; claims that if true would force us to drop many of our usual intuitions and concepts as simply wrong. For example, there are analytic philosophers who argue that the “feel” of a sensation is really identical with some physical properties of the actual object we are sensing. And that is about as counter intuitive as it is possible for a claim to be. Which is not to say that I agree with them; it is simply evidence that analytic philosophers have a tendency to stray away from simply analyzing our concepts.

I think the reason they stray is simple; they want to explain things, resolve certain mysteries, and to do that they need to go beyond our intuitions. At best studying our intuitions will reveal how we think about the matter; but we want more than that, we want to understand what is really going on. And, more importantly, we want to find and correct our own mistakes. Consider justice. To say that something is just is, intuitively, to say that it has certain properties, like being fair, ect (I really don’t want to try to analyze it completely here). But to say that something is just is also to recommend it, to say that it is desirable. But we might question this, we might ask: is justice always desirable, why or why not? Obviously analysis of our concept of justice can’t answer this question satisfactorily. Intuitively justice is desirable, but there is no justification for that fact, its simply the way the concept is.

What we need then is a label for this kind of philosophy, philosophy that attempts to explain the world, and thus obtain a better understanding of it. For lack of a better word let me call it synthetic philosophy. Why synthetic? Well because part of the job of synthetic philosophy is to create (synthesize) explanations; which probably don’t appear in our concepts as they are. We can also think of synthetic philosophy as the science that studies things that can’t be measured, and thus results in theories that can only be tested by examining the reasoning behind them, the logic of their internal structure, and how well they cohere with our other explanations of the world.

I don’t want to go into too much detail here about the method of synthetic philosophy, because I am not entirely sure what the best possible method is, yet. I will give a brief outline now of what I think it might be like, but you must understand that it is just a guess at this point, based on extrapolation from what works in analytic philosophy and the method of other philosophy-like disciplines (economics, psychology). I’ll probably write more on this topic as I get a better handle on the problem.

To begin with we must have some analysis, specifically of the question we are trying to answer and the ideas involved. The subjects of philosophy are, almost by definition, vague, defined mostly by convention. Thus some analysis must be done to define those concepts in terms of simpler concepts that everyone understands the same way. Often there won’t be a single right way to do this. The idea may mean more than one thing, or mean different things to different people. In that case the goal to provide an analysis of it that captures at least some of its usual meaning, and then for the rest of the investigation stick to that one meaning as what you are investigating. If you absolutely need to investigate more than one meaning, or want to show how they have some common ground, then it is important to disambiguate between them in the body of the investigation, or risk making an error due to equivocation.

Once you know what you are looking for then an explanation of the phenomena can be proposed. For example consider an investigation of justice, specifically just societies. Assume we have already analyzed justice and decided that for our purposes we will take it to mean treating people equally. Thus our explanation of justice will be in terms of how a society manages to treat people equally, or, in other words, what rules, institutions, ect are required for a society to be just. That would be our explanation of what a just society is. And once we have such an explanation it must be tested. We must consider different possibilities and see how our theory handles them. For example, here we would consider different ways a society could meet our criterions for being just and we would see if that hypothetical society really treated people equally.

If our investigation was simply into what justice was then we are basically done. But if we were answering a more complicated question, such as “is justice desirable?” we may now need to apply our explanation. Of course in this case it would involve a little more analysis, we would have to say what makes a society desirable. But given that we can use our explanation of justice, in terms of a society with a certain structure, to determine if societies with that structure are always desirable, sometimes desirable, or never desirable. And we might also investigate to see if they are always the most desirable, or simply better than nothing.

But of course I like synthetic philosophy, I like answers, and I care about explaining ethics, justice, ect. Can I justify it? Well within the system of synthetic philosophy I can. I analyze philosophy as the search for explanations in non-measurable manners (roughly), and then from there I can ague that synthetic philosophy follows a pattern of investigation that usually leads to accurate theories. On the other hand I can’t justify it from outside the system. Perhaps this definition of philosophy is unintuitive, and thus unacceptable to the truly analytic philosophers. And the continental philosophers will probably say something about philosophy using ideas that are even less understood, and will take the resulting confusion as an argument for their brand of philosophy. But, when it comes down to it, I just don’t care. I want explanations, and what you call a search for them is just a matter of words.

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