On Philosophy

July 17, 2007

Another View Of Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Yesterday I mentioned that some of the problems I raised can be avoided by abandoning understanding philosophy as a search for truth. And several schools of philosophy actually have embraced this option, even if they won’t admit it because they have redefined truth. Let me present then the most charitable interpretation I can of philosophy as pursued by such philosophers (so charitable I surprise myself), and why I think philosophy as such falls short.

Philosophy, when envisioned not as a search for truth, can be characterized as an art of ideas. Of course that is a little vague; more precisely such philosophers are in the business of creating different ways to conceptualize the world, which often have little to do with how we ordinarily conceptualize the world. Of course the same might be said of philosophy that is a search for truth, we create different theories about the world, and inasmuch as our theories describe what is going on differently, by appeal to different theoretical entities with different relations to each other, then they too are new ways to conceptualize the world. What makes this style of philosophy genuinely different is not just that it makes new ways to conceptualize its primary focus (rather than true explanations, in which new theoretical constructions are simply a byproduct) but in how these conceptualizations of the world are evaluated. They are not evaluated by how true to the world they are, but by how pleasing or elegant they are. Of course this is not how such philosophers themselves (for the most part) see what they do, they might say that they favor the conceptualizations that are most enlightening or the most useful, but from an outsider’s standpoint it all comes to the same thing: they way in which they are evaluated is not guaranteed to track truth (it might even be highly subjective), and so probably doesn’t.

This explains the emphasis of such philosophers on reinterpreting past philosophers. Why construct a conceptualization from scratch when you can borrow or adapt someone else’s, possibly by synthesizing it with the work of yet another philosopher? And it’s easy to generate papers by applying someone’s conceptualization to a new area. Of course this is exactly the opposite of how philosophers who put truth first operate. When you are trying to put truth first it is important to treat each philosophical theory as having a single standard interpretation (by resolving ambiguity in a systematic way), so as to be able to evaluate it definitively as true or false and thus be able to build upon its ideas to make progress. But of course those who don’t see philosophy as a search for true theories aren’t necessarily interested in making progress, and so they have no qualms about reusing and reinterpreting the ideas of past philosophers ad infinitum. Note that I’m not trying to slam them for doing so (yet), just pointing out a difference between the two approaches. Such an understanding of philosophy also leads to a different approach to philosophical problems. If we are looking for true philosophical theories then a problem for the theory motivates trying to solve the problem or looking for better theories which don’t suffer from it. But, in contrast, if philosophy is simply an activity of constructing conceptualizations then a problem is simply a feature of that conceptualization, which only exists because of that particular conceptualization. Thus philosophical problems tend not to get much attention from philosophers who aren’t after true theories, since they see them as best avoided (if they even need to be avoided) simply by re-conceptualizing the world (which we don’t want to do if we are in search of truth because we think that our current theories are at least partly true; constructing radically new theories in order to avoid the problem thus runs the risk of losing whatever truth we have already managed to capture). Of course such philosophers see the focus of philosophers who are after true theories on problems as being obsessed with problems of their own making.

Whatever you can say about such an approach to philosophy you can’t say much against it from within it. Even if it suffers from problems and inconsistencies (which it does) those only count against it if we approach the philosophy of philosophy with the attitude that such things matter, which only is the case if you are committed to philosophy as a search for truth (not with a capital t). On the other hand such an approach to philosophy can’t say anything against philosophy as a search for true theories either. If philosophy is like a form of art, say poetry, then philosophy as a search for truth is like a particular style of art that is defined by an adherence to certain strict rules, like iambic pentameter. Nor does it have the advantage of being more “meta” than the other approach (being able to describe it as a kind of subfield), because philosophers who focus on truth can equally describe this other form of philosophy through descriptions that would be called true (as I am doing here), thus showing that their enterprise is not on a higher level than philosophy envisioned as a search for truth.

But if it is impossible to argue logically against such an understanding of philosophy then we can resort to showing that doing philosophy in that way in unappealing for other reasons, hopefully without too much name calling. The first is the analogy between iambic pentameter and free verse. Good, even great, poetry can be written in either form, but it is obvious that writing great iambic pentameter requires more skill and dedication than writing free verse. Thus we are more likely to find a great poet among the authors of iambic pentameter than among the authors of free verse, since the difficulty of writing good iambic pentameter helps weed out the weaker poets, or at least makes their weaknesses obvious, while free verse makes it much harder to tell which poets are skilled and which are unskilled. (Of course for the same reasons non-poets gravitate to free verse, because it is easier to appreciate and do a little free verse yourself, while it demands a more serious study of poetry to appreciate and construct iambic pentameter.) Thus, by analogy, if you want to have the philosophy you read to already have some of the poor philosophers weeded out, and you want to be a more skilled philosopher yourself, then it is better for focus on philosophy as a search for true philosophical theories (which of course makes no claims about which approach is “right”). Secondly we might appeal to truth as a better goal than simply being “enlightening”. If there is some fact of matter to be had about the philosophical matter at hand then true theories let us leverage our knowledge of that fact. However a mere conceptualization of the world is useless, except as an intellectual exercise or tool; it can’t be leveraged to tell us anything we didn’t already know. Now of course some might claim that there is no fact of the matter to be had about the subjects philosophy studies, but that is far from settled. Let me give an example of why this matters: suppose we conceptualize belief as simply a social construct. Then saying that someone believes “X” is not really to say anything definite about them, to come to think that they believe “X” has no practical consequences. On the other hand if we identify belief rigidly as, say, a disposition (because we are after a true theory of beliefs) then saying that someone believes “X” is also to say something about how they will behave in different situations. So approaching belief philosophically as free to be reinterpreted as a social construct is to make belief claims empty independently of claims about social norms (or our own particular interpretation of what belief is), and since the connection of the two is probably extremely complicated it is essentially to make leveraging the concept of belief impossible (because of its looseness). But, on the other hand, while we are aiming at a true theory about belief we try to fix what beliefs are as much as possible, in order to evaluate our theory. And simultaneously this makes us able to leverage our philosophical theories about beliefs to make other claims on the basis of claims about what someone believes. Again, this doesn’t mean that we are in principle forbidden from engaging in a re-interpretation of belief as a social construct, or anything else we like, it’s just a demonstration that such an approach has little value outside of a purely intellectual context.

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