On Philosophy

July 18, 2007

Yet Another Way Of Looking At Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Yesterday I described one potential way to escape some of the difficulties that face philosophy, by interpreting the task of philosophy as not to produce true philosophical theories but rather to produce interesting conceptualizations of the world. Both however share the idea that philosophy produces something of its own, some kind of theory or system. It’s possible to adopt a more radical view of philosophy than that. Instead of seeing the job of philosophy as to produce some kind of understanding of the world or to answer to our questions we might instead see its job as to produce a better understanding of the questions we have, and to either reveal those questions as nonsensical or to translate them into a form that allows some other discipline to answer them.

This is quite a radical and deflationist attitude to take towards philosophy, although that doesn’t make it wrong necessarily. One consequence of adopting such a view of philosophy is that most philosophical enterprises would be seen as major mistakes, and thus that the unsolvable problems that seem to plague them are only unsolvable because philosophy is the wrong discipline to solve them. But if this is the case then it isn’t always clear what discipline should answer them. Consider the question “can we know that the external world exists?” What discipline, besides philosophy, can even attempt to answer this question? Of course it is quite possible that there should be some independent discipline, a science of knowledge and rationality, which does answer them, and that by trying to answer such questions itself philosophy has prevented this discipline from coming into existence on its own. But that raises the question: why can’t epistemology be that discipline? This would be a kind of compromise solution, we could understand philosophy as primarily clarifying questions, but also having the secondary task of answering those questions which no other discipline can answer. However, every discipline that does seem to be able to definitively answer the questions put to it has a dependence on mathematics and evidence, without exception. And philosophy does not, it tends to be an “armchair” discipline, one that you can do perfectly well without leaving the house (I, for example, have never performed an experiment to test a philosophical claim). So it is perfectly reasonable to claim, if you think that philosophy itself primarily deals with questions and not answers, that by keeping these disciplines “in house” philosophy is preventing them from developing properly, and so that the compromise solution is still problematic.

But aren’t there some questions at least that philosophy is uniquely suited to answer? One possibility is that meta-investigations, such as this one, in which philosophy itself is investigated are uniquely the domain of philosophy. However I don’t think that is actually the case. Many, if not all, of the questions we are dealing with here could probably be answered by a fully developed science of knowledge and rationality. Specifically we could consider the method by which philosophy proceeds and then from that deduce what exactly this method can give us knowledge about. And then that, whatever it is, would be the domain of philosophy. And if the suggestion I am entertaining here is correct such an investigation would reveal that philosophy can’t give us knowledge about anything. Questions such as “what is X?” and “what is the essence of X?” have also been considered traditionally philosophical. However a minimal awareness of the progress of human knowledge reveals that questions such as “what is X” can only be answered at the end of an investigation, not at the beginning of one. Thus “what is knowledge?” could be only answered after a science of knowledge and rationality has said a great deal about how knowledge and rationality work. The idea that philosophers can simply contemplate such questions and then as a result of pondering them produce something useful or insightful is foolish, if we get anywhere by trying to answer such questions it is for other reasons. Philosophy is better suited to answer questions such as “what is the role of X?” and “what is our relationship to X?”. For example, philosophical reflection could reveal that gold is the kind of metal that is yellow and malleable (thus giving our relationship to gold by saying how it characteristically appears to us). But such investigations are easily construed as part of a process of clarifying our questions about such things, which fits perfectly with the view of philosophy being entertained here.

Now such a view of philosophy doesn’t suffer from any internal contradictions, to the best of my knowledge, but that alone is not reason enough to subscribe to it. The fact that it is so radically deflationary is its strength, in the sense that it allows it to avoid the problems that plague philosophy, but it is also its weakness, because be being so radical it is more of a position we might adopt as a last resort. Possibly if we can’t make philosophy work in any other way then we will give up on it by adopting such a view, but since we haven’t exhausted all our other options I think it is reasonable not to basically dismiss philosophy by adopting this view for the moment.

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