On Philosophy

August 20, 2007

Easier And Harder

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Philosophy, like every discipline that is interested in finding out the truth about things, is fundamentally about the world. And the world can be a difficult thing to get at, because there is no absolutely certain way to have access to it (in the sense that there is always room for error and mistakes). But, on the other hand, the world is easy to study because it does not hide from us; there is almost always some way to directly investigate it, and so no superhuman feats of reasoning are required to deduce its nature.

Accepting that philosophy is about the world requires fundamental changes in the way philosophy is approached, which in some ways make it harder and in some ways make it easier. Of course I don’t mean changes at the professional level, but changes in the attitudes of someone who is approaching philosophy for the first time, who is trying to transition from a non-philosopher to someone who is at least philosophically literate. Most non-philosophers think that they understand philosophy, but really are working under a misconception of the field; possibly because few of the popular philosophical writings are about the discipline itself. And since we were all non-philosophers at one time there can be some lingering confusion about what exactly we are trying to accomplish. By understanding the implications of the proper approach to philosophy, and how the intuitive view of philosophy much change, these confusions are dispelled.

If philosophy is about the world then we have no special access to philosophical truths, any more than we have special access to truths about electromagnetism or the shape of space. At first this might not seem to change anything; does anyone really believe that they have special access to philosophical truths? But while you might not get anyone to say that they have special access to philosophical truths a good many people approach philosophy as if they did. Anyone who accepts or rejects a philosophical position based on how intuitive it is, how much they like it, how well it fits with their existing beliefs, etc is effectively doing just that. This is a common attitude among non-philosophers, who will often accept or reject the writings of a philosopher (especially a big name philosopher, like Nietzsche, Kant, or Plato, just to name three) based on whether they “feel” right or not. Certainly we wouldn’t endorse Aristotle’s physics on such grounds, and neither should we endorse his philosophy on them. Getting rid of this approach makes analyzing and doing philosophy more difficult, because the tools left to us, like logical consistency, are much harder to apply.

A second consequence of this approach is that doing philosophy well requires training and practice. This follows because we are not naturally perfect investigators of the world. We have bad habits and bad epistemic practices, and we do not intuitively know the methods that are best for uncovering the kinds of facts about it we are interested in. The same of course goes for physics, biology, psychology, and economics; while most people can follow these fields to some extent it is much harder to contribute to them. And coming to realize that philosophy is such a field makes it, again, much harder, because it requires us to invest more time in it. (In contrast to the less informed opinion that philosophy is like an art form, and thus that anyone can have inspiration and do earthshaking philosophy.)

If accepting that philosophy is about the world just made philosophy harder we might give up on the whole enterprise. Fortunately it makes philosophy easier in a few key ways, which more than make up for the difficulties. One such way is that it completely abolishes the idea that philosophy is supposed to uncover some kind of underlying metaphysical framework for reality, or “the way things really are” that is not captured by any other discipline. Naturally there is no way to get knowledge about such things, even if they did exist. And so trying to uncover them through philosophy would have been a never-ending and futile exercise. Surely avoiding that makes the discipline somewhat easier.

Accepting that philosophy is about the world also eliminates the idea that philosophy is to uncover the correct definitions for words like “justice”. The question “what is justice?” has no right answer outside of the context of a philosophical theory, just as the question “what is an electron?” has no right answer outside of a physical theory. Justice can be defined however we wish in the context of a philosophical theory; the theory is not judged by how well it defines justice by how well it describes the world. Of course it is preferable to define justice in a way that fits with our intuitive usage for the sake of clarity, but it isn’t necessary. And this saves us from the impossible task of trying to find the “right” definitions. Because there are no “right” definitions, a word simply designates a loosely defined set of concepts, which varies slightly from person to person. Which means that even if you could find a definition that everyone would agree to it wouldn’t be any more enlightening then a dictionary is; the meaning of words reflect useful conventions not fundamental truths.

So philosophy may be harder than expected because it requires more work, but it is easier because it is faced with fewer insoluble tasks (hopefully zero). From the point of view of someone willing to spend time with philosophy that is more than an acceptable tradeoff.


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