On Philosophy

October 24, 2007

Is Philosophy Universal?

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

If we say that philosophy is universal we are saying that it is the same for everyone, that the validity of philosophical claims and theories doesn’t vary from person to person. If that is the case then it implies that the ideal philosophical method should produce the same results for all possible philosophers (otherwise the method fails to actually reach the valid philosophical claims, and thus isn’t much of an ideal method after all). Of course there are some caveats, we must also suppose that we are using that method in ideal situations, where everyone is working with the same initial facts, and that no one makes any errors in their application of the method. On the other hand, if philosophy isn’t universal then the ideal philosophical method has much more leeway, it is free to lead different philosophers to different conclusions, and this would not count against it. Obviously then it would be nice to decide whether philosophy is universal or not before we go looking for that ideal philosophical method.

Let’s suppose that philosophy isn’t universal, and thus that what is a good philosophical theory for me might be a bad philosophical theory for you (which is not to say that every philosophical theory is a live possibility, certainly ones that assert that philosophy is universal must be ruled out). How do we reconcile that claim with the observation that philosophy is a public enterprise? By public enterprise I mean, of course, simply that philosophy is produced in part so that other people can read it, or at least it is made available to them. Now this is not to deny that philosophy can be done in a completely internal manner, and never revealed to the rest of the world. But obviously we can’t be aware of such philosophy, and so in a sense it simply doesn’t concern us. Thus here I will simply consider public philosophy, philosophy that is published, that must be made public in order to be public philosophy. Why publish such philosophy? Of course the motives of the publisher may be less than perfect, perhaps they are confused about the nature of philosophy, or perhaps they are trying to make a quick buck. Perhaps the better question to ask then is why we should read such philosophy, and there must be some reason, because if there is no reason to read philosophy then there is no genuine reason to do philosophy (except as a kind of academic scam, if that counts as a genuine reason).

Whatever it can do for us it certainly can’t inform us about objective facts, about the objective world. Because if it did contain such claims then they would be able to be evaluated in a universal way (in principle everyone will arrive at the same conclusions about them, in ideal circumstances), and that would seem to contradict the claim that philosophy isn’t universal. But perhaps I am being too hasty. It might be that philosophy is a mixture of claims about the objective world and other stuff, which is not. Let us call that other stuff fluff, for the sake of convenience. Obviously philosophy would have be universal to the extent that it contains claims about the external world, but would be free to vary as much as it liked when it comes to its fluff, and thus would not be universal as a whole. For example, there could be many competing philosophies about the nature of the blue sky, about the “essence” of its blueness, which would all agree that the sky does in fact appear blue, but would disagree in their other claims. But, while this avoids the initial objection, it still hasn’t been explained why the fluff, which doesn’t inform us at all about the objective world, should be included. Why not simply reduce it to its claims about the objective world, eliminating the fluff, and thus making it universal? So if we are to defend the claim that philosophy isn’t universal we must defend the existence of fluff.

But before I turn to the nature of the fluff, and why we should or shouldn’t include it, let me first digress briefly and describe how ethics might be understood as containing claims about the world (objective facts), and why ethics without such claims seems of dubious value, thus motivating more fully the sense that we need to defend the existence of fluff. Consider then an ethical theory involving the claim that you should act in certain ways because acting in those ways is better for you. If being better for you is understood in the natural way, as making you happier or healthier or something to that effect, this seems like a claim about the objective world. Certainly whether people are bettered is an objective fact, because it is reflected in their actions and in their dispositions. And if we are really unsure we can always ask them. Thus such a claim seems universal because we could all simply observe whether people actually are bettered by such actions, and decide the claim that way. So if this is to be an example of philosophy that varies from person to person we must alter it so that it does not essentially revolve around claims about the objective world. And that would mean either redefining what it means to be better off so that being better off has no objective consequences (and hence can’t be detected even by asking someone whether they are better off), or by leaving the claim that we should act in that way as without any further support. (Why should I act that way? Because you should.) But with such changes the ethical theory no longer seems to be worth caring about; since it doesn’t seem to have any consequences what does it matter if we listen to it or not? As fluff it seems hard to justify as important.

So if philosophy as something that can vary from person to person is supposed to be worth reading it must, therefore, be because of some internal effects that understanding it has on us, and not because of its content directly. Meaning that we don’t derive benefits from being able to use the information it conveys to us about something, but that it is intrinsically beneficial even if we can’t use what it says to our advantage. As I see it these internal effects can only plausibly be held to come in two forms. One possibility is that by internalizing philosophy we become happier. To me this possibility seems to essentially turn philosophy into some sort of religion, with philosophical theses accepted simply for the benefits of accepting them. And we already have a word for religion, “religion”, and so I would take this to be the end of philosophy as philosophy. Under the assumption that philosophy is not religion let us consider the other possibility, that by reading philosophy we become better thinkers. But better thinkers in what way? Do we become better evaluators of objective truth and objective falsehood? If that is the case then we could objectively determine how effective a particular piece of philosophy is at achieving that effect. And that would give us a method for determining the merit of philosophical claims and theories that is the same for everyone, which contradicts the assumption that philosophy isn’t universal. (Of course it may be that which philosophy is best for achieving this effect varies from person to person, but that fact is still an objective fact, and philosophy would thus still be universal.) Thus philosophy’s purpose must not be to make us better reasoners about objective truths, but rather about something else. But if that is the case then I cannot see the benefit in being better reasoners in that way. And, since this exhausts the possibilities, we can conclude that if philosophy is worth doing (an assumption I am willing to make) that it must be universal.

Since philosophy is universal it must be the case then that the ideal philosophical method produces the same results for all possible philosophers. Given this we can conclude that the ideal philosophical method does not proceed on the basis of subjective facts (and thus only on the basis of objective facts). But first, what is a subjective fact? Perhaps it is better to define what an objective fact is. An objective fact, I stipulate, is one that every possible being possessing senses and rationality can investigate and determine to be the case, assuming they aren’t limited in their collection of information. Any facts that aren’t objective, that cannot be confirmed in this way, must thus be subjective.

With that out of the way the reason why the ideal philosophical method cannot proceed on the basis of subjective facts is fairly obvious. Obviously what is considered a subjective fact will vary from possible philosopher to possible philosopher. And thus a method proceeding on the basis of those won’t lead them all to the same conclusions (even if it at first appears to we can conclude that they weren’t actually used by the method after all, since differences between them didn’t matter in the end). Now some might try to avoid this problem by assuming that the ideal method involves the philosophers sharing what they consider the subjective facts to be with each other, and that on the basis of that shared set they use the method and thus all arrive at the same conclusion. But there is a problem with that. What the subjective facts are considered to be can, obviously, vary from possible philosopher to possible philosopher. But, more importantly, for every possible philosopher who would like to proceed on the basis of some subjective fact there is another possible philosopher who would like to proceed on the negation of that fact. And obviously, since these are subjective facts, there is no way to tell which of them has a better handle on that fact (as to be able to do that would make them objective facts). This means that our ideal method would reach the same conclusion even if it proceeded on the basis of every possible subjective fact and its negation. And clearly if it can reach a conclusion from that starting point it must be the case that either the subjective facts are not actually used or that it has some method of determining which subjective fact is superior, which would mean that it doesn’t actually need to start with the subjective facts at all (if it has a way of selecting subjective facts then the method isn’t actually relying on the subjective facts we are providing to it, and so it isn’t proceeding on the basis of them).

And thus the ideal philosophical method doesn’t proceed on the basis of intuition, conceptual analysis, or phenomenology, just to name three common sources of subjective facts in philosophy.

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