On Philosophy

November 18, 2007

How Philosophy Proceeds (2)

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I set out both to describe some of the characteristic features of philosophy and to investigate how we might construct a coherent picture of how philosophy is supposed to work on the basis of them. One of those distinguishing characteristics is the focus on definitions, especially of terms that seem extremely vague as we normally understand them, so much so that giving a “correct” definition may seem impossible in principle. Without passing any judgment on philosophy on the basis of that fact alone we can consider the limitations inherent in any attempt to provide precise definitions for vague concepts, which is what I discussed yesterday. Today then the task before us is to look at where philosophy goes with those definitions and at what the significance of philosophy might be if it proceeds as described, given the limitations uncovered.

Suppose then that we had developed a precise definition of justice that satisfies the conditions mentioned yesterday. What are we to do with it? Obviously definitions by themselves are basically useless to anyone but writers of dictionaries, and so if philosophy has a point it must be because we don’t take definitions as the final product. In the context of philosophy such definitions serve as the foundation for what is sometimes described as the deductive enterprise of pulling out further conclusions from them. For example, from our definition of justice, as well as other precise definitions, we might develop further conclusions about justice, one of which might be about whether justice is desirable in absolute terms or just in certain situations. I would resist, however, characterizing this as a purely deductive enterprise. To really draw significant conclusions from our definitions requires us to load into them more and more content if we are really proceeding deductively. Not only does this somewhat undermine the benefit of precise definitions (namely the ease with which we can work with them) but it makes it extremely difficult to determine whether there is actually anything in the world that is described by the definitions, because each additional property we add is one more property that we have to find and to verify that it can be found alongside the others, and which adds additional complications when determining to what extent the new precise definition refers to the same things as the vague concept we started with did (adding additional definitions also gives rise to similar problems). Since, as part of the development of our definitions, I think it is better to understand the process of drawing out further conclusions from them as partly empirical. Since we have found examples of things that satisfy our precise definitions there should be no inherent difficulty in examining these things and by generalization developing further facts about the objects we have precisely defined. Thus we get to further conclusions by a mixture of deduction and investigation, where one can feed off the other. Whenever we perform a deduction from definitions and established facts we must check the results of that deduction to see whether it is actually true, and verifying it in this way lends support to the definitions and facts it followed from (or refutes them as the case may be). And of course any investigation that turns up new facts can open up new avenues for deduction.

Obviously the view that philosophy is to proceed to further conclusions in this way, essentially using the precise definitions as tools to investigate and explain the world with, contradicts certain other views about philosophy. For example, some see philosophical definitions as primarily resolving problems raised by the way we use language. Because our use of language reflects the vagueness of our concepts the possibility for contradiction arises, especially when a number of associated concepts come into play. And some have even held that all philosophical “problems” are really the result of such linguistic difficulties. Obviously if you see the philosophical problems as linguistic problems then the task of philosophy will be to provide linguistic solutions. And thus the philosophical point of providing precise definitions is to dissolve those apparent problems by showing that no such problems arise when we use those terms according to the new definitions. There are, however, a few problems with this vision of philosophy. The first is simply that many philosophical problems are not apparent contradictions, but questions, and thus would be resolved by answers not by redefinitions. Now this might still be hammered down to fit into the model by arguing that once we have these precise definitions the questions will not even arise. A more serious difficulty is that this position seems to undermine itself in certain substantial ways. In order to assert that philosophy is a linguistic enterprise, one centered around improving language, we have had to presuppose that all philosophical problems are really linguistic problems. But, if philosophical problems are linguistic problems then they aren’t really problems at all, and don’t really need answers; once you point out that a contradiction is caused by a linguistic imprecision there is nothing more you need to do. And, additionally, there is a tension between the way such philosophy actually proceeds and its stated task. If the goal is just to resolve linguistic problems then any precise definition will do just as well as any other, we might as well just stipulate that all philosophically vague terms are now to refer to various numbers. And, if we take them in this way, clearly none of the contradictions or questions previously troubling us will arise. Obviously that is an absurd solution, but why it is absurd under such a view of philosophy is not clear. If we can’t radically redefine the words in this way it must because they were designating something of importance, something that it is useful to talk about. But if that is the case then it might very well be that there are interesting questions and interesting problems about the things referred to by those terms. And obviously those questions and problems cannot be resolved linguistically any more than scientific or mathematical questions might be. Thus it seems obvious that, if we aren’t rejecting the way philosophy is conducted out of hand, that there must be more to it than a systematic revision of language.

But, given the way I have portrayed it as involving empirical investigations at a number of steps, some may fear that philosophy will collapse into science leaving nothing for philosophers as such to do. In some ways this is a bit of a strange worry, because the revelation that all biology could be explained in terms of chemical processes or that all chemistry could be explained in terms of physics did not turn biology into chemistry or chemistry into physics. Just because we could explain everything, in some sense, without appeal to biology doesn’t mean that we should do away with biology as something distinct. Biology works at a higher level of abstraction than physics and so while we could, in principle, establish every result in biology from the physical theories alone it wouldn’t be practical to do so. In fact showing that biology was really very complicated chemistry actually gave biology a better handle on many distinctly biological problems, by allowing biologists to give explanations of certain processes in chemical terms and to develop further biological results by appeal to facts about chemistry. For example, finding DNA, which only makes sense from a chemical point of view, was useful in explaining how traits were inherited. But, more importantly, by understanding the chemistry behind DNA more precise predictions about how traits are inherited, mutations, and so on could be produced. These biological claims could never have been developed if biology had been kept perfectly distinct from chemistry. And I think the same holds for philosophy. Just because philosophy can be seen as a kind of empirical investigation doesn’t mean that we can automatically brush it aside in favor of the established sciences, nor does it mean that philosophers will now need laboratories. But it does mean that philosophy might be able to build off certain scientific theories to reach philosophical results. If we want to see what philosophy might look like simply consider economics. Economics too is an empirical discipline, but at the same time it is a very abstract one (and thus a very philosophical seeming one). And, like philosophy, economics proceeds from certain definitions and assumptions, developed initially from vague concepts such as wealth and profit, from which it attempts to produce theories that describe the world. And, like any form of empirical investigation, it attempts to evaluate its theories by seeing whether they reflect reality, although in the case of economics this is not a simple matter since the things it deals with cannot often be easily measured. This is a model of how philosophy might work and how it may remain distinct from science as a whole despite embracing empirical ideals.

But this view of philosophy, as a very abstract science, raises an additional question, namely what philosophy deals with better than science, or what there is that it is uniquely suited to handle. It seems to me that philosophy essentially steps in where there are gaps in science, where there are important subjects that science refuses to address (often because of normative associations). But since philosophy isn’t a mature discipline, as it is still working out exactly what its subject matter is, some might assert that there is nothing for philosophy to be about as I claim, and because of that philosophy must be something radically different from science. Simply consider, however, how useful even concepts such as ethics, justice, society, consciousness, and so on are even in their vague and unrefined forms. Their usefulness, the fact that we continue to use such concepts despite the progress of science, suggests that they reflect, in an imprecise way, interesting and useful divisions of reality that we might want to theorize about in order to explain the world and to exploit for practical gain. There are no guarantees of course, but the same skepticism could have been raised to a systematic treatment of wealth and trade when economics was first under development, and so the mere possibility of skepticism tells us nothing. And if this is indeed the case then it provides us with a way to evaluate philosophical theories, given that testing them against hard data is always going to be extremely difficult. A philosophical theory is successful when it captures a feature of the world that we deem important, such that we can see uses for the theory. Of course this is not meant to be an attitude of pure pragmatism, but simply a general guideline for determining when we have found the interesting subject matter that was behind the original vague concept. For example, a theory of justice may be useful because it tells us when justice is desirable and to what extent, as well as what is just. And so we may wish to modify our society in light of that theory, to more or less approximate the ideal justice in certain situations. And, judged by such standards, we thus see that any possible worries raised by the fact that there is no one right way to create precise definitions of vague terms are without substance, because ultimately what matters is not how well the precise definition mirrors the vague concepts but what work it and the associated theory does. So even a “bad” definition may the basis for good philosophy, so long as that bad definition captures something genuinely interesting.


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