On Philosophy

December 6, 2007

Cheap Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

You may be wondering what cheap philosophy is, and given that it is a term I have just invented perhaps I should begin by explaining myself. We might define normal philosophy in terms of certain topics or certain kinds of investigations that are distinctly philosophical that meet certain standards of thoroughness and correctness. This is similar to how we might define normal science as investigations concerning nature using the scientific method that meet standards concerning evidence and objectivity. Cheap philosophy is something that pretends to be normal philosophy, by sharing a similar method or topics, but fails to meet the standards that we hold normal philosophy to. I think many of what most people are exposed to as philosophy is really only cheap philosophy, not because of any malicious design, but because as philosophical ideas pass from person to person they often become mangled, turning into cheap philosophy even if the original was worthwhile. And cheap philosophy tends to stick around simply because most people aren’t as aware of the relevant standards in philosophy as they are of scientific standards. Which is not to say that cheap science doesn’t also exist, certain popular ideas such as intelligent design are examples of cheap science, but they tend to be recognized as lacking, while cheap philosophy usually passes unnoticed.

But just because I call it cheap, and complain that it doesn’t meet the usual philosophical standards, that doesn’t necessarily mean that cheap philosophy is a bad thing. I can imagine someone arguing that philosophy rarely has immediate practical consequences, and thus whether someone subscribes to a cheap philosophy might not matter in most cases, and it is possible even that this philosophical pretender might make them happier than the real thing would. I will grant my imaginary opponent what they claim, but cheap philosophy does have undesirable effects, even if they aren’t of an immediate and practical nature. First of all cheap philosophy degrades the real thing. If there is a lot of cheap philosophy out there then the real philosophy tends to go unnoticed simply because it is drowned out. Moreover if cheap philosophy is popular than intelligent people may start ignoring philosophy as a matter of principle, as a result of a reasonable generalization from over-exposure to cheap philosophy. And that is undesirable because philosophy does have its benefits, even if they aren’t immediate and practical. A second problem is that the standards that we hold philosophy to are rather general standards that could easily apply to any exercise of reason. Thus cheap philosophy doesn’t just undermine real philosophy, but reason in general, by making bad reasoning commonplace. And so I think we have some obligation to do what we can to rid the world of cheap philosophy, even if that amounts to just calling it out as such when we find it.

I divide cheap philosophy into three major forms, although this list may not exhaust the ways philosophy can be cheap it covers the most prevalent forms, at least in my experience. The first kind is philosophy that pretends to be justified by describing itself as the only way to avoid a ridiculous alternative. Often this means that the obvious facts which compose part of this philosophical position are asserted as if to take an alternative position would amount to denying these facts. But usually what is really the case is that the position put forward and the alternatives are differentiated by disagreement over something else, and that the focus on what is not in dispute simply serves to distract from that fact, and to mislead people into thinking that disagreeing with that position would amount to disagreeing with that obvious fact. For example, we can imagine an argument against sentimentality that argues that the objects of sentimentality are just things like any other things and that they have no special properties. This implies that those who are sentimental must incorrectly think that somehow the objects of their sentimentality are physically distinguished from others like them, which we know not to be the case. But that is not really where the distinction lies at all, the distinction is that those who accept sentimentality believe that the emotional attachment that the sentimental people have developed to various objects is worth something in its own right, even if the objects aren’t special by themselves, while the opponents of sentimentality deny that this emotional attachment has any value. And rather than actually discussing this difference the assertion has simply distracted us from it. Cheap philosophy is also common when it comes to how the economy should be run. For example, proponents of pure capitalism will often assert that everyone has the right to the fruits of their labor. Which embodies this kind of cheap philosophy perfectly because it suggests that those who would disagree with them hold that people have no right to the things they produce. But the real debate is usually not over that, what is really a matter of contention is whether there are other obligations that may conflict with that right. By ignoring them the argument attempts to deflect us from the real issues. Perhaps the central defect with this kind of cheap philosophy is that it avoids actually supporting the claim under discussion in favor of merely giving the appearance of doing so. And that problem can arise more generally whenever we argue for a particular position by arguing against alternatives; it’s simply a bad way to go about things. Indeed even real philosophy can occasionally be somewhat cheap in this way, for example it is easy to argue for materialism by arguing against dualism. But that is a distraction from the real issues, which is how exactly the hypothetical material mind is supposed to work. It is best to avoid even the possibility of being cheap by simply avoiding arguing against other positions and simply arguing for what we think is correct.

The second common way for philosophy to be cheap is simply by leaving out justification altogether and relying on people accepting it for non-rational reasons. Obviously we should only accept a claim only if we have reason to believe it to be true, but, unfortunately, we are not perfect reasoners. Often our judgments about how well a position is supported are clouded by whether we would like it to be true. This is why intuition has the strength that it does, people dislike changing their beliefs, and so we would prefer it if things that agree with what we already believe, namely our intuitions, were to be true. Thus we will falsely judge positions that are “intuitive” to be better supported than they actually are, simply because they don’t force us to revise our judgments. And of course we would also like theories that promise us happiness, immortality, or that wrongs will be righted to be true. Obviously cheap philosophy of this kind tends to shade into religion, which itself might be called cheap philosophy in certain cases. Thus it is hard to give examples of such cheap philosophy that are clearly philosophical and not religious, but the opinion that the world contains some kind of karmic balance, or that human consciousness plays a special role in nature, can both be described as philosophical. And in their usual forms they are almost always cheap because they are rarely argued for, but instead our emotional bias in favor of them is relied on to lead to their acceptance.

And, finally, philosophy can also be cheap by being devoid of real content and simply misleading the reader into thinking something deep is being said. This is most easily accomplished by intentionally confusing the reader, by placing before them something they cannot easily find a sensible interpretation for. Since it is presented to them as meaningful philosophy and since they cannot immediately understand what is being said the reader thus assumes that the message is something really deep, something that they can’t immediately grasp because of its subtly. Thus they make a great effort to find some interpretation for that puzzle that seems deep and meaningful to them, at which point they become convinced that the original puzzling statements really were philosophically worthy because they led them to that deep insight, and they pass them on to others, completing the circle. The central problem is that what the reader takes to be the deep message of what is claimed as philosophy is really their own invention, and because they invented it, partly guided by the standard that it must seem deep and insightful, that message will seem correct to them, even though no support for that claim whatsoever has been provided. Again we have a trick that leads people to accept claims without any rational support for them, which seems to be a common theme. Generally any intentionally obscure writing can serve as an example of such cheap philosophy, but “mystic” slogans such as “all is one” or “he who is first is last” also fit the bill. If we take them seriously puzzling over such apparent contradiction will lead us to some strange interpretation in which they might be true, despite their apparent falsity.

Since cheap philosophy seems to rely on psychological tricks there is probably no way to completely wipe it out, at least not as long as people are still able to be deceived. However the three forms of cheap philosophy described here all share the common flaw of not actually arguing for their philosophical conclusions. So it might be possible to diminish the effectiveness of cheap philosophy by always demanding reasons to believe it to be true, and never to be satisfied with an insistence that it obviously correct once it is really grasped.

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