Some Common Misconceptions about Philosophy: Reply to the Worldby Olof Leffler on May 2, 2012 • 01:28 1 Comment
Few people who have spent serious amounts of time studying or doing philosophy will have been fortunate enough not to have had to to answer a whole lot of rather smug and snarky questions about what they are doing. As a field of study, in fact, philosophy has apparently fallen into some strange kind of cultural disrepute: even intellectuals like Stephen Hawking and pseudo-intellectuals like Sam Harris have in a recent wave of scientism insisted that it is (empirical) science that can answer the deepest kind of philosophical questions: something that philosophers, or so it is believed, cannot. Of course, the intellectual reception of their arguments has been – to put the point mildly – less than kind, but it is appropriate for a blog like this, or so I would like to think, to try to reply to some of the main popular criticisms of philosophy. I suspect that much of the appeal of scientism (or: existentialist faith, or postmodern irony, or…) stems from precisely this way of disregarding philosophy – but doing so, or so I believe, is misguided. At least, I hope I will be able to show so here in a kind of Q&A session with the world.
(Q1) What good is philosophy in practice?
(A1) When (Q1) is phrased as a critique, I believe there are two main problems with claiming that philosophy is of no use in practice.
The first problem is the assumption that it is possible to do without philosophy in practice. But it is not. To be able to function as a human being in the world, one needs to have beliefs about it and other people to be able to live in it at all. Now, these beliefs are also beliefs about things that exist; they are, in some sense, a theory about one’s surroundings; even asking (Q1) entails a distinction between theory and practice which is drawn using those concepts and with an understanding of their difference, i.e. to ask it, one must hold that “theory” differs from “practice”; otherwise, the question would not even arise. But that distinction is by itself “theoretical” in some interesting sense of that word: it relies on believing a number of things about what it is to be a theory or a practice. But what a “theory” or a “practice” is are theoretically – and, indeed, philosophically – loaded questions. In this sense, then, practice – including the practice of asking this question – is conditioned by theory, so there is no point in trying to draw the distinction between “theory” and “practice” in as strong a way as this question presupposes in the first place.
The second problem is the assumption that philosophy is not concerned with things that make a practical difference. This is just false. The answers to questions about normativity in general, and in particular morality and politics, have obvious consequences with regard to practical questions about what one is to do, think and also about how one is to live. Furthermore, many metaphysical questions – e.g. about the nature of personal identity over time, about free will or about the (non-)existence of God – have practical import. If I believe I will be someone else tomorrow, I need perhaps not care about myself now, whereas religious rituals are much more attractive to perform if God exists than if she does not. So in so far as practice is conditioned by theory in the first place, doing philosophy will certainly alter one’s interpretation of the world, because, more or less implicitly, human beings make commitments with philosophical consequences merely in virtue of existing, and reflecting on these – which are right or which are wrong – matters for how one will or can act and feel.
Summing up, then, we see some things (which need not exclude others, of course) that make philosophy useful in practice: it allows us to reflect on our understanding of things which, in itself, amounts to doing philosophical theory, and, furthermore, many of its core areas have obvious bearing on how one is to live, act and think. In this sense, philosophy cannot avoid being to some extent existentialistic – it concerns many of the deepest questions of the human experience in general. And their answers matter both in theory and in practice, for “practice” is conditioned by theory, and which theory one is to prefer is a most philosophical question.
(Q2) What good is philosophy in general?
(A2) If philosophy does have practical importance, as I have argued, it is fairly obvious that it is instrumentally useful in so far as it can lead us to towards the right answers, or at least away from obviously false ones, about many questions. But that is not all. While I do not believe that philosophy has intrinsic value (since I do not believe there is such a thing as intrinsic value at all), I do believe that it is every inquirer’s epistemic duty to answer all questions in as adequate a manner as possible – that is part of what it is to be rational in justifying one’s beliefs. In that sense, qua reflecting person, one is compelled to do philosophy and to do it well. So it has its own justification as an activity when human beings confront a confusing reality about which many questions can be asked and interpretations given – philosophy is, in a sense, our duty. This is not to say, of course, that all human beings ought to become professional philosophers, merely that one must be methodologically self-aware and believe things for the relevant reasons, rather than arbitrarily or wrongly do so in so far as one holds opinions at all.
(Q3) How come science has progressed so much over time while philosophy has not?
(A3) First a caveat: some philosophers believe there is progress in philosophy, and some do not. I do believe so, however, so I think it is wrong to say that there has been no progress in philosophy over time. This progress is shown in several ways: first, by solving some philosophical questions. I believe, for example, that we know with certainty that there is an objective, external world, and that slavery is morally wrong. So some questions have been answered and possible philosophical disagreement about them is rather disagreement about why these answers are the right ones: e.g. whether a Kantian or utilitarian ethics can best make sense of the wrong of slavery, or to what extent that objective world is also conditioned by our minds. Second, there is negative progress: we know that some answers to some questions are false. For example, pace Hegel, 19th century Germany was not the culmination of human history. Third, another kind of philosophical progress is reached by developing the conceptual apparatus in which an issue can be framed. While there certainly is no consensus about how to understand what “knowledge” is (neither qua property nor qua concept), we do know an awful lot about the various commitments that various attempts to coming to understand it make, and this is also a kind of progress.
Furthermore, less narrowly philosophically, I do not believe there is a deep distinction between the most theoretical issues in the empirical sciences and philosophical research: in fact, I believe there is none, for their content is essentially the same. Basic questions in theoretical physics are then, in that sense, just metaphysics by another name. So in so far as there has been progress in such areas, that is also a kind of progress in philosophy. So the basic assumption about the lack of progress in philosophy is false.
Nevertheless, it could be replied that science – or, more accurately, the natural sciences, since the social sciences are arguably in an even sorrier epistemic state than philosophy – have reached better results and done so to a greater extent than philosophy. Therefore, the sciences are to be preferred. But a problem here is that not all questions can be answered scientifically (if that is taken to mean “empirically”, at least), since not all questions worth asking are narrowly scientific questions. And rather than making the science the basic model of everything, here we instead then, seemingly, have “an example from world history of the length of time which the spirit requires in order to progress in its self-consciousness, and a caution against the impatience of opinion.”
(Q4) Are there really any answers to philosophical questions?
(A4) I obviously believe there are answers to many important philosophical questions, as should be clear by now. But it is also true, however, first, that some questions that have been treated seriously by philosophers over time well may be meaningless – e.g. “what is the meaning of life?”, since it is extraordinarily unclear what the word “meaning” would amount to here – and secondly, that many of the questions that perhaps could be taken to be philosophical by laymen need not be questions that are philosophically interesting, and these questions may well – at times – also lack answers. I believe this stems from an all too common misunderstanding of what it means to do philosophy or ask a philosophical question: it is not just to ask any kind of deep- or abstract-sounding question, but rather, to paraphrase Wilfred Sellars, to attempt to come to understand things in general, where “things” could mean aesthetic experiences, moral duties, the nature of universals or death. And questions about such subject matters have answers, despite their being hard to reach.
(Q5) Is philosophy just subjective?
(A5) The simple answer here is: no. Developing this reply in detail could well require a monograph or two, so I shall not attempt to rebut all the more or less well-argued skepticisms, subjectivisms and relativisms that have been extremely intellectually, but perhaps even more culturally, influential during the last 100 years or so. However, something more can be said, and that “something” is not minor: it is that I take rationality, in the broadest possible sense of the word, to be the human condition and predicament. Any and all attempts at claiming this is not so (which are worth listening to, for obvious reasons) must themselves appeal to rationality merely in virtue of being arguments: thus, I think, skepticism can be rebutted. Furthermore, a proper understanding of what it means to argue rationally does then show us the grounds on which we ought to proceed in our inquiries in general – including philosophy. And the relevant standards of rationality – that is, of justification, truth, et cetera – are impersonally and interpersonally normative and in that sense “objective”. So, to sum up: no, philosophy is not “just subjective” in so far as it is an inquiry into the nature of things which appeals to standards that it is not up to me or you to arbitrarily define or stipulate.
A caveat, however: there is a sense in which the word philosophy is used in ordinary language where it roughly means “attitude” or “approach”, as when one says that “my philosophy is that x”. In this sense of the word, philosophies can sometimes be subjective; in many areas, there are no proper standards beyond personal preferences. But that is of course not what the subject at large is about.
(Q6) Finally, are philosophers arrogant and pretentious elitists who really just ought to stop telling ordinary people what to do and think?
(A6) One part of a proper reply to this question is a question of individual psychology. Some people are grumpier than others, some get off on superiority more than others, and some are more intellectually minded than others. So it is perhaps inevitable that, to some extent, some philosophers come off as arrogant at times. But so can, of course, others as well, and it is unclear why philosophical arrogance should be singled out as such (or whether informed “arrogance” really is arrogance, or why arrogance is such a major sin at all). Similarly, dismissing an attitude as “pretentious” is just name-calling.
However, for the deeper intuition here, there is admittedly also a tension between the spirit of democracy; that is, belief that majority rule can legitimate a decision, and the spirit of philosophy (or science!), in so far as philosophy is about trying to answer many questions which are just as deeply controversial and deeply personal as they are, or at least can be, intellectually deep, without for that reason accepting the will of the majority. Indeed, claiming that others are wrong can even be both morally and socially subversive and, in the limit, lead to socially unaccepted behaviour, so it is easy to see where the intuitions underlying (Q6) stems from. Again, Socrates was sentenced to death.
But: I believe – with, inter alia, Jürgen Habermas – that there is an intimate link between truth and emancipation. There is a sense in which one is freed from false beliefs by getting things right, or at least by having a critical attitude where one is aware that one may make mistakes, and this is a kind of freedom which not is to be lightly dismissed. Now, furthermore, such a relentlessly critical – including of oneself, mind – attitude also lies at the heart of doing philosophy, and it entails taking others’ criticisms seriously, regardless of where they come from – not least, in fact, as I am doing with writing this very text. Being rational and impartial, philosophy then embodies if not the will of the people, then at least no person’s arbitrary will above anyone else’s. It is then not, as I argued in (A2) above, merely one’s duty to philosophize. It is, simultaneously, everyone’s damned right.
 Or perhaps it always was so: Socrates had to drink the hemlock, after all. But let us not worry about empirical details at present.
 This “session” is then to some extent rather narcissistic in that it draws – of course – on my conception of what philosophy is about and also in that it attempts to justify, ultimately, my choice in spending time on it. Nevertheless, I believe some more general points can be made at the same time.
 Although, to be sure, they need not by themselves produce concrete goods, but they are deeper than that: they frame, so to speak, the possibilities for production.
 For this reason, questions about economic efficacy are also off the mark when it comes to justifying its existence at universities.
 Hegel, G.W.F. (1991 ), Elements of the Philosophy of Right (trans. Nisbet, H.B.; ed. Wood, A.W.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 92.
 I believe that this ”democratic spirit” also may be much of the reason that underlies relativistic and subjectivistic attitudes with regard to knowledge among people at large, for who am I – or you – to question others? Such attitudes are unfortunate in that they do not distinguish the issue from the person raising it: what does it matter who raises a claim rather than whether its content is right or wrong?