1. Basketball coaches don't have "philosophies" (except possibly Phil Jackson). Philosophy is an intellectual discipline.Now aren't you glad you asked?
2. As such, it isn't identical with the profession of teaching philosophy courses to students in universities, or even with publishing articles about philosophy in professional journals. It's open to everyone to do, but you aren't doing it simply by saying you are (nor are you not doing it simply because you don't know that you are; on the other hand if you don't know that you're doing it you probably aren't doing it very well).
3. Philosophy is one of the humanities. It's not a science, but it's not an artform either. In this sense, it's like history, only less empirical. What matters is not simply whether what you say is true but what your point is and how your story goes. (Consider for example that a really lousy history could be made up of only true, perfectly well documented facts, while a really excellent history might be only marginally less so for its cavalier approach toward documentation. Philosophy's like that too – but of course in both cases solid arguments are generally better.)
4. That is, philosophers can make claims which are true or false (and failure in philosophy is at least, shall we say, well correlated with falsehood, although not straightforwardly so), but the goal of philosophers isn't knowledge, it's understanding. You can know without understanding (although your lack of understanding does put limits on what you can be said to know), and you can understand something without that understanding taking the form of a known proposition or formal theory (or, again, without the vehicle of that understanding being a rigorous argument for a specific philosophical doctrine).
5. In particular, our goal is self-understanding. ("Know thyself.") More particularly still, it's self-understanding as philosophers. That is, not only do philosophers want to understand themselves (everyone wants that), they want to understand what it is to take a philosophical view on something (including philosophy itself). This gives philosophical thought a characteristically reflexive cast. Which makes it the case that ...
6. Philosophy is really hard. I mean really hard. The reason that it isn't "rocket science" is that rocket science (qua garden-variety empirical discipline – *yawn*) is a snap compared to philosophy. What makes it characteristically difficult, again, is that its own aims, tools and methods are part of its domain. It's thinking about thinking (which of course includes thinking about thinking, etc.). This makes it something like performing surgery (using mirrors) on one's own motor cortex. What you do affects how you must think of what you are doing, which affects what you do, which ... you get the idea.
7. What this means is that while philosophy does indeed make progress (and not simply in rejecting previous absurdities, like that the world is made of water or some such), it takes much longer than science does (and of course there are other disanalogies, easily but fatally ignored). It can only be understood according to its own time-scale. Our present task, for example, is making sense of the transition into modernity (not out of it). This is proving quite a head-scratcher.
Corollary: while there are no "eternal" problems in philosophy, some of them are reliably stable, as we are reliably subject to certain fairly straightforward – although alas not thereby easily overcome – illusions. This allows us to see ourselves as in an important sense concerned with the "same problems" as, say, the ancients. The trick is to understand what sense that is, given that to understand exactly which confusion it is under which one labors, and how it compares to another, is hardly to be separated from overcoming that confusion itself.
8. "Analytic" philosophy isn't just a bunch of overly abstract, physics-envious logic-chopping, and "continental" philosophy isn't just a bunch of tenured-radical, jargon-ridden reality-free balderdash. Further, the (study of the) history of philosophy isn't just a bunch of fossilized Britons arguing over the placement of commas in the 20-volume edition of so-and-so's unpublished notebooks, where we now know that so-and-so was pretty much wrong about everything anyway, seeing as he lived back when they thought you could tell the future by consulting bird entrails.
Of course, here as everywhere else, one must remember Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap. To be fair, for philosophy that figure is too high. Even a lot of the stuff which future historians will laugh at (even as they prepare their Gesamtausgaben) is worth doing (if only to dot the i's and cross the t's), and is being done reasonably well, by very bright people (even if they are misguided in not agreeing with me about everything).
9. "Logic" isn't the same thing as "reason" or "rationality." One way of being irrational is indeed by ignoring (or getting wrong) some logical rule, but that doesn't make one the same thing as the other. As a philosophical subdomain, logic is more concerned with structures as structures than with arguments or the "inferential glue" that holds them together. That is, logicians and philosophers of language never talk about logical fallacies or inferences or arguments (that is, any more than anyone else does).
Someone tried to tell me once that spiritual things were "beyond logic." I suppose he was making the familiar point (not that I agree with it necessarily) that we can't prove or disprove such things by argument. But if they really were "beyond logic," then they quite literally wouldn't make any sense. That might be okay if you are a Zen master or something, but most defenders of religion, I imagine, want to say that sentences like "God exists" and "Jesus was resurrected" are not only not gibberish (as "Krotok maxo corculoth stusk" is) but in fact true (indeed, not simply true but "absolutely" true, whatever that may mean), if perhaps not rationally justifiable (but no worse off for that, epistemologically speaking). After all, we're supposed to use them with conditionals like "If God exists, then I will be punished for my sins" to allow us to infer the consequent, and we can hardly do that if they don't have a truth value. And if something has a truth value, it isn't "beyond logic."
Some theologians (Kierkegaard, and Brunner is it?) do push the paradoxical angle, but there the paradox is (I think) supposed to be practical, not semantic. Another way of making my point here, then, is to insist on the mutually interconstitutive nature of logic and semantics – which shouldn't really be controversial: logic is the formal framework of meaning, and meaningful sentences are the instantiation of logical structure.
10. "Metaphysical" doesn't mean "supernatural." Whether God exists is a metaphysical question, but so is whether essences exist – or numbers, or species, or objects; and even the straightforwardly scientific question of whether electrons or quarks exist has its metaphysical aspects. After all, ontology is metaphysics, and ontology concerns what there is – as well as what it is to say what there is, and what we commit ourselves to saying there is in saying what it is to say what there is. Say that three times fast – and what it would be to say that three times fast (oh, stop it). And see #5 again (and #6).
Corollary: scientists who say that they have no metaphysical commitments are ... (okay, let's be charitable, or at least polite) using the term in a sense other than its usual philosophical one. (See Clark's version of this one.)
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Speaking of the PhilCarn, our überringleader Richard had a provocative post at his own place the other day about 10 things people should know about philosophy, and Clark followed suit soon after (evoking a comment from me there; but it seems I have more to say). I liked Clark's better – Richard's included several things which were philosophical opinions, rather than things about philosophy itself (not like the latter don't involve the former, of course), and some of them weren't even correct (!). Here's my own list.