Wednesday, April 12, 2006

10 things

Speaking of the PhilCarn, our ├╝berringleader 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.
1. Basketball coaches don't have "philosophies" (except possibly Phil Jackson). Philosophy is an intellectual discipline.

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.)
Now aren't you glad you asked?


Clark Goble said...

Good list. I noticed Richard put up yet an other list I may respond to later. A few comments. (In reverse order)

re 10. I confess I thought that way in college before I took my first philosophy class. (Part of a required history of civilization curriculum required as a graduation requirement by my college) I still recall as a Freshman at Dalhousie and my friend saying he'd signed up for Metaphysics. I thought it the most unbelievable thing to have done. I thought they'd be studying the number of angels dancing on a pin and crystals. I definitely had the physics bias against philosophy at the time.

re 9. I think though it really depends upon what one means by logic. If we talk about axiomatic logic then certainly we can talk about what escapes logic and reason as the real. And this definitely does have a long history in both western and eastern philosophy and is still alive and well.

There it then the question of what grounds logic. If, as several philosophers believe, logic is grounded on aesthetics then there is a whole line of thought regarding this "beyond" quite independent of the kind of paradoxes Kierkegaard gets at.

re 7. Isn't the question of Being an eternal question, even if many schools of philosophy ignore it?

re 6. I'd probably dispute that philosophy is harder than physics. I certainly find physics harder, having done both. Working out difficult mechanics problems, especially when dealing with approximations, involves tremendous math with lots of possibilities for error. Admittedly it's much easier in these days of Mathematic and Maple. But until you've done complicated problems you don't appreciate just how difficult it can be.

re 3. I've often thought that mathematics and philosophy ought be put in their own department labeled: the a priori department. I understand the historic reasons for philosophy being in the humanities, but especially the logicians really have far more in common with the mathematicians.

re 2. Good point. Lots of philosophy professors rarely do philosophy.

re 1. So what's Phil Jackson's philosophy? The neo-Kantian approach to basketball rules and court conflict resolution?

Duck said...

Clark - thanks for your reply.

9. Given the relation of logic and language that I mentioned, I think that to say that something "escapes logic" is to say that it "escapes language." You're right that people do say this. I don't think it's very enlightening. Perhaps the main reason is that it leads to, and probably stems from as well, a mistaken or at least misleading conception of what happens when something doesn't "escape" language – when that thing is "graspable" or whatever. I don't think that language "grasps" things or fails to "grasp" them (or "latch onto" them or "capture" them). We communicate by means of language, and in so doing we refer to things and make claims about them. The mistake is to think of the latter as more important to (or even constitutive of) the former than it actually is. When we see this, to say that something actually "escapes" language is not particularly helpful. But that's my general attitude toward skepticism (good against dogmatists; not so helpful for the rest of us).

And who says logic must be "grounded"? The idea of (metaphysical) "grounding" is exhausted by (that of) logic itself (not like that's its "task" either). There's nothing else for it (the idea) to do.

7. I guess it depends on what you think a "question" is in philosophy. To the extent that the "question of Being" is "eternal" in philosophy (or perhaps constitutive of it), then it isn't a "question" in any helpful sense at all. But that's just terminology. If a "school of philosophy" can correctly be accused of "ignoring the question of Being" then there's a way of explaining the mistake in their own terms. Even if the mistake is fatal – say if it points to a fundamental confusion – and we have to start over, we won't begin by addressing this new supposedly fundamental question but by seeing where and how we went off the rails in doing what we were doing.

Of course some people (I'm looking at you, Martin) do make this question central to their thought. I'm not saying they're wrong to do so (depending of course on what they actually do say). But they can't trump other thinkers – even if those thinkers are indeed confused on this point – simply by advancing their own concerns about Being as essentially primary.

6. Okay, I was exaggerating to make a point. I actually gave up physics in college precisely because it was too hard (I had to take the super-accelerated intro course for geeks), so I do know what you're talking about. My point was that in physics problems at least you know when you get the right answer (most of the time): the method works, you can eliminate the intractable part, and x = whatever. Philosophy's not like that. Neither is life. (Discuss.)

3. Eek.

1. I think he's a Zen master.

Clark Goble said...

Sorry for the delay answering. I meant to get back and forgot until click through came my way.

I think your point about language and logic is a good one. However I think often those talking about logic mean something narrower. Of course I can be a good Heideggarian and talk about what is right now beyond language. i.e. the old negative theology stance from the medieval period that has regained popularity somewhat. At Wittgenstein likes to say there is what we can say and what we can't say and what we can't say is much more interesting.

In Peircean terms we might reject the notion of an absolute thing-in-itself ala Kant but simultaneously recognize that our existence as finite beings means temporally that some things are beyond language (or signs). Although Peirce clearly felt that in the long run everything could be signified. My sense is that Heidegger and Derrida might disagree with him on that.

As to who thinks logic must be "grounded." Well I'm anti-foundationalist enough to agree on the tendency while still thinking logic is grounded on aesthetics. To me it's aesthetics that's ungrounded. (grin) Once again that's a Peircean point though and one I keep meaning to go back to so as to see if I still agree.

Karl said...

You should probably note along the same lines, that in the same way that doing philosophy is very different from having a philosophy, doing ethics is very different from having an ethic (eg, a work ethic, a business ethic. . .).

Duck said...

Yes, Karl, you're quite right. In fact that seems like a natural application of the more general point, which I imagine would apply as well to other things, like aesthetics.

Anonymous said...

About point number one... that always has somewhat irked me, the attitude that philosophers take towards the way that the word "philosophy" is actually used in the English language. It is valuable to clarify that what is studied in a "Department of Philsophy" has little to do with how normal people use the word philosophy, but the claim that normal people are using the word incorrectly always strikes me as inappropriate.

(An imperfect parallel; professors of mathematics do not spend all day thinking about PEMDAS and substitutions and fractions. If mathematicians claimed that normal people "don't understand what math is," that would be true only in a very limited sense.)

I once saw an exactly parallel complaint in a published talk by an anthropologist. He complained about how people use the word "culture" casually, talking about "the culture of this" and "the culture of that" without any understanding of what culture is. The same point applies... while antropologists think about "culture" differently than other people, that does not mean that we are wrong when we use "culture" in the normal sense of the word.

Duck said...

Anon – you're quite right. I do not want to claim that, as you put it, "normal people are using the word incorrectly." (In fact, given my own philosophical views, I cannot make that claim consistently.) So I should retract my unqualified statement that "basketball coaches don't have philosophies." That was careless. Thanks for the reprimand. My point is indeed just that "philosophy" the intellectual discipline involves something more than is entailed by the common usage. (See Karl's comment also.)

Still, I understand the anthropologist's complaint in your example. Even if we grant that people aren't making a mistake in speaking of "the culture of this or that", it seems that he can still say that ordinary talk betrays a lack of "understanding of what culture is." (Naturally he's using the term his way – but why shouldn't he?) And of course if he didn't think we learned something valuable by studying "culture" as anthropologists do, then he wouldn't do it in the first place. If we do take him to mean that ordinary usage is incorrect, then, as you say, that would be parochial. But presumably he went on to say what it was that we miss when we speak casually. And whether he was right about that – his main point, after all – would depend not on the meaning of the word "culture" but instead on how things are in the world. After all, one can speak perfectly correctly and still miss a great deal.

Anonymous said...

Duck -- yes, yes, I think we agree perfectly. (I was a bit surprised to see someone making that sort of claim on a blog called DuckRabbit.) "The intellectual discipline called philosophy is more valuable than coach's aphorisms called philosophy" is something I could agree with completely.

(The anthropologist [Marshall Sahlins] was saying, that it is irksome to hear someone refer to a basketball coach's slurred mutterings as "philosophy"; but he concludes that it isn't detrimental, so we just need to calm down about such uses of words. I think that your interpretation is still correct, in the sense that makes it irksome is that it reminds us that 99.9% of folks don't value philosophy; the trick is remember that .1% is perfectly respectable.)