Editor's Note: Thanks for this submission from listener and PEL Citizen Michael Burgess.
The principal critics of philosophy appear to come from one ideological view point, though it has been expressed in different guises throughout the ages. I'm going to call it, “I don't understand this so it doesn't make sense”ism. At its most sophisticated, this might be logical positivism and at its least we might look to Paul Graham.
Paul Graham's article, “How to do Philosophy” remains popular. He is a famous computer programmer and venture capitalist, starting such illustrious projects as the Yahoo! Store and the start-up funding firm Y Combinator. And so, his blog is widely read and religiously followed: such is the way in contemporary technical communities (whose narrowing focus makes general knowledge seem God-like). It is appropriate then to co-opt his minor celebrity and use him as a figure head for the anti-philosophical position he takes.
Against him there is me, as well as Partially Examined Life (Ep. 73 - Why do Philosophy).
As for Paul, he begins,
I thought studying philosophy would be a shortcut straight to wisdom. All the people majoring in other things would just end up with a bunch of domain knowledge. I would be learning what was really what.
We begin his article with a common confusion: philosophy provides the ultimate horizon of knowledge; a vantage point beyond which the rest is meaningless, and before which everything else is “stamp collecting”. Philosophy is, empirically, not this kind of activity. It has yet to stop in any particular branch: stop considering its history, stop writing its present, stop contemplating its future.
One ought to be cautious and humble when preparing to write the phrase, “philosophy is...”, but in this case I shall make an exception. Philosophy is actually a multitude of independent skills, topics, questions, methodologies and practices which through accident or a pragmatic necessity have come together under one heading. There is, therefore, no “how to do philosophy”. There is no, “what is really what” of philosophy.
If you study analytic philosophy in a department concerned with the philosophy of mind you will learn a skill set consisting of: linguist analysis, conceptual analysis; logic; hypothetical, counter-factual and abstract thinking. You will acquire knowledge of: the history of philosophy, cognitive science, mathematics, etc. You will practice philosophy by writing short argumentative papers which draw conclusions on small formalized problems.
If you study continental philosophy at a department concerned with cultural criticism you will acquire different skills, beliefs and knowledge. You will write sweeping papers, crossing many disciplines; you will learn about ideology, society, sexuality; you may even write a book.
The only essential similarity between these two groups of people is that they use words, abstractions and largely comment on (describe, explain, contextualize), rather than contribute to, other areas of human activity.
Attentive readers will at this point note that this move to generalize “philosophy” and thus reduce it to a set of largely insubstantial characteristics, forms the basis of much of the criticism of philosophy: cue quote.
Words seem to work, just as Newtonian physics seems to. But you can always make them break if you push them far enough.
I would say that this has been, unfortunately for philosophy, the central fact of philosophy.
When you generalize a discipline so much that you reduce it to “using words”, this observation may seem important. In the reality of philosophy, that is, not in some abstracted hypothetical department or comedy routine which words break and why is more than a linguistic novelty. If you're discussing whether God exists, “God” being meaningless would be an important result. If you're discussing the philosophy of mind, “I” being a fiction is an important result (as Paul himself notes in one of his many self-contradictions: “ I learned that I don't exist.”).
Wittgenstein is popularly credited with the idea that most philosophical controversies are due to confusions over language.
How did things get this way? Can something people have spent thousands of years studying really be a waste of time? Those are interesting questions.
Now at full pace, Mr. Graham leaps over important considerations as though he were writing an ill-considered rant for talk radio. Suppose Wittgenstein, as characterized here, was right. Why does that make philosophy meaningless? If philosophy really were merely a study of meaning, so what?
If we had discovered that our fears about death were founded on confusions about words then is this not an amazing result? Have we not learnt something extremely important? (Though of course, only Paul would find this analysis of death plausible.)
Philosophy, however, like every other human discipline also concerns itself with the conceptual content of words. If philosophers are discussing freedom then, like in a business meeting discussing customer loyalty, they're going to want to know what it means and then what's important about that concept. Philosophers however usually pay more attention to what they're saying than corporate managers (indeed one might argue that managers have made an industry of not paying attention to what they're saying).
An important philosopher for the meaning of "I" and "God", Berkeley receives this treatment,
Twenty-six years later, I still don't understand Berkeley. I have a nice edition of his collected works. Will I ever read it? Seems unlikely.
The difference between then and now is that now I understand why Berkeley is probably not worth trying to understand. I think I see now what went wrong with philosophy, and how we might fix it.
This paradoxical statement is all too common in analytic philosophy departments which introduce Berkeley as a punching bag for Descartes and Locke but which never fail to misunderstand him. The big thing, we're told, is his crazy ideas about God and the world: an exemption curiously given to Descartes, but never to Berkeley.
So when Paul says, “I dont understand Berkeley but I understand why I shouldn't try to”, he can be forgiven for imbibing the head-in-the-sand denialism of philosophy departments which imagine themselves a science. However it should strike the reader how much self-awareness one must lack to actually recognise this lack of understanding and agree with it!
As for the “history” of philosophy, Mr. Graham offers us,
“The proof of how useless some of their [philosopher's] answers turned out to be is how little effect they have. No one after reading Aristotle's Metaphysics does anything differently as a result.”
Suppose the only thing that people did after reading Aristotle is change their beliefs: why should this be denigrated as “nothing”? Indeed, only in the neo-behaviourism of the current capitalist mindset do such things count as “nothing” (what does Paul do again?). To make a claim one way or the other however, requires some empirical data which we find lacking here.
I leave Paul's rewriting of history and philosophy here in full, as an exercise for the reader (you can find the solutions above),
“ Aristotle's goal was to find the most general of general principles. The examples he gives are convincing: an ordinary worker builds things a certain way out of habit; a master craftsman can do more because he grasps the underlying principles. The trend is clear: the more general the knowledge, the more admirable it is. But then he makes a mistake—possibly the most important mistake in the history of philosophy. He has noticed that theoretical knowledge is often acquired for its own sake, out of curiosity, rather than for any practical need. So he proposes there are two kinds of theoretical knowledge: some that's useful in practical matters and some that isn't. Since people interested in the latter are interested in it for its own sake, it must be more noble. So he sets as his goal in the Metaphysics the exploration of knowledge that has no practical use. Which means no alarms go off when he takes on grand but vaguely understood questions and ends up getting lost in a sea of words.”
Finally before handing down to us the True Method of philosophy, we're told,
“And so instead of denouncing philosophy, most people who suspected it was a waste of time just studied other things. That alone is fairly damning evidence, considering philosophy's claims. It's supposed to be about the ultimate truths. Surely all smart people would be interested in it, if it delivered on that promise.”
“Smart people” doing other things is a nail in the coffin for philosophy: this sounds like a curious mixture of confusion and resentment. By way of reply, however, it's interesting to ask whether there are any “smart people” that never do any philosophy. Considering how broad the area is, this seems implausible. On the other hand the answer is irrelevant. Most smart people aren't interested in computer science (alas rending all of Paul's books worthless).
And here we get to the crux of the methodological recommendation,
“ The goal he announces in the Metaphysics seems one worth pursuing: to discover the most general truths. That sounds good. But instead of trying to discover them because they're useless, let's try to discover them because they're useful.”
Consider that different people find different things “useful” Paul (include, for example, “being interesting” as a potential use) and you're just describing everything you've criticised.
“Here's the exciting thing, though. Anyone can do this. Getting to general plus useful by starting with useful and cranking up the generality may be unsuitable for junior professors trying to get tenure, but it's better for everyone else, including professors who already have it. This side of the mountain is a nice gradual slope. You can start by writing things that are useful but very specific, and then gradually make them more general. Joe's has good burritos. What makes a good burrito? What makes good food? What makes anything good? You can take as long as you want. You don't have to get all the way to the top of the mountain. You don't have to tell anyone you're doing philosophy”
People who go to prison make the wrong lifestyle choices. What makes a good life choice? What makes a good choice? What makes a choice? Can we chose?
And we're back to that horrific mess:
confusions over words. Do we have free will? Depends what you mean by "free." Do abstract ideas exist? Depends what you mean by 'exist.'
However we ought to thank Paul for presenting this anti-philosophical mindset for inspection, working through it, and realizing that philosophy was already doing what it's designed to do.
I should include this quote, because it's the one piece of rhetoric Paul pulls off (I must be balanced!),
Meanwhile, sensing a vacuum in the metaphysical speculation department, the people who used to do literary criticism have been edging Kantward, under new names like "literary theory," "critical theory," and when they're feeling ambitious, plain 'theory'.
Wayne Schroeder says
Hilarious. Thanks, Michael.
TL;DR you desperately need to promote your blog by any means, up to and including citing Paul Graham just to cite Paul Graham.
Michael Burgess says
This article was not commissioned by PEL. A friend of mine stumbled on Paul’s article and asked me to write a reply. I had an outstanding commission for aticles from PEL, and I pitched the idea to them.
The article, incidentally, was posted to the PEL facebook page as well as the FB of my local philosophical society before I wrote the article. It was these posting that my friend saw.
“A last trick is to become personal, insulting, rude, as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand, and that you are going to come off worst. It consists in passing from the subject of dispute, as from a lost game, to the disputant himself, and in some way attacking his person. It may be called the argumentum ad personam, to distinguish it from the argumentum ad hominem, which passes from the objective discussion of the subject pure and simple to the statements or admissions which your opponent has made in regard to it. But in becoming personal you leave the subject altogether, and turn your attack to his person, by remarks of an offensive and spiteful character. It is an appeal from the virtues of the intellect to the virtues of the body, or to mere animalism.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer: The Art Of Being Right, chapter 38.
Ian Lippert says
This is circling some of the ideas I have been debating in the zizek/Chomsky post and I feel like this post left out some of Paul’s most central critique:
“If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students. Till one knows better, it’s hard to distinguish something that’s hard to understand because the writer was unclear in his own mind from something like a mathematical proof that’s hard to understand because the ideas it represents are hard to understand. To someone who hasn’t learned the difference, traditional philosophy seems extremely attractive: as hard (and therefore impressive) as math, yet broader in scope.”
Philosophers like to criticize the empiricism of the logical positivists but it seems to me that most philosophers that criticize them do so because they come from a background that is light on actual empirical work. Philosophers seem to have a general belief that empirical truth follows the methods of physics and as the universality of the physical experiment is rather simple to understand the philosopher that works in generalizations has set the physical experiment up as the antithesis to the general truths of the philosophers.
But the field that I studied in grad school and currently work in is that of economics, a statistical field where the attempt is made to break down our generalizations into their component parts to understand the individual sources of cause and effect in the multicausal outcomes of the economy. I feel like this post sets up a false dichotomy between the precise experiments of the physicists and the generalizations of the philosophers, where the philosopher can put himself in opposition to the physicist and therefore claim that a method completely opposite to experimental physics is valid and consists of all the properties of truth that are not covered by physics.
Where the philosopher makes generalized assertions on top of generaizedl assertions and believes they have come to truth the statistician in me is appalled to see someone do so little work to separate the constituent parts of their general argument in order to determine exactly “how true” each of the parts is in relation to the whole.
You see it all the time in philosophy, especially when philosophers untrained in any social science begin discussing society. They port over their broad sweeping generalizations and think they are proving things about society when in reality they have done almost none of the work required to to take a theory of a complex phenomenon from potential idea to explanatory theory.
Zizek is a good case in point, another is when this poster writes:
“why should this be denigrated as “nothing”? Indeed, only in the neo-behaviourism of the current capitalist mindset do such things count as “nothing” ”
“Neo-behaviourism”, “current capitalist mindset” are such vague generalizations that’s its hard for anyone who does not share the exact definition of the author to know exactly what he is on about. It’s a bunch of jargon designed to provide to the reader exactly what Paul was criticizing in his post writing unclearly about big ideas that required little work and is tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually capable readers. It’s allows an author to tap into this market and provide a sense of accomplishment that is acquired in the scientific fields only after many years of study.
This is what I have been struggling with in the zizek thread, is there any explanatory power behind the generalized jargon or is it all just the mad generalizations of a small field of philosophers that have convinced themselves that their work is more important than it actually is. Considering that most philosophers have excelled in their literary skills at the expense of their mathematical skills I remain skeptical that philosophers understand the proper way to use definitions of generalized concepts and while I often find myself endevouring to understand the philosophers like zizek, it usually turns out to require more effort than the utility I gain from the understanding I draw from their theories.
There is a lot of great material I philosophy and philosophers do themselves a great disservice when they respond to criticism of their cloistered language by further cloistering their field from the other truth seeking fields of science. Instead of using language to justify a method that provides little value to truth seekers philosophers should do some of the hard mathematical work to improve their theories with scientific understanding. Of course it would require that philosophy as a discipline would have to shed a whole host of of possible charlatans like zizek and since these economic incentives do not exist in academic philosophy it is unlikely that the philosophical discipline will take the strides necessary to improve their field.
Glen Stratton says
the criticism of logical positivism is not so much regarding their emphasis on evidence or verification; we are all pragmatists more or less nowadays and would like to see some data supporting assertions about states of affairs in the world. The real problem with LP is that it is internally inconsistent because their chief metaphysical claim is that statements that aren’t verifiable are meaningless, which sounds reasonable until you ask whether the verifiability criterion is itself verifiable. The LP’s wanted to do away with metaphysics but they ended up resting their anti-metaphysical views on a metaphysical view that would regard itself as meaningless. I’d say that the example of the destruction of LP is a good example of good philosophy in the sense that it’s not exactly empirical, it is just conceptual analysis that reveals whether positions are argued for cogently or not.
In my opinion philosopher’s should not allow themselves to be put on the defensive by having to defend themselves using the standards of physics.
An excellent talk by Colin Mcginn in which he defends philosophy as a science I think destroys the criticism put forward by the likes of physicists lately:
I agree with you about Zizek however.
Ben Gibran says
Thank you for your thoughtful critique of Paul Graham’s ‘How to Do Philosophy’. Although his blog post was probably not intended as a comprehensive argument, it does contain the kernels of a more sophisticated view than the one you are opposing. Without putting words in his mouth, may I (for the sake of balance) draw on some of his remarks to construct a fuller argument along the same lines?
I would suggest that the main problem with philosophy is what Graham calls ‘the singularity’. According to Graham, the following are (I would suggest, key) features of the singularity:
1) “If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students. Till one knows better, it’s hard to distinguish something that’s hard to understand because the writer was unclear in his own mind from something like a mathematical proof that’s hard to understand because the ideas it represents are hard to understand.”
2) “When things are hard to understand, people who suspect they’re nonsense generally keep quiet. There’s no way to prove a text is meaningless.”
3) “And so instead of denouncing philosophy, most people who suspected it was a waste of time just studied other things.”
4) “Because philosophy’s flaws turned away the sort of people who might have corrected them, they tended to be self-perpetuating.”
Virtually all academic disciplines rely on a system of peer-review to counter cognitive and personal biases, that may otherwise distort a scholar’s perception of whether he or she is making sense. All teaching philosophers have read student essays that are so riddled with vagueness, ambiguities and contradictions, it’s difficult to tell if the authors really knew what they meant. When asked specific questions about what they meant, these students often end up giving equally mystifying answers. Hence review and guidance by suitably qualified professionals. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, cognitive and personal biases don’t just affect individuals. Such biases can also infect an entire discipline, especially if they are tolerated or even transmitted via authority figures in that discipline. I’m sure many of us have sat through a seminar (often in a subject called ‘[fill in the blank] Studies’) where we are quite sure that no one is making much sense, but everyone is ‘talking’ and nodding along happily. On such occasions, we may wonder why the facilitator or one of the participants isn’t jumping in to ask “Err, what are we talking about, really?”. This very scenario was played out in the infamous Sokal Affair that Graham footnoted (well worth googling, if you’re unfamiliar with it).
But why should they jump in? The facilitator gets a good salary, the participants have paid huge tuition fees, the coffee is delicious, the company pleasant, and everyone loves affirmation. As Graham pointed out, anyone who doesn’t like it has probably already left, leaving only the converted. The same pattern is found in esoteric mystery or ‘new age’ cults, where features 1) to 4) of the singularity are put to work in the service of the cult leaders’ delusions and/or bank balance. The literature of such cults often reads like a metaphysics textbook; they too have ‘seminars’ where members earnestly ‘discuss’ the canonical texts and nod their heads.
Some philosophers may object that, surely, all disciplines are vulnerable to institutionalised bias and conformity; not just philosophy and its adjuncts. Really? Let’s take some concrete examples. Is it possible that doctors are simply spouting ‘hot air’ in medical school? Or engineers are just ‘playing with words’ in engineering college? Not really. The reason we can confidently give that answer is because of something Graham mentions; his much-derided appeal to ‘usefulness’. The jargon of doctors and engineers has to ‘work’ within a chain of causation, to produce results that would be highly improbable if the respective disciplines were ‘playing fast and loose’ with language.
Doctors perform heart surgery, engineers build airliners. They have to use language to collaborate in doing so; not only within their respective disciplines but across numerous epistemic communities. Non-sense doesn’t survive very long under such conditions. There has to be a high degree of semantic consistency and determinacy in the relevant discourses, or very few of us would survive heart surgery or flying. Of course, there are highly theoretical corners of every discipline that may harbour non-sense (for example, String Theory in physics). But guess what, those corners look a lot like philosophy.
It cannot be overly stressed that our subjective conviction that we (and others) are making sense is a very poor guide to whether we are really making sense. If we are to have real grounds for that conviction, we must be able to identify structural checks and balances, that mitigate the effects of cognitive bias and institutionalised conformity upon the discourse in question. Peer review isn’t enough.
Of course, philosophy imparts useful skills and even (occasional) knowledge, but an activity that is largely meaningless can often do so incidentally. One could learn from just about any activity, even building a staircase to nowhere. The fact that some philosophers have been influential is not a testament to the meaningfulness of philosophical discourse as a whole. After all, many lawyers are influential intellectuals, but not in their capacity as legal experts. Philosophers, like lawyers, are often good at reasoning, argumentation and rhetoric generally. But the combination of all these skills are insufficient to underwrite the meaningfulness of philosophical discourse. Given the limits of this medium, readers are welcome to google me for more detailed writings on this issue.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks for chiming in, Ben,
Philosophy is too disparate to be amenable to the sort of critique you’re trying to make. I think it’s possible (if you’re being uncharitable) that this kind of group delusion where no one really knows what’s being talked about is present in critical theory or the like, though even in that case, I think they know what they’re doing, e.g. “we’re critiquing this text and in turn the social mores underlying it,” and any foolishness revolves around the group acceptance of habits of discourse, i.e. how they’re going about making this critique. I think you’ll find on closer examination that there’s certainly a rationale behind any rhetorical method. For instance, this St. John’s etymology thing that fires up Heidegger (listen to our current episode) does have a logic to it, which I think you can see in action in our interview with Eva Brann about Heraclitus. No, these are not scientific methods; they have more in common with art, and art of any kind always comes with a philosophical question of what are we really getting out of it… why bother to do it if it’s just “pleasure” a la masturbation, except less reliable. I could see your line of analysis here coming down with a decision that all art, all non-productive activity, is really just juvenile, and it’s that attitude that’s the largest target of Heidegger in our current episode (and, in a different way, Plato in the Gorgias if you listen back to January).
Still, that emperor-wears-no-clothes critique gets thinner and thinner as you get into more analytic schools of philosophy, which certainly do question–constantly–their own aims and methods. Philosophy is so far from being a cult of mutual congratulation that philosophers regularly dismiss entire other strains of philosophy and can be super critical even of the colleagues that most resemble them.
There is the problem in many complex endeavors that you don’t really “get it” until you participate, and then when you get far enough into it, well, then you’re tainted in a way, and can’t judge it like an outsider. This is much of what Deleuze is pointing out by talking about “planes of immanence.” I think by having a firm hold of multiple disciplines, one can avoid the stink of cultism and retain some measure of impartiality while still entering into the thing enough to say intelligent things about it. Of course, there’s still the question about what constitutes a “discipline,” and I’d say being versed in multiple, disparate schools of philosophy makes one much more qualified to judge one work in one of those schools than, for instance, being trained in science (or computer science) or math and then taking a couple of philosophy courses which seem weird by comparison.
Ian Lippert says
I do not think that the critique is that all philosophy is needlessly obtuse and self referential but that a lot of it is and for the outsider you have to wade through a lot of questionable material to get to the good stuff. Often times philosophers suffer from misunderstandings that would easily be rectified if they had an understanding of other scientific disciplines that have already solved those problems. For example I couldn’t get through the first chapter of Derek parfait’s reasons and persons because he did not understand time preference or draw on the volumes of work that have already been produced by economists.
I feel like There is good stuff in philosophy that can greatly help the scientific, “do-something”, disciplines solve their intractable problems but if the costs outweigh the gains for the casual reader it is unlikely that anyone other than the most dedicated readers will get through the material. Like Paul they will pursue what they believe to be more intellectually productive disciplines leaving philosophy only with the thinkers that either like the self referential language games of philosophy or the people from other disciplines that have an interest in philosophy for its positive aspects but have very little time to really jump into it and draw beneficial theories from it.
This selection bias leads the real top rate thinkers to pursue other disciplines (where they are provided monetary support for their endeavors) and then leads those who survive in the professional philosophical tradition to fall prey to the academic system and the incentives to produce the self referential works required to achieve tenure.
When philosophers support philosophical theories without supporting a methodology to falsify them it leads philosophy to be a second rate discipline because its almost impossible for anyone on the outside to draw any value from it. This lack of demand for the products of philosophy and the lack of support within philosophy for top rate thinkers means that academic philosophy will rarely produce the works that we enjoy so much and push our understanding of the world to new levels. It just serves the needs of those second rate thinker who like to convince themselves of the importance of their subjective opinions.
Glen Stratton says
Saucy words. Of course your second-rate psychoanalyzing of philosophers and their reason for being in philosophy is hardly verifiable and rests purely on your subjective evaluation of the discipline.
What would you say of ethical theory? Hardly any good ethical theory has been developed outside of philosophical circles. Ditto for political philosophy, e.g. Locke, Rawls and all the rest.
And if you say “but those are the great philosophers… the average philosopher has no influence whatsoever”; that goes for the average worker-bee scientist as well. Most scientists I know here at university, including faculty, are pretty mediocre, just like the rest of us. Their work is boring and utterly insignificant.
No I think your criticisms are pretty weak. My own subjective evaluation is that you are projecting your own insecurities on philosophers and philosophy generally. In my experience philosophers just don’t care if other people think what they are doing is worthwhile precisely because the question of whether something is worthwhile (for instance) is a philosophical question and philosophers tend to be the people that like to ponder and often times systematize these general questions.
I get the feeling you’re not a very philosophical person to begin with. You don’t get a buzz out of theorizing about very general topics.
Ben Gibran says
Thanks for the reply, Mark.
I agree with you that useful insights and even wisdom can be gleaned from philosophical writings (and from many non-philosophical texts too). As they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The key question is whether the philosophical method is a more efficient way to arrive at such insights (compared to say, reading literary masterpieces, history books, works of social science, or even the biographies of famous people). I would suggest that relative to the size of its literature as a whole, philosophy is somewhat sparse in the practical wisdom it offers. As one of your commentators mentioned “while I often find myself endeavouring to understand the philosophers like Zizek, it usually turns out to require more effort than the utility I gain from the understanding I draw from their theories”. Of course, it may be objected that the wisdom-to-words ratio of fiction, history, social science or biography is equally imbalanced. Unfortunately, that doesn’t give philosophy any special advantage. At best, it would be just as good a source of practical wisdom as those other disciplines.
I think your comparison of philosophy with art is very apt. Like art, the value of philosophy is very much in the eye of the beholder. But again, how does this give philosophy an edge over art, or psychotherapy, or meditation, or the disciplines mentioned above; in terms of being a superior path to truth or practical wisdom? If philosophy doesn’t have a systematic way of arriving at insights, then any wisdom it produces would be incidental, rather than being a product of the philosophical method. Some (perhaps more ‘continental’) philosophers would be happy characterising their discipline as a form of artistic or literary expression. However, many (especially in the ‘analytic’ school) would regard such a characterisation as unbecoming of the ‘queen of the sciences’.
It’s true, as you mentioned, that philosophers often criticise each other. But the key question is, do they criticise the philosophical method itself (in particular, its purely discursive approach)? For professional philosophers, doing so would be cutting off the branch they’re sitting on. As Graham mentioned, those who disagree that fundamentally usually just leave, depriving philosophy of genuinely radical internal critics (and the views of outsiders are generally dismissed as lacking in ‘expertise’. I myself have been so dismissed many times, for having ‘only’ a BA in philosophy). Esoteric religious thinkers have many heated debates too, but it doesn’t say much for the meaningfulness of what they’re talking about. All in all, I have no quarrel with your statement that the methods of philosophy “are not scientific methods; they have more in common with art”. I’m just not optimistic that the majority of philosophers would agree with you.
I think there is a difference between everyday philosophy and academic philosophy.
The former is a process which ANYBODY could benefit from. It comes from reading philosophy, thinking about philosophy, and listening to philosophy podcasts, etc. It involves paying close attention to the words people use and the assumptions they make. For this reason, it doesn’t really matter if you are reading Wittgenstein or Heidegger or Socrates or whoever. The process of carefully engaging with an argument is what’s important.
Everybody who has posted a comment here is engaging with this type of philosophy.
They are paying close attention to the words and assumptions which the other users are using.
They are also thinking about philosophy in the same way philosophers think about science or history or art. If philosophy is a form of meta-thinking, then whenever you are thinking about discipline X instead of practicing discipline X, you are engaging with a type of philosophical thinking.
The fact that you are engaging with a philosophical discussion about philosophy in the comment section of a philosophy blog is proof that philosophy has had an effect on your life. If philosophy is ineffectual and irrelevant, why are you here?
These types of arguments remind of something Stanley Kubrick said. He claimed that film has no effect on behaviour (this was in the press-controversy surrounding a violent film he had just released). I was stunned that a FILM director could make such a statement. Obviously film can have an effect on behaviour if film itself is what inspired him to become a film director.
As for academic philosophy: It’s hard for me to really comment on this field since I’ve never actually been a philosophy professor. With that said, I can see the appeal of teaching the “important” texts from history. In one sense, a philosophy professor who teaches Plato is kind of like an historian / curator. They are keeping an influential text alive for the next generation. This might not have any “practical worth,” but neither do the dinosaur bones at the museum.
The idea that everything needs to have some “Practical Worth” is boring to me.
I ask you, what would life look like if every single thing you engaged with had some practical end in mind? It’s probably hard to imagine, maybe even impossible.
Somebody might even argue that EVERYTHING has some practical advantage. To use the museum example again: A little kid goes to the museum and learns about dinosaurs. This inspires him to go to the library and check out dinosaur books. He takes these home and reads them all cover-to-cover. This makes him better at reading. He then goes to school, and with his good-reading skills, is able to study well, get good grades, and goes to college (where he doesn’t study philosophy, or even palaeontology, because they have no practical purpose and thus are for pussies).
If this is all true, then philosophy does have practical benefits. It’s just that they might be invisible over the short-term. Personally, I believe Wittgenstein’s ideas about language have helped me call bullshit on people (which can help prevent me from spending my money on useless garbage).
As for the type of writing philosophy professors engage with… I can’t comment on this because I never read academic philosophy journals.
So these are my opinions.
Now for the opinions of others:
Ian Lippert wrote:
” if the costs outweigh the gains for the casual reader it is unlikely that anyone other than the most dedicated readers will get through the material”
Then he wrote:
“This selection bias leads the real top rate thinkers to pursue other disciplines”
Whoa, whoa, so all of a sudden ‘the casual reader’ is a ‘top rate thinker?’
The first-rate thinkers can’t get through Berkeley, but the second-rate thinkers can?
Second-rate thinkers are more dedicated readers?
And how does one know the “gains” outweigh the “costs” of a text without reading the text?
Ian also wrote that philosophy:
” just serves the needs of those second rate thinker who like to convince themselves of the importance of their subjective opinions.”
So the second-rate thinker is somebody who was dedicated to reading through the difficult texts, went through four years of college, another three or four years for grad-school, only to gain a sense of “self- importance” by publishing their opinions in academic philosophy journals?
Somebody should have told these philosophy professors that therapy is cheaper and less time-consuming.
In all seriousness, the notion that “first-rate” thinkers are repelled by philosophy and “drawn” towards the sciences is bunk.
Firstly, I don’t really know what you mean by “first-rate” and “second-rate.” Different people have different aptitudes for different skills. Being good at math and science but mediocre at philosophy does not make you a better thinker than somebody who is good at philosophy but mediocre at math and science. It is not a matter of “who is a first-rate thinker and who is a second-rate thinker.” This is just a juvenile way of looking at the social world.
Secondly, let’s take one of these second-rate thinkers you speak of: Hubert Dreyfus.
In the interview he does with Martha Naussbaum on Youtube, Dreyfus talks about how he was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was young. He struggled with reading all through elementary and secondary school and did poorly in language based subjects like english and history, but thrived in math and physics. He went to university as a major in these subjects and did well in them.
He also took a philosophy class; i.e., the type of language based course he struggled with.
The thing is, the dyslexia actually HELPED him. The other students approached philosophy texts like they did novels: they read through them quickly to gain “the gist,” but didn’t dwell on the details. But because Dreyfus had to read much more slowly and carefully than the other students, his comprehension of the text was much greater. He did very well and developed a taste for philosophy. He switched majors and then went on to become a relatively famous figure in the field.
So, is this a case where second-rate thinker found himself “at home” in a second-rate discipline? Probably not. After all, he started out doing well in physics. His preference for philosophy had nothing to do with his mediocrity and everything to do with how philosophy fit his learning style.
Ian Lippert says
I believe that those that are most capable of solving complex problems will gravitate towards disciplines where the efforts they put in to solve problems will be maximally compensated. Of course this does not mean that there are never going to be great philosophers but that there really isn’t enough funding within academic philosophy to support many top professional philosophers. Since academia is basically the only place to be a professional philosopher this means that top rate philosophers will be under pressure from the publish or perish incentives that exist in academia and this incentivizes the kind of jargon creation that many philosophers use in an attempt to make their theories sound new and interesting. This means that first rate philosophical thinkers will be incentivized to pursue second rate theories as they will not have time to put the effort in required to develop first-rate philosophy. With incentives within and without the philosophical discipline limiting the number of top philosophical thinkers, it leads me to believe that philosophy as a discipline will always provide a debatable amount of value to the other disciplines that could benefit from an understanding of philosophy.
I mean we are posting on PEL, a group of guys that wanted to be professional philosophers but thought better of it. There are a few podcasts where they mention the super nit picky philosophizing that goes on at the highest levels of academic philosophy. The fact is that a second rate (read non-all star philosopher for those that find the terminology insulting) philosopher can be a much more productive second-rate scientist and make a lot more money and be a much more productive member of society which in many cases leads to a more rewarding intellectual life for those that want to use their intelligence to make the world a better place.
This doesn’t mean that there is more objective value to not pursuing philosophy, many will still pursue their interests regardless of economic benefit, but I think it’s hard to argue that there aren’t serious economic costs to pursuing the life of a professional philosopher. It’s like setting out to be a rock star, very few people make it and many waste their time trying to break into the industry when they could pursuing more productive ends. People can pursue whatever goals they want but they should at least be fully aware of the costs and risks if they are going to make a cost benefit analysis of their life decisions.
Whether one bases one’s life decisions on a cost-benefit analysis is itself a philosophical question, isn’t it?
It’s a question about what matters, whether cost-benefits or other values.
It seems that I made most of my life decisions, without considering cost-benefits in economic terms at all, trying to engage in projects that did no harm (to others or to the environment) either directly or indirectly, trying to contribute not so much to society (since I consider society to be on a wrong course), but to others, especially to open others up to reflecting more critically about their lives and about society; and finally, trying to construct, along with others, a society not based on cost-benefit analysis.
Most of the people whom I know made similar life decisions.
I’m not a professional philosopher, but philosophy, in the most general sense, is about thinking about what matters.
Ian Lippert says
Swaller: there are always opportunity costs to everything anyone does regardless of whether the person making the decisions is consciously considering those costs. It was stated by noah that he found the idea that philosophy should have some “practical worth” boring. The problem that I tried to clarify in my previous post was that regardless of whether you think philosophy needs to have practical worth it will always have practical costs. For those that derive enjoyment from philosophy even when it provides no practical the costs do not outweigh the benefits and they will pursue it as a hobby or profession.
Unfortunately for most people trying to break into an academic career becoming a professional philosopher incurs very serious risks, risks that will manifest themselves as an opportunity cost in the form of hours spent not doing something “productive” that provides a decent wage at the end. We are seeing many more people graduating with non-technical degrees who are facing higher rates of unemployment and under employment due to degrees in the humanities providing fewer “practical” skills for their graduates. For a person that is capable of getting through an undergrad, grad, and PhD degree in philosophy they are likely just as capable of pursuing a degree in a more technical field. Taking a risk and trying to become a prominent academic in a scientific field leaves those that fail at the endeavor with much better second best outcomes than those that pursue the attempt in philosophy. For those that take the economic calculation seriously, they face incentives that are going to push them into more productive programs and lead to more individuals that succeed at becoming first rate thinkers just due to the greater numbers of people who pursue technical degrees.
Philosophy criticizes itself all the time and even leads to self-desctruction in someways (Wittgenstein, Rorty, etc.) but of course this is always based on philosophical argument.
These arguments tended to be of the variety that denied substantive or meaningful notions of “truth” or “reality,” regarding these terms as more honorary than anything else.
I assume you do have not qualms with the conceptual integrity of notions like “truth” or “reality” and thus find it easy to scorn the discipline that investigates these very general terms. To each his own, but you can’t seriously criticize people are genuinely interested in general questions such as the nature of truth, justice, or whatever it may be, and who devote themselves to the investigation of such ideas, which are known are philosophers.
Glen Stratton says
As Dan Dennett says, philosophy is the one discipline where literally everything is up for grabs conceptually. Philosophy is the discipline where no assumption can be assumed except provisionally.
You made my morning especially delightful, Michael! Is there a place that the analytic and continental traditions meet? I for one find this challenge a worthy one to send my time on… .
“Suppose the only thing that people did after reading Aristotle is change their beliefs: why should this be denigrated as “nothing”? Indeed, only in the neo-behaviourism of the current capitalist mindset do such things count as “nothing” (what does Paul do again?). To make a claim one way or the other however, requires some empirical data which we find lacking here.”
Hear, hear! Oh, I would argue there’s plenty of empirical data to back this claim, but so the story goes.
Michael Burgess says
Most of my philosophy “work” is in the meeting point between continental and analytic philosophy. Which is why I included that little aside on Berkeley, since he’s quite an important meeting point between proto-phenomenology and proto-scientific-realism.
Sure. I touched on your aside after we read a critique of French and Ladyman’s argument (ontic form of SR) by Tian Yu Cao: “Can We Dissolve Physical Entities into Mathematical Structures?” After I got sidetracked by Raymond Tallis’ argument re metaphysics, science, philosophy, and the problem of intentionality. I think Tallis’ argument is similar as Dan Arnold’s on the problem of qualia, but I set it aside. Enjoyed your blog and Paul Graham’s 2007 article.