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’.