June 4, 2006

The Purpose of Philosophy

[As featured in Philosophers' Carnival #35!]

At the beginning of the year, Dustin (see previous post) challenged me to say what the purpose of doing philosophy is.  Now that the year is over, I realize that I never answered his question.

Partly this is because, at the time, I could think of no justification.  The purpose of philosophy, I said, was to make one's beliefs consistent in areas in which it's not clear what to believe.  Given two sides of a philosophical problem (say, the problem of free will versus determinism), you're presented with a paradox.  The paradox--at least, if you're a philosopher, or are in the right mindset--is frustrating, and you want to know what to believe.  Philosophizing ensues.  The question I felt unable to address at the time was: Why is this important?

It's possible that it isn't.  If you never see philosophical problems as frustrating, because they are below your radar, or because you think they can be dissolved in an obvious way, it isn't important to decide what you believe about philosophical problems.

But if you do see them as problems, deciding what you believe with regard to them is important.  To use an old accusation, one would be a misologist (Phaedo), a hater of rational accounts, if one refused to hear them.  One could just live as if philosophical problems don't exist; but I don't think that's a good solution.  Philosophy is one of the only areas in which we have all the tools to decide for ourselves about the issues in question.  Some input from science (and to guide science) is useful; but the problems are conceptual, so their solutions (I propose) will be conceptual as well, and so at least in theory within the reach of all who approach the problems.

There is another reason: I think philosophical problems are important in themselves.  They embody important features of our situation as humans, about the way our world is structured; about what it means to know something, or another person, to be free, whether there are any criteria for sense and nonsense at all.  These are significant aspects of the lives of both philosophers and non-philosophers, and they are aspects of our lives which produce philosophical puzzlement.  I cannot but think there must be some benefit from trying to get things straight with regard to them.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Ang said...

Dustin argues that ethics is the center of philosophy, since philosophy is the love of wisdom and wisdom involves the proper assignment of value (which then can lead to proper action). This assumes that philosophy has a "central" or "more basic" field, and it's not clear to me that it does. But I do agree that questions of value must factor into any answer about the purpose of philosophy.

I'm happy with the general gist of your approach, which focuses on the methodology of philosophy. You pin the purpose of philosophy down as: "making one's beliefs consistent in areas in which it's not clear what to believe."

A relevant problem I see here is that there are usually multiple ways to make one's beliefs consistent, and it is often unclear which way is best. Suppose you and I agree that "If A then B". We might still disagree on whether "A" or "not-B" is more plausible.

(Example: if I know I have hands, then I know I'm not a BIV. The Moorean takes "I know I have hands" to be more plausible, while the skeptic takes "I don't know I'm not a BIV" is more plausible.)

When confronted with such a situation, one knows exactly what it takes one's beliefs consistent, but it's hard to see what's the best way to achieve consistency. To figure out what to believe, it seems we'll have to figure out what claims we feel are more important to preserve. And that seems to take us back to Dustin's point about values....

Here is my take on the purpose and value of philosophy, which really is a statement of the reasons I want to work in the field. These are ordered, beginning from concrete points and leading to more airy, fuzzy and idealistic points:

-- Much philosophical work is concerned with demonstrating statements of the form "If A then B": that given certain presuppositions, you reach certain conclusions

-- Learning and engaging in such philosophical argumentation has a certain "fun factor" (I find it enjoyable to engage in it), and this is a central reason I do philosophy.

-- Also, philosophical work builds up our ability to examine our own presuppositions critically and to consider seriously the possibilities that are opened up when we modify those presuppositions.

-- It seems possible that, with sufficient activity, we might hit upon a way to reframe our perspective in a way which is significantly more "satisfying" than our current perspective.

-- So another central reason I do philosophy is founded on a) an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with my current understanding of and perspective on the world and b) a hope that by poking around enough I'll hit on ways to improve it.

-- Finally, I find that many of the barriers to our ability, as humans, to live together well have to do with fundamental differences in the way that we understand ourselves and the world we live in. I have a hope that the sort of rationally-based exploration of perspectives and ideas can, when done well, improve our capacity to live well with one another. Hence, I want to do what I can, as a philosopher, to contribute to this.

7/13/2006 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Ignacio said...

Ang notes that a lot of philosophy is showing what from follows from what, pointing out hidden inconsistencies or omissions in a set of beliefs or theory, and attempting to achieve maximum clarity and coherence in one's views.

Ang also notes that, aside from the pleasure and merit these activities have in their own right, they also, in an ideal world at least, pay dividends in practical and social life.

I agree with all these points (and Blakely's points as well). I think, however, that there is one ingredient which is missing on the list, which is the capacity for good philosophy to be suffused with imaginative insight or, for lack of a better phrase, the wisdom that comes with mature and careful reflection.

If you read the first couple of chapters of Quine's Word and Object, you will find few deductive arguments or examples of conceptual analysis. You will, hower, find a striking and philosophically productive picture of ourselves as speakers of a public language and as subjects of experience capable of acquiring far-reaching and shareable empirical theories of the world.

In reading **classic** philosophy texts, even analytic ones, you will usually have an experience of seeing something new in the world or in our way of conceptualizing it. In addition to Word and Object, I think of examples like Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Kripke's Naming and Necessity, Strawson's Individuals, Sellars' Empiricism and the the Philosophy of Mind, Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Anscombe's Intention, Lewis' On the Plurality of Worlds or Nagel's The View From Nowhere.

Now, of course, there is plenty to argue about and clarify in any one of these texts and that is the business of, to alter Kuhn, "normal philosophy." But one of the great things about philosophy is that, because the parameters are so unsettled, there's room for a lot of "revolutionary" work.

Of course, there is also room for a lot of brilliantly false leads and logically elaborate nonsense, but so it goes. The good parts make it worthwhile.

7/14/2006 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger Ang said...

Ignatio, I think you're certainly onto something significant here: the imaginative/creative aspect of philosophy is a big part of its appeal to me.

But the capacity to re-imagine the world from a new perspective seems exhibited to a significant degree in a number of other fields. You mentioned Kuhn: clearly, re-imagining reality happens a lot in science (e.g. the newtonian and then the relativistic/quantum mechanical revolutions). And I think the same happens in literature and religion.

Do you think there is a distinctive manner in which creative imagination factors into philosophy, as opposed to other fields? Is there some uniquely philosophical way of contributing creatively to our understanding of our world and how we fit into it?

Another way to get at my question: is there some aspect of the creative endeavor which is best accomplished within the domain of philosophy, and is difficult to accomplish in some other domain?

7/19/2006 08:14:00 PM  
Blogger Blakely said...

Just a note before Ignacio responds in more detail about the nature of philosophical creativity:

It's striking that, as in the example of Kuhn, revolutions and conceptual shifts in other domains are not just like what happens in philosopy; they tend to become subject matter for philosophy, as well. This is most noticeable in science, and perhaps engineering, but it shows up in other places, too.

For instance, the question concering how to speak to someone possessed of a different worldview, raises a host of philosophical issues--semantic issues, metaphysical ones, and questions concerning the power of deductive argument to cross these supposed barriers.

Other examples that come to mind are the concept of aspect perception from Wittgenstein (what is it? how does it work?), and the endeavor, in philosophy of mind, to determine how the 1st and 3rd person perspectives relate to one another, if they do, and perhaps the tension in epistemology between the skeptical perspecitive (if there is such a thing) and responses to the skeptic that claim more modest criteria for knowledge.

None of these are revolutions in philosophy, but they are major philosophical topics that happen to be concerned with shifts or relationships between difficult-to-relate perspectives.

Anyhow, I just wanted to mention the centrality of creative reconceptualizations of things to the subject matter of philosophy, as these are the issues that tend to interest me most.

7/21/2006 09:54:00 PM  
Blogger Dustin Feigerle said...

This comment is a nothing. All I want to say is, thank you Blakely for responding to my challenge from so long ago. Before reading your posting, my impression was one of having simply alienated you. Also, thank you Ang and Ignacio for taking this question seriously. Your thoughts have interested and stimulated me very much. Sorry I haven't recognized this before, but this is the first time I've been on the WOB for quite awhile. C U soon. much love,
D

8/27/2006 05:22:00 AM  

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