What Should Philosophy Do? (Part 1)

Inspiring this series of posts (I’m thinking there might again be three) is John Horgan’s series on “What Is Philosophy’s Point?” in Scientific American (five installments, here, here, here, here, and here). I should begin by saying that I am delighted to see Horgan’s writings, whatever specific agreements or disagreements I may have. Scientific American has a fairly wide readership, much of it outside the confines of academia. At least that readership will see that the subject still exists, that it hasn’t been defunded by misguided university administrators, absorbed into so-called cognitive science, or buried under an avalanche of identity-politics.

Modern philosophy as an endeavor, enterprise, discipline, or whatever we want to call it, has never ceased to agonize over its identity — especially after the sciences came to dominate intellectual culture. Even philosophers who maintain they have found the perfect identity for their field, have not managed to convince even a majority of other philosophers, though they may have achieved a substantial following. Ask 20 different philosophers What Should Philosophy Do?, and you might not get 20 different answers but you will doubtless get several. This won’t happen, it goes without saying, with physics, or chemistry, or biology. It might happen with art, if Brian Eno can be believed.

When lecturing students at the very beginning of an Intro to Philosophy course, noting that many would find the subject rather mysterious, I used to identify four distinct answers to the question, yielding four distinct approaches to philosophical activity. Without implying that the four are hermetically isolated schools of thought, none touching the others:

(1) Philosophy seeks to develop, or articulate, a comprehensive theory or account of the world and everything in it, including our place in it, (often) some account of what the good life consists of, and (often) a diagnosis of the difference between what the philosophical ideal and the socially real. Some might call this a worldview. Philosophy is theoretical system-building, in other words. Exemplars from the history of philosophy are aplenty: Plato and Aristotle; St. Thomas Aquinas; Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Hegel; in the twentieth century, someone such as Whitehead. Before going on, we should note the immediate problem that “progress in philosophy” usually seemed to mean each philosopher crossing out most of what previous systems had to offer and substituting his own, validated as it were from inside. We should also distinguish among philosophers the system-builders from the system-smashers. Each of the above were system-builders. System-smashers included (indirectly) the Sophists whom Plato and Aristotle despised; early modern writers such as Montaigne (to whom Descartes was responding, at least in part); Hume when dealing with natural theology (not in his broader epistemological and ethical views); Kierkegaard, Nietzsche; the later Wittgenstein in his anti-essentialism; and in the late twentieth century, Thomas S. Kuhn (however reluctantly), Paul Feyerabend (enthusiastically), and all those identified with postmodernism (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida; on our side of the Atlantic, Richard Rorty with his “neopragmatism”).

(2) The second answer: philosophy is analysis, not synthesis. The absence of agreement on whose philosophical system is the most defensible is a problem, as we mentioned. So philosophers turned in large numbers to efforts to clarify their own problems or questions. How can we expect to make progress if we’re not clear what we’re talking about? Sometimes logical-linguistic clarification concluded that a given problem, such as free will versus determinism, or the mind-body problem, is based on linguistic confusion and should be given up. Whereas a systematic philosopher of the first school may try to prove that the will is free, someone doing analytic philosophy wants to know what it means to say the will is free. Does it mean acting outside the causal structure of the universe? Whatever can this mean?! Or are we merely ignorant of the causes of our behavior (as behaviorists insisted). Or does acting freely just mean the modest and commonsensical notion of acting without another person or institution compelling us to do so? Acting freely in this sense is compatible with determinism (hence the term compatibilism). Philosophical analysis began to develop in the 1800s. It was not, of course, invented in the 1800s. Socrates was doing very basic analysis when he asked Euthyphro to define piety; or Meno, to define virtue as a precondition to answering whether it can be taught. The founder of sociology Auguste Comte questioned whether theoretical, system-building “second stage” philosophy had any place in a scientific world. He was not a system-smasher, though. His answer was “third stage” positivism, which hands the questions philosophy had hitherto dealt with over to the hierarchy of the sciences. Comte set the stage for philosophy as the logical analysis and clarification of language. And as they had newly-developed and very powerful formal-logical techniques to work with, major nineteenth century thinkers starting with Göttlob Frege led to Bertrand Russell across the English Channel, whose articles and treatises (along with those of his colleague G.E. Moore) defined the early course of analytic philosophy — and also its “third stage” mindset. Despite its Continental roots, analytic philosophy soon became dominant in the English-speaking world. Every student who pursues academic philosophy soon realizes this. Ludwig Wittgenstein (both Wittgensteins!) and Viennese logical positivism led the way to A.J. Ayer, P.F. Strawson, and J.L. Austin in the U.K., and in the U.S. the leading thinkers (e.g., Carl Hempel, Ernest Nagel) called themselves logical empiricists. Their primary goal was clarifying explanation and justification in science, which included extensive explorations into inductive logic, Bayes theorem, and so on. Eventually analytic philosophy evolved under withering criticism of some of its own products, leading to major figures like W.V. Quine, Wilfred Sellars, and later, John Searle, Saul Kripke, Donald Davidson, and Michael Dummett among others (these being the names I typically think of first). I spend more time on this answer to, What Should Philosophy Do? because its techniques prove powerful when used outside of philosophy. I am unsure this power is truly appreciated — even by many of its own practitioners who often leave themselves open to criticism for the insularity of their activity (although in fairness, insularity became a comfortable path to academic tenure and financial stability long ago).

(3) The third answer to, What Should Philosophy Do? was offered by the existentialist / phenomenological tradition that took root primarily in twentieth century Germany and France. Philosophy, in this view, should set out to describe the human condition—perhaps standing in isolation before a God none of us truly understands (Kierkegaard, who might be regarded as this tradition’s founder), or in a world without God (Heidegger, Sartre, etc.). This tradition engaged in its own form of analysis; one thinks of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and figures like Maurice Merleau-Ponty — even linguistic analysis (Ferdinand de Saussure). In my humble opinion, contributors to this tradition expressed their generally dark assessments far more effectively in fiction and plays than formal philosophy. I find Heidegger’s and Sartre’s formal treatises to be unreadable, but the latter’s Nausea is guaranteed to disturb anyone who finds himself experiencing what Sartre was getting at, regarding the “for-itself” confronting the “in-itself.” Much the same can be said for Albert Camus’s works, especially The Stranger. Although existentialism was primarily a European phenomenon, I would argue that existentialist themes permeate American novelist Ernest Hemingway’s works. Meursault, the lead character in The Stranger, and Krebs, from Hemingway’s short story “Soldier’s Home,” are virtually interchangeable in a world each experiences as meaningless and vaguely hostile, absent an anchor-point of value and confirmation such as God.

(4) Finally, we get to the idea that philosophy should not merely describe but rather change the human condition. Paraphrasing Karl Marx (from his “Theses on Feuerbach”), philosophy has only described the world; the point is to change it. Philosophers, in this view, should see themselves as obligated to use whatever skills they have to expose power relationships and provide critiques of power while allowing marginalized voices to be heard. Relevant here is whether those of us who do philosophy, do it as an end in itself or as a means to other ends. Marx would have disdained the former as a bourgeois luxury, contributing nothing to class analysis or the coming struggle between those who own the means of production and those with only their labor to sell. The idea, which has its roots in Hegel’s distinction of the differences in perception between the master and the slave, has animated Marxian philosophy and also the various late twentieth century developments such as race-conscious philosophy, radical feminism, queer theory, and so on. However much identity-politics may be seen as a wrong direction (to be bluntly honest, I see it as such), the idea of producing critiques of power survives such a criticism. This answer to, What Should Philosophy Do? can easily incorporate philosophical analysis by exposing how language can be weaponized and used as an instrument of thought control and domination in institutions, or in society at large, by whichever groups with agendas. It can, for that matter, incorporate elements of the systematic approach by noting the kind of worldview or theory of reality in which exercising power is most at home, “legitimizing” itself by nothing more than a capacity to wield deadly force if challenged.

These, then, are the major answers to the question, What Should Philosophy Do? (I am not asserting that there are no others; I am only saying they are the prevailing ones. Anyone truly educated in philosophy is at least aware of all four even if he or she rejects all but one of them.)

Turning our attention to reviewing Horgan’s series, then, his main title, “What is Philosophy’s Point?” is surely a variation on our, What Should Philosophy Do? 

At first glance, in light of the above, the series might not look exactly impressive. Part I, (“Hint: It’s Not Discovering Truth”) repeats a refrain that has become familiar in the past few years since Stephen Hawking declared philosophy to be dead in the introduction of his The Grand Design (2010). (For whatever it’s worth, I meditate on and attempt an extended answer to philosophy is dead claims here.)  The refrain, as we see from the above, though, is hardly new. Above we mentioned Comte and referenced two of his three “stages.” The Law of Three Stages, he called it (or States or Conditions, terms he uses interchangeably) is as follows: the first is the “religious or fictitious” state; the second, the “metaphysical or abstract”; the third, the “scientific and positive.” The first, using a somewhat different metaphor, might be thought of as our intellectual childhood. The second, as our adolescence — somewhat reckless, its reach exceeding its grasp. The third, in that case, is our mental and cognitive adulthood as we stand on our own, without gods, myths about intellectual certainty, etc.

Comte believed inquiry was converging on this final third stage.

I am at work on an extended tract arguing at length that Comte had the germ of a sound idea in his “stages” view of inquiry, but that he was wrong about the his “third stage” being the final one as well as the sort of progress made in reaching it. That, though, is a conversation for another time.

The point to make here: Horgan’s first installment is permeated with third stage thinking, I will call it — as is the bulk of the philosophical work he has to draw on, which he tells us inspired him to write these pieces: fascination with the mind-body problem which has produced easily the largest literature of any single issue in modern and recent analysis. Is it really a problem? For whom? Some, such as Gilbert Ryle (of the post-Wittgenstein “ordinary language” school) believed it mired in linguistic confusion. Rorty, much more recently, argued that the sense of there being a mind-body problem was nothing more than our use of a special vocabulary, one that drew on obsolete (seventeenth century) notions; what can be done to dissolve the mind-body problem is to get rid of the sense that this (or any other) vocabulary represents or “mirrors” reality and that it is the job of philosophy to find and justify the vocabulary that does.

The sense of a real, live problem about mind and body has survived Rorty’s efforts, though. What has seemed to create a problem has come down to a single question, visible in the work of the brilliant Australian philosopher David J. Chalmers: how can we make sense of the existence of consciousness (i.e., our individual consciousness as a kind of private, inner stage, important to us, from which each of us views the world) in a material universe in which all configurations of “matter” are, in the final analysis, of equal “value”? Most readers will recognize this as one way of describing “hard problem” of consciousness which has loomed large in philosophical conversation since the 1990s.

One answer to that question is taken by the Daniel Dennetts of the philosophical world, who deny that a reifiable “private inner stage” really exists as such, that it is any more than an illusion created in our brains and central nervous systems. Truth be known, I find this kind of denial to be very strange. Its counterintuitiveness does not refute it, of course, but surely ought to give us pause, having left us with a sense that something essential is being left out. This brand of hard materialism seems paradoxical at best and incoherent at worst. If consciousness really does not exist as such, then how can Dennett undertake the (presumably conscious) action of denying or affirming anything? How can you be reading this — if you are — and presumably processing mentally (in some sense of that term) what you are reading? What is it that makes our utterances — and the inscriptions we see on paper or online — more than strings of random-seeming noises or meaningless markings?

Consider: those of us with exposure to a foreign language we don’t understand may listen as closely as we can to speakers of that language in conversation and hear nothing but unintelligible noises. But it should be evident from direct observation that the speakers understand each other and are providing appropriate responses! The material constitution of language just being sounds emitted from one’s mouth and received via one’s ears, each speaker is mentally adding something that I cannot add in listening because I do not understand or speak their language. The same is true if I try to read, e.g., written Arabic. I see nothing but curvy lines and dots. An Arab speaker recognizes the words and sentences of the language he grew up with. This “understanding,” this “recognition,” I submit, is lost by materialism. Somewhere in here, obviously, is Searle’s absolutely brilliant “Chinese room” thought experiment from the 1980s, which — frustratingly! — Searle himself never drew the most straightforward consequence, which is that materialism as a theory of reality and of the human person is simply wrong!

Dennett would doubtless call these responses question-begging and wrong-headed. But is there an alternative? More interestingly, is there some neutral vantage point from which to survey and judge, from which to construct a non “question-begging” approach to consciousness? Are we not undertaking mental actions in any reasonable sense of this phrase when we even raise the question, much less undertake it?

Eventually, our reasoning must reach the point of realizing that consciousness is, in some sense yet to be spelled out, very, very basic, and must be built into our very understanding of how the world works, or we end up with incoherence!

Another way of saying this will doubtless offend every third stage thinker (Dennett being an example; not to single him out, as there are many others) who has science / scientific method (as they see it) on a pedestal. This is to not be a materialist. This was the option chosen by Thomas Nagel, who has proven to be alone with his “teleological naturalism,” motivated by the apparent failures of materialism in combination with his own resistance to theism. But the failures of materialism open the door to a variety of other worldviews, Christian theism included. They open the door to the likelihood that there are other phenomena, likely to be dismissed as illusory but easily seen as real and incorporated into our account of our experience if we stop trying to shoehorn everything into a worldview in which everything must be either reduced to laws or propensities discovered by physics and chemistry, or eliminated as unreal products of our imaginations or a “folk psychology” (“eliminative materialism”).

How good are the reasons for being a materialist? has for years now seemed to me a perfectly valid question. How well argued is the materialist stance? To use a Feyerabendian ploy, has materialism won out not just in much of philosophy but in science itself not because of the superiority of its arguments but because it was able to bully alternatives out of the way? Given the clear absence of a consensus on the status of such problems as mind-body (not that the presence of one would necessarily decide the matter for all time), it doesn’t seem to me materialists are entitled to assume so without much more work. That a Colin McGinn, another of those rare leaders in the post-Rorty world of academic philosophy, finds the mind-body problem “intractable” (whether that is McGinn’s word or Horgan’s) is telling.

By reflecting on the seeming failures or lapses of materialists, and their willingness to “eliminate” what doesn’t fit a worldview to be distinguished from the actual methods and findings of modern science, surely we have found a “point” to doing philosophy, and therefore an answer to, “What Is Philosophy’s Point?” Maybe there is an answer to, What Should Philosophy Do? which combines all four of the above answers in recognizing, clarifying, evaluating, and if necessary, constructing alternatives, to the worldview(s) that prevail in Western civilization.

To be continued …

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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5 Responses to What Should Philosophy Do? (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: What Should Philosophy Do (Part 2) | Lost Generation Philosopher

  2. Pingback: What Should Philosophy Do? (Part 3) | Lost Generation Philosopher

  3. Pingback: Brian Eno’s “Music For Installations”: New Collection Released This Week (A Music Post) | Lost Generation Philosopher

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