Sunday, March 18, 2012
A View Of Philosophy
What Is Philosophy?
Well, what do you think philosophy is? Most people can’t answer this question. It’s too abstract. It’s also controversial. Philosophers themselves can’t agree on any answer. Sure, the name “philosophy” derives from the Greek for “love of wisdom“, but what’s that? There has been a long and glorious history of people called philosophers, but they talk about all kinds of topics in all kinds of ways. It is not clear what, if anything, they have in common that makes them all philosophers.
Still, though many philosophers would dispute what I say, I will give you one model of philosophy. For me, philosophy is defined by a goal and a method.
Philosophy’s goal is nothing less than a systematic world view. Other fields study particular kinds of things. Philosophy asks how it all fits together. For example, if you want to learn about bodies, take a course in physics or biology. If you want to learn about minds, take a course in psychology. But if you want to learn about how minds are related to bodies, or how physics is related to psychology, then philosophy (of mind) is for you. Similarly, economics, political science, and art and music courses study different values (welfare, justice, and beauty). Then moral philosophers ask how these values are similar or different, when one may be traded off against another, and where any of these values fit into the physical world. Again, historians try to discover knowledge of the past and astronomers try to discover knowledge of stars and planets, but only philosophers ask what makes any of these beliefs knowledge, and how (or whether) we can have any knowledge at all. Such philosophical questions are very abstract, but that is what enables them to cover so many different fields at once.
This goal also means that you can study anything under the name of philosophy.Philosophy encompasses subfields called philosophy of religion, of law, of economics, of biology, of physics, of mathematics, of computers, of psychology, of art, of music, of literature, and so on. Any and all of these topics can be studied in a philosophical way when one asks how they are related to each other in an overall world view.
When such disparate topics are raised, conflicts and paradoxes are bound to arise. One famous example is the paradox of freedom: Science, including psychology, leads us to believe that (1) Every act is determined by a prior cause. Law and common practices of blaming and punishing wrongdoers then lead us to believe that (2) Some acts are free. But the very definition of “free” suggests that (3) Nothing that is determined is free. Unfortunately, (1)-(3) cannot all be true, so any world view that includes all three of these claims is incoherent.
Paradoxes like this are both loved and hated by philosophers. Philosophers love them for their stimulation but hate them for their incoherence, so philosophers try hard to get rid of paradoxes. One prevalent way to resolve paradoxes is conceptual analysis. In response to the paradox of freedom, for example, some philosophers try to analyze freedom in a way that makes it compatible with determinism and thereby undermines (3). Other philosophers give accounts of blame and punishment that do not presuppose freedom, so they can reject (2). Still others analyze determinism and causation in ways that cast doubt on (1). One of these claims has to go. Conceptual analysis tries to help us decide which claim to give up.
The method of conceptual analysis might sometimes seem picky, but unclarity or imprecision in our concepts is often what leads us into paradoxes and incoherence in our world views. That is why the philosophical goal of a coherent overall world view makes philosophers adopt the method of conceptual analysis.
Philosophers use other methods as well. Many philosophers employ empirical discoveries in psychology, biology, and physics to illuminate traditional philosophical issues. (Can our moral beliefs be understood as a product of evolution?) Others use formal developments in logic and mathematics. (Does the incompleteness of arithmetic, proven by Gödel, show that computers cannot think in the way humans do?) Still others turn to literature and first-person narratives to express their ideas. (Is the position of oppressed groups best understood by listening to their own stories?) Since it is puzzling how the abstract world of numbers or the lived world of personal experience is related to the physical world of subatomic particles, the variety of methods used by philosophers reflects the issues that must be faced in formulating a coherent overall world view.
One feature is shared by almost all methods used by philosophers: Philosophers question authorities. Whereas legislators or judges have the authority to declare what the law is, and specific texts determine what is required by some religions, philosophers do not grant any special authority to anyone or anything. Every claim, no matter where it comes from, is subject to scrutiny. Even common sense is not taken for granted, which leads philosophers to put forward some very weird views.
In place of authorities, philosophers try to justify their views with arguments. Indeed, philosophers love arguments. One of the earliest examples of philosophy was an argument by Zeno, which runs like this: “The slow runner [a tortoise] will never be overtaken by the swiftest [Achilles], for it is necessary that the pursuer should first reach the point from which the pursued started, so that necessarily, the slower is always somewhat in advance.” If you think about it for a while, Zeno’s argument should be clear. What is not clear is how to respond. One popular reaction is, “That’s silly. Of course, Achilles can overtake a tortoise. It happens all the time.” Philosophers retort, “Everybody assumes that Achilles can overtake the tortoise, and it does appear that swift runners overtake slow runners, but how do you know what is really going on? And what is wrong with Zeno’s argument to the contrary? You cannot reject the argument just because you don’t like the conclusion.” In such debates, philosophers try to uncover our basic assumptions, evaluate our reasons (if any) for these assumptions, and speculate on what our world view would be like if we gave up those assumptions. This process can be liberating and fascinating, even when (or maybe because) it leads to results that seem hard to believe.
In seeking this goal through these methods, philosophers address a wide variety of problems, which can be classified into three main areas:
Metaphysics or the theory of existence addresses the questions of whether God exists, whether we have free will, how our minds are related to our bodies, what reality is, and so on. Epistemology or the theory of knowledge asks whether and how we can know or be justified in believing anything; and it also investigates particular areas or sources of (supposed) knowledge, such as perception, memory, and science. Ethics or moral philosophy studies which acts are morally right or wrong and which people or character traits are morally good or bad; then other values, such as beauty, are studied in other areas of value theory, such as aesthetics. Some of the most exciting philosophical issues (such as those raised by existentialists, phenomenologists, feminists, and philosophers of language) do not fit neatly under any of these traditional categories.
True philosophers will not rest until they combine theories about all of these various topics into a single coherent system of thought that is justified without appeal to authority. Because this ideal is so demanding, the process of doing philosophy can be frustrating, but it is also something that can fill and fulfill one’s entire life.