Some Thoughts on Doing Philosophy

I have been thinking some more about the idea that philosophy can be divided into two activities, where one would be understanding, formulating and solving problems, and the other would be trying to understand the solutions, and where the former would be a quite formal process with measurable outcomes, for we either succeed or we fail, and where the latter might be likened to the Glass Bead Game.

For success at philosophy, it seems to me, we must be rather arrogant. We must believe that we are capable of succeeding where countless others have failed. We need not believe that we are extremely clever. This might actually be a mistake. Rather, we would need to believe that it would be possible for us to simplify the problems of philosophy to the point where we ourselves can see them clearly and simply, and thus solve them, despite the fact that we are not extremely clever, and probably not even as clever as we think we are.

By ‘philosophy’ I do not mean the acquisition of wisdom or any deep understanding of the world. The term is used here in a more restricted or perhaps ‘Western’ sense, as the use of logic and reason to identify solutions for philosophical problems at the level of first principles. To believe that it would be possible for us to succeed at philosophy, therefore, given sufficient arrogance, is to believe that it would at least be possible to solve all philosophical problems in logic.  For this we would not need to believe that it would be easy or even possible for us to understand the solution. We would only need to believe that the world is ‘logical’, such that these problems do have a solution.

The difference between these two beliefs is important. We can understand a theory very well, even become a world-class expert on it, while having little understanding of what the theory supposedly describes. Quantum theory would be an obvious example. Physics is full of such ‘well-understood’ theories. To succeed at philosophy, in the restricted sense that success is meant here, would be to arrive by logical analysis at a theoretical solution for philosophical problems, one that works so well that we ourselves are unable to see what it is wrong with it, consider it a correct solution, and therefore judge ourselves to have succeeded at philosophy. This would not require that we have yet achieved a good understanding of the wider implications of our theory, or even found a comprehensible interpretation. We would only need to see that it works, that it has no discernable faults, that it has genuine explanatory reach, that it is useful, that there is no better theory and so forth, using the same criteria as we would for any other theory.

On this view there would be two areas of activity for philosophy. There would be the process of working out what is true and false according to our reason. This would be largely a matter of mathematics and geometry, the application of dialectic logic to philosophical problems. Then there would be the process of trying to understand what the results of our logical analysis would imply for the world. A philosopher, like a physicist, cannot expect too much from a theoretical solution. A physicist would consider the problem of gravity to be solved if there is a theory that allows its effects to be accurately predicted. Everything else would be interpretation. There would be no requirement that we understand gravity in order for the theory to be judged successful. Discovering a successful philosophical theory is a realistic ambition, therefore, even if it may seem rather arrogant to suppose we could succeed. Even if we do succeed, we will have done no more than identified what it is we need to understand.

Physics gives us no understanding of what things are since it is not ontology or meditation, or of how we know things, since it is not epistemology or meditation. We need not understand such things for physics. To succeed at physics we would only need to be able to predict how things behave under certain conditions and prove that they behave as predicted. In the same way, if we have a philosophical theory that predicts the results of logic and experience for all of its ramifications, and takes full account of them, then we must consider it to be successful. We would not need to fully understand the world described by the theory in order to show that that the theory would fit the data and work in logic, and thus that it is successful. The interpretation of the theory would be a further task, possibly an endless one, and one we cannot even begin until we have identified a theory that would work and that would therefore be worth the effort of trying to understand.

If we do not make this distinction between, on the one hand, the mechanical task of philosophical decision-making that allows us to decide which is the best theory, and, on the other, the indescribable and mysterious cognitive process required for reaching a understanding of a theory, then we are likely to spend most of our time trying to understand theories that are wrong, that are impossible to understand for this very reason, and that will distort our understanding of the world rather than contribute to it.

Newton tried to understand gravity, but what chance did he have while he was trying to understand an incorrect theory? He was trying to understand his theory of gravity, not gravity itself, and it was derived from inadequate data. For a reasonable understanding of a feature of the world we must first ensure that we have a theory that is correct, within the limits of its area of description, for only then would it become worthwhile trying to understand the world with the help of it.

How often do we see people trying to make sense of Materialism, Freewill, ex nihilo Creation, the Holy Trinity and so forth, and failing, and then blaming philosophy for being too complicated to understand and impossible to win? Is it philosophy that they are trying to understand? Or is it some philosophical theory? What if the theory is incorrect? How likely is that an incorrect theory will ever make sense to us? How likely is it that we can understand the world by studying an incorrect philosophical theory? How likely is it that the study of an incorrect theory will lead us to a correct understanding of the world?

The claim that it is possible to succeed at philosophy may still seem implausible. The arrogance required may be difficult to foster when so many have failed before us. If we look at the history of philosophical thought in the West we see that it has been rooted to the spot for thousands of years. Its problems never change, yet today’s professional academics are on average just as confused by them as were the early Greeks, possibly even more so. How, then, can it be possible to solve them? Step one, it seems to me, it to be arrogant enough to think that it is worth trying.

At the same time, humility would also be an important attribute. We must be aware that it easy to make mistakes, so that we will remain ever alert to them. Also, it may take a little humility, or something like humility, to be able to honestly distinguish between our opinions about what is true, what we hope is true, what we take on faith to be true, what we have always believed to be true, what other people say is true, what some book or other says is true, what our peer group usually assumes is true, and what we know is true beyond any possibility of doubt. The task would require that we doubt ourselves with complete humility wherever possible. We are not an ideal reasoner, after all, and our beliefs are not necessarily facts. In philosophy we are looking for exactly one theory, the correct one, and the chances of it turning out to be the one that we like most when we begin our investigation, and that would fit best with our existing beliefs, is approximately nil. We must be able to abandon all our conjectural views and preconceptions and admit our ignorance. Humility, the recognition that we are studying philosophy because we do not already know the answers, may make this shedding of baggage easier to do and more likely to be done thoroughly.

And then, we must have some arrogance to trust our reason. Not many people do this in philosophy. One would think that entire point of the discursive philosophy of the West is to place our trust in our reason, but this is a misperception. It is the method of this philosophy to use logic and reason to solve logical problems, but this method says nothing about whether we should trust our results. On the whole academic philosophers do not trust their results. Thus we see many of them promoting the idea that their craft should be a purely rational, coldly intellectual and more or less scientific endeavour, while happily endorsing views that contradict logic and reason, and that have nothing to do with science. This is a hopeless strategy. We must be sufficiently arrogant to trust our reason, certainly, even if we must humbly concede a capacity for lapses and mistakes, but not so arrogant that we feel able to reject logic and reason for our own opinions.

It is remarkable that so few philosophers trust their reason. There is almost an epidemic of mistrust. Indeed, the whole of ‘western’ philosophy could be seen as a rejection of trust in logic and reason. One result of metaphysical analysis is that all selective conclusions about the world as whole are undecidable, or equivalently, that all selective metaphysical theories are logically indefensible. This is well known. In the discursive philosophy of the western academic tradition do we trust our reason when faced with this result? No. We do not understand it, and so what we normally do is reject metaphysics. We reach a result, but we do not trust our reason enough to believe that it is a correct result. So we judge ourselves a failure and conclude that it is not possible to succeed at philosophy. A little more arrogance might allow us to take a more confident view and assume that our reason and our methods of reasoning are to be trusted and are up to the task, while a little more humility might allow us to concede that where we do not understand the result of our reasoning processes this would not invalidate the result, and may indicate no more than a failure of understanding.

This may seem pretty obvious. Yet one sees a surprising number of philosophers and scientists rejecting metaphysics simply because they do not understand its results. They do not seem to have the humility required to concede that this might indicate a personal problem rather than a problem with metaphysics. I do not think this is a useful kind of arrogance.

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