On the Dangers of Objecting to Philosophy


According to the Noble Nagarjuna, widely considered the greatest of Buddhist philosophers, there will usually be an ironic twist in the tail to objections against Buddhism’s philosophical doctrine, for on examination they will turn out to be an endorsement of it. In much the same way, as Francis Bradley has pointed out, and for closely connected reasons, there is likely to be something ironic about objections to philosophy.

Why would anyone object to philosophy? What would lead them to do this? It could only be because they cannot make any sense of it. All objectors must at least have this much in common. If they have not simply jumped to conclusions then they will have examined all the various theories promoted in the literature that they have read, or considered all the theories that they can construct in their minds, and seen that none of them work. On the basis of this philosophical analysis they have decided that philosophical analysis is useless.

But if philosophy is useless then a problem arises. It would follow immediately that Nagarjuna’s philosophy is false. This is because he uses a formal philosophical argument to prove that it is true. If philosophical proofs are useless then it cannot be true, and if it is not true then this proves that philosophical proofs are useless. Of course, if his philosophical doctrine is actually true then our objection to philosophy immediately falls apart. It follows that in order to argue that philosophy is useless we must argue that Buddhist doctrine is false. If it is true, then Nagarjuna’s argument for it as presented in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way becomes a proof that philosophy is method for proving what is true, or at least what is false, which in this case amounts to the same thing. He shows that all partial metaphysical theories are logically indefensible, and this is the result that we must falsify if we want to prove that philosophy is useless, and not, as Nagarjuna argues, a proof of Buddhist metaphysics.

An argument showing that philosophy does not produce a positive result is made at length by Francis Bradley in his metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality. He does not suggest that we all become logical positivists and abandon philosophy. He is trying to prove what is true. He presents the same logical argument as Nagarjuna, a series of reductio arguments against partial metaphysical theories, only in a more simple and discursive form. He uses the dialectic method to show that all partial metaphysical theories are logically indefensible, that metaphysics does not produce a positive result. And, of course, countless thousands of philosophers have proved this result since Nagarjuna’s time, and even since Bradley’s day. In philosophy it is actually quite difficult not to prove it. That it is so easy to prove this result is exactly the reason why so many people conclude that philosophy is useless. It is just that they interpret this result as the absence of a result, and so mistake an opportunity for a problem. Or this is how it would seem from the perspective of Bradley and Nagarjuna.

The irony here, then, would be that the logical indefensibility of positive metaphysical theories is, at one and the same time, both the reason why so many people argue that philosophy is useless and the proof that they are wrong. Which we see it as would be a matter of interpretation, and our choice of interpretation will depend entirely on our opinion of the plausibility of the philosophical scheme of Buddhism, more generally the perennial philosophy. Nagarjuna predicts the failure of positive metaphysical theories, and as long as philosophy is not useless then their failure constitutes evidence for his solution.

If we conclude that philosophy is useless on the specific grounds that it does not reach a positive result in respect of any question concerning the world as a whole and, rather, ends in a muddle of undecidable questions, then we need not read Nagarjuna or Bradley. We have already duplicated their calculations and result. Now we must somehow decide whether we have reached this result because philosophy is useless or because Buddhist doctrine is true. This particular objection to philosophy, that it does not produce a positive result, will be a vote for Buddhism unless we can prove that Nagarjuna’s philosophical claims are false. To do this this we would need to do a lot of philosophy regardless of how useful we think it is, and at least enough to become the first person ever to succeed in falsifying the Buddha’s teachings. We are free to believe what we like about these teachings, but we cannot use an assumption of their falsity as the basis for an objection against philosophy. We would have to actually falsify them. Otherwise our objection will be an endorsement.

We should note that what is said here in defence of philosophy would not depend on the truth of Buddhist doctrine. Its truth or falsity would not alter the situation. Until we have falsified it, then the stronger the objection we make to philosophy the better it will serve as an argument for Nagarjuna’s cosmological scheme, which provides the philosophical foundation for ‘Middle Way’ Buddhism.

There is another irony. In order to make use of this defence of philosophy we would have to concede the validity, or at least possible validity, of Nagarjuna’s and Bradley’s proof of a neutral metaphysical position. This concession is not possible for one entire school of philosophy since it rejects mysticism. It must therefore leave itself open to all sorts of objections. Many of these will come from Buddhist philosophers and their like, complaining about scholasticism and dualism, but mostly they will come from philosophers already firmly placed within this school, who will object to it on the grounds that they themselves cannot make any progress. These objections are never general to philosophy, however, but only to a particular school of thought, and the real challenge would be proving that Nagarjuna’s philosophy fails. Until we have done this our objections to philosophy will be local and concern only specific philosophical practices and views.

One immediate danger of objecting to philosophy, then, would be that unless we are very careful we will end up making an argument for it, and, not only that, but also for the plausibility of Buddhist doctrine and more generally the perennial philosophy. It seems highly implausible that someone who wishes to argue that philosophy is not worth studying could ever understand it well enough to navigate this minefield and make a worthwhile objection.

We can, of course, simply assume that Buddhist doctrine is false. This, however, is not a useful strategy, and its popularity may be the original cause of the entire debate about the value of philosophy. When we make this assumption we find that various serious objections against philosophy become quite easy to make and impossible to fend off. Unnecessary assumptions are the death of philosophy. It is precisely the value of philosophy that it allows us to identify and weed out our unjustified assumptions. Perhaps this may partly account for its unpopularity. Bradley characterises it as an ‘antidote for dogmatic superstition’, and this would be its principle benefit. Philosophy is bound to be useful to someone who wishes to rid themselves of dogma and prejudice, and bound to be of little use to anyone else. If we cannot even rid ourselves of the assumption that the philosophical foundation of Middle Way Buddhism is false, even if we cannot falsify it, perhaps even if we do not know it, then for us philosophy will be a useless activity. The task of philosophy as a decision making procedure is to prove the falsity of such theories or establish their unfalsifiability, as the case may be, and if we do not use it for this purpose then we cannot expect to find it useful.

So, what sort of objection can we make to philosophy without inadvertently endorsing Buddhist doctrine? There are none of any consequence. We can easily object to certain approaches to philosophy, but these objections will be philosophical and depend entirely on philosophy not being useless after all. They will be local debates internal to philosophy, and even if an objection of this kind works it will be no reflection on the value of philosophy as a whole. It is a lost cause. Any argument for the uselessness of philosophy will be an argument for its usefulness, and will usually do no more than reveal a poor understanding of it.

The one objection against philosophy that might work is the one made by the Buddha. This, however, is a very different kind of objection. If our concern is soteriological, if we are concerned with our own cure, as it were, and not just with reading the label on the medicine bottle, then philosophical speculation may not be of much help to us, and it might even become an obstruction. In this respect philosophy might be called useless, or at least a distraction. We will never build a tower of logic to Heaven. But this is clearly not a practical objection beyond the boundaries of mysticism. If we think that philosophy is useless then we will not believe in the Buddha’s soteriological teachings in the first place, since we must deny Nagarjuna’s logical proof of their veracity.

For these reasons and others the challenge for objectors to philosophy is considerable. To make an objection stick would require that we either falsify the results of philosophy or ignore them. To falsify them would require that philosophy is useful, so this must be ruled out as an option. In this case we must ignore them. This is a popular strategy, but not one that produces any troublesome objections to philosophy.

If we cannot object to the results of philosophy, and if we are to avoid resorting to simply assuming that they are faulty and judging the discipline useless on that spurious basis, then the only serious objection that remains open to us would be to say that philosophy does not reach a result. We must argue that there is no way to decide between all these many and various philosophical theories, since they are all as unsatisfactory as each other. Many people make this objection, even many philosophers, and it motivates a number of ‘isms’ such as naturalistic dualism, logical positivism, mysterianism and dialethism. It is a tempting objection to make. It is made, for instance, if you can believe this, in the preface to the latest Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics. (See my essay ‘Is Metaphysics a Waste of TIme’ for extracts).  If we attempt to make this objection, however, then we will immediately find ourselves reproducing the arguments of Nagarjuna and Bradley, enthusiastically demonstrating that this theory does not work, that theory does not work and so on, until eventually we have proved that no partial theory works, and in this way will finally prove beyond doubt that philosophy reaches a perfectly clear result and is very useful indeed.

The analysis here may not address all possible objections to philosophy, but it should show that it would be necessary to study philosophy in some depth before we could hope to make a case for not studying it. It may also show that most objections to philosophy will be naïve and amount to no more than evidence of incomprehension.

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4 Responses to On the Dangers of Objecting to Philosophy

  1. whitefrozen says:

    Why is a partial metaphysical theory indefensible? Is this a kind of play on Kant’s critique based on antinomies?

  2. guymax says:

    Well, not a play on Kant, but a recognition of his result. It is actually everybody’s result. It is simply a fact that positive, extreme or partial metaphysical theories are indefensible. Most, and perhaps even all objection to philosophy use this as their central criticism. It is the indefensibility of such theories that leads to all that nonsense about metaphysics having no decision-procedure that we were chuckling at the other day. In fact what motivates that sceptical view it is the fact that metaphysics has a very good decision-procedure It just doesn’t arrive at a conclusion that everybody likes, and the failure of mysticism to make itself clear in philosophy means that it is often not even understood that it is a conclusion.

    • whitefrozen says:

      Kant’s result was pretty much based on his thinking that his antinomies proved or showed that positive position could be had – am I right in thinking this is roughly your line of thought?

  3. guymax says:

    Kant’s antinomies showed, and are caused by, the fact that all selective metaphysical position come in pairs which are undecidable because both extreme solutions are logically indefensible. Kant therefore arrived at his idea that the ultimate must be ‘not an instance of a category’ (i.e. a unity). He saw that all other positions were untenable. Thus he arrives where Bradley and Nagarjuna arrive. Everyone arrives at the undecidability of metaphysical dilemmas, but not everyone sees that the solution would be to reduce or ‘sublate’ these dilemmas as proposed by these three philosophers, and more generally the perennial philosophy.

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