A quick response to to polymath Chris DeLeon’s thoughtful post exhorting the virtues of Philosophy.

A position of ignorance

Right off the bat I should qualify all this by saying that I don’t know anything about Philosophy. I’ve never studied it. It seems at times to be an alien mismatch to the sensibilities of my left-brained mind, and worse, one that claims to be about logic and reasoning, topics that ostensibly should be right up my alley. I read Bertrand Russel’s History of Western Philosophy last year, and although that was a fabulous, educational romp through the field, my complaints about it still stand. Now I’m reading a second book, Think : A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy by Simon Blackburn.

The Process

The process of thinking about things is a valuable and worthwhile endeavour. Some people enjoy it, some people don’t. Amongst those who enjoy it, it becomes an end unto itself, and thought and discussions typically stray towards the more abstract, the more meta, the more foundational. Anyone who has gleefully participated in a pub discussion about religion, death, reality, consciousness, government, or any of a million other topics has participated in this process. It is joyful, sometimes enlightening, entertaining, and refines the individual’s ability to meaningfully reason on all kinds of topics, from the abstract to the prosaic. In this sense, and especially from the perspective of the individual’s active participation in the activity, I’m all in favour of philosophy. Presumably this is why I have been drawn back to read this second book.

The Content

If anything, I have had more objections to Think than I had to Russel’s book. At first, I thought that my issue was simply that the discussed historical philosophers produced curiously shoddy work. Their premises seem shaky. Their arguments full of holes at best. Their conclusions entirely suspect. While there are some genuinely insightful ideas and arguments, they are often mutually contradictory, and the signal to noise is terrible.

Chris points out the importance of reading a decent translation of the original sources to gain enough insight to benefit from the arguments, and in this I defer to his experience. There certainly are some historical philosophers who seem to make a lot more sense to me than the others. I had not expected to have to pick and choose based so much upon my own personal preferences, so in some way my frustration here is perhaps indicative of an expectation mismatch.

As for Think, as I continue to read, it has slowly dawned on me that perhaps this impression is actually because the author himself is an appalling philosopher (sorry Simon!) Every few pages he makes what seems to me like a terrible logical blunder. If this were correct, that would presumably make his interpretation of historical philosophers equally suspect, and perhaps this is why they so often seem simply ludicrous to me.

I realise it is arrogant and bonkers for me to assume I can outclass the author, a man apparently of considerable knowledge and experience, at his own game. But this is how it seems to me, so what am I to make of that?

It seems to me that there are only three possibilities:

  1. Professor Blackburn’s thinking is entirely defective. I am sure this cannot be the case. He is a professor of his subject, his book, while quite understandably not comparable to Russel, has garnered great reviews on Amazon and in the press, for whatever that’s worth. As a layman I shall accord him the deference that is entirely his due.
  2. My own thinking is entirely defective. This is, of course, entirely possible, however distasteful it may be to me. How would I know? In defence of my sanity, I note that I seem to get by, more or less, in everyday life. Or at least, I don’t seem to be any more confounded by the state of the world than the people around me.
  3. Perhaps, then, the problem lies not solely with myself, but is shared by us all. Perhaps human reasoning as expressed in the English language is generally not sufficiently precise, well-defined or powerful to support consistent philosophical arguments of the type that are being put forward. More generally, we aren’t remotely as good at thinking as we think we are. Pretty much I’m saying that (1) and (2) are both true, but that both the professor and I can derive some comfort from the idea that the same applies to pretty much everybody else.

The Method

There is, of course, a method for dealing with the unreliability of our thoughts and perceptions - the scientific method, in its many forms and manifestations. I have friends who claim that the scientific method came out of philosophy, and while I have some reservations about the truth of this in the day-to-day reality of individual practitioners, of course in an abstract sense I can see that this lineage is real.

Application of the scientific method would be the normal way out of the morass of imprecise thoughts that, to date, characterise the majority of philosophy for me. Some aspects of ancient philosophy have proven tractable in this regard. These are the subjects that have subsequently calved off from philosophy to form whole new fields and sciences.

Of course, this has the curious effect of diluting the perceived value of philosophy. As soon as the application of the scientific method lets thinkers actually gain any traction and start to make real progress on their topic, we immediately snip that subject off from the realm of philosophy and give it a different name. Astronomy and cosmology, biology and psychology, chemistry, physics, and many more. Philosophy proper, then, consists of the left over bits - the topics upon which the scientific method has not proven applicable, and hence upon which no meaningful progress can be made.

Chris, and discussion with friends, has helped me see that in this dismissal, I was overlooking the value of philosophy as an incubator for other fields. This is of course critical to the development of human civilisation, and of interest to historians of the respective fields.

What it isn’t

What I’m left with is the impression that my minor experiences of philosophy would have been much improved if my expectations had been very different at the outset.

My layman’s impression of philosophy from the outside was that it claimed to be the study of tremendously insightful reasoning done by some of the most powerful minds in history. This expectation was naturally bound to lead me to be disappointed when my initial foray led me to discover that many philosophers, particularly ancient ones, distorted as they are by translation and interpretation, cultural mismatch, and lack of my modern knowledge of the world, appear to my sensibilities to be pretty poor. I hope to improve on this situation by taking on board Chris’ advice about choosing particular philosophers who resonate for me personally, together with the idea of studying particular translations of original works, rather than quick summaries.

In addition, I had an expectation that all this intense thought might lead to some more definitive and objective conclusions. However ancient philosophers acted without the benefit of the scientific method, and modern philosophy is pruned of topics to which the scientific method is applicable. As a result, there is much bad mixed in with the good. Even the good parts cannot be trusted as a guide to any sorts of truth, since choosing ‘the good parts’ seems to be a subjective process.

This seems inevitable, since without the benefit of the scientific method, there is no utility function to be used as feedback, by which ideas could be judged and one school of thought meaningfully compared against another. There can be no definitive winners or losers, and without competition, ideas cannot improve by evolution. Instead, each contributor adds their own voice to the mutually contradictory babble, and it is left to the reader to sift through for the parts of value.

The lack of an objective means to prune the discussion of its less worthy branches mean that many philosophers are deified, their writings sacrosanct and studied for generations, even in cases where they were clearly absolutely wrong. (Plato’s thoughts about the shapes of atoms, for example.) I accept that study of historical and ancient philosophers is valid for the perspective it gives on the process of philosophy, and as a study of the history of philosophy itself. However, I am appalled that so much of their actual, specific writings are studied and discussed in so much detail, in the same way I would be mortified by the prospect of scholars spending centuries reviewing the specifics of what me and my friends said in our philosophical discussions in the pub. There may be some value in there, but I came to this expecting a précis of the best minds in the world, not a mishmash of sometimes incoherent ideas.

The Upshot

I’ve done a lot of bitching, but don’t take it as a wholesale rejection. In addition to the things I complain about, there are also a bunch of really great, stimulating ideas. I just didn’t expect to have to do so much searching and interpretation to find them. Rather, interpret the above as the painful transitions in my understanding of what philosophy is, which parts of it are likely to be of value to me, and what I should expect from it. Thanks to Chris for his significant contributions towards my continuing education on this.