Why Study Philosophy? – A Not Stupid Answer

Hangers-on at the edge of academic philosophy often challenge the lack of respect for their purported discipline in a way that undermines both the respect they want to encourage and the employment prospects that they presumably hope to enhance. Here however is something much better(though I suppose some metaphysicists might not be so keen on it).

Metaphysics is an illusion that besets philosophers and philosophically-minded scientists from generation to generation, which it is the task of good philosophy to dispel. But although periodic fumigation is recurrently necessary for intellectual health, what else is there for philosophy to do? What can it achieve? In the sense in which the sciences have a subject matter, it seems, philosophy has none. In the sense in which the sciences construct theories that are confirmed or infirmed by experiment or observation, there are obviously no theories in philosophy. In the sense in which the sciences make discoveries about the world around us, philosophy clearly does not. So what is its task?

We must challenge the thought that philosophy aims to contribute to human knowledge of the world. Its task is to resolve philosophical problems. The characteristic feature of philosophical problems is their non-empirical, a priori character: no scientific experiment can settle the question of whether the mind is the brain, what the meaning of a word is, whether human beings are responsible for their deeds (i.e. have free will), whether trees falling on uninhabited desert islands make any noise, what makes necessary truths necessary. All these, and many hundreds more, are conceptual questions. They are not questions about concepts (philosophy is not a science of concepts). But they are questions that are to be answered, resolved or dissolved by careful scrutiny of the concepts involved.

Here “scrutiny of the concepts” is intended a bit more strongly than just “clarification of the language” but does not stray into the territory of claiming to establish what concepts really do mean as if that were something more than just what we are meaning when we think of them.

But I do have some quibbles.

For one thing I would have preferred to see some mention of the value of just addressing questions without necessarily expecting to ever fully “resolve” them (either by answer or dissolution).

And concerning the philosophy of science he says

At a more specialised level, philosophy is a technique for examining the results of specific sciences for their conceptual coherence, and for examining the explanatory methods of the different sciences – natural, social and human. The sciences are no more immune to conceptual confusion than is any other branch of human thought. Scientists themselves are for the most part ill-equipped to deal with conceptual confusions.

Though I might balk at the “any” in the second to last sentence (since there are some branches of “human thought” which are so conceptually confused as to be embarrassing to anyone associated with them), my only real concern is with the last, where “for the most part” is, I suspect, an extrapolation from a very biased exposure to actual scientists (in particular dominated by those who are keen on talking to people outside their own discipline). It is not so much the apparent insult to scientists that concerns me though, but rather the presumption by omission that philosophers are better-equipped.

Indeed, the claimed uniqueness of philosophy occurs more explicitly elsewhere as well.

At a very general level, it is a unique technique for tackling conceptual questions that occur to most thinking people

Actually it includes a collection of techniques and strategies that can be called “unique” only if you define philosophy to comprise all thought about “conceptual” questions regardless of whether it has occurred in the mind of someone publicly identified as a “philosopher”. Which is fine, but perhaps changes the interpretation of “study Philosophy” from what was intended.

Hacker’s last three paragraphs are great and point to the real practical utility of training in the subject – which is more to provide facilitators who may help us understand one another than to send arbitrators to tell us who is right.

But in the end, isn’t the best reason for doing anything just “because we enjoy it”?

via Institute of Art and Ideas:IAI TV.

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