Philosophy: To Love It or Hate It?
I love philosophy…and then I don’t. I hate philosophy…and then I want to read it. What’s up?!?
I first fell in love with philosophy while working in a Nashville bookstore. My first purchase was Camus’s Myth of Sysyphus. (I tried Heidgegger’s Being and Time when in high school, but didn’t understand a word.) I very much disagreed with Camus’s pessimistic assessment of life but was intrigued about the world of ideas I saw behind it. I read more and more. I loved it.
Then, while in graduate school, I specialized in political philosophy. I read the classics of Aristotle, Plato and Grotius, the works of Marx, Bastiat, and Locke and current works by those like Marcuse, Nozick, and Guttman. I also read outside of political philosophy in moral philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of jurisprudence, etc. The more I read, though, the less conviction I had that philosophy was capable of solving, instead of obfuscating, any problem it touched. I hated it.
To illustrate my turn around, let’s look at a problem in moral philosophy (which I still regard to be one of the most insoluble branches of philosophy, even if it is the most relevant to life). Moral philosophers are often busy looking for a system – an algorithm – that will explain how to make correct judgments of rigiht and wrong. But such systems, it seems to me, rest on a huge presupposition: that the morality of complex humans, who evolved our instincts and sentiments over millions of years, can be reduced to a system rather than, say, a hodge-podge of conflicting impulses. (Think of how many moral dilemmas, for instance, involve the complex pull of two impulses: selfishness and altruism. Both seem a natural part of us, and to assume that a non contradictory system of morality is possible assumes that these two are, somewhere, reconcilable. But what if they are not? Why do they have to be?)
And once you admit the possibility that a noncontradictory and theoretically clean system of ethics may not be possible, the jig is up. Once one entertains this real possibility, then it literally becomes quite hard to seriously read attempts to construct such a theory.
And that is one reason I fell out of love with philosophy.
Another is the idea that so much of what philosophy talks about seems to be quite unimportant to the act of living. How many people are affected by the debate over free will/determinism, for instance? Some philosophers say, “Lots,” but think about it; if all the philosophy books and articles about the subject were erased, and no philosophers ever philosophized on the subject from this day forth, how many people would really be affected? And the same with moral philosophy: if no moral philosophers existed, would people just be amoral? I don’t think so.
So why can’t I stop loving philosophy?
As much as I see philosophy’s capacity to be a simple armchair sport or parlor game, I cannot shake the bug. First, I love mulling over some of the really meaty and tough ideas of philosophy. Just because a question is tough and seemingly intractable, I remind myself, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be thought about. After all, the question of which style of government is best and whether human rights shold be univeral are both really hard and seemingly insoluble questions (in a ‘last word’ kind of way). But they are still quite important.
The British philospher Mary Midgleyonce described philosophy as a type of conceptual plumbing. Disciplines set up edifices, and when something goes awry, philosophers are good at coming in and examining the underlying concepts to see if any contradictions, hidden assumptions, or bad reasonings abound. Often disciplines are not good at doing this themselves because they are either too close to the situation to have an “outsiders” perspective or not trained to analyize concepts. Thus, philosophers as plumbers.
And this is, when all said and done, the way I see philosphy. In my own study of the philosophy of education (which my PhD will focus a lot on) questiosn like “What should education be for?” “What type of people do we want to come out of schooling?” and “What are the things we are indirectly teaching when x pedagogical theory is applied?” are questions for philosophers (lest we let politicians have at them).
And with this “philosopher as conceptual plumber” view, philosophy is both useful and not. It is useful in the sense that it can help clear the way for a problem to be rightly fixed. It is not useful in the sense that it generally does not solve problems itself, but prepares the way for others to solve problems. (Think of how other discipilnes – law, science, economics) started with philosophy and still get commented on by philosophy but are now their own discipines (that often don’t want any interaction with philosophy).
I guess in this way philosophy can be analogous to the middle school teacher: they teach kids but nevr get remembered or acknowledged for making subsequent learning possible. Poor philosophy: love it or hate it, you have to feel a tad bit sorry for it.
[This post also appears on Liberty and Reason.]