On the public misunderstanding of philosophy

Brian Leiter brings up the question of what to say when someone asks the misguided question “What’s your philosophy?”

Not that I’ve ever personally received this particular question (that I can recall), but I’ve come into contact with the same sort of fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of philosophy. I’ve received questions like “who’s your favorite philosopher?” as if personal views were somehow central to an enterprise that is actually entirely theoretical and, in a broad sense of the term, scientific. There’s nothing wrong with asking about favorite philosophers in itself of course, but people seem more inclined to pose these sort of questions to philosophers than to say, physicists. Imagine telling someone you are studying physics and being presented with questions like “what’s your personal physics?” (lets call this question 1 in order to be able to refer back to it in the following discussion) and “who’s your favorite physicist?” (question 2).

Question 1 is entirely misguided, there can be no such thing as a “personal physics” and likewise, there can be no such thing as a “personal philosophy”. Individual philosophers have their own favorite theories of course, but so do physicists. In both cases it’s a question of which theory seems to make the most sense of the available material. Things to take into consideration are logical implications of other theories and of experimental evidence. Good philosophy is impersonal, even though philosophers (being human) will sometimes (perhaps often) tend to stick to their pet theories even when other theories with better rational and empirical support are readily available. The same is true of physics or any other rational discipline (perfect rationality being nothing but a dream) and there’s no reason to look at philosophy differently in this regard.

Question 2 is perfectly fine, but there seems to be a suggestion in it that one’s philosophy should naturally be tied to individual philosophers and their sayings in a way that people don’t expect in physics or other disciplines.

Philosophy is hard to characterize, but in general terms, it’s an investigation into some kind of facts. Even if one is not of the view that there are objective answers to be found regarding philosophical questions (and I would strongly suggest that there are!), these facts can still be identified as facts about what kind of conclusions are entailed by other philosophical theories and experimental evidence from the sciences (in the more narrow sense of the term). The tools of philosophy are basically the tools of logic, making philosophy, not a way to form a “worldview” (whatever that would mean exactly), but a toolbox for investigating the kinds of questions that are not immediately testable in the more direct way that is possible in the sciences (again, in the narrow sense). I see no other way to make sense of either the current activity or the historical development of philosophy than to see it as continuous with science. Questions that could once only be dealt with by philosophers such as the ultimate nature of matter, the human mind and consciousness, or the cosmos, have been taken over, at least in large part, by science as the methods of science progress to the point of being able to address these question through experimental investigation.

Where does that leave philosophy then? Well, first of all, there are open question not yet under the purview of experimental testing. We should expect these to be taken over by science in the future and in the mean time, philosophy can help in trying to understand what the right questions are. Secondly, there are the more abstract questions of what is logically entailed by other philosophical theories and scientific findings. Questions such as “has quantum physics shown that the world is not entirely deterministic?”, “Do recent neuroscientific findings make the idea of free will untenable?”, and “given the vast success of the sciences, what does that tell us about the nature of the scientific method, how and why does it work?”.

There is significant overlap between scientific questions of, say, physics and philosophical questions of the same. Interpretations of the findings of quantum physics has been part of the scientific discussion of the results since the beginning of the field for example, but these questions, even when posed by physicists, are of a mixed nature: both scientific and philosophical. Likewise, philosophical investigations have to, in order to be credible, take scientific findings into account. Take the example of ethics. There are multiple philosophical theories about the nature of ethics, one of them being virtue ethics, which deals with ethical questions as being about virtues of character. One flavor of virtue ethics says that the rightness of actions can not be dealt with through a rigid framework through which one can determine which actions are “good” and which are “bad”. Rather, or so a virtue ethicist of this sort would say, a virtuous person will be such that he can determine in particular scenarios what action to take and that his virtuous nature will enable him to “do the right thing”. Experimental evidence, though, seems to suggest that what determines whether a person will help others in need or do any other thing we think is right, is much more a question of the particular circumstances of the situation and the state of mind of the person than it is a question of his virtuous nature. Another question, in the philosophy of logic, is whether there is “one true logic” or a multitude of logics (which are, perhaps, merely useful tools rather than a viewport into the logical structure of the world). Again, quantum physics enters the picture: there is a special quantum logic that seems, if not necessary, than at least more appropriate than so-called classical logic to describe quantum mechanical phenomena. Does this mean that there are, at least, two different logics describing the relationships of phenomena in the world, one for macroscopic phenomena (classical logic) and another for subatomic phenomena (quantum logic)? Science can not be said, at least currently, to determine the question, but it does have a bearing on it. Scientific findings have to be taken into consideration when its results seem to have logical implications for the philosophical questions.

This text, which started out as a very short commentary, has now turned into something a bit larger and I might have wandered off too far from the original topic, but I wanted to explain what philosophers actually do seeing as how philosophy seems to be much more fundamentally misunderstood than science.


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