Sunday, September 25, 2011

The problems of the problems of philosophy

Very often in philosophy getting clear on what the question is is one of the hardest parts of answering it. I set out to write something on the way I do philosophy, because the question of how we should approach it is one of the most difficult and bitterly fought of all philosophic debates. So, it should have been no surprise to find that I got stuck doing so. In the spirit of better blogging – making shorter posts more often – and in order to do these issues justice, I'm splitting the discussion into a sequence of posts. Here is the first one, on why philosophy problems are especially difficult.

Philosophy is a strange and often frustrating field of study. One of the more amusing examples of this is the observation that the quickest way to get two philosophers to disagree is to ask them what philosophy is. The podcast PhilosophyBites, where they have philosophers do short interviews introducing their research, has an episode where they play back all the answers they've received to the question 'what is philosophy?', and a surprising number of the responses are simply laughter. Faced with how large and far-ranging the scope of that question is, and how little traction you have to begin to answer it even after a lifetime as a professional philosopher, laughter is one of the few responses available. How could you begin to answer it?

A professional philsopher has a great deal of experience to fall back on, but that is exactly the problem – all of the experience of a career in philosophy points towards how difficult answering that question is. This is because there does not seem to be any stable position to build from, and the longer you are in the game, the more levels of uncertainty become apparent. To put it bluntly, everything is controversial. It is not clear what philosophy is about – traditionally, it's about the big, ultimate questions like 'what is the meaning of life?', but nobody seems to be able to say what those questions are about, or what would count as an answer. Also, it is not obvious how philosophy should be done – much of the most bitter fighting in the field is about that very question, and the most spectacular examples of where things have gone wrong is where a movement arises who tries to impose a certain method to philosophy, and then crashes and burns.

This drives many observers up the wall with frustration, and more than one person, after exposure to philosophic argument, concludes that the field is hopeless – a bunch of highly educated people spinning their wheels in the mud, going nowhere. If there is nothing which philosophers can agree on, after all of that talk, then it is easy to wonder what the point of the exercise is. Even if we take as read that all the issues above are not going to be solved soon, there are at least two answers to the worry that philosophy is pointless. The first two puts the issue into perspective, and the third is what I base my own approach on, and is the focus of this series of posts.

The first response, which is not to be underestimated, is that something we have learnt from philosophy, and learnt in spades, is what doesn't work. This doesn't seem like much comfort. We certainly aren't going to come to any interesting discoveries by a process of elimination, since we aren't choosing among a restricted set of options. But many approaches which we have discovered to be wrong have turned out to be mistaken for deep and far-reaching reasons. This is especially important since a large amount of classic philosophic problems are attempts to make sense of where it seems our common sense provides contradictory answers. Finding out which approaches lead to inconsistencies in one of these cases is a warning about the extent to which we can take commonsense answers for granted. Knowing what doesn't work might not help us to grasp the truth, perhaps, but it does allow us to avoid error. There are mistakes we can avoid simply by thinking about matters carefully enough, and we'd be doing something wrong to blunder on regardless.

This observation leads us to the second answer to the worry that, in the face of widespread disagreement, it isn't the case that each answer is as good as another. Not everything is up in the air all at once. Each approach might have its problems, but they are specific problems – they also have things which they handle well. Philosophy might not have provide all the answers, but it does give us a tremendously fine-grained understanding of the problems. This is the motivation behind something philosophers are apt to say – one of the most annoying utterances in a supremely annoying field- that 'this might be wrong, but not for that reason'. And, again, this gives us the tools to avoid errors we would otherwise be vulnerable to. This is something which becomes clear when we look at the failures of philosophic research programmes, when people propose a new way of doing philosophy, and why they have come undone. There were the successes of that programme which got people excited about them, or at least which motivated the attempt, and how many of them survived the failure of the programme is very instructive.

Finally, what I take to be the most important observation – but also the most controversial – is that philosophical issues are exactly the most difficult, uncertain ones. Philosophy is the 'too hard basket' for human knowledge. Normally, people aren't as fastiduous about how they try to answer questions as we are in philosophy. They pass the buck, as it were, on what the exact answer is to certain fundamental questions – what the limits of their methodology are, for instance, or whether certain fundamental assumptions are warranted. These issues which are passed on to someone else still need to be addressed. And philosophers are at the end of the chain – they will get stuck into the problems other people would rather avoid. But there is no quicker way to make grievious errors than to make commitments which turn out to be mistaken.

If I am right on this last point, then we should expect also that once an issue really does get settled, philosophers will stop being interested in them. And I believe this is the case. A lot of this can be explained psychologically – it takes a certain type of person to be attracted to philosophy, the type who is not afraid of getting into nitty-gritty which other people find difficult and boring, and correspondingly finds easier-going fare less interesting. That is undoubtedly true of many people in the field, though I hesitate to generalise too much. But I believe this goes deeper than that. If I am right about that, then we can say something substantive about how philosophy gets done.