What Should Philosophy Do? (Part 2)

Last week, we outlined four answers to this question, provided examples of each, and following a brief discussion of Comte’s Law of Three Stages and the rise of materialism as a philosophical dogma, brought our discussion to a tentative conclusion: philosophy should attempt to identify, clarify, and critically evaluate worldviews as it finds them in society. Whether it should construct new ones is a different question. This suggestion is surely as reasonable as anything presently available. Among the factors that prompted Horgan’s discussion (cf. links in Part 1) is the fact that while philosophy may be institutionalized in academia (although there are institutions where it is in peril) as a cultural force it is arguably on life support. The idea, repeated by John Horgan and dating to early positivism (Comte) that philosophy shouldn’t presume itself able to compete with science to find truth is, in great part, what led to its current low standing. For when you give up the idea that philosophy ever finds, or should seek, truth, what happens?

Horgen’s ensuing discussion (Part 2, “Maybe It’s a Martial Art”) begins by noting the passionate mental combat which animates philosophers: how they go after each other, sometimes not merely vigorously but almost viciously, to defend their views as “the right ones.” He cites some revealing examples, if from outside philosophical literature (academic journals) per se, in, e.g., the exchanges between John Searle and Daniel Dennett over the existence of consciousness in The New York Review of Books (NYRB). If he’d wanted to look at an exemplar in academic literature, he could have cited the comments which followed Searle’s original presentation of his Chinese Room thought experiment in his infamous article “Minds, Brains, and Programs” (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1980), later expanded into the short book Minds, Brains and Science (1984). Although Searle’s argument was aimed at “Strong AI” (the idea that a properly programmed computer really would have a mind in any reasonable sense of that term), many commenters took strong exception, in a few cases becoming surprisingly, shall we say, unfriendly. Horgan somehow missed the acrimonious exchanges between Searle and French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida over speech acts during the 1970s and later. The two, obviously, had vastly different methods for doing philosophy–so different, in fact, that each one questioned the legitimacy of the other. In the mid-1990s Searle described Derrida’s infamous “nothing exists outside texts” as “preposterous.” Finally, as a non-APA member Horgan was not in a position to see the fight over “gender feminism” that erupted near the end of the 1980s and continued on into the early 1990s, that fight’s ground zero being a paper by “first wave” equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers paper “Feminism Against the Family” which exposed the Marxist roots of “gender feminism” as well as its authoritarian tendencies, especially over women.

Someone arguing that philosophy is a form of mental combat, the intellectual equivalent of a martial art, thus has some material to work with. There are many exchanges in the philosophical literature, often as book discussions, that display such tendencies in much more modest forms. But this begs us to ask, What, in the larger scheme of things, is such mental combat good for? Its participants eventually walk away (sometimes in the above cases with a distinct sense of needing a bath) each thinking he/she is right and has “fought the good fight” or however else rationalized, but (1) such events, even at the modest level, tend to be atypical; and (2) even were they not atypical, why should anyone doing this be paid for doing it, or receive tenure because he or she has proved to be very skilled at it?

With a somewhat strained argument, Horgan compares the mental combat inherent in philosophy to martial arts, where top practitioners have higher aims than merely winning contests. In winning an honorably fought contest, they seek to become better humans. Becoming better humans suggests ethics. It can suggest other things including mere power-playing, but let’s concede this one. For whether philosophers should eschew truth claims in favor of ethical ones as a key to improving their own or their students’ or others’ conduct in life is surely a reasonable suggestion.

My response has three parts.

(1) Elsewhere I’ve surveyed modern ethical theories and why I believe they do not merely fail but fail miserably, assuming their aim is to provide reasoned guidance in determining what to do, how to solve genuine ethical dilemmas, how to evaluate actual human conduct. My context was a critique of the materialism that underwrites much of the philosophy of the past century and a half, via efforts to stay out of the way of science, although humanistic ethical theories–theories, that is, that begin with some aspect of our nature as human beings–had put in their appearance well before.

(2) It is one of the dogmas of philosophy within modernity that the factual and the ethical are logically decoupled and therefore in separate domains: Hume’s fork (“ought” cannot be derived from “is”). But one’s worldview surely involves commitments to specific claims about reality, about what the world is like, and what we are like, in ways that have implications for what is possible for us and therefore for what ethical system(s) we might adopt. A Christian will look to God’s commands. A “third stage” atheist, having made the metaphysical judgment that God does not exist, will look possibly to Mill or to Rawls or to the Non-Aggression Principle: humanism in one form or another. My point is, he will start somewhere, with something akin to a factual claim (that, e.g., as a matter of fact it is wrong to initiate physical coercion against others) and derive from it what constitutes morally acceptable conduct, Hume notwithstanding.

But (3) Where can we look for evidence of genuine progress in ethics that has impacted on the world of modernity–as opposed to a better understanding of how ethical language works (that we have that, I don’t think anyone will question)? Yes, we’ve abolished slavery. Or have we? We’ve abolished the chattel slavery of the Ante-Bellum South, but have we not reinvented it in other forms? There’s room for a conversation here! Yes, attitudes that were once acceptable, such as unabashed expressions of race-based hatred, no longer are. Oh, wait a minute. Are we sure about that? Just the other day, I encountered this. While not intending to suggest that such contentions are common, given that they happen at all, how much progress have we made?

The real world, however we define it, is full of horrendously cruel, inhumane practices, some of which we need not go outside Western civilization to see. The U.S. federal government supports a war machine that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East just since 2003, the year Bush the Younger began the disastrous Iraq War, most likely without consulting just war theory much less principles of non-aggression. The U.S. “justice” system incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other advanced nation, including for non-violent offenses. Arguably, the practice of solitary confinement is a form of torture, as we now know what prolonged isolation from human contact does to a person’s mind. We know physical tortures ranging from brutal beatings, so-called waterboarding, and sleep-deprivation, have occurred in CIA “black sites” in foreign countries, out of sight from prying eyes. Government is not the sole agency of organized cruelty. International sex traffickers have raked in billions of dollars. The practice does not just occur in foreign countries. Finally, the biggest money-maker on the Internet is–wait for it–pornography, in which men as well as women are physically degraded for money.

It is thus amazing how easy it is for philosophers–or other academics or intellectuals–to convince themselves that we’ve made moral progress! They should review the Milgram Experiment; or realize that as they read about an event such as the Holocaust, that Hitler himself never raised a hand against a single Jew. Nor did Josef Stalin kill anyone personally (that we know of). Nor did Mao. Such events would not have been possible absent the cooperation and collaboration of thousands of people in chains of command and obedience who would have rationalized their behavior by saying, “I was just following orders.”

All of which suggests an improvement to the suggestion for the aim of philosophy offered at the conclusion of Part 1, and at the outset above. In addition to whatever it has to say about worldviews and their influence, philosophers can surely provide a public service, and a service to humanity, if their subject can serve as a basis for criticizing authority and blind obedience to it–blindly following, en masse, the commands of supposed leaders, political or otherwise. What kinds of worldviews encourage or enable blind, thoughtless, unreflective obedience to authority? How are such worldviews maintained? How do they use language? I don’t claim that such queries are new. But obviously they are needed. We’ll pursue them, and how they fit with Horgan’s summation and call for “negative philosophy,” in our third and final installment (hopefully) early next week.


About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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