What Should Philosophy Do? (Part 3)

In the first two installments of this trilogy, our point of departure being John Horgan’s series on Scientific American, we offered a tentative response to the questions posed both by his title (“What Is Philosophy’s Point?”) and by ours. Before continuing, I am proud to note that the first installment on this humble blog was actually noticed (I am the seventh philosopher quoted). Even if what was quoted didn’t capture the full context of my discussion, any notice is better than no notice at all.

Earlier, we considered four aims for philosophy. (1) Philosophy aims to build grand systems of thought, attempting to account for everything, integrated into a single conceptual structure. (2) Philosophy aims at logical and linguistic clarification, because as Wittgenstein wisely said, “philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” (Philosophical Investigations). (3) Philosophy aims to describe the human condition, especially under conditions imposed by modernity. (4) Philosophy aims at large scale social change, or at least laying the groundwork for such, by drawing on diagnoses (e.g., those of someone such as Marx) and outlining goals (e.g., democracy and equality).

We also distinguished between system-builders and system-smashers, although the dichotomy is somewhat loose (as are most dichotomies, actually). System-builders include Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, the early Wittgenstein, and Whitehead. System-smashers include Thrasymachus and other Sophists (nemeses of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), Montaigne the pre-Cartesian skeptic, Hume when he looked at theology (not as much otherwise), Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the later Wittgenstein, and later, someone such as Paul Feyerabend.

The system-builders (who are not limited to philosophy, by the way) all had one strong psychological trait: a great deal of certainty about their stance. In some cases, this certainty manifested itself in their attempting to ground their system on propositions they believed could not be false, as their falsehood would involve something self-contradictory (e.g., Descartes denying that he could simultaneously not exist and be in a state of doubt; hence, “I am thinking; therefore I exist”) or unintelligible (e.g., the results, in Aristotle’s view, of doubting or setting aside the venerable principle of non-contradiction).

Yet there are dozens of things that can go wrong with such reasoning, either before it reaches such a point, and then afterwards — meaning that even if the certainty were justified, the philosophy goes nowhere, or at least, nowhere interesting or worthwhile. Maybe there are principles demanding of adherence as epistemically certain. But do such propositions have any content? Do they solve any actual problems for us?

Absolute certainty can be dangerous. As Horgan observes, if combined with political or institutional power, convictions of certainty can serve as a basis for theocracies, secular dictatorships, wars, campaigns of terror, or worse. They can lead to the suppression of alternative points of view, carried out with varying degrees of ruthlessness ranging from mere public ridicule and ostracism to house arrest (Galileo) to legal incarceration of or even the cold-blooded murder of dissidents. One thinks here of the Spanish Inquisition, but there have been many “inquisitions” throughout history including those with no link to religion, but still motivated by the absolute convictions of those ordering them and those carrying them out as on the “right side” of history.

Horgan’s grand finale thus provides his most concrete suggestion of a “point” to doing philosophy, and it is a good one — worth building into any proposal developed here or in the future. He calls his idea negative philosophy and offers this description: “Philosophy … is, or should be, primarily an instrument of doubt, which counters our terrible tendency toward certitude….  [P]hilosophers should … embrace their role as wrecking balls. Demolition is a noble calling, given all the harm caused by know-it-all-ness. And by harm I mean everything from over-prescription of antidepressants to genocide.

“Let’s call this critical pursuit ‘negative philosophy,’ The allusion to negative theology is deliberate. Just as negative theology exalts God by rejecting all descriptions of Him, so negative philosophy honors Truth by skewering all expressions of It.”

Socrates, continues Horgan, became the first practitioner of negative philosophy when he defined wisdom as knowing that one is not wise, and does not have knowledge. Socrates’s forays around his native Athens, buttonholing prominent citizens of the city whose actions were suggestive of wisdom, provided the basis for many a colorful Platonist dialogue in which Socrates shows them up as poseurs. Plato’s parable of the cave was intended to show how the majority of us humans are prisoners of mass delusions, some of them our own. The problem is, those who claim they’ve escaped from the cave have often just escaped into another delusion — and some of these delusions confer great power to those they possess. The great temptation is always to confuse reality with our beliefs about it, and then to stop questioning those beliefs.

For example, the delusions of what I’ve called third stage thinking (in Auguste Comte’s sense of the third of his Law of Three Stages, the “scientific and positive”). I’ll quote Horgan on this point: “Today, God is still kicking, but science is the dominant mode of knowledge, with good reason, because it has given us deep insights into and power over nature. Some scientists, intoxicated by success, claim that science is revealing the Truth about, well, everything.”

At this point, of course, science ceases to be science and becomes metaphysics — the very thing third stage thinking claimed to have jettisoned. So is its success real, i.e., universal, or is this just one more delusion?

We can’t ask the question in isolation, as there is no abstract entity, Science, existing unimbedded outside a variety of institutions (e.g., research universities) which merge seamlessly into others endeavors, some of them nonscientific, including technology, commerce, and government, the problem being that very little if any “pure” scientific research funds itself. Moreover, there are peoples who, prior to their first contact with the West, never so much as heard of any of these, and yet led contented lives, lives arguably happier than many of ours. The “scientific outlook,” that is, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for human happiness, and might even have interfered with it on a scale not really appreciated outside those schools of philosophical thought who focus on describing the human condition, and/or who claim to find, e.g., dehumanizing elements in modern technology and in the “technological society” (think, e.g., Jacques Ellul).

There is a negative role for philosophy, that is, in forcefully articulating skeptical questions for the worldview that circumscribes much of Western civilization today. This worldview is complex, and is probably not fully captured by terms such as materialism although that term surely describes its core features. Other aspects of this worldview are captured by phrases such as liberal democracy, market capitalism, the liberal international order, and so on.

If there’s a positive element here, it goes something like this: the fullness of reality is never captured or circumscribed by our concepts, our methods, or the vocabularies we use to express and communicate. Reality, however we characterize it, is bound to be vastly messier and more complex than our perceptions, conceptions, and images of it. It constantly surprises us. There is no reason to assume that it is static and unchanging. All too easily we fall into the trap of thinking that we’ve hit upon the Philosopher’s Stone — the One Right Way — and even if, as seems likely, some of our concepts and methods capture some of the truth of our proximate environment, we easily allow this to inflate our egos, as it were, and assume them to have captured all the truth for all of space and time (the Truth, cap-T).

Horgan quotes a colorful Feyerabend rejoinder to this mistake which simply cannot be passed over. Having observed, “Paul Feyerabend, when I interviewed him in 1992, ridiculed the idea that scientists can ‘figure out’ the world.” Feyerabend: “What they figured out … is one particular response to their actions, and this response gives this universe, and the result that is behind this is laughing! ‘Ha ha! They think they have found me out!”

This remark reveals a key difference between the system-building and also many analytic approaches to philosophy versus the system-smashing approach: the former tends to be locked into an essentialism going back to Plato, and to the idea that we can supply logically necessary and sufficient conditions for finding the Truth. The system-smasher almost instinctively rejects essentialism, seeing it as the source of many a self-deception and delusion chaining us in that Platonist cave. He/she believes that when all is said and done, we inhabit a world (reality) of particulars, that our primary focus both is and must be on specifics, and that there is an important sense in which all genuine knowledge, based on successful problem solving, the conditions for which change from circumstance to circumstance, is therefore local. Perhaps this rejection of essentialism and universalism is the one thing that will survive answers to the sometimes ill-advised criticisms of metaphysics that the past century or so of both analytic and Continental philosophy have supplied in various forms.

Negative philosophy both can and should draw on the methods of analysts in showing that not just philosophers but scientists, politicians, and activists of various stripes have fallen captive to specific ways of speaking. The problem is that these will embody unexamined assumptions and valuations about which they feel great certainty, but which will not stand up to criticism if criticism is allowed. (Examples: the multitude of fake phobias, I will call them, that have put in appearances over the past couple of decades.)

Negative philosophy thus has important services to perform in a polarized world where propaganda is literally everywhere, where soundbites are confused with insights, in which all manner of individuals are quick to claim that Truth is on their side, and in which the other side has fallen prey to “alternative facts.” It can help sort out the difference between claims that really have the backing of specific lines of evidence, and those which have nothing behind them besides propaganda backed with social sanction.

In this sense, even though I am unsure it should be philosophy’s primary method (as I have no trouble imagining circumstances in which doubt should be set aside, where we should trust and have faith), I have no trouble affirming negative philosophy as an important and useful method — crucial to the critical examination of worldviews as well as more specific claims that this or that policy or idea will solve this or that problem.


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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3 Responses to What Should Philosophy Do? (Part 3)

  1. John Horgan says:

    Steven, I have very much enjoyed–and am honored by–your series on my series. And I’m delighted of course that you like the idea of negative philosophy. I hope it catches on! Peace, John

  2. Steven Yates says:

    John Horgan: the honor is mine, to have someone of your stature (relative to mine, anyway) comment favorably on this obscure blog. I do think the idea you label negative philosophy could shake some people’s confidence in their certainty, a confidence more psychological than epistemological. The idea has a solid pedigree. Limiting ourselves to modern times, we can consult C.S. Peirce and John Dewey, although my preference is for Peirce.

  3. lecox says:

    I apologize that I have not read your last three articles more thoroughly, as the subject interests me. I have mentioned before that I am not familiar with the work of a single major modern or ancient philosopher, except perhaps for one read-through of the The Republic when I was a teenager. But I will not let this – um – handicap you might say – prevent me from posting a comment!
    In your topic you propose essentially that the subject, or the pursuers of this subject, take a look at itself or themselves. We then have something akin to a philosophy of philosophy. And I’m not sure this is really that necessary, or even what was intended. But if I were to take such an approach, I would start with what could be termed an historical study and ask: What have philosophers actually done, or accomplished? Obviously someone somewhere felt some need for what we today call “philosophy.” If that hadn’t been the case, the subject would never have existed. In other words, it provided societies, or elements in those societies, with something they needed – that was valuable to them.
    In my own limited world view, my answer is that a lot of philosophers spent a lot of their time providing the “movers and shakers” of the world with deeper meanings or justifications for the various things they did. That may seem a bit cynical but I don’t see it as that far off.
    But another approach to the whole problem of finding an answer to this question could start with a question many of us have asked ourselves and then somehow answered: What Should I Do?
    From that starting point, at least two important parameters must first be determined: 1) What do I want to achieve? and 2) How much pain and suffering am I willing to endure to achieve it?
    Now you see how questions like this relate to the personalities of the people involved, and the practicalities of life in their respective societies. Socrates paid the ultimate price. Are all philosophers willing to take it that far? Some might opt instead to work out an “airtight” philosophical system that supports the current regime’s policy of endless war. SHOULD Philosophy do things like that? That might be a question for the branch of the subject known as Ethics.
    Yet another approach would be: What does some segment of the population need that Philosophy is uniquely equipped to provide? You could go out and do marketing surveys and figure it all out. But I think if you are looking at the market of the “common man,” his most basic desire has been expressed over and over down through the ages. I think of a piece of music I learned to sing for a choir performance when I was a boy. I believe these were the only words: Dona novis pacem. What the average person most wants – and finds so hard to achieve – is a simple and peaceful life uninterrupted by the crass monstrosities of warfare and other forms of criminality and insanity. The philosopher who can solve that will be adored by the common people and hated my the world’s warmongers. May he or she prevail!

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