Saturday, February 02, 2013

What is Philosophy?

As well as doing the MOOC on e-learning and online cultures, I'm doing the Intro to Philosophy MOOC. I did first year philosophy at Monash University many years ago and have reads bits and pieces since then, and have so far enjoyed this MOOC.

What is Philosophy?

The lecture gave a few definitions that are worth comparing and contrasting.

‘The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.’ (Wilfrid Sellars)

This definition is pretty broad and pretty vague. What do we mean by things when that normally refers to objects? And what is hang together? Logical order, causal nature?

‘Philosophy is an activity that uses reasoning and rigorous argument to promote human flourishing’ (Martha Nussbaum, quoting Epicurus)

I like this definition because it is teleological - i.e. it tells us what philosophy is for - to promote human flourishing. This is certainly a worthy goal, but it leaves unanswered what this might leook like. It seems to me too that the means are not enough to reach the ends. While reasoning is a good thing and rigorous arguments mean we can be on a solid foundation (assuming our starting assumptions are correct), humans do not flourish on reason and argument alone. What of love? Feelings? Emotions? These things do not come from argument alone and are essential to human flourishing. It seems this definition would favour logic and the Western tradition, but what of narrative philosophy for example (see for example The Philosopher's Dog by Raimond Gaita).

The lecturer adds this definition 'The activity of working out the right way of thinking about things'. Philosophy is something you do, and a process of working out how to think about things. It is a method in this definition, not so much about the answers reached. This leads onto:

'Often the worst thing to do with what looks like a real philosophical question is to answer it. It can get in the way of fuller understanding of what the problem really is and where it comes from.’ (Barry Stroud)

We need to take care not to arrive at the destination too quickly. I still think we need answers, but how quickly we get to them also matters. Few things important enough to discuss philosophically have easy answers! However, the Rorty quote below almost seems too preoccupied with the question. Still, do we ask the right sorts of questions? I suspect the obsession with the nature of questioning is what can give philosophers a bad name. It's certainly a discipline for pedants.

‘The one sort of question that can never get a definite answer is a question that asks about itself. It is precisely reflection on the adequacy of questions, rather than answers, that has determined the history of philosophy.’ (Richard Rorty)

Iris makes the interesting point however (and I won't repeat the entire quote here) that the progress of philosophy of building theories but always coming back to the beginning, the nature of the questions being asked. Part of this is according to Rorty is that no question can 'guarantee its own permanent relevance.' That said, I think that there are a number of questions (perhaps not always well defined) that have lasting relevance like 'what is the meaning of life?' or 'does God exist?' or 'what does it mean to be human?' or 'what is love?'. Some things don't go away and some things never change! These are all important questions, and the goal of philosophy should be as Isaiah Berlin pointed out to 'to assist [people] to understand themselves and thus operate in the open and not wildly, in the dark.'

So the questioning of philosophy has to be about asking the right questions about things that are important to us, to help us to flourish as human beings. We need to ask the right questions and to think deeply about them. This is not simply because we want or need fine arguments, but because we have big visions about what life should be like, and our questioning leads from this visioning forward into the world. Putnam says

'Philosophy needs vision and argument… there is something disappointing about a philosophical work that contains arguments, however good, which are not inspired by some genuine vision, and something disappointing about a philosophical work that contains a vision, however inspiring, which is unsupported by arguments…'

As a theist, part of this vision is a world made new by God through the defeat of evil by Jesus on the cross. Questions I ask include, if it is true that God exists and evil exists, how has he acted to defeat evil? How do I live in light of this victory in a world where evil still apparently still exists. Note how my vision comes out of some assumptions about evil and not others. Our world views guide us this way. Because the bible has more to say about what God has done about evil rather than its origins, my vision of human flourishing focuses on how this plays out. Still, this doesn't mean the problem of evil is irrelevant to me, just not as primary as it might be for others.

No comments: