Friday, January 4, 2019

Does philosophy matter?

William James:

"The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one."
William James. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, together with four related essays selected from The Meaning of Truth. New York: Longmans, Green and Co. 23rd printing, 1959. Original copyright 1907. p. 50.

Daniel C. Dennett:

"Science does not answer all good questions. Neither does philosophy. But for that very reason the phenomena of consciousness...do not need to be protected from science--or from the sort of demystifying philosophical investigation we are embarking on. * * * Looking on the bright side, let us remind ourselves of what has happened in the wake of earlier demystifications. We find no diminution of wonder; on the contrary, we find deeper beauties and more dazzling visions of the complexity of the universe than the protects of mystery ever conceived. The "magic" of earlier visions was, for the most part, a cover-up for frank failures of imagination, a boring dodge enshrined in the concept of a deus ex machina."
Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1991. 22, 25.

Edwin Tenney Brewster:

"Common sense, science, and philosophy are, then, three different levels of insight into the nature of the universe. ... Thus far, on the whole, philosophy has been rather less successful than its partners. There remains, however, still a fourth method of acquiring information, which does not belong anywhere in the common-sense-science-philosophy series--the method of theology. Theology employs the same free speculation as the other three. It rejects its failures in the same fashion. But its test of truth is neither workability, nor the facts of nature, nor inner consistency, but conformity to some datum assumed as already fixed. This ultimate authority is, of course, widely diverse for different theologies. ... But always and everywhere the theological method of discovering truth assumes that some one or more persons know something important about the universe which the rest of mankind cannot possibly discover for themselves."
Edwin Tenney Brewster. The Understanding of Religion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1923. p 66.

Jonathan Lear:

"In the Sophoclean universe there are only two possibilities: either one relies rigidly on human reason or one submits to a divine realm. In neither position is there room for philosophy, that peculiarly thoughtful response to awe."
Jonathan Lear. Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. p. 51.

Jonathan Glover:

"There is room for philosophers who specialize in highly abstract questions and treat them as self-contained. But if this became the norm, there would be a loss. It would stop philosophy making difficulties for Belief. It would also stop philosophy making a difference to anyone's life. The voice of Socrates would trouble people no more."
Jonathan Glover. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, 2001 (originally 1999). p 377.

2 comments:

Arturo Serrano said...

Lear's comment is extremely confusing. How on Earth is relying on human reason not philosophy?

Tucker Lieberman said...

Short answer: In Lear's view, the urge to philosophize is born from softier, gooier humanities, e.g. wonder, humility, terror, why-the-heck-am-I-here, reasons-to-care, and maybe emotion more broadly, or perhaps ethics which depends on emotion. Philosophy isn't just about robotic computation to solve practical problems.

I read his book six years ago, but the passage you're asking about can be viewed in Google Books, so I was able to retrieve the context.

In this passage, Lear examines some lessons from the literary tragedy of Oedipus. He says on page 52 that "There is always the possibility that our 'tests' [of 'what is reasonable and unreasonable'] are as distorted as the views we are trying to test. Of course, this does not mean that anything goes, that one test is as good or as bad as another; nor does it mean that there are no practical steps we can take to test our thoughts and emotions. But it does mean we have to give up the illusion of an absolutely independent perspective from which to check how well our reasoning is going — and this should encourage a certain humility."

(Aside: This passage is similar to the argument of a short book I read much more recently: In Praise of Reason by Michael P. Lynch. The main question of that book is: What reason do we have for appealing to reason? Phrased that way, it's clear there cannot be one. However, Lynch maintains that reasons are nevertheless meaningful. According to his model, we should use a belief system that doesn't contradict itself and that appeals to external facts, even though there's no "reason" to engage in this kind of reason.)

Anyhow, going back to Lear, and backing up to page 51, he says: "It has sometimes been claimed that Oedipus is the first philosopher: because of his determination to find out the truth, because of his reliance on human reason in his pursuit, and because he abjures mysticism and obscurantism. But this misses the point. Philosophy, Aristotle says, begins in wonder, or awe. If so, Oedipus cannot get started: he is too busy figuring things out to have any such experience. ... Philosophy becomes impossible because the originating act of wonder is too terrible. What takes its place is ersatz: a thin 'pragmatism' which purports to offer a solution to any problem." Some problems, Lear suggests, cannot be solved in a practical way. (Existential problems, perhaps, are an example.) Philosophy isn't meant to attempt practical solutions to those sorts of problems. It is, instead, meant to get at those problems from another angle.

In my 2012 review of Lear's book, I discussed another chapter in which he criticized the notion that there's a clear divide between the unconscious and conscious mind and that these different mental parts have different standards about what's rational/irrational. He brought this up when discussing "weakness of will," i.e. the question of why we sometimes do things we believe to be wrong, which is one possible example of so-called irrational behavior.