Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Ambivalent Feelings Toward Philosophy

At one point in my life, I wanted to be a philosopher. There was nothing I enjoyed more than sitting down with a book of philosophy, read through it, turn its ideas over in my head, and develop, or redevelop, my own thoughts.I still love to do all of that, but have given up on the idea of being a philosopher. If I can be blunt, philosophy has become to me like stamp collecting is to its enthusiasts: something that pleases me immensely, but not something I see enough point in to see a career in it.

Unfortunately, I think philosophy began to lose its esteem for me in graduate school. I was a political science major, but I always gravitated towards philosophic areas: philosophy of jurisprudence, moral philosophy, philosophic attempts to justify a liberal state, etc. Reading books in sociology, political science, and politics could be interesting, none of them seemed to grapple with the truly interesting and challenging questions tdhat - as philosophy does - steps beyond the facts of the matter, and gets to the ideas behind them. Yes, political economists could weight capitalism versus socialism economically, but Isaiah Berlin, Robert Nozick, and Richard Rorty could grapple with the moral issues behind these two set-ups.

While I loved philosophy dearly, and cherished spending time with it after classes were over, I only realized much later that I was slowly becoming frustrated with it. I was coming to a realization - one I still keep to this day - that philosophy's inability to solve so many problems left me doubting that its banter was ever going to lead to anywhere concrete. Further, I started to question the entire enterprise's goal of coming up with logically cogent and consistent systems to explain x, y, and z as a valid enterprise; what reason was there to suppose that x, y, and z are reducible to a logically cogent and consistent system at all? (It is not obvious that the world "designed" itself to fit into a system, yet that was the necessary presupposition undergirding much philosophy.)

To make this latter point more concrete, one of the areas I began to question the validity of was my much beloved moral philosophy. The goal of the moral philosophers - defenders of categorical imperatives, utilitarianism, consequentialism, natural law, etc - was to develop a system that could, if properly used, help us reach the right decision in moral cases. The articles and books outlining and defending these thought-up systems would be followed by critiques aiming to show that the defended system is flawed because the results it would get in a certain situation do not accord with our intuitions of the good, and so on. ("X theory, if properly used, would lead to result y, which does not accord with our intuitions. Therefore, it is back to the drawing board."

As this went on indefinitely - new systems developed and refuted, which led to new systems... - I began to wonder why it never seemed to occur to anyone that perhaps moral intuitions are not reducible to a neat system. I relayed this concerns to some of my philosophy professors and friends with a typical reaction: a grudging admittance of its possibility followed by a quick change of subject back to moral system.

I became more and more dissatisfied with this situation. While I never stopped reading philosophy, I began to take it less seriously. (One of my professors had a specialty in the philosophy of science fiction, and I recall several discussions with him where he tried, in vain, to convince me why "possible worlds" speculating was not a waste o time.)

It was fortuitous, then, that at the exact time my doubt in the efficacy of philosophy for anything was at an apex, I came across an essay by Stanley Fish, called "Truth and Toilets." Fish is something of a "postmodernist" (though he never called himself that), who acquired a nasty reputation amongst philosophers for denying that "abstract principles" had any meaning that was not wholly non-subjective meaning, or had any real use outside of communicative shorthand. ("Justice" means "the stuff the utterer thinks are just," and no more.)

In "Truth and Toilets," Fish takes a very cynical view of philosophy, seeing it as rhetoric that has little import on the act of living life. One of my favorite quotes is:

When the dream of finding invariant meaning underwritten by God or the structure of rationality is exploded, what remains is not dust and ashes, but the plasticity of the world human beings continually make and remake.

In short, in the wake of formalism's failure - the failure of the search for neutral principles - everything remains as it was. (Fish, Stanley. The Trouble With Principle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2001 (294)

What I take Fish to be saying here is that there is nothing about life that stands or falls with philosophy. Whether we can find a cogent and consistent moral system is of no real consequence to morality as it is actually practiced in life. (None but philosophers stop and think about whether their moral acts are consistent with a particular system of morality.) Whether we can find a solution to the problem of free-will is absolutely immaterial to how we live (we will always live as if we have free will, even if "free will" does seem contradictory and queer to philosophers.) Under this view, philosophy may be interesting, intellectually stimulating, and even personally gratifying. But it is also impotent to affect much of anything (aside from the person who chooses to be engaged in it.)

This is the most sensical philosophy I have heard to date. My ambivalence about philosophy comes from the push and pull between seeing philosophy as largely useless to actual life, and still having a large passion and craving for it. I love the intellectual exercise of philosophy and find that my life is thinner without it. (I tried for about two years to wean myself from it, focusing on the day-to-day of career and leisure, but to no avail; I came back.)

This ambivalence is no trivial matter for me. While I love to read books, for instance, arguing a particular moral or political order on philosophic grounds, I simply have lost the ability to take seriously that philosophy is capable of doing anything outside of presenting fresh rhetoric for one person's opinion. I can no longer see the difference between the sunday morning "talking head" shows and political philosophy (they are both people giving their opinions, with the exception that the latter may use bigger language and contain more sustained rhetoric.) So while I suspect that I will always love philosophy, I also suspect that I will always hate it just a tad (because I wish so badly that, when reading it, I could say that I was doing something productive). My relationship with philosophy, then, is like the summer fling: you are attracted to her, but also resent the fact that the relationship could never really be a serious one.


  1. Wow, I can definitely relate! I started a post on my older blog with the phrase "I have a real love/hate relationship with philosophy". I've found, though, that there are a few extremely insightful philosophers amid a lot of pseudo-intellectual fakers that write to fill the bookshelves in the Philosophy section of the bookstore/library. Good philosophy can be very exciting and make you feel like it's okay to put off productivity for a few hours.

    There are two major problems I see in the field of philosophy. The first is a general sloppiness and a lack of consolidation. Everybody wants to start on a clean slate and ignore what's gone before them. That makes for a lot of redundant reading and a lot of translation between writers to even figure out how ideas are related. It also makes for a lot of worthless writing, where a few shoddy premises fuel mountains of unsound conclusions.

    The second problem is simply that philosophy is an extremely old and developed field. Many extremely clever and unintuitive ideas were proposed over 1000 years ago, when drilling holes in our skulls to relieve headaches still seemed like a pretty good idea. While that's inspiring in some ways, it means that a lot of the good ideas are already "taken", and maybe it will be hard to go much further with philosophy until the rest of science, the more "practical" fields, catch up.

  2. I will add one more problem with philosophy to the list:

    As mentioned, I am just not convinced that something like human ethics can be reduced to a cogent, coherent, neat system. Assuming evolution to be true, there is no good reason to suppose that the world is reducible to systems, as human thought - the desire to put it into systems - developed after the fact. As William James was fond of saying, systems are a man-made way of making a big world understandable, and like any generalizaiton, necessarily reductive.

    But, those philosophers who say such things are generally seen as very unphilosophical, as they do not satisfy the philosophical desire for systems.

    Like Stanley Fish says in the above quote, even if formalism does prove an impossible goal, there is no good reason to suppose, as do phlilosophers, that life does not go on the same as it always did. (In my more crass way of putting it, the world would not be any worse off if all the philosophy professors suddenly disappeared. Everyone would go on pretty much the same as they always have.)