Thursday, 19 January 2012

Why Philosophy is Still Vital

As a student of philosophy I'm definitely no stranger to the sentiment that philosophy is useless. Even some philosophers themselves take it as a sort of publically accessible in-joke. Like so many things in common parlance you think it must have some credibility, but again you know that general views so often turn out to be wrong, sometimes with unpleasant consequences. Is philosophy sold short by this idea?

A lot of the time philosophy is seen as a commendable, interesting, but ultimately futile endeavour. Callicles, an interlocutor in Plato's Gorgias, asserts that philosophy is for young men and that it ought to be put aside as maturity beckons one become adept in the political skills required in adulthood. In more modern times, as Stephen Hawking sees it, philosophy has been replaced by the natural sciences. Man has come out of the age of superstitions and philosophy, now we can intervene in the world and see how it is for ourselves... directly.

The classic image is the philosopher in their armchair, coming out with archaic sounding nonesense and getting most of it wrong. And the worst bit is, even if one of them got it right, how would they know? Where's their proof? They tried to use their logic as an absolute standard and look what happened there. Presumably this is the reason why, suffering from government cuts, some UK universities have begun to threaten their philosophy departments, some of them even being disbanded entirely. Things just don't look good for we humble philosophers.

So why do we bother? Arguably some of the most intelligent people who have ever lived persist with philosophy even in a post-scientific age. Immanuel Kant, who once said that Copernicus' astronomical findings made him redundant, still didn't put all his books in a box and go back to selling marijuana. But don't forget philosophy also boasts the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, etc. - what would keep genius of this calibre involved in all of this fluffy BS? I'm quite sure I'll be accused of begging the question here. "It is precisely because of their active involvement in and approval of all this "fluffy BS" that they were not geniuses but imbeciles, charlatans, or con-men!"

I quite like philosophy, incase you couldn't tell from some of the stuff I posted on here, and so I was going to tell you why it is that I persist with it, having got to the crossroads at the end of oblivion and asked myself why it is I bother at all. So why do I? Firstly because I realise the critical importance of asking philosophical questions. More importantly, I also realise how little attention anyone pays to philosophy these days, which means there is a growing need for people to get involved with it so that they can keep it moving forward and ensure it doesn't eventually disappear....

But what would be wrong if philosophy did vanish? And what even makes philosophical questions important? In a sense this is two ways of asking the same question, and so I will only provide one answer. My answer is that boasting of direct access to the phenomena, or speaking of "mind over matter", or of responsibility, or a self, as a part of any practice without at least having some idea of whether these are actually contentious philosophical claims is as ignorant as neglecting to consider General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics in matters of physics. Such philosophical assumptions are made by a huge (perhaps total) number of social institutions, including law, education, and of course the sciences themselves - but this is not to say that they have partook in the business of philosophy.

In my view, any practioner whether scientific, educational, or legal should seek to understand not only how to to carry out their practice but should also critically engage with things about their practice, questions about scientific, legal, or educational institutions and their foundations. It's important to pay attention to what is happening across the boundaries of the various disciplines, and the sciences are no less obliged to pay attention to philosophy as philosophers are to pay attention to science. Thinking of the foundation of a practice reveals it as a part of the whole phenomenon of human existence, the place where it makes sense (is grounded) in terms of some human concern.* Understanding existence, of course, is precisely the place where philosophical thinking emerges.**

Antonio Damasio writes in the postscript to "Descartes' Error" of the Cartesian assumptions built into Western medicine. The conceptual separation of mind and body, redundant in philosophy for a long time, permeates their treatment of the body alone without proper consideration of the "mind" as an important operation of that body. He sees the effect of such conceptual misdemeanor manifest in the relative ignorance of physiological consequences of psychological difficulties, and of psychological consequences of physiological diseases.

The fact that our language reflects this dualism makes it seem the obvious ontological picture, even to the point where other ontological pictures might seem unthinkable. That we speak of something's being psychological or something's being physiological certainly seems to at least suggest the existence of two different domains, as Descartes imagined, a mind substance and a matter substance. However, as John Searle helpfully suggests, these refer to nothing but perspectives on the same single phenomenon. "Physiological" refers to what is revealed when considered from a third-person perspective (by observing it), and "psychological" refers to what is revealed when it's apprehended in a first-person perspective (by living it).

We needn't get too embroiled in a discussion of Cartesian dualism (they're numerous, and in my view, more or less decisively weighted against dualism) because our purpose here is to demonstrate why philosophy is still vital. The point I wanted to bring to your attention is that an issue which has been strongly contested in philosophy and even in the other sciences still prevails in some places as obviously true, without any suggestion that its ontological basis may be unsound, indeed often without any idea that there is even a problem. And the prevalence of faith in the Cartesian view is still huge outside of philosophy. But whether or not Cartesianism is the correct way of looking at things does not matter, for the sake of my point here, what matters is that the ontological assumptions behind medicine are not settled yet nevertheless affect how the science goes about its practice. And how could a science go about its practice without an ontological view of what it's investigating and how what it's doing makes sense?

Another time where a scientific project spent a lot of money not realising it rested on a philosophically unsound ontology was the Artificial Intelligence project in the late 1960's-1970's. Researchers around this era failed to take Hubert Dreyfus' critique of its computational understanding (again sourced in Plato, Descartes, Leibniz) seriously, a critique which was inspired by the anti-Cartesian works of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty (his predicted failure of information processing models was in the end vindicated following dual snags the "frame problem" and the "commonsense knowledge problem"). However, as they say in science, a falsified experiment is still valuable to furthering scientific knowledge. "Good old fashioned AI" helped us learn a lot about how human beings understand things, and arguably for the first time put philosophical ideas into an empirical scientific setting where both endeavours worked alongside one another profitably. In the end, of course, Dreyfus and others began influencing the scientific research itself with the creation of so-called "Heideggerian AI" and embodiment research inspired by Merleau-Ponty. And the research itself still returns with the potential of sharpening, validating, or falsifying philosophical ideas upon which it rests.

Wouldn't it be worthwhile if we did those sorts of projects more?

* I shouldn't need to mention, of course, that the notion of worldhood I operate in freely here is my debt to Martin Heidegger, who pointed the way.

** I of course can't defend all of philosophy. Some of it seems a bit daft if we're honest. Sorites Paradox? Can't say I dwell on that one too much when I'm trying to find my keys.

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