Saturday, 3 July 2010

What is a philosopher?

You would think that we could not define a philosopher before defining the subject itself. This I think, is mistaken, for one can be a philosopher about anything, thus I explain everything and nothing. Yet, paradoxically, many claim, not least philosophers themselves that they have no special subject - that they are parasitic upon others - science, history or law for example. Nonetheless, the kinds of questions that are asked, and answers that are provided - are very different to the answers and concerns of the parent subjects studied. Philosophers of science are not scientists (though many are), they are not engaging in science. So what do they do?

Therein lies the clue. Philosophy, I would assert is an activity, an attitude and a method of inquiry. It inquires into the thinking of thinking. So, where science studies objects (animals, chemicals, particles for instance) and seeks to understand how they work or what they do, Philosophers meanwhile think about how scientists think about such objects of inquiry and the assumptions implicit therein and the theories which follow from such inquiry. Subsequently philosophers attempt to determine the validity and soundness of such inquiries. To put it succinctly, philosophy is the questioning of assumptions - the assumptions that others -scientists, historians and theologians function by. Historically, or at least since Descartes, the goal of philosophy seemed to strive for indubitable foundations for the sciences and all knowledge. A perhaps more modern aim is to provide a coherent explanation and justification of our thinking and beliefs. They may suggest therefore, that philosophers are merely engaged in micro trivia, who simply fret about little problems that are of little concern to anyone. This of course overstates the issue -why therefore has philosophy been one of the oldest of intellectual subjects - if not the oldest. One that still grips all minds on some level and engages serious thinkers aswell.

Subsequently, others may take a more heroic view, arguing that while in many ways they do rely on other disciplines for input, philosophy does offer substantive truths, and that they do have a particular subject - truth or the overall nature of reality. Traditionally, philosophers were seen with asking three questions:

1. What is true?

2. What is good?

3. What is beauty?

The third question seems somewhat effete now, we could replace it with:

3. How do we know what is true and good?

This question (3) has more of an epistemological flavour to it. While the first two questions should be seeded to other subjects, philosophers should still rightly ask how do they know that, what justifies that. This sounds negative, an attitude that many associate with modern analytic philosophy -that its teaches people “only” to be “bullshit detectors”. Now, when we ask how do they know such and such or is such and such justified - what we are asking for is a rationally coherent answer. This is believe is the answer: philosophy seeks to know truth and the good by rational means, means that any rational or objective person would assent to.

This suggest two things: firstly, that philosophers do have a subject - rationality and applying rationality to other disciplines; secondly this would suggest that the fruits of philosophic investigation can affect the epistemic practice and ontological status of other subjects. While it is true, that philosophy does not provide us with ground level facts the way other subjects do, it nonetheless can potentially bracket them, systematise and harmonise them into a rational coherent order or indeed otherwise. Philosophy can draw a line through or place question marks beside the ontological claims of science, history and religion. Many thinkers of these subject at times have tended to react negatively at this conclusion, their superficial dismissal of the subject will not do: to dismiss philosophy by say scientific positivism or religious fideism is itself to make covert philosophic claims and are inherently self-defeating. While this is true, it does not of course extend to the specific metaphysical doctrines of say realism or idealism.

What does it all mean? This could be the perennial motto of philosophy. To take two examples one from the philosophy of science the second from the philosophy of religion. Much debate in the philosophy of science, focuses on how we should understand and interpret the scientific endeavour. On what terrain this dispute settles on will affect how we bracket the facts, theories and methods that comprise the sciences. An instrumentalist view, sees science as good for making predictions about things in the world, that it is an indispensable incubator of technology. Posits such as electrons, quarks or neutrinos are simply useful fictions to explain the phenomena. A cousin to this would be to take a constructivist view: the theories we have are empirically adequate, objectively arrived at but only supposing certain background criteria and assumptions which may have more to do with our cognitive capacitates endowed by evolution than with any “real” correspondence with reality. Another view, a kind of realism may state that our theories are indeed corrigible and contingent, but they are the best theories, that purport to describe real phenomena in the world. Furthermore, to state that our scientific theories are useful fictions or construction needs to be seen as a first order claim, and as such may not be a accurate account of the endeavour - which may in fact be incoherent. However we ought to think about this, it does not seem likely that we could science itself to answer such questions (though of course they play a role). The overall structure and coherent account of the endeavour and of the ontological status and epistemic practice of science will have to come from philosophers.

The second example is to consider a long running dispute in philosophy of religion. In essence it boils down to this: does the fact of evolution disprove or undermine a belief in god. Many religious people claim yes, as do many atheists. Some state no, and quite a few atheist say no either. A philosopher would explore the issue by examining the beliefs of the different parties, exploring the implications of these beliefs and highlighting the conflicts and contradictions of these beliefs when conjoined. However, there are different beliefs (some of which may be more central or important than others) that can be modified or rejected, all resulting in different conclusions - or different epistemic maps of the ontological terrain. This however, is not relativism, for these conclusions themselves are going to have be scrutinised and many may hold unwelcome implications and tensions that may force revision or abandonment. A Christian may accept evolution but only at the cost of making difficult revisions to their religious beliefs. Likewise a Christian may reject evolution, and a lot of science and rational thinking to boot, or may simply reject evolution but a coherent explanation for doing so but one that is so convoluted and implausible that signals to others an embarrassment. In such situations like this one a philosopher is like an economist telling us what capital we have, what is needed for basic running of our business. He then lays out the options for cutting (what beliefs demand revision or abandonment)and the attendant consequences that follow such "cutting and harmonizing".

So, as these examples show philosophy can affect, first order disciplines and beliefs but it does so at much higher level. It does so mainly in the application of rational thought. So I would contend that philosophy is largely a matter of method, technique and application of concepts and rules. In true philosophic spirit however, these tools and methods themselves are disputed and critiqued by more basic and fundamental concepts. This endeavour is called the philosophy of philosophy.

Philosophy to summarise does thus:

1. To criticize: ideas, theories and practices, conceptual confusions and logical mistakes. In particular there is a focus on three areas: logical consistency, evidential superiority and practical efficacy.

2. To clarify: redefine questions, pose new ones, reject old ones. Draw distinctions, suggest meaning and significance.

3. Coherence: to provide systematic coherence and explanation. To achieve consistency, coherence and rational order.

4. Collaborative To learn from and engage with scientists, historians, psychologists and sociologists and all other intellectuals.

One might, in fact, define philosophy as the rational systematization of our thoughts, on basic issues - of the “basic principles” of our understanding of the world and our place in it. We become involved in philosophy in our endeavour to make systemic sense of the extra philosophical “fact” - when we try to answer those big question by systematizing what we think we know about the world, pushing our “knowledge” to its ultimate conclusions and combining items usually kept in convenient separation. Philosophy polices our thought, as it were, as the agent for maintaining law and order in our cognitive endeavours.” - Nicholas Rescher

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