29 January 2006

What do we get out of philosophy?

What do we get out of philosophy?

The utilitarian nature of this question excludes it from
being a philosophical question. But at least we get the
opportunity to subject philosophy to the test for
justification of existence. This test, as you know, simply
tries to find out if sometime has any benefit for us or
purpose in life. And if the answer is negative on both
counts then we can feel free to ditch whatever it is we are
testing. Should we ditch philosophy?

Unfortunately, philosophy, or rather the word philosophy,
suffers from a very serious application problem. The word
means different things to different people, which makes it
difficult for us to be precise about what it is we are
talking about. In fact, the word philosophy is used, misused
and completely abused by a lot of people. There are many
words like this; environment, love, and justice come
immediately to mind. So what philosophy are we talking about
in the first place?

We can start by having a look at the shelves of the average
bookshop under the heading Philosophy. We've all been there,
if it is a decent bookshop we might find books about
Aristotle, Russell, Marx then maybe something about
religion, self help psychology, mysticism and eastern
philosophy. And from some vendors on the internet we can
even find under philosophy, facial creams, shampoos and
laughing gas. This suggest that we have to start at the
beginning and establish the parameters of what philosophy we
are talking about.

This is not the place to do a leisurely tour of philosophy,
so we'll have to take some shortcuts, but before we do that,
who is the "we" in the question? This "We" could mean the
personal we, as individuals, and the plural we, as a society
or community. Does this mean, however, that philosophy gives
the same benefit to us as individuals and as a society?
Historically, philosophy, and I will use philosophy to mean
Western philosophy, tended to be an activity of a elite
group. What we take as Western philosophy has been developed
by people with military background, politicians, diplomats,
self employed, saints, lords and gentlemen, and more
recently academic philosophers.

This gives the impression that individuals who do not belong
to some inner circle have nothing to say about philosophy,
nor have any business in the activities of philosophy. The
fact that the average person in the past did not have access
to express their ideas to a mass audience did not help the
development of mass philosophy; sure sometimes they did take
to the streets as an alternative. Moreover, expressing ideas
in public was the least of the average person's problems in
the past. Throughout history the average person had problems
keeping body and soul together let alone keeping the mind
intellectually busy. Have things changed for the individual
today? Do we have more access to philosophy now as
individuals then the equivalent individual in the past?
Let's say yes for now and come back to this point later.

Philosophy's influence at the social or community level is
different. Philosophy at this level not only has changed the
path of history, but more importantly philosophy has
influenced the course of Western thinking, from science,
politics and art. As we know, philosophy actually gave birth
to many disciplines of what are vital sources of knowledge
for today's society. However, there seems to be a
discrepancy between the influence philosophy has on society
and the role it plays in society. Philosophy has been around
for quite a long time, certainly longer than certain
disciplines we can mention, so how come people in philosophy
are not rewarded with real authority in society? For
example, why aren't there international awards and prizes
for philosophy, like economics or peace? Why is it that
philosophers are not prominent members in parliaments, let
alone ministries or heads of state? Of course, in modern
times there were a number of philosophers in the House of
Lords, and probably quite a few others in other parliaments
in Europe. For our purposes, philosophers do not generally
hold positions of real authority in the state. Even if we
take into account the possibility that philosophers might
know better than to get involved in such activities.

We can now go back to the question, what philosophy are we
talking about? We can look at two main trends that have been
developed in western philosophy. We can look at philosophy
as a means to examine ideas in the context of our
experiences. For example, we can ask questions about life
and the meaning of life and then try to find answers for
these questions. We may take a position on a subject and
then find the ways to support that position. However, this
approach leaves a lot to the standing of the individual
writer in his or her community rather than to his or her
philosophical acumen. A good thinker can have convincing
arguments, but what matters is whether they also have a good
marketing manager.

This can lead to some incongruous situations. For example,
the fallacy from verecundian (argument from reverence or
respect) comes to mind. We accept an argument because it was
made by someone who is held in high esteem in our society.
Sometimes this person has no background or knowledge in the
matters they champion. For example, a film star can feel
obliged to tell us how to defend our country, although they
have no idea about international diplomacy. The problem is
not that he or she does not have the right to do express
their opinions, but that their opinion is not accepted on
the strength of sound argument, but by virtue of being a
famous film star. Another form of fallacy would be that from
authority. We accept an argument about a given subject just
because it is put forward by someone who was trained in that
subject. For example, we accept statements on bioethics just
because they are made by biologists or medical

We can adopt a different approach to philosophy. We can
focus on the meaning and methods of arguments rather than
who puts them forward or the emotional factor of the
subject. It is not so much that we are not interested in
questions about the meaning of life, but that we should busy
ourselves considering the meaning of questions and concepts.
For example, how does language convey meaning? And what
methods do we employ when analysing questions? We can
examine the scientific method or the different logics which
we employ to further our knowledge. The idea here is indeed
to provide some objectivity and impersonal influence on the
way we philosophise.

Of course, this rigorous examination of methods and meanings
of concepts or words might stop us from answering day to day
questions which concern most people. We might also be
restricting ourselves to what philosophy is supposed to be
all about. Furthermore, restricting ourselves by conforming
to some form of strict logic or scientific method might lead
to equally important anomalies. For example, not everything
needs to conform to the high standards of formal logic. A
lot of every day thinking and argumentation is based on
insight, foresight, intuition and experience which do not
always survive the rigours of logic or science. A doctor
might know from experience that patients with certain
problems ought to be prescribed a certain treatment.
However, his or her methods were never subjected to peer
reviews and empirical investigation, so his or her
procedures are not accepted as professional behaviour. There
is an element of Catch 22 here.

This sort of philosophical approach suggests that the way we
do things will not be changed unless we can show that an
alternative is better. But no alternative will be adopted
because no one dares to test alternatives; maybe because no
one will fund such experiments or no one want to risk their
reputation by putting forward alternatives. One of the many
results of this fallacy was the disaster of the frontal
assaults order by allied generals during the first world
war. Whilst the German defenders adopted effective
strategies for their machine gun units, the allied generals
still ordered ineffective and deadly assaults against those
positions. Although the numbers are debatable, one figure
has it 15 million dead during World War l; nine million
military and 7m civilians.

There is always an attraction in trying to answer questions
about the meaning of life. Look at it this way, we are a few
billion people living on this planet, each experiencing
various degrees of frustration and suffering. Sometimes we
have good moments, but after all is said and done, we end up
dead. Under these circumstances it is quite fair to ask,
what are we doing here, what is going on here? And given
that we are here, which is the best way to proceed? Some
seriously think that this is how we can use philosophy;
answering these questions is what we can get out of

I suspect, however, that this position is the result of a
misunderstanding. Using the methods of philosophy can give
us a sound argument. Sound arguments also have the
attraction of looking good. They also make us feel good, a
well argued position is itself a satisfaction; a good story
is always a good story. So feeling good about an argument
might be mistaken for an argument being good.

There is nothing more satisfying or a source of good feeling
than fighting evil. However, as we know, people have used
questionable justifications in the pursuit of this goal. For
example, the concept of justice constantly manipulated,
appeal to authorities whose existence has never proved and
of course there were no rules of evidence when accusing
innocent people as witches or infidels. Equally disturbing
is the use of philosophical arguments to solve the problem
of wealth distribution. Some have argued that it is
justifiable to appropriate existing wealth and then employ
some simple mathematical formula, such as x divided by y, to
make their argument look scientific. The attraction of using
a simple division for solving big problems is very
persuasive, but not necessarily effective, even with all the
best intentions in the world. On the other hand, a free for
all wealth grab, with a land grab as bonus, is not exactly a
neat solution either.

This suggests that what we get out of philosophy depends a
lot on what we try to get out of it. And more importantly,
how we try to get it. I would argue that the modus operandi
of philosophy should focus on asking questions. Questions
about meaning and reasoning are as important as practical
questions. Questioning arguments and assumptions is as
important as questioning the motives of people's actions. A
practical consequence of this approach is that we not only
examine alternatives to our arguments, but also considering
the consequences of our position.

Let us take an example in political philosophy. One of the
accepted duties of the state is the defence of the realm.
Maybe the terminology is a bit pass�, but we can live with
that. A modern argument on defence spending is that the
money we spend on arms should be spent on such laudable
activities as building hospitals or helping the poor. It is
very easy to find arguments to support this position, but
are we obliged to consider alternatives or maintaining the
status quo?

Once we start introducing alternatives or considering the
status quo then things become complex. But then again just
because things are complex it does not mean we should
abandon them. And this is one very serious thing we can get
out of philosophy, the ability to stay the course when
things become complex is something philosophy is good at.
With philosophy we train our minds (brain) to deal with
complex arguments and reality; the quick fix or the quick
gratification is not a strategy for philosophy.

Furthermore, philosophy helps stretch the boundaries of our
existing knowledge by the very process of questioning and
association of ideas. What once passed as philosophy became
physics, psychology, linguistics and so on. The field of
ethics has developed and evolved theories of justice,
government and, very slowly, religious thinking. Philosophy
is not only a source for new ideas, but also serendipity
sometimes. We can think of philosophy of set the theoretical
standards by which we conduct our affairs. We can either
take the world as it comes and then try to make the best of
things. Or we can take the world as it ought to be and
compare our performance to this standard. So, we may either
chose to buy the cheapest frying pan in the shops or to buy
the pan that is the product of ethical commerce.

Some people criticise philosophy because it is a discipline
that does not solve any problems. Civil engineering helps us
build roads and bridges, medicine cures our illnesses, even
advertising helps keep production lines in business. As I
tried to argue above, philosophy is a very ambiguous term
that can lead to many misunderstandings. Of course, applying
this sort utilitarian criteria to philosophy, is as
ridiculous as complaining that my laptop cannot cook my
Sunday joint. This criticism also relies on the confusion
between the word and the activity. Of course philosophy is
not a word, but an activity. And today there is a lot of
philosophy being done even if it is not called as such. Some
of the most exciting philosophy today is done in quantum
mechanics, consciousness, machine thinking, bioethics,
psychology and neurology, economic and political theories
and information theory, just to mention a few cases. We even
find philosophy as the motivation for some of the best
cinema block busters in recent times.

Going back to the personal level, one of the most valuable
things philosophy can give us is the ability to survive
criticism and failure. In the quest of clarifying arguments,
meanings and methods we come across arguments that are
sometimes better than ours and may even show how wrong we
can be. This tends to happen practically every time we do
philosophy; there is always someone else who has a better
argument than. This has the ability to make us
intellectually tough. Philosophy might not give us data and
information about the world, but it gives us the ability to
find out what we need to know for our projects. My personal
position on this is that if one is worried about one's self
esteem, then philosophy is clearly not the thing to do.

One of the major obstacles I identified earlier for doing
private philosophy in the past was the lack of opportunity
to make our ideas public. Fortunately, today, we do not need
to spend so much time trying to keep body and soul together.
Thanks to the microwave oven or for having ditched the soul
altogether, we have more time on our hands and more time to
think. Of course, today it is easier to join a university
course in philosophy or read about the things we are
interested in. And then they invented the internet. The
internet has changed what we think about, how we think about
things, what information we have available and most
important of all, how we communicate with each other. Today,
we have few excuses for not communicating with other people.
And if that is not enough, there are Sunday evenings to get
together to discuss philosophy with friends. It is a pity
that there are still people these days, in far away
countries, who believe that discussing philosophy is
subversive or the work of the devil. But then again,
philosophy does give us the luxury to be free; enjoy.

Take care


No comments: