The need for philosophy

I know I said I was taking a hiatus, but if you haven’t noticed, a few posts have been creeping up on the blog. I guess I’ve been looking for an outlet lately, and blogging provides an easy one. So while my clothes are in the wash, and I take a break from grading, I might as well post what’s on my mind.

I haven’t given much thought to the role of philosophy on this blog. I think my most extensive treatment was in this post, where I consider the paradox of “diseases of civilization” or here, where I reblog a cartoon about questions. But last week’s video from Oly at Philosophy Tube gave me pause.

Here’s the video:

I agree with Oly. If one wants to define philosophy as a critical enterprise, composed of rigorous thought, engaged discourse, and reasonable (generally logical) standards of judgement, philosophy has relevence. So does the philosophy of Seneca, Epicurus, and others that challenges assumptions and habits to live a happier, more meaningful life.

The only “philosophies” that may require skepticism are the “new age” assertions that often creep into philosophy sections at bookstores and the glib retorts that people may palaver while sipping a beer or answering a question on television.

I say these deserve skepticism because they generally do not police themselves. As Kant said, “I have set the bounds for reason to make room for faith.” Just so: we should see where reason ends and where faith begins. Faith, too, can be meaningful, but it is different from most “philosophy,” even the Eastern type, which has standards, self-criticism, and limitations.

I have little to add to Oly’s own thoughts–and little time to add anything–but I think two things are particularly important regarding even the most mundane and rudimentary philosophical thinking.

You are not necessarily entitled to your own opinion

Well, you may be, but you must recognize that your opinion doesn’t fit certain criteria, like logic or empirical observation. Critical discourse must have objective standards to be productive and accurate. By “objective standards” I mean standards that have an independence from individual thought, a set operation, and a set limit to their function. Moreover, these standards must have a time-tested consistency and tradition of success. For example, logic recognizes its limits, makes consistent conclusions, and has had ample success. Just look at science, mathematics, and computers. Without logic, these wouldn’t work.

Conversely, an unfounded opinion needs no objective authority. I can say something and call it a truth or a fact, but that’s only putting a word on it. What gives a a logical or scientific fact authority is the method behind it. Without a method, “fact” is just a word.

Moreover, every method has its limit, so science cannot answer the same questions that philosophy can. It can investigate DNA but cannot answer what actions may be ethical regarding that knowledge.

For example, many politicians say something and call it a fact, or imply that it is a fact, but have no objective, independent justification for it. Yet, people believe it. Here, I think of the rhetoric surrounding climate change, the early debates of the Affordable Care act, or the vaccine v. autism debate. We can have opinions, but someone who doubts climate change must acknowledge that he or she opposes 97% of the scientific community, which has a vigorous, time-tested method to ensure the validity of empirical facts.

You can see where other people may be coming from

This is what composition theorist Peter Elbow calls the “believing game”: you try to understand opposing view points, even if you don’t agree with them. For example, I believe in evolution, but I still take the time to listen to creationist arguments, whether it’s Paley’s “divine watchmaker” or the so-called gaps in the fossil record. I listen to these arguments. I see their charm and elements of truth, but I recognize that they do not convince me and respectfully decline them.

Moreover, I recognize that science has its own biases, just as Christianity does. I recognize, as most psychologists argue, that many of my reasoned arguments are rationalized answers to unconscious biases and therefore stand on shaky territory. Doing so helps me entertain the complex mingling of fact, opinion, and social construction that may influence a given debate.

I do not think we can ever fully free ourselves from a world of disagreement and plurality, nor do I want such a monochrome. But I do want a world where facts and opinions require justification and a self-conscious understanding of limits. Doing so, I hope, will make us more sensitive to the brittle framework that underscores our systems of knowledge, government, and economics and make us more malleable to change.

And this may be the key of philosophy: it forces us to keep asking questions. As Heidegger notes in Being and Time, the first step to many inquiries is learning to ask the question. Many of our assumptions or conclusions become so calcified and concealed that we forget their flaws or unanswered elements. They may not be up to date. They may not fit a given situation.

Philosophy, with its fixation on personal fallibility and demonstration, keeps us asking questions in a society that over-values answers and application. These questions create innovation and self-reflection, two things that never become obsolete. So if we can afford to study philosophy, we have good reason to.

3 thoughts on “The need for philosophy

  1. Good to see you’re still making an attempt to update the site. Best of luck with school!!! Please be sure to keep me updated with advancements in that regard. I was just accepted to four year college so I’m pretty psyched.

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