By | April 22, 2010

Recently I had an exchange of views on the issue of the function of philosophy with a couple of philosophical acquaintances, Spanos and Pablo. It went something like this:

Spanos started our exchange:

“My view is that the center of all philosophy is the question about “reality in itself”, past present and future. When Aristotle wrote,

“And indeed the question which was raised of old and is raised now, and is always the subject of doubt viz. what being is, is just the question, what is substance?”

he stated the very heart of all the different subjects he had been pursuing. He had seen that they all lead back to this central issue. In my view, that is as true for us today as it was for him then.”

My (Juan’s) response:

What is being? What is substance? What is “reality in itself”? Questions like these, you say, are at the center of all philosophy. The issues they raise, you seem to say, are the central issues of all philosophy. This is a very surprising view about the nature of philosophy, one which I don’t share.

Surely there aren’t any good reasons or evidence to support this claim about all the work in philosophy. Do you really want to say that these questions of traditional metaphysics are the central issues for any philosophy practiced by any philosopher? For example, they were not the central issue for a large group of 20th century analytical philosophers, like Russell, GE Moore, L. Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, and John Austin. They were not the central issue for pragmatists like William James and John Dewey, or the later pragmatists Sidney Hook and Richard Rorty. Such questions were not the central issue for existentialist philosophers like J.P. Sartre and Albert Camus, nor for their precursor, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nor were such questions the central issue for two philosophical writers, Walter Kaufmann and Eric Hoffer, for whom I have great respect; nor are such questions of any importance for one of the better philosophers in areas of evolutionary thought and philosophy of mind, Daniel Dennett. Do you claim that what these people practice is not really philosophy?

At best, your claim about the “central issue” of philosophy only applies to a certain brand of metaphysics, a brand of metaphysics which has some historical interest, but not much besides that.
Any philosopher who interests me limits his reference to reality as understood and apprehended by human beings; and he uses those tools which human culture has developed: natural science, mathematics, historical analysis, logic, linguistic analysis and such. You might say that this reality is only a human-based phenomenon, and not ‘reality in itself.’ But I have yet to hear much that is truly interesting or relevant to “real world issues and problems” by those who talk about something called ‘reality in itself.’

(I guess many people never learned one of the really important points brought out by Kant’s critical philosophy, that speculative metaphysics is not viable. I suppose people want to emphasize Kant’s mistake of leaving “the door open” for those who wish to ‘explore’ transcendental realms.)

Furthermore, the arguments which purport to show that we can never grasp reality are themselves suspect and nowhere close to cogent. (I have argued elsewhere that they all arise from the false assumption that Descartes gave Western philosophy: namely, that we need to justify all knowledge from a subjective perspective.) Of course, there are limits to our “cognitive powers” and we should pay attention to “the nature of our abilities.” But science and scientifically oriented philosophies admit this much. It is in such areas that the real work, “the heavy lifting”, is being done, as opposed to a few remaining traditional philosophers still searching for “sky hooks” that will pull them up into the land of ‘Being,’ ‘substance’ and ‘reality in itself’. In short, there is a lot of exciting and relevant work being done by scientists and informed philosophers; and this has absolutely nothing to do with traditionalists, metaphysical notions of the Being, Substance, or ‘reality in itself.’

Pablo steps in:

Though I agree with Juan’s suggestion that we limit what we can and cannot talk about meaningfully, he comes dangerously close to making the claim that if it isn’t scientifically meaningful, it simply isn’t meaningful at all. That’s close to the view of scientism which I can’t accept. I think much in the realm of philosophy is meaningful though, unfortunately, some is not. The problem is how to separate the two categories which is itself a philosophical issue. More importantly, there are human intellectual issues that simply cannot be resolved by science and I insist the only place left for their resolution is in clear, coherent philosophical argumentation using all of the philosophical tools at our disposal.

Scientists represent, in their equations, a simple ‘t‘ to represent time. They use ‘l‘ to represent length and ‘l-cubed‘ to represent space. But we all know there are volumes that have been written about space and time which are the result of different philosophical perspectives, not to mention other issues involved in the philosophy of science. So it seems to me clearly unfair to reject certain locutions in philosophy –as Juan has done — as being meaningless unless some kind of clear-cut demarcation can be instituted to do the job. I do make distinctions between what I claim entail meaningful philosophical discussions (I would exclude much of Existentialist writing as an example, especially Heidegger) but I would be hard-pressed to put forward a clear-cut algorithm to separate the wheat from the chaff, unfortunately.

So even granting that much has been done in philosophy without getting bogged down in metaphysical disputes, it doesn’t follow that what has been done is useful, or true, or the only way to go. I’m afraid metaphysics is here to stay (a while longer at any rate) and from its groin has come some very useful concepts and principles we can use in our everyday lives from practical ethics to political systems, to knowledge and on and on.

My response to Pablo:

No, I don’t claim that science establishes the limits of meaningful talk. I am not a Logical Positivist in that sense. After all, I have studied both sides of these issues, e.g., the young Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (which many logical positivists read as an attempt to set the limits of meaningful discourse, and which Wittgenstein denied) and the writings of the later Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations), who surely did not argue that science sets the limits of meaningful discourse. But if your philosophy purports to say something about the nature of reality or the nature of humanity, then it should at least take into account what the relevant sciences have to say; and it wouldn’t hurt if your philosophy at least imitated certain aspects of scientific inquiry, such as respect for facts, evidence, and peer evaluation. That’s the only sense in which I would argue that science is relevant to work in philosophy. But I am sure that I leave myself open to much rebuttal here.

My reply to Spanos was mostly limited to the questions regarding ‘being,’ ‘substance,’ and ‘reality-in-itself’ (throw in the mysterious “nothingness” too). We have discussed these issues for some time; and none of you have showed me that such notions have any clear application. This does not deny that historically such concepts have had good play and some of our great figures in philosophy might have used such concepts in interesting ways. I simply don’t see that they apply much to most of our contemporary issues.

However, with regard to claim that philosophy should model itself (in most respects) on the natural sciences (sometimes called “scientism”), the philosophers and writers that I admire (e.g., Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, John Dewey, Walter Kaufmann, Richard Rorty, Daniel Dennett, Friedrich Nietzsche, and various others) surely do not make that claim, and I don’t recall making it either (other than the in the restricted way stated above). Of course, you qualify your statement by asserting that I come close to the position of the early Logical Positivists: that only scientific-based statements are meaningful. This interpretation of my position is false.

There is plenty in philosophical literature which is not just analysis or elaboration of the work of science, and which is not modeled on science. What I stress is that philosophical discourse should at least strive for honesty, clarity and coherence, and that philosophers should not make obscurity a virtue, and should not offer vagueness and equivocation as profundity. I don’t have much patience for the pretentious type of speculative metaphysics which often parades as profound philosophy. Traditional metaphysics may have historical value, but when metaphysical writers indulge — past or present — see metaphysics as yielding a picture of ‘deep reality,’ philosophy suffers in the eyes of the contemporary intellectual world, in my view. But I accept the fact that others disagree and see much philosophical value in metaphysical speculation.  I simply do not.

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