On What Philosophy Can Do: Some Meta-Philosophy
What can philosophy do?
For Plato philosophy could help one eliminate tensions in the mind resulting in an inner harmony. Socrates’ life of challenging the experts and their definitions of ideals was related to this. Therefore, a long history of philosophy was looking at ideas and checking if they ‘corresponded’ to reality.
Kant came along and drew an imaginary line in the sand, because that is something philosophers definitely do, draw lines and draw distinctions. This results from the philosopher having to start on some type of solid ground. I mean the ‘solidity’ of the ground can be questioned but there ahs to be some foundation-even if that foundation is utter cynical skepticism about knowing anything.
However, in the 20th century philosophy started out with what I call a return to “elementary school” philosophy and this was namely the attempt to make a philosophy founded upon a Math or an English class. On one side were the logical positivists and those who wanted to have a solid logically based philosophy and so the logical and mathematical foundations became key. It is not surprise that many of these ‘philosophers’ were trained mathematicians, logicians, engineers, etc. and so the philosophy had a certain tone. On the other side were the ‘common language’ philosophers who cared much more about the grammar and the semantics and language being used to describe the world and philosophy was more about ‘how humans talk and write’. This is a gross oversimplification but more or less true.
This leads to my question: what can philosophy do? I will offer some multiple choices possible answers:
1. Philosophy can ‘judge’ science, religion and other phenomena with an objective view that is corrective.
Ex.1 When Peter Hacker says the neuro science is misguided because it has shaky theoretical foundations; he is saying that the philosopher ‘understands’ the overall system better then the neuroscientist.
Ex. 2 When Jerry Fodor says that the theory of natural selection is misguided because it has shaky foundations he is saying that the philosopher takes MORE TIME to think over the various theories that fit together to form the theory of natural selections AND might be able to pick out errors or false statements.
The objection to this in Quine is: let the scientists criticize themselves since a philosopher does not have the same training or knowledge about the topic at hand generally. I tend to agree with this. But I think there is philosophical merit in analyzing the logic of various arguments and theories, especially if there is reason to believe things are being taken for granted or based on questionable conclusions.
2. Philosophy is part of science (very broadly speaking of science, including history) and is helpful by connecting the common sense views with the highly technical views of reality.
Ex. When Daniel Dennett looks at evolutionary theory (Darwin’s dangerously simple idea/like a universal acid) and praises it, he tries to write a book making some of the ideas sensible and connected to a new “naturalist” understanding of the world, and this is philosophy.
The is part of the mid-twentieth century ‘naturalization’ of philosophy via Quine (who had been a teacher of Dennett at Harvard) and perhaps the limits of it are the dependent on the ability of the philosopher to understand the actual science being discussed. The issue for me (that was not an issue for Quine) is that while one is very skeptical about truth in any correspondence sense, the skepticism towards the science itself is overly charitable. By that I mean that Quine took behavioral psychology at face value, in the same way that Dennett takes the theory of natural selection at face value. To say that we need science to fix science seems to me to be a very long and boring road to drive, since science is linked to political and capital interests.
3. Philosophy is the social “horse fly”. This means that philosophy does not claim to have the answers, but claims to be “somewhat corrective”, in a contextual sense. Like a buzzing gadfly it circles an issue relentlessly and occasionally comes in for a bite. It irritates and suggests change rather then forces change, like how materialism vs. paternalism works in political discourse. Philosophy is more maternal. For example, the difference between MADD (Mothers against drunk driving) and the actual drunk driving laws. One is a social voice asking use to think publically about a topic. The other is the strong arm of the law –punishing use for our mistakes with violence and locks and guards.
In this sense the philosopher must be rather public (not necessarily associated with a particular cause) but attempts to clarify ‘a truth’ that will be helpful to some problems or shortcomings. It seems to me that this is the role of the philosopher today. In issues of religion, justice, science, history or whatever, philosophy is really the calm civilized voice that tries to clarify a topic without a further agenda, paying particular attention to subtle intersections of ideas and facts, without trying to tell that particular phenomena how to think or why they are by necessity wrong. The ‘bite’ of the horsefly is the article, or argument or particular challenge to a particular idea which acts like a sting to the common consensus and like the sting of a bee, can often have therapeutic results.
(Or death) J