Friday, May 23, 2003

Bashing Philosophy

One of the least exciting things about being a philosophy student is hearing non-philosophers opine about how useless philosophy is. Many is the scientist, engineer, or housewife who with the patronizing air of someone who does real work, by gum avers that he or she doesn't have time to put up with nonsense. I don't answer these critics by earnestly but unconvincingly making the case for the usefulness of philosophy--one might as well just whistle in the wind. However, I don't have to answer these critics; their arguments simply fail to support the conclusion that philosophy is useless. Indeed, they tend to make certain common errors in making their case against philosophy. Let's look at some.

1. Philosophy is mere musing about the meaning of life.

The NRO Corner currently has a thread going on the usefulness of philosophy. What started the thread is John Derbyshire's admission that he is "anti-philosophical," to which his fellow Englishman Andrew Stuttaford replied:

John, as you would, I'm sure, agree, "anti-philosophical Englishman" is a fine example of tautology. All that musing about the purpose of existence is, as most Brits know, completely pointless (there is none) .... All you need is Mill for optimism, Hobbes for pessimism and Locke for commonsense and then you are done.
Later on Stuttaford writes:
It's when you get into the abstraction of 'pure' philosophy that matters become rather more onanistic or, quite frankly, deranged .... Contrary to what these 'philosophers' would have us believe, it's all very easy. Why are we here? Chance. Where will we end up? Dust.
The error here is that Stuttaford portrays philosophy as a kind of ersatz religion that wants to tell us about the "purpose of existence" and the ultimate origin and fate of humanity. Philosophy, however, is a much broader discipline, and meaning-of-life questions form a small subset of the discipline. Many philosophers don't care at all about such issues, and instead do their work in logic and epistemology.

2. It's all so easy.

Another error in the above is the "it's-all-so-easy" fallacy. The argument runs that everything is transparently easy and that philosophy makes things overly complex. The assumption here is that philosophers have a vested interest in believing that there are more things in heaven and earth than there really are and that these things are very, very complex. The problem is that philosophers run the gamut on the question of what exists and what does not and on the question of whether what exists is complex or simple. What philosophers do have a vested interest in is coming up with reasons for believing one philosophical position over another. Why is materialism true and dualism not? Or vice versa? Stuttaford no doubt accepts what he takes to be a common sense kind of empiricism, but that philosophy needs to be defended. The mere declaration of an Englishman will not do.

3. Philosophy in general is characterized by a particular philosophical view with which I disagree.

This error occurs in Steve Sailer's "The Unexpected Uselessness of Philosophy":

To this day, most philosophers suffer from Plato's disease: the assumption that reality fundamentally consists of abstract essences best described by words or geometry. (In truth, reality is largely a probabilistic affair best described by statistics.)
Sailer's argument runs like this:
  1. Most philosophers have a Platonic bent, believing that abstractions exist and that they can describe them with words or geometrical metaphors.
  2. Platonism is false.
  3. Therefore, philosophy is useless.
Premise (1) is simply false; philosophers suffer from all kinds of diseases, ranging from Platonism to materialism. Some outright deny that universals exist; some think that only universals exist. Others fall somewhere in between. Sailer's error is taking one philosophical position as the paradigm for philosophy in general.

Premise (2) might be true, and indeed most philosophers today are not Platonists. But why is it true? Has Sailer taken up Plato's arguments and found them to be wanting? If so, then he is doing the very philosophical work that he claims is useless and irrelevant. If not, then how does he know that Platonism is false?

Note also the "it's all so easy" fallacy. For Sailer, the nature of reality is so patently obvious that it only merits a parenthetical remark. I'm charmed by his devil-may-care insouciance about all things metaphysical, but as a philosopher, I think that his summary statement about reality needs to be unpacked. I suspect that he's making a twofold claim:

  1. Only swirling bits of matter exist.
  2. The motions of these swirling bits can only be described in statistical terms.
(1) is a particular philosophy, materialism, that needs to be defended. If he can defend it, then he's doing philosophical work. If he can't, then why assert it (if he does)? (2) might be true, but again: why? I hope that the pattern is clear now. People who make anti-philosophical arguments often hold an implicit philosophical point of view that they think is obviously true. Stuttaford, Derbyshire, and Sailer find British empiricism to their liking. All well and good. Now why is British empiricism so obviously true? Moreover, how do you reconcile Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Mill, among whom there are vast differences? Hume, for example, denied that induction could be justified rationally, whereas Mill took a much more positive view of induction. Hobbes was a legal positivist, Mill a libertarian of sorts. Even more to the point, isn't it contradictory for Stuttaford to be an anti-philosophical Englishman and then appeal to Hobbes, Locke, and Mill approvingly? They're philosophers.

4. Postmodern philosophers say dumb things.

Yes, they do. How does that show that philosophy in general is useless? Sailer cites Richard Rorty:

The philosopher Richard Rorty recently informed us in Atlantic Monthly that " 'The homosexual,' 'the Negro,' and 'the female' are best seen not as inevitable classifications of human beings but rather as inventions that have done more harm than good." Therefore, according to Rorty, many deconstructionists "go on to suggest that quarks and genes probably are [inventions] too."
This is a very controversial opinion, one that most philosophers would reject. It certainly does not exemplify what most philosophers think. Yet Sailer blithely continues:
You have to be as eminent a philosopher as Rorty to believe that the category of "the female" is a mere social convention.
Rorty is eminent, but the implied assumption that it takes an eminent philosopher to believe in silly things is absurd. Lots of non-philosophers think that gender is a social construct, and lots of philosophers balk at that notion. But Sailer wants us to see here a failure on the part of philosophers as a class. Why? Because:
Deconstructionism is the result of philosophers being shocked to learn that reality is not Platonic (e.g., races are no more sharply defined than are extended families) and thus deciding to give up believing in reality rather than in Platonism.
Let's take stock of Sailer's argument so far:
  1. Most philosophers have a Platonic bent, believing that abstractions exist and that they can describe them with words or geometrical metaphors.
  2. Platonism is false.
  3. When philosophers recognize that Platonism is false, they become deconstructionists.
  4. Deconstructionism is false.
  5. Therefore, philosophy is useless.
I've already critiqued premises (1) and (2), and I accept premise (4). Premise (3), however, is false by Sailer's own reckoning:
Fortunately, one school of philosophy has actually taught us some valuable lessons over the centuries: the anti-abstract British tradition of Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon and David Hume, with its emphasis on realism, common sense and the scientific method.
The British empiricists rejected Platonism, and they were not deconstructionists. So Sailer's argument fails. To make this clear, let's parse the argument one last time:
  1. Most philosophers have a Platonic bent, believing that abstractions exist and that they can describe them with words or geometrical metaphors.
  2. Platonism is false.
  3. When philosophers recognize that Platonism is false, they become deconstructionists.
  4. Deconstructionism is false.
  5. The British empiricists, being neither Platonists nor deconstructionists, taught us some valuable lessons.
  6. Therefore, philosophy is useless.
The obvious problem is with (5), because it bluntly contradicts (6) on Sailer's own grounds. Indeed, Sailer's article is a conceptual quagmire. There are all kinds of things going on in it:
  • He wants to take a broad swipe at philosophy in general.
  • He treats philosophy as a particular way of thinking about reality and not as a discipline that analyzes the cogency of a wide variety of positions (see error #3).
  • At the same time, he gives credit to one of the major schools of philosophy, empiricism.
  • With nary an argument, he treats his own philosophical position as obviously true.
The upshot is that Sailer is making undefended philosophical claims, while at the same time berating philosophy and yet finding certain philosophical schools to be compatible with those claims. This strange St. Vitus's Dance is very common among those who criticize philosophy. They often have a philosophical agenda while simultaneously de-valuing philosophy and simultaneously lauding a particular school of philosophy. The most charitable way to interpret this incoherence is that they haven't made the crucial distinction that I made above: philosophy is not a particular way of thinking about reality--it is not Platonism, deconstructionism, or empiricism--it is the discipline that analyzes the validity and soundness of a wide range of philosophical positions. Once this distinction is made, the notion that philosophy is useless is far less tenable.

To put it differently: most of us hold some philosophical point of view, and we can find some school of philosophy that is compatible with that view. We can also find philosophical enemies, those Evil Ones who belong to the Dark Side of the Force, who do not hold to our point of view. None of this has anything to do with the value of philosophy as a discipline. The sine qua non of philosophy is the rational analysis of arguments, and all but the most hardened misologist can see the value of that.

5. Philosophy is free of facts.

Sailer makes this claim vis-à-vis a philosopher who argues that women are intellectually inferior to men, contrary to the statistical evidence that men and women do not perform differently on IQ tests. Most of us would see this philosopher as an anomaly, but not Sailer:

While his reasoning is impressive, it is also in the Grand Tradition of Western Philosophy: namely, almost 100% fact-free.
Hang on: things are about to get really strange. The philosopher in question is David Stove, whom Sailer admires because Stove is an empiricist who takes this shot at Platonism:
Plato's discovery of 'universals' went as follows: 'It is possible for something to be a certain way and for something else to be the same way. So, there are universals!' (Tumultuous applause, which lasts 2,400 years.)
Let's take Stove's summary of Plato's argument at face value:
  1. It is possible for something to be a certain way and for something else to be the same way.
  2. Therefore, universals exist.
Sailer is delighted by Stove's shot at Plato, but note premise (1). It's a fact. It is possible for two or more things to be the same way. Two roses can be red. Two blocks can be cubes. And so on. Now you might think this is utterly trivial, jejune, pointless, and boringly obvious. But it is a fact. So if you disagree with the above argument, you do not do so on the grounds that (1) is not a fact; you do so on the grounds that it does not support (2). (Even better, you try to state Plato's arguments in their full and accurate form and even try to strengthen them if you can. Then you critique them. In short, you do a honest day's philosophical work.)

It turns out that philosophers make use of facts quite often. After all, Sailer recognizes the British empiricists as champions of "realism, common sense and the scientific method." Was their thought "almost 100% fact-free"? If not, then Sailer's swipe against the "Grand Tradition of Western Philosophy" is hollow. If so, then being fact-free can't be that bad.

6. Theoretical reasoning should be treated with suspicion.

Absolutely. But that's hardly justification for misology, i.e., the hatred of ideas, arguments, and theoretical discourse. C. S. Lewis said that good philosophy has to exist in order to drive out bad philosophy. The fact that postmodern theory exists is no argument for not engaging in theory at all. One may prefer British empiricism over Platonism, but that preference is not based on a split between the theoretical and the non-theoretical; it's based on the judgment that one theory is better than another.

Finally, I'll end with a retort to Sailer's rousing call to philosophers:

Philosophers of the world, get real! You have nothing to lose but your irrelevance.
Anti-philosophers of the world, get a clue! You have nothing to lose but your shallow ignorance.

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