Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What's Philosophy For, Anywho?

One of my students in my Being and Knowledge seminar (basic Metaphysics and Epistemology course) posted a thread on the course forum (I use electronic forums for many classes to supplement in class discussion). I thought the questions he raised in the thread were valid ones, and also very typical ones that both philosophy and non-philosophy students ask frequently about our courses. Although many issues come up, the overriding question is straightforward: "what's philosophy for, anyway?" or "when is philosophy useful?" I am reprinting the student's post below the fold (with his permission). I'd be very interested (he would too) to hear replies from any of the students and teachers who read this blog.

I want to preface this with the statement that I'm really excited to take this class and engage in all sorts of great discussion.

That said, I'm not such a big fan of analytic philosophy. Without being too stereotypical, I think analytic philosophers don't deal in the real world. What I mean by this is that your stereotypical analytic philosopher could sit in a room all day and think about [insert analytic philosophy topic here], and when they settle down to sleep, it doesn't seem that they've really interacted with the world at all. Sure, this philosopher may have figured out whether or not we exist, but how much does that really affect your average world citizen?

In my opinion, philosophy is useless when it doesn't relate to everyday experience. I guess one way of putting it would be that if a business major "bro" couldn't understand something I'm learning about, then it seems a little too far removed to be of much use (or even application) in today's world. In real life, I like to talk to people, to learn about their experiences and to share with them my own experiences. Obviously, as a philosophy major I have to play with language for people to be able to understand what I'm talking about.

So how can I do this with epistemology and metaphysics? I'd like to hear everyone's opinions (Dr. Panza included) about how epistemology and metaphysics can be reconciled with the world today. On the premise that philosophy ought to be related to/ active in the real world, what justifications or drawbacks can anyone find? Maybe we can update this every time we come to a new reading?

Type the rest of your post here.


  1. I'm a "product" of a very analytic grad program, and during most of my grad classes I asked these questions. A few years distance from those courses has shown me the error of my thinking.

    First of all -- it is the case that many of the great thinkers in metaphysics and epistemology are in some significant way distant from humanity. This distance is in some ways necessary so that they can have some perspective on human beings and their form and function.

    Second -- I finally realized that all of the other stuff was necessary to get to what I found to be important in philosophy -- ethics. Without a solid idea about who/what we are as human beings, we cannot form a solid set of ideas about what we ought to do. We cannot escape our nature, so any ideas about ethics must be formulated with our nature accounted for.

    So -- enjoy your Metaphysics and Epistemology course... it may be one of the last times you have a good excuse to be distant from others :).

  2. The student's remarks seem to be conflating a few different concerns. I for one would resist any identification between "analytic philosophy" and "metaphysics and epistemology". There's of course a continuing controversy about what analytical philosophy is or was, whether it constitutes a coherent philosophical methodology, whether it continues to be as prominent in philosophy as it was a half century ago, etc. But there are certainly self-described "analytic philosophers" working in ethics, aesthetics, etc., and many philosophers who would resist being labeled 'analytic' investigate questions in M&E. So my first response is to disentagle the questions:
    1. Are metaphysics or epistemology useful in "today's world"?
    2. Is "analytic philosophy" useful in "today's world?"

    It does strike me that the student is focusing on two different worries: One is about the methods of philosophy (most notably, reflection about abstract questions) and whether these are useful. The other is about the substance of philosophy (whether questions in M&E are useful to investigate). These are quite different matters.

  3. Factory,

    I tend to have a similar response to these questions myself; mostly that study of some philosophical subjects (say, universals vs particulars) is an exercise in methodology on one level, learning to dissect difficult problems, but also that it serves to arm you with a vocabulary you'll need if you really pursue any particular question far past a superficial level (ex. if there are "moral properties" are they repeatable, or particular?)


    The analytic/continental thing isn't really his target here, other than the fact that he (perhaps in a sloppy way) uses those terms to identify analytic with abstract and continental with more oriented towards everyday life questions.

    In any case, I think it is question (1) in your list that he is really asking about. Whether his taxonomy in (2) maps onto (1) in a meaningful way is an interesting issue, but to him this would be tangential to his main concern.

  4. My thoughts are similar to those of "inside the philosophy factory" above, but skewed a little different.

    I agree that you can't really get much farther away from real human concerns than certain topics in ontology and cosmology do, but those areas of M&E that involve human communication--the areas that border on the philosophy of logic or reflect on the norms of language--are crucial to developing a full understanding of morality, of what (if anything) separates fact from value, of what (if anything) makes semantics distinct from pragmatics, and of what (if anything) leads us from "is" to "ought".

    Also, a thorough understanding of some issues in M&E (such as issues about knowable vs. unknowable facts) are probably helpful (if not necessary) for a thorough understanding of many scientific theories, and it would be hard to argue that science and especially scientific progress are divorced from human concerns.

  5. Kevin,

    Thanks for the comment. I think this is the rub: for many students, I think, there's a difference between two kinds of "connectedness":

    1. Direct: such connections can be easily and quickly applied to one's immediate everyday concerns.

    2. Indirect: such connections can be used indirectly to investigate theoretical ways of categorizing or understanding everyday concerns.

    Metaphysics and Epistemology typically go into (2). Whether a person has epistemic warrant for believing the external world exists has little (1) appeal; as Locke would say, if you really question the existence of external things, you're no doubt putting on an act. However, if one wants to step back and analyze the status of one's intuitions in this case, (2) comes into play.

    Many students -- this one included -- I think are rebelling in a way against (2) issues. They want philosophy to have _immediate_ practical connection to the everyday. Once it veers off into the (2) direction, they question it's relevance.

    In a way, one might think of the difference as between "Rubics Cube" questions and "Formative" questions. The latter type, depending on how they are settled, have impact on one's sense of self or how one lives; the former type are more likely engaged as "puzzle problems" that can be toyed with and then placed on a shelf when tired, so that one can go back to engaging in those (1) issues again.

  6. One thing I'd be inclined to ask the student to think about (as a warm-up to some of the other points folks have raised) is whether he would ask the same question of, say, astrophysics or inorganic chemistry. Does the study of those things "really affect your average world citizen"? Probably not. Does that mean they aren't useful?

    As an 'analytic' philosopher, I often feel the need to remark to students that in many ways (not all!) analytic philosophy is much closer in its methods and goals to science than to the humanities. The 'distance' from everyday concerns may look a bit less surprising in that light.

  7. Chris, thanks for the clarification.

    I think there's a genuine fear/ignorance among some students about simply wanting to understand. My suspicion is that they've been raised to think of education as instrumentally valuable to some larger personal or social goal. It's as if education is unless they can point to something "useful" or "practical" about it (to them?). At one level of course, that's just question-begging. The right response to 'is X useful?' is 'useful for what?' Now I think a good case can be made that M&E are useful in a way: whether God exists, whether we can survive our deaths in any meaningful way, whether science gives us knowledge, etc. are all questions with a lot of practical relevance, at least to moderately self-aware people. But even a question like the nature of time is a fascinating one, even if it has little practical importance (in the usual senses). The student's remarks kind of rule that question out of bounds.

    That being said, I often feel that a lot of work in M&E doesn't do a good job selling itself. A metaphor: Imagine that we start on the trunk of a tree. The branches of the tree are the subdisciplines of philosophy. Off the metaphysics branch, say, are various topics in metaphysics, and with each smaller branch, we get a more and more detailed investigation into a smaller and smaller circle of questions. I do sense that a lot of work in this area could remind people of the path back to the trunk, so to speak -- how, say, counterfactual analyses of causation were generated from some less esoteric human concern.

  8. One of my reactions is similar to Gazza's: this student seems to have an idea about what characteristics an activity (or just academic or scholarly activities?) must have in order for it to be "useful" or valuable or worthwhile.

    It would be interesting to get this student, and anyone else, to try to articulate these features. I suspect that once they were spelled out, we'd find that many, many activities don't meet it, so either almost everything is useless or the criterion is wrong.

    I wonder if this student would find thinking about this -- doing this kind of conceptual analysis -- to be interesting, useful, valuable, etc. and, if so why. If he did, that might help overcome his initial doubts about the value of philosophizing. He might see that his objections to philosophy are, in fact, based in philosophy. Maybe that's shake him up in interesting ways.

  9. Actually, I usually try to pre-empt this kind of concern in my courses by showing how techniques common in analytic philosophy (basically elementary critical thinking techniques) are helpful in students' every day lives. For instance, I just tried to explain to my Intro students how stipulative definitions and necessary conditions are vital parts of how to communicate in relationships, cut through bureaucracy, and get good customer service. Tropes and trolley problems may not be terribly practical, but they help hone skills that are more certainly more valuable in real life than most of calculus.

    And hey, with excellent analytical skills, why not try to sort out the mysteries of the universe?

  10. Maybe the concern is just as simple as the observation that most other majors give one knowledge about the world we live in that we then use to make further judgments about how to act. I think the response should be that philosophy doesn't have a knowledge-that (a truth) as its primary goal, but instead a knowledge-how (a skill).

  11. Your student's question is a question that still bothers me constantly. Frankly, I do think that some philosophical questions are useless and not terribly interesting—they're "the engine of language" idling out of control.

    But as Michael said, some of these questions are really important (e.g., questions about God, immortality, the structure and nature of knowledge, the connection between science and knowledge, etc.). These questions help us understand what we are and how we fit into the world. As Phil Factory noted, such an understanding is important for questions in and about ethics.

    I'd also recommend that your student read Bertrand Russell's "The Value of Philosophy" from The Problems of Philosophy.

  12. I always start my Intro classes with Russell's "The Value of Philosophy." In fact, I taught that piece twice today, incorporating some of the other ideas from this thread. So thanks all.

  13. "In my opinion, philosophy is useless when it doesn't relate to everyday experience. I guess one way of putting it would be that if a business major "bro" couldn't understand something I'm learning about, then it seems a little too far removed to be of much use (or even application) in today's world."

    I would ask the student why he takes the perspective of the "business major 'bro'" to be the paradigm? This perspective certainly rests on some epistemic as well as metaphysical criteria and could serve as the starting point of a very useful discussion on the role that philosophy should play in our lives. This might demonstrate that some (if not all of) analytic philosophy (going back to at least Plato) really does have something to say about how we (should) view the 'real' world. I have in mind here Quines' 'web of belief' and Carnap's distinction between internal and external questions, not to mention Plato's Allegory of the Cave.

  14. This a vitally important question for us to be able to answer clearly and unequivocally, in my view. And, in my view, the answer is that philosophy has intrinsic value. For many reasons - anti-intellectualism chief among them - our society has acquired a persistent blindness to intrinsic value. I often give my students the following exchange between a scientist and the congress to give them a sense of the value of philosophy:

    Senator Pastore: Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?
    Robert Wilson: No sir, I don’t believe so.
    Pastore: Nothing at all?
    Wilson: Nothing at all.
    Pastore: It has no value in that respect?
    Wilson: It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.

    An exchange between Robert Wathbun Wilson and Senator John Pastore in testimony before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, 17 April 1969 on the proposal that the Fermi National Laboratory (Fermilab) build the largest particle accelerator at the time.

  15. in our daily life we meet people we observe thier philosophies and it's amazing ; they might know what philosophy is may be not but, they invent ways of life back to their parrents and friends before anythingelse then society ,religion ,culture , vision...etc , epistemology and metaphisics are not necessary to be known anyway they're used in our actions or re-actions in our questions or our answears but the question is :could both of them make of one of us unique , exeptional, wiser because he knows and corecctly in daily life uses them ??


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