Sunday, May 04, 2008

In Defence of Impractical Philosophy

A friend passed along the link to this vituperative rant against (a certain kind of) academic philosophy:
What possible use or relevance to human life can a discussion like this have? ... What a terrible waste of brainpower... How selfish. The author apparently feels no obligation towards others on behalf of his abilities. There is a longstanding tradition in several religions and many moral systems that to whom much is given much is expected: people of ability... who nonetheless spend it playing intellectual games are depriving others of what those abilities might be able to accomplish. They are indulging their own narrow and selfish desires, and perhaps flattering their own vanity: but they are allowing their abilities to bear no fruit for others.

The blogger, 'Protagoras', elaborates in comments:

I think that one central justification for theory in the sciences is that it can--and indeed has--proved itself to bear on practical concerns at some point, even if we don't know now how that will come about. My beef with this article, as with much, though not all, of academic philosophy today is that it has no similar justification going for it.

This strikes me as incredibly misguided, for several reasons:

(1) History teaches us that it's very difficult to predict in advance which areas of theoretical inquiry will ultimately yield practical payoffs. Who would've guessed that philosophical theorizing about the limits of formal logic and mathematics would eventually bring us the personal computer? Not every academic can be an Alan Turing, admittedly, but the sophisticated consequentialist will keep in mind the big picture. We should design our academic institutions so as to have the overall effect of producing important knowledge (even if that means that many individual academics end up doing "pointless" work, considered in isolation). This is the basic argument for academic freedom: we can expect the best results if we give academics free reign to inquire as their intellectual curiosity sees fit, rather than limiting them to socially "approved" avenues of inquiry. 

I trust that most academics are the best judges of what intellectual endeavours are worth their time and effort. (Cf. J.S. Mill's arguments for liberty.) But even if not, the few exceptions -- the Turings of the world, whose theoretical passions lead to invaluable insights -- are arguably so momentous as to justify the whole system that enables them.

(2) For this reason, among others, it is not generally 'selfish' or otherwise immoral to pursue your personal passions. On the contrary, I think it is to be encouraged. See my post 'Value, Alienation and Choice' for more detail.  

(3) The particular article in question tackles deeply interesting issues at the intersection of epistemology and philosophy of mind, arguing that:

the best bet for defending an internalist epistemology against Williamson's attack is to take there to be a tight, intimate connection between (to take one example) our experiences and our beliefs upon reflection about the obtaining of those experiences, or between (to take another example) the rationality of our beliefs and our beliefs upon reflection about the rationality of those beliefs.

As an anonymous commenter explained, [edited lightly:] the nature of rationality and our ability to know our own minds are topics 'relevant to human life.' Indeed, they concern our basic condition as humans. One suspects that Protagoras' incredulous response to the paper ("You have to be kidding me") is simply due to his not actually understanding what it says.  

(4) There's something incoherent about the crassly 'utilitarian' (in the non-philosophical sense) stance according to which things must be 'useful' to be of value. Note that useful things must be instrumental to some end or ultimate value. The ultimate ends, on the other hand, need not serve any other purpose, for they are valuable in themselves. They are that for which we do the instrumental act. But the confused instrumentalist is blind to non-instrumental values, and thus the point of the whole endeavour. He will thus criticize the direct realization of the ultimate good because it is not instrumental to something else. How backward!

Now, intellectual inquiry, truth and understanding are arguably among the intrinsic goods (i.e. the things we should value non-instrumentally). It would seem to me base and ignoble to deny this. But if this is so, it is backwards to demand that philosophy serve other purposes. (It happens that it does, as per my #1 above, but one shouldn't demand it.) To end on a provocative note: Depending on how it balances against other values, I think it entirely possible that society ought to be set up to serve philosophy! What say you?


  1. Xenophon's Memoirs of Socrates includes an early and classic version of the denunciation of "useless" intellectualism, viz., the dismissal of Anaxagorean natural philosophy as a waste of a man's life. Antiphilosophy has a long and distinguished pedigree.

  2. On the one hand, I hear Howard Thurman say, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

    On the other hand, I'm more calculating. The world needs smart people helping other people. And I'm not convinced - clearly, as a former philosophy student - that philosophy helps other people as well or as well as other professions. I agree that stellar philosophers should stay put and can add to our understanding of ourselves as humans. But philosophy in the end is an endeavor of the privileged; most people have little time for it. Smart people who are mediocre philosophers (as I might flatter myself) should apply themselves where they and the world can get more bang for their consequentialist buck. Anyway, I appreciated R.M. Hare's comment on the purpose of studying philosophy, which I've quoted in this unfairly aggressive blog post I wrote a few months ago.

  3. A search for truth does not have to justify itself. If I want to know the answer to some incredibly arcane philosophical question--or biological or theological question, for that matter--then the very fact that it's unknown is reason enough. No need to further justify my curiosity with talk of increasing utility and the like.

  4. It would be a very strong position to outlaw philosophy - but I imagine no one not made of straw argues that. The practical question* is if Philosophy is better than the alternative regarding the marginal philosophers (the ones who might be discouraged by a policy). If we could just (ironically) agree on an ethical standard we could determine that empirically.

    * it would also be quite ironic if this was not meant to encourage a practical solution

  5. I was of the opinion of the rant not too long ago. I finally justified my choice to be purely theoretical (mathematician) by arguing to myself that the world would be a much better place if everyone did what they loved and interested them. Too many people do what they do solely because they feel that they are "supposed" to be doing it.

  6. There is a longstanding tradition in several religions and many moral systems that to whom much is given much is expected: people of ability... who nonetheless spend it playing intellectual games are depriving others of what those abilities might be able to accomplish.

    How can the alternative be determined? How that the question be addressed without knowing anything about what the alternative contribution might actually have been? How is the question of which is better - to pursue those inquiries of interest or those of supposedly greater value - itself not a useless exercise by its own standards?

  7. I think it entirely possible that society ought to be set up to serve philosophy!

    But why pay academic philosophers? Why are their repetitive exegeses worth more than a worker's contemplations about the good and bad in his life and the lack of justice in general?

    I think your arguments could be stronger.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.