Sunday, August 31, 2008

What Philosophy is Good For

I've previously defended purely theoretical inquiry, but it's also worth noting that philosophical assumptions abound in ordinary folk and their ways of thinking about the world. Moreover, many of these assumptions are patently false -- the result of lazy conflation, perhaps, or simply not noticing an (obviously true once you see it) alternative possibility. So I think philosophy is especially good at helping us to notice and correct these common errors in our thinking. (It's no coincidence that my dozen Examples of Solved Philosophy are mostly of this sort.)

(I got thinking about this because of Nancy Pelosi's skepticism about whether life begins at conception -- as if the abortion debate turned on some question of biology. Similar idiocy and irrelevance is seen in debates about whether homosexuality is 'innate'. These people just have no idea about what sorts of considerations are morally relevant. The common conflation of rationality and self-interest is another standard example of philosophical error. A less obvious, but perhaps more important, example is the ubiquitous assumption that property is natural, or that the poor just lack resources, not negative freedom -- mistakes tied together by the failure to appreciate that our institution of property is inherently coercive. I've focused on my own fields of moral and political philosophy here, but there are common, demonstrable errors in other subfields too, e.g. scientism in epistemology.)

I don't mean to suggest that correcting commonplace confusions is the only thing philosophy is good for, of course. But I think it is certainly something philosophers are very good at, and it is sufficiently important to give pause to those who would brashly dismiss our discipline. There's an awful lot of ill-informed public debate that could make much better progress with a little more philosophical input.


  1. hmmmm... to me it seems that philosophy will never be able to convince the wider world of its settled truths, because there will always be people who are bad at philosophy (at let's face it, most people are bad at philosophy) doing philosophy. The same muddled relativisms and absurd confusions will continue to be spouted for ever more. Having said that, I do think this metaphilosophical task of attempting to see how we arrive at truth in philosophy (and also attempting to spell out what those truths are) will become increasingly important for us.
    i'm told tremendous and obvious progress has been made in philosophy of language, an area in which I'm rather unversed. Have you delved much into much 20th century phil of lang? It might provide some good ammunition :)

  2. "as if the abortion debate turned on some question of biology."

    Notwithstanding Ricardo's excellent presentation of the total anti-abortion stance, I think, and I suspect most Philosophers (armchair and professional) agree, that the biological facts are at least relevant to the issue of abortion. (BTW, that link is malformed).

    Similarly, I found the article on the how the poor lack negative freedom exactly like a good parody.

    Relating these to the current topic (I saw your warning), the settled problems of philosophy are, I suspect, much less settled than you propose. I think the problem for settling them is less 'inadequate knowledge of the existing arguments' and more 'totally incompatible sets of basic assumptions'.

  3. Link fixed, thanks.

    I don't think any philosophers think the abortion dispute is about 'when life begins'. Some [organicists in the vein of Ricardo] think this fact is highly relevant, of course, and others [more concerned with mental personhood] don't. But that's the dispute -- at the normative level, not the empirical. I doubt that the likes of Nancy Pelosi would really disagree if you sat them down and talked about it; it's just that they're sloppily using the biological category of 'life' when they really mean to be talking about 'moral status'. It's a real enough confusion though, and does lead to some pointless debates -- again, compare talk of whether homosexuality is innate, which is an even clearer example of this.

  4. Aha! Really great points in the 2nd paragraph about abortion and homosexuality. I plan to blog about this in the future, and I'll link back. (It's just too bad you put some of the most important stuff in parentheses.)

  5. Thanks, John. (But they're in parentheses because they're simply a couple of interesting examples, and not the central point of my post.)

    Craig - I forgot to add before: I don't know what you mean by suggesting that my post on poverty and freedom reads "like a good parody". It's a surprising result, of course, and goes against the common way of thinking about these things. But the substance of the argument strikes me as absolutely water-tight. If you spot a flaw in my argument, I hope you'll be so generous as to leave a comment on that post explaining this in detail.

  6. You write,

    "I don't mean to suggest that correcting commonplace confusions is the only thing philosophy is good for, of course. But I think it is certainly something philosophers are very good at, and it is sufficiently important to give pause to those who would brashly dismiss our discipline."

    It seems reasonable to "brashly dismiss philosophy" in those cases when professional philosophers are unable or unwilling to aim the lens of reason at their own commonplace confusions.

    Here's a thought experiment to illustrate.

    Imagine that I'm a philosophy professor giving a lecture and a student walks in to my classroom with a loaded gun in his mouth. What is my most rational act as the professor? Continue with my lecture? Or shift my focus to the gun?

    Now imagine that the culture which the professor and student inhabit has thousands of massive hydrogen bombs aimed down it's own throat. What is the most rational act for the field of professional philosophy? Continue with it's lectures, or shift focus to the gun?

    Is your claim that philosophers are good at correcting commonplace confusions true?

    Now imagine that I've posted this many times in many places and it never accomplishes anything but pointless conflict, and yet I keep doing it. Am I any good at correcting my own commonplace confusions? Probably not!


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.