Wednesday, May 03, 2006

What Good is Philosophy?

To inaugurate my move from Angelfire to Blogger, I want to begin with an honest question: what good is philosophy? Many think of philosophers as those who sit in ivory towers, thinking about things that are beyond the ken or concern of the ‘average person.’ One can likely thank Plato for this view when, in The Republic, he describes the education of the Philosopher Kings: they are not to be shaped through gymnastics (VII:521d), music (VII:522a-522b), or art (VII:522b), all of which have “nothing which tended to that good which [the philosopher seeks]” (VII: 522a-522b). Rather, they are to be steeped in “number and calculation…compelling the soul to reason about abstract number, and rebelling against the introduction of visible or tangible objects into the argument” (522c, 525d) Similarly, Plato derides those who “[use geometry for] practice only, and are always speaking, in a narrow and ridiculous manner, of squaring and extending and applying and the like--they confuse the necessities of geometry with those of daily life; whereas knowledge is the real object of the whole science” (VII: 527a-527b). With such a view, where philosophy is abstracted from everything practical to the point of debasing those who use their understanding practically, philosophy can only appear as something useless.

When I brought this question up to those at LDS-PHIL, someone mentioned Martin Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics. Here is one pertinent excerpt:

It is entirely correct and completely in order to say, "You can't do anything with philosophy." The only mistake is to believe that with this, the judgment concerning philosophy is at an end. For a little epilogue arises in the form of a counterquestion: even if we can't do anything with it, may not philosophy in the end do something with us, provided that we engage ourselves with it?
Introduction to Metaphysics, 13 (H9-10).
Earlier in IM, Heidegger claimed that, "according to its essence, philosophy never makes things easier, but only more difficult" (Ibid, 12 [H9]). The essence of philosophy, for Heidegger, is not to create coherent world-views or systems within which we can frame (gestellen) everything (what he termed onto-theo-logy), but to interrogate beings and let them speak for themselves. Within the history of philosophy, probably starting from Plato, there has been the attempt to find the ‘grand unified theory’ of everything. Put in other terms, philosophers have attempted to find a single mode of discourse within which one can discuss ‘the real.’ For Plato this was the realm of the Forms, for Aristotle (at least under one interpretation) it was the form/matter distinction, for the Scholastics it was the Creator/creature distinction, for the positivists it was reductivistic science, and for many Analytic philosophers today it is logic. All of these are attempts to find a way of speaking about objects to show them as they really are, at the exclusions of other modes of discourse that do not share their methods and manner of speaking. It is this monolithic assumption--that there is a single and all-inclusive way of speaking about objects/beings--that so-called postmodernists have been arguing against since their inception.

With this in mind, the ‘making things more difficult’ that Heidegger proposes as the essence of philosophy is not based in classical skepticism or willy-nilly questioning, the kind that is most often attributed to so-called postmodernists. Rather, it is being itself that ‘makes things harder.’ Heidegger was quite explicit that the whole effort of his thought was centered around the question of being, a question that he feels has been ignored within philosophy. Thus, his rejection of philosophy as a maker of worldviews--which certainly makes things easier--is grounded in his interrogation of being, in letting being speak for itself without the fear of being unthinkingly pigeonholed into a pre-established worldview. From this ground we find Heidegger’s notion of ‘thinking’ (as a technical term): it is not something that we do every day and neither is it the logical ordering of propositions or data, but the eruption of truth into the world, a new appropriation of beings.

So, what good is philosophy? It is good because it changes us; it helps us to see the world differently; beings appear in new ways. Every revolution in every discipline has altered how we see the world around us, how we see and interpret beings. Whether you choose Impressionistic art or quantum physics, the world appears in ways that were literally impossible prior to beings presenting themselves in ways that were unheard of before. When developed, philosophy cultivates (bildungen) us as human beings, expanding our appreciation of the world, allowing it to appear in all its mystery and inexhaustible wonder. In this way, philosophy is openness to that which is foreign, which is not accounted for in our current understanding, and the desire to bring it near (i.e. a principle of hermeneutics).

The historian of philosophy would be quick to point out that philosophy has greatly affected civilizations. It is because of the philosophical musings of such figures as Aristotle, Francis Bacon, and Rene Descartes that we have technology, modern science, politics, etc. Thus, philosophy does much more than simply cultivate the self: it allows for the production of all kinds of useful things.

It is undeniably true that philosophy has shaped our culture and will undoubtedly continue to shape it. However, this affect is not direct:

Philosophy can never directly supply the forces and create the mechanisms and opportunities that bring about a historical state of affairs, if only because philosophy is always the direct concern of a few. Which few? The ones who transform creatively, who unsettle things. It spreads only indirectly, on back roads that can never be charted in advance, and then finally--sometime, when it has long since been forgotten as originary philosophy--it sinks away in the form of one of Dasein's [mankind's] truisms.
IM, 11 (H8).
The philosophies of Aristotle, Bacon, and Descartes directly influenced how we see things, how beings appear to us. However this change in our affectivity in relation to beings is not the same as the technologies, programs, and theories that developed thereafter. The strange appearance of the photon following the two-slit experiment is divorced from the many theories later developed to explain it and any practical applications of the photon’s strange behavior. This is particularly true given the fact that only a new appearing of the photon might help us decide between various theories, granting that this new appearing does not itself raise more questions than it answers. Given that, historically, every new appearing in every discipline has raised more questions than it has answered, this is not a likely occurrence. Returning to Heidegger, being itself is “the reservoir of the not-yet-uncovered” (“The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, 58), the excess that remains in every appearing of beings as beings. As such, being itself essentially escapes every attempt to bring it fully to light; if philosophy is essentially the activity of bringing beings to light, then philosophy itself is prior to every practical application that occurs after that bringing to light, which may be termed science or simply scholarship.

So, why study philosophy? Because philosophical study cultivates your own vision, your own ability to see and discern. Perhaps you can study philosophy so you can assist others in seeing, as I hope to. To do anything more is to do "scholarship about philosophy" (Ibid, 12 [H9]), not philosophy proper. Not that such scholarship is worthless (far from it), only less primordial, less originary.


Blogger Kevin Winters said...

My wife, upon reading this entry, came away with something that I didn't intend. So, here's a quick addendum:

When I said that "scholarship about philosophy" is not "worthless," I in no way intended to downplay "scholarship about philosophy," nor did I intend to downplay anything that was non-philosophical. Yes, philosophy is good, but it is not the greatest good; I am very anti-Platonic on this matter. I personally wouldn't want to be in a world full of philosophers, even with the good that philosophy does. Just wanted to make sure that I wasn't seen as a philo-narcissist.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...

In looking through Vallicella's blog, I noticed a section titled Heidegger Studies and found a post that also expresses at least part of what I'm trying to say here, by way of Aristotle and Heidegger: Wonder: Theaetetus 155 d with Aristotelian and Heideggerian Glosses. Notice particularly this comment:

"Heidegger's point is that philosophy's beginning, the pathos of astonishment, is also its principle. As such, it is not something left behind as philosophy progresses, but something that pervades and guides her at every step. This, I would add, is one of the differences between philosophy and (positive) science. The aim of the sciences is to dispel wonder, perplexity, astonishment and replace them with understanding, an understanding that makes possible the prediction and control of that which is understood. Philosophy, by contrast, not only begins in wonder but is sustained by it and never succeeds in dispelling it."

Couldn't have said it better, I think.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Erdman said...

Being of a more biblical/theological ilk I have very much appreciated Heidegger's concern for "astonishment." The biblical text often leaves us unresolved (ex. Job). The lack of resolution was meant to bring human kind into a sense of wonder and "astonisment" directed to their Creator.

It is a dreadful thing that many Christian philosophers and theologians have sought to treat the biblical text as the Ultimate Philosophical Answer Key: the one philosophy of complete coherence. And yet we see Job battered about in the grips of an incoherence that refused to resolve itself. When God speaks he could have explained the scenario, i.e. I made a deal with the devil to test your fidelity. On the contrary, God appears to Job in the whirlwind and establishes the Divine Prerogative: "I will question you and you will answer me."

10:25 AM  
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