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Thread: Fixing Philosophy

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    Fixing Philosophy

    Very often it seems that the word "philosophy" invokes the concept of an abstract and detached if not dry subject of trivial pursuit. For instance, as in the academic study of treatises by a fairly fixed pool of long-dead people considered by scholars and/or intellectuals past and present to represent those worthy of being digested for their abstract/theoretical upshot. As in not particularly concerned with anything necessarily real or important, detached from life-qua-living.

    This bothers me.

    Oh, I understand how people can come to dismiss the whole subject of philosophy as such, given the above seemingly prevalent stigma it carries. A kind of "Why bother? What does this mean to/for me?" shrugging slump overcomes the mind, perhaps.

    So here let me advance a different, return-to-center-revised idea of philosophy. I'll start by asking the question: what IS philosophy?

    As I see it, a philosophy is a way of life. As such, each and every living, thinking, acting human being has one, if only implicitly, as to live is to live a certain way (since we are all capable of our own free choices as such), and (between the lines, if nothing else, of) any given way-of-living for any given person necessarily and unavoidably embodies their philosophy.

    In the various small events of one's life, it can go rather unnoticed, easily dismissed. But at what I'll call "major life decisions" -- facing events out of the ordinary, and/or which present choices of significantly different life-paths -- the behavior of a person shows their philosophy quite saliently. But between the day-to-day and the life-changing, a person's philosophy is also manifest (again, if only between the lines) in every nontrivial conversation they have. And, of course, introduce politics or religion -- or any "hot topic" in society (usually laden with one or both)-- and again philosophy is invoked and often manifest in their behavior, most saliently in what they have to say about it.

    Looking between the lines HERE we see that my idea of philosophy concerns itself, however indirectly, with the VALUES people hold. And very often those values are (however implicitly) held in terms of/supported by some "world-view" (here meaning some notion of "cosmology" if not "cosmogeny", "cosmography" -- beliefs held about the nature of the "world" if not "universe" around the person). In and around these we have "morality"/"ethics", qua "good" and "evil", these being specific primordial species of cognitive value.

    Since all human action is in pursuit of, flight from or otherwise in reaction to some value -- perceived, imagined or otherwise -- (for what is a value?: that which we act to obtain/sustain/avoid, etc) we see that philosophy proper, being a topic concerning itself with values at work in a person's deeds (including his words) is intimately involved with the ACTUAL LIFE in and through which a person acts. This as against mistaking the entire subject of philosophy as necessarily detached from the life-qua-living.

    Let me clarify something important: among the reasons why philosophy-overall is so easily dismissed as such stems from the nature of the philosophers usually studied in/by academia; how their ideas were themselves detached if not abstruse or entirely imaginary -- that is, unconcerned with life-as-lived, life-as-action-in-existence (and thereby, unconcerned with the values underlying, motivating, informing such activities) to whatever (usually rather full) extent. The rampant semantic backflipping and wanton sophistry involved in it all is of course no use to life-qua-living, so of course philosophy-overall gets a bad rap. Whereas really, its the philosophers in question that deserve it.

    Now here we have the problem. Philosophy is often dismissed or mistaken, as above. So people go on presuming its necessary futility, hence often they dismiss any attention from their actual living value-system, world-view, philosophy, and just go on in great default and then wonder why they're unhappy failures to some extent or another. Or worse, they take up whatever religion (or allow themselves to be environmentally programmed by it) --- that whole species of thought being a particularly damning bastard cousin of philosophy (as, again, they all purport little about life-qua-living-in-existence, instead usually involved upon their cosmologies, cosmogenies and cosmographies, and then deriving from them shoulds and should-nots in accord with inhuman, nonextant imaginary forces/beings).

    Philosophy is about living life. And so as you live and breathe, you have one, much as you might think otherwise (and/or dismiss the subject entirely). Through it you either succeed or fail, be happy or sad, live or die. Now will you take it more seriously? Will you look at what values and world-views actually shape the actions you take in life, and see if they're really in your best interest? Really accord with life, as against something never encountered in it?

    (Yes, this is a restart of a thread I started once elsewhere. Perhaps with the passage of time and shift in audience, who knows...)

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    I'm somewhat sympathetic but (unsurprisingly) not in agreement.

    I don't have time to type up a response just yet, but I'd like to ask for a clarification if that's alright:

    You mention two things:

    The rampant semantic backflipping and wanton sophistry involved in it all is of course no use to life-qua-living, so of course philosophy-overall gets a bad rap.
    among the reasons why philosophy-overall is so easily dismissed as such stems from the nature of the philosophers usually studied in/by academia; how their ideas were themselves detached if not abstruse or entirely imaginary -- that is, unconcerned with life-as-lived, life-as-action-in-existence (and thereby, unconcerned with the values underlying, motivating, informing such activities)
    Could you clarify on what you mean by "semantic backflipping," "wanton sophistry" and the philosophers that are studied that you consider to be unconcerned with life-as-lived? Contrasting examples would be helpful.

    The reason I ask is because, for instance, it seems much more plausible to me that contemporary metaphysicians working on the sorites paradox may be doing "semantic backflipping" and have concerns that are detached from human values and lives than that Rousseau (and his thought) would fall under those descriptors.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Krill View Post
    Could you clarify on what you mean by "semantic backflipping," "wanton sophistry" and the philosophers that are studied that you consider to be unconcerned with life-as-lived? Contrasting examples would be helpful.
    Not to be lazy, just efficient, here (heh)... pick almost any, and quote nearly anything from them. That's what I'd be doing, since that's all I've ever seen from any of them. If you'd like, I could go find some the juiciest such examples, ha.

    To be fair, when they're not doing any of that, they're just making emotional-cultural appeals, which isn't philosophy proper, just politics (qua political agendas) playing at philosophy. Similiar such misconstructions can occur through appeals to the arts/aesthetics, etc.

    This isn't just to criticize such "philosophies" or their "philosophers", for its own sake. I figure this is the disconnect, the problem in the perception, academic approach to, and application of "philosophy" in culture as we have it, now. People either find themselves in (effectively emotional rather than rational) affinity with whatever misconstructions above (appeals to superficially pseudo-philosophical systems), thereby mistaking them for a way-of-life, or are turned off by them, and dismiss the subject of philosophy for conflating it with such superficial misconstructions.

    The reason I ask is because, for instance, it seems much more plausible to me that contemporary metaphysicians working on the sorites paradox may be doing "semantic backflipping" and have concerns that are detached from human values and lives than that Rousseau (and his thought) would fall under those descriptors.
    Contemporaries are just following in their historical predecessor's footsteps (for having been informed by them), if you ask me. I didn't mention such misinformed/misguided contemporaries in my OP because I don't see them as worthy of discussion in the context of "fixing philosophy" (being mere derivatives of their long-dead ideological predecessors, as they are/as I see it). What can be said of them, as such? Perhaps simply this: be rid of them.

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    Member Krill's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ptah View Post
    Not to be lazy, just efficient, here (heh)... pick almost any, and quote nearly anything from them. That's what I'd be doing, since that's all I've ever seen from any of them. If you'd like, I could go find some the juiciest such examples, ha.

    To be fair, when they're not doing any of that, they're just making emotional-cultural appeals, which isn't philosophy proper, just politics (qua political agendas) playing at philosophy. Similiar such misconstructions can occur through appeals to the arts/aesthetics, etc.
    Well, you mentioned Ayn Rand in the other thread as an example of a brilliant philosopher.

    Now, either she's the only example of one, or there are others. It may be that you think that the others constitute a very small minority of what's studied in the field. Even if Ayn Rand is the only example, she must exemplify some standard of 'good philosophy' (i.e. not abstracted from life, not involving semantic backflipping). Either way, my impression of Ayn Rand is that she's not doing anything essentially different (methodologically) from a large number of philosophers that are commonly read in the field.

    So it would help me understand your critique if I could understand what you take to be the relevant distinction between Ayn Rand and, say, John Stuart Mill (generalized in a way that will make clear what your standards are). You don't have to discuss John Stuart Mill in particular, you can just pick a philosopher that you're familiar enough with to make the comparison.

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    Global Moderator Polemarch's Avatar
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    I view the "study" of philosophy to be more about understanding the history of certain categories of ideas, than about constructing a rationale for dealing with existence. To that end, I find reading philosophy to be boring, because it's rooted in the ideas of the past, which I think are increasingly irrelevant outside of a historical context.

    I had an opportunity to minor in Philosophy - I only needed two more courses - and I couldn't bring myself to do it. Once I ran out of Logic courses to take, nothing else appealed to me. And what's a minor in Philosophy good for anyway? Why offer it?
    We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.

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    On one hand I'd like to avoid comparing/contrasting (nevermind lauding, deriding) particular philosophers and philosophies, but on the other you're/Krill's (reasonably and fairly) calling for specifics on what I think is askew from the "proper" approach to/discourse of philosophy. So along that angle, there's almost no avoiding it. Still, I'll speak in generalities.

    In short, JSM is an example of someone who loses touch with reality and life-as-lived for, at least as I've read him, his "philosophy" is little more than an elaboration out from a political-economic starting point (ie, Utilitarianism).

    I'm not saying politics and economics are beyond the scope of philosophy, by the way. Indeed, as matters of human life (at the aggregate level of societies of people), they are necessarily entailed. Entailed from the proper starting point of philosophy, and as suitable to restoring and clarifying its relevance to every living, breathing, interactively viable human being: the relationship between consciousness and existence as in metaphysics and (as follows: ) epistemology; what is (vs. what isn't) and how you can know about it (or go wrong, as such). If it doesn't start there, it better explicitly and without self-contradiction reduce to such. (Why? for without it, it loses its appeal to a rational mind, instead relying on superficial emotionalism -- along a motive ulterior to life-as-lived to the individual)

    People like JSM have little of general validity (and so, appeal) to say to anyone that isn't concerned with any of the political-economic fields he departs from. Those that will like him are those who are already disposed to his political-economic starting points, or disgrunted from others looking for alternatives.

    Setting aside whether that informs well or not, as such, his is not a philosophy that informs the individual in life, in general, whether you're already sympathetic to his ideas on some less-than-rational basis, or not, as I see it.

    There are people who are going to glom onto anything for the wrong reasons. Set them aside. Next, there are philosophies which are really just political, economic, and/or aesthetic agendas --- with some pseudo-philosophical elaborations/extrapolations here and there --- which hook people who are already sympathetic to their superficial upshots, as such ... but which do little to inform them, more to validate them. This is not philosophy. This is a kind of secular religion; predatory in effect if not intent. In any case, not useful in the sense of informing an individual's holistic life.

    Remember: everyone has a philosophy, regardless of what you think of it. It is implicit in everything you do and think, it is manifest in everything to do and say. Philosophy proper is an abstraction over an approach to living life (all-inclusive). This includes concerns of the individual (metaphysics, aesthetics), and how they interact socially, in aggregate (hence, politically, economically, etc), and everything in between (ethics). So any system of such should be framed, as such, for it to have any rational value to anyone. Why? Because that's how people actually live their lives, as individuals, with all their problems and questions, and then out from there, with further domains and sub-domains of questions and problems. As guides their choices, through such.

    Anything less (or else) -- is just that. Well, worse than that: it adds to the bad rap of philosophy proper.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Polemarch View Post
    I view the "study" of philosophy to be more about understanding the history of certain categories of ideas, than about constructing a rationale for dealing with existence. To that end, I find reading philosophy to be boring, because it's rooted in the ideas of the past, which I think are increasingly irrelevant outside of a historical context.
    Right. This is one of the dangers of improperly rooted, effectively-ulterior-agenda "philosophies", with respect to the reputation of philosophy-proper's popular conception. Basically, once your political or economic or whatever agenda is outmoded, so is the appeal of your whole philosophy (this is the other edge of the thing I mentioned before: people who glom to it in its time will do so out of their less-than-rational affinity for its agenda, but as times change, the appeal wanes, as such).

    Then there are the even more dangerous ones like Nietzsche, whose ulterior-agenda/improper basis of appeal never really quite goes out of style, and so it continues to mislead and misguide people over time. People who don't know that philosophy is more than a pile of rationalizations around an agenda or outlook wind up accepting just such a pile as Nietzsche's for the trappings it offers their pet peeves and/or unresolved questions (qua angst). Meanwhile, philosophy proper -- the more holistic sense of it -- is lost and/or given a bad rap.

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    Member Krill's Avatar
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    I confess, I'm still not clear on your position, Ptah. So I have some more questions for you as well as an explanation for why, I think, I'm having so much trouble understanding you:

    If I take what you say at face-value, your description of philosophy is largely at extreme odds with my experience of it. My study of philosophy is very personal and very much concerned with my actual life. At one point, having read Kant is what kept me from suicide. Not, as you might suggest, because of some sentimental or emotional appeal of his point of view, but because of his specific arguments for the inherent value of rational beings. I see in many philosophers, not just the ancients, serious attention paid to understanding the sorts of beings we are, what our relationship to the world is and how we should live and all in a manner that prizes rational argumentation with a universalist character.

    With that said, I turn to your post:

    Quote Originally Posted by Ptah View Post
    Entailed from the proper starting point of philosophy, and as suitable to restoring and clarifying its relevance to every living, breathing, interactively viable human being: the relationship between consciousness and existence as in metaphysics and (as follows: ) epistemology; what is (vs. what isn't) and how you can know about it (or go wrong, as such). If it doesn't start there, it better explicitly and without self-contradiction reduce to such. (Why? for without it, it loses its appeal to a rational mind, instead relying on superficial emotionalism -- along a motive ulterior to life-as-lived to the individual)
    Starting with the above quote, you seem pretty clear to me. You think all philosophy should, properly, start with metaphysics and epistemology. Fair enough, but that includes many of the most prominently studied historical philosophers: Descartes, Berkeley, Locke, Kant, Hegel and even John Stuart Mill (though most people don't read the works where he develops and defends his empiricism).

    So here, I have one of three interpretive options, in order of charity: (A) You have some other issue with philosophers like the above (B) You have some reason for thinking that they don't begin with metaphysics & epistemology (C) You hold incorrect views about them (D) You aren't even aware that these are major historical philosophers that are commonly studied.

    I'm refusing (C) and (D) as options right now because I don't want to be uncharitable. If (B), I'm afraid I no longer understand what you mean by 'metaphysics' or 'epistemology' so I can't really say anything. If (A), it could be that you take them to be uninterested in actual human life. I think that's pretty obviously wrong for a number of them (and they do seem concerned with it by your standards as they are developing systems of epistemology and metaphysics).

    So let's look at the rest of your post to see what issue you might take with them.

    Setting aside whether that informs well or not, as such, his is not a philosophy that informs the individual in life, in general, whether you're already sympathetic to his ideas on some less-than-rational basis, or not, as I see it.

    There are people who are going to glom onto anything for the wrong reasons. Set them aside. Next, there are philosophies which are really just political, economic, and/or aesthetic agendas --- with some pseudo-philosophical elaborations/extrapolations here and there --- which hook people who are already sympathetic to their superficial upshots, as such ... but which do little to inform them, more to validate them. This is not philosophy. This is a kind of secular religion; predatory in effect if not intent. In any case, not useful in the sense of informing an individual's holistic life.
    This is the other critique you level: something along the lines of failing to address individual life in general and being sullied by parochial issues which thereby infect the whole of the philosophy, preventing it from being genuinely rational in its appeal. Rather than being too abstract, they are too particular. It's not clear to me how you go about determining whether or not this is true. It certainly can't be that their reflections and writings are motivated by a concern they have that is relevant to their life (i.e. their political, economic or personal situation). For it's a key premise that philosophy must be something that's relevant to our actual lives.

    So perhaps it's one of two possibilities: either (1) the conclusions they arrive at fail to have any implications outside of their current personal/economic/political situation. (2) their reasoning does not begin with totally universal premises, but rather with contingent premises somehow related to their parochial situation.

    As for (1), I don't see how it could possibly be true that Kantian deontology or Millian utilitarianism, for example, fail to be applicable to any human life. The principle that we should aim at maximizing happiness or that happiness admits of qualitative distinctions seems to me to be quite clearly individual to a particular individual's life. It may very well lead them to become a vegan or vegetarian or choose sobriety over heroin.

    As for (2), well that would require explicit and serious discussion of the actual arguments and texts of the philosophers. You are understandably resistant to getting into specifics. I will merely say that this is not my general experience with philosophers such as the ones I've mentioned above, so it's not a claim I would accept.

    So one final option has to do with your mentioning appeal to emotion or sentiment. I will only say that here, again, it would require serious consideration of particular texts and arguments. I will also say that in my experience studying philosophy, my impression has been the opposite: almost all philosophers are aiming to convince sheerly by rational argumentation and, while they often may fail to do so, their argumentation is nonetheless rigorous and free of emotional appeals.


    Quote Originally Posted by Ptah View Post
    Remember: everyone has a philosophy, regardless of what you think of it. It is implicit in everything you do and think, it is manifest in everything to do and say. Philosophy proper is an abstraction over an approach to living life (all-inclusive). This includes concerns of the individual (metaphysics, aesthetics), and how they interact socially, in aggregate (hence, politically, economically, etc), and everything in between (ethics). So any system of such should be framed, as such, for it to have any rational value to anyone. Why? Because that's how people actually live their lives, as individuals, with all their problems and questions, and then out from there, with further domains and sub-domains of questions and problems. As guides their choices, through such.

    Anything less (or else) -- is just that. Well, worse than that: it adds to the bad rap of philosophy proper.
    I am now very much baffled. The idea that philosophy proper should have rational appeal to anyone is pretty much the modus operandi of almost all historical philosophy. Clearly there will be degrees of success, but you seem to think it the vast majority of it is utterly off the mark in some way. That is not at all my experience.
    Last edited by Krill; 02-10-2014 at 04:29 AM.

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    As an aside to this thread, I have a friend who is chair of a university dept. of philosophy. He and I have many discussions about all sorts of interesting things but the one thing that stands out, is that he is the clearest thinker I've ever met. I don't know whether this is innate, acquired or mainly a result of his training but he always seems to clear up my muddled thinking. He has helped me understand personal situations in ways a psychologist could never do. So, beyond formal, academic philosophy, his abilities are practical and useful.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Thevenin View Post
    As an aside to this thread, I have a friend who is chair of a university dept. of philosophy. He and I have many discussions about all sorts of interesting things but the one thing that stands out, is that he is the clearest thinker I've ever met. I don't know whether this is innate, acquired or mainly a result of his training but he always seems to clear up my muddled thinking. He has helped me understand personal situations in ways a psychologist could never do. So, beyond formal, academic philosophy, his abilities are practical and useful.
    That's definitely a skill that lots of training and experience in analytic philosophy will develop. I can't find it at the moment, but the data suggests that philosophy majors end up doing very well later in their careers if they go into the business world. I suspect that is because you often get a really thorough training in critical thinking, clarification and problem-solving. Also, relevant to your experience in particular is Philosophical counseling.

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