Philosophy has a bad name. Most people associate it with abstract arguments that have nothing to do with the real world. There are indeed those who call themselves philosophers who engage in trivial debate over the precise meaning of a word: what do I mean when I say I see something or know something? Does it make sense to say, “I am asleep”?
Sometimes these arguments over word-definitions invade the public arena in a big way. Spirited discussions of this type are taking place right now. Rape, privilege, racism: the meanings of these words have been stretched, redirected and even narrowed.
An argument about language is not philosophy, but merely a game of words. In Plato’s Dialogues, even the great Socrates was often guilty of this crime. To me, this is using the methods of philosophy in order to appear clever or to lend legitimacy to your agenda. Wearing a white coat with a stethoscope around your neck does not make you a doctor.
So, what is philosophy?
Philosophy is a method of inquiry. Philosophers don’t search for knowledge. We seek truth and understanding. There is an overlap between philosophy, science and theology. All three disciplines attempt to explain what we see and experience. As well as inquirers, philosophers could also be called explainers.
How to become a philosopher
- New students begin by studying the work of the great explainers in philosophy, science and religion. We must expose themselves to as many different ideas, from different ages and different cultures, as we are able. (I hope it is obvious that the technical writings of the science explainers are seldom studied, unless they have been re-interpreted in a form accessible to non-scientists.)
- Using these texts, we learn to examine arguments for their validity. We learn to identify universal truths that rise above the Zeitgeist. After completing these two stages, students have acquired a library of those ideas that we feel are useful. Poor students reject valid ideas and adopt ideas that have already been refuted, because they need their libraries to conform to their biases.
- We then learn how to construct valid arguments ourselves. We could also, if we wished, learn how to disguise fallacious reasoning as sound argument. Regrettably this is the course chosen by many public intellectuals.
- We learn to apply the skill of making arguments, combined with our libraries of ideas, to analysing and explaining current affairs. As these affairs are mainly concerned with society, the polis, the discipline is known as political philosophy.
The uses of philosophy
Philosophy is not a means of acquiring knowledge. We cannot use it to determine if there is life on Mars, or where we have left our keys.
Philosophy does not teach the right way to live your life, assuming there is a right way. It does not teach the meaning of life. The job of philosophy is to ask questions, not to pretend to know the answers.
Philosophy is a method of deriving a conclusion from statements that are assumed to be true, using the symbols of language. It differs from intuition in that it requires the use of reasoning. It differs from pure logic of the type that a card-player would use to determine who holds the Ace of Spades. Historically, philosophy has been used to discuss questions beyond the reach of science. Its purpose is to aid human thought by providing understanding and clarity.
Philosophy is a means of improving the quality of our knowledge. By questioning the obvious, by challenging our assumptions, by picking holes in our logic, by exposing our conclusions to possible ridicule, step by step we refine our theories into a form that more closely approximates the truth.
Philosophy helps us to understand. Only seldom is information presented to us in a logical way. To get our attention, emotional hooks and appealing anecdotes will be embedded in the narrative. We may find ourselves taking sides on an issue without understanding it.
Philosophy helps us to resist unfair persuasion, whether from politicians, lovers or advertisements. While there are very few original good ideas, every possible bad idea has already been thought of! Studying the history of thought enables us to recognise invalid arguments, no matter how well disguised. We are able to explain why the idea is bad, using the form of valid argument called rebuttal.
Philosophy helps us to find the truth. Many of the issues we face are a mixture of sensationalism, fear-mongering, appeals to partisan bias, half-truths and outright lies, with a few facts and truths well hidden away. If we find one flaw, we could be tempted to dismiss the entire argument as unsound. The methods of philosophy allow us to restate the argument in unadorned form, before we examine it for validity.
Philosophy provides a vocabulary and framework for asking questions. A badly-formed question can be answered in multiple ways. This could be our intention, if we wish to explore a topic by provoking a wide-ranging discussion of all the factors involved. Scientists however need to refine the question to eliminate all alternatives except the one question that must be resolved. A well-asked question will inform us when it has been answered, by specifying what the answer should look like.
Philosophy provides a vocabulary and framework for metaphysical speculation. Naturally metaphysics is nonsense, and profoundly embarrassing to modern philosophers. In the pre-scientific age, figures like Aristotle and Aquinas could be forgiven for discussing topics like the good, virtue and free will. Having had considerable success in defining such practical concepts as justice and rights, they imagined that abstract subjects would also yield to verbal analysis. For those philosophers who believe that, like other writers, they should be paid by the word, metaphysics is a fruitful field for expounding erudite-sounding opinions. In the future, neuroscientists may discover whether humans have free will. They won’t do this by talking about it, but through research and experiment.
Philosophy promotes inquiry. To progress as a society, we have to improve the extent and quality of our knowledge, and change our attitudes to what is already known. Many of the things we take as fact are simply not so. Philosophers should ask, “How do we know that to be true?” We should never say, “That’s just how it is, so don’t ask.” Although there is no limit to human curiosity, philosophers are driven to satisfy it. We are always asking questions, questions, and more questions, even if some of them cannot be answered.
Philosophy helps us to win arguments, or at least to argue fairly. Often these will be contradictory aims! And that leads to my last two points, which I consider the most important.
Philosophy helps us to choose. As rational humans living in society and citizens of this planet, we have to make logical decisions that we can live with, that consider the rights of other humans, animals and the environment, and that will not shame us in the eyes of society. Methodical thought allows us to give weight to factors like ethics and conscience that are not strictly part of a rational decision. From that we can deduce that despite what I said earlier,
Philosophy helps us to lead better lives. We base most of our actions on heuristics, or mental short-cuts that appear to give satisfactory results in most situations, and if they do not we will blame it on bad luck, not on the heuristic. This is fine when we are choosing which line to take at the supermarket checkout. When we apply simplistic thinking to choosing the principles by which we lead our lives, the result is likely to be what is euphemistically called sub-optimal. Why accept “good enough” when we could get better? Rather than to apply a general rule, would we not be wiser to consider each case on its own merits? We might, for example, find that by opposing both fossil fuels and nuclear energy, our noble intentions of saving the planet cancel out to a net zero. When we give to the poor, are we saving a life or encouraging a culture of dependency? The typical person is not equipped to answer complex problems. Allowing others to think for us, be it on the Jewish question, the Muslim question, abortion or same-sex marriage, is not only an abrogation of responsibility, so that we do not have to despise ourselves if subsequent experience shows that we have taken the wrong side. It also proves that we do not deserve the freedom to make our own decisions, except on such minor matters as which line to take at the supermarket checkout. To be a better person and to live more wisely, for your own greater benefit as well as that of others, study philosophy.
Ethics is a field within the discipline of philosophy. It attempts to establish principles whereby we should conduct our relations with others. Concepts like values and virtue are part of ethics.
Morality is very close to ethics, but more grounded in reality. It arose many thousands of years ago, as the rules followed by small communities of humans in order to prevent internal conflict. United tribes would survive, while divided tribes would perish. Today the politics of division have become a route to power, and morality has no longer an important part to play.
Religion attempts to establish as the reason we should be moral and ethical, the hypothesis that a superior realm exists to the one we see. Some religions present this realm as impersonal, but most invoke the existence of a god. In this superior realm we are rewarded for obeying the principles of right behaviour, and punished if we transgress. Almost all religions assume an afterlife, where further rewards and punishments await us.
Science is the systematic search for knowledge of the natural world. Some science is of the “Let’s press this button and see what happens” variety. Most science attempts to explain natural phenomena. A good explanation that is consistent with experience, and which has resisted falsification, is called a theory.
Economics is the study of the principles underlying trade. Despite seeming conflict between, say, socialist and capitalist economists, these principles are very well known and agreed upon. The conflict comes from choosing which precepts of an ideal economy can and must be sacrificed in order to pursue other goals, for example social justice or nationalism.
Metaphysics is the asking of questions which by their nature cannot be answered. As a philosopher I disapprove of metaphysics, but as an economist I support everyone’s freedom to engage, without harming the rights of others, in whatever activity pleases them.