Defining Philosophy

My previous comments on what the history of philosophy is have prompted me to say what I think philosophy is.

‘Philosophy’, said A.N. Whitehead, ‘is the welding of common sense and imagination into a restraint upon specialists.’ Or, to paraphrase R.G. Collingwood, philosophy consists of timely reminders of facts that are so obvious that specialists have forgotten them. That all seems about right to me.

For example, I wrote a post about A.J.P. Taylor’s philosophy of history. His philosophy of history was the following:

‘But men do think, you know.’ (The Trouble Makers, p.22)

It seems obvious, but it is easily forgotten. Taylor was issuing the reminder against historians who explain everything people do in terms of prejudices, collective emotions, and systems of land-tenure. But there are others to issue it against. When policy-makers consult the experts, they go to economists, who provide them with models that would apply if all investors were computers solving arbitrage equations and all households maximized preferences subject to constraints. Then they go to PR consultants who say that people respond well to particular catchphrases as hedgehogs curl up when you poke them. But, you see, people think.

This is why philosophy doesn’t progress in the way that science does. It doesn’t layer up new discoveries. You don’t have to discover that people think. You just have to stop forgetting it. But while philosophy doesn’t progress, it does have to keep up with the times. People forget obvious facts for different reasons, cultural and psychological. Patent truths are obscured by current intellectual fads. Marxists forget that people think because Marxism does not tell them that people think. Neoclassical economists forget that people think because they look at their models instead of at the world. Politicians forget it because they themselves rarely think, and they generalize from their case to humanity as a whole, especially when PR consultants encourage them to do so. A successful reminder must take all this into account. That’s why my above definition of philosophy includes the word ‘timely’.

Philosophy can very easily stop being philosophy when it tries to develop too much from the obvious facts it points out. Take, for example, British Idealism. In the nineteenth century, natural science made incredible discoveries by dividing  the various phenomena in nature into different fields of study: chemistry, biology, the study of electricity and magnetism, and so on. The British Idealists found it salutary to remember that all these phenomena hang together in a whole, which is the universe. But then they sought to develop their own specialist science of accounting for this unity. They pressed the analogy between the way in which different things hang together in nature and the way in which the elements of conscious experience hang together in a mind. From this they speculated that the universe itself might be a kind of giant mind and everything in it its various experiences.

G.E. Moore restored philosophy with the reminder that he lived on the planet Earth, which is a not an experience but a big physical thing, and that he had hands, which were not experiences but small physical things. Then he lost philosophy again by developing a specialist science of his own – a science of analyzing truths of this kind. We know that we have hands, and that they are physical things, but what is it, exactly, to know? And what, exactly, are physical things? Analytic philosophy is to a large extent still the continuation of this science. It does not simply state obvious truths – the truth, for example, that everybody is either bald, not bald, or somewhere in between, or that ‘it rains tomorrow’ is possibly true while ‘it rains when it rains’ is necessarily true. Rather, it tries to account for these facts and our knowledge of them, using complicated perspicuous notations. Somewhere in all of this, I am sure, obvious truths have been lost, and thus the need for philosophy remains pressing.

One of the best examples of philosophy, as I see it, can be found in Collingwood’s New Leviathan. Here he is criticizing the theory of Rousseau, that ‘Man is born free and is everywhere in chains’. This is a highly influential theory, seized upon by radicals and conservatives alike. But it is obviously false. I quote Collingwood:

To be free is to have a will unhampered by external force, and a baby has none.

To be in chains is to have a will hampered by something which prevents it from expressing itself in action; and a baby has none.

A man is born a red and wrinkled lump of flesh having no will of its own at all, absolutely at the mercy of the parents by whose conspiracy he has been brought into existence.

That is what no science of human community, social or non-social, must ever forget. (23.94-97)

How obviously true all this is and yet how grandly obscured by Rousseau’s evocative nonsense.

Collingwood points out elsewhere, in his Essay on Philosophical Method, that working back to obvious truths that we have forgotten in an excess of specialization requires a very different kind of thinking and a very different kind of writing than specialist sciences.

On the writing side, rather than inventing new technical terms, the true philosopher must ‘go to school with the poets’ and learn to use familiar language in creative ways. Technical terms cannot be necessary for expressing obvious truths, and to use them where they are not necessary is mere abuse. And yet those obvious truths that we are not in the habit of noting are often, for this very reason, things we have not developed our language in order to easily express. For example, Captain Ahab says: ‘Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it cannot solve itself.’ This is an odd use of familiar terms. People solve puzzles and equations, but how can anything, let alone the world, ‘solve’ a person? And how can the world ‘solve’ itself? Yet when you read the sentence, at least in context, you see what it means. You also see that it is obviously true, and that, awkward as it seems, there is no better alternative to Ahab’s mode of expression.

Although the analogy with poetry is strong, it is not only in literature that this philosophical use of language is required. To create a new technical term for a kind of conic section, say a parabola, is to risk having the new label obscure an obvious truth about what the thing actually is. To define it in simpler terms requires ingenuity: we can describe a parabola as an ellipse with one of its foci removed to an infinite distance. Here technical terms are still present, but a kind of poetic and imaginative use has been made of them in order to characterize the thing rather than merely labeling it. As a result, an obvious geometrical truth has been kept in sight, namely that the parabola and the ellipse are two versions of the same thing. It is no coincidence that the earliest known geometers to define a parabola in this way came from the same culture that produced the dialogues in which time is described as the moving picture of eternity and understanding as a species of love.

Philosophers also need to work hard to convince specialists that they are not just peddlers of more specialist analysis. In the third of George Stigler’s Tanner lectures you will find a criticism of Robert Southey’s: Sir Thomas More; Or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects  of  Society. Stigler takes issue with Southey’s invidious distinction between the pretty cottages of the agrarian age and the ugly cottages of manufacturers. But Stigler makes this criticism because he understands Southey to be propounding a theory of economic development. What he misses is that Southey is, at this point, just noting something obvious that theorists of economic development forget, namely that the products of industrialization are often uniquely hideous, whatever their merits. Similarly, Stigler criticizes John Ruskin for saying that cooperation is life and competition is death. Ruskin, he feels, overlooks the efficiency and increase in net product that comes from competition. But again, Ruskin is not talking about net product; he is simply reminding economists that existence in a competitive marketplace, even for those who succeed according to its standards, is more of a living death than a rich life. He is not advancing this as the outcome of some economic argument; he is suggesting that everybody will remember it if she thinks about her life in the right way.

Of course ‘life’ and ‘death’ have unfamiliar senses as Ruskin uses them, but Ruskin, who has certainly gone to school with the poets, makes these as clear as he can, at least to people who read his books, rather than just reading excerpted passages quoted in other books as Stigler does. To understand a book, you have to read it; this is my philosophy of reading. See how obvious it is? Yet people act every day as though it isn’t true.

Then there is the question of philosophical thinking. How do you arrive at obvious truths? They don’t come when you call them, nor can you dig them up with any amount of theoretical heavy machinery. Like Proust’s involuntary memories, they emerge with all their vividness only when the whirring of our conscious reflection has been temporarily silenced. The point of Descartes’ Meditations, as I read it, is not to find out what knowledge can withstand the onslaught of scepticism. Rather, it is to use scepticism to quieten down all the deliberate mental activity we normally exercise in building theories and constructing arguments, to render the intellect passive, so that the obvious truths can speak themselves. Thus you are hammering away at your theory of how changes in tax policy led to the first world war; you take a break, and something in you says ‘Oh, except people think’. You were celebrating the Pareto optimality of a certain market scenario, then you realize that there is nothing optimal about people working like dogs to buy the ugliest possible things for the cheapest possible price. You design a bomb, then you realize it will kill people. You argue all day for an efficient reform to the welfare system, then the plainness of its cruelty haunts you in the night like Marley’s ghost. You build an elaborate semantic model, and then you remember that language is used by humans rather than ciphers.

There is a speech by the late David Foster Wallace, which people like to quote, where he says the following:

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.

But I don’t think that is quite what I mean by ‘philosophy’. Philosophy does have to do with knowledge – knowledge of overlooked obvious facts. Nor should a philosopher assume that these facts will be about things that are more real and essential than other things. That people think is an obvious and overlooked fact, but people and thinking are a long way from being the most real and essential things in the universe. And nor does philosophy include Wallace’s assumption that there should be any particular therapeutic value in recovering obvious truths. Many such truths are unedifying. It is an obvious truth that every person dies; here somebody replies: ‘So make the most of your life while you’re alive!’ Wallace gestures at something like this in the quotation above. But it’s also an obvious truth that most of us don’t really make the most of our lives, even after being told to. Other consolations offered in the face of death involve the neglect of obvious truths. This is not edifying, but it is, I think, true.

The value in recovering obvious, overlooked truths is prudential rather than therapeutic.  Oblivion of obvious truths may often be a happier condition than its alternative; it is certainly often a more lucrative one. But sooner or later it will lead you into trouble. Hence the value of philosophy, that is to say, in usefulness rather than in glamour.

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2 thoughts on “Defining Philosophy

  1. Pingback: Thoughts After HOPOS II | Origin of Specious

  2. Pingback: Krugman discovers the obvious | Origin of Specious

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