Uses for Philosophy

A friend's suggestion for a writing topic is ‘philosophy thinks it has all the answers, but in fact it just raises questions’, which I have taken rather personally, seeing as philosophy has been the central subject of enquiry for most of my life. I’ve got my own theories on the value of philosophy, because, well, that’s the nature of it, nobody really knows. It’s up for discussion...I can’t look up the solutions at the back of the book at the end to see if I’m right. To be sure, though, my discourse is informed to a large extent by the teachings of others.

‘Concentration on truth’ is my personal description of philosophy. 'Truth' on its own is too general a concept to simply belong to philosophy. Truth is more over-arching than philosophy in many ways. Whatever subject you enquire into, the truth is what you want. Name your subject – history, geology, biology, maths, what you’re after is the truth. Call it a fact, authenticity, or moral righteousness, truth is what you seek. It is an inescapable element when you are searching for something. That quality, truthfulness, however, is easier identified with philosophical refinement; that’s why philosophy applies to every subject. It improves your chances of finding answers. It is the backbone of academia, the study of study, the analysis of analysis. When you present a case in any topic, you need an argument. In philosophy, the nature of argumentitself is the subject under scrutiny. David Hume, an 18th century philosopher, on the subject of epistemology (the study of knowledge) said “I can never catch myself without a perception” – because as you perceive that there is no perception, that itself is a perception. Views on the value of this may vary. Is it profound? Useful? Is it simply a word game? A psychological trick? Or is it pointless? A major factor is its intrinsic truthfulness. Rene Descartes argued ‘I think therefore I am’, pointing out a fundamental link between consciousness and existence. Although there are difficulties with the proposal that it is a synonymous connection (can one say ‘I am therefore I think’? – You don’t have to be conscious to exist, but you do have to exist to be conscious), analytically, almost unquestionably, unless you present some pretty heavily sceptical arguments against it, it is true. Although the nature of the game means that everything is brought into question, and nothing is beyond question, actually, the conclusions you come to (if you continue in a progressive manner), are more rigorously supported than they would otherwise have been. Philosophy is close attention to the integrity of a theory.

The problem philosophers face is that, without a finished product, we are seen to be irrelevant to proceedings. The philosophy that went into the study of astronomy or cosmology for example, is apparently so far in front of the manufacture of the telescope that you would think it had nothing to do with it. However, it is a philosopher who looks up at the heavens and asks the most basic questions, e.g. ‘why does the sun move across the sky? How do I find out?’ The answer would prove to be less obvious than anyone could have possibly imagined. Until somebody asked - ‘why are objects magnified when observed through a piece of glass of a particular shape?’ - progress in this field would be a lot slower. It’s to do with optics, sure, but before optics was optics, it was philosophy. In some ways, philosophy is what you are doing when you do not yet know the answer to a question. It is finding your way around.

And all enquiries begin in this way. It might seem basic and simple, but this shouldn’t lead us to believe it is superfluous to ask, at the very beginning of a task: ‘what do we hope to achieve, and how do aim we achieve it?’ How many essays fail because they do not answer the question? How many projects collapse through lack of good planning? How many schemes turn out to be what nobody ever wanted? Too often an idea is put into place simply because it is an idea. It’s just an aspect of the way we operate. Philosophy may aid proceedings by systematically discovering the worth of an idea. Hypothesising about its outcome, looking ahead and considering how and whether it could ideally be achieved.

Of course, trying to be philosophical will not necessarily produce the desired effect. Just as trying to be scientific may not result in scientific progress. A group of philosophers may talk around a subject and never get anything done. This is the nature of any discipline, so don’t hold it against the subject itself. Personally, the subject I have least faith in is psychology. I’d contest that any question asked about cognitive behaviour could be equally well, or better answered by philosophical reasoning than by psychological-data-gathering. Psychology is at least as transient in its ability to offer firm solutions as philosophy, except that it pretends it can come to scientific conclusions. I doubt this very much. The psychology of any being is massively determined by context. An example I have referred to in the past is that of a situation where a person’s parent is an alcoholic. This is absolutely no guide (void of a lived context) to whether the offspring will develop a specific habit regarding alcohol. He/she might gravitate massively towards alcoholism. Equally he/she might develop a massive aversion to the drug. Or simply have no issue with it whatsoever, because he or she has (or has not) come to terms with that type of addiction as a result. I think psychology has not quite found its place in the world of academia. There is nothing wrong with the study of behaviour. There is something wrong, however, with the assumption that psychologists can make objective judgements about us.

Here are some reasons to be acquainted with philosophy:

1. Philosophy is like magic; it is an illusion which, if you strip it down to its bare essentials has no substance, but the effect it produces is very real. A process of logical deduction can get to the roots of a magic trick.

2. Philosophy, used in moderation, is clever, sometimes even more so when you avoid the connotations of being overtly ‘philosophical’ (e.g. avoid using the word itself), has the potentially desirable effect of putting you in control, and can gain you real influence.

3. Philosophy is a master of argumentation. Break down your opponent’s argument to show their being right in a particular case has absolutely no bearing on the central point they are making.

4. Philosophy is baffling, exciting, mesmerising, hypnotising, spellbinding stuff; confuse your friends into forgetting what their question was. Make them go cross-eyed at an explanation of the difference between analytic and synthetic truth. Demonstrate how metaphysics underpins the sciences, and how space and time are constructs of our psyche designed to make sense of matter at its most basic level. Are numbers physical? No? I suppose they must be metaphysical then. Yes, they are physical? Show me one. Perhaps it’s a nonsensical question. How about ‘what is a number?’

5. Philosophy is fun. It’s a great way to pass the time when all you want to do is talk. Watch people’s expressions when they present their philosophies. It can be pretty funny. I think I get a slightly distant, confused look when I give my own. Like I’m trying to add 2 and 2 for the first time. Or trying to visualise 4 dimensional space-time. We all turn into little geniuses. You’d be amazed at the ideas you didn’t know people had when you ask them about philosophy. Crazy, it is. Someone who’s never even thought about the word will tell you the meaning of the universe, while someone with ten years training will say they don’t understand the question.

Philosophy is as useful and useless as you can make it. At the bare minimum it is just a bunch of words that serve to create mirth rather than being at all helpful. One of my favourite parodies of a philosopher-type is that fellow who acts the part of one of Eddie’s agents on Eddie Izzard’s Lust for Glorious. Every time he talks he says absolutely nothing, contributes nothing to the discussion, but in such an enthusiastic manner, and all good intentions. It’s great. Check him out. I think he wears sunglasses and one of those ear-covering hats. I charge you with the task of recalling something he has said after you have finished watching it. It’s nigh on impossible to repeat, even harder to paraphrase, because its just so meaningless.

At its most useful philosophy inspires high levels of progress in any field. In my humble opinion, any manager of any type of business will benefit greatly from philosophical training. You won’t meet many politicians worth their salt who don’t at least understand how to be logical, whether or not they have actually studied logic. And politics has a strong root in philosophy. Consider Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx, the age of enlightenment as a period of political progress, liberalism itself, the bases of capitalism or socialism. The theories that underpin them run deeply anthropologically. My friend has a point, there is no right or wrong answer. The trick is to let philosophy run like a machine in the background, not dwelling on it, always using it in an applied manner. Unless, that is, your intention is to contemplate your navel.



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