How to Do Philosophy

In high school I decided I was going to study philosophy in college. I had several motives, some more honorable than others. One of the less honorable was to shock people. College was regarded as job training where I grew up, so studying philosophy seemed an impressively impractical thing to do. Sort of like slashing holes in your clothes or putting a safety pin through your ear, which were other forms of impressive impracticality then just coming into fashion.

But I had some more honest motives as well. I thought studying philosophy would be a shortcut straight to wisdom. All the people majoring in other things would just end up with a bunch of domain knowledge. I would be learning what was really what.

I'd tried to read a few philosophy books. Not recent ones; you wouldn't find those in our high school library. But I tried to read Plato and Aristotle. I doubt I believed I understood them, but they sounded like they were talking about something important. I assumed I'd learn what in college.

The summer before senior year I took some college classes. I learned a lot in the calculus class, but I didn't learn much in Philosophy 101. And yet my plan to study philosophy remained intact. It was my fault I hadn't learned anything. I hadn't read the books we were assigned carefully enough. I'd give Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge another shot in college. Anything so admired and so difficult to read must have something in it, if one could only figure out what.

Twenty-six years later, I still don't understand Berkeley. I have a nice edition of his collected works. Will I ever read it? Seems unlikely.

The difference between then and now is that now I understand why Berkeley is probably not worth trying to understand. I think I see now what went wrong with philosophy, and how we might fix it.

Words

I did end up being a philosophy major for most of college. It didn't work out as I'd hoped. I didn't learn any magical truths compared to which everything else was mere domain knowledge. But I do at least know now why I didn't. Philosophy doesn't really have a subject matter in the way math or history or most other university subjects do. There is no core of knowledge one must master. The closest you come to that is a knowledge of what various individual philosophers have said about different topics over the years. Few were sufficiently correct that people have forgotten who discovered what they discovered.

Formal logic has some subject matter. I took several classes in logic. I don't know if I learned anything from them. It does seem to me very important to be able to flip ideas around in one's head: to see when two ideas don't fully cover the space of possibilities, or when one idea is the same as another but with a couple things changed. But did studying logic teach me the importance of thinking this way, or make me any better at it? I don't know.

There are things I know I learned from studying philosophy. The most dramatic I learned immediately, in the first semester of freshman year, in a class taught by Sydney Shoemaker. I learned that I don't exist. I am (and you are) a collection of cells that lurches around driven by various forces, and calls itself I. But there's no central, indivisible thing that your identity goes with. You could conceivably lose half your brain and live. Which means your brain could conceivably be split into two halves and each transplanted into different bodies. Imagine waking up after such an operation. You have to imagine being two people.

The real lesson here is that the concepts we use in everyday life are fuzzy, and break down if pushed too hard. Even a concept as dear to us as I. It took me a while to grasp this, but when I did it was fairly sudden, like someone in the nineteenth century grasping evolution and realizing the story of creation they'd been told as a child was all wrong. Outside of math there's a limit to how far you can push words; in fact, it would not be a bad definition of math to call it the study of terms that have precise meanings. Everyday words are inherently imprecise. They work well enough in everyday life that you don't notice. Words seem to work, just as Newtonian physics seems to. But you can always make them break if you push them far enough.

I would say that this has been, unfortunately for philosophy, the central fact of philosophy. Most philosophical debates are not merely afflicted by but driven by confusions over words. Do we have free will? Depends what you mean by "free." Do abstract ideas exist? Depends what you mean by "exist."

Wittgenstein is popularly credited with the idea that most philosophical controversies are due to confusions over language. I'm not sure how much credit to give him. I suspect a lot of people realized this, but reacted simply by not studying philosophy, rather than becoming philosophy professors.

How did things get this way? Can something people have spent thousands of years studying really be a waste of time? Those are interesting questions. In fact, some of the most interesting questions you can ask about philosophy. The most valuable way to approach the current philosophical tradition may be neither to get lost in pointless speculations like Berkeley, nor to shut them down like Wittgenstein, but to study it as an example of reason gone wrong.

History

Western philosophy really begins with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. What we know of their predecessors comes from fragments and references in later works; their doctrines could be described as speculative cosmology that occasionally strays into analysis. Presumably they were driven by whatever makes people in every other society invent cosmologies. [f3n">3]

With Socrates, Plato, and particularly Aristotle, this tradition turned a corner. There started to be a lot more analysis. I suspect Plato and Aristotle were encouraged in this by progress in math. Mathematicians had by then shown that you could figure things out in a much more conclusive way than by making up fine sounding stories about them.

People talk so much about abstractions now that we don't realize what a leap it must have been when they first started to. It was presumably many thousands of years between when people first started describing things as hot or cold and when someone asked "what is heat?" No doubt it was a very gradual process. We don't know if Plato or Aristotle were the first to ask any of the questions they did. But their works are the oldest we have that do this on a large scale, and there is a freshness (not to say naivete) about them that suggests some of the questions they asked were new to them, at least.

Aristotle in particular reminds me of the phenomenon that happens when people discover something new, and are so excited by it that they race through a huge percentage of the newly discovered territory in one lifetime. If so, that's evidence of how new this kind of thinking was. [f5n">5]

This is all to explain how Plato and Aristotle can be very impressive and yet naive and mistaken. It was impressive even to ask the questions they did. That doesn't mean they always came up with good answers. It's not considered insulting to say that ancient Greek mathematicians were naive in some respects, or at least lacked some concepts that would have made their lives easier. So I hope people will not be too offended if I propose that ancient philosophers were similarly naive. In particular, they don't seem to have fully grasped what I earlier called the central fact of philosophy: that words break if you push them too far.

"Much to the surprise of the builders of the first digital computers," Rod Brooks wrote, "programs written for them usually did not work." [f6n">6] Something similar happened when people first started trying to talk about abstractions. Much to their surprise, they didn't arrive at answers they agreed upon. In fact, they rarely seemed to arrive at answers at all.

They were in effect arguing about artifacts induced by sampling at too low a resolution.

The proof of how useless some of their answers turned out to be is how little effect they have. No one after reading Aristotle's Metaphysics does anything differently as a result. [f7n">7]

Surely I'm not claiming that ideas have to have practical applications to be interesting? No, they may not have to. Hardy's boast that number theory had no use whatsoever wouldn't disqualify it. But he turned out to be mistaken. In fact, it's suspiciously hard to find a field of math that truly has no practical use. And Aristotle's explanation of the ultimate goal of philosophy in Book A of the Metaphysics implies that philosophy should be useful too.




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