Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Ends of Philosophy

a guest post by Regina Rini

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty

The word ‘end’ is usefully ambiguous in the following question: ‘What is the end of philosophy?’ This question could be asking about the goal of philosophy. What is philosophy trying to do? Or it might be asking about where philosophy ends up. What is philosophy’s final resting place? In this post I am asking – and answering – both questions at the same time.

Most philosophers will tell you that truth is their goal. They want to know the truth about Knowledge or Existence or Justice. I’m sure this is how they sincerely experience it – but I conjecture that ‘truth’ is only an instrumental goal. What these philosophers really want, I suspect, is certainty. They want to hold aspects of the world finally fixed in their minds, to make it the case that they cannot be wrong, at least about certain things. In service of this aim, they will jettison areas of inquiry about which certainty seems impossible. Hence, their category of the philosophical excludes the empirical, the accidental, and the historically contingent. What is left are the necessary truths – those that can be known to need to be true.

My conjecture fits a dominant thread in western philosophy. What was Descartes doing, after all, other than paring his thoughts back to that which could not be doubted, and then building forward only on foundations of certainty? What was positivism, but an attempt to secure certainty for philosophy by designating as ‘nonsense’ that which could not be verified? And what is the contemporary project of philosophical analysis – with its insistent investigation of proxy concepts amenable to enumerated necessary and sufficient conditions – other than a flight from uncertain actualities?

Absurdity lurks not far below certainty. We conjure thought experiments in which we have stipulated certainty about the laws of nature or human motivation, and we say that this is the real test of a philosophical concept, even as we struggle to apply that same finely sculpted concept to the unstipulated world. We carve nature at its joints, then display the bleached bones in positions they never naturally took. A protestor comes to our class from the streets of Ferguson, the smell of tear gas on her clothes, seeking guidance of which we apologetically demur; this is a seminar on ideal theory, and she is asking a non-ideal question. “We are not insane,” we say to the intruder in the garden. “We are only doing philosophy.”

This brings me to the other sense of philosophy’s ‘end’: where does philosophy end up? Where is it located in social space? At the periphery, I think, and trending further so. Contemporary American society has little interest in contemporary American philosophy. When earnest public broadcasters put together a program on the mysteries of the universe, they turn first to physicists. If they want to chat about human nature, they call neuroscientists. Plato at the Googleplex, a very successful recent book, was noted for the thesis that philosophy still matters at all. No one makes news writing that about physics.

I think that philosophy’s goal-end of certainty helps to explain its outcome-end of social irrelevance. Many people do want certainty, but philosophy is not where they will go to find it. Religion, of course, is an ancient and numerically dominant certainty-provider. But a sense of certainty can also be found in political ideology. Or, increasingly, in science. Philosophy is trying to compete in the certainty marketplace, and it is not winning.

Philosophy has a crucial weakness when it contends for certainty-seekers. Unlike religion or political ideology, it abjures the manifest certainty of a supreme authority. And unlike science, it does not trend toward disciplinary consensus. A central fact about philosophy is that philosophers have been debating the same questions for millennia, with no end in sight. Philosophy is essentially discursive, even disagreeable, in a way that makes its aim of certainty a collectively self-defeating one. Any particular philosopher may become certain about her own beliefs, but from the outside philosophy will always appear as a squabble among people asserting mutually contradictory claims with equal degrees of extreme confidence.

This shows the problem with the official justification for philosophical analysis. We say that we need to step back from messy reality in order to sharpen our concepts. We’ll just be away awhile, whetting our logical knives on some stipulated thought experiments. We’ll come back to the world, we insist, once we’ve polished our sufficient conditions. But we never come back. We argue endlessly about what we would need to make our truths necessary, and then we die and are replaced by the next generation’s assorted –ism-ists. We retire from the disorderly public square, into our shaded garden, its trees all arranged in logical space and known with certainty… and we never return.

Of course some philosophers do venture out from the garden. But for every one who does, there are a half dozen others who whisper unkindly about the impurity of the thing. Philosophy done in public rarely displays the rigor that is a precondition of necessity. There are limits to the number of fussy objections one can anticipate without hogging the speaker’s platform. And so public philosophy will never produce the certainty that many philosophers seek.

What if we took philosophy out of the certainty game? What would it mean, for philosophers to tolerate uncertainty, ambiguity, irresolution? It might mean trading the necessary for the contingent. Conceding that politics are never ideal. Acknowledging that knowers are embodied and temporal beings are located in history. None of this is absolutely alien to philosophy, but it is far from the apparent aim of many practitioners. Yet if we care about being anywhere other than the social periphery, perhaps we will have to adjust our ends.

This is my final guest post at The Splintered Mind. Thanks so much to Eric for the wonderful opportunity to speak from this platform. And thanks to everyone who has read and commented on my posts. This has been incredibly enjoyable – of that, I am certain.

image credit: 'Tree in Fog' by Matthew Paulson


Thanks so much, Gina, for your wonderful series of posts over the last several weeks!

For interested readers, here are the other five:

  • Ethics, Metaethics, and the Future of Morality (Sep. 11)
  • Philosophical Conversations (Sep. 17)
  • Microaggression and the Culture of Solidarity (Sep. 28; adapted for the L.A. Times Oct 12)
  • The Laughter of Ethicists (Oct. 6)
  • Consciousness Science and the Privileged Sample Problem (Oct. 14)

    Luke said...

    I have enjoyed your guest posts, Dr. Rini!

    > Hence, their category of the philosophical excludes the empirical, the accidental, and the historically contingent.

    Theologian Emil Brunner argued this was the case: "in philosophy, history is an alien and an embarrassment"; "personalism is an alien and an embarrassment in philosophy, for one cannot think a person" (Truth as Encounter, 25–26). However, when I mentioned this to a friend who recently got his PhD from USC, he argued that this is only true of some philosophy. I see your 1 : 6 ratio; how did you arrive at it? If it's just your expert opinion based on pretty decent exposure to what goes in philosophy that's fine, but I'm just curious about figuring out what domain you're averaging over and how reliable you think your sample set is. :-)

    > This brings me to the other sense of philosophy’s ‘end’: where does philosophy end up? Where is it located in social space? At the periphery, I think, and trending further so.
    > [...]
    > It might mean trading the necessary for the contingent.

    Curiously enough, I would characterize Americans as not caring enough about theory, which is necessary for long-term thinking. Next quarter's profits and high frequency trading are all the rage. Tomorrow is important; projecting pensions properly with our best guesses at demographic shifts is not valued.

    What if our problem is actually properly balancing the necessary and the contingent? We could talk about William James' dichotomy of "tender-minded rationalist" vs. "tough-minded empiricist" in his Pragmatism, for example. I'm not necessarily advocating for pragmatism, but instead giving due weight to the one and the many, instead of elevating one and neglecting the other. Theory is important as well as practice, even though practitioners of each like to make fun of the other. I find that both languish when mutual respect is lost and communication breaks down.

    P.S. Have you come across Robert Burton's On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not?

    Scott Bakker said...

    I think the philistines have the better of the philosophers when it comes this particular issue. The lay perception is generally that philosophers are very skilled at rationalizing stupidity, that they have locked themselves into a kind of 'sensibility deprivation tank,' and, lacking perspective, crawl out claiming to have had visions.

    The idea can be summed up as, 'They think where thought ought not go.' I think it's becoming more clear the more we learn about our cognitive capacities that they are right. Philosophy is a cultural 'achievement,' the product of exapting existing cognitive and metacognitive resources to novel tasks. Thousands of years later, and we find ourselves embroiled in versions of the same problems confronting the first philosophers. It seems safe to say that there's a glaring mismatch between our 'cognitive and metacognitive resources' and the tasks we have traditionally charged them with solving. Something is wrong with 'theoretical reflection,' ergo, something is wrong with philosophers.

    To me, this is the more sober conclusion to draw. Attempting to rehabilitate 'uncertainty' as a virtue strikes me as yet another clever way for philosophers to rationalize persisting in their activity. The time has come to bite bullets, not dip them in more chocolate!

    Because you know that at some cognitive psychology is going to kick down the door. Philosophy too resembles madness not to find itself medicated in some fashion, eventually.

    Adam C said...

    I've enjoyed this post and others of yours - I found the piece on microagression particularly illuminating for me - sorry to see you go.

    I wonder about your view regarding certainty here. I look to people exploring things like schematics of metaphysical functionalism, the AI control problem, or the many theories of consciousness and I don't see much in the way of certainty. The people working on these problems seem to me to be more-or-less comfortable with uncertainty. If I had to characterize their 'end' it would look to me more like speculative coherence: locating theoretically possible and/or plausible systems (metaphysical, ethical, empirical, what have you) which synthesize a number of ideas while explaining others. The drive towards truth or certainty seemed to me to be more of a trend towards increasing the resolution of these theoretical systems - the drive behind the improvement of the theoretical model being developed, but not its impetus.

    Anyway, none of this actually counters your points about the degree to which philosophy is out of touch with the world - important points.

    Tamler said...


    Anonymous said...

    You write: "Most philosophers will tell you that truth is their goal. They want to know the truth about Knowledge or Existence or Justice. I’m sure this is how they sincerely experience it – but I conjecture that ‘truth’ is only an instrumental goal."

    I would tend to agree with Nietzsche and Foucault that the quest after philosophical truth is a mask, and that what philosophers are really after is power. The power sought is usually presented as a form of self-mastery, i.e. self-knowledge, but the philosophical kind of self-mastery being advocated (that of pure "inquiry" into knowledge, reality or the good) stems from an unresolved and largely unrecognized anxiety (about mortality and existential contingency).

    And along those Wittgensteinian lines, I recommend a book by M. Hymers entitled "Philosophy and Its Epistemic Neurosis" (2000, Westview Press).