Monday, February 26, 2007

Is Philosophy Ever Profound?

I can't recall ever having had the inclination to call a bit of philosophy "profound". I've been wondering recently what's behind attributions of profundity.

The opposite of profound might be "superficial". I do think some philosophy is superficial. For example, if one critiques Descartes's Meditations by complaining that he ignores somatic sensations in the gut, that critique is superficial (unless one draws something interesting and general from that observation). But it doesn't seem to follow that any critique of the Meditations that fails to be superficial is consequently profound.

Is profundity a matter of striking at the core of an issue? Berkeley strikes at the core of our conception of "material objects" in his suggestion that there are none such, but only minds and their experiences, co-ordinated by God. Ayer strikes at the heart of ethics when he says there are no moral facts. Yet these thinkers are not, I believe, the sort often labeled profound. Nor are those who give straightforward responses to their arguments in defense of mainstream opinion. Perhaps their views are too clear and comprehensible to be profound?

A philosopher writes about a matter of considerable importance; it's hard entirely to understand what he is saying, but you get hints and glimmers; any attempt to express it in familiar terms (or in newly-invented but clearly articulated terms) seems to fall short; straightforward objections seem to miss the mark, because they depend on exactly what the text does not provide, a plain interpretation that cannot plausibly be shifted to accommodate difficulties. If you are prone to philosophical trust -- if you believe that there is an elusive truth behind the text that you don't quite understand and that plain-speaking philosophers always (even necessarily?) miss -- then perhaps you will consider the text profound. Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein invite this sort of attitude. In contemporary "analytic" circles, maybe Davidson and McDowell do (among devotees).

If I think no philosophy is profound, then maybe that's because I am not much prone to philosophical trust, and because I am doubtful that there are any important philosophical truths so complex that they cannot be clearly stated in 400 pages.

Or, maybe, emitting evocative hints and glimmers that defy clear interpretation and engender interesting thoughts in others -- maybe that just is profundity?


Anonymous said...

Is any philosophy not profound? If it's not profound, maybe it isn't philosophy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

So I'm wondering, Scott: Do you and I have different standards of profundity or different standards of philosophy?

Anonymous said...

Hey Splint, here's a thought.

"Profound" means that you face ideas that are threatening to you, it means courage in thinking.

We use the word that means "deep" because our tradition has a model of layers of honesty. The topmost layers are pure social responses, likeable chitchat that would offend (threaten) no one. Under that, some layers of knowledge, including knowledge of the lack of content of the top layers.

Under that, some understanding that social interaction distracts one entirely from knowledge of self and the world. And beneath that -- all these "levels" are simply spatial analogues to depth and layers -- is knowledge that threatens one's own existence as a sentient, meaningful being.

Anybody can come up with sociable chitchat philosophy, not everybody can face the truths that reduce themselves to meaninglessness -- it takes courage.

For instance, anybody can use the word "profound," meaning "deep," without wondering what it means, or why a spatial metaphor would be used to describe what is clearly not a Euclidean world with depth and extent, the world of thought. Not everybody dares conceive of thought, dropping its geometrical crutches.

Don't get suckered by the metaphor.


Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,
I think there's something to the idea that for a position/view/statement to be profound is for it to be simultaneously surprising yet obvious, and, lastly, somehow 'deeply' important. The 'obviousness' has something to do with a newly revealed explanatory feature that renders the previously opaque transparent. So, I guess I think that the profound is somehow related to the removal of mystery, and is some kind of psychological relational property more than some kind of property intrinsic to a view.
Also, I wonder if the following metaphor is helpful. Sometimes, when watching movies or reading books, there is a 'profound' moment when shivers run down the reader/viewer's spine (e.g. with Joycean epiphany). This is often associated with a plot twist or revelation that seems both surprising yet inevitable.
I dunno, I guess I'm rambling here, but maybe there's something to this.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting suggestions, PB and Mark! I hoped and expected that some readers would come up with a more charitable take on the nature of philosophical profundity. I like both your ideas (though I still like my own, too) -- and since I'm a pluralist and pragmatist about meaning (especially in philosophical contexts), that's fine!

Surprising, obvious (once reflected on), and important -- that's a tall order. I'm trying to think of examples. Maybe the "brave officer" objection to Locke's account of personal identity? ( ) Maybe Putnam's Twin Earth externalism about meaning? ( ) (My sense, though, is that although most philosophers appreciate such arguments, they wouldn't tend to call them profound.)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post; this is one of the more profound pieces of philosophy I have seen on the internet in a while . . . or is that an insult?

Mark Steen’s note reminded me of a talk from a visiting lecturer who interacted with folks like J.D. Trout on the nature of scientific understanding. His thesis was a phenomenological one; ‘understanding’ just is somehow the conscious experience related to the removal of mystery. Perhaps profundity is a part of scientific understanding; at the very least, it seems as though the profound is comprised of a phenomenal, perhaps even emotional, element. But philosophers and scientists are not typically considered 'profound;' preachers, poets, story tellers, artists, etc, typically are. On my view, this distinction arises because the philosopher is typically not seeking to communicate the ineffability of ‘what it is like;’ The philosopher’s tools are clear, precise, and objective from the start – and hence, not typically capable of profound utterance. For Dennett (2007), this is just fine.

Anonymous said...

I think it's your analytical philosophical bent that prevents you from having an intuitive sense of profundity -- it's that mix of dispositions that makes analytic philosophy possible and profitable for you. If you had a different bent -- an existential or an artistic one, perhaps -- this might not be a puzzle for you.

For me, contemplation on THE FACT THAT ANYTHING EXISTS AT ALL is about as profound a strain of thought as one can enter into. The whole of analytic philosophy, insofar as it's not concerned with such "existential" concerns, is superficial by comparison.

The way into this dimension of contemplation isn't through further language-mediated analysis, however. It's through meditation, artistic creativity, and sheer experience.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes share your worry, Eric (if it is a worry--for me it is, enough so that I sometimes worry if I should have kept studying literature). I suspect part of the issue is that most philosophy is not very emotional. Great works of literature (and sometimes existential philosophy) make me have Jamesian emotions (my bodily states noticably change). I can't remember a piece of analytic philosophy that did this to me. Sometimes I wonder if a better sense of the history of ideas would make me feel more philosophy is profound. Having just taught Putnam's articles demolishing behaviorism and then identity theory, I walk away thinking they are pretty profound (even if they don't win the day), in part because I feel like they were paradigm shifting when they came out (but I'm not sure if that's accurate), in addition to incredibly smart. Finally, I sometimes feel a piece is profound when it is cleverly done, such as Hofstandter's "Ant Fugue" or Dennett's "Where Am I?"

Criminally Bulgur said...

Great thread! To chime in with my own two cents. 'Profound' in my idiolect is part of a semantic network that includes:

1) Unexpected
2) Appearance of truth/rightness/aptness
3) Hard to get to the bottom of
4) In the tradition of Socrates, Montaigne, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William James, Wittgenstein, Sarte, Cavell, and Russell's popular writings.
5) Appealing to perennial adolescents.
6) Patrolling the borderlands between philosophy and literature in a way that mainstream Anglo-american philosophy decisively rejected when it fell in love with Frege's logic.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all those interesting thoughts, folks!

Michael, anonymous, Eddy, and Ignacio -- you all suggest, in different ways, that mainstream analytic philosophy has divorced itself in some important way from the "profound" in divorcing itself from the artistic, emotional, and literary. That's interesting and plausible.

I'm not sure I agree with it in the end, though -- or maybe I agree with it, but with a huge caveat. Analytic philosophy divorced itself from that which produces the emotional reaction that we associate with profundity; and if we define profundity in terms of that reaction, then it has divorced itself from the profound. But whether a text apt to produce that emotional reaction is likely to do so by virtue of any special insight into the world, I doubt. Maybe, instead, it relates in some way to getting certain of one's emotional needs met in a certain kind of way? (Or at least I'm not yet convinced that a deflationary, curmudgeonly attitude might not be the most appropriate attitude toward soaring feelings of "profound" understanding.)

Anonymous said...


I love this thread! A few thoughts about effecting emotion:

C.S. Lewis wrote an essay on religious language in part to defend the importance of poetic description from the charge that its primary role was to merely effect an emotional reaction: “The very essence of our life as conscious beings, all day and every day, consists of something which cannot be communicated except by hints, similes, metaphors, and the use of those emotions (themselves not very important) which are pointers to it.” (1967)

This might be an over-reaction, but I like the general idea: that there is ‘something it is like’ for us to have a conscious life as we engage with human practices that gets carved off with more abstract, objective analysis. But I wonder if there is still a good degree of agreement here. If the goal is “special insight” into the world, then the poet might end up a liar in many respects; in fact, our own constant addressing of our emotional needs – the stories we tell about ourselves – might have little to do with reality; philosophers like talking about the illusion of our narrated agency these days after all (I think there is an expert on this around!). Perhaps the question is whether there is a commonly shared human world of subjectivity that the poet gets right; the poet helps us remember what it was like when we first met the one who would become our spouse. “Ah, yes, that is what it is like.” Or the poet might paint a picture for the war-thirsty young man: “Oh, so that is what war is like; I’ll stick with peace.” The poet seems to play at times an important social role – training the emotions perhaps, or simply giving identity to a legal tradition, as in the case of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (now that is profound). Why not just see the philosopher taking on a different role, giving a more objective explanation to this these artistic practices; in other words, the philosopher is the arbiter as to whether the stories we tell are accurate or not and whether or not it comes from a simple substance or the brain. . . but it currently seems to me that the philosopher must engage these artistic practices in order to do so.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that delightful comment, Michael. I think I agree with you entirely. It may sometimes be impossible (or practically impossible) to communicate or recall an emotion using literal, truth-oriented prose; poetry, hints, music, overstatement, etc., may be necessary. Philosophy -- at least contemporary analytic philosophy -- doesn't even attempt that, but has a different sort of role. Maybe there's room for philosopher to take that broader role as well, but Hegel and Heidegger sure don't do it for me!

If we think of profundity in terms of evoking certain types of emotions -- maybe even providing "insight" or "truth" by displaying emotionally the appeal of a certain way of viewing the world -- then in some moods, Kongzi and Zhuangzi do that for me. I don't know if any philosopher in the Western tradition does, though. Occasionally, a film or novel will have that effect.

Anonymous said...

“. . . then in some moods, Kongzi and Zhuangzi do that for me. I don't know if any philosopher in the Western tradition does, though.”

Wow. It is still hard for some of us to get interested in other cultural traditions; but this grabs the attention!

Unknown said...

I'd like to suggest that the profoundess of a statement doesn't rely emotional content or artistic quality of is utterance in general. A profound statement has to provide a true or at least a convincing and satisfying answer to an question which is regarded as important. Furthermore the answer has to be derived more or less explicitly form a large set of basic truths and un-debated assumptions. The content of shared emotions could be regarded as one specific case of shared beliefs.
By acknowledging certain thoughts as 'profound' we confess that they provide an answer to a problem that seems crucial to us; secondly, that this answer is supported by beliefs and attitude that are indispensable to our world view; finally that we understand the given answer is such fashion that we are enabled to decide further questions or assume certain attitudes which now appear as consequences of the supporting attitudes. If that is the case, than the standarts of profundity are bound to differ from person to person, and there might be situational or social patterns correlated to the variance
Maybe Putnam's 'twin earth' doesn't seem profound to us, because it is mere experiment of thought. It serves as a example in a narrow and somewhat hypothetical scientific discussion; Putnam's problem is not everyones problem: if there the questions at stake has any relevance for everyday life is unsure and the answer given isn't grounded on any variety of commonly upheld views and attitudes but – elegantly none the less – on few logical principles and concievability.
Descartes Meditations, on the other hand, provided a answer to the question about the source of knowledge, different from the Aristotelian doctrine upheld by the church and the universities, or by skepticism. Based on the notion of doubt, a feeling presumingly shared by many scientists in the face of scholastic philosophy, and seemingly self-evident, i. e. conceptual truths, he cerated a new account of scientific method which empowered empirical research for natural law, guided by mathematics rather than by the doctrines of Thomas de Aquino. As long as the sciences had to struggle to be free from religious authorities, I guess, Descartes' thoughts on this matter were regarded as profound. Whereas today only philosophers pay them any heed, maybe as they discuss his dualism of the mental and the physical. Descartes has lost his immediate significance, so neither he nor his substantial critics seem profound to anyone anymore, but to philosophers engaged in research on the subject.
On the other hand, the impression profoundness might be caused by the expression of a vague thought, that doesn't really provide any answers or proposed attitudes - as long as it is rich in allusions to said shared attitudes and assumptions, and rich in references to questions of common significance. That might or might not be the case with Heidegger – depending on your -as you called it – philosophical trust. Within analytical philosophy, this deception not an option: everybody – except form Wittgenstein – tries to makes him self scientifically clear ad to use distinct, non-ambiguous concepts.
Maybe most philosophy doesn't seem profound to you because yo are a philosopher – as soon as a problem is of any significance to you, you stop trusting anyones opinion, and begin to search for truth.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that interesting comment, Leif. It does seem reasonable to think of profundity in terms of claims that provide answers to important questions that ramify through one's world-view. But then maybe some claims are "profound" that might not ordinarily be classified as such - e.g., my knowledge since college that I wanted to be a professor, a recognition of the importance of democracy and liberty.

I'm definitely inclined to agree with your concluding thoughts about the connection between trust and perceiving philosophy that proceeds by hints and glimmers as "profound" -- although I think you may be a bit too charitable to analytic philosophy!

Keith said...

I think whether something is Profound or not is whether or not something can transform/open up your thinking on something in some significant way.

for example, if you drip feed students modern scientific knowledge, they simply take it as a given, and there is nothing too profound about what they are learning.

But if you had built up an idea of the world based on Newtonian Physics, and then suddenly got introduced to Quantum physics, then that would be quite profound.

In Philosophy, I think we just see this constant drip feeding of ideas, nothing seems very profound, just a progression of ideas with some interesting variations. But, if you come from a non philosophical background, many ideas by many different philosophers can seem profound.

Zenos paradoxes for instance, are quite profound, and while the world for many years have settled on various answers, all of a sudden with new understanding of the underlying physics of the world, we are coming back and saying....whoa, hold on a sec!

So basically I'm saying your are jaded and overexposed if you don't see the profoundness of many of the significant philosophers ;-)

Quadruple A said...

I have been trying to figure out this same question. A symphony by Bach seems profound and maybe it is profound but that feeling only takes the form of a feeling it leaves one with a sense of ambiguity rather than justification. Reading Freud often seems profound because there is always the sense of something uncanny taking place within the formulation of his thoughts that aren't usually directly formulated but you can sense something interesting going on. Yet his explanation of the mysterious feeling of unity within Greek tragedy, the Oedipus complex, seems uninspiring.

For me the problem with people like Heidegger is that at first they seem very interesting because they use these religious images such as man is shepherd of being rather than the master. But when you try to figure out what he is really saying it doesn't seem like he is articulating anything that justifies that kind of religious language.

I think things seem profound when they suggest an invisible unity amidst chaotic and disparate things and when that invisible unity implies an ultimate and greater meaning. There has to be an aspect of divinity in my opinion for something to be truly profound. Otherwise its like. "Oh isn't it interesting how the real world works in such a obscure ways" such as how Heidegger tries to articulate the invisible unity of the everyday but the invisible unity he sees is just isn't "profound" in the way that I think of something as "profound."

The intersection of Literature and Philosophy that anglo-style philosophy rejects seems also to be like that. Lots of fascinating stuff seems to be articulated by lit crit types but what makes them seem fascinating in my opinion is that they suggest a deeper unity in life. Symbolic systems seem to have an uncanny order.

Wittgenstein and Kant would say that you can not articulate that invisible unity and that they only exist within the aesthetic. I don't know why that would be. I think that if the world has a unity it can be talked about.

Philosophers can also be profound when they create philosophies that articulate a deeper unity in life though they are not explanation of aesthetic experience.