One of his essays is How to Do Philosophy. He recalls his college struggles to understand philosophy, and then…
Twenty-six years later, I still don’t understand Berkeley…
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.
After admitting that formal logic, at least, might be useful, he concludes:
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? …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.
What went wrong? After a short history lesson, Graham writes:
If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students. Till one knows better, it’s hard to distinguish something that’s hard to understand because the writer was unclear in his own mind from something like a mathematical proof that’s hard to understand because the ideas it represents are hard to understand.
But then came Wittgenstein:
I think Wittgenstein deserves to be famous not for the discovery that most previous philosophy was a waste of time, which judging from the circumstantial evidence must have been made by every smart person who studied a little philosophy and declined to pursue it further, but for how he acted in response. Instead of quietly switching to another field, he made a fuss, from inside. He was Gorbachev.
Okay, so what’s the solution? Here is Graham’s proposal:
We may be able to do better. Here’s an intriguing possibility. Perhaps we should do what Aristotle meant to do, instead of what he did. The goal he announces in the Metaphysics seems one worth pursuing: to discover the most general truths. That sounds good. But instead of trying to discover them because they’re useless, let’s try to discover them because they’re useful.
I propose we try again, but that we use that heretofore despised criterion, applicability, as a guide to keep us from wondering off into a swamp of abstractions. Instead of trying to answer the question:
What are the most general truths?
let’s try to answer the question
Of all the useful things we can say, which are the most general?
The test of utility I propose is whether we cause people who read what we’ve written to do anything differently afterward. Knowing we have to give definite (if implicit) advice will keep us from straying beyond the resolution of the words we’re using.
Then, an example of what he’s talking about:
As an example of a useful, general idea, consider that of the controlled experiment. There’s an idea that has turned out to be widely applicable. Some might say it’s part of science, but it’s not part of any specific science; it’s literally meta-physics (in our sense of “meta”). The idea of evolution is another. It turns out to have quite broad applications—for example, in genetic algorithms and even product design. Frankfurt’s distinction between lying and bullshitting seems a promising recent example.
Here’s the thing. Many philosophers agree with Graham. And since Wittgenstein, there have been a lot of people who studied philosophy in college and thought it sucked – but instead of just leaving, they decided to stay and reform it from the inside like Wittgenstein. There are lots of philosophers who dismiss most philosophical debates as misguided, and restrict themselves to problems that can admit of real answers. There are also many philosophers fighting to make philosophy useful again. Michael Bishop comes to mind.
Here are some examples of philosophical ideas – very general thinking – that are (or soon will be) tremendously useful in a variety of applications:
- Statistical decision theory
- Bayesian probability theory
- Strategic reliabilism
- The results of experimental philosophy
- The literature on neuroscience and the law
- Precise, alternative visions of economics and government, like participatory economics
The problem and its solution
One problem, I think, is that most people are introduced to philosophy by way of an historical introduction that usually ends with Wittgenstein. This only exacerbates the problem identified by Bertrand Russell:
Hitherto the people attracted to philosophy have been mostly those who loved the big generalizations, which were all wrong, so that few people with exact minds have taken up the subject.
What if things were different? What if philosophical education did not begin with the story of Plato through Kant, but began instead with precise and useful and exciting textbooks like Dawes’ Rational Choice in an Uncertain World and Bermudez’ Cognitive Science?
What if philosophers were taught the history of their discipline in the same way that biologists, mathematicians, businessmen, doctors, and accountants are taught the history of their disciplines – as interesting and sometimes instructive, but not nearly as important as mastering the best of what we know now?
What if advanced philosophy courses showed no interest in yet more interpretations of old dead guys, but instead focused on precise, general, and practical methods for solving real-world problems, like those described in Boyens’ Bayesian Epistemology or in Pearl’s Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems?
In short, what if philosophy was taught as though it were meant to solve problems and be of use to people?
That is how to do philosophy.