How to Do Philosophy Better

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 10, 2010 in How-To,Reviews

Paul Graham is a Silicon Valley startup guru and all-around cool dude. He is also one of my favorite essayists: see Lies We Tell Kids and How to Disagree.

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.

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{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Maitzen December 10, 2010 at 5:03 am

Luke,

I agree with the gist of this post, if perhaps not with every detail of it, and I treat philosophy as a problem-solving discipline, one that works on particularly intractable problems. FWIW, here’s the course description for my Intro to Philosophy:

This course is a university-level introduction to selected topics in Western analytic philosophy, a problem-solving discipline that tackles the most challenging, most enduring—and therefore among the most rewarding—intellectual problems there are. As an introduction, the course assumes no previous work in philosophy, but as a university-level offering the course demands intellectual seriousness: you’ll need to work hard in order to grasp difficult philosophical arguments and react critically to them. After asking about the nature of philosophy itself, we’ll tackle philosophical problems concerning language, logic, morality, identity, freedom, knowledge, and God. We’ll work on mastering the logical skills needed not only for good philosophizing but for clear thinking on any topic.

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John D December 10, 2010 at 6:43 am

I have been tutoring an introductory class on philosophy of law for the past three years. While I don’t have complete control over the syllabus, I can safely say that I teach it as a collection of problem-solving tools as opposed to “the thoughts of dead (nearly all) white guys”.

Also, having not been in a graduate school philosophy programme I can’t say for certain but I’d reckon that there are plenty of advanced classes akin to those you suggest in the post.

Steve,

I enjoyed your new article on ultimate meaning. Obviously, it tallies with things you have already said on this and other blogs but it contains some nice rhetorical zingers and analogies that make your objections clearer and more powerful (to me at any rate).

One observation: Craig’s book is Reasonable Faith, not Reasonable Belief.

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ayer December 10, 2010 at 6:54 am

Two questions: Doesn’t this just open up a new debate over the meaning of the word “useful”? And, if the definition of “useful” is proposed as “whether people do anything differently after reading it,” didn’t many of the writings of the “old dead guys” meet that criterion?

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Steve Maitzen December 10, 2010 at 7:17 am

John D,
Many thanks for the kind words and especially for the correction (!). I’ll notify the editor right away and hope it’s not too late.

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Garren December 10, 2010 at 7:20 am

I certainly became interested in philosophy because of its applicability to the present, not to study the history of ideas.

In fact, my first (unsuccessful) attempt to learn about philosophy happened in college when I read a fair amount of Aristotle. It was mildly interesting, but he was so tangled up in false ideas about the natural world that I couldn’t really connect. A topic-based investigation is much more interesting and may well include a dip in the far past, but isn’t constrained by it.

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Hermes December 10, 2010 at 7:33 am

Ayer, I took the word useful to mean applicable, but in an exact sense not in a casual sense.

Kind of like how a chemist will use specific compounds or elements as a catalyst, and different ones to create other compounds. The application of each compound is tied to the goals and aren’t arbitrary, unlike many philosophical conversations by casual street philosophers. By contrast, someone without a working understanding of the utility of specific compounds or elements may just stumble upon a result without understanding how they got there; mixing bleach and ammonia, for example, produces a gas. Adding a very small amount to drinking water will help sterilize it. Breathing in quantities of it will kill you. The application is what matters, and that requires precision. Sloppy philosophers will also lack precision.

I think that is what is meant by useful.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 10, 2010 at 8:21 am

Steve and John D.,

Yup, there are many who teach philosophy as a practical discipline, but there are also many who still insist on the impracticality of philosophy. :(

I also think that there is still too much focus on the history of philosophy, even in classes by people who teach it as a problem-solving discipline. What do you think?

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CharlesP December 10, 2010 at 10:16 am

Luke, I’d love to see a list of a few suggested intro Philosophy textbooks (even if they’re not traditionally textbooks… and especially if they’re not $50+ ones), for younger students. I’m thinking in the middle-school, and then up into High-school level. I’ve read some of the things at: http://www.teachingchildrenphilosophy.org/ about engaging younger students, and now I’m looking at how to bridge the gap between that level and college level philosophy.

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MichaelPJ December 10, 2010 at 10:25 am

It’s ironic that Wittgenstein decided to make his fuss by way of being one of the most confusing and difficult to read philosophers ever (IMHO). For someone who was aiming at “complete clarity” by making all philosophical problems disappear, he was awfully cryptic!

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John D December 10, 2010 at 10:27 am

It all depends on what you mean by “too much focus” (irony!). The stuff I teach does, of course, cover historical positions. I can’t see how it wouldn’t. But, the presentation is always something like: Here’s an interesting philosophical question, one we all have to deal with; how would you approach it? Well, here’s what some people have said about it in the past. Here are the arguments they offered. Are they any good? etc. etc.

I’d say a course that is purely chronological in nature and simply takes you through a succession of historical views (e.g. a course on modern philosophy which took you from Descartes up to (who knows) Quine and jumped back-and-forth between different areas like epistemology and philosophy of mind) would be too historical in that it fails to organise material on a conceptual, problem-oriented basis. I’d also say recommended texts that are purely historical in nature are generally bad. But as to whether such approaches are common I couldn’t say since I never “majored” in philosophy (maybe approaching the discipline from the outside is an advantage?)

One example I could give, which is available online, is the Open Yale course on political philosophy. That strikes me as way too historical in its focus, particularly for an introductory class.

See: http://oyc.yale.edu/political-science/introduction-to-political-philosophy/

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Luke Muehlhauser December 10, 2010 at 10:41 am

CharlesP,

Alas, I don’t know much about that. Maybe the Stephen Law stuff?

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Martin December 10, 2010 at 11:01 am

I agree with Luke’s recent quote: “Philosophy sucks, but I love it!”

Ditto that.

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Charles December 10, 2010 at 11:10 am

I have Philosophy Gym. I highly recommend it. There is also The Philosophy Files. I believe that is basically the same material geared for younger readers.

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cl December 10, 2010 at 11:35 am

I would probably caution against exclusively pragmatic philosophy, not that that’s what anyone here is necessarily calling for. IOW, it’s fine and even healthy that some people focus on “useful” philosophy, but we also need the more traditional “pondering” type of philosophy as well. Many accomplishments have been made there.

Most philosophical debates are not merely afflicted by but driven by confusions over words. [Graham]

I agree. I think this problem really obfuscated things – and continues to obfuscate things – in the discussion on desirism. You guys use words like intrinsic value or utilitarianism or morally good in ways that differ substantially from what the average person is used to. As Alonzo said, “The Great Distraction.”

If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students. [Graham]

Nail on the head. Erring on the side of brevity as opposed to clarity. Too many people, in the urge to say something briefly, actually end up poorly communicating the ideas they wish to convey. That, too, afflicts debates, as well as the discussion on desirism. I can recall instances where clarity was sacrificed for brevity, but clarity was clearly called for. I’m sure we could all be more careful.

Garren,

I certainly became interested in philosophy because of its applicability to the present, not to study the history of ideas.

I wasn’t initially interested in the history of ideas, either. For me, the main impetus is that philosophy serves as a sort of “inconsistency filter” that helps me align my own ideas. I try to treat philosophy as a nonsense detector that can blow up in your face at any moment.

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Mastema December 10, 2010 at 11:55 am

I second the recommendations for Stephen Law’s books. He has a few for children (age 8+) that I picked up for when my kids are ready for them. For adults, his book entitled Philosophy is a good intro for laypeople. I bought a copy for my brother last year, and he’s really enjoyed it. The Philosophy Gym is also a good intro level book that goes a little more in depth in a few areas than Philosophy does.

As someone who went through an intro to philosophy class that would have been better classified as a history of philosophy class (pre-socratics up through Descartes, as my teacher spent way too much time on Plato, Anselm, and Aquinas IMO), I think that approach turns a lot more people away from philosophy than draws them in. Most people taking intro to philosophy classes aren’t majoring in philosophy, and they end the quarter thinking philosophy is just people sitting around discussing the ideas of dead guys, and see little application for their daily lives.

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d December 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm

oh fuck yes.

I got tingles. :)

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KT December 10, 2010 at 1:13 pm

The suggestion that philosophy needs some pragmatic results in order to be worthwhile is simply nonsense. It is one of the few things in life so clearly worth doing for it’s own sake. Philosophy connects one with what is highest and best in one’s nature. Philosophy should be about the care for the soul, both in terms of developing one’s character and in terms of devoting one’s attention to loftier matters as one seriously contemplates the transitoriness of life. Philosophy need not appeal to the masses, and if it appears to be a worthless endeavor to an outsider, so much the better. How much of ancient Greek culture was “practical?” And do we not revere them for their nobility of spirit, to have contempt for what was base and vulgar in favor of what was truly excellent and lofty?

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anti-Graham December 10, 2010 at 2:19 pm

This one goes out to Paul Graham and all the philosophy haters in Silicon Valley:

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…………./¯..//
…………/….//
……/´¯/’…’/´¯¯’)¸
…/’/…/…./……./¨¯\
.(‘(…´…´…. ¯~/’…’)
..\……………..’……/
…’\……………. _.·´
…..\……………(
……\……………

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Chris Hallquist December 10, 2010 at 2:31 pm

“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?”

The problem is that there isn’t much in the way of what we know now in philosophy, at least when it comes to the problems that most living philosophers care about.

Not all philosophy classes focus on the history of the discipline. Indeed, I’d even venture that most focus on things that have happened in the past 50 years. The problem is that most of the things philosophers have said in the past 50 years are about as doubtful as what they were saying 150, 250, 350 years ago. The sciences don’t have this problem.

Take Bayesian epistemology, for example. If you know the rate of a medical condition in the general population, and the false positive and negative rates of a test, knowing and being able to apply Bayes’ theorem is great. But philosophers can’t agree on how to apply it in situations not like that, though, or even on whether we should be applying it in situations not like that.

I’d even go so far as to say: if a philosopher tells you that philosophers have discovered that x, this is reason to be very, very skeptical of x.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 10, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Oh, ascii art. How I love thee.

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Scott December 10, 2010 at 4:23 pm

I think the catch is that it’s lumped in the humanities, and you’re basically wanting to treat it as a science, and many would be loathe to make that shift. Personally, I love the history of philosophy, but I get that what was important to philosophers of yesteryear is now considered irrelevant – we don’t worry about univocal predicates of god, for example. Luke, how far back do you consider historical philosophers still relevant? Hume? Kant? Wittgenstein?

Also, I think every discipline should have to study its own history & philosophy. Even if they don’t aid in performing in that field, it still places that knowledge in the intellectual tradition. Plus, it’s cool.

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DaVead December 10, 2010 at 10:07 pm

The philosophy courses at my school are either historical or problem-based. I’ve had positive experiences in both types of courses. Although they’re not my favourite, I still think the historical courses are vital to the institution. Is there not equal value in studying the history of philosophy as there is in studying history in general? And I want to refrain from claiming that studying and reinterpretting world history, etc. is just a waste of time. My problem-based courses are surprisingly relevant to the contemporary philosophical landscape, and most of my professors constantly press on the practicality of the topics. Although, these courses tend to largely be philosophy of mind and science courses. In fact, my metaphysics courses are almost entirely metaphysics of science.

I also want to say that studying philosophy of any kind is usually a life-changing experience, and this is good. Our intro-level philosophy courses are very irrelevant, focusing purely on the obviously wrong ideas of dead white guys. But, these courses blow open the minds of a lot of people, especially religious people.

In fact, I think the faculty intentionally makes topics like the non-existence of God and the non-necessity of God for morality take up the first half of our intro to philosophy and intro to ethics courses because so many people enter university with hand-me-down religious beliefs that stand in the way of their higher education. I’d say its a professor’s educational duty to challenge the infantile beliefs of their students, and this can be easily done with reference to the great detractors from religious proofs like Hume, Kant, etc. So I’d say there’s a lot of value in the old guys for that purpose. You get a much better reaction from teaching students that Kant disassembled their theistic proofs hundreds of years ago than you would by referencing contemporary literature or saying the question isn’t practical so forget about it.

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MarkD December 10, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Did Paul G. ever admit that he didn’t actually invent statistical spam filtering?

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Luke Muehlhauser December 11, 2010 at 2:14 am

MarkD,

Yes. Way back in 2003.

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Yair December 11, 2010 at 10:55 am

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?

What if young inexperienced men stopped thinking they were the only wise guys around and that everything new was shiny and everything old was stuffy? Oh, wait – then pigs will fly.

I’m biased by the wonderful course on Greek philosophy taught to me by the venerable Samuel Scolnicov, that manged to take us back through time into the minds of the ancients; a wonderful experience both historically and philosophically. Depriving this experience from other students of philosophy would seriously undermine their intellectual growth in my opinion.

The ancients largely wrestled with the same problems we do, and with the same anwers. Much of the “great” philosophers’ work is rewording and reemphasizing things that the ancients, or at least earlier philosophers, already knew.

Most of what the ancients wrote is foolish, confused or uncritical and unfounded. Most of what contemporary philosophers write falls into the same categories. Still, contemporary philosophers can write more clearly for our tastes, and draw on a far vaster repository of mental tools, mathematical formalisms, and established scientific knowledge and philosophical backlog. We can reach much further from the ancients – but not if we let ourselves be fooled by outward perceptions, not if we are blinded by the facade of modern sophistication so that we fail to see the deep follies that lie underneath or brush away with disdain the deep truths and insights found in ancient texts only because they lack this exterior veneer. Strip away the formalism, understand the context and thoughts that underly the arguments and consider their essence – and you will discover that much of the best of philosophy is actually ancient philosophy, given clearer and better formalism and embedded in a new context by later philosophers. Once you reach this understanding, you’ll be far better positioned to realize the deep problems underlying these “modern” positions – as the new formulations usually do little to change the underlying virtues and flaws of the various philosophical positions.

To reduce philosophy to only its “useful” parts is to lower oneself to uncomtemplative technocracy. To gush over newfound approaches like Baysianism seems to me to be more likely to be due to their novelty than to their true merit, a symptom of a shallow understanding of the deep thoughts that once occupied the ancient’s minds and an equally shallow understanding of the deep problems at the foundations of the new, shiny philosophy’s foundations.

Yair, in one of his more cranky and grumpy moods.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 11, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Yair,

Excitement over Frege’s logic is not due to its shininess. It’s because it works where Aristotle’s logic fails. The same goes for Bayesian science over Popperian science. The same goes for science in general over various forms of intuitionism or divine revelation. The excitement may be partly over novelty, but the truth is in the pudding, as they say. I’m not smarter than Plato, but I stand on the shoulders of 250,000 giants not available to him, and that alone is sufficient to allow me to see much farther and clearer than he ever could.

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Jacopo December 11, 2010 at 2:46 pm

I think that one of the reason’s it’s worthwhile studying old dead guys, is that you often need to know the set of assumptions and grounding arguments that a philosopher held to, in order to fully appreciate his or her positions on a given topic.

You don’t need to do that with science because they tend to hold a very similar set of given assumptions. Scientists have a need to link their work with the accepted body of research and research techniques, whereas the speculations, theories, and ‘-isms’ of philosophers have to link with and generally be coherent with their thoughts on other matters.

So if you see how e.g. Hume’s view on epistemology links to his view on personal identity, it can be a lot more instructive than just taking his views on a given topic as a contribution to arguments on a given problem – you learn more by seeing how his view cohered together. It’s in this fashion that modern day Humeans, to continue the example, can take inspiration and instruction from him by following his general, relatively consistent and mutually supporting interlinking of beliefs and attitudes and opinions in a coherent system. They’re almost like ‘case-studies’ in what happens when someone works through a set of philosophical issues whilst attempting to be consistent.

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ayer December 11, 2010 at 8:08 pm

I’m not smarter than Plato, but I stand on the shoulders of 250,000 giants not available to him, and that alone is sufficient to allow me to see much farther and clearer than he ever could

I don’t think so. As A.N. Whitehead wisely said, the history of Western philosophy “is a series of footnotes to Plato,” and that includes 20th and 21st century philosophy.

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Yair December 12, 2010 at 2:20 am

Luke,

Yair,Excitement over Frege’s logic is not due to its shininess. It’s because it works where Aristotle’s logic fails. The same goes for Bayesian science over Popperian science. The same goes for science in general over various forms of intuitionism or divine revelation. The excitement may be partly over novelty, but the truth is in the pudding, as they say. I’m not smarter than Plato, but I stand on the shoulders of 250,000 giants not available to him, and that alone is sufficient to allow me to see much farther and clearer than he ever could.  

I’m not really familiar with neither Logic nor Bayesian Epistemics, but I suspect in both cases you’re missing the point. In both cases there may be advances, even serious ones*. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t important lessons to be learned from Aristotelian logic or epistemics, nevertheless.

I believe you’re doing yourself a great disservice by focusing on the “usefulness” of things. Philosophy is the pursuit of what is true, of wisdom, not of what is useful, of technology – not even of thought technology. Along the way we invent useful stuff, like logic; but once we lose sight of seeking what is true and turn instead to seek what is useful, we make ourselves more shallow and we end up falling into confusion.

Understanding people can be difficult. You can’t understand Kant without some background, you can’t understand the Greeks without some background… You would think reading contemporary writers, that write to us, a modern audience, would be best. Why read the old guys, when you can read the good ideas from modern philosophers? But strangely enough, this is not quite the case. Contemporary writings are often superior, but there is still much merit in occasionally reading up on the ancients with modern commentary. Because of all the progress made, and because time is short, I think it wise not to read old or jargon-heavy writers without such commentary; but I generally find that very often such commentary brings to light very deep and profound questions and answers the ancients dealt with and that are often still plaguing us. These questions are often more pungent and interesting when raised in the historical context, without the overly of contemporary sophistication and language that can serve to hide, rather than clarify, the issue.

* I can’t resist the temptation to opine that while the advances made in both aspects are important, they don’t reach deep enough. I tend to see Fregian/Propositional Calculus to be a more powerful formulation of “laws of thought” that bears little on the philosophical questions underlying logic. And I tend to see Bayesian reasoning as something Reason would aspire to in some respects but consider its formalism to disguise and hide many underlying assumptions and Bayesian epistemology to be seriously missing the broader nature of epistemology. If anything, I’m impressed with Evolutionary Epistemology, which is of a more Popperian bent; although this too as only a major feature of knowledge, not as the One True Epistemic Theory; incidentally, it subsumes Bayesian re-evaluation of beliefs to some extent. I again admit I haven’t delved into these issues sufficiently, however.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 12, 2010 at 6:45 am

ayer,

Yeah, I just disagree with Whitehead. :)

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Luke Muehlhauser December 12, 2010 at 6:52 am

Yair,

Some of this may just be that we’re using different definitions of ‘philosophy’. If part of your definition of philosophy is that it is the study of useless things, then I can see your concern. I would still consider useless philosophy “philosophy”, it’s just not the kind of philosophy I want to do, nor the kind of philosophy I think we should do. Wisdom is not an end in itself. It’s a means to a better life, a better community, a better world. To treat wisdom as an end in itself strikes me as an instance of forgetting why we were all studying wisdom in the first place.

Remember, I’ve not advocated a complete ignorance of the history of philosophy. I’ve just said that there’s too much focus on it, in exactly the same way that it would be weird if chemists spent a great deal of time studying the history of chemistry and writing commentaries and interpretations of old dead chemists.

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ayer December 12, 2010 at 11:46 am

Wisdom is not an end in itself. It’s a means to a better life, a better community, a better world.

This would seem to assume that you have decided on your ends (using what non-philosophical method?) and then “use” philosophy to reach those ends; but what if Wisdom just is the knowledge of the proper ends to pursue? It would seem then that it should be pursued for itself, since it is a necessary condition for knowing what ends we should pursue.

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Kaelik December 12, 2010 at 4:31 pm

This would seem to assume that you have decided on your ends (using what non-philosophical method?) and then “use” philosophy to reach those ends; but what if Wisdom just is the knowledge of the proper ends to pursue?It would seem then that it should be pursued for itself, since it is a necessary condition for knowing what ends we should pursue.  

But of course, it’s not, because there are no proper ends to pursue.

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demiurge December 12, 2010 at 8:14 pm

This discussion reminds me of a quote.

There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.

– Alfred North Whitehead

Studying historical philosophy gives great insights into the assumptions of the learned class of their day, but I am with Luke, philosophy needs to strive to be more scientific and focused on useful application.

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ayer December 12, 2010 at 8:52 pm

But of course, it’s not, because there are no proper ends to pursue.  

Well, that’s one view–a view that would abolish the entire fields of normative and applied ethics, but it’s a view

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Kaelik December 13, 2010 at 2:14 am

Well, that’s one view–a view that would abolish the entire fields of normative and applied ethics, but it’s a view  

It wouldn’t neccissarily abolish applied ethics. But yes, abolishing fields that reflect on the nature of the non existent is generally speaking one of my desires. Hence also removing theology. Theology and normative ethics had their chance to present any evidence for the existence of their subjects, and have failed, it’s time to move on without them.

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ayer December 13, 2010 at 7:29 am

You can’t have applied ethics without normative ethics (what would you be “applying”?); you might as well just say you want to abolish “ethics”.

“By using the conceptual tools of metaethics and normative ethics, discussions in applied ethics try to resolve these controversial issues. ”
http://www.iep.utm.edu/ethics/

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Luke Muehlhauser December 13, 2010 at 8:40 am

ayer,

I once agreed with you about the dependency of applied ethics on normative ethics and meta-ethics, but now I think you can do applied ethics without first proving a normative view. You can do research which demonstrates that “If you already hold these values, then these are the implications.” The classic example is Mill’s case for women’s right. He said, “Look, Britain, you already hold to values X, Y, and Z, and if you’re going to be consistent with those values that you already hold, then you’ve got to change the way you treat women.” Likewise for applied ethicists working on the morality of eating animals, and so on…

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Reidish December 13, 2010 at 9:18 am

Luke, you wrote:

I once agreed with you about the dependency of applied ethics on normative ethics and meta-ethics, but now I think you can do applied ethics without first proving a normative view.

“Proving” a normative view is a far cry from acknowledging the existence of some kind/method/type of normativity. To me it seems like you’ve got to at least acknowledge normativity to get meaningful conversations going about applied ethics, because the latter is a subset of the former.

In the Mill case, if the antecedent is meaningless, the entire proposition doesn’t even rise to the level of being true or false.

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ayer December 13, 2010 at 9:27 am

Luke,

Well, sure, but then you’re not really abolishing normative ethics as Kaelik wants to do, you are just choosing a normative ethical theory arbitrarily (instead of reasoning to one) and then working out its implications.

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Kaelik December 13, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Luke,Well, sure, but then you’re not really abolishing normative ethics as Kaelik wants to do, you are just choosing a normative ethical theory arbitrarily (instead of reasoning to one) and then working out its implications.  

Nothing stops you from reasoning the implications based on many different arbitrarily chosen descriptive or personal ethics, and still believing that no such thing as normative ethics exist.

Additionally, there is no such thing as reasoning to normative ethics. Or at least, not sound reasoning. So I’m not sure why you choose to make such a big deal about arbitrarily choosing a personal ethical theory over reasoning to one, since everyone arbitrarily chooses one anyway.

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ayer December 14, 2010 at 6:42 am

So I’m not sure why you choose to make such a big deal about arbitrarily choosing a personal ethical theory over reasoning to one, since everyone arbitrarily chooses one anyway.

Because I disagree that all normative ethical systems are equally valid (or invalid), and thus that the choice between, say, Nazi morality and Ghandi’s morality is purely arbitrary.

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Kaelik December 14, 2010 at 8:53 am

Because I disagree that all normative ethical systems are equally valid (or invalid), and thus that the choice between, say, Nazi morality and Ghandi’s morality is purely arbitrary.  

Not all normative ethical systems are equally valid. They are all equally sound. Which is to say, not at all. They might be valid or invalid, and that is a separate concern. For example, Nazi morality has many contradictory values, and could be considered invalid. Ghandi’s morality… well, it depends on if you mean the one he preached, which was pretty contradictory, or the one he practiced, which might be or might not, depending on whether you believe he was more clueless or more calculatedly hypocritical.

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ayer December 14, 2010 at 10:46 am

Not all normative ethical systems are equally valid. They are all equally sound. Which is to say, not at all. They might be valid or invalid, and that is a separate concern. For example, Nazi morality has many contradictory values, and could be considered invalid. Ghandi’s morality… well, it depends on if you mean the one he preached, which was pretty contradictory, or the one he practiced, which might be or might not, depending on whether you believe he was more clueless or more calculatedly hypocritical.  

Ok, well, I admire your consistency. Would you consider yourself a nihilist, then?

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Kaelik December 14, 2010 at 12:54 pm

I would not consider myself a nihilist, because in practice, nihilism as a word has become conflated with too many different connotations that don’t accurately describe me.

I do believe human existence has no objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value, which was once the defining characteristic of nihilism. But in practice, I prefer to state that outright, rather then claim to be a nihilist and then argue about whether or not that means I reject governmental authority, or am overcome by despair for two hours in a sideline discussion of no value.

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James gradstu(pid) January 19, 2011 at 1:16 pm

This post has bothered me for a month now, symptomatic of an irk I have with this blog and others on Luke’s list of favorites (posted somewhere here) that I too regularly visit. So here’s a month’s worth of jumbled thoughts.

What’s most infuriating to me about Christian (say) apologetics is the often quite drastic oversimplification of the issues, positions, and counter-arguments, that the apologist relies on to make a case. It is equally frustrating when atheists make the same moves. (In fact, Sam Harris in the Moral Landscape makes much the same moves, waving off most academic philosophy he should be interacting with as “boring” and in fact insignificant to his obviously correct moral theory. Imagine Bill Craig making the same concession as a way to escape considering expert/academics/scholarly work? He would never live it down, and neither should Harris. I digress.) What’s infuriating, then, about Paul Graham (and oft this blog and its kin) is that they know better than to prescribe how chemists, English composition, or pre-med classes should be taught, yet they (who are not experts) seem to think they know just how philosophy101 should be taught (and even how philosophy should be done at higher levels). Does it not occur to these bloggers that people far smarter than any of us have been spending their entire lives working on these hard issues, figuring out how to teach them to others, and that the diversity of opinions continuing today reflects this continuing difficulty? If it were easy enough for a blogger, history would, presumably, have gone quite otherwise. Yet the moves I see such writers making is to that drastic oversimplification, as if if it can’t be understood by the blog and podcast listeners (the folk), or even undergrads, and if it is not patently “useful”, it is misguided. The trend looks like trying to make philosophy into self-help. That’s really very obnoxious, even for 101 courses, even for applied ethics. Is it not “useful” enough for a 101 course to teach the basic terms of the discipline? Or its history? Or some of its main past figures? How else, if it is helpful, could a discipline ever be? The “best philosophy we currently have” is rather unintelligible without the story of how we got there. And I don’t like the “Many philosophers agree with this” remarks. I boo it all

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