May 08, 2011

The Job of a Philosopher is Nothing Special

This may is a big pronouncement, but do philosophers generally acknowledge that they're actually doing nothing in their own departments that couldn't just as easily be a side-project whilst they work in a different capacity in another department? I think that many philosophers don't, but don't really take the time to justify their own existence convincingly to the lay public, to academic boards, or to many domains of the academic community at large. Worse yet, I think that they, not the philosophers, are right not to be convinced.

Despite my being entrenched in certain problems that relate to "philosophers," per se, I never really thought that the title itself meant anything beyond "professional arguer," someone who has an encyclopedic knowledge of a narrow subcategory of some other profession's work, and whose role is largely that of a handmaiden's: We pinpoint the inconsistencies in that profession's work, or conversely, solve problems by formal inference that they hadn't yet done for themselves.

The problem that I often found in practice and interaction with other philosophers, either in texts or in face-to-face discussion, is that philosophers have this horrible habit of "system building," of musing on a topic so independently that its conclusions either lose relevance to the actual data that they're supposed to survey and assess for clarity and coherence. "System building" is that pretense that laymen feel once they see the philosopher's dastardly habit of trapping themselves in their own neologisms, and then condescending people whose "expertise" (which one can fake with a masterful use of specialist jargon) doesn't assume a full knowledge of the same neologisms.

The heart of the futility of the study and practice of "philosophy" (whatever philosophers themselves dispute that it means) become clearer when you tug at threads that are uncomfortable for philosophers. This is something that no appointed philosopher would sanely do in his own interest. Who would make the academic career move of outlining the logical incoherence of his own profession as a substantial independent study, that is, philosophize "philosophy" away by equating it with its rather dull synonym -- argument, and then show that argument is not really much to squawk at? (Surprisingly, the answer is, "A few..." Wittgenstein, Rorty, and members of the Vienna Circle and Berlin Circle were among them.)

The first is a puzzling paradox. Some philosophers deal in paradoxes, but I've not yet met a philosopher who presented me with a philosophical paradox that, if found to be a mere incoherence (as, say, Russell's or Curry's are), would de-legitimize their profession as a standalone institution. This one, I think, does exactly that.

Philosophers are very keen on taking an area of philosophical or scientific concern, and then appending the prefix meta- to it to expound ideas that would not be acceptable claims within the study itself, but still present themselves as relevant discussions on the whole practice. For instance, metaethics attempts to examine the statements that are made within ethics, without actually doing plain old descriptive ethics. Metaphysics attempts to examine the statements that are made within physics without actually doing plain old descriptive physics. Metalogic...the same.

Every meta-study comes with its own "metalanguage," perhaps none more conspicuous than the metalogic's next-level fabrication of operations (on which I could rant volumes) that clarify the problems no better than the object language of the study already intends.

However, the most paradoxical practice extant in philosophy is "metaphilosophy." I should remark that this is a departmentally productive area. Many philosophers will list metaphilosophy as a specialization on their CV's. Metaphilosophy has a philosophical history and productivity (if this essay isn't an example). If your instincts were to laugh at the entire concept of "metaphilosophy" as a legitimate study, you're actually more justified in that laughter than you might think.

I want you to imagine a man. His job is x. He doesn't know that, though, but he is paid a middle class salary to attend office hours, give lectures, and so forth on topics about which he does have some claimed expertise. Ironically, these are all sub-disciplines of x. Well, like any good academic, he wants to know what x is, so he'll ask himself, "What do I do for a living?" And, amazingly, he'll struggle with the answer. Only in a philosopher does this kind of conundrum hit people. Ask a mechanic what he does, and he'll answer, "I fix cars." Ask what a homeopath or chiropractor does, and he'll give you an answer (again, the practice doesn't have to be legitimate, just provide a coherent answer). Homeopaths dilute stuff in water and call it medicine. Chiropractors crack your back and then scold you for having a cracked back.

Imagine, then, a conversation with a philosopher on this very matter:
  • Inquiring Mind: "What do you do?"
  • Philosopher: "I'm a philosopher."
  • IM: "Oh, I see, and what does a philosopher do?
  • Phil: "Well, we argue about things."
  • IM: "I see, so what makes you different from any other study of anything?"
  • Phil: "Let's see if I could differentiate my role a bit. Studies argue with certain tools. Some are empirical, others are conjectural, and others are formal. Our study is different namely in that we wait for other studies to use their tools to collect reliable data, and then we use just one tool, logically stiff-nosed rhetoric, to outline the coherence or incoherence of the views that such data reasonably imply."
  • IM: "I see, so your job is to take other people's work and sniff out possible problems or solutions that they, themselves, may not see."
  • Phil: "Partly, yes. Our work is also to relate the conclusions and implications of that data to the work of other academics who did our exact jobs in philosophical history."
  • IM: "But don't professionals in those other studies use logically stiff-nosed rhetoric in their own efforts to verify and justify the claims that fall within their domains?"
  • Phil: "Yes, regularly."
  • IM: "I see, so a physicist, for instance, could reasonably do the work of a philosopher. Could a philosopher do the work of a physicist?"
  • Phil: "I guess that would depend on one's training. A physicist could be a philosopher if he had a great knowledge of his study and the implications of his study."
  • IM: "I don't think that would be a problem for a professional physicist."
  • Phil: "Also, a philosopher could be a physicist if he acquired a sufficient speciality in physics."
  • IM: "I see, so it's a downhill climb, academically speaking, for a physicist to be a philosopher, but an uphill climb for a philosopher to be a physicist. It sounds like physicists do harder work than philosophers do."
  • Phil: "It's not that one is harder or easier. They're just different."
  • IM: "Does that mean that a physicist, assuming that he were interested in philosophizing, would lack some knowledge that is fundamental to good philosophy?"
  • Phil: "Most physicists, for instance, don't read much other philosophy. They would have a harder time relating their findings to the thoughts of others."
  • IM: "What about Aristotle, or Galileo, or Newton, or Mach, or Reichenbach, or Einstein, or Heisenberg, or Feynman, or Krauss, or...?"
  • Phil: "Okay, okay! Physicists may very well have tools to offer insight into their own disciplines, but philosophers branch out into many different sub-disciplines."
  • IM: "Right, but couldn't I always produce a list of names of noteworthy professionals in a field that you mention whose work contains significant philosophical merit?"
  • Phil: "The problem, I'm afraid, is that all good arguments have philosophical merit."
  • IM: "Do philosophers know that there are already professionals in their fields who are doing the work that they want to do?"
  • Phil: "If they're worth reading, yes."
  • IM: "Okay, then I'm back to my original question. How is philosophy different from any other study, besides its use of fewer tools than other disciplines use to arrive at their conclusions?"
  • Phil: "I'll have to think on it."
  • IM: "You also mentioned that philosophers compare their data or thoughts with the thoughts of other thinkers in history. What, then, makes him any different from a historian?"
  • Phil: "Well, a historian's main interest is to prove the facts of the occurrences of events, while philosophers would be interested in associating the thoughts of figures to each other."
  • IM: "Doesn't that assume that thinking thoughts aren't events?"
  • Phil: "One could say that."
  • IM: "Well, are they?"
  • Phil: "I think that our intuitions would tell us as much."
  • IM: "A historian then could reasonably do the comparative work that a philosopher does, and then track the development of those thoughts throughout intellectual history."
  • Phil: "Yes, I suppose so."
  • IM: "Would it be an uphill climb, academically, for philosophers to do that job?"
  • Phil: "No, not really. Philosophers are particularly keen on doing this, especially when their own expertise is on the thought of a famous figure in the history of philosophy."
  • IM: "Doesn't that present a problem, though? Philosophers await other thinkers' results, and then they evaluate them rigorously."
  • Phil: "Right."
  • IM: "The problem with that is that philosophers from history are using outdated data from older periods in intellectual history, so their problems may be solved by contemporary developments in those fields, or the philosophers themselves may have used comparatively less reliable data (by contemporary standards) to reach their conclusions, and so have less reliable conclusions."
  • Phil: "This can be the case sometimes."
  • IM: "Why, then, would we care about what they thought outside of mere historical curiosity?"
  • Phil: "Sometimes their conclusions are still true, and we still haven't solved the problems that they've presented. Take the problem of induction. It's a problem that is reserved for philosophers mostly, yet the conclusion affects all natural sciences."
  • IM: "And yet the natural sciences have a method that reliably curtails that problem: falsifiability, abductive reasoning, and fallibility principles."
  • Phil: "I guess they are doing well for themselves."
  • IM: "Are there genuinely philosophical problems, then, or are all philosophical problems hijacked from other areas' problems?"
  • Phil: "I'm afraid that answer would take more time to answer, but feel free to take a few courses to become more acquainted with the study."
  • IM: "I would, but from what you've presented, I could get the same training if I studied anything that interested me outside of philosophy."
Therein lies the paradox of the metaphilosopher. A metaphilosopher is doing is job if, and only if he assumes that he isn't sure of what he does, but assumes that it's more than what he really does. It reduces to a logical error of attempting to argue on something before giving some a clear definiens for that thing that the argument is supposed to address. The metaphilosopher must forge his argument under an indeterminate universe of discourse, which makes his claims arbitrary.

The fact that a person can be paid to ask himself what he does for a living is laughable, namely because it shows exactly how narrow his role of a mere arguer is. The only problem is self-overestimation, which is widespread among philosophers. They "do more than just argue," or so they think. If that were the case, they would already know what those extra roles might be, and they wouldn't have to appeal to their sole tool, argument, to decipher those roles for themselves. Mechanics know that they're mechanics precisely because they fix cars and are paid for doing so. They don't use the act of fixing a car to learn that their job description is auto repair. They don't assume that they "don't just fix cars" (no matter how much Pirsig would want to over-inflate the task). They're clear about their role, and thus work in a sane and sustainable profession. Philosophers don't, and their obsolescence becomes clearer with every leap that every discipline makes and upon which other philosophers feed.

This is why I would prefer not to be called "a philosopher" in any sense more than I'm "a good arguer about certain topics." That's all there is to it, and that's all there is to us.

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