Monday, January 5, 2009

The philosopher paradox

"Philosophers should be people who think especially well, but to have decided upon a career in philosophy marks you as irrational. How do you deal with that raging incoherence?"

That's my mom responding to a report on the hard economic times for philosophers.

Based on that report, it seems that philosophers at the latest American Philosophical Association conference have gotten desperate for topics. Their papers and panels at the conference included the following:

Philosophical Perspectives on Female Sexuality

Depression, Infertility and Erectile Dysfunction: The Invisibility of Female Sexuality in Medicine

Analyzing Bias in Evolutionary Explanations of Female Orgasm
Can you detect the subtle theme?

I'm not sure what the point of philosophy is, if that's what it's become.

But then, I've never quite understood the point of philosophy anyway. In the early days of this blog, I wrote:
I agree with what John Searle says in an interview in What Philosophers Think: that skepticism about the existence of the-real-world-as-we-know-it is like Zeno's Paradox: an intriguing, mind-bending puzzle that smart people will mull over but then quickly move on from, to focus on more important philosophical problems. You don't let Zeno's Paradox reshape your whole view of what philosophers do -- they're not on a mission to explain how there can be motion. But that seems to be roughly what's happened with analytic philosophy, thanks largely to Descartes. (Thus, my philosophy professor felt the need to qualify the steps of an argument with, "Assuming you believe that tables and chairs really exist ...")

This is one problem with studying philosophy: you're constantly told that you need to see certain things as problems. But they're not "problems" like "How do we fix the health care system?" or "How do we reduce crime?" In other words, they're not things that a normal person who's completely unfamiliar with the field would perceive as problems in need of solutions.

Of course, you could find problems in other fields that wouldn't be understood on their face as problems because they're laden with jargon or esoteric concepts. If these are real problems, though, they can at least be "understood" insofar as an expert can patiently explain the goal to a layperson: "It's important for us to figure out ____ because it could help us find a cure for such-and-such a disease," or whatever it does.

Even after spending hours and hours studying the philosophy of language (to take another example), I'd be hard-pressed to make the case that it's important for anyone to devote their life to explaining how it is that we can mean things through words. If you're like 99+% of humankind, you just accept that we do this, and move on with your life. And it seems pretty clear that if there's an option -- a perfectly feasible, easy option -- of just saying, "Oh well!" and moving on with your life ... and if this isn't a mere luxury enjoyed by some of the people while other people have to worry about it, but in fact the world would be just fine if no one worried about it ... then it's just not much of a "problem" at all.

That's my anti-philosophy philosophy.
And it's another example of the paradox my mom identified: if you're so brilliant at analyzing the world,* then why haven't you done a utilitarian calculus to figure out the extremely low probability that your philosophizing is going to accomplish anything?

* And have no doubt that philosophers are at least implicitly purporting to be brilliant. The philosopher Thomas Nagel has even made it explicit, saying that you should be "supersmart" to be a philosopher.

UPDATE: Church of Rationality gives a shot at answering that last question, declaring it the "Snarl of the Month." Or is it the Snark of the Month?


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"The rational life is the best life" -- is that true? Has anyone ever proven it? "The purpose of philosophy is to arrive at correct answers." Is that true?

There are people who love to think, and in many cases to write about what they think. Everything they think may be wrong. Thinking may lead them into difficulties in life, of a kind and degree which differ in an unknown way from the difficulties they would otherwise have had. Should they be barred from, or bar themselves, or be cautioned against, philosophy, as Plato wanted to banish the poets?

Hannah Arendt said (somewhere!) that since ultimate answers are not to be found, the purpose of philosophy is to stand exposed in, enwrapped by, the "wind of thought," as a lifelong meditation, a flow experience (the word "flow" hadn't yet been used in that context but I think it applies). The life of love for thought. She intuited that that was the experience of the ancient Greeks: what made you a philosopher was the life of asking questions, whether or not you found the right answer.

If the questions, the problems, are trivial, or if they are asked tendentiously, then of course that's worth pointing out. Philosophy shouldn't be an excuse for driving oneself crazy over minutiae.

Anonymous said...

Philosophy shouldn't be an excuse for driving oneself crazy over minutiae.

Not when we've got theology for that...

Anonymous said...

I think Russell defends philosophy better than I ever could, so I won't bother here.

The job market for philosophers is...well...lousy, so this means that it had better be 'a calling' for you, because it's difficult to rationalize the decision by pointing to the great jobs to be had. Not many people are willing to devote 6-8 years of study for a 50% chance of getting a 60-80K job. An MBA student would die of hysteria if someone informed him that those were his chances after graduation.

If someone said, "You have to be supersmart to be a rocket scientist", would anyone second-guess him? I don't think so. Doing philosophy at a high level is pretty much the same, but even fewer people have such an ability than those who can learn rocket science.