Friday, 3 July 2015

Is doing philosophy a good or bad thing, usually?

I came across an interesting early post from this blog:

Which makes the good point that - at least from where I stand now - it is arguable that philosophy/ philosophers have mostly had bad consequences.

Of course this blog is full of philosophizing - but that might be more like a disease; indeed that is what it is like for me: philosophy leads to problems which I try to treat using philosophy. Sometimes it helps, often when I solve the pressing difficulty to my satisfaction, another equally bad problems pops-up somewhere else.

So, I am very ambivalent about the value of philosophy. I would not even say it was neutral, and dependant upon how people used it (like a tool) - because I think it may not be as good as neutral: doing philosophy may be intrinsically harmful, as Wittgenstein believed.

I am sure that professional philosophy, philosophy as an academic discourse, is harmful (when it is not simply an ineffectual waste of time and money) - philosophers ought not to be paid to do it, nor even to teach it - except as part of history; and philosophy ought to be done by amateurs from love, or compulsion.

And philosophy needs to be creative, in the sense that it must be alive, experienced, and put to work. 

And doing real philosophy, as a public discourse, is a bit like being in a self-help group for addicts. If I talk philosophy with somebody similarly afflicted... well, the damage has been done, and we are just helping each other cope.

But to 'push' philosophy on other people, perhaps with the covert intent of creating more addicts ...well, that is pretty likely to harm them.

Philosophy, as a circumscribed discourse, is a bit like psychotherapy: if it did-not exist, it would not be necessary to invent it. 



  1. Reading philosophy is to my mind an essential part of education. It is especially so if there is an interest in intellectual history, since philosophy has had such a strong impact on the development of empiricism and political systems. To try to glean anything from history without understanding the influence of philosophy is to have one eye blinded and one ear deafened. Whether I agree or not with a particular philosopher or school of philosophy is really not the point, nor is whether I consider the influence to be good or bad. The important thing is to be aware of how philosophy has shaped and does shape how we think and behave individually and in aggregates.

    Epistemology challenges us to think about the axioms, to not merely accept the edifice without first spending effort to explore the base upon which it is built. "How do I know something is true?", is an important fundamental question. It something that a thinking person cannot avoid asking. Grappling with the question and reflecting upon how other thinkers have done so is important and has value, and this is true even when I disagree viscerally with the thinker's direction and conclusions.

    Ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics are important branches of philosophy that require a person to ask questions that help them to become more than extensions of the dominant influences of the society in which they exist. We should not all be blind followers, but question with the aim to getting closer to truth. The study of philosophy assists us in understanding the limits and biases which creep in to distort and deceive. It helps us to spot the grifters and snake oil salesman, to not merely be led around as a blind ox by the ring in its nose. And in that regard, philosophy is a useful tool to promote the good of not being chained like a prisoner in Plato's cave.

  2. @NF - I think you are fundamentally wrong!

    It is like saying 'books do you good' without considering their content, as if mass education in the Communist Manifesto or Mao's Little Red Book or Mein Kampf were all intrinsically 'a good idea' - on the basis that all books/ philosophies are beneficial.

    A training in the logical positivism of AJ Ayer, or the Linguistic analysis of JL Austin, or the mainstream teaching of Wittgenstein's late work - have all done permanent damage to many of the people exposed to them. They have led to a shallow, sophomoric 'clever-silliness' in their adherents; which in practice is extremely difficult/ impossible to penetrate, due to the unexamined (and examination-proof) metaphysical assumptions which underpin these systems/ methods.

    (Having said that, there is evidence that AJ Ayer may have repented and become a Christian near his end; and of course Wittgenstein himself was very different from the message propagated by most Wittgensteinians)

    Not least, bad philosophical idea have often served to pre-immunize people against being able to understand therefore even seriously *consider* Christianity.

    Bad philosophy is bad for people; the only good philosophy is good philosophy.

  3. I agree with your over all point. I wrote a post that hits the same idea, but from a positive first angle.

    But I'm thinking of philosophy as a legitimate love of wisdom and moment by moment practice of phronesis.

    Any thoughts?

  4. "philosophy ought to be done by amateurs from love, or compulsion."

    Just like science!

    "And philosophy needs to be creative, in the sense that it must be alive, experienced, and put to work."

    Yes, and it seems this is the big problem with 'academic philosophy'.

  5. Apparently when Bertrand Russell told Wittgenstein to provide an actual argument for what he said, his response was that arguments spoil the beauty of insights.

  6. Neoplatonic philosophy led Augustine, and some others, to Christianity. Neoplatonic philosophy seems, from my limited understanding of it, to recognize the limits of knowledge, which philosophy usually does not. I think the trouble with both philosophy and theology is knowing their limits.

    Philosophy and theology will take you to a place where they end, where they are no more. One can either humbly contemplate God at this point, or make a 90 to 180 degree turn and go back and do it again. A mind too fond of thinking will have trouble not thinking.

  7. @dl - I agree that Neo-Platonism, in its various versions, has these characteristics; and of the classical theologies it is the one I resonate with most, since it underpins the type of Eastern Orthodoxy and also the type of Anglicanism which I find to be the 'sweetest' to my discernment. For example, today's post is by Thomas Traherne, who is often regarded as a Neo-Platonist.

    Of course, in *most* matters I adhere to the William James type of pragmatism/ pluralism that (inadvertently, or due to the Zeitgeist) serves as a summary of Mormonism's implicit metaphysics. Nonetheless I feel a pull from NP!

  8. As I recall, Plato, in his Republic, believed that one should not begin with philosophy until one had mastered certain pre-requisites: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, for the verbal arts, and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, for the non-verbal arts. As I also recall, Cassiodorus made use of this standard for what later became the Trivium and the Quadrivium, and codified their use before going on to what he considered to be the more important matters of philosophy and theology.

    My point is that there must be a fund of knowledge in the individual, and skill in rigorous thought, before work in philosophy can be fruitful. If that work is not done, it will in fact damage the alleged 'philosopher'.