Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Philosophy for Dummies

Philosophy for Dummies
A short piece I was asked to write.

Whenever you say that you study philosophy the immediate reply is usually, "so, what's the meaning of life?". And in many important respects that's exactly the right question to ask. Philosophy, "the love of wisdom", originated in ancient Greece as a way to use critical and theoretical reflection to inform one's daily life, to give it meaning and direction and question the ways in which it can go wrong.

Since the 17th Century however the discipline of philosophy in many anglophone departments has emerged as an entirely separate enterprise, and the goal of academic philosophy fractured into two radically different visions. In the redbrick English departments which inhert their approach from Oxford, philosophy has reshaped itself into a frenzied systematizing of all knowledge: metaphysical (what exists, what is it like), moral (what should I do), and epistemological (how do I know that I know). Each of these areas is mixed into a tailored recipe when analysing other parts of academia, in the Philosophy of Science we have 2/3rds epistemology and 1/3rd ontology; in the Philosophy of Religion we have the reverse, with a sprinkling of ethics. And so on.

In each area there is a motivating spectre called Scepticism that academics take as some important threat to the-world-as-we-know-it. In metaphysics, scepticism is usually seen to be directed at science, from “it's only an opinion” (the most annoying and primitive) to “everything is just a model, we don’t really know what the world is like”. In ethics we have the inane, “what's moral for them may not be moral for us” to “morality doesn't exist for anyone”. And in epistemology the most universal of all scepticisms, that we do not know anything at all. Philosophy students entering into their fresher's year meet all of these sock-puppets in an early-warning system designed to disabuse them of the folk-philosophical opinions that one might find in the speeches of Donald Rumsfeld or in an argument with a pink-haired bleeding-heart liberal who would prefer to leave other countries alone than trying to “impose western values” (such as the right to be free of torture).

This “analytic” philosophy as preached by Oxford and Princeton, and outlined in the syllabi of many anglo-american courses is therefore an exercise alien to most people. However there is a second world of philosophy that retains the emancipatory vision, an attempt to describe the world so that we may be more free of it, so that we may better understand how to navigate it in our social and political lives: a vision of the origins of philosophy itself. It is this “Continental Philosophy”, as its somewhat derisively classified, that most meet and fall in love with. Existentialism is directly an answer to, “what is the meaning of life” (answer: what ever you make of it). Hegellian philosophy teaches us to understand society and history not as the moral failures or successes of individuals but as the consequence of historical systems: bankers aren’t to blame (they're meant to be greedy), it's the system which permits bankers greed to have such an effect. Heidegger elucidates how we relate to the world around us, not as iron-and-wood, atoms-protons-strings but as hammers, people, etc. And Habermass and Foucault's fight-it-out: can knowledge make us equals, is egalitarian democracy possible? Which lead to the central question of the post-modern period: can knowledge be separated from the the institutions it creates?

This is the philosophy that predominantly appears in the theoretical tools of sociology, history, english, politics and other human-ities.

Uniting these two worlds is a task few undertake, but those who do so are usually the stars of their fields (from Peter Singer to Ian Hacking). If you are familiar with the continental style, you might consider further reading on the Philosophy of Mind or Meta-Ethics very approachable and very analytic subjects. If you're already there however, try Existentialism or Foucault.

As it may becoming clear, philosophy cannot really be presented “for dummies”; if you engage in any reflective philosophical thought you immediately renounce dummyism. Whether you're interested in the obscure sceptical worries of analytic philosophy or the applied social concerns of the Contientals, philosophy's point is that it cannot be for dummies: its first step is out of that category.  

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