Where I give my definition(s) of philosophy and explain why it will never die, even when it actively strives to make itself redundant.
I’ve been trying to be as rigours and linear as possible, and for some reason I was finding it difficult to write the next post on the budding science of human morality (the first sibling from the previous post in this series). One of the reasons of this difficulty became apparent this morning, reading a post from Maria Popova, entitled “What is Philosophy? An Omnibus of Definitions from Prominent Philosophers” (she tweets as @brainpicker). The definitions offered there are all interesting in one way or the other (some times in more than one way), but what I found compelling is that they are all very different from one another, and that some of them hint to what currently makes me feel uneasy with contemporary philosophers.
Before reading that post, my own private definition of philosophy was pretty instrumental, something like:
Philosophy is the activity of trying to figure out things without the aid of empirical verification.
This suited me quite well: as my readers will know, I indulge in philosophy quite a bit. That’s because I’m lazy: thinking is cheap, it comes much easier to me than trying to do anything at all. Hence, the definition above avoids to add something that specifies that much of philosophy speculates on subjects that are (or are supposed to be) difficult/impossible to investigate empirically. I my case, I’ll be naturally inclined to think as much as I can, and verify later, only if/when I really need to. I’ve exemplified this attitude in one of my one-off posts, to refute the idea that human evolution has stopped.
Anyway, this morning I figured out a different definition, that isn’t new at all (one thing I am Not doing is trying to be original for the sake of it), and goes like this:
Philosophy is the attempt to fix thoughts into words.
I like this definition because it highlights a lot of very significant properties of philosophy, and I’d like to share a few of them, while moving to the subject of Ethics, and how I manage to place it squarely in the science field, hopefully without hurting philosophy (but probably hurting the sensibility of plenty of philosophers!).
The first thing that strikes me of the definition above is that it inherently ties philosophy to literature, after all, writing (poetry, fiction, or any kind of creative writing) can be described exactly in the same way. And if you want to go all the way, you could also say that the definition above implies that writing a scientific paper is a philosophical exercise as well. This suits me well, because it’s clear to me that every single human being becomes a philosopher the moment they learn to speak. If you think of children, and their ability to ask difficult philosophical questions early on, I hope you will agree.
Let’s see some details about the relationship with literature: if the definition above is true, then the two are virtually indistinguishable, and indeed, certain branches of continental philosophy have clearly demonstrated how blurry the distinction can be. On the other hand, some analytical philosophy tries to distance itself from language and flirts with maths instead. That’s all right: there is a spectrum of different attitudes that thread in the space defined by two variables: how much one is prepared to rely on intuition, and how much one wants to clearly build and define a model of reality. Translating an intuition into words can be done in different ways, one could try to leave the intuition as pure as possible, and exploit the richness of language to preserve the authenticity (and blurred contours) of a given intuition. This is typically seen as a literary effort, but it may also be officially recognised as philosophy if and when the subject of the intuition pertains typically philosophical domains such as metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and so on. Epistemologically however, I see no distinction.
In the same way, when someone has an intuition about something that is normally studied by a classical science, and tries to define this intuition in a very precise, and even quantifiable way, then it becomes equally impossible to define the effort as purely philosophical or scientific. It is impossible, because it is both. All science starts with philosophy (building a theory, or generating testable hypotheses) and ends with philosophy (thinking about the consequences of the empirical findings). In this sense, science is philosophy with the additional empirical work, linking up both my definitions nicely.
Another nice property of the definition above is that it highlights one of my foundation concepts: that thought is not necessarily verbal, even if it is always symbolic, as I’ve discussed through the epistemology series (starts here). Most of our most valuable intuitions come to us as some sort of feeling that needs a conscious (and sometimes significant) effort to be translated into words. Doing so invariably reduces the initial intuition to something slightly different, sometimes significantly poorer in terms of versatility and nuance. Once again, this description fits well with the dichotomy explained above, if one translates intuitions in a way that reduces ambivalences, the result will tend to be on the scientific side, if one strives to retain the original richness, it will bend towards literature (with all possible blends in between, and some remarkable exceptions, of course: no model can precisely describe everything!). In this way, my second definition allows to conceptualise the distinction (and to recognise the source of tension) between continental and analytical contemporary (or modern?) philosophy.
The last intuition (!) that springs from my second definition is about what makes me uneasy about most contemporary philosophers. In our time, to call yourself a philosopher you need a PhD and a tenure track in some philosophy department, and this gets on my nerves quite a lot: we are all philosophers, and we should all be proud of it. Instead, we (the grand majority that are not officially entitled to call themselves philosophers) are being told that we should leave philosophy to the professionals, ’cause they do it better. This may be true (and believe me, I am painfully aware it may strongly apply to my case) but it is a dramatically dysfunctional position, that benefits only the professionals, and hurts the rest of society. What philosophy does is important, and it should not, in no case, remain within a small elite. It should permeate society, and every single individual should be encouraged to engage with her own philosophical dilemmas as much as possible. Furthermore, the analytical side of philosophy should (and frequently does) lead to new ways to do science, but the professionalism of the field generates a clear conflict of interests.
If ethics can create ideas that can be tested empirically, and hence give birth to the science of ethics, the risk is that the philosophy side will eventually dry up, and some big philosophy professors may not like the idea at all. This is where my uneasiness comes from: I recognise that most of current philosophy is hard and requires specialists, but also that separating philosophy from all the other disciplines ultimately hurts society (and philosophy itself).
I think I made my point clear. Ethics and morality are currently slipping away from professional philosophers: psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience and neurobiology are all slowly but systematically showing that it is now possible to generate testable hypotheses and scientifically validate (or refute) “explanations” of what human morality is about. And this is guaranteed to generate two interlinked turf wars: professional (and intellectually dishonest, or at least confused) philosophers will do all they can to protect their own lawn, and so will all the people who want to believe that our morality is a gift from God. This second group is particularly curious: their problem is not that science may disproof their belief (it may not), in fact they have two issues with the whole endeavour: first, they see that evolutionary thinking can provide answers that may make religion look or feel redundant, it can surpass traditional teleological questions (why, for what purpose?) with ontological answers that can also explain why certain features appear to serve a purpose, when in fact they just are. When applied to ethics, this sort of answers can really hurt a certain dogmatic and inflexible religious attitude (of all traditions). Moreover, the same strict and dogmatic attitudes are being challenged by science in general because they find it more and more difficult to reconcile the Sacred Scriptures with what science says, and again, this is understandably seen as threat by those who wish to uphold a dogmatic and literal interpretation of their Sacred Books.
Easy prediction: certain philosophers will cooperate with certain people of faith in trying to discredit the efforts above. I’ve bought the pop-corn, but decided to also push in the direction that I prefer, and explain why this is happening, and why one side deserves to (and will eventually) win.
On the other hand, philosophy will survive without a scratch: it is indispensable to all human endeavours, and as long as we’ll keep talking and writing, it will always be part of what we do.