What is Philosophy?

May 27, 2014 § 2 Comments

In this ongoing series of posts, I’ll attempt a brief sketch of the humanities and social sciences.  For each discipline, I’ll make one post summarizing what it investigates, another about how research within it works, and a third about its history.


I should note that although I’ll be talking about a really broad group of fields, I’m only actually an expert in my own (history).  I have also engaged deeply with philosophy, literary studies, anthropology, and economics.  I know some things about psychology, sociology, and political science, but I feel much less comfortable with them.  And I’m actually almost entirely ignorant of how modern-day art history works.  So, some of these posts will be learning experiences for me as well as for you.  The fields that I’m talking about are rich, complicated, messy, and overlapping.  The brevity of these posts and my own ignorance prevent me from doing any of them complete justice.  So, if you know much more about one of these fields than I do, and you spot a major error or oversight, please bring it up in the comments.  I– and my other readers– will be eager to learn from you.  And if anything I write here is unclear, or if you want to know more about something I said, please just ask about it in the comments.  I’ll try to answer as soon as possible.


Now, I’ll get on to giving you a nutshell explanation of philosophy.


Most philosophers today work in three sub-fields: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.


Metaphysics is basically about trying to figure out what things exist and what the things that do exist are.  This is a comprehensive and totally accurate definition, but it sounds like something  you’d say while staring at the ceiling after a few dozen bong hits.  So, I’ll try to explore it with an example.  One really hot question in metaphysics is “what are colors?”


Okay, that still sounds very stoner-ish.  Bear with me.  Back in the day (the 17th century day), John Locke (who also came up with the social contract theory of government– if you’re an American, you probably heard about it in your 8th-grade civics class) argued that 1) an object’s color was a property of an object, and 2) That this property was essentially a disposition to make a viewer have a certain visual experience when they looked at it.  So basically, for Locke, an object was red if it made people who looked at it have red-experiences.


Over the next three and a half centuries or so, philosophers raised lots of problems with this definition.  One objection is that not everybody’s subjective experiences of color are the same.  A person with red/green colorblindness would get the same visual experiences from looking at green and red objects.  So, then some other philosophers tried to fix Locke’s definition by adding the condition that the object produce the color-experience for a normal viewer under normal conditions.  Of course, defining “normal” is itself a huge challenge, so this solution created more problems.


After physical scientists discovered that light travels on different wavelengths, and that distinct pure wavelengths of light produce different color experiences in most viewers, some philosophers tried to escape the problems with Locke’s definition and say that color was a property of light, and that light’s color was identical to its wavelength.


But that theory came into trouble when some other scientists figured out that a lot of the time, an object reflects multiple wavelengths of light at once.  Our color perceptions seem to be produced by the combined effects of multiple wavelengths on our eyes.  Even more confusingly, sometimes none of the wavelengths that an object reflects correspond to the color that we perceive it to be.  So, some philosophers have suggested returning to a properties-based definition, even though such a definition would have to be extremely complicated.


Yet another complication: some philosophers have pointed out that the afterimages we see after we look at a bright light and blink have colors, but don’t come from either external objects or external light.  These thinkers suggest that we should really define color as an event that happens in our brains, which can be brought on by a bunch of different phenomena.


So, figuring out what colors are is actually a complicated, sophisticated problem.  It also has ramifications for other fields.  If you’re say, a neuroscientist studying color perception, or an artificial intelligence researcher trying to replicate human color perception, it’s very important to figure out what it is that you mean when you talk about color.  The work of metaphysicists both shows that this is actually a complex question and offers a few interesting ways to try to answer it.


Philosophers studying metaphysics explore many other questions– like what time and consciousness are– in a similar fashion.  Some creative thinkers, like Judith Butler, apply it to more surprising objects of study– like biological sex.  In her Undoing Gender, Butler explored the ways that scientists define biological sex, and found that they were frequently inconsistent and inconclusive.  So, she argued, biological sex was not a natural-kind category in the way that scientists argued that it was.  This point has many implications for anybody researching sex-linked traits.


So much for metaphysics.  Hopefully, you now have some idea of its nature and scope.


If metaphysics asks “what is the stuff that exists?”, epistemology asks “how do we know about that stuff?”  There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard of one of the first modern epistemologists, Rene Descartes.  Descartes argued that we actually have no immediate reason to believe that the world we experience is real– we might be brains in a vat or dupes of a demon.  Descartes then tried to offer arguments first, that we are real (“I think, therefore I am”– most people go along with this part), and then that God must exist, and be good, and he would not allow us to be deceived (most modern readers find this part much sketchier).


Most epistemologists today find Cartesian skepticism boring and unhelpful, and focus on the ways that we know about the reality which we do experience (since, for all practical purposes, it is our true reality).  I’ll briefly mention two issues that contemporary epistemologists discuss: science and religious faith.


Science: “How does science work?” is an important and unanswered research question within epistemology.  One important argument in play is the model of falsification that Karl Popper proposed in The Logic of Scientific Discovery.  Popper argued that what characterized science was that its practitioners make hypotheses which could be disproved or falsified, and then perform experiments designed to be able to disprove those hypotheses.

Other thinkers, who have investigated the history and sociology of science as it’s actually practiced, dispute Popper’s conception.  In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that scientists work within dominant intellectual frameworks or paradigms, perform experiments to figure out odd special cases within them.  They only start to consider abandoning their paradigms when lots and lots of evidence that cannot be reconciled with their conception accumulates.

In Against Method, another philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend, proposed an even bolder conception.   He argued that the work of revolutionary scientists, like Copernicus and Galileo, was often actually totally incoherent within the scientific norms of their time, and that they actually generated scientific progress through rhetorical argument rather than logical experimentation.  This is a fertile and exciting subfield of epistemology that has a lot of crossover with history, anthropology, and sociology of science.


Faith: Alvin Plantinga, who’s probably America’s most academically respected Christian philosopher, recently made a sophisticated epistemological argument that religious faith is actually the same sort of assumption that undergird standard empiricist conceptions of the world.  Thus, he asserts that religious faith is as reasonable as scientific knowledge.  Of course, other philosophers have written rebuttals.


Ethics asks “what is the right thing to do?”  Ethics has three major schools: deontological, consequentialist, and virtue.


Deontological ethicists argue that right and wrong actions should be specified by hard-and-fast rules.  Somebody who interpreted the Old Testament literally and believed that it offered God’s true guide to correct conduct would be a deontologist.  More complicated religious-legal traditions, like Catholic canon law, halakha (Jewish legal interpretation), or fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) also have deontological roots.  The revered German philosopher Immanuel Kant created a secular deontological ethics by coining the “categorical imperative”– an action is good if the person who does it would want to will it to be a universal moral law.


Consequentialist ethicists argue that actions are right or wrong because of their consequences, or expected consequences.  The most famous version of consequentialism, Utilitarianism, was proposed by Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill, asserts that the best actions are, by definition, those that maximize happiness and minimize pain.


Virtue ethicists argue that what makes an action moral or immoral is the disposition of the person doing it.  “Good” actions are those that somebody does with the intention of doing good.  Aristotle basically invented virtue ethics.  Modern-day ethicists like Alasdair MacIntyre, Philippa Foote, and Martha Nussbaum are bringing it back.


I hope this post was helpful!  I would love to see your feedback/critiques/questions in the comments.


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