fredag 9. mai 2014

Why study philosophy?

In a recent essay, Peter Hacker gives many good answers; but as is often the case with advertisements, he over-sells his product. I will be focusing on this formulation:
The study of philosophy cultivates a healthy scepticism about the moral opinions, political arguments and economic reasonings with which we are daily bombarded by ideologues, churchmen, politicians and economists. It teaches one to detect ‘higher forms of nonsense’, to identify humbug, to weed out hypocrisy, and to spot invalid reasoning. It curbs our taste for nonsense, and gives us a nose for it instead. It teaches us not to rush to affirm or deny assertions, but to raise questions about them.
Similar claims about the general usefulness of philosophy are endlessly repeated in introductory texts. (For instance by Bertrand Russell in the raving last chapter of his Problems of Philosophy: "The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation of consent of his deliberate reason.") I must admit scepticism.

When Hacker writes that 'philosophy cultivates a healthy scepticism' and 'teaches one to detect higher forms of nonsense', he makes it sound as if taking philosophy classes were a method for developing fail-safe nonsense-alerts. Because philosophy means love of wisdom, and wisdom is never foolish or gullible, there is in that sense an intimate connection between "philosophy" and "critical thinking". Empirically speaking though the connection is less reliable. Great philosophers have been guilty of great stupidity. Heidegger famously was a Nazi. I doubt that Wittgenstein shared Hacker's optimism; but when hearing one of his students unreflectingly repeating nationalistic slogans, Wittgenstein was infuriated, and his anger seems somehow to have been aggrevated by the fact that the person talking nonsens was a philosopher:

[W]hat is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any... journalist in the use of the dangerous phrases such people use for their own ends.
Studying philosophy would be a waste of time if all it did was to enable one to talk about abstruse questions of logic. But there is no reason to think this is so. If anything, evidence seems to point in the direction of Hacker. Philosophers seem better equiped than most when it comes to general reasoning skills. Philosophy majors tend to do very well on certain tests. Some claim this is due to their education: "[P]hilosophy majors develop problem solving skills at a level of abstraction" that cannot be achieved through most studies. But if we assume (which seems plausible to me) that philosophy mainly attracts students who already possess certain skills and interests, this cannot be the final word. It doesn't follow from this that exercising one's philosophical muscles might turn out to have no effect on a person's ability to think (that would be as astonishing as if one's stamina could never be improved by physical excercise); but it does follow that even if philosophers demonstrate first rate reasoning skills, it is an open question to what extent these test results actually reflect the learning outcome of their studies.

Continuing on a semi-empirical line.
Most courses in philosophy, certainly most courses an undergraduate is likely to attend, are designed not to make the student better at reasoning in general, but to make him better at philosophical reasoning. A course in moral philosophy, say, is deemed successful not to the extent its students have become more sensitive and morally reflective persons (though this of course would not be negative), but, borrowing Wittgenstein's prase, to the extent the students have learned to talk with plausibility about abstruse questions in ethics. I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with this. Philosophising is after all working with philosophical questions. As any academic field, philosophers have manufactured tools and techniques suited to these questions. Picking up on the jargon is the first step toward making contributions to the classroom discussions. And sometimes this will prove useful in other contexts too...
 
But reading philosophy and acquiring the analytic and argumentative tools on offer is, as demonstrated by Erasmus Montanus, not the same as becoming a clearheaded thinker. Mastering a philosophical style, may even -- if it is true that certain philosophies offer nothing but fashionable nonsense -- have quite pernicious effects on one's judgement. Not even (mainstream) analytical philosophy is what Hacker has in mind when he hails philosophy as "a unique technique for tackling conceptual questions". Judging by his many heated debates with colleagues, mainly from the anglo-american tradition, it is reasonable to interpret the quote with which I began as deliberately echoing a sigh by his friendBede Rundle"Whatever their limitations, earlier analytical philosophers had at least a nose for nonsense. Sadly, so many philosophers today have only a taste for it."

It is puzzling that Hacker, throughout this essay, keeps using "philosophy" as if it denoted one uniform activity ("At a very general level, it [philosophy] is a unique technique for tackling conceptual questions that occur to most thinking people" and "At a more specialised level, philosophy is a technique for examining the results of specific sciences for their conceptual coherence," and so on), when he clearly would agree with much of what I have written. The reason, I suspect, is that Hacker, as Wittgenstein often did, uses "philosophy" to refer not to everything going by that name, but mainly to his own practice. In that case his claims seem on safer footing. Hacker's texts are predominantly critical, and his ability to sniff out philosophical nonsense is (usually) impressive. Studying his philosophy -- or wittgensteinian philosophy generally -- and acquiring some of his tools and techniques will be good for any critical thinker.

But in the end, though, which philosophical texts one studies (or if they are philosophical texts at all) is less important for one's ability to think straight than how one studies them. Reading even the most conceptually self-conscious and critical writer won't make critical thinkers out of us unless we read him critically.

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