Is philosophy any good?

Subject classification: this is an Philosophy resource.

Is philosophy any good? Some doubt it.

Search terms: the value of philosophy, what is philosophy good for, is philosophy nonsense.

Philosophy is any good edit

Arguments for edit

  •   Argument for Philosophy has discovered interesting arguments and ideas, such as knowledge as justified true belief (open to objections but interesting), Aristotle's theory of definitions, the idea that a secluded life in a walled garden with friends is better than a political life full of strife, the Occam's razor, the problem of induction (black swan), Hume's is-ought distinction, Mill's harm principle, freedom of speech, Kant's categorical imperative, the greatest good of the greatest number, Popper's conjectures and refutations and falsificationism, Lakatos' proofs and refutations, Kuhn's partial scientist's resistance to accept theory refutation before a replacement theory is available, the hypothetico-deductive theory of science, Wittgenstein's theories about how concepts work (family resemblance), the infinite regress of arguments and definitions, Kripke's rigid designator as a way how proper nouns but also "gold" pick the things they refer to versus Russell's theory of descriptions, etc. The ideas are not only presented but also justified with argumentation and analysis. Mere mortals who are not so philosophically talented can then use some of the best arguments developed by philosophers.
  •   Argument for Philosophy teaches people the art of defining things and specifying criteria, and critically examining the tentative definitions and criteria.
  •   Argument for Analysis of concepts and their relations is the job for philosophy, not science or mathematics.
  •   Argument for Philosophy teaches how to recognize and defend against deceptive argumentation, including that which uses deceptive metaphors and analogies.
  •   Argument for Philosophy teaches people how to develop their thinking about the world, including the ideas of conjectures and refutations and proofs and refutations applied to philosophy itself, and including various theories about the scientific method.
  •   Argument for Philosophy helps advance thinking about morality and legality and informs the actual moral and legal practice. This job cannot be done by science alone; "political science" is not science.
  •   Argument for Philosophical logic teaches people the analysis of correct inference. Symbolic logic as a purely mathematical project contributes to the enterprise, but does not make it redundant.

Arguments against edit

  •   Argument against Philosophy contains strange or uninformative statements such as "Everything consists of water" or "the number 3 is the perfect number because it is the dimension of the space". That does not do any good.
    •   Objection There is a lot of bad philosophy out there. One must find the good one. In the worst case, looking for good philosophy is like extracting metal from ore. But once one finds some good authors, one can peruse their corpus. If one finds Hegel incomprehensible, one may turn to Mill or Popper. Especially English-speaking philosophy has a lot to offer.
    •   Objection Attacking the ancients is perhaps a bit unfair. They engaged in exchange of ideas, and one poorly formulated idea lead to another, better formulated idea, often as a disagreeing response. Problems were formulated and different speculative solutions proposed. The implied debate of the ancients led e.g. to the atomic philosophy, by which there is void and there are small corpuscules in that void. That idea is not based on sensory experience but rather on speculation. It is ideas like that which help discovery of testable scientific theories. Scientific theories cannot be mechanically extracted from data by untalented humans; they have to be invented or discovered in the theory space, and philosophical theories often serve as proto-scientific theories from which proper scientific theories can be developed. Another interesting philosophical idea was that the Earth must be something like a cylinder suspended in void, again a result of abstract speculation not directly based on sensory experience. While imperfect, it was an improvement on the theory that the Earth is some kind of flat object with a boundary.
      •   Objection That work by the ancients is already done. A modern person does not seem to benefit from their weird theories.
        •   Objection A modern person can read the modern authors, to find some of the latest ideas and arguments.
        •   Objection The question was not whether it makes sense to read the ancients but rather whether philosophy is any good. And the ancient philosophy did in fact do some good, and even if it did not, there is the more modern philosophy to peruse.
  •   Argument against Philosophy never arrives at any agreed theory of anything. For every question, there are competing answers and arguments.
    •   Objection True. However, that does not mean philosophy makes no progress. The catalog of interesting ideas and arguments was expanded greatly, and one can trace various debates in the works of philosophers, in the way in which they respond to each other.
    •   Objection In the choice of technology, people do not agree either: some choose Microsoft Windows, some Linux. Perhaps philosophy is more like a set of tools.
      •   Objection Technology does not search for truth; philosophy professes to search for truth.
        •   Objection It does. But it has to admit that it is probably all too often a search for the best argument, one least vulnerable to criticism and refutation. It is, unfortunately, all to often not a search for the conclusive argument. But that does not mean that all arguments are equally weak, unconvincing and inconclusive. Some arguments are better in multiple ways than other arguments. It is then up to the reader to choose from the rich menu and decide for themselves which of the arguments were most convincing.
          •   Objection Convincing does not mean true. It would mean philosophy is the tool of a sophist, someone trying to convince rather than find truth.
            •   Objection An honest philosopher can honestly search for truth while admitting it may be hard to find it, and admitting that philosophers hardly ever arrive at consensus. It is not ideal. But the solution is not to abandon philosophy. People need to make ethical and political decisions and they cannot make them with the help of science. Thus, for instance, there is a debate about abortion, and science alone, while being an input, cannot decide such a question. It does not mean a debate about abortion is entirely free from the notions of truth and validity, and that any examination of arguments is automatically futile. Still, one has to admit that the debates may end up disagreeing since they make different fundamental assumptions about what is moral.
    •   Objection Perhaps an analogy to geometries in mathematics is quite apt. What mathematics does is examine geometries as theorems and properties following from sets of axioms. What philosophical analysis of the abortion debate does is examine the consequences of various fundamental assumptions about what is moral. There is not a single universally accepted set of fundamental assumptions about what is moral and there is no geometry that is mathematically more true than another one: Euclidean geometry is as "true" as hyperbolic geometry. The examination of logical consequences of a set of assumptions is not in vain, and is not free from validity.
  •   Argument against Some philosophers have produced ideas and arguments resulting in great harm, such as the philosophy of Karl Marx. The world would be better without them, and perhaps without all the philosophy as a whole.
    •   Objection. Perhaps and perhaps not. In any case, unless we plan to greatly limit the freedom of speech and prohibit the works of Marx, we will find a great use of another philosopher, Karl Popper and his The Open Society and Its Enemies, a philosophical toolbox of arguments and analysis against Marx. One learns not only about Marx but also about the totalitarian tendencies of the philosophy of Plato and one has the impression confirmed that Hegel is a pseudo-philosopher, so one may stop wondering why a lot of the sentences that Hegel produces make no sense, and are not even wrong.
  •   Argument against When fraud happens in science, it is often discovered. In philosophy, there is hardly ever a denouncement of a philosopher as fraudulent. The scientific enterprise seems sound, whereas the philosophical does not.
    •   Objection That is a fair point. However, both Schopenhauer and Popper denounced Hegel as a fraud. Thus, such denouncements can be found. Admittedly, they do not lead to near unanimous rejection of the alleged fraud. It is not clear why that is. One explanation is that different philosophers start from different fundamental assumptions. Another explanation is that this difference leads to philosophy attracting dishonest people who support each other: their fundamental assumption is not that philosophy is a search for truth but rather that it is a means how to avoid menial work and get a nice place in, say, a Prussian academy or at some university. A suspicion is that large portion of what passes as philosophy in continental Europe is intellectual fraud and that the honest philosophers can do very little about it. But perhaps it is wrong and there is some wisdom in what to some looks like near-incomprehensible gibberish. If the reader derives some value from reading some of the less comprehensible continental philosophers, good for them.
      •   Comment The damnation of continental philosophers is oversimplified. Popper does not seem to be an analytical philosopher either; rather, he criticized the analysis of language as not the most fruitful philosophy. He asserts the existence of genuine and interesting philosophical problems.
        •   Comment That may be right. The distinction between analytical and continental philosophy is perhaps not the most relevant one; what matters is good versus bad philosophy. But it seems no coincidence that some of the most incomprehensible philosophy is stemming from continental Europe.
      •   Comment The above is not neutral.
        •   Comment Perhaps it is not. In general, many domains of human work attract fraudsters. In physics, some ocassionally doctor the data. In medicine, there are quacks, doctors with no true knowledge, either not helping or harming. The medical quacks often succeed in convincing their target. Who are the philosophical quacks? Are there none? That is unlikely. If anything goes, then nothing is fraud, but that just does not go.
    •   Objection That only means that one has to search for the good philosophy, accepting that a lot of it is no good. The motion is sustained.
      •   Objection But that means that it is the reader who supplies the substance, by acting as filter.
        •   Objection It is much easier to recognize an argument as valid or interesting than to discover such an argument. There is an analogy in mathematics: a student of mathematics is usually trained well enough to confirm and understand the validity of a proof, but that does not make them skilled in proof discovery. In computer science, there is the unresolved P versus NP problem, pointing to the idea that proof discovery is much harder than proof verification.
          •   Objection There is too much low-quality material to wade through.
            •   Objection True. In the ideal world, all the worst philosophy would be filtered away. As a heuristic, if one starts reading a philosopher and several paragraphs make no sense, one may skip the work with perhaps not much loss. If one starts in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, one finds a lot of decent content, and one may find some of it interesting. In any case, one is much better off by using the philosophical menu produced by humankind than wading through the Borgesian library containing all books containing all sequences of letters, spaces and punctuation.
            •   Objection One can try to figure out one's own philosophy. One can start writing down questions, ideas, come up with conjectures or tentative answers with unknown validity and try to find refutations. However, one should not think that the failure to find refutations means the conjecture is correct. One should get help from others in trying to find refutations. In that way, one does not need to wade through anything. At the same time, it may be worthwhile to do some reading as well, given the wealth of interesting ideas produced by others. It is an enterprise in running the risk of being wrong, and ending up with a set of wrong if unrefuted ideas. An alternative is to be content with whatever ideas were formed in the mind without this process, with no guarantee that they are correct either. In so far as this process produces anything good, philosophy is some good.
  •   Argument against It passes as standard in philosophy to make oversimplified, misleading or clearly inaccurate claims.
    •   Objection Unfortunately, that is true to some extent. However, one often learns something by trying to clearly, convincingly and conclusively argue against such claims. They often contain some grain of truth or point to something interesting. For instance, one may learn something by trying to clearly explain in what way the notion that "truth is what works" is correct and in what way it is incorrect. And if one does not learn all that much new, one practices the skill of finding holes in claims and articulating them. Such skill is valuable since the world has no shortage of demagogues and bad arguers.

Further reading edit