Monday, August 05, 2013

philosophical problems

I suppose my post yesterday could have suggested I agree with whoever it was who said that life would never have posed any philosophical problems -- meaning that the tradition of Western philosophy is a history of self-invented puzzles and linguistic foibles. (I think it was G.E. Moore.) I don't think I mean that. It depends.

(1) If we stick to the strict language of philosophical problems, and consider philosophy to be a search for solutions, then I do mean that. Life's problems are not philosophical. I don't think philosophy is a solution-machine, either.

(2) If we broaden the terms, and say ask whether life poses philosophical questions, then I think it does. And I think this is where philosophy is at home, answering, and wondering, in response to questions.

I'll illustrate this with a brief look at a motivating moment in Plato's Republic. The passage I have in mind is when Socrates responds to Thrasymachus' claim that justice is the advantage of the stronger. Thrasymachus is not clear about this, his position ends up being incoherent, but what it amounts to is the view that the best life is one spent using power and wealth to acquire more power and wealth, and to hell with everybody else. Socrates demonstrates many problems with this position (for instance, what happens when another tyrant comes along, or when the people you depend on to produce the wealth you steal become totally corrupt or die out), but Thrasymachus doesn't care. In this, Thrasymachus is consistent. The ethical, political, and practical faults in his position don't matter to him. One imagines that, when these arise, he'll be happy to smash opponents, buy new slaves, build an arsenal of drones, secure his southern border, make war for oil, etc.

Socrates does not effectively refute him, in my view, because the argument doesn't continue. Glaucon and Adeimantus take it up, clarify it and try to make it coherent,1 and demand Socrates to show how it could possibly be better to have the reputation for total vice and be punished and persecuted for it despite being good, than to have the reputation for goodness and be rewarded and praised for it despite being wicked.2

Two ways to look at this. One is as an allegedly philosophical problem: the problem of how to get people to be good, or of how to be good, or of how to have a good life. In my view, Socrates necessarily fails to solve this problem, because it's not a problem that can be solved by philosophy. How do I know? Big hint: Thrasymachus has left the building! Socrates talks up Glaucon and Adeimantus, while the problem, Thrasymachus, is off gleefully beating people up and stealing their money doing high-finance deals beating people up and stealing their money.

The other way to look at it is as a philosophical question: the question of the meaning of virtue and vice, the meaning of a good life, and of why people like Thrasymachus seem so happy when the rest of us poor slobs aren't. Now we're talking -- literally, since that's exactly what they do. And they have a good time, and they don't hurt anybody while doing it.

Life poses philosophical questions (or perhaps this is better phrased as opportunities for philosophical questioning) all over the place, all the time. The question of the good can pop up with the toast out of the toaster. Which is great for us, because it offers consolation when people like Thrasymachus beat us up and steal our money.


1. Mistake #1. Thrasymachus' position is most accurately put incoherently, because he doesn't give a shit about listening to reason. Having power means you don't have to listen to reason. So, they've distorted his position, and the entire business thereafter is based on the mistaken notion that his position requires a rational defense.

2. Mistake #2. Another distortion of Thrasymachus' position. Having sufficient power means that your reputation doesn't matter. In fact, having a reputation for violence, wickedness, irascibility, and rapaciousness is good for people who have those characteristics because it makes people afraid of them and more compliant. DUH!

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