Sunday, August 04, 2013

philosophy is unnecessary

We don't need philosophy.*

The American philosopher John Dewey proposed that genuine inquiry could only arise as a result of a real, practical problem, and could only last until some solution to the problem arose. Most of the history of Western philosophy has pursued two kinds of problems: problems about knowing, and problems about doing. Let's call those epistemology and ethics.

In everyday life, in our dealings with the world, in our conduct toward one another, no problems arise that would call for the study of epistemology or ethics. That's not to say we have no problems when it comes to knowing or doing. In fact, we spend a lot of time and resources trying to solve them or dealing with the fallout when, instead of solving them, we act without thinking and create big messes. But the problems are not philosophical. They don't call for a philosophical study of epistemology or ethics.

Here's an example. I recently wrote email to a listserv about the response I got to a paper on faculty ethics and tenuous employment status. The paper was philosophical. It was asking about what ethics could mean, given that the kinds of ethical codes traditionally written and applied to professional work just don't fit tenuous faculty work. I proposed a way to consider the work of ethics, drawing from Michel Foucault, as a way faculty could consider who they themselves are, what kinds of moral subjects they might be or become, and on that basis, make a deliberate choice about the moral regime or code they would follow.

Someone responded by taking exactly the wrong bait (granted, this person never actually read my paper, so she was only taking the wrong bait of the email description of the response I got, and was writing from a position of ignorance). She said, more or less, that the tenure-track faculty should answer for their crimes, and that this, obviously, was what an "ethics" discussion of tenuous faculty would call for.

This illustrates very well the kind of problem people want ethics to solve, and why philosophy is unnecessary. She wanted to blame people, at the very least. She wanted philosophy -- or something -- to provide her a tool or an excuse to blame the people she wanted to blame. But philosophy doesn't do that. It's useless for the kind of moral judging, shaming, persecuting, and executing that people want ethics for. (What she really needed was sophistry or rhetoric.)

Another, much briefer illustration. Every so often, sciences get into tangles about their own basic systems of belief. Laws that had predicted and understood natural phenomena lo these many years sometimes go kaflooey, and then the sciences freak out, because they need a basic system of belief in order to do science work: running experiments, collecting grants, inventing new ways humans can fuck things up, etc. Where do the sciences go when their basic systems of belief go kaflooey? Not to philosophy, and for good reason. Philosophy would start theorizing about concepts like certainty and truth, their connection to perception, the connection between all that and what we mean when we say the world or the universe. That's not the problem of knowledge the sciences undergo.

Where does this leave philosophy? What is it? It looks like an extravagant, excessive, willful diversion from problems.


* This might be my answer to the question I posted in March: How can anyone take philosophy seriously?

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