This is the second in a series of posts on philosophy. Ideally, you should read my first post before reading this one. But it’s your life. Exercise your free will as you choose. -–John Horgan
Dining last year with members of a philosophy salon in mid-town Manhattan, I met an eminent philosopher, whom I’ll call Harry. He could not have been nicer. When I said I wasn’t a philosopher, only a journalist, Harry smiled warmly and said anyone interested in philosophy is a philosopher.
After dinner, we retired to the salon leader’s apartment to chew on a paper. (As I recall, it was “Cognitive Homelessness,” in which Timothy Williamson argues that we can feel warm without knowing we are warm). Harry underwent a transformation. When I ventured an opinion, he sternly rebuked me for my foolishness.
I didn’t feel bad, because he treated his fellow philosophers just as harshly, challenging their reasoning and rhetoric. Like the milquetoast who turns into Mad Max when he gets behind a wheel, the nice guy had become a warrior.
Such behavior is common among philosophers. I’m often struck, watching philosophers interact, by their aggression. [See Postscript.] Scientists can be rough, but less so, on average, than philosophers. Why is that? Because philosophical clashes, unlike scientific ones, cannot be resolved by appeals to data; they are battles of wits.
In “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?,” David Chalmers notes that science employs “the observational/experimental method,” which has “the power to compel agreement on the answers to big questions.” In contrast, philosophy relies on “the method of argument,” which does not compel agreement. [See Post-postscript.]
Chalmers acknowledges that millennia of philosophical debate have not yielded convergence on big questions. So why do philosophers keep bickering if they can’t arrive at a resolution? [See Post-post-postscript.]
Perhaps philosophy has devolved into mere competition, in which victors are rewarded with fame and glory--more specifically, grants, tenure, book contracts, invitations to Davos and appearances on Charlie Rose. This is the premise of the Monty Python skit “Philosophers’ World Cup,” which depicts philosophy as a soccer match played in a stadium crammed with screaming fans.
The contest pits the German team (Leibniz, Kant, Nietzsche et al., in suits of their day) against the ancient Greek team (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle et al., in togas) For the first few minutes, the contestants ignore the ball. As they stroll around the field rubbing their chins and staring into space, the announcer gushes, “There may be no score, but there’s no lack of excitement here!”
If philosophy is a sport, fretting over its lack of progress is a category error, like arguing over whether hockey progress. Modern hockey players are no doubt stronger, faster, better-trained on average than their predecessors. But does that mean hockey is better than it used to be? It’s an ill-posed question, because in sports what matters is winning--and, for professionals, entertaining spectators.
I relish, I admit, the spectacle of intellectual combat. In The New York Review of Books last year, philosopher Tamsin Shaw blasted prominent psychologists--and especially positive-psychology guru Martin Seligman, who has won huge military contracts--for presenting themselves as moral authorities. I couldn’t wait to read the exchanges between Shaw and her targets in subsequent issues (see here and here).
See also this classic 1995 slugfest in The New York Review of Books, in which gladiators Daniel Dennett and John Searle clash over Dennett’s claim that consciousness doesn’t exist. That’s entertainment! I wish I could have witnessed the legendary 1946 dust-up at Cambridge between heavyweights Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, who disagreed over the existence of moral rules. [See Post-post-post-postscript.]
Watching philosophers jabbing and parrying, I’m reminded of a Darwinian hypothesis called argumentative theory. It holds that our reasoning skills evolved primarily not to produce truth but to win arguments. If you are talented at defending your views and demolishing others’, you boost your social status and hence what biologists call reproductive opportunities. As Jean-Paul Sartre quipped in Essays in Aesthetics: "If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I'm still waiting, it's all been to seduce women basically."
But like most Darwinian explanations for human behavior, argumentative theory is far too reductive and phallocentric. Yes, philosophers, especially males, are randy, status-seeking primates. Yes, some philosophers seem to care more about winning than wisdom. But for most, certainly for the good ones, philosophy is not merely a means to the end of success. There are easier paths to fame, glory and reproductive opportunities.
Moreover, there is a crucial difference between sports and philosophy: the latter lacks fixed rules. What Paul Feyerabend said of science—“Anything goes”—is far truer of philosophy. Clever philosophers ruthlessly bend or break rules or invent new ones to gain an advantage. This lawlessness helps to explain why philosophy rarely produces clear-cut victories and losses, just fluctuations in reputation. [See Post-post-post-post-postscript.]
That brings us back to the question: If philosophy cannot yield permanent truth, what is or should be its end? In what way does philosophy still matter? Sports suggest a possible answer. Most athletes, even in highly competitive sports, have goals beyond winning.
Martial artists, such as my internet pal Keith Vargo, author of The Soul of Fighting, seek moral wisdom, just as Socrates and Lao Tzu did. Fighters strive above all to be better people. (This theme is also explored in the 2010 essay collection Martial Arts and Philosophy. I haven’t read it but I love the subtitle: Beating and Nothingness.)
Ethics is the branch of philosophy that aims to make us all better people. The goal is not the True, what is, but the Good, what should be. In a subsequent post, I’ll consider philosophy’s role as a guide to morality.
Postscript: Philosophers have favorite tactics. No matter what your opponent says, even—especially!—if it makes perfect sense, scrunch up your face as if you are profoundly confused and ask, “What does that mean?” If you pursue this tactic deftly, your opponent will tumble into the infinite regress of meanings. (“Define ‘define,’” a colleague quipped recently.) Last year I had a miscommunication about the meaning of “meaning” with a philosopher, “Nigel.” I mentioned Owen Flanagan’s suggestion that if consciousness is “the hard problem,” then meaning is “the really hard problem.” Nigel challenged that assertion, arguing that meaning isn’t a big deal. Eventually we realized that Nigel meant the meaning of words, whereas I meant the meaning—that is, purpose or point--of life.
Post-postscript: Philosophers do of course occasionally cite empirical evidence for their arguments. Thomas Kuhn advanced his paradigmatic view of science with case studies from the history of science. Chalmers backs up his claims about philosophy’s failure to converge on answers by presenting data from a survey. The trendy field of “experimental philosophy” does research on how people arrive at their beliefs, but that seems like plain-old psychology to me.
Post-post-postscript: Other argumentative humanities disciplines suffer from the same lack of convergence as philosophy. As an English major in college, I fantasized about becoming a literary critic until, trying to crank out a paper on Ulysses, I decided that lit-crit is highbrow bullshit. Critics argue endlessly over their interpretations of Ulysses and The Tempest even though great art, by definition, resists definitive interpretation. So why keep arguing? What’s the point? Ever-more-impressive demonstrations of cleverness? I decided to become a science writer because science--unlike literary criticism and its parent, philosophy--answers questions instead of endlessly squabbling over them.
Post-post-post-postscript. Popper, a guest lecturer, was defending the concept of moral rules when Wittgenstein, who had been fiddling with a fireplace poker, stood and demanded that Popper provide an example of a moral rule. “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers,” Popper retorted, upon which Wittgenstein allegedly stormed out. This is Popper’s self-aggrandizing version of the incident, which he once recounted to me. But as the book Wittgenstein’s Poker shows, others present recalled the incident differently. The “truth” was indeterminate.
Post-post-post-post-postscript: I’ve played pond hockey for more than 20 years in the Hudson Highlands with more or less the same bunch of guys. Our senior member is Lars, a towering Norwegian and ferocious player, who is our self-appointed referee. Lars tells you what the rules are, but only after you have broken them. Lars is an attorney, but he would have made an excellent philosopher.
Further Philosophical Reading: