Philosophizing

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It is likely that more time has been wasted by highly intelligent people in “philosophizing” than in any other activity.  The term, “philosophy,” of course, means “love of wisdom,” and this—especially in Greek—is attractive.  After all, who would want to engage in an activity called “love of obtuseness,” or “love of tendentiousness,” or “love of hearing oneself talk.”

The history of philosophy is instructive.  About 550 BCE, Anaximenes “discovered” that everything is made of air.  As it is rarefied it becomes fire, and as it is condensed it becomes first water, then earth, then stone.  What was the evidence for these things?  How did he make these discoveries?  By talking about them!  About 460, Leucippus invented philosophical atomism.  How do you explain movement if there isn’t a void?  But a void is philosophically repugnant so you must somehow fill it.  Aha!  Everything is made of small units that come together to bring about “coming into being” and separate to bring about “passing away.”  More talk.  About 400, Plato decided that we don’t really see things but only the manifestations of their eternal, ideal forms.  After all, how else can we recognize that two dissimilar chairs are “chairs” without there being an ideal form for chairs which is perceived by the mind?  Yet more talk.

Move forward two millennia and you find that things haven’t changed.  In the early 1700s Leibniz told us that the universe is made up of monads.  These are immaterial substances, all of which have consciousness, but, being immaterial, none can act.  Some of them (rational monads) also have self-consciousness.  How did he decide all of this?  Through talk.  In the late 1700s Hegel gives us another view:  everything that exists is mind, and nothing has an independent existence.  Ultimately, there is only one thinking substance, which leads us to the “world mind,” the culmination of the various “minds” of whole peoples or nations.  Seems clear, doesn’t it—and all the product of talk.

Philosophy is the effort to decide what sort of place the world is by talking about it, and this is terribly wrong-headed.  The only way to know what the world is like is to begin by looking at it, and the deeper we want to penetrate into its mysteries, the harder we have to look.  Philosophy, in contrast, is just premature speculation, as is borne out by its history.  About 300 BCE, the Stoics and Epicureans divided knowledge into physics, ethics, and logic.  The physics of the Stoics became natural philosophy which included speculation on biology and physics. But by the 17th century with the growth of science, both physics and biology began to be put upon a basis of fact—speculation had become competent—and they became a part of science.

The ethics of the Stoics had become moral philosophy, which included economics, psychology, sociology, etc. In the 19th century, these, too, became the subject matter of science.  Finally, the development of mathematical logic in the 19th and 20th centuries expanded logic immensely and put it squarely into the camp of mathematics and computer science.  All of knowledge, as the Stoics saw it, had become the purview of science.

A more recent classification of philosophic pursuits lists metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics.  Logic we have already disposed of.  Metaphysics is speculation into the nature and ultimate significance of the universe.  (The first part of this is obviously a task for science, and it is hard to tell what the last can mean.)  Epistemology speculates on the processes involved in knowing and on the nature of knowledge.  (Once again, the first part is obviously a task for science and it is hard to tell what the last can mean.)  This leaves us with ethics—speculation on right conduct—and aesthetics—speculation on the nature of beauty and the criteria for aesthetic judgment.

A philosopher might argue that philosophy has been essential to science—that philosophic ideas have created the ambience necessary for the development of scientific ideas.  Indeed, we often hear that the Greek atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, were early physicists or proto-physicists.  This is very far from the truth for philosophy is antithetical to science.  Unverified speculation divorced from concrete observations cannot be science.  The reason Leucippus proposed the existence of “atoms” was because the idea of a void was philosophically unattractive.  In contrast, John Dalton, the chemist credited with the originating atomic theory, began with observations on the three states of matter and used water as a familiar example.  It can exist as an elastic fluid (steam), as a liquid (water), and as a solid (ice).  He says that such observations have led to a tacit conclusion that matter consists of small particles or atoms which are bound together by a force which is “more or less powerful according to the circumstances.”  He then goes on to draw a great many specific conclusions from this.  The important point, here, is that the “observations” to which he refers are not at all dependent upon some preexisting notion of philosophical atomism—and you will note that he doesn’t cite Leucippus or Democritus.   In fact, preexisting philosophical ideas are likely to be an impediment to the development of science.

The Ptolemaic system is a case in point.  The ideas underlying this construction include the idea that nothing but motion at a constant speed in a perfect circle is worthy of a celestial body (do you recognize unregulated talk at work?).  And crystalline spheres containing the sun, moon, and planets were said to rotate within one another making the “music of the spheres” (where did this all come from?).  This system had been upheld by the medieval church because it put the Earth at the center of the universe and justified the place of man held by the theologians.

The prestige of this conception was so great that Copernicus retained the notion of circular orbits in his heliocentric theory, which was condemned anyway—even though he dedicated it to the Pope.  A canny fellow, he had withheld publication for thirteen years, waiting until he was on his deathbed.  After it was published, the incautious Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for adhering to it.

What about ethics and aesthetics?  The problem is simply that philosophy remains philosophy: you can no more determine what right conduct is—ultimately and essentially—by talk than you can determine what knowledge is or what the universe is.  (And of course, the real problem lies in thinking that “questions” about the “ultimate” or “essential” are meaningful at all.)  Our judgments on conduct and art come from our sensitivity and sensibility, and from our experience as feeling participants in our culture.  What we will be able to say with any clarity will one day come from psychology and sociology.  (This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with ethics or aesthetics.  It means that we are deluding ourselves if we think that talking about it can do any more than explain—after a fashion—what we feel.  This is the realm of opinion.

To be more blunt:  the type of reasoning favored by philosophers should never be indulged in.  Their conclusions are—at best—indemonstrable and—in fact—very generally wrong.  Henry Adams was right.  Philosophy is “unintelligible speculation on insoluble problems.”  Wittgenstein would have quarreled with “insoluble,” holding that the problems of philosophy are the results of philosophizing itself—of misusing the language.  They can be “solved” by dismissing them.  I agree with him, and neither Wittgenstein nor I would have any quarrel with “unintelligible.”

 

Note.  Anyone interested in pursuing this should read the essay on Wittgenstein.