Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Philosophy: Why I Do It

Here I have put down some thoughts on what sort of philosophical content I will have on this blog. Now it is time to do what I am meant primarily to do in these introductions, which is to answer the very reasonable question of why I bother with all this antisocial and time-consuming literary and mental work, work that many people would find dull, excessively abstract, solipsistic and, at best, a noble-minded folly.

So why do I bother with philosophy? I bother for the same reason that other people bother with Lazy Boys and beachfront scenery: because it is a form of relaxation, a way of soothing the mind. The mechanism is a little different in the philosophy case than the two cases just mentioned, but the result is similar: it gives a sense of calmness and order, or relief from chaos. Some might say that it is an antidote to the frenetic pace of modern life. I do not really want to say that, partly because other people say it and partly because I am not sure that modern life is as frenetic, in relation to earlier kinds of life, as it is sometimes cracked up to be. But I do say that philosophy is an antidote to the mindlessness of modern life.

Being mindful of things, in the way that philosophy is mindful, is soothing, but it is also difficult. I don’t count this as a deterrent, at least not usually. I bother with philosophy, despite its difficulty, for the same reasons that other people bother with poetry and triathlons, despite their difficulty: because difficulty in a pursuit asks for effort from the pursuer, and because effort has two rewards: the reliable but rather thin reward that comes merely from putting a lot of honest work into something; and the less reliable but richer reward that comes from getting closer to some form of excellence. The first of these rewards does not need any further explanation. The second does need further explanation, because one might reasonably ask the question: why pursue the excellence of philosophy over other kinds of excellence? And, perhaps it is not entirely silly to ask the question: why regard the excellence of philosophy as possessing any value at all, never mind an excellence that is so great as to shove most other excellencies out of the way?

One answer is that a quick and insightful mind makes it easier to advance in the world: it gets you a job, and it helps you to do useful practical things such as haggling and persuading others to support your pet projects. I do not think that this is a very good answer. For one thing, it is not especially philosophical to do philosophy in order to secure a high-paying job (though I do think there is something to be said for “active epistemology”, which I have described very roughly somewhere in here). For another thing, philosophy (in my experience) tends to interfere destructively with many practical tasks, rather than give an extra edge to my execution of them. Some time in the sixth or seventh century BC (or thereabouts) Thales fell into a well because he was too busy looking at the stars; and ever since then philosophers have had a reputation for looking to keenly at what seems to be a long way off and too dimly at what is at their feet.

I can give a better answer by trying to describe the things I admire about people who do philosophy well. And I can do that by trying to describe briefly the nature of philosophical learning. Acquiring a facility for philosophy, I think, is like acquiring a fairly powerful microscope. It gives you access to a who new domain of objects and relations and patterns, a domain that has a richness and variety that you could not have imagined existed if you looked at things just with your naked eye.

It is a very seductive toy, this microscope. You want to keep looking further into all those strange rock-like things and those knobbly little green things, and more closely at the eccentric patterns you see just on the edge of your scope. You feel like you could discover some amazing things down there, things people have never known about before. At the same time, however, you can very easily get completely lost, and end up discovering only trivialities or boring details or things that people have already discovered, and which they have discovered by a much less tortuous route than you have. A good philosopher is enticed by the detail without being seduced by it. A good philosopher, I think, is also well aware that all of this detail is not worth observing unless it can be linked up somehow with what you can observe with the naked eye. A bad philosopher will interpret the details carelessly, and end up saying something laughable about the world of the naked eye, and all that microscopic effort will go to waste. A good philosopher keeps one eye on the lens and one eye on the window, and out of both eyes still has a good sense of perspective.

A good philosopher is also admirable for the way he or she presents the results of his or her inquiry. All that tiny detail is so complex, and so foreign to our ordinary objects of vision, that it is easy to get confused when reporting about it, and to confuse readers as well; and so philosophy, like microscopy, calls for an especially clear and careful manner of expression.

I like this manner of expression. I like its honesty and its precision and its lack of tinsel, the firmness of its syntax (all those short sentences, structured according to their logic) and the way in which it refuses to be carried away by sentiment, whether moral or aesthetic. Here, for example, is the start of the introduction to Philosophy As It Is, an anthology of philosophical exemplars.

The best introduction to philosophy is philosophy itself. This is not an original thought, but it is not common for it to be taken as literally and as seriously as we have taken it in bringing together this volume of essays and introductions.

Good philosophy is rigorous, and has been since Socrates and before. The quality of rigorousness is not preserved in dilution. Reflection on philosophy (by which we mean attempts to introduce it or describe it or survey it or explain its nature), as distinct from attempts to do it, may be more or less instructive. Some books on philosophy, as contrasted with books of philosophy, are excellent. At its best, however, this sort of thing still lacks an its essential quality of its subject matter….

This sort of writing is poetry to me. Look at that introductory statement: it is clean as you can get, and uncompromising. Look at the honesty of the first clause in the second sentence, and the nice clarification that follows from it, and look too at those words “seriously” and “literally”, each doing their own job and doing it without fuss. Look at that italicization, true as a well-timed punch. Look too at the next sentence. Just look at that sentence: “The quality of rigorousness is not preserved in dilution.” What economy! What clarity! What a deft little metaphor, weighted precisely so as to express the point but not to strain it! It is comparable, for its expressive qualities, to something like this:

And nothing ‘gainst time’s scythe can make defense,
Save breath to brave him when he takes thee hence.

And then there is the explication in brackets, extending meaning but not excessively so, and the perfectly simple expression, in a neat parallelism, of a distinction that could one could so easily labour over in two or three sentences, and the measured tone of the whole, a tone that is not at all deliberately cultivated, but is a consequence of the main purpose of the prose, which is to present the truth clearly and persuasively. It is informal when it can be (“that sort of thing”), and it is does not tangle itself up with verbose diction; but at important moments in a sentence or a paragraph, when clarity and persuasiveness are most needed, it tightens up its language and fixes meaning in place. I could go on.

In this brief survey of the attractions of philosophy, I should also make mention of two other important qualities of the discipline: its necessity, and its generality. In general, philosophical truths bear more resemblance to the truths of mathematics than the truths of history: the sense in which philosophical truths could have failed to be truths is a very weak sense. Just what is meant by necessity, and what kind of necessity obtains in the case of philosophical truths, is of course a terribly large question, and I do not know much about the question, let alone the answer. All I want to say here is that philosophical truths have a kind of security about them that does not obtain in some other disciplines (like History), and that this security is attractive.

By the generality of philosophy I mean its applicability to a wide range of problems and interests. My metaphor of the microscope tends to obscure this point, suggesting as it does that philosophy is concerned mainly with the minutiae of life, and perhaps that it is only concerned with one or two sub-sections of life. On the contrary, philosophy is one of the broadest intellectual disciplines, and its subject matter stretches right across from aesthetics to mathematics, taking in History and Education and Science and Politics, and of course Ethics, along the way. Just what sort of priority enjoys over the other standard intellectual disciplines is another large question. I may have a go at answering this at some later date; for now it is enough to say that philosophy can make substantive contributions to our understanding of all of the disciplines just mentioned, and that its method is also well-adapted to solving, or at least assuaging, some of the problems of life.

And perhaps this last point is the most important point. What makes philosophy such an attractive pastime is that it is such a natural pastime, one that arises almost inadvertently when one begins trying to ask and answer questions about the world and the people in it. Everyone, I think, feels an urge to ask and answer such questions. And if one is going to do philosophy naturally, one might as well do it properly.