Why philosophy?

Written without any prior knowledge of Adam’s post, I swear.

“Is all philosophy bullshit?”

The question wasn’t glib, and it was coming from a fellow student in a European graduate philosophy program. My answer, mirroring the question, had the same false appearance of being glib:

99% of philosophy is wrong. But a significant minority of that is productively wrong. Why still read Plato? Not for his answers, for his questions.

Philosophy must bootstrap itself from aesthetics. Nietzsche understood this well, and was deeply skeptical of the intuition that what satisfied our intellectual cravings should necessarily correspond to any sort of truth. But what aesthetic affinity provides is desire; without a desire (for truth, for correctness, for consilience), there is no engine or fuel with which to even begin a process that approaches a love of wisdom.

One reason people have such strong reactions to and within philosophy, then, is a kind of aesthetic revulsion. The style of argumentation, or the content of an argument, may be the polar opposite of what attracted a person to their particular ideas or philosophical prejudices. If this was where things ended, philosophy would end as pointless navel-gazing. However, helpfully, the process of constructing thoughts that one is prejudiced toward equips one with the tools to begin challenging these very beliefs.

In the long conversation of philosophy, building up and tearing down strawman arguments has been recognized as a poor method for demolishing or disabling revolting concepts. There has therefore been a slow acceptance that, in order to deal a mortal blow to an enemy philosophy/philosopher, you need to understand it well enough to understand where it went wrong. Hence the method Dennett details in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Slavoj Žižek, in his tome on Hegel & Lacan (Less Than Nothing), takes a chapter to do precisely this with a oft-looked over philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte: he demonstrates how carelessly Fichte has been critiqued in the past, and presents his philosophy in a way to show that these prior criticisms did not succeed in their aim. All this, however, to show that it is Žižek’s critique that will ultimately demonstrate the crucial omissions from Fichte’s philosophy.

This process, refined against one’s opponents, eventually turns back upon ourselves. Why is it that idea x resonates with me, and idea y falls flat, when for another person the reverse is true? After a certain point, the likelihood of it being a flaw in thinking diminishes and it becomes clear that the key difference is that the two of you have different, even divergent, concerns. When Deleuze describes the task of philosophy as ‘creating concepts’ (as opposed to discovering truths), he is recognizing that concerns are shaped by the philosopher’s milieu, and that the concepts adequate to responding to the present may need to be invented from borrowed parts. Learning the history of philosophy is a kind of scavenging swords to beat into plowshares, or vice versa. What is ‘true’ (which, as an aside, means different things depending on what concept of truth you are deploying) is less important here than what is productive. Bad philosophy is philosophy whose arguments are incoherent and fail to demonstrate what they seek to demonstrate. Unproductive philosophy is philosophy with which you do not share a concern or miliue, whose concepts are useless or even malign to you.

The process of mutual criticism may occasionally also present opportunities for insight into the concerns of others; recognizing why Plato, or Descartes, or Hegel were producing the concepts they did does not imply endorsement, but it allows you to expand your own idea of what our capacity can be to respond to the world.

Harry Frankfurt defines the bullshitter as one who speaks without regard to the truth or falsity of what they say. The philosopher is not a bullshitter, but that is not to say that their primary concern is separating the true from the false. Concepts aren’t meant to be eternal. They have their time and place; but this is why, even today, metaphysics can be productive for thought. The metaphysics of object-oriented ontology for example, or actor-network theory, or neo-rationalism are attempts at answers to our present milieu, to questions we can scarcely pose. Just as Socrates concerned himself with demonstrating the eternity of the soul, we concern ourselves with demonstrating our inter-connectedness, our affective capacities, our capacities to shape reality with the aid of reason. Milieu’s change, but not radically so, and the circling of philosophy around the same half-dozen or so themes for centuries is a demonstration of this. What should we do? How can we know? What is?

What is for lunch?

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