Shout-Out to Russell
Bertrand Russell is a big influence on myself, I’ll have to admit. I also take a lot of my philosophy from Arthur Schopenhauer, but I have a severely activist side of myself, with regards to social justice. In order to simply separate myself from this subject, so that I don’t become like a broken record, let’s look at what problems plague philosophy nowadays. As I understand it from many social media denizens, philosophy is a thick subject to tackle. Not unlike how one would have to be connaisseur in order to appreciate the subtle differences in wine or monastery cheese (Oka, in Quebec, comes to mind). I find myself in a position, as a philosophy enthusiast, to try to explain what irritates people about philosophy, and how I empathize with their sentiment.
Reading a philosophy book by one of the big names means embarking yourself on an intellectual journey of oft-disorienting word salad. If you pick up “Being and Time”, by Heidegger, you are most likely to eventually come upon a linguistic roadblock, as you see him pile up expression after expression that makes no sense to you. One of the more difficult areas of philosophy is phenomenology, which Heidegger and Hegel are prominently cited for, as well as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. I can empathize with hostile sentiments toward those, because I too think sometimes there’s not much to be extracted from that part of philosophy.
In the defense of such an interpretation of philosophy, however, I present the fact that there are more to philosophers than phenomenologists. If you are an erudite intellectual who likes to read about anything, you will enjoy phenomenology. Most people, however, prefer concise and edible things to read. A philosopher like Bertrand Russell does this quite well. Other philosophers of analytical philosophy tend to be clear in their writings. There’s also people like Arthur Schopenhauer who make very easy-to-understand correlations between their “rational conjecture” and real-world examples. The idea I suppose, is to look for what you want to increase your philosophical knowledge in, and then read one of the philosophers associated to it.
A good resource for that is the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which I often link to in my posts about philosophy, to show some rigor in citations. I prefer to use websites with an .edu suffix, because they normally originate from academic circles who have done studies in the subject. I also like this particular article I found on the web, which helped me situate myself as far as philosophy is concerned, as to what solid sources are on the subject. It also gives you an idea of where to start looking. On my part, the only thing I can say is that there’s a philosopher for everyone. If you think otherwise, it’s simply because you haven’t looked hard enough.
You could also find one of the many books that summarize both the history of philosophy and give you a crash course on the main points of each philosopher. I could also direct you to one of the “Introducing Books” series would definitely help to understand philosophy in quick swoops.
It’s not scientific
Philosophy as a field of study is NOT scientific. That normally immediately shuts down communication for a lot of people, especially in this modern age of scientism, where everything not scientific is therefore religious and worthy of disdain. The problem with this immediate disregard for philosophy is it doesn’t let me finish my explanation. While philosophy itself is NOT scientific and cannot be used as scientific evidence of thing X happening, it can be used to augment and upgrade initial conceptions about a given subject. For example, philosophers of science help shape the way we do science. Newton was such a philosopher (although I suppose he was more of a “natural philosopher”), Popper was such a philosopher, Bachelard was such a philosopher and Kuhn was one of them, as well.
That does not make what they say inherently right, but if you wish to learn more about how scientists do philosophy, this is how. Admittedly, most of philosophy in science right now (as it is portrayed) is hammering that secularism is the key to bold scientific research. A recent board of scientists and philosophers met to discuss the place of science in philosophy and vice versa. They are not mutually exclusive, but they can do well without one another, science moreso than philosophy. History shows us that ancient philosophers got a number of things wrong, as did ancient scientists. There’s a number of reasons for that which I could go into in a later post, but primarily, you can see that they had very limited means by which to interpret the world, that modern-day scientists do not suffer from.
Along the lines of philosophy not being scientific does not mean it’s invalid. It simply means it’s a misunderstanding to try to seek the science in philosophy. Something being scientific does not make it inherently right. It just means it uses the methodologies of science to come to its conclusions. If philosophy used science to come to its conclusions, it would no longer be philosophy. The idea behind philosophy is that we never know as much as we think we know. That’s a contention of epistemologists, of which I am very fond. So, philosophers tend to question things we take for granted, which obviously annoys scientists who have very rigorous models to support their claims. The data is there, philosophers should just stay away, and they do, for the most part.
Where philosophers are right, however, is that we should not stop at models and scientific theories to gauge whether something is true or not. We need to do some necessary introspection, where we could be wrong and what we could make better about our processes. I am not a philosopher of science, so I will admit that I am out of my league here, as most of my knowledge of science comes from educators and epistemologists (also, an unhealthy dose of Cosmos – I really love that show and astronomy in general).
The moment any form of certainty can be ascertained through philosophy, it ceases to be philosophy and becomes a science on its own. Barring scientific evidence, it becomes dogma, which is in the realm of pseudophilosophy (read: abrahamic religions). Spirituality is dear to philosophers, however, as while they expect the world to be as we see it and not anything else, they do recognize that human beings have a form of sensibility that science is not equipped to address. Rather, science tends to backhand this vile notion of subjectivity with objective statements like “look at the data”. Data does not mean much for spiritually-inclined individuals. Philosophy comes in here, not only to bridge the gap in communication between science and religion, but also to learn more about both sides.
As I said above, the idea that with philosophy a certain form of certitude will arise is setting yourself up for disappointment. The only certainty philosophers truly have is that they do not know everything, and that they shouldn’t presume that they do, nor should anyone else. Clearly, the healthiness of philosophy is to keep one from dogma. You could say that science does this very well, but the problem of science is it is very centralized. It becomes rather quick for humans to resort to old habits of dogma and contempt for anyone who doubts received ideas.
Philosophy having a usage is sort of like how people think art is created for a use. Philosophers of art will be the first to tell you that art’s beauty is not in what it means to the person observing it, but that it is inherently useless and meaningless. I believe this to be a rather difficult ground to support, especially for our modern man who is heavily materialistic. No, philosophy does not have practical usage you can apply in your everyday life, but mostly in things you think about, when you are by your lonesome or reflecting on your life’s choices. When people say “My philosophy about this is…” what they mean is the way they think about a certain subject means that they typically always make so and so decision regardless of the terms. That’s a shallow interpretation of what philosophy is, respectfully.
No, the reason why people should be doing philosophy is not because there’s a point to it, or that you’ll get intellectual points in your social circle for doing it, but because it’ll open up your mind to various perspectives, without absorbing any of the dogma. Philosophers of all stripes were exposed both to religious dogma and to philosophic scrutiny during their time. Some less than others, but you can easily situate them as activists in their resistance to intellectual norms. Most philosophers actually see their generations as being the worst ever. Schopenhauer remarked the same thing before his death. It seems as though being opened to the many perspectives in your world helps you understand just how pointless everything really is, but then you remark with pessimism (to take Schopenhauer’s perspective) that people still attach immensely unnecessary importance to certain things, to the point that they will kill for it.
Philosophic contemplation would therefore help you look at things from different perspectives, and see where certain things are irrational unto themselves, without needing scientific evidence or having to wait for it to come upon you. One such idea is moral relativism. If you are attracted to moral relativism, you will see that the justifications for certain ideas of moral superiority are grounded in irrational claims, religious or other. Morality, in general depends on peer pressure, and as such, does not always account for reason, merely group-think.
I suppose, if I were to summarize this part of my argument, I would say that you can find usage in philosophy in defending yourself from dogma, religious or otherwise. It works very well for looking at different worldviews and not being affected by them, in a more “objective” lens, if you will. That is something political theorists typically endeavored to do. You will also be more capable to see when your own group is being taken over by dogma and perhaps reason with your group to snap out of it better, by simply having stronger arguments shaped by your study of philosophy.
In closing – It’s DEAD
A recent whiplash to philosophy from science educators has branded it dead. As if to say that philosophy has no reason to exist anymore, that it does not discover anything anymore. Well, that might be true of natural philosophers, but not of philosophy in general. Because, as I said, the point of philosophy is not to discover specific things (that is on the onus of science) but to help man make sense of the world around him, using (among other things) science, but also the many other fields of art and litterature. Philosophers typically have a wealth of knowledge in many other different areas of human intelligence, which they use not to make discoveries but to shape the way they see the world, and then convey that philosophy to other people. That is why most philosophers’ worldviews became “doctrines”. You’ll often hear philosophers speak of “hegelean” or “kantian” or “nietzchean” views. There’s a reason to that, and that’s because at a certain point, the way we think is influenced by philosophers who conveyed this message to everyday people, academics and scientists alike. It is thus not only NOT dead, but alive and kicking. Simply put, however, much of what it does is being replaced by a vitriolic wave of anti-intellectualism punctuated by a widespread misunderstanding of science, which was diluted by the science educators, who shrunk the complexity of science into an acceptable format, for the masses to consume.
Doing the same with philosophy is actually helpful, not so with science. Because reducing science to basic expressions means opening the door very wide for error and dogmatic assertions, which Scientism is ripe with. If there is one science educator that I can recommend, it is Richard Feynman, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson in close proximity. The idea that philosophy is dead would sign a death warrant to the critical thinking skills of humanity at large. Putting faith in a belief, any belief, without good reason is what epistemologists called an unjustified belief. Even if that object which we put our faith into is capable of substantiating itself on its own, we do not. That is where we would fail. Thus, any pretension to rationality through a vague understanding of science and its principles, would lead us into an intellectual dark age.
It is best for science that humans learn to do science on their own, rather than believe it on faith. Philosophers know this, that is why they do not ask anyone to believe them on faith.