Against Mainstream Philosophy

June 23, 2014

At this time in history, what was historically philosophy’s subject matter has become the specialized subject matter of the sciences, from geometry to astronomy to physics. Mathematics in general is of course concerned with the question of what there necessarily is insofar as it involves number relations. Neurology aims to understand, I suppose, what the mind ultimately is; and theoretical physics is informed speculation about what time, space, matter, and energy ultimately are and what the relations between these things are.

Each of these disciplines concerns itself with a more specialized question of what there is. That is the perennial question of philosophy. And yet mainstream philosophy somehow often seems to not be about what there ultimately is. One of my irritations with contemporary Western analytic philosophy is that it devolves into what is hardly metaphysics; it is no longer preoccupied with the “what” so much as conceptual relations. In its concept of a thing it assumes the “what” from the beginning: an unquestioned object with a set of characteristics. Analytic philosophy is obsessed with proofs, and this assumption that the world fundamentally consists of countless objects with unique sets of properties, is built into the language it preoccupies itself with: the language of formal logic. In classic formal logic you describe a thing by its properties, such that P(x) is the basic form of a sentence, where P is the property attributed to (x).

This way of speaking is useful for logical examination of the relations between concepts. But to what extent is logical understanding equivalent to metaphysical understanding? Not enough to reduce all metaphysical inquiries to questions of logic. And indeed, the groundless speculation, the building of castles in the sky which characterizes so much of today’s philosophical discourse, has helped give the word “metaphysics”, which should be about what really is, the connotation of a study of imaginary realities.

My complaint is twofold: first against the idea that (even if it is philosophy’s business to state all claims in propositions) our collection of concepts mirrors a collection of objects which is the world, the latter of which will therefore be sufficiently understood by an analysis of our concepts. Second, that formal logic is the surest road to truth because it expresses fully our concepts and therefore will test the validity of our beliefs–not only in the negative sense of doing away with false beliefs, but in the positive sense of verifying that a belief, because logically coherent, is true.

Perhaps part of the problem is that philosophy has strayed from that inevitably mystical question, “what is being”? When in the history of philosophy it was determined that existence cannot be a predicate, nothing was solved regarding it. Nowadays ∃x (P(x)) is how we assert the existence of a thing, all the while dodging the question of what it is for a thing to be.

On the other hand, maybe it is actually the mystics, the Platonists and Neo-Platonists, the Sartres and the like that gave metaphysics its reputation for being, as Peter Unger recently said, like the kind of “metaphysics” you find in those new age bookstores that sell crystals and little statues of Hindu gods. But at least they dealt with questions of the ultimate nature of being. Contemporary metaphysics seems all to often to conflate reality with construct, to wallow knee-deep into conceptual issues disguised as logical problems. This preoccupation is expressed in contemporary ‘problems’ like vague objects, which seem to me to spring from recognizing that the boundaries (and thus identity) of physical objects are arbitrary, while simultaneously reifying those objects by searching for rules for each one’s unique, metaphysical essence.

But in addition to the question of what ultimately is, there is the philosophical attempt to gain a holistic understanding of the nature of reality.This aspect of true philosophy is also lost on the mainstream analytic philosophers, among whom I have seen little attempts to integrate philosophical understanding with scientific understanding, e.g. theoretical physics. We could glean from such attempts a more profound understanding of each of the disciplines and in turn of reality in total, that is of all parts of reality of which we have some knowledge.

In either pursuit, gaining a better understanding of ultimate reality and of total reality, proofs are not at the root of all answers to the question of reality. I once read a philosopher declaring it a scandal that philosophy has not yet devised a proof for the existence of the external world. Of what use is such a proof? A convincing proof for the nonexistence of the world would result in widespread frustration, not conviction that the world does not exist after all. So belief in the world, for most philosophers, is pretheoretical. A proof for its existence serves no function except to validate philosophy’s productivity (another discussion in its own right). I use this example to point out symptoms of philosophers’ mistake regarding what matters. Philosophy’s aim ought not be proof but rather providing justified grounds for belief. And there are more ways to do this than by proof. Indeed, as I have been asserting, piddling with the operations of logic neither grasps the question of the nature of being nor suffices for a holistic understanding of the nature of reality, at least not productively.

Justified grounds for our beliefs will be better sought in practical rather than pure theoretical reasoning. Action can be expressed in action as well as thought, and furthermore, I wish the notion of practical reason would be extended to the idea that the search for truth is an enterprise involving the ‘full man’ and not reflection on the operations of logic alone. That would certainly entail taking up new criteria of justification: justification for one’s beliefs does not hinge entirely on logical inferences from premises held a priori. After all, more than that goes into determining for myself what I will believe; neither the existence of the material world nor of other conscious minds, for example, follow directly from experience. But if I become a solipsist when I realize that the existence of others cannot be logically inferred, I cannot (except self-contradictory) go about life treating people as real existing entities. So even most critical thinkers accept the reality of the world and of others; this is what I mean by exercising practical reasoning.

I use the example of solipsism to point out that there is no urgency for a proof to lead us out of it unless we are seriously in doubt of the existence of the external world and other minds, which is not usually the case. Most of those who want a proof, I expect, want it because it would feed into their sense of the worth of their discipline, not because of a sincere existential crisis. But to me, there is no proof in sight. Yet that does not mean we have no basis for belief: some beliefs can be justified on the ground that, despite the fact that we have no logical reason for holding them, one can’t consistently disbelieve them. So to believe the opposite is untenable.

Nor are the axioms of reason themselves grounded in reason. Instead most of us take up these assumptions knowing that we cannot do much without them. Like the move away from solipsism, the assumption that logical relations reflect reality is not a justifiable move by way of pure reason, but is permissible and even necessary on the grounds of practical reason.

At some point I may post more thoughts on practical reason as I understand it. I will probably post some thoughts on integrating philosophy with other disciplines. But for now, suffice it to say that I think the pursuit of knowledge is more rewarding when broader in scope, and when it involves the ‘full man’ as well as the cognitive understanding. But even cognitive understanding does not increase by mere proofs.

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