Philosophy for itself

One major mistake that we can be misled into, by thinking philosophy ought to be the hand-maiden to the sciences, is believing all knowledge is somehow of a piece, that it all fits neatly together because of methodology or subject matter. This is simply not true.

Admittedly, this has been a dream of philosophers since at least Aristotle, perhaps Plato. Pursuit of this dream has led to construction of those magnificent cathedrals of logic and language known as ‘systematic philosophy:’ everything could be brought together, everything would be explained. From the cycles of the stars in the sky, to the boils on one’s buttocks, all would be known.

I can’t remember who said it, but it has been said, that Hegel’s dialectic ended with the burning of the Reichstag. In fact the past hundred or so years has seen the complete collapse of every project of a ‘systematic philosophy,’ in the face of social, political, cultural changes undreamt of in Hegel’s day. We now know that we simply can’t account for all possible human experience, and human experience remains the core of any possible knowledge.

While the Positivists confined themselves to the details of language, their privileging scientific theory above all other language uses tells us that they hoped that a ‘systematic philosophy’ would at last be possible – only not within the practice of philosophy, but in science. Science would eventually tell us all we needed to know – about the world, and, eventually, about ourselves – and discourse outside of science would be recognized as mere opinion: perhaps deeply felt, but ultimately unreliable. And many scientists and some philosophers still seem to believe this.

But it is becoming more clear that the methodologies of the various sciences are actually rather varied; and that there is sometime little or no connection between differing sciences, either in the kind of knowledge they provide, or the structures of knowledge implicit in their modelings. Right now, computer simulations seem to be the one practice that all sciences share; yet the fact remains that these simulations are very different in structure, from one science to another, and implicate differing degrees (perhaps, in a sense, different kinds) of probability and predictability.

And no computer simulation or algorithm is going to get me a better tasting beer, for the simple reason that my taste in beer varies from day to day, and brewing recipes depend on the brewer’s own taste and attention to details, some of which must be measured strictly, others more reliant on the brewer’s intuition. And should I drink beer before driving a motor vehicle? Obviously not, it’s against the law; but such laws have been arrived at after years of communities suffering the consequence of poor choices on the part of drivers.


But why should I drive any motor vehicle at all? That’s a question science cannot answer, because the question depends on the social world, its history, and my place in it. Indeed, it seems a curious question; yet our collective failure to ask it has contributed to a damaged biosphere and the consequences of that.

‘Well, wait; doesn’t the damage caused by vehicular pollution – which is a scientific fact – answer my question?’ It certainly informs it, and informs some of my political choices. It won’t pay my bills should I decide to quit my job because it involves a long commute.

What are my obligations in such matters, and from whence do they arrive? One can reduce such a question to matters of consequence – ‘if you don’t want to go to jail, don’t break the law!’ But concerning matters not determined by law, surely simple reference to positive or negative consequences just won’t do. I don’t have a family anymore; but when I did, I certainly felt obligated toward them, despite the fact that they were wholly dysfunctional, both individually and collectively, and unpleasant to be with. (In “The Marx Bros. Go West,” when Groucho asks Chico, concerning Harpo, “You love your brother, don’t you?” Chico shrugs. “Naw, but I’m used to him.”)

Should we not expect philosophy to provide answers to questions such as these? Here, I agree wholeheartedly with those who prefer a critical thinking, rather than ascertaining all the ‘right’ answers: No; what philosophy ought to do is what it’s always done best, even before the coming of ‘systematic philosophy’ – pose the questions in a way that causes us to think deeply about them.

And the devil of it is that people expecting science to answer all these questions fail to understand that such answers are not what we want of science, they’re not what any science has been set up to get us. One effort after another to reduce the human experience to the lowest common denominators for statistical probability and ‘scientific’ intervention has failed. (As late as 1980, Skinnerian Behaviorists were trying to ‘train’ homosexuals to be heterosexuals. Now most of us no longer view homosexuality as an aberration; simply yet another possibility in the wide range of what it might mean to be human.)

We need to stop thinking that the human experience is filled with all sorts of diseases or pathologies that somebody needs to diagnose and cure. Just as, after years of tortuous logic chopping in America, and equally tortuous inflated tropology among certain Europeans, that good plain speech is something we must suspect, dissect, correct. Humans make a lot of mistakes, and think and do a lot of stupid things. But we must remember that the human is the source of all value, and must be respected for that.


“I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here (Auschwitz) , to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.” – J. Bronowski, “The Ascent of Man”


Originally submitted as comments to Dan Kaufman’s “On Philosophy and Its Progress,”


7 thoughts on “Philosophy for itself

  1. …or we can say that philosophy since Plato has been but one or mabe three steps toward undetstanding humanity, and that the conclusion that because we keep asking the same questions is symptomatic of a particular moment of human consciousness. Parhaps time, and the human creature, occurs in a much larger temporal scheme, as well as teleological basis, such that the argument that 1500 years is a long time Is really just an argument for limit. Of arguing merely ones position because their view is myopic.



  2. …ah. But definately not handmaiden, but it could end up being a science, where the past 1500 years was just data and fact finding, exploration and excersize to find out the parameters of the human cognitive ability, so far as what comes out of it, how it manifests.


      • …the way an effective empire lasts is by allowing those governed the room to believe that they are excersizing their maximum freedom. Over time, philosoohy has allowed the feedback into ideology and pokitics to bring democracy and capitalism. This system allows for people to feel their freedom while being confined to specufic types of activity. They do not notice their confinement, or if they do, then see it as a necessary condition of their freedom.

        The problem of past posed philosophical systems is their location in the Enlightenment. The philosophical motion that lead directly to WW2 is no secret. But it is due to the idea, similar to the type of science that you seem to have an idea of, that there is a ‘proper’ manner of coming upon reality: And the system always proposes this. The idea that we cannot propose systematized philosophies is itself the product of an ‘invisible’ philosophical system that has taken hold of the manner by which one comes upon her freedom. But it is proposed as not a system because a system is necessarily not able to be found, albeit, because it is functioning. The systems that you decry are those based in the mode of assertion: Because ‘system’ was mis-construed as it was misapplied.

        I mean (Im such a dork) think of the movie the Matrix. This is indeed what must occur, but it doesn’t occur as some sort of ‘group of people asserting propriety’; it happens as a natural result of human beings attempting to achieve things within the idea of a common humanity that is able to commune with some sort of transcendent propriety. It is the result of a bunch of human beings thinking that their thoughts are inspired by a universal ethics of good. The upstarts that get too heady get checked. But that does not mean that the effort stops. It means that human continue though the learning of how that type of application of total control doesn’t work.

        The authors of the movie the Matrix were not proposing some ridiculous idea; they were taking an extrapolation of our current ideological paradigm and placing it in a fictional format. It is no secret that you can either force people to do what you want, or you can get them to do what you want by creating a condition wherein they think they are making are choices for their individual benefit.

        But again, this is what happens because that of the effect involved with human beings each doing what is in their best interest as their interest comes to be seen to be involved in the common human good.

        This is the reason what we have the ‘religious fundamentalist terrorists’. Because they are involved with an ideology that is inherently free, beyond the ideology that would want to define what freedom is.
        Theirs is a natural human reaction to confinement: they ‘feel’ the confinement and react drastically to it because they are not involved with the same organization of meaning where the confinement is invisible, which is to say, functioning effectively.

        Thus there kind of freedom is ‘terrible’ because they are involved with a reality that is not concerned (yes: ideally) with some common human ethic. And our common human ethic is, right now, capitalism under the guise of free democracy.

        The question has got to be: What is ethical about me getting educated so I can thereby enact some sort of fulfilling life of purpose for the greater good of humanity, when the very act of me getting educated in this way automatically excludes a large segment of humanity that I am supposed to be doing the good for, and indeed subjugates and abuses them, by my personal investment of my desires for myself?

        But, it is the best system we got, you say.

        Yet this system, that is proposed as not a philosophical system, functions by virtue of the good believed by its adherent and promoting citizens. It thereby justifies its ethical thinking through violence to others that it selectively uses for its gains. Its better to join them, right?

        What kind of philosophy is this?

        It is a philosophy of might is right. In other words, it is no philosophy that it proposes by its own idea of philosophy. It is an political propaganda that even the free thinkers do not see themselves as promoting. It is blind and crassly obtuse to its shortcomings.

        But it is, indeed, real. And it is, indeed, the philosophy of those who do not wish to address that which offend the mean by which they commune with their …

        Yet it might appear inconsistent to you to understand that I am not unhappy as a person. I have a great life and a happy family. Philosophy to me is not about how I carry on in life. Philosophy to me is not segregated enough from me for me to be able to ‘apply’ it to myself or suggest to others what they should do.

        It is fine to have a philosophy of ‘what shall we do next’, but it is non sequitur to apply this viewing and application as if it functions through the totality of all things, as if it addresses every potential that can arise.

        It is systematically blind to that which offends its method.

        whew! That was a good ramble.

        As you might be able to tell: Philosophy to me, is not ‘spiritual living’, or ‘social justice’, though one can indeed use the term philosophy in those contexts.

        But that is one of the problems with this general assumption of ubiquity in ‘philosophy’. It is so clouded with excepting of every opinion without any vetting about what it is expressing, because ‘philosophy’ is taken as a ‘philosophy of…’. And often enough is associated with a career move that in the end addresses nothing more significant that a firefighter putting out a fire or a programmer fixing an error in a line of code. It becomes just another form and manner for a person to assert her identity. Which, ironically, is what reality is right now.

        OK. Ill shut up now.


  3. Sure. Thats one way. And thats right: human lives are not data. But likewise are humsn lives separate from the functioning universe.

    So perhaps what i am wanting now grants only one view that can be categorzed as such, and then there is another kind of human view.

    Hence we might say that after 1500 years we have discovered one datum, one fact of being human. That there is a particular kind of view that manifests philosohical questions in a particular manner. That this is a characteristic if a certain function for humanity to have a world.


  4. I mean this to reply to your first paragraph.

    The statement that there is no universal law, itself, would be a universal law. Further, if there is no universal law, then it seems all would be chaos? Why bother with anything, if everything is chaos?

    A possible argument against this is that fractions over the overall whole of reality have self-contained, consistent laws, and therefore your attempts at any goal do have purpose. But then, that action would admit to your preference toward a unified theory.

    So, I’m lost.


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