Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Utility or Futility?

Alternative title, kicking Adam while he's down.

I'm at times fascinated and/or bemused by those that practice Philosophy. If I'm being honest, it is the one area of science that bedevils any attempt of mine to understand it or grasp the underlying concepts.

Which inevitably leads me to question the utility of Philosophy. If I use myself as an example of the "common man" (i.e. I'm not mentally incompetent. At least not all the time.) how does any discovery or understanding by a philosopher affect or change my daily life? I don't see the applicability of philosophical reasoning to daily life. It certainly does not help to further the acceptance of Philosophy by the general populace when philosophers can't even agree what "is" is. Which reasonings do we embrace even if we understood them?

Not that the hard sciences are always entirely clear or rational. The December issue of Scientific American has an article probing the idea that if alternate universes existed with different laws of physics, could they support life? For instance, if the weak atomic force did not exist at the moment of that universe's big-bang, could the necessary atoms be created to support life? (Short Answer: No. Somehow they know that.)

I read the article, even followed most of it, and came out the other end, saying "what the fuck?" The article concluded (I'm paraphrasing) that even though there is no way to test our hypothesis, such theorizing will help us understand how our universe began. But in the article they describe the current unknowns, which include, is there more than one universe? If so, what form do they take? And then they go on and try to determine if life exists in these unknowable universes.

Sounds like an exercise in futility to me.

It is human nature to question and to seek answers. Trying to limit this questioning would itself be a futile enterprise. So why this blog post? What's the utility? It makes me feel better that's what! All humour aside, that does seem to be the point. Someone wants to know something, whether it be the nature of existence or how many existences there are.

That people constantly quest and seek and research and learn comforts me. But it appears to this woefully uneducated outsider that Philosophy in particular is eternally seeking to justify itself. That no answer it gives is certain, and as such it is a study of questions without answers.

So is Philosophical musing a genuine area of study, of great import to humanity (chime in Adam, I know you want to!) or would it have been better left as a hobby, a side interest that exercises the mind?

I promise I'll try to understand any answers provided!


Christopher Parsons said...

Challenging the value of philosophy - now here is something to get us philosophers to post! *grin*

I think that 'professional philosophy' suffers, in part, because there is an expectation that theory now will immediately be useful. It tends not to be. If you look at many of the empirical models of science that we now commonly adopt (as an example), you can trace the logical arguments for and against them to philosophical texts. In around 50 years or so, I would expect that we'll start really seeing some of Merleau-Ponty's work become 'popular' in the social science, and thus enter the 'scientific/common person' canon without many ever knowing who Merleau-Ponty is. Save for the initial book or two, no one will reference the original 'hard' texts, and instead will reference the 'easy to understand/layman's' version.

Those last few sentences might look catty, but they're depressingly accurate in my experience. I'm preparing for a comprehensive examine in comparative politics, and you get these very rare, seminal texts for political science, that at least try to grapple with ontological and epistemological questions born out of philosophy proper and then about 20 years of people referencing the seminal book without reading key philosophical texts its based on. As someone who has read many of those key texts, and sees the deficiencies in that seminal text, this is horrifically depressing because it means that you get large amounts of work referencing logically inadequate works...

Now, the question you're really asking is 'what's the utility?' and that's a fair question. I never really see philosophy as necessarily 'getting us' to somewhere in particular, but instead in mapping out new structures where knowledge can subsequently form. In identifying logically valid and intellectually interesting areas to develop new work, philosophy provides the fertile ground that the other disciplines can plunder and rape 15-100 years after its published. This said, there is 'more applicable' theory - some of the work that I do in social and political philosophy, as an example, is semi-applicable and could be seen as having 'utility' in the sense that you're likely thinking of.

I would suggest that those theorists who are still searching for absolute universals (e.g. Platonic Forms) are increasingly at risk of being seen as 'professional' theorists, who 'aren't engaging with the real world'. I don't think that this is inherently a bad thing, as academic disciplines aren't required to contribute new biotech, popular works of literature, or routing algorithms - academia is, at least in part, there to enrich culture. (No disrespect whatsoever meant to the 'universal question' philosophers.) Others, such as myself, try to avoid looking for capital-T truths, and instead focus on contingent, little-T truths; what theoretical structure might express digital embodiment as it manifests, and what are the principles of such embodiment? How might we grasp norms of privacy, in a contextual rather than perpetual sense?

Christopher Parsons said...

More practically still, philosophy is (in theory ) about critique, a level of critique that is sorely lacking in the social sciences in particular. In getting inside arguments, in mapping their internal structure and pushing them to the furthest logical point until they collapse, we learn more about how we ontologically map the world as such. From this, we can derive an understanding of the epistemological and methodological approaches we take, and subsequently critique them as well. This neverending, never-forgiving, process of critique is (as I practice it) at the heart of philosophy.

Now, all this being said: I ENTIRELY AGREE with the nonsense that Adam identifies in his post. There is a reason why I fled philosophy proper to do political and digital theory: I was sick and tired of 'philosophers' looking down their noses at me because I was interested in the little-t, relatively practical, issues that I'm concerned with. I never wanted to attend philosophy talks, which amounts to philosophy readings from prepared texts. I *like* dealing with what matters to me in the world; I want to think about the norms of communication as they function in today's world and the privacy implications associated with digitization. In many philosophy departments, however, you are in a situation where 'applied' philosophy is sneered at, where sophisticated understandings of technology are unnecessary, and an overabundance of abstracted models operates in defiance of practical cases. It's this intentional separation from the applicable that I see as most problematic for philosophy; I understand it (especially in the department I was in), but nevertheless think that it's incredibly problematic and managed to drive me out of philosophy proper.

ADHR said...

Yeah. What Christopher said. :D I'm saving this for future reference... it's very well put. The one thing I would add is that philosophy also leads us to question ourselves and others -- not just the disciplines and institutions that surround us, but our own presuppositions and the presuppositions of other people. There's good reason why philosophy is dialectical in structure, and it's because it's the best technique we've got for figuring out what we and others really believe.

It's hard to figure out if the worm is starting to turn or not in professional philosophy. Maybe the tight job market will help, or maybe it'll drive everyone who doesn't do "pure philosophy" into other realms. For every philosopher interested in foundational questions of biology or in expanding the conceptual models used in cognitive sciences or in unpacking logical presuppositions motivating global health policy, there's two or three who seem to be expert in obscure, highly abstract considerations of dogma and minutiae. I would never begrudge anyone their curiosity, but I find the superior attitudes they strike rather off-putting (at best).

Sir Francis said...

I'm surprised your learned interlocutors neglected to point out that, by posing (and providing provisional answers to) your question, you performed precisely the task concerning the value of which you seem ambivalent.

As soon as you ask, "Is philosophy worthwhile?", you're a philosopher--though an unaccredited one. The key question now is whether you're a good one or a bad one.

Given that you found the above question worth asking in the first place, I would venture to suggest you're a good one.

Catelli said...

Thank-you gentlemen.

So in the simplest terms, philosophy offers us a structured approach that allows us to answer our questions. Or seek those answers in a rational manner.

While many/some/all of the discussions in pure philosophy may not have immediate applicable use, they help map out our thought processes, and the tools themselves can be applied to more immediate areas of study (such as privacy in the digital age).

Did I get that right?

ADHR said...

Sounds about right, yes. Keeping in mind, though, that philosophy is also reflexive and can be turned back on itself. That is, you can philosophically question what it is to have a rationally-based answer to a question, how thought processes work, and so on.

ADHR said...

Oh, and, Sir Francis is right: we should've pointed out that the discussion of the value or point of philosophy is itself philosophical.

Catelli said...

that philosophy is also reflexive and can be turned back on itself

I had to read that 4 times before I understood it. *grin*

I suspect that utility is useful only to Philosophy itself, and yes, we just went through that with my post. However, I can guarantee that I'll never have this conversation at the proverbial water cooler.

Which sorta proves my contention that Philosophy, as practised, is largely an internal affair. I had to step into your world, as it were, in order to have this discussion.

However, as you and Chris pointed out, philosophical approaches can be applied outside pure philosophy and thus have utilitarian value.

Come to think of it, in an oblique way, that justifies pure higher order(?) philosophy. (I'm sure I said that wrong, but I hope you understand what I meant rather than what I said.) By reflexive or reflective practice in esoteric directions, it helps hone the tools and any understandings that can be applied outside in other fields.

I think I just gained a better, deeper understanding of philosophy. In other words, you and Chris win the argument. By a landslide.