Why Does Philosophy Exist?

 

 

Why Does Philosophy Exist?

 

It is easy to see why most subjects exist. Geography exists because planet Earth is divided into parts that can be mapped: there are geographical facts that can be ascertained. Physics and chemistry exist because the world contains physical and chemical facts (objects, properties) that can be discovered. Psychology exists because there are minds that can be investigated. Biology exists because there are organisms. Mathematics exists because the world can be counted and measured. Ethics exists because people do right and wrong things. But why does philosophy exist? Is it because the world contains philosophical facts that can be ascertained? That sounds wrong: philosophy consists of problems raised by the non-philosophical world—problems of a philosophical nature. If there were no such problems, philosophy would not exist (the other subjects would still exist even if there were no problems in them). Other subjects may investigate the same phenomena as philosophy, but they do so non-philosophically (the “adverbial theory of philosophy”). So what produces this distinctive type of problem? Following the example of the other disciplines, we might suggest that the world contains philosophical objects, properties, events, and facts–but that sounds like a category mistake. We must rather ask what gives rise to philosophical problems, this being what constitutes the subject matter of philosophy.

            Three suggestions are familiar: reality, concepts, and language. Thus it might be supposed that reality contains philosophically problematic entities such as consciousness and free will. But reality isn’t uncertain about whether it exists or what its nature is: things are not objectively philosophically problematic. Things are philosophically problematic only in relation to us (or other intelligent beings). As God surveys the world nothing stands out to him as philosophically problematic. The uncertainties and theoretical rivalries of philosophy are not mirrored in objective reality: the world is what it is and not some other thing. If the mind is really an immaterial substance, then that is what it is, philosophical disagreement be hanged. Philosophy arises from the state of our knowledge not from the state of reality. It is not that one kind of entity is intrinsically “more philosophical” than another—though one kind of entity can produce more philosophical puzzlement in our minds than another. Meaning is more philosophically challenging than syntax and phonetics, but to an omniscient mind they would be on a par. So the source of philosophical problems (i.e. philosophy) can’t be reality considered sub specie aeternitatis. A second idea is that philosophy arises from the nature of our concepts: our concepts are inadequate or misleading in some way, and this causes philosophical perplexity in us. Perhaps they are superficial or confused or contradictory or just plain crude—in any case, they bring philosophy into existence. If they could be revised or reformed or replaced, we could make philosophy disappear by removing the source of its problems. Philosophy exists because of the defective nature of our conceptual scheme. This view raises many questions: How exactly do our concepts give rise to these problems? Why do we have concepts that lead to such problems? What is it about our concept of consciousness, say, that leads us to the philosophical difficulties we encounter? What would a concept of consciousness be like that did not lead to philosophical problems? It is hard to believe that our concepts could have philosophical controversy baked into them, and into only them; they seem to function perfectly well most of the time, so why do they trip us up when we start philosophizing? It can’t be their constituent structure or their ease of combination. How could human thought necessarily lead to philosophical conundrums—in virtue of what property of it might this happen? Third and familiar, there is the claim that language is the source of all the trouble: reality itself is not philosophically problematic, our concepts are in good order, but our spoken language systematically misleads us (“bewitches” us). But why should our language exercise such enormous power—the power to generate the ancient and venerable problems of philosophy? Can’t we just ignore it, as we ignore parts of it already? It doesn’t have to dominate our thought any more than its sounds do. And what serious philosophical problem has ever been resolved by exposing the supposed logical defects of our natural spoken language? The whole idea is preposterously optimistic. If it were on the right lines, we should have put a stop to philosophy long ago, by judicious attention to linguistic forms. It is simply not credible that philosophy exists because our language is misleading (despite a spate of twentieth century enthusiasm for the idea). So the standard suggestions don’t work.

            But we have not yet run out of possible theories. Might it be that philosophical issues are like political and practical issues in the sense that there is something to be said for several different positions on them? Is Scottish independence a good idea, should the British monarchy be abolished, is Turgenev as good a writer as Tolstoy? There is irresoluble controversy about such questions, as there is about philosophical questions, so perhaps this is why philosophy exists. But this is a bad analogy and the underlying conception of philosophy is mistaken. The issues cited are practical, political, or aesthetic, but philosophical issues are not like that; and there is surely a fact of the matter about the relation of mind to body not just a debatable question about which opinions may reasonably differ. This is why philosophers don’t say, “I can see different points of view on this issue, but I think the wisest course is to adopt theory T”. In this respect philosophical problems are like problems in the sciences—questions about what the facts are, not questions about what stance to adopt all things considered. It doesn’t come down to what to do or think “on balance”. Nor do philosophical problems owe their existence to remoteness in time (like history) or distance in space (like astronomy) or being too small to see (like atomic physics) or being private and unobservable (like psychology); many of them are about present-day perceptible nearby things. Philosophical problems have an obscure etiology not explicable in terms of the usual kinds of inaccessibility. We have viable theories of ignorance in other fields, but in philosophy the ignorance is itself mysterious: we don’t know why philosophical problems are so difficult. In fact, it really shouldn’t be hard to know what knowledge is, say, since we have knowledge and can introspect our epistemic state; and consciousness is arguably the best-known thing there is, yet completely mysterious. Or time, space, matter, causality, value, perception, meaning, and so on through a familiar list. These are all extremely proximate and yet extremely puzzling.

            Here is another idea, suggested by Thomas Nagel’s work.[1] Philosophy arises because of a clash between subjective and objective viewpoints: for example, we can view ourselves from the inside by adopting a first-person point of view, or we can view ourselves from the outside as embodied beings in an objective world of space and time. Now we are approaching the question in the right way, trying to find what is unique to philosophy: perhaps the problems of philosophy arise from a need to integrate clashing points of view generated by a difference between subjective and objective perspectives. But there are problems with this approach, concerning necessity and sufficiency. It doesn’t seem like a necessary condition for the existence of a philosophical problem that it involves a clash of subjective and objective perspectives, since the problems can arise from within a purely objective perspective—for example, relational versus absolute theories of space, or different theories of time, or whether freedom is the ability to do otherwise or just doing what you want, or whether perception is direct or indirect, or whether causality is just constant conjunction or involves some sort of necessity . These problems are independent of subjective and objective points of view. And the difference between subjective and objective viewpoints also arises in other areas and yet philosophy is not the result—as with our different perspectives on the physical world. The perceptual perspective coexists with the abstract mathematical perspective and yet we don’t sense a deep philosophical problem here, because we know that we are conscious beings embedded in a physical universe, so there should be different ways of apprehending the physical world. The mere difference between subjective viewpoints and (more or less) objective viewpoints is not sufficient to generate a distinctively philosophical problem.[2] So these materials don’t provide an adequate explanation of the existence of philosophy, though they are no doubt relevant to some philosophical problems.

            One salient aspect of philosophy seems characteristic of it, namely that we have no surefire method of verification (or falsification) for philosophical claims. We don’t have the method of experiment or sensory observation, nor can we use the method of proof (as in mathematics). All we have are “intuitions” and “arguments”: we don’t have empirical observation, measurement, and calculation. No wonder we face unsolvable problems—we don’t have a method for solving them! We have questions but we don’t have procedures for answering them comparable to those used in other disciplines. There are two replies to this diagnosis. First, we shouldn’t underestimate the methods we do use in philosophy, such as the thought experiment and logical deduction; these methods can lead to genuine philosophical knowledge, typically by producing counterexamples to philosophical theses. And we shouldn’t overestimate the verification methods of other disciplines such as psychology, linguistics, history, and literary theory. A lot remains unverifiable in these fields, yet they don’t count as philosophy. Second, what if astronomy, physics, and chemistry lacked the methods of verification they now possess—would that make them into branches of philosophy? It is only contingent that we can verify claims in these fields, and removing the verification procedures doesn’t convert them into parts of philosophy—they would just be unverifiable science. It has to be something about the nature of the problems as such that makes them into philosophical problems, not the availability or otherwise of verification procedures. But what is that? It is true enough that philosophy lacks apodictic methods, but that seems neither necessary nor sufficient to constitute a subject as philosophical.

            Maybe the problem is epistemic: we suffer from a serious epistemic gap and this is what causes philosophy to exist. Not to put too fine a point on it, we don’t know what we are talking about. Our knowledge of reality is glancing and pragmatically based, geared towards specific practical ends, not designed to reveal the whole truth about the universe, and we labor under this constitutional limitation. For example, there are philosophical problems about color—is it subjective or objective, real or unreal, relational or non-relational? These problems are hard to resolve, though we see colors all the time and have concepts and words for them. It seems that we just don’t know what colors are—what constitutes them. We know what wavelengths of light are (up to a point), so there is no comparable philosophical problem about wavelengths; but we really don’t grasp what colors are, though we are aware of color appearances. Likewise, we know what neurons are but we don’t know what consciousness is—only the way it appears to us. We know there can’t be neurons without brains and chemicals, but we don’t know whether there can be consciousness without brains and chemicals—though we may have firm philosophical opinions on the matter. We know what syntax and phonetics are, but not meaning. We know what ethical behavior is (again up to a point), but we don’t know what ethical value is. We know what digestion is, but we don’t know what knowledge is, though both are attributes of a living organism. We know all about muscle contraction, but we don’t know what freedom is—we have no science of it, no physiology. So the things of philosophical interest are the things that fall outside of our epistemic capacities in some crucial respect (not in all respects). And if you don’t know what something is, you are not going to have very good theories of it, especially if your ignorance is principled and systematic. Why is time so philosophically problematic? Because we really don’t know what time is—that’s why. Thus we are led to entertain the Epistemic Gap theory of the existence of philosophy (precedents of it may be found in Kant and others).

This may seem to answer our puzzle, though it would need a lot of spelling out, but there is a nagging question that remains, viz. why are we thus ignorant? Only if we knew the answer to that question would we know why philosophy exists. Someone might say, “Of course we don’t know what these fundamental features of reality are—that’s precisely why we are philosophically at sea—but that just restates the question, i.e. why do philosophical problems exist?” And indeed it is a real question why the things that are so familiar to us are so removed from our understanding: why should time, say, be so elusive, so maddeningly opaque? We don’t even know whether it can exist in a world without change! Our ignorance about what things are seems gratuitous, strange, and hard to explain. Beings not afflicted with such ignorance might well not recognize philosophy as a separate subject, finding it all plain sailing, so there must be a question as to why we are so afflicted—but we have no good answer to that question. Maybe it has something to do with evolutionary demands (doesn’t everything?) but that is at best a theory sketch or chapter title. And then there is this question: is it really credible that knowledge of what these things are would instantly terminate philosophical uncertainty? Could it not simply accentuate the problems? Now that we see exactly what consciousness is we are struck dumb about how it relates to the brain (just as Descartes was when he concluded that the essence of mind is thought not extension). Our philosophical ignorance is really a very peculiar thing, not at all easy to penetrate: we have no idea of what gives rise to it. Even if the Epistemic Gap theory is true, the gap is quite mysterious, unlike other epistemic gaps, an incomprehensible type of ignorance. So we don’t know why philosophy exists—why the human mind is susceptible to it. Why is there such a thing as philosophy?

[1] See The View From Nowhere (1986). I’m not saying Nagel explicitly adopts such a view of the nature of philosophy, but the view might be inspired by his ideas.

[2] Subjectively the Muller-Lyer lines look unequal in length while objectively we know they are equal, but this is not a philosophical problem.  Subjectively the Sun appears to rise in the morning while objectively we know it doesn’t rise at all, but again this is not a philosophical problem.

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11 replies
  1. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    I’m puzzled by the fact that philosophy’s existence is considered a puzzle. I mean if we are not puzzled with “Mathematics exists because the world can be counted and measured” why would we be puzzled with “Philosophy exists because the world and/or the mind can (and must for some) be reflected about”? And, as you say in the separate footnote to this post, there is also a perfectly clear historical explanation as to why there is philosophy as a separate field of intellectual inquiry (and one of the oldest ones).

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      The world is a mathematical place, so we have mathematics (much of it goes beyond applied mathematics). But the world is not a philosophical place, so it doesn’t require the existence of philosophy. If you say the world can or must be reflected upon, which is a different kind of claim, the question is why this reflection is philosophical–isn’t that just to say that the world can be thought about? By why thought about in the philosophical way? History and the sciences also involve reflecting on the world, or thinking about it, or knowing it. How do philosophical problems arise?

      Reply
  2. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    Philosophical problems arise for certain people at certain times, just like mathematical problems. We can’t help it, but be curious, bored, in awe etc about what’s around us and inside us too. Such feelings sometimes trigger reflections. e.g. how a piece of meat under the skull generates or participates in triggering both the reflections and the feelings we are talking about here. This point really boils down to the following: given what we are as a species, it would be puzzling if we wouldn’t have run into philosophical problems sooner or later. We don’t seem really to have a choice, exactly like with food, abstractions, sex.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      The question is the origin of philosophical problems. Wittgenstein thought the mind-body problem arises from misunderstandings about language. Others have thought it arises from ignorance of what consciousness is, or what matter is. Yet others seem to hold that the relation between mind and body is inherently puzzling de re. Which of these is it?

      Reply
      • Free Logic
        Free Logic says:

        I understand the question and I think that there are a few causes at play, the most important being our situation in the world — here I tend to side with Heidegger and phenomenology in general: at birth the person, having the endowment and a developing psychological structure as described above (power of reflection, feelings, perception etc) is thrown into the world to live, relate to other beings and figure the life out. Directing our limited abilities and finite sensibilities at the reality we absolutely have to encounter puzzles some of which happen to be philosophical. Yes Wittgenstein had a different answer, but I think he underestimated the force of our biological & psychological machinery which we did not choose to have.

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        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          But the question is what makes a puzzle philosophical. There are many types of puzzle, but philosophical puzzles are special. It can’t just be that we are finite beings, since that applies in many areas.

          Reply
          • Free Logic
            Free Logic says:

            What makes a puzzle philosophical is not the same question as why philosophy exists that you addressed in the post and I commented on above. In any case, mysterianism, about which you know a thing or two ;-), is definitely upon something important: characteristically philosophical puzzles do not have agreed upon solutions for millenia. And when they do have solutions, like some of Zeno’s puzzles, it turns out that they are not philosophical but scientific or linguistic. Undecidable statements are not proprietary to math, philosophy has its own share.

          • Colin McGinn
            Colin McGinn says:

            The question I addressed is what explains the existence of philosophy in particular, so we need to know what is unique to it. We know what explains the existence of other disciplines, as well as their difficulties.

  3. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    I hope that when you talk about “the existence of philosophy in particular” you are not looking for clear cut demarcation between philosophy and the rest of intellectual disciplines. As Nagel says in TVFN “…the world is not our world, even potentially. It may be partly or largely incomprehensible to us not just because we lack the time or technical capacity to acquire a full understanding of it, but because of our nature.” The world and our natures (including the full range of thought, body, language and emotions) explain the existence of philosophy with its puzzles, abstractions, inconclusiveness and mysteries. I doubt it that a more clear, particular or definitive answer is out there.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Not clear-cut, to be sure, but there is a clear difference between standard philosophical problems and the problems of the sciences (and humanities), e.g. the reasons for the Cambrian explosion or the nature of dark matter. Our nature surely conditions and limits our knowledge in all sorts of ways in all sorts of areas.

      Reply
      • Free Logic
        Free Logic says:

        I thought that it is also worth explicitly mentioning, in the context of why philosophy exists, the so-called Socratic attitude of questioning the obvious, analyzing the world and phenomena and looking for cognitive closures and comprehensive conceptual schemes. While I wouldn’t argue that this attitude is particular to modern and recent philosophy, in the past it looks like it was.

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