Philosophy is one kind of human activity
. It is something we do
, and like any other activity it always stems from a particular perspective on the world which includes something like an aim we have in view. (In other words the activity is supposed to achieve something, or satisfy some need or demand.)
Also, as I shall explain, philosophy has its own special relationship with all the other things we do. If we tried to say what philosophy is, out of the context of what it is trying to do in relation to these other activities, we would be missing the point. Philosophy can only be understood when we see what it does with science, with art, and with practical activities in general.
What philosophy does
Firstly, philosophy is the act of stepping back from the activity in focus. This often means breaking up the spontaneous perspective we were already engaged within. That activity, and that spontaneous perspective is then placed in a more general and encompassing perspective. So it is no longer an activity
that is in the focus of our awareness, but the activity seen in its relationship with its context, and in relation to our other activities.
Understood this way, the activity of the scientist is clearly a kind of philosophy
(- it is no accident that the older term for science is "natural philosophy"). Science does precisely the thing I just described: it takes a step back from an everyday practical or technical activity, and creates a more general and encompassing perspective.
Any practical task, whatever it may be, has its own set of relevant knowledge - knowledge of materials, working methods, and "tricks of the trade". The scientist looks for ways of generalising the practical principles across a broader range of contexts. She is, in other words, exploring more general patterns of causation than are evident in the original practical engagement.
Transformation of the practical scene
As we know, these explorations often lead to new practical activities and new technologies - which the everyday technician would be unlikely ever to have thought of. The astonishing success of modern science over about 5 centuries is the story of the development of more rigorous and effective methods for this kind of exploration.
This success, for all the negative side-effects which are becoming increasingly evident on the global ecological scene, implies that the methods have real exploratory power - which it is then the task of the philosopher to gain a better understanding of.
Success and failure
Part of this task is to consider what makes some activities "work" and others to "fail" - and to explore what kinds of rigour in the process of inquiry actually lead to more effective methods. (There is usually some philosophy involved in any radically new scientific departure - but usually it is science which takes the credit.)
The philosopher is doing exactly the same thing as science, but in a broader range of contexts - which includes art, ceremony and custom of all kinds, religion, politics and morals. She will ask questions like: "How is doing science different from doing art?" or "How is manipulating a group of people different from manipulating a set of levers on a machine?" or "How is writing a poem different from making a pan of soup?"
Contrasts and commonalities
With all these questions, it is a search for differences
but also with an eye to discover what the compared activities have in common
. (With manipulation, for instance, there is always an intention to mould or channel what is happening so as to conform with the desires of the manipulator. The effect and the implications of manipulating people, however, are very different from those when non-living things are manipulated)
When philosophy is going well, it helps give us a clearer picture of what we are doing - whether as an artist, as a scientist, as a politician or as a home-maker. We already had a glimpse of what this means in relation to science; now we shall take a brief look at art. Art is amongst the oddest of all our activities - the artist appears to be doing or making things for no purpose at all beyond the sheer expressivity of the art itself. And yet, though art seems to have no intention of pursuing a useful end
, it turns out to have an irreplaceable function
in all but the most routine of our other activities. (This function is something that only a philosopher would find out - or in other words, the act of finding it out is exactly the kind of thing that we call "philosophy".)
The moment of wild intuition
There are crucial moments when the scientist or the philosopher has to become like an artist, breaking free from the immediate practical or logical frame of reference and leaping to a new and untried perspective. A nice example is the chemist who was struggling to understand the chemical structure of benzene. He had already worked out that each molecule contained 6 carbon and 6 hydrogen atoms. The puzzle about how these could possibly fit neatly together was solved when he had a dream about a snake swallowing its own tail. "Aha!"
Science and philosophy could not progress at all without these moments of confusion and disorientation, followed by a leap to somewhere completely daft, and (sometimes but not always) getting an "Aha!" There have to be these moments of wild intuition, or else scientists and philosophers would remain forever trapped in their old conceptions.)
Giving up the quest for certainty
Philosophers, like priests, have often been in the trade of peddling certainties
. We can see that this clearly contradicts the demand for these moments of wild intuition when we jump into the void and have to let go of all our certainties. So it has gradually been dawning on philosophers that the quest for certainty (which means also the quest for firm foundations on which everything else is supposed to be built) is doomed to failure.
Philosophers cannot find, and so they cannot give us, any firm foundations; The act of philosophising can only start from where we are at the moment, and try to make sense of the bigger picture starting from here.This means we have to accept that the ground we are standing upon may not be very firm, and we have to be willing to take our share of these disorienting leaps into the void.
Lacking foundations, and unable to provide foundations, philosophy is able to do something far more important and valuable for us: it enables us to question and criticise the unconscious foundations which underly our cultural life. Thus we no longer have to submit to being led around by the nose, by our old, unquestioned habits of thought. Instead we have the opportunity to reach for more informed choices about what it would be best to believe. And this newly won freedom extends further than mere belief. We can also bring the same questioning attitude to our values, desires and commitments. We do not have to be dictated to: we are free to explore and reach for better choices.
Socrates the stirrer
This is philosophy as a kind of impudent questioning
- first recorded in the accounts of Socrates, wandering around the streets of ancient Athens. Socrates made a specialty of challenging and upsetting everyone who was willing to spend the time of day with him. I think this is an important role which we need to learn to fulfill for one another. I deal with it more fully in the section called "action-research seminar"
- but in summary, it involves starting to be more honest about what we really believe, and then being willing to suffer the consequences - for now we are opened up to how deeply our own beliefs and values may be negated or challenged by the other people's.
Wild intuitions of our own
This also means being willing to suffer those moments of disorientation and confusion I spoke about, and opening a space for wild intuitions of our own. If we really start to do this, we will be bringing philosophy back out onto the streets. It can fullfil its original promise and become a catalyst for cultural revolution - leaving behind the dusty classrooms and bookshelves where it has so often languished in the past.
where did the philosophy come from, which is set out on this page?
Broadly, I am reflecting here the "Classic American" tradition of philosophy - which in my view was the twentieth century's best attempt to gather the wisdom of the past and integrate it into a comprehensive and forward-looking perspective. This is not to deny the value of other views, but to say that their respective value is probably better realized within the perspective of the Classic American tradition. There was a sad tendency throughout the twentieth century for different schools of philosophy to wilfully misunderstand one another. I am not sure of the reasons for this - sometimes I see it as a "mafia" kind of phenomenon, a ruthless competition between rival gangs for power and influence. Needless to say this is a travesty of the true spirit of science and of philosophy. (For a good account of the school I personally favour, see VICTORINO TEJERA (American Modern: The Path Not Taken
The best accounts of the philosophy of science I have found are in Charles Peirce (summarised in BUCHLER, JUSTUS(1939), Charles Peirce's Empiricism
, Kegan Paul (London) and Harcourt Brace (New York)), in A.N. WHITEHEAD(1926) Science in the Modern World
, Cambridge University Press and JOHN DEWEY (1929,1958) Experience and Nature
, Dover Publications NW and (1929,1960) The Quest for Certainty
, Putnam Capricorn NY. My perspective on art is strongly influenced by JUSTUS BUCHLER (1974)The Main of Light
Oxford University Press.
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© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004