The Teachings of Philosophy – A Critique
B.Contestabile firstname.lastname@example.org Oct 2014
Table of Contents
1. Doctrinal Philosophy
2. Philosophy as Demarcation
3. Philosophy as Self-Entertainment
4. Philosophy as Standardization
5. Philosophy as Economic Competition
6. Philosophy as Disorientation
The German original of this paper is available from Die Lehren der Philosophie – eine Kritik.
The aim of the present text is to provide suggestions for a discussion on the teachings of philosophy.
- The theses in this paper are not quotes but interpretations based on the specified passages of the book [ ].
- Sections with a white background are explanations and comments.
- The book is written in German. A translated excerpt is available from The Teachings of Philosophy – A Critique.
By a doctrinal philosophy we mean in the following a system of statements, which – without scientific basis – raises a claim on general validity. Doctrinal philosophies can develop into dogmas if they regard their claim to truth as irrefutable. Doctrinal philosophizing is a proclaiming of truth and not – like the Socratic philosophizing – a search for truth.
Because the concept of truth is an object of investigation in philosophy itself, it can take different meanings depending on the field of knowledge:
- In the social sciences and the humanities the concept of truth is heterogeneous and the subjective influence of the recognizing person cannot be completely eliminated. The task of the theory here is often to clarify the concepts, which are used in the assertions [O'Grady, 225].
- In art (literature, film) it is mostly about insights from the inner perspective, which however have an inter-subjective validity. Art observes, compares and describes. As a rule, it makes no claims.
The project of a philosophical theory of truth embracing all fields of knowledge is correspondingly disputed.
Since Socrates, philosophy has also been post-doctrinal (...). Socratic-type (critical) philosophy attempts to prevent, that people from becoming unfree by religious, political, economic or scientific dogmatism [Information Philosophy, 35].
way of thinking
constructive against skeptical thinking
systematic against therapeutic thinking
Michael Hampe attempts to criticize the doctrinal philosophy without falling into a doctrinal mode himself [Hampe 13.31]. In order to make this intention distinct, we will speak of theses in the following:
Thesis: The doctrinal philosophy goes on distance to the everyday language, the individual sciences and the arts. Such a demarcation, however, makes no sense. Philosophy is characterized by its motivation and by the nature of its questions and not by the nature of the languages used. The expansion of knowledge is not a reason for demarcation; it is rather a reason for integration. Philosophy could exercise an important integrative function which no individual science is capable to achieve [Hampe, 26-27].
Not only philosophy but also science is interested in answering philosophical questions. If someone is studying physics to know what "holds the world together at heart" he/she is a physicist, but also a philosopher (e.g. Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr with their interpretations of quantum mechanics ). Likewise, if someone is studying biology to understand how life originated, or if someone is studying computer science to better understand thought processes.
In antiquity philosophy had an interpretative and explanatory function. Aristotle was a philosopher and a physicist. Probably he even overlooked the entire knowledge of his time. Nowadays this is no longer possible, but that does not mean that one has to separate philosophy from science.
▪ There are philosophical questions which can only be answered by an individual science (e.g. the question of the origin of life)
▪ Other questions require interdisciplinary work (e.g. the question of free will)
Although empirical knowledge is growing rapidly, many of today's philosophers do not acknowledge this progress at all, or fight a rearguard battle with science, similar to the orthodox theologians.
Insight, however, cannot only be gained in science, but also by experiences in everyday life or the description of such experiences in art:
- Writers often report on processes of self-awareness which have inter-subjective validity. In this sense Sophocles and Proust are philosophers as well [Hampe].
- Others develop the ability to find thought patterns that can be found in geographically and culturally different environments. In this sense, the Egyptian Nobel Nagib Mahfuz is also a philosopher.
“To declare the activities in which truth is sought as theories of truth and confront them with each other, does not help to satisfy the human need for truth" [Hampe, 195].
The doctrinal philosophy is essentially a self-entertainment program for philosophers. A large part of the energy is invested in winning supporters for claims. The sciences and arts are hardly concerned any more about this kind of philosophy [Hampe, 34-36]
Theoretical philosophy and science compete in the following areas:
▪ The philosophy of logic competes with mathematics and informatics.
▪ Epistemology competes with psychology, informatics and brain research (with regard to the internal perspective it competes with literature).
▪ The theory of science competes with the history of science and with the practice of the individual sciences
▪ The philosophy of language competes with linguistics
Metaphysics and ontology are avoided by the natural sciences, because they concern empirically non-examinable aspects of reality.
In practical philosophy one can distinguish between ethics, legal philosophy, political philosophy, and philosophy of economics. Normative ethics is one of the few disciplines that have been challenged only to a small degree by other sciences so far. The derivation of ethical norms from scientific facts is regarded as a naturalistic fallacy.
If normative ethics does not lose itself in subtleties [Hampe, 49] and does not develop unrealistic mathematical models, it is directly confronted with the practice of life. In contrast, many areas of doctrinal philosophy are – after the departure of the sciences – confronted with themselves only Similar developments of lacking practical relevance are also known in the history of theology (scholasticism) and in the history of welfare economics .
The self-employment thesis may seem provocative, but it is still harmless in comparison to Wittgenstein’s diagnosis, according to which some philosophers produce pseudo-problems. The pupils of these philosophers are, after years of study, trapped in a language confusion [Gunnarsson].
Thesis: Doctrinal philosophers have a tendency to standardize different languages and ways of thinking. But the description of the world in a single system of thought and a single language is not necessarily conducive to seeking truth. It is often the variety of perspectives and forms of expression that improves understanding [Hampe, 34].
Some philosophers are dissatisfied with the inaccuracy of the ordinary language and with the variety of professional languages. They examine the question whether it would be possible – for philosophical purposes – to replace the ordinary language as well as the professional jargons by means of an ideal language rule. A related question is whether it would be possible to reduce the individual sciences to a single basic science to create a unified view of reality. The probably most radical design of such standardization originates from Albert North Whitehead. In process and reality, he argued indeed that language is never an adequate representation of the real world, but that it is possible to improve the imaging quality of existing languages.
1. The starting point of his research was the Principia Mathematica, an attempt to trace all mathematical concepts to logic and to derive the mathematical truths from a well- defined set of axioms and inference rules of symbolic logic. Different algebras, for example, should be presented as special cases of a more general algebraic structure.
2. In process and reality the investigation (of mathematical truths) was extended to all truths. All scientific questions should be captured in a uniform conceptual system. The conceptual systems of individual sciences would then be specializations within this more general conceptual system.
Whitehead died in 1947 and therefore missed the upswing of computer science. Otherwise, he would have come to the conclusion that his language concept has an affinity to object-oriented programming and that it has come a step closer to realization. Basically, however, Whitehead's vision is more of a theoretical than a practical interest. It is namely questionable, if the description of the world in a planned language would create more clarity. A varied phenomenon like the freedom of will or happiness, for example, can better be understood by looking at the specific concepts of science and literature than by describing it in a highly sophisticated philosophical language.
Thesis: Economic competition is increasingly determining the way people live [Hampe, 40]. The doctrinal philosophy subordinates itself – more or less unreflecting – to this dictation.
Charles Sanders Peirce pointed to the danger that people interpret themselves as competing selfish maximizers of profit, and then produce a social reality that corresponds to this interpretation [Hampe, 40]. It seems that this development also does not stop with respect to philosophy and that it transforms contemplative people into aspiring career planners.
If theoretical philosophy – which is closely linked to the sciences – adopts economic competition, then this is still fairly comprehensible. An essential part of practical philosophy (especially ethics), by contrast, is threatened in its heart. It can perhaps still describe alternative ways of thinking and alternative ways of living, but it can no longer represent it credibly:
a) If a philosophy focuses on the letting go of desires and devaluates the power-oriented accumulation of knowledge, then it is badly suited for the accumulation of graduate credits – at least if one not only writes about philosophy but also lives it. How should we imagine a competition in meditation? Competition is becoming an obstacle here.
b) In existential philosophies, which weigh subjective experience higher than books read, it may be difficult to measure and compare achievements.
c) Skeptical philosophies, which do not trust any knowledge, are also skeptical with regard to better-knowing.
d) Finally, anarchist philosophies are – so to say by definition – not suitable for the award of academic titles.
In order to illustrate the nonsense of a general competition, one only has to imagine that the Buddha, Socrates and Epicurus are assessed by a business school (keyword university ranking) and that they distribute graduate credits to their interlocutors.
One may regret it or not, the fact is that certain forms of philosophizing fall through the academic evaluation grid and are lost, at least for public education institutes.
Thereto a quote from Henry Thoreau:
The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindu, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward (…). There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers (…). To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically [Thoreau, 15-16].
Thesis: At present, cultural disorientation is the most important ethical experience. Someone who – fighting a losing battle – is looking for orientation is perceived as a pretentious moralist and as a naive "good mind" [Hampe, 334]. The human sciences have lost their guideline function [Hampe, 335]. There is a cynical relativism among the humanities [Hampe, 337]. The doctrinal philosophy contributes to this disorientation with its contradictory assertions and its often detached technical jargon.
Philosophy could well be a source of orientation, if it were not taught by doctrinal speech acrobats. To convey ethical orientation does not mean to spread an unfailing doctrine, but to explain competing ethics. Descriptive ethics, which reveals the influence of historical situations, social interests, and life stories on ethical concepts and norms, does not necessarily lead to cynicism and ethical relativism. A deeper understanding of the contexts is either the basis for societal improvements (1) or the basis for a retreat-oriented philosophy (2):
1. Societal Improvements [Arendt]:
Anti-doctrinal philosophy promotes tolerance and therefore has an affinity for the freedom of expression, media diversity, multi-party systems and the protection of minorities. The Enlighteners are assuming that the most reasonable concepts will be established over time. The anti-doctrinal thinking, however, begins (or ends) in school already Pupils, who read a lot and extensively learn by heart, have hardly time left to think themselves. The educational result is people who copy political thoughts instead of developing them on their own. Philosophy lessons in the form of Socratic discussions could, in comparison, promote the growing up of active and critical citizens.
2. Retreat-oriented philosophy:
Cultural pessimists assume that the triumph of reason (predicted by the philosophers of the Enlightenment) is a utopia. The “reasonable way of living" then rather becomes a rare leisure activity than a political program. The fact that philosophical-verbal criticism is (until now) but little effective [Hampe, 351] however, does not have to cause resignation. Also an island of reason in a sea of addiction, violence and irrationality is worth being explored and described. For some shipwrecked people, it can mean orientation and rescue.
2. Hampe Michael (2014), Die Lehren der Philosophie, Suhrkamp
3. Gunnarsson Logi (2010), The Philosopher as Pathogenic Agent, Patient, and Therapist: The Case of William James, in Philosophy as Therapeia, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, Vol.66: 165-186, Cambridge University Press, UK
4. O’Grady Paul (2013), Philosophy and Gestalt Psychotherapy, in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Essays in Honor of Pierre Hadot, pp.223-240, Wiley Blackwell, UK
5. Thoreau, Henry David (1845), Walden, New York: Pocket Books, 2004
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11. Information Philosophie, 2016, Heft 1, S.34-40, Interview S.41-43