Monday, March 17, 2008

Meta-philosophical questions

Wow, great questions as always. Let me start with a couple of questions about philosophy. If philosophy is asking questions about questions, these, then, would be questions about questions about questions...

Enigman asks,

What is the subject-matter of philosophy?
A friend of mine once said that if you ask "why?" once, you are a scientist. If you ask "why?" twice, you are a philosopher. If you ask "why?" more than twice, you are just a three year old annoying your mother.

The intro to philosophy answer to the question is that the subject matter of philosophy is divided into three parts: metaphysics, which examines the nature of reality; epistemology which studies the nature of knowledge; and axiology, which studies the nature of value judgments (ethics and aesthetics).

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification that any philosopher worth his salt will pick apart in two seconds flat -- but that's the hint. Philosophy doesn't have a subject matter per se. We play in everyone's sandbox because our job is to unearth presuppositions and everybody has them. You have to. Only they are generally hidden and seem obvious until you think hard about them, so most people ignore them if they are not forced to consider them. So, philosophers, outside of times of intellectual crisis, are thought to be irrelevant, not germane, or at least not German, unless you are Hegel or Carnap or Kant or...

Philo asks,
"From all philosophers' writings, what is your favorite quote?"
So many to pick from. I suppose it would be either John Stuart Mill's "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question." or Bertrand Russell's "The law of causality, I believe, is a relic of bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm."

Philo also asks,
"With science, is there need for philosophy?"
Yes. My first philosophy prof was a Wittgensteinian who justified the existence of philosophers by asking whether we as a society would prefer to have these people out wandering the streets instead of providing a nice, clean institution to house them. But I think there certainly is a place for philosophers sicnce not all questions are empirical and most people really suck at thinking about them in ways that are critical and rigorous. That's not to say philosophers are that much better, but certainly at least someone should be devoted to it full time.