Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Hobby of philosophy

There was a time, in years gone by, when I felt that philosophy was the field of study that would provide the answers to the world's most important questions. Confronted as a youth by the growing understanding that the world was not quite as clearly understandable as I'd thought, I recognized that the questions which were casting doubt on my childish beliefs were ones that philosophers had tackled. Great! I gravitated to the study, and indeed even a few weeks ago I wrote down on the questionnare my moral philosophy teacher handed out that I'd signed up for the class because I wanted to refine my personal moral beliefs. It's very hard to shake off the feeling that philosophy will provide answers.

Perhaps that's because philosophers love to pretend that they actually have answers. Once you get past Socrates, philosophers seem to feel like they're expected to provide answers to the questions we pose. What is virtue, Socrates asks? Why, it is to do well whatever it is that you are made for, Aristotle replies.* Indeed, in my study of philosophy since Socrates, every major philosopher we're taught seems to feel it incumbent upon himself to provide a full system of metaphysics to explain exactly how the universe works, which will in turn give us answers to those nagging questions of morality and virtue.** With all these very smart gentlemen from all the ages of civilization telling us that they have the answer to the questions we've been asking, it's no wonder that people approach philosophy expecting that there are answers to be had.

Alas, it isn't so.

The more I learn, the more I learn that no one has the answers that we seek. In the end you can always question the first principles that philosophers use to construct their metaphysics. Indeed, if their metaphysics involves explanations for phenomena outside of our human experience (such as matters that deal with a God or gods), then how can you provide any explanation for your first principles? What gives you the right to use reason in the first place, when it's not clear that reasoning is intrinsically... well, reasonable? How can you talk about causes and effects in the context of a perspective beyond time (as is often attributed to God)? These basic metaphysical questions have perplexed philosophers for ages and while some claim that they have answers, it certainly isn't settled science, to coin a phrase.

And yet, the more I learn that the answers are unsatisfactory, the more I find myself philosophizing. It's almost like a chain reaction, where learning some tidbit of philosophy gets my brain going, churning with philosophical questions and becoming only hungrier for more. Even when I learn topics that are rubbish (as smart as the man was, Leibniz' metaphysics leaves me unsatisfied) I come away thinking not about what answers the philosopher got right, but what questions they got right. For instance, Leibniz wasn't important because of his monads. He was important because he was asking the important question about how is it that things happen. His trying to find an answer to that question helps me to think more clearly about the question, and wonder if I can find my own answer.

Which of course I can't. Or at least, I don't believe I can. Going with Kant, I feel like a good deal of the important metaphysical questions are beyond the reach of reason (if only because we can't be sure reason works in that realm the way we feel it does in the physical realm). I don't ever hope to have any kind of answer which I can say is right. Nonetheless, I still find myself thinking about these unanswerable questions, and I find many people thinking about them alongside me.

Why is that? Why would human beings spend their time doing something like philosophy? I suppose you could ask the same thing of any endeavor: why do some people farm? Why do some people trade stocks? But people pick plants out of the ground because it's necessary for the human body to have food in order to live, and people trade stocks because it earns them money which allows them to buy food made by farmers which stockbrokers need in order to live. It doesn't at all seem clear that the human mind needs philosophy to live, as some philosophers might argue. Indeed, I know a good many people whose day-to-day experience is grounded more fully in the practical matters of living with other people than it is in pondering matters metaphysical. In fact, these people seem the best well-adjusted to life, and flourish among fellow humans. And their flourishing isn't subsidized by philosophers (at least not directly) in the way that my flourishing is subsidized by the guy who plucks the plants out of the ground that ultimately end up in my stomach. Lay people often don't read the ramblings of philosophers or learn about philosophical questions from them, so they don't get the runoff benefit from those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time philosophizing. So it seems that philosophy benefits only those who engage in it (and other philosophers), and it isn't a necessity for getting on in life.

Things that benefit selfishly and aren't a necessity are often called luxuries, pleasures or hobbies. This rather takes the grandiose feel out of philosophy; it used to be the science that distinguished man from beast, but now is more or less on the same rank as model train sets.*** Rather than find that thought depressing, however, I find it liberating. I no longer have to explain why philosophy is good and why you should care about it. I only have to explain why I love it, and maybe you can love it to. When philosophy is not a job or a dire task undertaken to enlighten humanity, it can actually turn into being a lot of fun.**** Hopefully you can enjoy my hobby of philosophy, too.

* Simply put, Aristotle believed that a thing is virtuous when it does when what it's nature is made to do. A knife is virtuous when it cuts well, a boat when it sails well. For humans, we are virtuous when we reason well, since Aristotle felt that humans were made to be reasoning machines.

** Except Kant, who funnily enough went the other way around sometime, deriving his metaphysics from his ethical theories. Starting with his Categorical Imperative, Kant reasoned that a universe that was so good as to have a Categorical Imperative that is widely naturally followed must have a good God to have made it so. Roughly. Kant can be hard to come to grips with.

*** I don't mean to knock model train sets. In fact, if you're a model train setkateer, I'd say you've got a pretty cool hobby, given that you could be doing coke or reading tabloids or something.

**** Don't get me wrong, philosophy as a job would be grand. It would just have to be a job like this, where I could engage with philosophy on the level I wanted to, not the level that was academically relevant. In short, it'd have to be a pop philosophy job writing for some magazine or paper. Like as not I'll just end up thinking about philosophy while baby-sitting servers. Where's Leibniz' best-of-all-possible-worlds now?? (note: that's an unfair characterization of Leibniz' view, but that's fair when one's making a quip)

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