Philosophy is dead and useless and you’re doing it anyway

Love it, hate it, think it's mind poison—philosophy's got you no matter what.

By Matt Perryman

One thing I realized over the last decade: everything you care about is ethics.

It’s true. Most every event that happens in politics, online, in your ordinary life, involves evaluative judgments. You’re always responding to what happens in terms that involve your sense of what is worthy, excellent, noble—in other words, what is good and what is not.

Not all ethicists and moralists agree with me. It’s okay that they’re wrong.

This came to mind the other week I saw a guy in Xitter snarking that philosophy never built anything.

Philosophy also doesn’t use numbers, can’t measure current or weight or distance, has never been to the moon, and has never improved a human life.

It’s just an IQ shredding circle jerk for men with autism (but not the good, useful kind).

There’s a lot going on here. As is my custom, let’s dive in with a provocation:

What makes measuring current and weight so important and life-improving?

In my considerable experience with the tough-minded [sic] practical types, their answer always comes down to their own personal likes and hobbies.

I like it and I am good at it, therefore it’s good.

Fine and all, save that the your friendly local Satanic serial killer can claim the same bona fides. He likes it and he’s good at it, so it’s good. Not exactly convincing.

I don’t mind the get-it-done practical man, what with growing up in the deepest South with a dozen rednecks per square mile. They keep the lights on and the water running and that’s important stuff.

It’s the grouchy self-important dogmatism and willful blindness that so grates on the nerves.

But there’s the punchline.

Mr. Fixit believes that his world is full of meaning because he can build things and “improve human life” with gadgetry.

A world that is nothing but measures and fixing the plumbing is a world devoid of any true worth. Of course, he’s not saying that at all. That world overflows with value. The tough-minded practical philosophy is — wait for it — a philosophical outlook, complete with value judgments.

It’s a poorly articulated and badly defended philosophy, but philosophy it is. It’s a statement of beliefs claiming, This is how things are, this is what matters most and is worth caring about.

The borderlands between reason and psychology can be paper-thin. Bored bomb-throwers online use force of personality, social pressure, and tactics borrowed from cults and propagandists to get attention and audiences.

Some guy named “Socrates” was once executed for pointing this out.

The catch is, Mr. Fixit is making a good point in a bad way.

While I’m an anti-modernist in many ways, I don’t classify myself with the deeply deeply conservative and reactionary writers who believe everything modern is trash. I mean, they have a point, but I don’t buy that it’s all trash.

The humanist vision that took root in the Renaissance begins with an impulse to meliorate the finite conditions of human life. The good becomes what we can control and change. We task ourselves, as a society, with improving the condition of humanity.

These are the ambitions of humanism — and its greatest failing.

The gains of modernity weren’t handed to us without a price tag attached.

Because the good is localized within the horizons of the finite, what we can measure and build and manipulate, the humanist excludes the infinite and the transcendent from his calculations.

Goodness is mere capability to achieve predetermined ends.

Betterment of the human condition is whatever can be measured.

The practical man wants to “get on with the work” without questioning whether the work is wicked. It’s all about capability, which is to say, power. If he sees evil at all, he doesn’t understand it or how it becomes evil.

Which helps to explain how so many great evils follow from the actions of the well-intended world-healers looking to create perfection in This World.

Since we’re dropping provocative bombs, here’s one for you:

Every know-it-all engineer and scientist uninterested in their own ideals and values is a crime against humanity waiting for a chance to happen.

They’ve told us that they don’t care about right/wrong or good/bad, they only want to make things happen. Like implanting neuro-gadgets in human brains.

Elon’s brain chip implant is rolling out and the consequences will blow your mind

Mr. Fixit is right in one detail.

Philosophy as done today does itself no favors by retreating into the universities and turning into a professionalized game of writing to other academics.

It’s no surprise the general public isn’t interested.

How philosophy went wrong

Mary Midgley, one of a well-known quartet of women philosophers at Oxford, once offered the following diagnosis.

What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about.

This is an only slightly unfair characterization of much of academic philosophy today. It’s unfair because now there’s a lot of women there with the men to compete in winning arguments.

The part about the games, though. When I was in grad school, it was understood that the way to a career was to find a niche, then dig into that niche, and be known for that niche. You’d break off a piece of a technical argument, own it, and be a specialist in some sub-sub-sub-topic that maybe six other people knew anything about.

Philosophy began, say some, in a sense of wonder and puzzlement.

Reading Plato and Aristotle and even more recent writers of the 19th and 20th century, all of whom predate today’s slowly failing university system, creates an experience little resembling much what you’ll find in the in the academic-industrial complex.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. Some of it’s quite good and interesting — if you know the game.

I am saying that the relevance of such to the plumber and electrician is minimal. It’s hard to blame “the common man”, whoever that might be, for seeing it as what it is.

That doesn’t mean it’s a useless activity. It means that we could use some help making it clearer how philosophy is relevant in a culture that increasingly defines itself by numbers and machines.

How to use philosophy when you don’t want to do it

German philosopher FWJ Schelling once wrote:

Loathing for everything real, that finds the spiritual contaminated by any contact with the real, must of course render one’s vision blind to the origin of evil.

While that’s less than sparkling-water clear, I take him to mean that those philosophers who abandon the Real — the world of the senses and ordinary practical life — end up losing contact with the moral part of life. They inhabit a world of bodiless spirit which is useless for all its purity.

Their opposites side with the Real, focusing on evidence of the senses, cool observation, and the purity of logic. They also see the Ideal as removed from all practical concerns of living. Unlike the first camp, the philosopher of the Real has no patience for all those dancing angels of the Ideal.

Schelling’s pointing out two opposite responses to a single error.

That error is the original sin of severing the realm of mind and spirit from the tangible, visible world of matter.

We’ve split reality between mind and world. The true aim of the philosopher is to grasp the opposing principles of the Ideal in the Real.

There’s one reason that I don’t write “like a philosopher”, what with the rigorous lists of propositions and the endless justifications and the refined technical arguments. It bores me, so I know it would bore you three times as much.

My goal is to be understood, maybe even a little entertaining. Anything you learn on top of that is icing on the cake.

Plato started the whole thing off by writing dialogues meant for easy consumption by the lay-folk. For a man known for hating art and banning the poets, he sure made ample use of the medium.

As a practical matter, the practice of writing reflects a higher sort of ideal. Imagine that!

Which brings me around to the bigger point.

Philosophy at its best engages with the great sweep of human experiences, including other domains of knowledge and skilled practices.

The Real isn’t limited to the engineer’s world of gadgets or the scientist’s world inside a particle collider. We all come to the Real with the Ideal in mind, even if we don’t consciously know it.

Which is the real danger. They say that the goldfish doesn’t see the fishbowl. We’re a kind of intelligence that can at least make out the hazy contours of the bulging lens we use to understand our world.

The goal is to make that shifting horizon of assumptions explicit, to clear away confusions of concepts and words, to be clear that there is a map that we use to orient ourselves to reality — but we’re drawing it while we walk.

We can’t ever get to the end of the journey, you understand. There’s no map of maps for us mortals. Maybe for gods get backstage passes to the Absolute, but that’s not for limited creatures like ourselves.

There’s only us piddling around the place like one of those RPG characters. We get different maps, different points of view, and we can use those to see a little different.

But we’re always drawing and redrawing the maps.

That’s the task of thinking. That’s doing philosophy. You’re always doing it. The question is, are you doing it on your own terms, or are you living in someone else’s propaganda campaign?

Before you get out of here

If you found this article valuable, interesting, funny, or it made you upset that you had to use your mind for something besides infinite scrolling, pass it along

Thanks for reading.

Matt

You know what?

This article was sent to my faithful readers as an artisanal hand-crafted email. If you enjoyed this article and want more like it, you should sign up for this newsletter.