UNDER CONSTRUCTION--It will change before the final class! 


Final Lecture for Midcoast Senior College Introduction to Philosophy Course


Fall 2017


What Is Philosophy? 

 Copyright © 2017 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Science and philosophy differ:


Neither science nor philosophy arrives at an answer that is final but, rather, each finds an endpoint in a critical and tentative rational agreement amongst the participants. 


Certainty vs. tentative agreement. 


Fallibilism (and falsificationism—Popper). 


Possible paradox: in his Working Without A Net: A Study of Egocentric Epistemology, Richard Foley maintains that:


it can be rational for you to believe each and every proposition that you defend in your book even though it is also rational for you to declare in the preface that at least one of the propositions is false…. 

  Situations of this sort are not even uncommon.  Most of us have very strong but not altogether certain evidence for a huge variety of propositions, evidence that makes these propositions rational for us.  And yet we also have strong evidence for our fallibility about such matters, evidence that can make it rational for us to beliefs of a set of such propositions that at least one is false.  If it were always and everywhere irrational to be knowingly inconsistent, this would be impossible.  It would be impossible for us knowingly and rationally to have these kinds of fallibilist beliefs.  But it isn’t impossible, and any theory that implies otherwise should be rejected for this reason. [1] 


     Philosophical arguments are often characterized as “perennial”—they arise anew for each age as each group of individuals carries on the dialectic and assesses the answers of its ancestors.  To many this suggests that philosophers will never solve any of the problems (or answer any of the questions), and this leads them to think that the contrast between philosophy and science is not at all favorable to philosophy.  After all, the scientists are able to reach broad intersubjective consensus as to whether or not a scientific question is answered or a scientific problem is resolved.  In his “Thomas Kuhn, Rocks and the Laws of Physics,” Richard Rorty offers a discussion which may help mitigate such a critique:


the trouble is that intersubjective agreement about who has succeeded and who has failed is easy to get if you lay down criteria of success in advance [and, he suggests, this is what scientists are able to do].  If all you want is fast relief, your choice of analgesic is clear (though the winning drug may have unfortunate belated side effects).  If you know that all you want out of science is accurate prediction, you have a fast way to decide between competing theories (though this criterion by itself would, at one time, have led you to favor Ptolemaic over Copernican astronomy).  If you know that all you want is rigorous demonstration, you can check out mathematicians’ proofs of theorems and award the prize to the one who has proved the most (although the award will then always go to a hack, whose theorems are of no interest).  But intersubjective agreement is harder to get when the criteria of success begin to proliferate, and even harder when those criteria themselves are up for grabs [as they are, he suggests, in philosophy].[2] 


2. The Dialectical Conception and “Various Goals of Philosophizing:”


Philosophy vs. Rhetoric or Arguing vs. Reasoning The Goals of Philosophizing:


From Robert Nozick’s The Nature of Rationality:


the word philosophy means the love of wisdom, but what philosophers really love is reasoning.  They formulate theories and marshal reasons to support them, they consider objections and try to meet these, they construct arguments against other views.  Even philosophers who proclaim the limits of reason—the Greek skeptics, David Hume, doubters of the objectivity of science—all adduce reasons for their views and present difficulties for opposing ones.  Proclamations or aphorisms are not considered philosophy unless they also enshrine and delineate reasoning.[3] 


Rationality involves not simply doing or believing something because of the reasons in favor of it but also taking into account (some) reasons against it.[4] 


While the philosophical enterprise revolves around argumentation, philosophical argumentation must be distinguished from rhetorical argumentation.  The phrase “meeting arguments with arguments” may be misunderstood (and the characterization of philosophy which I have just offered may be misconstrued) if we think of ‘arguments’ simply as disagreements amongst individuals or as stylized debates where individuals seek primarily to “score points” against one another.  In short, in addition to paying attention to the philosophers’ methodology, their various ends-in-view must be kept clearly in mind. 


2. What Is…  Plato vs. Wittgenstein:


First a word about both the plural and the core question: “What is Philosophy?”—then back to ends in view. 


Essences vs. Family Resemblences. 


What is knowledge: propositional knowledge, knowledge by acquaintance, know-how, knowing why, knowing about, knowledge through testimony…. 



3. Regarding Ends-In View:


Unfortunately, as you might expect, philosophers disagree as to the end-in-view of the philosophical enterprise.  Here are four of the many differing goals of philosophizing which have been advanced by various philosophers:


(a) Rational Understanding and Truth: many traditional philosophers contend that philosophy seeks rational understanding (that is, “truth supported by reason”).  They claim that we can attain this sort of understanding only if we develop a coherent system of critically-considered theories (or responses).  Such a coherent system of critically held theories is often called a “world-view”—these philosophers don’t claim that philosophers seek to master the many particular truths which are true of the world (the number of grains of sand on the beach, the age of the highest mountain, the exact amount of one’s check-book balance), instead a coherent set of extremely general truths are sought.  Here rational understanding is not sought because it facilitates some other goal, instead it is seen as intrinsically valuable (or the search for it is conceived of as an intrinsically valuable activity).[5]  In a similar vein, Robert Nozick contends that philosophy should be directed toward providing explanations: “many philosophical problems are ones of understanding how something is or can be possible.  How is it possible for us to have free will, supposing that all actions are causally determined?”[6] 


(b) The Happiness of the Rational Life: some philosophers contend that human beings can not be happy (or lead the good life) unless we develop critically-considered rational responses to the wonders and enduring questions noted above (or a critically considered overall world-view).  Here it is happiness which is claimed to be intrinsically valuable, and philosophy is conceived of as a necessary means toward its attainment.  While criticism is, of course, emphasized here, it is valued for what it can get us (happiness or the good life).  Often this view is raised not by talking about criticism but, rather, by talking about the “intellectual virtues”—it is claimed that the “life of reason” is the only truly fulfilling life for human beings. 


(c) Rational Understanding and Worship: still other philosophers contend that the end-in-view of philosophy is the understanding (and proper worship) of a deity.  These philosophers contend that the appropriate end for man is philosophical understanding of a deity (that such rational understanding is our primary purpose, obligation, and the only appropriate form of worship for a rational creature). 


(d) The Empowerment of Individuals via Reason: finally, some philosophers contend that the goal of philosophizing is the empowerment of individuals via the liberation of their thought, culture, and lives from the prejudice and provincialism which culture, upbringing, and convention instill in us all.  For example, Martha Nussbaum maintains that the “...pursuit of logical validity, intellectual coherence, and truth delivers freedom from the tyranny of custom and convention, creating a community of beings who can take charge of their own life story and their own thought.”[7]  Nussbaum cites Epicurus who says that:


empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated.  For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.”[8] 


4. The “Ideal” of Rationality:


As noted above, the rhetoricians had their students study logic and argumentation to help them become more facile in arguing for (or against) whatever these students happened to want to argue for (or against).  The critical orientation that the dialectical conception of philosophy champions is, similarly, “plastic” in that it allows for a variety of ends which one might pursue with this methodology. 


     The dialectical methodology is uncompromising, however, in its adherence to the ideal of rationality—it is to be used to offer others (and to help oneself find) rationally-persuasive responses to enduring problems or questions.[9]  Where the dialectical methodology in philosophy is pursued without keeping the enduring questions in sight, it is perverted from one of its primary controlling factors.  Similarly, when philosophy focuses on the questions while losing sight of the dialectical arguments, it is perverted from the other of its primary controlling influences.  In his Pragmatism: An Open Question, Hilary Putnam says that:


philosophy which is all argument feeds no real hunger; while philosophy which is all vision feeds a real hunger, but it feeds it Pablum.[10] 


5. The Sub-Disciplines & “Metaphilosophy:”





social & political philosophy



philosophy of: language, mathematics, mind, religion, science, social science,


The Good Life/Good Lives, Highest Good(s). Meaning of Life….


Notes: [to return to the note's text, click on the note number--emphasis has been added to several citations]

[1] Richard Foley, Working Without A Net: A Study of Egocentric Epistemology (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 1993), p

[2] Richard Rorty, “Thomas Kuhn, Rocks and the Laws of Physics” [1997], in his Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin, 1999), pp. 175-189, p. 180.  The essay originally appeared in Common Knowledge v. 6 (1997). 

[3] Robert Nozick, The Nature of Rationality (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1993), p. xii. 

[4] Ibid., pp. 71-72. 

[5] An intrinsically valuable goal, or activity, is one that is pursued for its own sake.  Such values are contrasted with extrinsic values—here the goal or activity is valued for what it will allow one to achieve.  Health, for example, might be intrinsically valuable (good-in-itself), while wealth is usually conceived of as extrinsically valuable (good-for-what-it-can-get-us). 

[6] Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1981), p. 4.  Emphasis added to passage. 

[7] Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1994), p. 5.  Emphasis added to the passage.

[8] Ibid., p. 13. 

[9] Of course, two of the ends-in-view may require a qualification of this statement.  The skeptical conception of philosophy which sees philosophical criticism aiming at the suspension of belief, and the religious conception which sees it as ending up in worship both constitute “compromised” commitments to the ideal of rationality.  But this is a complex story that requires extended argument. 

[10] Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism: An Open Question (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 23. 

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Email: hauptli@fiu.edu 

Last revised: 07/08/17.