Armchair Thinking: Common Complaints Against Philosophy 2

Isn’t philosophy just armchair thinking? How can that be a proper subject? Why aren’t you doing experiments and observing the real world?

The most obvious way of dealing with this might be to refer back to Hegel’s fruit example in the last post. Philosophy doesn’t deal with particular things that can be experienced in the world. It deals with the nature of things, not the things themselves. This nature is accessible to thought, not to sight. As such, it doesn’t matter if we are sat in an armchair, in a lab, or in a park in the “real” world. We will never see what philosophy is trying to think. As such, an armchair is as good a place to do the deed as any.

This isn’t enough though to respond to the objection, though. The idea that philosophy is abstract and out of touch, shared by even by some philosophers, is based on a misunderstanding of what philosophy actually is.

The interpretation of philosophy implicit in the “armchair thinking” objection comes not from our understanding of philosophy, but from our understanding of natural science. In fact, the scientific method itself arose out of an objection to philosophy. Philosophy, it was said, deals with abstract ideas that we cannot see. It never comes to any answers because there is no way to solve the dispute between different philosophers; nothing to point to to demonstrate the truth and show once and for all who is right and wrong. Philosophical speculation was an obstacle to the progress of the sciences. As such, following a tradition conceived in Descartes, developed in Hume, systematised in Kant and fully actualised in a movement called “logical positivism”, science resolved to never ask questions that cannot be answered. It would only ask questions that could be answered by pointing to something “objectively verifiable”, i.e. something that can be seen in the world by everyone regardless of perspective. Anything else was dismissed as abstract gibberish.

From this point of view, science deals with concrete things that can be experienced by anyone, and philosophy deals with unanswerable questions that are speculative, useless and matters of mere opinion. To prove this understanding of philosophy incorrect would take a lot more than a blog post, but there is one thing to which we can turn to at least make us sceptical.

In common sense, science is understood in one of two extremes. It is either understood as above, as serious, clever, rigorous work that deals with the proper reality of things, or as complicated nonsense that is completely uninteresting and should only be funded because it gives us technological advances. The former opinion is that of people who like science, the latter that of people who really don’t like it.

Neither opinion gets to the truth but the latter one has a point. Physics does not deal with anything concrete that can be experienced. You cannot see gravity. True, you can see things falling, but you cannot see forces. You cannot see Newtons laws of motion. You cannot hold a Higgs Boson. It is true that physics uses the concepts of force, law, and particle to predict the motion and behaviour of objects and that this motion can be experienced, but it does not talk about experience directly. It talks about the laws that govern experience, not experience itself. Laws of motion predict the way in which bodies in the world move.

Chemistry, from “Higgs Boson” to “Exothermic Reaction”, can predict that the match will light when struck and the cigarette will light when exposed to the flame. Human Biology can talk about the chemical interactions in the body that make this an enjoyable experience. But, the smoker knows that the match will work and that smoking is enjoyable even if they haven’t studied Higgs Bosons in physics or drugs in biology. If they have studied it, their experience is not altered or enhanced by this theory and their life is unchanged. The objects of science allow us to predict the world, but they are not within the world. They are abstract, unexperiencable ideas. They are often poetic and beautiful (hence Prof. Brian Cox’s frequent swooning in awe at the elegance of all of these theories). Useful and beautiful they are, but experiential they are not.

Philosophy, in contrast, speaks about topics that are in our experience and do impact how we live our lives. Words like “Understanding”, “Being”, “Historicality” and “Presupposition” might sound abstract, but if it is demonstrated to someone that the way they understand the world is grounded in a historical presupposition, this has an impact on how they view the world and understand themselves from that point on. Questions about objectivity and moral truth might sound abstract, but if it is demonstrated that there is or there is not an objective moral truth, then we are each challenged to live in a certain way; it would be a discovery to which we could not be indifferent. An investigation into eudaimonia, “What is the good life?”, might sound like an ethereal question no one should be paid to ask. But, if it is shown convincingly that the good life is a long life (something only philosophy could do), then this is more likely to convince someone to stop smoking than the biology of lung disease and plain packet cigarettes. Equally, if it is shown that the good life is not the long life, but one that is lived to the full in the face of one’s own mortality, this has more impact on the smoker’s attitude to their addiction than the Higgs Boson that explains why they’re able to hold a cigarette.

In contrast to science, philosophy, challenges us and changes us. Science is only indirectly relevant to human life through the technology it produces. Philosophy is directly relevant as that through which one can come to an genuine understanding of the world and one’s place within it. When understood properly, the discipline traditionally considered to be the most abstract is the most concrete, and has the greatest potential impact on human life, even if that potential is never actualised because the government decide to fund things that are more obviously useful. And that is why we don’t model ourselves after science.


Next post: why we read such old books and why we care what dead people think.

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