Common Complaints Against Philosophy Answered 1

Philosorapter

More so than Dr. Pepper, philosophy is misunderstood, even by its practitioners. We who study it dread the question “So what do you do?”, since it very rarely leads to an affirming conversation. The last time I was asked this was at a family gathering.

“So what are you up to now, Matthew?”

“I’m studying Philosophy.”

“Still?!”

This is at least preferable to the long host of Frequently Asked Questions, usually complaints, asked of philosophers in situations social, professional and in the comments section of newspaper websites. In next few blog posts, I’m going to try to answer some of the most common complaints against philosophy.

Oh, you do philosophy? Are you going to be a priest then?

Maybe this is unique to people from religious backgrounds. And, I have to admit, I prefer this question to the next one. It shows an awareness of what philosophy actually is or, at least, was. Philosophy is still taught to trainee priests and its traditional place for most of the last millennium was about understanding Humans, the World and God and the relations between all three. Essential reading for men of the cloth and for understanding the human’s religious destiny. Philosophy does, however, tend towards atheism these days…

Oh you do philosophy. Isn’t that like psychology? I got a B at Psychology AS level, isn’t Freud rubbish?!

Philosophy is not like psychology. Although, to be fair, there is an apparent overlap. Both talk about issues directly relating to how we understand human existence. But, psychology in all its forms can be traced to an empirical study that tracks the behaviours of individual humans and generalises, from those humans to all humans, suggesting these traits might be universal. So, if a study finds that x% of men in a representative study stare at a woman’s breasts x times a minute in a conversation, one can hypothesise that x% of  all men are likely to do the same. Philosophy, in contrast, does not track what individual humans do at all. it asks, “What is the human being as such?” What is it to be a human? This question is above and beyond individual humans or particular behaviours and character traits.

A quick way to illustrate this would be to refer to an example of Hegel. He describes a man going into a green grocery and asking to buy some fruit. The shopkeeper presents him with apples, pears and whatever fruit you can think of. The man has to leave the shop disappointed; he cannot be sold “fruit”, but only particular types of fruit. Fruit as such cannot be bumped into in the world, bought sold or eaten. It can only be thought. In this analogy, Psychology would legitimately be satisfied with looking at the different types of fruit and basing its theories about all fruits on them. Philosophy, being something completely different, would not be satisfied and continue to search for fruit as such. It seeks not an understanding of human beings but of the being of the human. Psychology studies people, philosophy humanity.

Oh, and no: Freud isn’t rubbish.

Why do you use such weird specialist terms and complicated language? Speak plain English!

Okay, to be fair, some philosophers do use over complicated language, but this isn’t a fault of philosophy as such. Further, this is an odd complaint. We do not tend to make it of science, for example, which has a whole host of specialist terminologies distinguishing between quarks and bosons, atoms and molecules, potential and kinetic energy, and different types of animals that we do not tend to distinguish between in everyday language. For example, to be accurate to biology, there is no such thing as a “fish” because there is no common evolutionary heritage that could bring together all the different types of sea-life that we call fish. But, the term makes sense and we use it at the chip shop without the seller saying “I’m sorry, fish don’t exist.” If anything, they will ask “Cod or Haddock?”, thus proving they know exactly what you mean. But, as everyone knows, haddock is rubbish and you should always get cod.

Philosophy uses specialist terms because it is a discipline obsessed with precision, and precision cannot always be reached using everyday language. The fish example demonstrates this. I think people object to specialist terminology in philosophy because they somehow expect it to be less complicated or rigorous than science. Science is very clever and complicated, therefore is allowed to have clever complicated terms. Philosophy is just a bunch of people talking about meaning of life stuff. Life is accessible to everyone, so if philosophy is not immediately understood then something has gone wrong; they’re probably just being deliberately confusing to sound as clever as science.

But, philosophy does need technical terminology. The early modern philosopher John Locke argued that most disagreements in debate come about, not because thinkers and scientists actually disagree with what the other person means, but because they are using their words differently and do not know what each other mean in the first place. He uses an example of being at a debate about the nature of blood, pointing out that every person there had a different idea about what it was (remember this was in the 1600s and our modern understanding of the circulatory system was only recently discovered and not yet universally accepted). As such, because of a lack of standard terminology, the interlocutors were unable to even get to a point of genuinely disagreeing with each other’s theories, let alone resolve their dispute.

In contemporary philosophy, this still holds true. It is important that we have odd words like epistemology and ontology and fine distinctions between potentiality and possibility, transcendent and transcendental, reality, actuality and existence etc. Otherwise, we might have two people arguing about the “existence” (whether or not it is) of the external world, when one means “actuality” (its having been brought into existence) and the other “reality” (its being a thing).

Contrary to popular belief, use of “plain English” tends to create more ambiguities than it resolves. So, you just have to buy a dictionary to learn philosophy.


Next post: Why philosophy isn’t just abstract pointless armchair thinking.

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