Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Philosophy: Where to Begin?

The study of Philosophy is not like other subjects. One cannot define philosophy without already doing it. The question "what is philosophy?" demands a philosophical answer. This is not the case for, e.g., history or mathematics - you don't have to be doing history or math in order to define them; you don't give a history of history in order to grasp what historical inquiry is. Instead, "what is history?" and "what is mathematics?" are themselves philosophical questions. The historian or mathematician may ply his trade without defining it, but this very practice of the discipline can only take place according to some implicit supra-historical or supra-mathematical conception of what is being done which can only be articulated in philosophical terms.

This fact in itself may lend some credence to Aristotle's notion that first philosophy is the architectonic science - the knowledge by which all other knowledge is measured and directed. But not every philosopher would accept this characterization of his discipline. There are almost as many conceptions of what philosophy is as there are philosophies! This is surely not the case with other subjects.

When one cannot even grasp what philosophy is without doing it, it seems that one cannot even begin to study it without having already begun. This raises, for me at least, the question of how one is to begin. As has been pointed out many times, in philosophy as in anything else a little mistake at the beginning leads to great errors in the end, so it seems very important to begin philosophizing from the proper place. Anything at all can be made to follow from a falsehood. If two philosophers do not at least broadly agree on what philosophy is, they are likely not to agree on much else in philosophy either. But how are we to adjudicate between them? Shall we conclude that, since philosophers agree neither on their principles nor on their conclusions, therefore knowledge or truth in philosophy is impossible and that there is only opinion or speculation? But this in itself is a highly contested philosophical position, and can only be defended by taking certain definite positions about truth and our relationship to it.

The question "where to begin?" seems equivalent to the question "how do I establish first principles?" Granted that we begin thinking always already holding any number of principles - I presume that there is no really presuppositionless thinking - the trick is to be able to identify those presuppositions which are both certain and fundamental, and to weed out those which are either false or doubtful. We cannot simply begin with our first principles, because the principles we happen to have when we begin need to be tested and approved or rejected. What is "first" in my mind and first in fact may not at all be the same. By what criterion, then, do I examine my own presuppositions?

5 comments:

onus probandi said...

"One cannot define philosophy without already doing it."

Please explain -- does 'already doing it' specifically mean those who are formally identified and/or educated as 'philosophers' and daily conduct certain philosophical quandries typically of that (academic) sort?


"There are almost as many conceptions of what philosophy is as there are philosophies! This is surely not the case with other subjects."

How can you say this especially given what you just stated previously in the foregoing (which I myself would concur with):

"Instead, 'what is history?' and 'what is mathematics?' are themselves philosophical questions."

Thus, as such, even Scientists themselves would seem to wrestle with similar notions as to what precisely Science is as each one would seem to hold a different interpretation.


"If two philosophers do not at least broadly agree on what philosophy is, they are likely not to agree on much else in philosophy either... the trick is to be able to identify those presuppositions which are both certain and fundamental, and to weed out those which are either false or doubtful. We cannot simply begin with our first principles, because the principles we happen to have when we begin need to be tested and approved or rejected."

Are you actually claiming that one can actually demonstrate which philosopher (and, for that matter, which philosophy of theirs) is actually the true & correct one?

Then, as regarding the intelligible versus the sensible, who was the correct one out of all these amongst such notable figures such as Descartes, Berkeley as opposed to a Kant?

I don't believe that you can subject their philosophical ruminations to empirical verification as you could something in Science.

Michael said...

Please explain -- does 'already doing it' specifically mean those who are formally identified and/or educated as 'philosophers' and daily conduct certain philosophical quandries typically of that (academic) sort?

I certainly am not talking about academia as such. You don't have to be a math professor to do math either.

Thus, as such, even Scientists themselves would seem to wrestle with similar notions as to what precisely Science is as each one would seem to hold a different interpretation.

I'm not sure I believe in "Science" as opposed to the various sciences. That's a matter for another discussion, though. The fact is it doesn't matter is physicists all agree about the nature of their discipline, because they can all engage in it fruitfully whatever their definitions are. This is precisely because "what is physics?" is not a question in physics, but a question in philosophy. Similarly, mathematicians disagree widely on the nature and reality of number, but they all agree on when something has been proved and when it hasn't.

Are you actually claiming that one can actually demonstrate which philosopher (and, for that matter, which philosophy of theirs) is actually the true & correct one?

If there is such a thing as philosophical demonstration, then yes, of course. At least one can go a long ways in proving which philosophies are false, which is a big step.

Then, as regarding the intelligible versus the sensible, who was the correct one out of all these amongst such notable figures such as Descartes, Berkeley as opposed to a Kant?

You've been reading this blog for awhile. Surely you can anticipate that I think they're all wrong!

I don't believe that you can subject their philosophical ruminations to empirical verification as you could something in Science.

This is not the test of truth in philosophy, any more than it is in math or history. You can't empirically verify the past or the abstract. The same goes for the transcendent. One has to measure any claim by the standard appropriate to its kind. In fact the claim that every truth claim has to be evaluated in just the way that "Science" evaluates theories in physics or biology is itself a philosophical claim which is not empirically verifiable, and is also false.

Anonymous said...

γνῶθι σεαυτόν

Michael, you make it sound as though it were easy to identify one's own presuppositions in the first place. The history of philosophy is the place to begin this difficult task, since it can not only help one identify one's presuppositions (they don't just come of no where), but learn the arguments behind them, without which they cannot be properly evaluated. Most people assume, for example, that equality is of great moral/political value, without examining why they think it is valuable, or what the terms of equality are (any statement of equality requires answering the question: 'Equal in terms of what?' i.e. height, intelligence, number of toes, etc.). Reading the founders of modern democratic thought can answer these questions, and puts democratic assumptions within their proper philosophic context. Studying the history of philosophy is also the best way to learn genuine alternatives to one's beliefs, which is important for judging the truth of one's own (though how exactly to describe this process of comparison, I'm not entirely sure since I think it differs according to the arguments at hand; nevertheless, I am convinced that if I had never learned and given serious thought to more than one position regarding any given philosophic question, I could hardly consider myself to have fully evaluated the position).

But if you are asking how to prove first principles (as opposed to how to begin philosophic pursuits - the old distinction between what is first in the order of knowing and first in nature), well, I'm sure you have read book Gamma of Aristotle's Metaphysics. You can't convince other people of genuine first principles if they don't want to search them out for themselves, because they simple can't be proven. To claim that no principle cannot be proven, paradoxically, makes philosophy impossible. But Aristotle explained it better than I can.

Michael said...

Anonymous,

I certainly agree with you that it's not always easy to identify one's own presuppositions. Many of our premises are buried so deep in our thinking that they go unnoticed, much less evaluated. Both uncovering and weighing them are necessary.

I also agree with you that the history of philosophy is crucial - I intend to say something about this soon.

But if you are asking how to prove first principles (as opposed to how to begin philosophic pursuits - the old distinction between what is first in the order of knowing and first in nature)

Both are important, but at the moment I am concerned with the order of knowing: especially the dual problem of how to avoid error, and how to avoid mistaking true opinion for knowledge.

The First Principle, God himself, comes last in the order of knowing, and we have to find our way to him through secondary things. I think, along with Bonaventure, that a true philosophy will have to mirror the exitus - reditus structure of creation, except that for our knowledge the order is reversed: first our knowledge has to return to and ascend to God before we can understand the coming-forth of ourselves and everything else from him.

onus probandi said...

I agree somewhat with some of the things that Anonymous said as regarding, for example, the importance of studying the history of Philosophy; you know, standing on the Shoulders of Giants and all that -- however, as regarding ideas of equality -- these were notions as old as Ancient Greece itself!

For goodness sakes, it wasn't for anything that certain noble lies were devised in order to build the foundation of Res Publica!

Besides, it should be apparent to anybody with either or both Philosophical and/or Scientific training that a Utopia of Equals is most certainly biologically doomed.

Going back yet again to the thought of demonstrating the veracity of one's philosophy (and perhaps even religion) and what not, I still beg to differ.

At best, you may win some sort of appeal through purely dialectical means; however, as to provide irrefutable demonstration that such a thing is true, that, for example, the Yahweh of Hebraic Legend is a reality as opposed to some god of pagan origin; can something like this be truly demonstrated to be true as to achieve certitude -- I'm not entirely sure it possible without the 'magic' provided by what's popularly referred to as 'faith'?