WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?
ANIL MITRA © AUGUST 2014—September 2014
WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?
This piece is a little long for a ‘bite’ but I will leave it here for now.
Is there a single simple answer to the title question for this piece? In this essay I will argue that philosophy is our most general conceptual understanding of the entire world or universe. However, many modern philosophers would disagree and so some part of the essay is devoted to explaining my claim.
As an answer to the leading question, the claim in the previous paragraph—though I hold it to be valid—is incomplete. Already, however, the conflict with other positions suggests a difficulty.
There are many reasons for the difficulty in saying what philosophy is. One is that almost every subject requires exposure to understand its nature—just talking about it is inadequate. A second reason, particular to philosophy, is concerned with the way its concerns have changed over time. Two reasons for such change are (1) Growth that comes with understanding and (2) Subjects, especially the sciences, that have acquired more or less definite knowledge and methods tend to become separate disciplines. One of the results is that the traditional subject matters of philosophy have become displaced, often leaving philosophy unsure about its true nature and whether it has a subject matter in the original sense. Now this question is philosophical—particularly it asks whether science has exhausted or is about to exhaust the province called ‘knowledge of the world’. One of our answers is that science, even though it is incomplete, has reached into all niches of being. This explains why many philosophers disagree with the claim regarding philosophy in the previous paragraph. But has science in fact exhausted all regions of knowledge about the world. We often assume so but that is not because it has been demonstrated that there are no realms beyond science but because we equate the vastness of what we know with what there is. However, there is no ground for this except parochialism and myopia.
The approach to our subject will be indirect—to talk about and around it; and direct—to talk a little about the history of philosophy and to do a little philosophy. There is a specific reason for the latter. It is the question of whether there are realms beyond what is revealed in science. Obviously there are aspects of our lives and world that even though they fall under the province outline by science are yet not explained by science. But that is not the question. The question is whether that province is the universe. We could of course talk about this topic and I have done this in other essays as preliminary to giving a direct answer. Here I give a brief answer in the chapter metaphysics and logic. This chapter has the following purposes. It will answer the question of whether there are ‘realms beyond’ affirmatively (and emphatically, for it will show that those realms are immense in magnitude and variety). And in so doing, it will exemplify a bit of philosophy (metaphysics) and develop some foundation for future philosophy.
A further difficulty in saying what philosophy is stems from one philosophy’s concerns—the regions that lie on the edge of knowledge. Here, both subject matter and means or methods are incompletely developed and so it is not clear what it is that we are talking about and how to talk about it. Though the subject is unclear it is vital for it is by passing through a refractory stage that it may become clear and this is exemplified by many of our sciences. And, in pointing to this difficulty in say what philosophy is we have said something about philosophy. It is not so much that philosophy is concerned with our areas of ignorance but that philosophy is about the (courageous) act of attempting to know the entire universe. It could, if we thought that we already possess this knowledge be an act of arrogance, but in admitting non possession it is an appropriate kind of humility and in undertaking the search and in attempting to translate it into action it is a courageous act of walking in the shadow regions between light and dark.
I will now begin to talk indirectly about what philosophy is. In metaphysics and logic, I do a bit of philosophy—a bit that I think important in its own right and that will also shed light on the possible future scope of philosophy. This empowers the next chapter what is philosophy? Finally, in a view of the endeavor of being I envision a role for philosophy and metaphysics in the future.
The birth of philosophy in the west is commonly thought to have begun about 600 BC with Thales of Miletus. Thales is best know for his idea that reality—its variety and changes—is made of water. Though seemingly unremarkable his idea is important because it is a break with myth (which is not to say that myth has no value). It is remarkable, though, that Thales idea was an explanation based in observation: the ubiquity of water and its behaviors (evaporation, rain, the presence of water in life and others). The idea is also remarkable because it attempts to explain the variety of the world in something that is simple and of the world. It has been suggested that this is one of the many changes in an ancient way of thought that later emerged in science.
Of course Thales idea was speculative. So are all great theories of science. When we think them not speculative it is because an original speculation (that hypotheses are reasonable does not remove the speculative element) has survived criticism and comparison of prediction with experiment.
Over the centuries our understanding of philosophy and the content of philosophy have evolved. When a discipline within philosophy becomes so well understood, so confirmed, so practically useful, and so well defined in its ways as to constitute ‘science’ it then becomes a branch of science. Does it then stop being philosophy? The answer is a no and a yes. It is no insofar as philosophy is about the world. But it is a yes in that from its beginning to the present time philosophy has been about the divide between what (we think) we clearly know and what lies at the edge of definite knowledge. In early Greece it was at the divide between myth and the idea that to know we may study what is; and today it is at the divide within what is but between what is relatively definitely known and what seems significant but not so well understood.
Today, science has made so many inroads into knowledge of the world, that philosophy is often regarded as not being about the world but about other matters—about language, about the nature and validity of knowledge and logic; and it is often regarded as having separate approaches than the scientific method. But knowledge and language are in the world. And while the subjects of mathematics and the sciences are not today regarded as philosophical, mathematics and the sciences themselves are regarded as topics in philosophy. This is because the nature of mathematics and science, though well known in some ways, is imperfectly understood in others. What is more, while we have some ways of talking about mathematics and science, we have not arrived at a place where our talk is entirely confident. Since mathematics, logic, and science are in the world we cannot say that philosophy is not about the world. Rather we assert that (one of the things) philosophy is about is those things in the world that are unclearly know and whose method of knowing is also not entirely clear. Objects—life, matter—whose constitution we think we know fairly well and whose methods are pretty well defined (we think) are not regarded as philosophy. But it would perhaps be more precise to say that the sciences of life and matter are philosophical but trivial in that regard. This is important because in times that these subject matters change the philosophical element again becomes important.
Thus it remains true that (at least one focus) of philosophy is the world: it is about those parts of the world that remain dimly lit and regarding which we have significant doubt as to how to proceed.
We mentioned ‘method’ above. Science is regarded as having a method: we make hypotheses regarding facts and low level concepts, make predictions based on those hypotheses, and as confidence in the hypotheses build up they become laws or theories (depending, e.g., on level of remove from fact). If we were to then think of the laws and theories as having their limited current domains we might think of them as factual but when we hope for universality we must regard laws and theories as tentative as long as new data may come in (which as far as we can tell may be forever). Logic is thought to have its deductive method but this is not its true method which concerns finding new logical systems. Here logic—and mathematics—is just as tentative in principle as science; ‘hypothesizing’ a new axiomatic system for a new logic or new mathematics provides no guarantee of consistency or significance. But these are and are not the methods of philosophy.
They are the methods of philosophy because there is occasion to use them in philosophy. Logic, for example, remains a subject in philosophy (its emphasis is different than the emphasis of just symbolic or just mathematical logic). And we can employ the method of hypothesis and deduction in philosophy. Axiomatic systems of ethics and metaphysics abound. However this is generally inadequate to philosophical analysis on the edge of our knowledge. Thus while the methods of science and mathematics and logic may be regarded as methods of philosophy they cannot be regarded as the method of philosophy.
What then is the method of philosophy? Or perhaps we should ask what the methods are? Or whether there is any particular set of methods. Or whether philosophy is characterized by method. Before we go ahead let us remember that regardless of the selectivity of the subject matters of philosophy, it seems that it remains to have the world as focus. However, what is method? It is the subject whose object is not the direct world as object but the subject whose object is the subjects (mathematics, science and so on) themselves. But these subjects are also in the world and so even as study of method, philosophy is about the world.
What is the method of philosophy and how does the method relate to the subject. The form of the question is important because philosophy goes back to the beginning and so it cannot—until it has been proved—produce any method for some subject and say ‘look, we have derived both the subject and the method’. We doubt that we can for here is potential infinite regress; but on the other hand until we have shown that we cannot escape infinite regress we do not know that we cannot. I am tempted to say, given the potential vastness of the unknown, that the overarching subject of matter is whatever that is of significance that comes into our vision as a possible object of study and that the overarching method is whatever works. There are two criticisms. (1) We know most of what is of significance—we just do not know it well enough. This is typical modern arrogance. I think our knowledge is ‘just great’ but it is inherent in science, mathematics, language, and logic so far that what we know may be just the corner of a vast universe. (2) Whatever works is not a method. This is quite true if by method I mean algorithm or at least algorithm-like. But given the potential vastness of our ignorance ‘what works’ may be all we have. It also has the following potential strength. When we wonder about the validity of logic and mathematics it sometimes seems that there are workings beyond our experience—that there is an a priori or perhaps a Platonic world of which we have intuition but to which we do not have direct access. ‘Whatever works’ is a potential way out of the mysticism of the a priori and the Platonic world.
Now in the previous paragraph I have taken refuge in generalities and as such there is a lack of articulation though not of vagueness. Is there a way that can be produced to get us at least partially out of this absence of articulation? I will present such a way in metaphysics and logic below but first I would like to say something further about philosophy.
I have argued that philosophy is about the world—about the whole world but its focus is those parts that we do not understand well enough to think we know well and, perhaps as a corollary, regarding which we do not have well defined approaches. The twentieth century produced a number of schools of thought that argued that philosophy did not have subject matter at all.
One such ‘school’ was initiated by Wittgenstein who in his earlier writing argued that if something was not science or logic or mathematics then it was not a subject of study. The goal of philosophy, then, was ‘therapeutic’ or ‘clarifying’ or, to use a later term, ‘edifying’. These are of course ‘noble’ goals but we should ask whether they are about the world and further whether they have been shown to be only goals. In Wittgenstein’s later writing it is clear that his philosophy had a subject matter but his approach was rather unlike that of science. Perhaps we could say that his thought was conceptual, applied, and critical.
Anther critical movement begins roughly with Heidegger and continues to the modern time under names such as modernism, deconstruction, and postmodernism. Again these schools do not lack subject matters but there is a tendency to two kinds of claim. First, that the grand and overweening systems of the past and present—science and philosophy—suffer from a variety of defects (the precise defect depends on the particular school or branch). Second, that all we can do is relatively local studies. Perhaps these claims are true. I will take a look in metaphysics and logic where we will show directions in which the claims are true and directions in which they are not.
Now we take a brief look at the range of disciplines that we have not considered above. The standard disciplines omitted are the languages (we considered language itself and linguistics by implication), the arts including literature, history, technology, religion, and what might be called the study of the human endeavor. If religion were understood appropriately as an activity that attempted to go beyond the empirical limits of other activities such as science—instead of a semi-empirical approach defined by the actual religions which tells us only what people do and not what they could do—then the human endeavor could be seen as part of it. But by the same or similar tokens, history and art could be drawn under religion. Similarly, technology—though it is more and less than science—could be drawn under science but this would require science to include practice. Thus though we might want to give them different names the remaining disciplines are Religion and Technology.
There is a common and academic tendency to identify religion with its empirical study. This will never get at the truth of religion for empirical study is not understanding. It is interesting that where in the natural sciences, especially physics and biology, understanding as well as prediction require both empirical and conceptual study but academics think that for the study of religion to be ‘scientific’ it must be purely empirical. Obviously this will give us no understanding. But there is a further problem and that is that while what is studied conceptually in natural science via concepts is something that is ‘received’ (when the point is debated what is being referred to is not the object but the concepts deployed). On the other hand religion is a mix of the received and the created—particularly ongoing creation. Therefore side by side with conceptual play in understanding religion there is and should be conceptual play in creating religion and to not recognize and do this is a backward step in the name of ‘science’ and ‘practicality’. I could think of religion, then, as ‘the deployment of the entire being of individual and civilization in the knowing and realization of the highest being—of the Good’. But the term ‘religion’ evinces so much prejudice that it might be better avoided. Instead I will use the neutral and colorless term ‘Practice’.
What is the relation of Practice and Technology to the entire realm of conceptual thought? There is commonality and difference. The commonality is the endeavor. The difference is the means: thought is conceptual and expressed in linguistic-iconic terms; Practice and Technology are action oriented in nature while their background knowledge emphasizes also a practical inventory—practices for eliciting awareness, techniques to creating artifacts. There is some overlap with the general region of thought that we are forging toward under the rubric of philosophy but there is not identity. But they do not stand apart. In the human endeavor there is a cycling through all the elements of sustenance and creation so that they stand together as a linked system.
Here is a brief picture from which some interesting lessons emerge (see the following essay template for further detail). In the following D indicates a definition and C a conclusion. SMALL CAPITALS indicate a term being defined.
Although we have given some indication of the nature of philosophy there remain lacks. We need to characterize what we have said so far and we need to add concreteness.
Concreteness can be outlined by defining subject matter. Anything in the way of conceptual or conceptual-iconic knowledge that partakes of the unknown with regard to content and / or approach is philosophical. Positively, the main disciplines of philosophy are metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics. Though separated in convention we have seen how these form a unit. In early philosophy metaphysics may have held center stage. Since Kant cast doubt on metaphysics, epistemology has come to the fore; this is because we think we cannot do metaphysics that is not scientific—it is said to be speculative and even science itself is not metaphysics for its elements are posited but not given despite success (the truth of a conclusion does not imply the truth of a premise). However, we have just given a system of these major disciplines tightly wound around metaphysics.
What is the method of philosophy? The approach is anything that works. The methods of science, mathematics, logic, and linguistics are tentatively methods of philosophy—we can deploy them but we must then prove what has been ‘derived’ to whatever degree of certainty is required. Finally, in metaphysics and logic we have seen an approach that gets behind any a priori—it is ultimate in depth or foundation, it shows that the universe is ultimate, it shows that limited being experiences this ultimate but only in process.
This method seeks first to establish whether there are any givens. We could have taken matter as fundamental rather than being—but, given some specification of the nature of matter there can be doubt whether it has an object; but this doubt does not arise for being. Then from the givenness of being the givenness of the universe is also established (the universe as all matter is questionable not only because the nature of matter is not final but also because we do not certainly know that there are no other kinds—e.g., mind). In finding these givens we posited concepts—being and universe—and then found (a) there is a definite object corresponding to each object.
That is, what is going on includes analysis of meaning where the notion of meaning is understood as concept (usually designated by a sign) and its objects. But it is not only analysis for analysis alone did not tell us to focus on the concepts of being and universe and then of Law and void and Logic and Fact. I have worked with other concepts but via analysis of each system I arrived at this particular system as a coherent and ultimate framework for metaphysics as knowledge of all being. Further it is not only the system that required adjustment but also the meanings of the individual concepts: that is, analysis of meaning is complemented by synthesis of meaning (of the individual concepts and the system). In the philosophical literature analysis of meaning has been suggested as a powerful tool of philosophy but it has also been criticized because while it does shed light on that which we already know vaguely, it does not create knowledge or understanding. This essential limitation to analysis is corrected when synthesis is undertaken. Thus analysis and synthesis of meaning is a crucial ‘method’.
But what is analysis and synthesis of meaning? It is a dual search for concepts and objects as container for knowledge and understanding. That is, the search does not start particularly with either understanding or world but simultaneously with both. The twofold importance of this is (1) that we do and must begin with the world rather than what we might want to believe but (2) but understanding is iterative. Is the outcome certain? It may be so if only the finitary aspects of the object are under investigation and this is why the metaphysics is certain while scientific theories are generally not regarded as certainly true for the entire universe. ‘Whatever works’ is constrained then by these necessities.
Philosophy has been given a backbone. In it epistemology (with logic) and metaphysics are united.
However, it cannot and should not be said to have been finalized.
It is the repository of the future and present unknown.
Its final methods over and above the foregoing remain ‘what works’.
Unlike an electron, philosophy is a cultural artifact (but the universal metaphysics implies that in a sufficiently advanced culture—perhaps beyond current human intelligence and culture—a cosmos and its particles could be an artifact). Therefore while we think we may have a final definition of an electron (now or in the future), philosophy is our creation and must therefore remain in process until it is shown dead or closed. One aspect of this artifactual character is emphasized by the fact that while science and mathematics are also artifacts, science is not a topic in science, mathematics is a partial topic of mathematics in metamathematics, but philosophy is a topic in philosophy.
Consequently history of philosophy is one underpinning to study of philosophy and a topic in philosophy (e.g., the question of interpretation). Because philosophy includes a residue of problems on the edge of what we know and attempt to know its methods cannot be as definite as those of science and mathematics. Therefore history of philosophy is one key to what is worth studying in philosophy and how to conduct such studies (even the excesses of past systems provide lessons0.
It remains important that what is significant to study and how to study it learns from the past, from experience, and from imagination and critical reflection but must in the end refer to ‘what works’ or else we are unlikely to avoid the trap of the a priori.
Here, then, is a final clue to the nature of philosophy. It is that we shall not talk initially of philosophy at all. Instead we would embark on an journey into what is important and how to talk about it and how know it and how to achieve it. The contour of this endeavor would be the notion of all knowledge and endeavor. One of our mottos would be ‘whatever works, whatever is of use’. But we would not stop there. On the way we would find subjects of interest, approaches that are of more and or less power. It is in there that we would locate what we might want to but need not call philosophical. We should start with an interest in what we have received—subjects and names—but should probably not end there; there should be some effort to let subjects and names fall naturally and logically, to not be entirely the result of history or the artifice of academic division; and here we have given some indication of how this may be done.
Greek understanding, especially in Plato, saw the world as one of form. Certainly, there were accidents and unpredictability but behind these were the forms which enabled logos or understanding. Where did the forms reside? Plato was an idealist—for him there was an ideal world of forms that in-formed the actual world.
Today’s secular world view sees form in the natural world but it also sees limits to form. The physical world has forms—the laws and their symmetries—but it has no formal explanation for these forms (since secularism is materialist it does not posit ideal forms but on the other hand it has no material explanation for the material forms). There is however a class of forms—the living forms—for which there is a material explanation. It is the two step process of variation that shows no preference for adaptation and selection of those variations that are adapted. Stated this way it is already clear that even if it is true the counter ‘random variations cannot create form’ is not a valid objection for it is the combination of the variation and selection that results in living forms. Although variation-selection explains life it does not get over the problem form: it finds those forms of which matter is capable but it does not explain how the possible forms of matter including matter itself came about.
Do deterministic explanations explain form? A process is temporally deterministic when the entire sequence of system states over time is determined by the state at some time. That is, it is determinism that cannot result in true novelty: it results only in what is already determined—what is already though perhaps not explicitly there. Perhaps the material forms themselves emerge from a more primitive background via non-deterministic process that would have to have some kind of variation and some kind of selection for the novel forms to emerge from the primitive (‘it has always existed’ and ‘it is the work of God’ could be true in that logic is not violated but are not explanations in that they refer what is to be explained back to something that is just as or more complex). Modern physics has devoted some energies to this possibility (e.g. the work of Lee Smolin who in The Life of the Cosmos, 1997, lucidly but tentatively argued for trial and error—variation and selection—origins of our cosmos and others from primal beginnings) but there is no consensus that a correct and satisfactory explanation has been attained.
The universal metaphysics supplies the contours of a necessary explanation that goes beyond and has select features of the idealist and modern materialist frames. Consider that the universe must go though void phases. How does form—a formed cosmos—arise? The metaphysics asserts: from any state, every state must emerge. It is a bare necessity that is also an ultimate explanation because of the ultimate simplicity of the terms of the explanation (explanans). Still, there is something about this explanation that does not satisfy. It is too simple: form arises, it is necessary, but we do not see how it arises. Perhaps, responds the metaphysician, it is not valid to ask how! But now the metaphysician thinks—the metaphysics does not demand further explanation but it does not rule it out either. It is interesting that while the metaphysics requires form with no further explanation than necessity, it also requires that variation and selection will be involved in some cases of emergence. It requires the following. If the universe is in a void state there will be many emergences from it. Some will be transient. Others will be incremental but not transient due to arriving in a relatively symmetric-stable configuration. Some processes of the emergence of complex form will be incremental in just this sense. Now it is not necessary but it is reasonable that most large scale systems in the universe will have form (because it is these that are symmetric-stable) and most of them will have emerged via variation-selection because it is this that is symmetric-stable at almost every phase of the process.
The picture then is this. The universe is highly chaotic (I do not intend this in the sense of recent ‘chaos theory’). However, most formed systems and processes are of the type just described. Sentience need not be restricted to these but mostly—and for the same reasons as above—sentience that is sufficiently formed for understanding will live in such systems. Thus there is one universe. It is a mix of form and transience. The forms are in the universe (further, to every concept within the realm of possibility its object is in the universe and thus abstract objects in general are in the universe and when their conception suggests residence outside time the residence is not truly outside time but appears so because it is only non temporal aspects that are abstracted). We who live in such formed regions experience the universe via the logos. We overcome Einstein’s puzzlement that “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible”.
Let us now reflect on the Good. For Plato, the Good was the highest of forms in the universe of ideals. However, we have seen that while there are forms they are in our universe. We have seen that the forms do not in-form objects but, rather, process finds them. The journey in being is a dual discovery in the conception and realization of forms. It simultaneously seeks (with learning from tradition) to understand, create, and realize the Good. We can now see how it is as if there is truth to Plato’s theory of form. When we live in a limited formed region we are not empirically privy to its formation. Truly, the formation has an explanation as well as elements of causation but we do not see this (even though the metaphysics enables knowing it but without the metaphysics we might not eve think it). We may therefore be tempted to un-real explanations such as ‘it existed forever’ or ‘it is the work of God’ or it is in-formed by the ideal world of form. We are tempted especially to the Platonic explanation because it is as-if it is true.
We may think of the Good as fundamental—as the generator, metaphorically at least, of all understanding (with knowledge) and action. How and why? Let us first address the ‘how’. In the immediate the good is concerned with what to do. But this requires us to know what is possible and what is feasible—i.e., the practical metaphysics—i.e., knowledge. But the practical metaphysics includes the tradition which includes morals which suggest action. Action leads to outcomes which we compare with and which also informs morals and knowledge. The completion of the cycle is part of a cyclic process toward the Good (which itself does not entail success for it may also lead to failure and dissolution but it is important that that is the best we have and if we do not succeed here and now there is and will be success somewhere in the universe with some other civilization approaching the good—but ‘we’ are connected to ‘them’ via soul; we grow but must be willing to accept going back to the beginning.). This ‘how’ is now seen also to be the ‘why’.
The process—the journey—is not one of ideas alone but one of ideas in interaction with action. At the edge of the ideas on the symbolic side, philosophy in interaction with science constitute the vanguard (it is the activities rather than the names that are significant). I will call this side Knowledge. On the side of action and icon there is what we have called Practice and Technology. I will now extend Practice to include Technology. So, then, on the side of action and icon there is Practice which includes Religion (as defined above), art, ritual, technology; and experiments with Being and conceptions regarding being. Thus the two sides of realization are Knowledge and Practice. There is a little arbitrariness here for knowledge is a kind of action and Practice includes elements such as art, technology, and religion that are not knowledge in its purest sense but do overlap knowledge in some sense whether pure as in ‘knowledge of’ or practical as in ‘know how’
The practical realist insists on focus on the world (this is good but to stop there is limiting); the idealist insists on the conceptual side (but to stop there is fantasy); the true realist sees the endeavor of being as the interactive and selective join of world and idea. Realism is being and beginning with the world but recognizing that the world is the world-mediated-by-ideas. We are able to say this without using the term ‘philosophy’ but as seen earlier there is an element of Knowledge, the one that emphasizes especially concepts on the edge of what we know, and that may be called philosophy. The entire way of realization and being—of Knowledge and Practice, of knowing and acting—may be described as analysis and synthesis of Being.
The following brief format is an aside to the main thrust of this article. I am more concerned here with the goal than with the form of psychology. That there are many forms of psychology—Eastern and Western and, within the west, the variety which includes structural, functional, psychoanalytic, behavioral, humanistic, modern academic and cognitive, and eclectic—suggests that we are far from a mature ‘science of mind’.
If the universe is ultimate and its realization while we are limited is eternal process then surely one goal of psychology is ‘living in the many worlds as one’.