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  • 2. Doing Philosophy

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    • 06/02/2004 http://www.galilean-library.org/site/uploads/

    By /index.php?/user/4-hugo-holbling/">Paul Newall (2004)

    So far in this series we have looked at what philosophy is and found it difficult to say exactly what we mean when we talk about it. We now consider doing philosophy.

    Getting Started

    Do we need to serve a philosophical apprenticeship before we can get involved in doing philosophy? Yes and no. On the one hand, we do not because most of the questions we ask ourselves from time to time that are frequently characterised as philosophical assume no prior qualifications: to wonder "what is the point of it all?" appears to be an experience common to most people, for example, regardless of whether they are an academic or layman, expert or novice. On the other hand, we do need some philosophical experience because of this very commonality: other people have asked the same things, over and over. It makes sense, then, to suppose that what they said on the matter might be worth considering, even if only to discard unprofitable avenues of inquiry. After all, if others have been pondering for thousands of years the very issues we have in mind, by studying what they thought or wrote we could come to deepen or adjust our own position or approach.

    Resources

    A good place to start is of course with some of the classic texts in philosophy. Later in our series we will discuss how best to read philosophy, but the majority of the entries will take a particular aspect of it and look at some of the key questions and ideas therein. Even if what the philosopher Plato thought about the meaning of life may seem far removed from a contemporary context, say, actually life was not so different back then and the over-riding purpose to our existence, if there is one, is perhaps much the same. At the very least, if we examine Plato's thinking and find it flawed then we have learned something: namely, what the meaning of life is not, or how not to think about it. Too often people assume that negative arguments are neither helpful nor constructive, but if they teach us what is not the case then we have gained something from the experience.

    Attributes

    There are arrogant philosophers just like there are arrogant basketball players, but that is no reason for us to follow suit. Although there is no set of characteristics that define a philosopher, some can help the beginner get started and avoid familiar pitfalls. A certain amount of humility is perhaps beneficial: we do not have to agree with Socrates that we only know that we know nothing, but at least commencing our studies with an acceptance that we do not know it all and have plenty to learn might prevent us accepting easy answers that only serve to confirm the beliefs we had beforehand.

    In a similar vein, a conception of philosophy as open-ended could be useful. When we think we have an answer, we need not stop and rest contented on our laurels. What if we made an error in our reasoning or overlooked something? Perhaps a different enquiry could illuminate an area we had not envisaged? Indeed, we could propose that philosophy is not so much the search for answers as for better questions.

    None of the above are necessary to do philosophy, since its proponents over history have been at least as diverse a group as any other. Perhaps, then, it is more a question of attitude? Why are we studying philosophy in the first place? Is it to gain an advantage in debate? To belittle someone else who is struggling with the subject? Or is it instead to challenge ourselves and to try to learn?

    Terminology

    Like most disciplines, philosophy has a specialized vocabulary. To the uninitiated, this can seem a scary prospect and a bar on getting anywhere. However, the need to learn to speak, write and think in a new way is a prerequisite in most areas of study, sports being a good example. If we consider a term like "offside", we find it means something completely different in rugby than in soccer or in American football. To understand the commentary on a game, then, or to follow what is going on, we need to adopt new terminology. Philosophy is no different.

    As we progress through this series, we will build up our vocabulary gradually. Ploughing right into an academic textbook would probably frustrate a beginner, but no more than the soccer player trying to follow a rugby referee's hand signals. Jumping in at the deep end is an easy way to talk ourselves into believing that we will never understand, but here we will take the more realistic option of proceeding slowly, taking one aspect at a time. If we want to evaluate the ontological argument for the existence of God, for instance, it makes sense to be sure we have a good grasp of both ontology and making an argument before we worry about making any tentative conclusions. As we develop our appreciation of philosophical concepts by using them, they may start to hang together more meaningfully and help lift the fog from what initially seemed too complicated.

    Clarity

    Although it may have a reputation for making a simple question appear impenetrably complex, philosophy generally aims at clarity. In discussion, then, we can expect to be asked to explain what we mean by any terms we employ, pointing out where our use differs from that of the person we are talking with. After all, much of the difficulty in convincing someone else of the merit of our ideas or in realizing where we have gone wrong may lie in misunderstandings. To return to our analogy above, we have to agree on what "offside" and other rules mean if we hope to play a game of rugby, soccer or American football together. Similarly, we have to be "speaking the same language" in order to make any progress in a philosophical conversation.

    One thing to bear in mind is that the dictionary does not have the final say in this process. As we have said, philosophical terms may differ from their everyday counterparts just as surely as words do between sports or even local dialects. Teasing out these meanings is an inevitable element of philosophy, especially as part of a general commitment to trying to address the best possible appreciation of what another person is trying to say.

    Doing philosophy

    Once we have an idea of the approach we might take to doing philosophy, the next questions are when we should do it and why we should care.

    Relevance

    When is philosophy worth considering, if we suppose for a moment that it does have some importance? When should philosophy be practiced? If we note that there are distinctions made between the philosophies of art, science, religion, history, politics, mind, and so on, then this suggests that philosophy is applicable to most areas of study (if not all). Even an argument that philosophy is useless relies implicitly on philosophical categories like value, utility and purpose, as well as an assumption that we can get at an answer using an argument (as opposed to just asserting it).

    It is this generality, then, which commends philosophy as relevant to any inquiry or problem. This is not to imply that philosophy is a discipline over and above all others, but instead that it is an indispensable part of them. Once we have trained ourselves to analyse and break apart a query, the lessons learned will apply to any similar situation.

    Philosophy Alone

    If philosophy has a universal application, do we need to study it on its own when it already plays a part in other subjects? We might formulate an argument in response to this question, but instead we could ask ourselves if the question points us in a direction we may not want to go. After all, who said we can separate philosophy from the contexts in which philosophical problems arise? Once again, doing philosophy involves making sure we are directing our efforts where they are most appropriate before we start worrying about answers.

    Ivory Towers

    Lastly, we come to the traditional image of philosophers as the occupants of ivory towers, indulging in the philosophical equivalent of counting the number of angels that can fit on a pinhead. Although some of the issues investigated by academic philosophers can seem divorced from any relevance to the so-called common man, they all arise from the situations and circumstances we will cover in this series. Perhaps the question to ask is not "why should I care about what philosophers say?" but "how might this topic benefit from a philosophical treatment?"

    To take an example, Plato wrote a long time ago about an ideal society run by guardians who would ensure that matters functioned according to the rules and guidelines Plato had set out. This prompted a criticism that we now consider obvious: quis custiodet ipsos custiodes?, or "who guards the guardians?" When, in the world of our day, we discuss the possibility of sending an armed force to protect the citizens of another country, say, we ought perhaps to ask the same thing. Before we answer, the words of Plato may just be worth a glance.

    In summary, doing philosophy is a reflexive business in which the way we approach our inquiries is at least as important as the answers we might find. This is why we characterize it as asking timeless questions in a modern world.




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