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Good Philosophy vs. Bad Philosophy

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Posted (edited)

Let's explore the difference between good philosophy and bad philosophy.

- What is good philosophy vs. What is bad philosophy

- What are the habits of good philosophy and the mindset of professional philsophers


Before distinguishing good from bad philosophy, it is important to define what philosophy is. This is unfortunate because that is itself controversial and there are many possible answers. It is difficult to give a clear, one-sentence definition.

Here is one that I personally like: Philosophy is the application of logic in order to answer fundamental questions about the world using primarily a priori methods.

Here's a short write-up from Florida State.

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.

Source: Wilfrid Sellars

Philosophy is the creation of concepts.

Source: Gilles Deleuze

While the quote, "Philosophy is the love of wisdom." has been repeated ad nauseum to the point of meaninglessness and pretention, defining wisdom in this context is useful.

Wisdom is perspective rather than bias. A person who loves wisdom, i.e. a person who engages in philosophy, is a person who seeks perspective, as opposed to illogical single-minded attachment to any particular conclusion.

What philosophy is not is helpful in defining what philosophy is.

1. Questions better answered by another field.

2. Woo.

e.g. Deepak Chopra. New age mysticism. Meditation. Self-improvement. Quantum mechanics. Tripping balls. Inspirational quotes overlayed on a nature wallpaper. etc.

While tripping balls is fun and may inspire a person to ask metaphysical questions, that is not philosophy, except in a very casual sense. Any 5 year old can ask surprisingly deep questions, but not everyone can engage in rational argumentation and draw upon philosophical tradition in order to answer those questions.

With that said, how can we engage in good philosophy and avoid bad philosophy?

Answering the following question will provide good answers to the previous question.

When people ask, "Where do I start if I want to learn about philosophy?" People have a tendency to provide a stack of reading materials, which is terrible advice, because it is likely that the individual will engage in bad philosophy unless they already have a knack for the habits of good philosophers.

Many people, including many intelligent professionals in other fields, see philosophy as nothing more than a semantic, obtuse, pretentious circlejerk of bullshit, name-dropping, and $20 words. This is because that is how those people engage in philosophy, or how they would engage in philosophy if forced to do so. Therefore, they imagine all people who do philosophy behave in such a way.

So the first step for this beginner is to learn the fundamentals.

If someone asked, "I want to design a skyscraper, where do I start?" You don't tell them to read a 1000 page book called Designing Skyscrapers when their math skills never made it past arithmetic.

If mathematics is to engineering, then what is to philosophy? What is: reading comprehension, writing skills, logic, social skills, attitude, and good habits.

I presume the importance of the first three are obvious. Why are social skills, attitude, and good habits important?

- The social aspect of philosophy is down-played, and casual observers of philosophy view the practice of philosophy as

(either that, or a circlejerk). Philosophy shouldn't be seen as a lone activity, it is more like a 3000 year long conversation. Engaging in philosophy as a loner is more likely to end in pseudo-philosophy territory.

Basic social skills are important in order to charitably interact with other students of philosophy and produce productive discourse.

- The core of philosophy is rational argument. Students of philosophy should always be concerned with arguments rather than conclusions. This prevents ego-attachment to -isms and taking criticism of a certain idea personally.

- Avoid "I think", "I believe", "I feel", "It seems that", "some people say", "you could argue" etc. as much as possible. It's easy to bullshit in philosophy with these phrases, at least with non-professionals + non-academics. These phrases are used when people (1) are ignorant about the topic (2) lack confidence (3) want to be humble.

Strong assertions should be made. This allows the body of writing or speech to convey a clear message, leading to productive discourse. Confidence, definitiveness, and assertiveness are not incompatible with humbleness. Additionally, people will not be distracted by inconfidence and will respect the conveyer more, even if the audience disagrees.

- Avoid "I" and "you" as much as possible. This keeps the discourse focused on the arguments rather than the people. Criticism is handled better from both sides in this situation, and the resulting discourse is logical and productive.

- Philosophy is not psychology or biography. Wondering how Nietzsche's life on a mountain informed his later works is irrelevant information as far as philosophy is concerned. It is pointless to ponder too much about what a philosopher "thinks" or "believes". The focus should be on the arguments. Kant is some guy, a human, like all of us. No big deal.

- Philosophy is not politics. A philosopher is not an -ism. Philosophers discuss the prescriptions and descriptions of political thought, but are not necessarily politicians or revolutionaries.

- Think ahead. This is accomplished by examining counter-arguments. Professionals are familiar with a chain of arguments and counter-arguments to a thesis. Formulating counter-arguments to one's own argument prevents ego-attachment to -isms, deepens understanding, and accelerates the conversation of philosophy.

- Good philosophy draws upon philosophical tradition (the ongoing conversation). In other words, being familiar with what has been argued. It is extremely unlikely that a complete amateur will formulate a novel idea while examing none of the tradition.

This is an exercise in time-wasting. This would be similar to formulating Newtonian mechanics, then screaming about your findings in 2015, when that has already been massively explored and extended upon by modern physics for the past three centuries.

- Don't worry about being or looking smart. Many young, curious kids are obsessed with appearing smart because they were raised poorly by their parents and the education system. When they approach a subject like philosophy, they immediately attach their egos to specific -isms the same way they choose shirt. It's all an exercise in fashion and showmanship. They will never learn anything about philosophy aside from petty arguing on the internet.

As for where someone curious about philosophy should start reading, there are many Introduction to Philosophy books that people recommend all the time, but it's better to start with basic logic and reasoning.

A Rulebook for Arguments. This is short, 100 pages. Someone wanting to learn philosophy has no excuse for not reading something short like this.

Rationality: From AI to Zombies. This is an exploration of rationality. Fascinating and anyone curious about learning philosophy will enjoy this.

When learning about cognitive bias and reasoning, the student should keep in mind the fallacy fallacy.

Edited by Michio
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To be frank I am not impressed with this OP. It seems less like an ideal introduction and more of a quickie grab bag of links with slapdash information. :whatever:

All you really had to do was post links to Hugo's Introducing Philosophy series and save yourself the time. Had you been a little more honest and earnest with your time and energy, you might have written a coherent piece that is both personal and illuminating.

As for your remark, that philosophy cannot define philosophy.... :doh:

Had you asked some of the others who are slightly more familiar with the subject, this thread might garner more than crickets so far, and this would've been my answer:

An alternative to the standard cookie-cutter history of philosophy, I present the subject as a “way of thinking” that investigates the Big Names as character studies and intellectual portraits.

This way of thinking shows the interaction between the individual thinker and his social/cultural millieu that produces a certain philosophical temperament, which results in a particular philosophy.

In this demonstration, there are as many ways of doing philosophy as there are philosophers, because the potential convergences between individual personalities and the culture is infinite.

E.g., Plato grew up during the Peloponnesian War, which meant he did not experience a world free from the fervor of warfare. That resulted in a rebellious distance from empirical reality and an idealistic bent to withdraw from the given. Plato became an adult during a charged time of cultures and empires, a growing cosmopolitan that stretched vision beyond the tribe and expanded awareness of the world as a cutthroat marketplace of gods and customs and opinions. This challenging perspective influenced the content and temperament of Plato's philosophy. That is why he sought to transcend the transient chaos of appearances to locate secure foundations in the single and good unity of being.

E.g., Aristotle's philosophy reflects his pupil Alexander's empire in which his logical and empirical investigations were made up of Alexander's ambitious campaigns, resulting in an empire of knowledge. Just like Alexander's limitless greed to conquer the world, Aristotle's temperament was an stubborn asceticism with dogged practice that constantly applied logical and moral abilities. Where the growing cosmopolitan or imperialism and warfare created a rationalistic aloofness in Plato, in Aristotle the same factors resulted in a rapacious empiricism that joyfully engaged with the world.

E.g., Nietzsche's temperament and method is related to the secular growth in education in the modern world, in which one of the chief characteristics of modernity is the impossibility of a complete education. Classical education was about inculcating the student in a mature conformity to a finished work. But in modernity, the world has crumbled due to dynamization, there can no longer be any finished world for the student to conform. Nietzsche, in rebellion against this situation, came up with an aesthetic weltanschauung that could function as a program for human elevation in the post-classical age, helping emphasize self-realization in the place of self-understanding. In order to pull this off, Nietzsche had to transvalue the texts and values of the educational system. This called for a temperament, a parodic genius that gleefully destroyed all traditional genres of discourse.

The endless cultural and personal and material factors in each thinker's particular situation, as well as the temperament and philosophical systems under question, leads to the obvious inference: any realtionship between the two is possible.

TL; DR: philosophy is best left to philosophers. :finger:

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Goethe once wrote that architecture is frozen music; if you replace ‘architecture’ with ‘philosophy’ and ‘music’ with ‘thought’, I’d say you have as good a definition of philosophy as any. But then again, I am not a true Scotsman. Er, a philosopher, I mean. What do I know? :heh:

(p.s. Thanks for the link to that fallacy site, :michio: )

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To be frank I am not impressed with this OP.

That's good. That means you're about to add something.

Had you been a little more honest and earnest with your time and energy, you might have written a coherent piece that is both personal and illuminating.

My intention was not to write anything groundbreaking nor personal, and I would have to spend more than a "little time".

I have read very little philosophy these past several months btw, hence the lack of references to Aristotle, Nietzsche, or otherwise. Most of my studies these days involve looking at code and fiddling with computers. Not too relevant here.

Had you asked some of the others who are slightly more familiar with the subject, this thread might garner more than crickets so far, and this would've been my answer:

I essentially posted a summary of various discussions that was had in various threads on the philosophy network on reddit. I should have added that, because you inferred strange things. Don't worry, those people are quite familiar (grad students + professors).

There is a strong sentiment that many people (at least there) get introduced to philosophy poorly, and there were a few professors who were particularly frustrated with undergrad papers, even after telling them what they needed to do.

The slapdash points summarized in the OP is intended to tackle the common person and give them a starting point to approach philosophy. The assumption is that this is a good thing--making learning philosophy more accessible to more people. More accessible in the sense of, spending their time more productively by understanding the arguments of the philosophy they read, better and more accurately. The context of the discussions were undergrad philosophy students, who, according to grad students and teachers, view philosophy as simply semantics and showmanship.

Not everyone is Aristotle or Nietzsche.

The good vs. bad distinction in good or bad philosophy garners a very strong negative reaction, but typically not from others "more familiar with the subject and more earnest". Then again, the reddit philosophy network is composed of current academics, which may have something to do with their attitude that there is clearly good philosophy and bad philosophy.

But interesting post heretic.

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I was trying to avoid a smattering of links to reddit, but I made this thread based on at least 30+ threads I read that dealt with this question of good vs. bad philosophy, good vs. bad students, or even good vs. bad philosophies in some form. No crickets here, but a torrent of discussion, even when the OP barely wrote anything, from both layman to people 'more familiar' with the subject.

Here are a few:

I was curious about what TGL would say, in particular what a student should do, or a completely average person should do when they approach philosophy.

I'll leave it at that. Again, interesting post heretic, but my sincerest apologies for not being impressive enough nor spending my time correctly. Mistakes happen. I'll stay on reddit from now on. :)

Happy 'murica day by the way!

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Fair enough. Thanks for the links and I'll try to check them out over the holidays.

Might even be arsed enough to post on good vs bad philosophy, but in a philosophical manner, instead. :mrgreen:

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Philosophy as blood sport.

You know what an implacable curmudgeon :trollfro: is, Michio, I wouldn't let it discourage you. I think you aren't getting any immediate replies not because of your post, but because this place has mostly become crickets. Unfortunately.

As for Happy 'Murica day, I prefer the "Fuck the Fourth" book sale at the anarchist Web site AK Press.

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