Philosophy of Philosophy


A simple philosophical phriday this week, on the two senses of the word 'philosophy'. I actually wrote it last phriday friday, but couldn't think of a way to finish it.

There's the sense in that famous line from the film Videodrome: "It's dangerous, because it has something that you do not have. It has a philosophy". Which immediately prompts the question: "Whose philosophy?".

This is philosophy as in belief system, doctrine, body of knowledge, culture, and indeed way of life.

Then there's philosophy not as something one has, but as something one does. An activity, a practice, an undertaking. Indeed, there are people whose job description is 'philosopher', and we generally feel they're not doing their job properly if all they do is talk about the history of philosophy.

The result of philosophy in the second sense is presumably philosophy in the first sense, and there are plenty of other words like that. Cookery is both something you do, and something you have as a result of doing it. Science is both a method of studying the world, and the resultant collection of laws and observations.

But it seems to me there are two kinds of philosopher, corresponding to the two senses of philosophy. Those who are interesting for their method, and those who are interesting for their conclusions. And it's the first set who are more interesting.

The early Wittgenstein did not have a clear method, but he gave us a model of the way language relates (or doesn't relate) to the world. It's very elegant, but it's difficult to see what we can do with the model except admire it.

The later Wittgenstein thought there was no unified model to discover - there was only the cataloguing of the inconsistent ways words are used.

Hegel was quite explicit that his Compleat History of the Universe was the final discovery of mankind - leaving followers like Bradley and McTaggart with little to do but fill in the details.

Marx thought he'd found the hidden method at the heart of Hegel, to be applied in changing the political world - though he never got around to explaining what the method was.

Whatever you think of either, it's not difficult to see who had the greater impact, who's had the most enduring impact, and who's work is still being extended.

Spinoza and Libnitz were system builders. Descartes may be best known for his conclusions - including 'I think therefore I am' - but his method of radical doubt is much more interesting, and remains fruitful today.

If you want to know what it's like to be a subject in the world, read Martin Heidegger. If you want to know why it's like that, read Edmund Husserl.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred Ayer spent their lives trying out different approaches to questions like 'What is experience?' and 'Why does mathematics work?'. Even though most of their attempts ended in failure, the failures were instructive, and form the basis for further attempts.

Michel Foucault excavated forgotten history to find the political power structures hidden behind seemingly inexplicable cultural practices.

And so on. Perhaps it's just that the chase is more interesting than the catch, but thinkers who found answers are firmly part of the history of philosophy, whereas thinkers who contributed a method for finding answers, even if they lived centuries ago, still have something to say.

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