23 April 2011

Paragraphs to Ponder

From The Epicurean Dealmaker:
Arguing that society should fund university philosophy departments because they teach practical knowledge is disingenuous, at best. There's nothing remotely practical about philosophy. It is the most radical (from the Latin radix = "root") intellectual discipline of all, because it recognizes no limits to its subject matter and no limits to the depth or breadth of its analysis. Philosophy aims to discuss not only what we know, how we know it, and why our belief is justified (epistemology), but also the very nature of reality (ontology and metaphysics) and the justification for our actions toward each other (ethics), inter alia. Its tools are rigorous critical analysis, rational argument, and logic. It considers no subject off limits and no question or issue completely and permanently resolved.
This is a key point to understand: philosophy, as a discipline, does not provide answers. Notwithstanding the inference a naive reader might draw from Mr. Jones' discussion of physicians and detectives, there is no body of widely accepted answers to commonly encountered questions like reason for belief or standard of proof, such as might be found in a natural science, for example. Instead, almost every subsector of philosophy known is riven by multiple competing critiques, opinions, and worldviews, each carefully and exhaustively argued, which even professional philosophers cannot—and do not wish to—reconcile. Philosophy provides questions, plus the tools with which to try and answer them and persuade others to your point of view. As such, it can be rightly said that the proper effect of philosophy is to make people exquisitely alert to their assumptions, sensitive to the rigor of their analyses, and—truth be told—permanently uncomfortable about the validity of their conclusions. If anyone should realize that, an epistemologist should. If Professor Jones does not, perhaps he doesn't deserve to teach philosophy.
I shudder to think what a sensitive and intelligent criminologist, jurist, or physicist would take away from a rigorous course in the foundations of knowledge. If he or she has half a brain, they would be rendered permanently uncertain about the validity of their own day-to-day work. Frankly, this may not be such a bad thing. The most likely practical outcome from a non-philosopher taking one or more philosophy courses is the potential inculcation of healthy self-doubt and skepticism. Even if a student does not or cannot take each argument fully on board, the mere exposure to powerful, persuasive, contrasting points of view on multiple sides of a carefully defined issue can persuade the densest individual that life, knowledge, and "truth" are not the oh-so-simple constructs he or she may have been led to believe. At its most basic and abstract, philosophy teaches that no topic is off limits, that there are no simple or unchallengeable answers, and that there are only good questions. Among more sensitive and reflective souls, this can engender a lifelong skepticism of simplistic arguments, facile rhetoric, and conventional wisdom.
The rest is here.

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