The Value of Philosophy

A student pointed out to me Gary Gutting’s recent article for the NY Times philosophy column, “The Stone.”  Previous installments of “The Stone” have come under fire for what some professional philosophers regard as inaccurate claims and sloppy reasoning.  Gutting’s article addressed the question of what the point or purpose of philosophy is.  I think some of his observations are very helpful.  For example, philosophy helps us to “clarify what our basic beliefs mean or entail.”

Let me illustrate Gutting’s point with an example of my own.  In my intro to philosophy class, we discuss what makes an act of violence (like the 9/11 attacks) terrorism.  They usually zero in on the fact that terrorism is violence that targets innocent civilians.  Then I ask them to consider the US bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Those cities were chosen as targets in large part because they were untouched by previous bombing.  (Dropping an A-bomb on Tokyo wouldn’t show too much, because Tokyo, the center of the Japanese military and government, had already been destroyed by US bombing.)  Why had Hiroshima and Nagasaki been spared previous bombing?  Not out of humanitarian reasons.  They simply weren’t particularly valuable as military targets.  However, there were lots of civilians waiting to be killed (pardon the gruesome expression) in both cities, so they were “good” targets for the A-bombs.  The obvious question students have to wrestle with is whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were acts of terrorism because they targeted civilians.  If not, why not? And what implications does this have for whatever will be the next use of the US military force?  Hardly moot questions, I think.

But philosophers like to disagree, so I have some nits to pick with Gutting’s piece.  He castigates Descartes for trying to “provide a foundation for beliefs that need no foundation,” and praises Hume for “rejecting…the foundationalist conception of philosophy.”  Descartes is a foundationalist, but I think it is worth stressing that he does not ask us to entertain the possibility that a deceitful demon is tricking him into believing in an illusory world because he likes abstract philosophical puzzles.  Descartes lived in the aftermath of the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism, the furious debates between Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomers, as well as revolutionary changes in politics, the arts, etc.  He, like so many thinking people in his era, was unsure what the truth was.  It won’t do to say, “Tut, tut, Rene!  You hardly need a justification for the belief that you have a soul separate from your body.  Why bother to argue for it!  As if any of us doubted that.”  Well, people questioned the existence of the soul back then as they do now.  Descartes tried the method of radical doubt in order to see what, if anything, survived the process of doubt, hoping that he could find a firm foundation for knowledge.  Did he succeed?  Almost no one thinks so, but you won’t understand what he is doing unless you see why he is doing it.  In addition (although this is too much to go into here), many students and even professional philosophers who deny Descartes “thrice before the cock crows” accept many of Descartes’ basic presuppositions, whether they know it or not.

I’m also not happy with Gutting’s characterization of Hume as an anti-foundationalist.  Hume does have a famous response to skepticism in the Treatise, where he recommends  doing some everyday things (go for a walk, play some backgammon) until your skeptical concerns start to seem unreal and irrelevant.  However, Hume is ultimately as much of a foundationalist as Descartes.  Hume’s foundation, that which he thinks cannot be doubted, is immediate sensory experience.  The “impressions” of our senses are the basis of our “ideas” (the latter being merely faint copies of them), and all our mental content is derived from them.  Hume’s empiricism doesn’t succeed either.  But, once again, we need to see that he is a foundationalist, and recognize how latent empiricism lurks in the “common sense” of most college-educated people even today.

Of course, it is hard to write a brief editorial about philosophy and be precise.  Perhaps Gutting would have made all these qualifications and more if he had more space, or were directly addressing other philosophers.  (I sometimes simplify positions myself when trying to explain them to beginning students.)  And perhaps I really have misread Descartes and/or Hume myself.  But, as I sometimes tell my students, how will you know whether what you are saying makes sense or is defensible unless you discuss it with someone else?

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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