Philosophy that “Tries to Get You to See Something”


At the beginning of his interviews of philosophers, Richard Marshall asks his subjects, “What made you become a philosopher?”

[Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”]

Part of the answer Claire Kirwin (Clemson University), who completed the BPhil and MMathPhil at the University of Oxford before going on to get her PhD at the University of Chicago, gives has to do with her learning that philosophy “could attempt to do something like what art tries to do.” She says:

Philosophy at Oxford was primarily what is called ‘analytic’ philosophy, and I found it at first kind of frustrating. It seemed like philosophers were trying to do maths—trying to create proofs for theorems, or something like it—but with the wrong tools. In maths, a symbol used in a proof always has a clear and well-defined meaning; we make sure of that before we begin. But the concepts we use in philosophy aren’t like that. They’re borrowed from everyday life, and as a result they’re much more slippery and amorphous than mathematical terms. In everyday life, words are used for jokes and metaphors and instructions as well as for assertions, and their meaning shifts and changes from context to context. And so these borrowed words—‘freedom’, ‘good’, ‘real’, ‘existence’, ‘value’, ‘property’, ‘meaning’—did not seem to me suitable for the sort of quasi-mathematical manipulation that philosophers were seeking to do with them. The idea was presumably that with enough clarifications and distinctions, we’d manage to whittle the words down into well-defined units, appropriate building blocks for a proof. This struck me as misguided in a couple of ways. First, I was doubtful that these slippery creatures could really be made to work like that. But second, it seemed to me that if we succeeded in such an attempt, we would in doing so have whittled all the life out of the very things we were interested in. Concepts like ‘good’, or ‘freedom’, seemed to me important in part because of the way they point  beyond our current understanding, beyond our attempts to define, towards real things, things that matter. And it was the stuff that mattered that I wanted to try to talk about, even if I wasn’t able, just then, to say clearly what exactly any of it was. 

The vague desire to talk about ‘stuff that mattered’ led me towards so-called ‘Continental’ philosophy. I wanted to read Nietzsche, because Nietzsche sounded cool, and I thought I could do some good all-black outfits to accompany my reading. I found him to be an intriguing and provocative interlocutor—irreverent, darkly comic, cuttingly insightful. It soon became clear to me, however, that some really interesting parts of Nietzsche’s thought were engaged with parts of the history of philosophy about which I had no knowledge. Schopenhauer was a crucial early influence on Nietzsche, for instance, and Schopenhauer’s philosophy is grounded on ideas he finds in “the divine Plato” and “the marvelous Kant”. So I worked my way backwards, reading Kant and eventually Plato.

I found Plato rather frustrating at first—or perhaps I should say it was Socrates I was reacting to: so irritating, with his smug manner and his little arguments that weren’t very good! ‘Isn’t this how it is with horses? And so mustn’t it be the same with humans too?’ No! And then a few pages later, he’d tell off an interlocutor for making just the same kind of mistake! Eventually, I realized that I was supposed to be getting wound up, and that something about Plato’s writing was genuinely succeeding at making me think. And just as I had wanted to move beyond philosophy as quasi-mathematical manipulation of linguistic objects, to try to think about ‘stuff that mattered’, I felt that Plato—perhaps striving beyond the Socratic fascination with definition—was trying to talk about, or anyway to point towards, the real things themselves. 

Both Plato and Nietzsche are deeply interested in the power—and the danger—of myth-making, of art, of stories, of literature, of metaphors. This is at least part of the explanation for the distinctive styles and modes of writing that each has chosen.

And reading these two authors, I started to get a sense of an alternate picture for what philosophy could be. Philosophy, I started to think, doesn’t need to take maths as its model. Rather, perhaps, it could attempt to do something like what art tries to do. And what is that? Well, something like this: art, and philosophy that follows in the footsteps of art, tries to get you to see something. Perhaps it is even just something that was already right in front of you, but that you missed, somehow. And with this sort of picture of philosophy in view, I started to think that perhaps I might like to try to be a philosopher.

The whole interview, which covers Professor Kirwin’s work on value, is here.

There are multiple ways to view philosophy’s value, and when a philosopher tells us about one of them, it’s an opportunity to see what one can learn or appreciate or recall from that perspective. So what philosophy or philosopher has gotten you to “see something” that might have been hard to see, or something that was “right in front of you, but that you missed, somehow”, and—be it big or small, familiar or novel, personal or objective, discouraging or hopeful, important or amusing—what was it?

 

 

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Andrew Mills
11 months ago

I recall being taught as an undergraduate Sartre’s view about how human beings are the source of “nothingness” in the world, and I still find that idea incredibly powerful, and helpful as I continue to think, and help my students think about, the ways in which human beings construct the world we inhabit. I draw a line between Sartre’s view of the human source of nothingness to the social construction of reality and, in particular, race, for my students. It helps them (and me) see the ways in which race is socially constructed, and for that I am indebted to contemporary philosophers of race. Mills (no relation), Appiah, Zack, and others.Report

Patrick Lin
11 months ago

To be fair, analytic philosophy also gets you to “see something”, especially how slippery some key concepts are that we take for granted in everyday life, and this is valuable.

Besides the concepts mentioned in the interview (i.e., good, real, existence, meaning, etc.), there’s also: justice, God, free will, personal identity, mind, consciousness, knowledge, and so on. Are these not “stuff that matters”?Report

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Patrick Lin
11 months ago

Yes, for what it’s worth, as someone who does only what people would typically call “analytic” philosophy, I’ve never taken math as my model, and I would describe not just everything I do but everything that I’ve found valuable in “analytic” philosophy as doing exactly what art does when art helps us “see something.”

So, to answer the original question: all philosophy helps me see something! The stuff I agree with helps me see the thesis of the work, and the stuff I disagree with helps me see what’s wrong with the thesis of the work, everything helps me see various aspects of the issue whether or not I agree with the thesis, etc. Rawls helps me see things about justice. Korsgaard helps me see things about morality. Etc. If I wanted to be ungenerous, I could say this only about good works of philosophy, but I tend to find even bad stuff helps me see something. I don’t even know how to describe what I get from philosophy without saying it helps me see what it is that I get from it!

In this way I find philosophy more illuminating than art. Some art leaves me entirely unmoved one direction or another. Philosophy is rarely like that. I imagine there are lots of people who are the opposite” most art moves them one way or another, and much philosophy leaves them entirely cold.

To get back to your point, Patrick, I do think there are “analytic” philosophers who (falsely) conceive of themselves and of the project of philosophy as whittling down thick concepts to something thin enough to do math with, rather than helping us see things. But these philosophers misconceive what philosophy is up to.

And, while we’re at it, I think there are “Continental” philosophers (falsely) conceive of themselves and of the project of philosophy as granting insights of the sort that art does when in fact they’re just coming up with ways of obscuring the things that would typically prevent someone from seeing things this way. And this is to the detriment of insight, because sometimes our failure to see things the way someone urges us to see them is because that thing just isn’t that way, and when someone tries to get us to see it that way they’re trying to hoodwink us.

I’m not sure any of this disagrees with Kirwin (especially Kirwin broadly speaking, rather than just the point in the excerpt). It’s just another way of putting it, one which I think is more ecumenical or at least more charitable to “analytic” philosophy.

(I also think “analytic” philosophers can be guilty of the error I described above that is sometimes made by “Continental” philosophers – 80% of Bernard Williams’s oeuvre seems to me to be this – and vice versa.)Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
11 months ago

I think I’d agree with all that, Daniel…except the last bit about B. Williams!

He’s one of the kindest (and sharpest) philosophers I’ve ever met, and I can’t imagine that he would try to hoodwink anyone. But, yes, he’s not the prototypical analytic philosopher, and that’s a good thing.Report

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Patrick Lin
11 months ago

Just to be clear, the hoodwinking is done on oneself and not just others. I don’t think there are any philosophical charlatans! Just people drinking their own Kool-Aid. Certainly neither Williams nor any of the “Continental” people who go astray are actively trying to mislead others, any more than they’re trying to mislead themselves.Report

Last edited 11 months ago by Daniel Weltman
BSR
BSR
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
11 months ago

How does one distinguish the seeming self-certainty in this claim (‘…because that thing just isn’t that way…’) from the philosophical posture of the ‘Continental’ philosophers it is criticizing?Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
Reply to  Patrick Lin
11 months ago

Patrick Lin, to your final question:

(1) the first concept mentioned in the pull quote above is “freedom.”
(2) there’s an implicit “etc” in her list, surely — your words are “borrowed from everyday life” and just as “slippery and amorphous” as the ones she mentions.Report

Wajid
11 months ago

Existentialist Philosophy has taught me to see how “to be” and “not to be” both exist. In fact, I can argue the opposite to the thesis of professor Kirwin. I return back to the Pyrrhonian and assess the negligible progress that philosophy has made. I have seen only wonder. Why do we not give up on this activity which gives us false hope of seeing reality through its entirety while at the same time we have tested its limited potential? What it tries to show us? A dialectic of rationality and irrationality? Does it even considered that both these Poles are not appealing to our aspirations? An infinite world with an infinite human life? A finite life with an infinite world?
Philosophy has put me in great despair.Report

V. Alan White
Reply to  Wajid
11 months ago

I have to say that philosophy has always given me hope; it’s the PBS News Hour that puts me in great despair.Report

Om Mishra
11 months ago

First of all, I am a student of biological sciences, neurochemistry, neuropharmacology, brain functions and a variety of brain receptors. It means I have not studied philosophy as a curriculum.
From life experiences I know that you need philosophy to live and specially after you loose a dear one. There is nothing in this world that can console you once you had lost your brother/ sister or your son/daughter. Philosophy is a balm that one need at these points in time. Talking of reality — reality is just your own perceived reality. There is no true reality.
These are my two cents!
Thanks,
*30+ years as a university faculty.Report

Nope
Nope
Reply to  Om Mishra
11 months ago

“It means I have not studied philosophy as a curriculum. … Talking of reality — reality is just your own perceived reality. There is no true reality.”

*raised-eyebrow emoji*Report

Last edited 11 months ago by Nope
Robert W Schweitzer
11 months ago

Robert Persig taught me to see and to seek QualityReport

bike maintainer
bike maintainer
Reply to  Robert W Schweitzer
11 months ago

Persig … that is a name you do not hear often … at least not these days.Report

Marc Dilorenzo
11 months ago

I started getting into philosophy because I like thinking about why occurence of substance needs a connection for the occurence to happen. Like humans occured in existence because of an unknown force of greater qualities. The human existence is a tiny speck of the uknown force.Report