Is Philosophy Bunk?

Skyler: Aristotle and Plato both thought the most important people in a society were its philosophers.  Yet, the world largely moves on without them and their great conversation through the ages ever having much impact.

Philosophers didn’t give us refrigeration or the internal combustion engine — which each have done more to transform human existence than anything Hegel wrote.  Philosophers did give us the concept of the super man and racial purity and other dangerous ideas that caused millions to be uselessly murdered.

Perhaps we’d be better off with more “training” and less “educating” by your terms.  Right and wrong aren’t that hard to figure out, and we simply don’t need snobs sitting around pretending they know better than the rest of us what is obvious.  

I am, whether you think I am or not.  Descartes was a fool, but a fine mathematician.  His math has done more for mankind than his silly Meditation on First Philosophy ever will.  And I can study him without a brick classroom, though I’d rather not.

Yesterday, in a post entitled Online Training vs. Online Education, I drew a distinction between training and education, and I suggested that, while online courses might be adequate for the former, they were a poor substitute for personal contact in and outside the classroom. Saturdays at Ricochet are usually slow days, and I thought that my post would interest only a handful of members. But I was wrong. I stirred up a hornet’s nest — which suggests that it might be worthwhile to do another post on one aspect of the argument I stirred up.

I am not sure that Skyler’s comment, quoted above, fairly reflects what he would think and say when in a calmer mood, but it is a position shared by some in our number and more widely shared within the general public, and it deserves examination.

I will begin with a simple point. The contempt that Skyler expresses for Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Hegel in this comment reflects a remarkable ignorance concerning the history of science and the relationship between philosophy and science.

Put simply, science (ancient and modern) is a product of  “great conversation through the ages” that Skyler mentions. Modern science arises from Galileo’s suggestion, inspired by Plato, that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics; from Sir Francis Bacon’s insistence that, if we torture nature by way of experiments, we can make her reveal her secrets; and from Descartes’ bringing together of Galileo’s hypothesis and Bacon’s method. It also presupposes a shift in moral sensibility begun by Machiavelli, taken up by Bacon, and embraced by Descartes in his Discourse on Method – a shift in which human beings came to see their task as the conquest of nature, their end as the acquisition of power, and their purpose as the avoidance of pain, the prolongation of life, and the intensification of pleasure. It is this shift, initiated by the philosophers for whom Skyler has so much contempt, that led to the invention of refrigeration and the internal combustion engine.

We owe to this shift a great deal. Were it not for it and the work of those who signed onto the project designed by Bacon and Descartes, I myself would, for example, almost certainly by now be dead. But there is a price — which caused Plato and Aristotle to shy away from embracing the ethos of constant innovation — for it is the scientific project initiated by Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes that produced nuclear weapons and biological and chemical weapons. The ancient philosophers were not entirely foolish when they wondered whether human beings can be trusted with such power. The jury is still out.

If you want to explore these themes, take a look at the second volume of my Republics Ancient and Modern, where I discuss Machiavelli, Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes. I return to some of these themes in Against Throne and Altar and try to develop them more fully. It should suffice to say here that there were profound political ramifications. Resources had to be reallocated, and this would be accomplished, as Bacon foresaw, by the commercialization of society. He was a great defender in Parliament of the patent of monopoly, which was intended to encourage inventions by creating property in innovative ideas. When Skyler, in another comment, claims that the world we live in is based on science and engineering, he is only partially right. The importance we accord to science and engineering has its roots in a political decision inspired by a philosophical conviction.

Let me add that, when Skyler writes, “Philosophers did give us the concept of the super man and racial purity and other dangerous ideas that caused millions to be uselessly murdered,” he skirts past a problem. Racism — by which I mean not color prejudice but the conviction that there is a hierarchy of biologically distinct races here on earth — was not a product of the philosophers. It was espoused and propagated by the biologists and their admirers. Friedrich Nietzsche may have spoke of the ubermensch, but he was not a racist. There was, in the 1920s and the 1930s, hardly a scientist in the world who opposed the eugenics movement. What opposition there was came from outfits such as the Roman Catholic Church, which had embraced via Augustine and Aquinas the outlook of Plato and Aristotle. Training without education can be exceedingly dangerous.

  1. Sandy

    Thank you for this post.  I would just add that if one is not at least aware of the several-thousand-year conversation among the great minds and of their effect on events,  one cannot begin to understand the underpinnings of our problems.  It is easy to understand how this conversation can be ignored, because for better and worse, philosophers have  often  been hidden rulers, especially hidden from those not fortunate enough to have a good liberal education.    As for Nietzsche, yes, but it might have been better had he hidden himself. 

  2. david foster

    Michael Hammer, a renowned management consultant, argued persuasively that education for a future executive should include both a tough humanities program and a hard science…with it being unimportant for either of these courses of study to be directly relevant to his future field/industry. I summarized his thoughts here.

  3. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Sandy: Thank you for this post.  I would just add that if one is not at least aware of the several-thousand-year conversation among the great minds and of their effect on events,  one cannot begin to understand the underpinnings of our problems.  It is easy to understand how this conversation can be ignored, because for better and worse, philosophers have  often  been hidden rulers, especially hidden from those not fortunate enough to have a good liberal education.    As for Nietzsche, yes, but it might have been better had he hidden himself.  · 5 minutes ago

    Indeed.

  4. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    david foster: Michael Hammer, a renowned management consultant, argued persuasively that education for a future executive should include both a tough humanities program and a hard science…with it being unimportant for either of these courses of study to be directly relevant to his future field/industry. I summarized his thoughts here. · 2 minutes ago

    The same can, I think, be said for the officer corps of our military.

  5. mesquito

    The most useful and interesting course I took during my largely squandered college years was one, especially designed for liberal arts nitwits like myself, called History and Philosophy of Science.  We started  with the Greeks and went right on up.  We also read Kuhn, after which I was seeing goddam paradigms everywhere.

    I haven’t quite given up on phlogiston.

  6. Cornelius Julius Sebastian

    Contemporary philosophy seems hopelessly mired in an endless subjective regress of “thinking about thinking about thinking” as I’ve heard it phrased.  Classical, Catholic and some Enlightnment philosophy definitely have great practical value and should be studied by anyone wanting to fully appreciate this thing we are in called life.

  7. SMatthewStolte
    Paul A. Rahe

    … But there is a price — which caused Plato and Aristotle to shy away from embracing the ethos of constant innovation — for it is the scientific project initiated by Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes that produced nuclear weapons and biological and chemical weapons. The ancient philosophers were not entirely foolish when they wondered whether human beings can be trusted with such power. The jury is still out.

    It sounds like you are saying that Plato and Aristotle were against scientific innovation because they doubted human beings could be trusted with such power. (One could get that impression from your post.) But that can’t be right. Aristotle’s physics wouldn’t seem to allow for the manipulation of nature on anything imitating the scale of modern science (especially in biology). And even though Plato played a historical role in the development of the science of nature, Plato himself seems to have believed a science of nature wasn’t possible. Given these beliefs they needn’t have bothered asking the ethical question, and as far as I know, they didn’t. 

  8. SMatthewStolte
    Cornelius Julius Sebastian: Contemporary philosophy seems hopelessly mired in an endless subjective regress of “thinking about thinking about thinking” as I’ve heard it phrased.  Classical, Catholic and some Enlightnment philosophy definitely have great practical value and should be studied by anyone wanting to fully appreciate this thing we are in called life. · 4 minutes ago

    I would wager that if you looked around a little, you’d find a number of good, contemporary philosophers writing about questions of great practical value. 

  9. The Mugwump

    Modernity is is the product of both philosophy and science.  Absent either one we would be living in a vastly different world.  Additional mention should be made of Locke, Smith, Montesquieu, and America’s own Founding Fathers (to name just a few).  Where would we be technologically and commercially without the concepts of capitalism and property rights?  And what of personal liberty?  Refrigeration and automobiles exist because someone had the freedom to pursue their inventions free of government authority.  Philosophy provides the pedestal upon which ideas are free to manifest as inventions, products, services, technologies, and systems.  Science without philosophy can create monsters.  But without philosophy science wouldn’t exist.  We would be living in the bad old days when god-kings called the shots based on a claim of divine authority.  We would be ruled by ignorance and superstition.              

  10. Reckless Endangerment
    ~Paules: We would be ruled by ignorance and superstition.               · in 0 minutes

    Please tell that to Joe Biden and his mythical chains

  11. Herkybird

    Philosophy begins with three fundamental questions: What kind of beings are we?  How is it that we come to know anything?  What is the proper kind of life for beings such as ourselves?  The record suggests that humans have been reflecting on  these questions for thousands of years.

    We flatter ourselves that moderns discovered science. But the Ionian Greeks, in a time before Socrates, were already arguing as to whether natural phenomena could best be explained by natural causes rather than divine intervention.  

    Heraclitus, for example, argued that the cosmos was ever-changing in a manner we still embrace today.  Parmenides argued for a steady-state universe as did the modern astronomer Fred Hoyle.

    It is arrogant to assume that the thinkers of the past have nothing to teach us, or their ideas no longer speak to our own times.  But that logical fallacy was bequeathed to us by Bacon and the Enlightenment thinkers who convinced us that the ideas of the past were as the thoughts of children, while our own ideas, because they were new, were superior.  Yet as Newton said, “If I have seen father it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” 

  12. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    SMatthewStolte

    Paul A. Rahe

    … But there is a price — which caused Plato and Aristotle to shy away from embracing the ethos of constant innovation . . .

    It sounds like you are saying that Plato and Aristotle were against scientific innovation because they doubted human beings could be trusted with such power. (One could get that impression from your post.) But that can’t be right. Aristotle’s physics wouldn’t seem to allow for the manipulation of nature on anything imitating the scale of modern science (especially in biology). And even though Plato played a historical role in the development of the science of nature, Plato himself seems to have believed a science of nature wasn’t possible. Given these beliefs they needn’t have bothered asking the ethical question, and as far as I know, they didn’t.  · 26 minutes ago

    Aristotle’s Physics may be subordinate to his Politics, where he considers the question whether the encouragement of innovations that promise improvement is not dangerous. Plato’s account of nature may also be subordinate to his politics. Consider the teaching implicit in his account of Atlantis.

  13. Donald Todd

    Having just read a justification of the use of the atom bombs on Japan to bring about the end of WWII, I would offer that both moral and scientific development come into play.  We can’t avoid that consideration.

    Confucius noted that it is upon the trunk that the gentleman builds.  

    Another Person asked us “What good will it be for a man if he gains the entire world and loses his soul?”

    If we don’t develop the moral virtues, we won’t know when and how to properly use the scientific and technological developments.  The Nazis are an obvious display of gaining the world (scientific and technical development) and of losing the soul (of a whole nation).

  14. Skyler
    Since I’m the catalyst for this post, I’ll take my lumps as appropriate and refrain from extended comment. I’ll just clarify that philosophy is vitally important.  Philosophers generally are not. 

    There is some (disputed) evidence that the Basques were fishing off the coast of North America for Cod and had fishing camps there hundreds of years before Columbus made it official for Europe to have found the New World.  Likewise, philosophers may innovate, but I suspect they tend to reflect the ideas of their culture more than they would care to admit.  

  15. Clavius
    Skyler:  I’ll just clarify that philosophy is vitally important.  Philosophers generally are not. 

    How can one have philosophy without philosophers?  Individuals making conceptual breakthroughs — either in science or philosophy — are the core of progress.

    Throughout history, progress has been the progression of ideas.  Often driven by individuals going outside of the accepted, cultural standard.

    I think the individual is critical and therefore the philosopher is critical.

    Would you also say that science is vitally important but scientists are not? 

  16. Edward Smith

    Those philosophers may well be considered obscure and old fashioned by Modern Philosophers, who, I suspect are better funded that they realize or deserve to be, and are more obscure than they realize.

    SMatthewStolte

    Cornelius Julius Sebastian: Contemporary philosophy seems hopelessly mired in an endless subjective regress of “thinking about thinking about thinking” as I’ve heard it phrased.  Classical, Catholic and some Enlightnment philosophy definitely have great practical value and should be studied by anyone wanting to fully appreciate this thing we are in called life. · 4 minutes ago

    I would wager that if you looked around a little, you’d find a number of good, contemporary philosophers writing about questions of great practical value.  · 25 minutes ago

  17. Dramman
    Skyler:   Likewise, philosophers may innovate, but I suspect they tend to reflect the ideas of their culture more than they would care to admit.   · in 0 minutes

    Isn’t that the point? To crystalize the thinking of a time and place, or culture if you will. The crystalization may not be attractive, however it is there.

  18. Edward Smith

    The truth be told, without Philosophy – and Religion, we are emptier than we are comfortable with.

    Physically, existence without Family is Desperation.  Spiritually, without Philosophy and Religion, it is much the same.

    That said, don’t let your Philosophy make Life, which is Complex, unnecessarily Complicated, or, God forbid, Rococo.

  19. KC Mulville

    There is a distinction between philosophy itself, versus and how it’s taught in the current education industry. Is it the kind of subject that can be taught online?

    I’d say no. Philosophy matters most when it challenges your assumptions. Most people don’t like to have their assumptions challenged, and they avoid it when possible. In a classroom, much like a courtroom, your beliefs are challenged. That’s the essence of critical thinking. Given that, an actual classroom is a better place for that than going online. 

    I’m not sure you can honestly improve your critical thinking skills online, unless you’re involved in a real conversation with a real person. 

  20. Gödel

    First, for an excellent read on the history of science, and therefore the history of the relationship between philosophy and science (which, after all, used to be called “natural philosophy,”) I highly recommend The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.

    With respect to the applicability of philosophy, my own prejudices lean heavily in favor of analytic philosophy, with exemplars from that field including Alvin Plantinga and the regrettably late John L. Pollock.