Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.
Good question Zummy, and it strikes very close to the heart of the broad project that is Philosophy Bro. Why does philosophy matter? Does it make a difference to the lives of individuals? It's also a pretty fucking important question - indeed, urgent - in light of the ongoing battles in a practical sense over funding philosophy. For example, not long ago the Nevada state government proposed cutting the entire philosophy department at UNLV - if philosophy is useless, or largely complete, why bother?
Stephen Hawking has attacked philosophy from a different direction - he has expressed the opinion that philosophers like to sit around and argue with each other, but that it has little practical value, and scientists who ignore philosophers are making headway nonetheless. "Yeah, philosophy was once useful. Karl Popper? Falsifiability? Quine on holism? Important as shit. But who gives a shit over whether everything is made of properties or sets? Why does it matter if possible worlds are propositions or concrete objects, or whether there's a completely inaccessible world behind our perceptions? We've got better things to worry about. While you guys are busy arguing over whether there's a soul or not, we're inventing fusion reactors and curing cancer, bitches."
I don't think that's an unfair criticism of some philosophy, to be perfectly honest. I once heard a philosophy student tell a physicist that it's impossible to conclusively prove anything, and the physicist went, "So the fuck what? First you said we can't know truth. Fine, so we went with certainty. Then you said we can't have absolute certainty. So we said 'Fine. We conclusively know that this theory is truer than that one.' Now you want conclusive too? Whatever, bro, just give me a word I can slap on the progress we're making, so we can go back to unraveling the universe. I'll name it after your grandma if that's what you want, as long as you leave me alone." Hawking's point is this: we can now pinpoint someone's location using satellites we put in space that know to correct for Relativitistic effects, and the shit works. Who cares whether relativity is true or explainable?
Back in the day, we still had some important questions to answer - how do we know things? Aristotle said something like "we know x if x is true, we believe x is true, and and we have good reason to believe x is true." We accepted that for literally thousands of years. Then a bro named Edmund Gettier came along and blew all that shit up with one three page paper, and since then philosophers have scrambled to come up with an account for how we know things. But it's not like people are standing around paralyzed like, "SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME HOW I KNOW THINGS SO I CAN GET BACK TO MY LIFE!" They just... act like they know shit.
We used to wonder how governments could be legitimate - there are a couple opinions out there, but some bros have proposed different social contract models; Locke even helped lay the groundwork for the American Constitution. Rawls pushed us toward what he sees as more just governments. But while philosophers are arguing about how exactly social contracts work, it's not like governments are grinding to a halt with bated breath, waiting for an answer as to exactly how people participate, or should participate, or can participate. They hold elections and go about their business. If they're shutting down, it's for significantly different reasons. So it seems like contemporary philosophers have become caught up in nitpicking, while the world moves on.
Even some philosophers have felt this way. The Philosophical Investigations, certainly one of the most challenging works of philosophy in the twentieth century, seems to be telling us to get over ourselves and get the fuck on with our lives. How do we know what words mean or how we know things? It doesn't fucking matter - in fact, they're bad questions. We have to start from somewhere, and a philosophy that tries to undermine everything gets us nowhere. Question how language works all you want, but people are going to keep speaking. Investigate the nature of pain all you like, but we all know what it's like to hurt. Richard Rorty, a philosopher who eventually left philosophy to teach the humanities at-large, constructed a society in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that doesn't even have a notion of souls, but still believes in the afterlife and functions just fine - in fact, we would be able to communicate with them quite easily, even though they seem to be strict physicalists. His point is, even beliefs about things like religion and morality don't depend one fucking bit on which "metaphysics" we endorse.
For some reason, whenever a reporter asks a philosopher about Hawking's criticism, they always find some charismatic jackoff who is willing to jettison large portions of philosophy and defend only the obviously useful stuff. Does philosophy have an answer to all of this, or are we just a big giant fucking circlejerk at this point? Is the outlook of philosophy as bleak as this? Do philosophers have a role to play?
Look, maybe I'm a bit biased, but I'd say fuck yes we do important shit. Just because it looks like we work on fringe cases doesn't mean what we do isn't important. Consider the problem of psychopathy - there are bros in society who seem incapable of remorse for crimes, who will definitely commit crimes again given the chance, and it looks like they're born that way. Should we lock them up for life? What if they haven't done anything wrong, they just have a predisposition? Should we watch them closely? This is a problem law-makers deal with every single day. Is it fair that these bros can't help it, through no fault of their own, and we want to lock them up forever? Sure, perhaps lawmakers aren't sitting around waiting for us to come up with an answer, and we have a framework for punishments for 99% of lawbreakers. But these one percent of cases are fucking tricky, bro, and we're playing with people's lives. Philosophy of law matters.
What about treaties? Once (if) Egypt gets a stable democracy, are they bound by a treaty with the US and Israel? If not, do Israel and the US still have obligations to each other? Political philosophy matters.
How should we treat the mentally ill? Well that depends on what exactly 'the mental' is. Is the mind just the brain, or does it 'emerge' in some relevant way? Philosophy of mind matters.
Peter van Inwagen advanced the thesis that there really is no such thing as 'chairs' or 'tables' or, really, anything except 'atomic' particles arranged in certain ways and living beings, which do exist. "Yeah, but I'm still sitting and reading on a non-living computer. How could that matter?" Except it has really important things to say about our identity as physical beings and whether destroying our bodies and putting them back together is okay, whether that will affect us as persons. Even metaphysics matters. If someone commits a bunch of crime, gets amnesia, and starts a whole new life where he's not a huge dick, can we fairly punish him? Is he the 'same person' who committed the crime?
Kripke has argued that, since eggs split in the womb to make twins, even after conception you could have been you, you could have been you and your twin, or you could have been your twin - when does personal identity start? But that argument works way better on a Plantingan conception of modality than a Lewisian model - so even shit like modal metaphysics matters.
But, I think, more importantly: people are going to do philosophy one way or another. When a politician argues that a bill unfairly impinges on our freedoms, he's doing philosophy. When someone expresses a belief in God, she's doing philosophy. If we stop teaching people how philosophy is done, we're not going to get less philosophy, we're going to get shitty philosophy, which leads to shitty, incoherent policies. And the argument that contemporary philosophy works on 'useless fringe cases', that we have enough groundwork to function just fine from day-to-day, isn't very convincing - sometimes, fringe cases are important as fuck.
Here's an analogy to physics: back in the 1900s, Lord Kelvin, a big fucking deal in physics, said "Look, physics is almost done, kids. Really, there are only two problems left - how light works, and how the atom works. Once we solve those, it'll be done. And we're real fucking close. So don't bother with physics - study something else." Except those two problems gave birth to General Relativity and quantum mechanics respectively - they turned out to be real tough problems which have opened up a shitton of avenues of research.
After he published the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein thought he'd solved all of philosophy and went off and taught kindergarten. In his spare time, he gardened. Yeah, he was that fucking sure. Eventually, though, he realized some things about language, so he went back revolutionized (again, the asshole) the way we did philosophy, the way we thought about language - and it was all because someone asked him about the meaning of an obscene gesture. That's pretty much as fringe as they come, isn't it? "What does 'fuck you' mean?" is the question that spawned maybe the greatest single collection of ideas in a century. We never know when the next big breakthrough is coming - John Rawls came out of nowhere to argue about what justice is, and he influenced generations of thinking about equality and justice.
So, in Hellenic society, they were working out some pretty fundamental questions, so fundamental that there are plenty of areas of philosophy still split into Platonic and Aristotelian camps. Yeah, they did important shit. And bros like Hume and Popper and Quine revolutionized how we did science; bros like Locke and Kant and Mill revolutionized how we thought about morality and government. And all of these revolutions influenced how people interacted, what governments did, and so on. Now w're working on more specific shit, but "fringe cases" aren't always small cases - sometimes they can lead to even bigger revolutions than what preceded them.
Besides, how people think, even when it's not obviously applicable, affects how they act and what they support - Heidegger's radical ontology, which seems pretty obscure, led him to lend his support to the Nazi party (Godwin's Law! I know, I know); so even fights about what existence means have had historical impact.
Not all philosophy is as useful as the examples I've given, but that's not the point. People have questions, and just because they can't test answers doesn't mean they don't want answers. Philosophy will continue to inform decision makers and ordinary people on a whole range of questions, some more important than others, but all of which have assumptions that must be challenged. That's why I advocate learning philosophy as a set of methods before learning it as a history - asking the right questions is as important as knowing what has already been asked.
If you're interested in some of the philosophical underpinnings of post-modernism, or critiques of philosophy as practiced, pick up Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which doesn't get read enough in departments anymore.
Seriously, if you want to take your game to the next level, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations are really important. It's where he repudiates much of the attitude that spawned his own Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.