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It's striking how many philosophers are judged not on their innovations but on their failures of innovation : not the ideas that they proposed, but the ideas that they failed to question when laying out the background of their proposals.


Quora Answer : How do I criticize a philosopher's work?

Nov 19, 2016

Well first the bad news.

"Criticising another philosopher's work" is what philosophy is all about.

So the techniques you need to learn to do it are ... er .. philosophy.

You won't be able to engage with this without being a philosopher.

So make sure you're prepared to become that. :-)

Then ... yeah, it's about looking for contradictions, inconsistencies and false premises.

So, sure ... just call that out. In any way that you can communicate those dissatisfactions.

Philosophy is REALLY freeform and open, stylistically. There are no limits on the form or format you use to call out the contradictions. For example, Plato wrote dialogues, like he was writing a play. If you want to write like that, you can.

Or you can write it like Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, as a carefully organized collection of numbered paragraphs.

Or like Kierkegaard you can pretend you just found some letters in an old chest-of-drawers you bought in a junk-shop. Or like Derrida and do it on post-cards. Or write it in a huge, dry academic sounding book ... like lots of philosophers.

Or invent something completely new. Philosophers are totally open to that.

The only constraint is that if you're going to call people out for being inconsistent and using false premises, you better make sure of three things :

  • your criticism is original. If it's just the SAME criticism that every philosopher learns in their first year at college, no-one's going to be interested
  • your criticism is sound. Don't go saying something is a "false premise" just because you don't like it, or "everyone you know" thinks it's wrong. You have to really show / make a case that it's false.
  • similarly, don't leave a lot inconsistencies or unjustified assumptions in your own writing. Most philosophy that got famous, even when it looks like some crazy, freeform ranting, is pretty tight. Nietzsche may just rant on like a lunatic. But when people unpicked and reformulated what he was saying in such a way they could follow his arguments, those arguments turned out to be hard to deny and quite insightful. That is why he's still respected today.

So why not try it on Quora. Put your criticism in the form of a Quora question. (Not "X is an idiot because Y. Who agrees?" But "What do you think of this argument against X?")

And see how people respond. Yes, we'll attack your argument. Because that's how it works ... you attack X, we counter attack you. But if your attack is good, we'll give it props. And people will resonate with it. If it isn't, at least you'll start to understand some of the flaws can start trying to tighten it up.

Quora Answer : What's so special about philosophers like Kant, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche?

Jan 10, 2017

So one thing is that you just tried to boil the entire philosophy of each of these three people down to a single sentence or so.

And then you proudly point to that sentence and say "well, that's not very profound, is it?"

Well, yeah. And if you squash the Mona Lisa into a 16x16 pixel icon :

"it's not all that great a painting" either.

Or consider this. Everyone knows that apples fall off trees. Why does everyone make such a fuss of Newton?

Answer ... Newton gave a systematic theory of how apples fall off trees. And showed that its the same principle that makes the stars fly around.

Nietzsche doesn't just assert "everything is meaningless"; he actually says he's NOT a nihilist, and gives you an entire framework to deal with the meaninglessness of things without falling into crude nihilism.

Wittgenstein doesn't just assert that words are problematic. He shows how many problems that you thought were other sorts of problems turn out to be word problems. And that cases where you thought that there couldn't possibly be word problems, there still are. And, ultimately, offers a general model of the slipperiness of words, which intersects almost every other aspect of thought.

Kant says a lot more than "what if everybody did that?". He tackles the deep problem of how we can connect our ideas up to the world as it "really" is and know anything at all about that world. He shows that you can't. But once again, his project isn't nihilism. It's to give you a framework within which to respond to that fact. He suggest how we still can debate and discover some "kind of" universal truth (a "transcendental" one) about the world even with this restriction. He then uses this framework to suggest what moral rules we can know via an understanding of what moral rules actually are.

So, sure ... try to reduce any thinker to a slogan you can fit on a T-shirt, and they'll become banal. That says more about the process of reduction than about the quality of the thinker.

And, of course, in this answer, I've expanded each of your examples to a short paragraph. That still doesn't do justice to any of them. It's like a Mona Lisa that's now 64x64 pixels :

Maybe enough to get more of an idea of what the picture is about. You can see that it's a human figure, and probably a woman. But still nowhere near enough to appreciate the brush-strokes, understand some of the stylistic moves that the artist has made, or to judge how well its executed or how it compares to its contemporaries or fits into the development of painting.

Quora Answer : What's the point of philosophy? Has it ever brought something tangibly useful to the world?

Jun 30, 2015

Does it need a "point"?

Why should it bring something useful to the world? Where does that obligation come from?

Start trying to answer these questions and I'm afraid you'll be DOING philosophy.

Now, you don't need to. You can opt out and decide to avoid philosophy by not trying to answer those questions. But then ... er ... what was your point again? That philosophy wasn't something else? Yes. It isn't. So what?

You see my point? The question about whether philosophy matters depends on what you think "mattering" means. And only philosophy can try to tell you what mattering might mean.

If you just make a bald assertion : "mattering means it makes money" or "mattering means it improves people's lives" all you're doing is making an unjustified, unsubstantiated philosophical claim.

Quora Answer : Why are there so few books or studies of the psychology of philosophy?

Sep 3, 2014

Philosophers tend to look down on psychology. They believe they are trying to understand thought as it could be in principle, and are not meant to get bogged down in thought as it is, constrained by the limited human brain. That's not entirely stupid, because it means they're working at a level of generality that can engage with thought in animals, angels and Artificial Intelligences for which human-brain constraints wouldn't be relevant.

Having said that :

Nietzsche was a significant philosopher who garners respect, largely through being willing to challenge that assumption that philosophy could be free of the base motivations of philosophers themselves.

In fact, Continental Philosophy has always taken Psychology seriously. Whether it's gestalt, Freudian Psychoanalysis or behaviourism. It takes sociology seriously too. (See someone like Foucault, at the interface of philosophy and social science.)

In the Analytic tradition, Cognitive Philosophy has engaged with the rise of Cognitive Science and Psychology and gets informed by it.

Quora Answer : What great philosophers have been forgotten?

May 6, 2017

Clearly they aren't forgotten, otherwise no-one would know who you're talking about. (I'm not 100% sure about Spencer myself, but I'm assuming Herbert).

One question, though, is why these people should be considered equally important to, say, Descartes and Nietzsche.

I think it's very clear that if you're telling a particular story about the history of philosophy, and how certain thinkers have pushed that history forward by changing how everyone understood philosophy itself, then Descartes and Nietzsche are incredibly important.

You can go so far as to say that Descartes and Nietzsche are the start and end of a particular narrative arc of modern philosophy. Descartes launches that arc by saying "We must put this philosophy thing on a proper footing. From now on, no more mere unwarranted speculation. Only ideas which can stand up to skeptical attack should be accepted." While Nietzsche brings the whole thing to a rather ignoble end by unleashing such a firestorm of skeptical attack on philosophy itself that he kills off that pretension for once and for all. (It just took another 100 years for news of that death to percolate through the philosophical world.)

Before Descartes, philosophers could speculate from all kinds of places. Descartes obliged them to follow a certain discipline. After Nietzsche, that discipline itself was discredited and philosophers were freed up to again speculate far more widely.

Now, I confess to not knowing enough of Carlyle, Spencer, and Cicero. But I'd be kind of surprised if they played such structurally significant roles in philosophical history.

That doesn't mean that they had nothing to say. But there are a lot of people who were very smart, very important in their own time, and highly admirable, who don't weigh so heavily at the grand scale and so are perhaps not so widely considered and lauded.

From Anaximander to Parmenides to Diogenes to Duns Scotus to Thomas More to George Berkeley to Meinong and Brentano to ... and this I think might be a good parallel : Bertrand Russel - phenomenally famous and popular in his time, now slipping into secondary importance - to J L Austin to Donald Davidson there are lots of "greats" who still don't count as the "mega-stars" of philosophy.

Probably one thing you can say about this is that metaphysics and epistemology are still the most valorized areas in philosophy. And people in those areas are the most likely to win acclaim. Whereas if you focus more on specifics like philosophy of science or politics or art or religion then you are, in some senses, more restricted. You can't say things that have such broad areas of application. You may drift away from philosophy altogether and just DO those fields (ie. become a scientist / lawyer / rhetorician / priest or artist)

Philosophy (love of knowledge for its own sake) is fundamentally at war with sophistry (love of knowledge for the practical benefits it brings). The more you slide towards the practical side, the less you can shine in philosophy in its purest sense.

Of course, there's an awful lot of fashion too. Sometimes obscure figures are recovered, reinterpreted and revalued. And suddenly seem incredibly important again.

You could say that current fashions have brought Heraclitus and Alfred North Whitehead into the spotlight. I guess it could happen with Spencer, Cicero or Carlyle too. In fact, I guess Carlyle is having a bit of a revival as part of our current alt.right populist moment. So perhaps everyone will be learning him again.

Quora Answer : Are philosophical questions really very poorly defined and even pigeonholing?

Jan 18, 2017

There people with different levels of competence in every area.

There are geniuses working in physics with great insight; and spectacularly clear thinking and ability to explain their thoughts.

There are people who've mastered physics sufficiently well to hold down a job in it. But do largely pedestrian work, guided by someone else in the lab.

There are people who learned physics at school and have a basic idea how the universe works and a respect for the enterprise of scientific research. But they don't actually use that knowledge or work in the area. And couldn't, even if they wanted to.

And then there are the guys on YouTube who are trying to sell you a perpetual motion machine and pepper their discussions with a lot technical sounding buzzwords to impress you and make themselves sound "scientific".

The same is true of philosophy. There are the geniuses who ask spectacularly profound and clear headed questions that cut deep into our ideas about how the world is and how to function in it.

There are academic professionals who can survive in the field but will be forgotten within a generation.

There are a few people who studied philosophy at school and have a serious layman's understanding and respect without actually participating.

And there are the bullshit artists.

There's also a fifth category in philosophy which doesn't really have an equivalent in physics : these are the "tricksters". Or "artists". The people who actually have good and serious intuitions about philosophical questions, but who express them in a playful and challenging way. They might come across as a bit crazy, but when you think about and disentangle what they say, it's actually profound.

So ... when it comes to philosophy ... how do you tell the bullshit artists from the tricksters? It's perhaps harder than with physics. Although not that much harder. Over time, the tricksters tend to win a certain amount of respect from their peers and from the academy and institutions. That's why Nietzsche may pretend to be a lunatic in some of his writings, but is now highly regarded.

So back to your question, are philosophical questions poorly defined? Well some are, and some aren't.

"What does x really mean?", despite being a cliché and the question that philosophers are stereotypically known for, is actually a really good and important question.

It is one of the fundamentals of philosophy. In the sense that philosophy is largely focused on teasing out exactly what certain things do mean, particularly in awkward edge-cases.

So what does it mean to be a "good person? Well, clearly not trying to harm other people is part of it. But what about the awkward edge case of five people being tied to a railway track with a runaway train coming at them at full speed?

Or what does it mean to "know" something? Well, what about my autonomous car which can find its way home with a GPS and Google Maps? But does it really "know where it lives"?


After that, the rest of your question just seems to go into an incoherent rant where you seem to be labelling any kind of speech that you don't like as "philosophy" so I'm not what else to say.

Quora Answer : What do you think ancient philosophers would think about the modern philosophical theories (i.e. nihilism, absurdism, anti-natalism etc.)?

Dec 23, 2017

I don't think they'd be fazed.

These are the people who came up with cynicism and stoicism etc. In many ways, things like nihilism and anti-natalism feel very similar to classical philosophy.

We had 1500 years in Europe when philosophy couldn't really reject the deep hold that Christianity had on the educated culture. Finally, in the late 18th century and 19th century, philosophers could break free of that constraint. And modern philosophical thinkers have regained the freedom to think outside that box. The first thing that they did, was go back and try to understand the classical philosophers on their own terms and not filtered through the attitude that they were proto-Christian theologians, the way that Christian philosophers tried to interpret Aristotle and Plato.

Nietzsche, for example, was a classical scholar, who spent a lot of his time trying to understand / put himself into a classical mindset when producing his responses to nihilism.

It seems to me that anti-natalism is exactly the kind of big, bold philosophical position that might arise in a moment of drunken self-pity and then get itself battle-hardened into a serious philosophy by endless argument on the streets of Athens.