"Philosophies of"

For philosophy beginners from other fields

Jan Dejnoka

June 9, 2015

All rights reserved

I agree with traditional philosophy of education that everyone should take a course in the philosophy of her field. Mathematicians should take a course in philosophy of mathematics, scientists in philosophy of science, and so on. Such courses are not in the field in question, but in philosophy. They will not help you become a better mathematician or scientist, except perhaps, I would expect for the most part, in deep and indirect conceptual ways. But they will help you have a deeper understanding of your field, since they are about the intellectual foundations of your field. You can do mathematics or science probably just as well without them, but your understanding of your field will be shallow and limited. However deep you may be within your field, as long as you remain within it you will be a mere mathematician or mere scientist, and philosophy will be lying underneath your work as the quest for the deepest grounds of our understanding, or to flip it around, will be above your work as the quest for first principles or the highest reasons for things. Philosophy is the art of arts, the science of sciences, the queen of the sciences, and the mistress of every art and science. This is in the sense of being the study of what they are, which, so to speak, they cannot tell you themselves. You cannot perform a scientific experiment to prove what science is. You cannot give a mathematical proof of the nature of mathematics. At best, such efforts would only beg the question. They would presuppose that you already know what a scientific experiment is or what a mathematical proof is. But like all philosophy, the philosophy of a non-philosophical field is always perfectible and cannot be expected to give definitive answers, except perhaps very occasionally, and usually a negative answer that something is definitely wrong with a certain theory. To paraphrase Gustav Bergmann, philosophy is the graveyard of refuted theories. Of course, some theories are "perennially refuted," meaning that they somehow keep surviving all the criticisms of them, perhaps because the initial intuitions in their favor are so strong and can seem evidentially convincing taken by themselves; or perhaps their survival is less than purely rational, and is more a matter of what we wish to believe. The theory of free will and moral responsibility, and of our existence as agent selves who act freely and responsibly, and sometimes based on our carefully reasoned choices, is a good example. The theory does not fit well with rational science or with causal determinism, or for that matter with causal indeterminism in the sense of genuinely random events. Or does it?[1]

The next index page section includes two papers in philosophy of mathematics, two in philosophy of science, and three in philosophy of language. I have labeled them as such to make them easier to find for beginners.[2] The usual advice to beginners is that if there is anything you don't understand, don't stop to figure it out. Just keep on reading. Otherwise you probably won't get through. Also, things often become clearer later in a work, or on a second reading. I'm not sure how much different that is from any other field. The advice is especially important here because these are not really papers for beginners. The philosophy of mathematics papers are probably the easiest because they presuppose the least background, that is, are the most self-explanatory. Of course, reading a couple of papers is no substitute for taking a course. And such courses are generally taught on the understanding that many of the students are coming over from mathematics or the sciences because they want to know more about their fields, and have never taken philosophy before. In fact, when I taught philosophy of science at the U.S. Naval Academy, not a single student was a philosophy major. The major was not even offered. Every student was upper class (junior or senior) in science and wanted to know more about science than science could tell them. This is philosophy as community service.[3]

The medical or more precisely the healing profession is science-based art, and not science as such, at least per Aristotle's definitions of art as concerned with the individual and of science as concerned with the universal. As Aristotle points out, the doctor heals the individual human, not the universal human. Thus medical ethics would be more appropriate than philosophy of science for medical practitioners. In fact, many major hospitals have a medical ethicist on the staff, but I have yet to hear of a hospital that has a philosopher of science. Medical ethics is itself more art than science, insofar as it is applied ethics. The analogy is that it is concerned with an individual field, and not with universal ethics. It is ethics applied to the individual field of healing, not universal ethics for every possible human situation. We would not prescribe scientific or mathematical ethics as in general the most appropriate philosophical areas for scientists or mathematicians, though those areas certainly could be the most appropriate ones in certain cases.[4] And I feel sorry for people in technology, because philosophy of technology is either dreary (Anglo-American) or weird (European). Of course, engineering is art, not science, as well. Qua engineer, one wishes to build this bridge over that river, not discover or prove universal truths. Qua engineer, one simply looks up the formulas one needs in the "cookbook" manuals and applies them. Granted, some doctors and some engineers are also scientists.

While you can do, say, much philosophy of science knowing only the basics of science, the best philosophy of science will be done by the best scientists, things being equal with respect to philosophical study. But the best scientists will be the worst at philosophy of science if they are the least trained in philosophy. It's simply a different field.

Philosophy is nowhere near as important as science or mathematics is to practical life, and is only intellectually fundamental. As Friedrich Nietzsche says, "What does the drowning sailor care for the chemical composition of the sea?"[5]

John Locke and George Berkeley agree that our simplest, most general ideas can be the hardest to learn if they are abstract.[6] We may say that the concepts that are simplest and clearest to a mind that has already learned them can be the hardest to learn in the first place. It can take children years to get clear on geometry or even arithmetic. Some people who are blind from birth and later acquire sight can be very confused by what they see when they look at the most ordinary things. Likewise, basic concepts of philosophy can be very hard for non-philosophers to learn. You can be as clear as crystal in the classroom, even in an introductory logic course, and some students will still not get it. Everybody has a different kind of mind and background. But I believe that just about anyone in college can learn some philosophy.

Like so many things, philosophy is best learned by doing. But it may help to give this standard initial working definition: Philosophy is the rational study of the most fundamental questions. While some statements are arguably intrinsically rational or self-evident ("We hold these truths to be self-evident..."), normally philosophy is the study of arguments for or against fundamental views. The views are the conclusions of the arguments, and one's reasons for holding them are the premisses. The two main ways to question an argument are to question the truth of its premisses or to question whether the conclusion follows from them. Almost anyone can learn to construct and to criticize an argument. In general, it is much easier to criticize an argument than to construct a good one which is or appears to be beyond criticism. A main occupational hazard of philosophers typically occurs when you have worked out your views as fully as you can, so that you can finally see nothing wrong with your arguments. The hazard is to mistake "It is impossible for me to see that this view is false" for "I see that it is impossible for this view to be false." To infer the latter statement from the former is to commit a fallacy of scope, specifically of changing the scope of applicability of the term "impossible." Things become interesting when we offer arguments for or against the ostensible self-evidence of our most fundamental views. There the only arguments can be negative (critical), in the sense that if we give a positive argument, then the conclusion is not a most fundamental view after all, since the positive premiss would be a more fundamental view. That said, we can give indirectly positive arguments in favor of a most fundamental view by arguing against its denial. And that is the simplest form of indirect proof by cases, where we specify all the possible cases and argue against all but one, thus indirectly arguing in favor of the remaining one case. In the simplest form of that, the only two cases considered are the view and its denial. This is traditionally called reductio ad absurdum, where we reduce the denial of the view in question to absurdity. Arguing back and forth in this way is called dialectics. We can also give positive arguments by analogy for, or for clarification of what is meant by, a most fundamental view. Things become most interesting where each philosopher interprets or understands the other's views in terms of her own most fundamental views or categories. Hence the semi-humorous dictum, "Metaphysics is two philosophers talking together, and neither can understand the other's views; and higher metaphysics is one philosopher talking (back and forth inside himself), and he cannot understand his own views." Hence also the dictum, "One can never win a (serious philosophical) argument against a good philosopher." But if one's goal is merely never to lose an argument, one is not a philosopher but a mere sophist. That may be intellectually stimulating and in that sense even helpful, but philosophy is the serious rational study of the most fundamental questions. We ought to aim for truth, or failing that, for a better understanding of the issues, either of which may be called philosophical wisdom. (Philosophy, or philo / sophia, means the love of wisdom.) It follows that the quest for original arguments and original views is, merely as such, worthless. For if we already have the truth, there is no need for further pursuit. It is only because normally we can never be sure we have the truth that there is such a premium on original thinking. But even then the premium is not on mere originality as such, but on giving the best arguments and the best criticisms, so as to arrive at the best views. (And that a view is the best we know of does not imply it is the best view there is, much less that it is the best view there can possibly be.) This is where practice makes perfect, and where logic is the vestibule to philosophy. It is also why there is and can be no magical pill for finding truth, and no royal road to philosophy. For the whole question is what are our reasons to think that a view is true. A view is no better than the reasons for holding it. It is also why I agree with those who hold that there can be no guaranteed method for finding philosophical truths, and that it is folly to prescribe a path to the path-finder. For a guaranteed method is just a magical pill. A method is no better than our reasons for following it. And the whole question of whether a method is reliable or sound turns in the end on whether the views that result from following the method are true in the first place. And that places us back in the middle of dialectic. That said, every philosopher should develop a bag of argumentative techniques which are at least a checklist of approaches to consider. A very basic introductory bag has been provided in this paragraph. But such a skeleton must not be confused with the living body of dialectic. This leads me to my last suggestion: One should not spend too much time philosophizing about philosophy, which is or can quickly become rather sterile, but plunge in media res (in the middle of things) and just start doing it. That is, the philosophy of philosophy is very unlike the philosophy of non-philosophical fields, precisely because philosophy already is philosophy, and already includes the study of itself along with the study of everything else, in terms of the most fundamental categories of everything there is. Or so it seems to me. To paraphrase a line from the Disney movie Pirates of the Caribbean, I'm nought but a humble technician in the service of truth and understanding, at least ostensibly.

One might object that every field is best learned by doing, with at most an initial working definition given by workers in the field for guidance based on their work experience, and that at least to this extent, philosophy is not needed in order for people to understand or learn what the field is. My reply is a "Yes, but" which is already stated as the qualification "at least to this extent" in the objection. I have already explained that you cannot scientifically prove what science is, nor mathematically prove what mathematics is. And even in philosophy, an initial working definition is more theoretical art than theoretical science. The only difference is that when you do go on to the philosophical theory of what a field is, in philosophy this is and must be part of the field itself, while in the other fields, it is not and cannot be part of them.

One might object that the division between philosophy and the other fields may be sharp in theory, but is vague, even blurry, in practice, with a large gray area in between. Surely the philosopher of science must know and discuss some science, and the more the better; and similarly for any other field, such as aesthetics (philosophy) and the fine arts (poetry, painting, and so on). My reply is a "Yes, but" which is already stated as the qualification "may be sharp in theory." I am only making the theoretical distinction. And even in practice, I agree with Grice and Strawson[7] that mere vagueness does not entail either the nonexistence or the unimportance of a distinction. Granted, this is a slippery slope. Just as there is some indeterminate point where you are swimming or doing science so poorly, you cannot be said to be swimming or doing science at all, so there is some indeterminate point at which a distinction is so vague, it cannot be said that there is a distinction at all. But I think we are nowhere near having such a point, since on the whole, philosophy is clearly distinct from the natural sciences, from mathematics, and so on, and has been for centuries. For more on vagueness, see my Corporate Entity book manuscript elsewhere in this Web site.

One might object that most people dislike philosophy because they find it too dry, barren, boring, abstract, general, unimportant, useless, and hard to understand. My reply is that this is not a rational objection. If philosophy is fundamental, and if only by its means can one understand the ultimate nature and limits of one's own field, then rationally speaking, one ought to study it. Here philosophy serves as a testing ground of the soul, and anyone who makes this objection fails the test. Of course, we can do no more than the best we can. But again, I think any colleges student can learn and intellectually profit from at least some philosophy

This paper covers only a very small part of philosophy of education, namely, the fundamentality of philosophy to one's education, if one is studying another field, and what this fundamentality consists of.


[1] This problem led one of my best friends in college to change his major from physics to philosophy.

[2] My two Frege-Dummett papers are mainly philosophy of language (the context principle) with a little philosophy of mathematics (intuitionism).

[3] We went most of the way through Ernest Nagel, The Structure of Science.

[4] There really is such a thing as mathematical ethics, at least in Lawrence Tribe's philosophy of law paper, "Trial by Mathematics," concerning people who have been convicted or found liable based on purely statistical evidence. In a clear sense, one may as well spin a roulette wheel to determine guilt or liability.

[5] Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (Human, All Too Human) § 9.

[6] Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge § 13 quoting Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk. 4, ch. 7, § 9.

[7] H. P. Grice and P. F. Strawson, "In Defense of a Dogma."