I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, but it is a hard one to address. As luck would have it, there’s a recent post at the New York Times site by Paul Horwich, which might help (h/t Sean Wilson):
As part of that post, Horwich gives the following as an account of what philosophy is about:
Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on — and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?
That seems about right, in the sense that it fits much of what is published by academic philosophers.
Horwich goes on to express what he takes to have been Wittgenstein’s view of this:
If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.
I think that’s mostly right. But I am not as pessimistic as Wittgenstein (and Horwich). As I see it, the difficulty is not in what philosophers attempt to study, but in their methodology. And that’s what I would want to see turned upside down.
The methods of philosophy seem to be based on taking a design stance. Philosophers look at the world that we see, and wonder about how to design it. And, if they could design such a world, that would help us understand that world. But what Horwich describes a “embarrassing failure after over 2000 years” may suggest that the design stance is not working.
We see an example of this in epistemology, where philosophers traditionally define knowledge to be “justified true belief”. But that’s pretty much an a priori declaration, a presupposition, on the nature of knowledge. The design stance needs such presuppositions in order to specify what must be designed. But what if those presuppositions are a poor fit to the world that we have? That’s a possibility that seems to be mostly ignored.
My alternative “upside down” approach is to look at what evolved. If we are capable of having knowledge, then that capability is something that has evolved. If we can look at what conditions might have led to such evolution, then we might come up with a better understanding of the nature of knowledge, the kind of understanding that could not be achieved by an a priori declaration as to what knowledge is.
That evolutionary approach is how I have been studying such questions. I happen to think that this does lead to something that should be of interest to philosophers. However, it will be very different from what they have traditionally studied.
I’ll be saying more about this in future posts.