Philosophy is an excellent thing

by Carl Dyke

Over at Edge of the West, in the context of one of the usual pseudo-discussions about what philosophy is good for (prompted by yet another of Leiter’s snarky shills for the discipline, apparently), a guy named Michael Turner just posted a long, fascinating comment explaining how he went from software engineering to (Japanese) technical translation to language philosophy; in the course of which he said this:

OK, so I’m interested in what meaning is, and how meaning happens, through language. Can you philosophers help me out? Which one of you do I trust? Which ones are, by contrast, measuring their value to the field only by citation index, which might only be an indication of how many stupid arguments they’ve been able to start by feverishly propagating misunderstandings?

This is far from the most interesting thing he said (John M. and Evan, this is our kind of guy), and of course it leaves out all the genuinely valuable things the philosophers we all know we can trust do, but I still had a good snort over it.

In another comment, Anderson kindly offers up this provocative quote from Callicles’ rant in the Gorgias:

Philosophy, as a part of education, is an excellent thing, and there is no disgrace to a man while he is young in pursuing such a study; but when he is more advanced in years, the thing becomes ridiculous, and I feel towards philosophers as I do towards those who lisp and imitate children.

One might say the same of the study of history, or any of the humanities.

5 Comments to “Philosophy is an excellent thing”

  1. One might say the same of the study of history, or any of the humanities

    Carl, what’s going on? You’re sounding really down.

    Couldn’t this passage be taken as more related to how we approach philosophy, history, or another humanity than as criticism of the subjects themselves? Looking back, I can agree with Callicles that it would be ridiculous were I still approaching philosophy as I did when filled with adolescent fervor to find the Truth with a capital T. But now, as a way to situate a life’s experience in the long conversation that is the history of human thought… I still see value there.

  2. Thanks John, I’m not down at all (or no more so than ever toward the end of a school year) but I can see how it looks that way. This is one of my voltairean posts.

    One of my interests is, as you say, to situate values within contexts and conventions. I don’t think what I do is universally valuable, and this set of comments helps me define exactly what the value of what I do is. I’m cool with educating the young.

    Connecting our experience with the history of human thought is part of our ongoing education, sense of larger meaning, and contribution to good conversation. These are values I take to be situated in here, now and us. A beer helps but is not essential, which is good because the WordPress blog template does not offer a dispense option.

  3. The part that caught my eye was:

    To the extent that I’m a layman, here’s what I can say: For the most part, philosophy appears to me as a forbidding (or perhaps trivial) mountain of impenetrable books. Maybe that’s my fault…

    I don’t think it’s Michael’s fault, though I certainly know the feeling. Here’s a snippet from Pascal Boyer’s wonderful article about physics crackpots, How I found glaring errors in Einstein’s calculations:

    I have been (repeatedly) told that the above point is utterly banal: “we all know that social interaction is crucial to the making of science”, “were you asleep in the last twenty years when ‘science studies’ developed?”

    Well, up to a point, my lord. What I am talking about is a complicated epidemiological process (what else?) whereby people’s perception of what makes sense, what is the right problem to pursue, what is sound and unsound in one’s reasoning, largely depend on assumptions that are widespread but only indirectly communicated. I am not aware of many meticulous studies of this particular cognitive process from “science studies”. Indeed, most of that field seems focused on power relations, social forces, institutional arrangements that are common to science and other social phenomena. But that’s the easy part. Of course science interactions are in many ways like other social interactions. Much more difficult is to understand how specific epidemiological processes lead to productive science, to more knowledge.

    I’m struggling with this problem myself right now as I read up on papers about planetary formation. Surprisingly, the math isn’t the problem. The vocabulary is trickier, but with a half-forgotten undergrad physics education, you can get through a lot of it. The real roadblock is what Boyer is describing above. If you haven’t spent the last few years marinating yourself in this field, you still don’t understand the context. You don’t know what’s important and what you can skim or ignore.

    Anyway, my point is that if you can give your students even a little bit of this context, you’re doing something extremely valuable. If you were teaching physics, you’d be making them crackpot-resistant. Since you’re teaching them history, you’re making them pundit-resistant, which is even more important.

  4. my point is that if you can give your students even a little bit of this context, you’re doing something extremely valuable. If you were teaching physics, you’d be making them crackpot-resistant. Since you’re teaching them history, you’re making them pundit-resistant, which is even more important.

    Very nice, indeed.

  5. I don’t think it’s Michael’s fault, though I certainly know the feeling.

    Thanks, Evan. That makes me feel better.

    I’m sorry to say I continued at eye-gouging length on that thread, just to spar spitefully with Dana. I probably committed the cardinal sin of becoming boring.

    I must give Dana credit: he told me to ignore the Lewisian take on counterfactuals, and that’s probably the advice I needed about it, even if Dana’s stated reasons reflected only a galling inattention to my argument. So if there’s time out of my life I can’t get back because of what I wrote there, it’s my own damned fault.

    I’m 53, and in a way the Callicles’ quote troubled me even before I read it. How could that be? It’s because I was already feeling self-conscious about this new preoccupation. Philosophy. At my age! It is unseemly, after all.

    Just today, at the sort of cafe where a younger man might heatedly argue philosophy, I asked a friend of mine who’d studied a lot of history whether he’d studied any philosophy. Not really his thing, he replied, and I came back with this craven response: Yes, I think I know what you mean, I’ve been dipping into it a little these days but it sometimes seems like the world’s biggest, longest circle-jerk.

    I only half-meant that, of course.

    To be honest, much of the ambivalence is also coming from a youngish part of me as well: the engineer, who isn’t quite as dead as I pretended over at that other discussion. For example, when I first read Frederking’s semi-rant (“Do the Right Thing”) against what he perceives as the unacceptable vagueness of Gricean implicature, I was out for blood. I was all ready to find Frederking guilty of at least 12 out of 10 of Kent Bach’s “Top 10 Misconceptions about Implicature.”

    However, I found myself forgiving Frederking’s errors and sloppiness when I discovered that Larry Horn probably wouldn’t agree with the last few items in Bach’s “misconceptions” list — and that list had been presented at a festschrift for Larry Horn himself — he is a major figure in developing Gricean themes.

    Frederking is probably right: decades after first being framed by Grice, implicature is still too vague to “reduce to practice” in the sorts of automated-language-interpreter systems Frederking builds. Given the extreme domain-specificity of those systems, the uselessness of Grice’s maxims in refining them may well reflect more poorly on Gricean claims than it does on the state of the art in computational linguistics. Griceans have had more time to get it right, haven’t they? (If Larry Horn’s genealogy is correct, philosopher’s had already had centuries to get Grice right, before Grice came along.)

    Sometimes I think philosophy’s problem is that it’s gotten so used to all the problems being ancient, it takes its own sweet time even when things might move briskly. But maybe that’s what a young man might say, if he were out to take the field by storm. Really, I’m just trying to figure out a few things about language, and am dismayed at how much of Evan’s “marination” I might still need before I can say anything very useful. Philosophy looks like a dip in which I could get positively pickled if I’m not careful. I don’t know to whom I should turn to get a decent marinade recipe for making myself what I would need to be, to do what I want to do. Then again, maybe everybody starting out has to flounder a little in a variety of inappropriate sauces, to start.

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