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Thursday, September 1, 2011

It's all philosophy

The School of Athens, Raphael
Yesterday in the New York Times, Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting wrote an opinion piece, Happiness, Philosophy and Science. In it he makes excellent points about the importance of philosophy alongside science, in the pursuit of happiness.

Having said that, I wonder if part of the conundrum is imagined (by all of us), in that it is based on a false distinction between science and philosophy. Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Applied, that is the pursuit of eudaimonia, or "the flourishing life" (i.e. the good life), which necessarily involves happiness.

Any time you are (a) asking what is, (b) asking what therefore ought to be on our part, or (c) asking how you know either, you are doing philosophy. This is the process of the earliest philosophers. Both the early Taoists and the Greek philosophers, for example, didn't merely sit around pontificating. They went out into the world making careful observations, talking with others, and then applied those to their best estimates of what our place was in the world and how we ought to live for best results. Heraclitus, for example, made highly detailed observations about his natural world. Socrates went around Athens talking with people. Chuang-Tzu spoke constantly about his observations of nature. They tested these against competing ideas to come up with whole models and made their way quite well. This full spectrum of activity is why, for example, the Stoics considered their philosophy in the three areas of Physics, Logic, and Ethics.

Over time we specialized such that those focusing on "a" eventually developed a rigorous scientific method and became "scientists". Those focusing on "b" became the ethicists and, in the case of religious philosophies, holy leaders. Those focusing on "c" became the logicians, linguists, etc. But all of them are still philosophers and always have been, for the entire endeavor is merely different branches of philosophy. Science is philosophy. It's the part of philosophy that asks 'what is?'. When we take that data and use it to build a road map to happiness, we are moving from description to prescription (from "a" to "b") but we are still doing philosophy throughout.

I wonder if Gutting may be looking at the matter too much through the lens of academia, which has sliced up the disciplines for the sake of orderliness and for making good corporate worker bees in different industries. As a result, that practical thing that the original philosophers lived - that thing that was their guiding path in life, has been stripped down almost to the mere recitation of old, out of date, philosophy with everything else of utility having been handed over to other departments; forgetting that the first and foremost purpose of philosophy is practical and results-driven - not the detached, esoteric, academic, intellectual game it has become in all to many educational settings. Today, what many people imagine philosophy to be is not much beyond a mix of snobbish name-dropping and the entertaining-yet-useless wild speculations one might expect in a pot-smoking circle at a party. It's no wonder we so often hear people saying preposterous things such as, "philosophy is obsolete". If I had the same mixed-up conception of philosophy some people have today, I would think it was obsolete too, instead of the very crucial basis of human life that it is.

Gutting, at one point says, "philosophical thinking". I don't know what that means. Philosophers think using reason and rationality. While the era before a rigid scientific method, and a resulting over-reliance on analogy at times, might sometimes give another impression, philosophers relied on observation and reason in their work. After putting forth what he believed to be an evident truth about the world, would Socrates have been disinterested if someone had surveyed the matter and found another result? Of course not. In fact, one wouldn't get far telling Socrates they had 'faith' that something were true. Any philosophy worth its salt depends upon the raw facts gleaned from those who do the work to collect them - those philosophers who specialize on that aspect of philosophy (who we call scientists today). To build philosophy off of any other foundation is not philosophy, but mysticism.

Not to lay all of this at Gutting's feet. I suspect he might agree with me on some of these points, and I think the overall thrust of his article as being a call to the importance of working with philosophers on the matter of happiness is an excellent one. My responses here are not so much criticism as addendum. But I think a reminder about the essence of real, practical and applied, philosophy can further illuminate the matter, and illustrate the inherent relevance of all the philosophers - the physicists, cosmologists, biologists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, logicians, ethicists, and others.

Many thanks to Jennifer Hancock, who made me aware of Gutting's article...

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  1. I love your take on it. I took away from his article that the two approaches to happiness, the scientific and the philosophic were complimentary, both informing us and helping to guide us. I thought the thrust of his article is that scientists who make look upon philosophy as something less then and who think they can explain happiness purely scientifically are missing the point. And that is that happiness is ultimately a subjective experience.

  2. Thanks Jen! Indeed. I don't think subjective experience is outside the realm of science per se (take pain relief medication research, for example), but would agree. I suppose the way one might phrase it within my model would be, you can't 'figure it all out' with just that first branch of philosophy (the "what is" branch that became science). All three branches are needed. :)