June 15, 2005


I hate it when most people come out with supposed theories about humanity or the universe in general. These are usually half-cocked, over-arching statements that are as vague as fortune cookies and so, of course, are often at least partially accurate. These theories often come out after I answer the "What are you studying?" question that people inevitably ask when they learn that I'm entering my ninth year of schooling and won't be finished anytime soon -- though of course this only comes after it's clear that I choose to still be in school, not that I keep failing and/or partying and am taking nearly a decade to complete my BA. Anyway, my favorite answer to the "What are you studying?" question is always "Philosophy -- the money-maker." This is all-too-often followed with something like, "Oh, I'm a philosopher, too. I figured out that no one does anything unless they have to." What do you say to that? "Dude, you're a shitty philosopher," or, "That's an inane thing to say"? Maybe it's the philosophy-snob in me. "I do this for a living! How dare you concoct this bullshit and pretend to be one of the few, the proud, the chosen, the philosophers!" LOL. Hell, we call rich guys with law degrees and the leisure to write a short philosophy book (and then to pay us to read it and tell him what's wrong with it) "lay" people, as if philosophy goes beyond an academic or even intellectual pursuit and enters the realm of the religious or ever the sacred. Really, though, I don't think that my omnipresent snobbery is what drives me crazy when people tell me about their little theories. It's the fact that they really mean it. It's that some people decide that their moderately witty and pithy little theory about all of humanity is actually true -- and then go and live by it! Thoreau was correct to require that we all live by our principles, truths, etc. But some people have some strange and dangerous theories which they take as rules to live by. Shouldn't there be a test or some standard for what kinds of things we should live by? There are books on Creationism for sale at the Grand Canyon. While I certainly can't say that I believe in Creationism as a viable alternative to other more scientifically rigorous theories of the origin of the universe and its inhabitants (including humankind), there does not seem to me anything wrong with the Park Service selling these books. But these books are sold in the science section, along with science books. Far be it from me to judge another person's religious beliefs to be a little off. But calling Creationism a science like other sciences is just wrong. A professor I had in spring 2004 nailed it when he said what is wrong with that picture. Scientists are held to standards, scientific/academic standards. They have to prove what they posit, have to prove to a set of peers that what they say is not some crazy nonsense. Putting books on Creationism in the with science section is certainly cheating and allowing said books to be classified as actual science, when they are actually religious books. Religion and science might not mutually exclusive topics, yes. But they sure as hell are not the same thing. What I mean with this long aside is to ask: Are some people and their half-cocked theories about life, the universe and everything (salutes D.A.) as valid as, say, an actually thought-out theory about human behavior/nature? Aristotle's words or Peirce's essays are generally given more weight than Joe Theoryguy's concoctions. Why is this so? Doesn't it have something to do with reflection and testing and revising, etc.? I mean, it's not a degree. Neither of the gents mentioned above had philosophy degrees. I'm sure as hell not saying that one needs a degree or background in philosophy. I've met more people whom these degrees didn't help in being truly philosophical than I would care to recall. Most actively thoughtful and reflective people I've come across are not academic philosophers at all, and I think that hints at a lot of what's wrong with academic philosophy today (a topic for another time). Is a person's theory more "valid" then if he or she thinks about it more, reflects on experience, tests it against said experience (ah, the pragmatism!) and makes any necessary changes? Isn't the question then, a question of what makes philosophy? Or are we just foolish to make some universal-ish statements about the universe and humankind, after countless greater minds have failed to provide accurate theories? Are theories that are not universal but which work all we can hope for? [Note: Discussion continued here.]


Pragmatik said...

I know that a theory about theories that is half-thought-out is exactly what annoys me. I know. Don't tell me.

Mo said...

to all the lay people, leave the real thinking to the real thinkers.

thats is all.

R.M. said...

I figured out a long time ago that philosophy, like life, is all about cheese. Cheese, and killer robots.

Most people are not intellectuals. They figure out something that works for them, and they do it. They are not as concerned with "Truth" or "Wisdom" as they are with "what works," (instrumental knowledge)whether that be science, daily affirmations, or Bill O'Reilly's army of killer robots.

Neither are they "Men of Letters," given to philosophical pursuits or scholarly study. In fact, they may never have read Aristotle, and I guarantee you they haven't read Peirce. They may have had no exposure to any of the great works of Philosophy at all, and not know what it really is.

And yes, I think it also upsets you because many trivialize what you do (beware, venomous): the serious, rigorous study of ideas for their own sake. Philosophy (and philosophers) have frequently been misunderstood by the general public- and not only them.

So perhaps it irritates you because these robot thinkers do not love wisdom, and in claiming to know it and appropriating "Philosophy" for themselves, they are obscuring the pursuit of wisdom that you love. Instrumental thinking without reflection or consideration of values becomes robotic- "eat, sleep, make money, etc."

By the way, what are you saying about people who take extra time to finish their B.A.? :)

TPB, Esq. said...

And what would Kuhn say about the theories of science vis a vis beliefs? Would he not question the fact that there is inherently a certain element of faith in the scientific methods, in the peer review system, and in the process of science as a whole? I'm no creationist, but I was, briefly, involved in science, and I can see that the beliefs in that profession (a great and loaded word, no?) are faith-driven.

Take the realm of physics, particularly sub-atomic physics or even something as simple as why, when I drop something, it falls to the ground. Do we have any verifiable, "objective" (in the Heideggerian sense or the Platonic sense) reason that explains why there are sub-atomic particles called tachyons or mesons? Can we explain gravity or inertia in a way that we can consistently describe interactions between matter? No. Yet physicists choose to believe in such theories.

I may be one of those law types, but I suspect that a philosophy-degree type like Rorty (or a law type like Rawls) would say we find certain things more appealing because they suit our subjective sense of aesthetics. We like some theories more than others because they are more artful. It has little to do with empiricism versus experience.

TPB, Esq. said...

PS - us law types usually lap you philosophy types when it comes to critical debates. That's 'cause we've got the cojones to live if not merely support the argument in extremis. ;-)

Pragmatik said...

Very true, TPB, there's faith involved in science. In anything intellectual or practical for that matter (i.e., faith that gravity still works in theory and in practice, etc.).

The problem with the case about Creationism books in the science section at the Grand Canyon is certainly not my own point (the peer review issue, I mean). I don't want to take the credit (or blame, lol) for that. But even with the faith involved in a science, Creationism is purely a matter of faith, versus the faith in science of a scientist. But I might mis-understand Creationism, so I don't want to dig myself a hole there. Maybe there's more science to it than I think there is?

Pragmatik said...

Oh, TPB, I didn't mean anything perjorative about the lawyer remark:)

It's just that I've read about so many retired lawyers who write philosophy books.

What I've always admired about the study of law is the application of theories/principles in a concrete manner. I would not argue with you at all if you were to levy the charge that philosophy (especially academic philosophy) can be just a bunch of empty talking and thinking, sans cojones.

ahniwa said...

Isn't anyone else slightly concerned that this topic is somehow linked up with killer garden gnomes!?

You're freakin' me out, Johnny!

Pragmatik said...

LOL, that's Green Meany, a tiny gnome my father brought me from Maryland last year.

I was going to write about a theory (!) I have about hate, so I uploaded images of a nasty gnome. I realized that my own theory was half-cocked, at best, so I steered clear and performed what is becoming my characteristic bitching-blogging.

Pragmatik said...

Ridg, I don't mean what you're implying about taking long to complete one's BA:) But nine years with the end barely in sight, that would be crazy.

TPB, Esq. said...

JG - my lawyerly comment was just a bit of chops-busting. Lawyers, I tend to think, admire the universality of philosophy. It's what we hope laws attain.

I've heard of creationists relying on science, and I suppose that probability theory/statistics could be applied to the "intelligent design" subset of creationism, and so forth. I don't buy it, but I suppose it is there.

I just resent the self-certainty of science. Actually, that's not accurate. I find it dangerous. Too many hard and social scientists allege theories = truth or suppositions = fact. It can cause suffering (look at the evidence of influenced memories in child molestation cases). As a whole, the scientific community is at fault for failing to acknowledge that belief guides it. Law at least admits that it makes up the rules because of the belief of its judges and legislators.

R.M. said...


While I would agree that absolute certainty in science can be dangerous, I'm not entirely sure that I would agree that all scientists fall prey to such thinking, in the sense that they confuse scientific Laws and Theories with incontrovertible fact (I don't mean to imply that you're saying that, but was not completely clear). There are a lot of folks in science that preach the gospel of the scientific method (no theory may be proved, only disproved) and accept questions about the fundamental nature of matter, while taking a sort of Newtonian view of matter on a practical day-to-day basis.

Of course, some scientists can be downright dogmatic about the pursuit of Truth through "Science." As the child of two scientists, I am all too familiar with this: (most)scientists desire to make a lasting contribution to human understanding of the world, and advance scientific knowledge (the body of "facts" as the result of empirical observation) through the practice of scientific experimentation/enquiry (the scientific "method"). Scientists of course know that "facts" or laws only gain that status by virtue of continued observation. And that tomorrow, if things fall "up," they'll have to tear out all their work and start over.

But they don't like thinking about that, because then all the work they will have done exists in a rather unstable context, and the first violation of previously observed "constants" nullifies their life's work (or at least calls it into question). When I explained Hume's issues with percieved "Causation" in Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding to my father, he was horrified. Hume, the great empiricist, attacking causation?

You're absolutely right, TPB- scientists don't like calling their fundamental assumptions into question- in order to even do science, you have to take an awful lot for granted. Scientists still operating in the Newtonian physics model (those who are not theoretical physicists) tend to reject epistemological questions about the foundations of science. They're don't advance scientific knowledge (observation of conjoined/"connected" events), and are much too much like philosophy-- impractical.

Pragmatik said...

Ridg Baby, philosophy is not per se "impractical." Look at the American philosophers (James, Peirce, Dewey, Thoreau -- especially Thoreau) and even some Continentals. What's so impractical about Sartre?

I'd certainly agree to the impractical nature of ANALytic philosophy, not to mention the unphilosophical (at times) nature of it.

While the charge of impracticality can certainly be levied against much of Western philosophies with a certain degree of validity, I would avoid calling Philosophy impractical as a whole.

Besides, it's not Philosophy's fault that all we supposed "philosophers" do anymore is write papers about one another -- and all the impracticality therein (which with I would most certainly agree most of the time).

R.M. said...

Sorry, that would be "impractical in the view of some scientists." I should have put "impractical" in quotes, as I do most certainly see a purpose for Philosophy in the modern world. Even if I don't think it's currently being achieved in most ways.

I think we agree on the direct relevance (or lack thereof) of academic philosophy to most people's everyday lives. Philosophy itself is tremendously important to people- but what academic philosophers can make a successful career out of in the competitive context of academia is hardly useful or "practical" (or even intelligible) to even the intelligent layperson.

"Empty is the word of that philosopher by
which no human suffering is alleviated” (Epicurus, can't find the text online). Modern philosophy is too often the pursuit of knowledge without use- the display of cleverness with language, and not the pursuit of Wisdom/Sophia. "Wisdom" doesn't get one tenure--published articles do. The genuine pursuit of Wisdom has historically led to other ends.

It's one of the major reasons I left the field.

Pragmatik said...

Ridg-Baby, see joke here:)
"what academic philosophers can make a successful career out of in the competitive context of academia is hardly useful or "practical" (or even intelligible) to even the intelligent layperson."
----Forget that. I am lost half the time with what some of these dudes/dudets do.

broomhilda said...

I have many theories about humanity and the universe in general, however, I am not a philosopher, I'm a poet. And I don't feel like sharing right now.
I do agree that books on creationism do not belong in the science section, rather, they belong in the religion or spectulation section.

Pragmatik said...

Broomhilda, I think philosophers and poets are very much alike in their reflective stance on existence.

I would count many poets as philosophers (Poe, Baudelaire, Whitman) and many philosophers as poets (Nietzsche, William James, Thoreau).

broomhilda said...

I agree with you about Poe and Baudelaire, as for Whitman...well the jury's still out on that one.
Nietzsche and William James I have yet to read. Thoreau is most definately a poet at heart. Let us not for get Kahlil Gibran, who in my opinion was both.

Pragmatik said...

True, I forgot about Gibran:)