The Nature of Philosophical Problems: Their Causes and Implications
Many years ago I wrote a youthful essay about the nature of philosophical problems, sent it to an eminent philosopher I deeply respected, and asked for his comments. He responded kindly and advised me to choose some specific problem to work on rather than worry about the nature of problems in general. His advice reflected the prevailing view, but I did not accept it. I became a philosopher because I was interested in philosophical problems about how it is reasonable to live: problems like What makes lives good? Is there a providential order? Can there be an ideal political state? Can we control how we live? What can we reasonably hope? Are there absolute moral values? I thought then, and continue to think still, that following his advice would not have helped me think better about these problems, because if we do not understand their nature, we cannot know what work we should do on them. In this book I am still thinking about their nature, but I have come to realize along the way that being perennial is part of their nature and that is why they are exceptionally difficult and why many centuries of hard work by excellent minds has not resulted in a generally accepted solution of any of them.
The approach I have adopted is contrary to the prevailing view that good philosophical work should divide whatever basic problem it begins with into manageable smaller problems, concentrate on one of them, take account of the increasingly technical literature on it, clarify it by finer distinctions and more perspicuous analyses, show how the resulting view can accommodate difficult cases, and why contrary views cannot handle ever more ingenious counterexamples. Many excellent books and articles have been and are being written in this way. However, their connection with the basic problem that prompted all the highly skillful work gets lost in the accumulation of increasingly complex detail whose significance only a handful of specialists working on that small segment of the basic problem can understand.
My approach, for better or worse, is to propose an explanation of why the basic problems are philosophical. I do not think that this would turn philosophical problems into ordinary ones. If the explanation is right, no approach can do that. What can be done is to explain why philosophical problems are perennial, why they are formidably difficult, and why excellent philosophers have advanced throughout the ages so many conflicting solutions of them. My proposed approach does not to add to the already vast body of technical work yet another plea for the superiority of a method, nor finer-grained analyses than those already available, nor more searching historical scholarship. If readers look for any of these, they will not find it. My aim, I repeat, is to explain why basic philosophical problems are and will remain perennial and to say a little about how we might nevertheless cope with them reasonably. I do not say that it is little out of false modesty.
I know that I need good reasons for deviating from the prevailing expectations about how philosophical work should be done. My reasons are cultural and philosophical. The cultural one is that philosophy has changed. It no longer occupies the centrally important role it used to have in forming the Western world-view. In the past, philosophers have aimed to construct a general outlook about the nature of reality and humanity’s place in it, an outlook in terms of which their contemporaries and perhaps even their successors could make sense of their lives. Philosophers used to think that this was their calling, which is what it then was. Now, philosophers, at least in the English-speaking world, proceed very differently. Philosophy has become an academic specialty, research in it is a skill, and philosophers are more likely to belong to a union than to the secular equivalent of a priesthood.
There is little point in debating whether this change is good or bad. It is probably a mixture of both, as most changes are, but, in any case, I doubt that it is reversible. It does have a consequence, however, that seems to me very bad indeed. Philosophy has become remote from everyday life. The cultural niche philosophers used to occupy is now filled with perfervid ideologues, fundamentalist preachers, sensation-seeking journalists, charlatans selling salvation, and cynics bent on unmasking all values. The airwaves, cyberspace, the media, and talk shows are filled with psychobabble, propaganda, imported oriental cults, absurd conspiracy theories, and abysmally ignorant dogmatic claims about science, history, religion, politics, and economics. The sleep of reason breeds monsters, and they haunt the niche vacated by philosophers. I think that we, as philosophers, should make a greater effort than we are doing to help our contemporaries distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable approaches to basic problems about how to live in our complex and dangerous world. I do not think that this can be done merely by practicing our skill well enough to meet the prevailing professional expectations. In this book, I take a tentative and much too small a step in another direction.
My philosophical reasons are, first, that the countless journal articles and specialist books written in conformity to the prevailing expectations have not resulted in a generally accepted solution to any of the philosophical problems. Second, many of the great works in the history of philosophy, works that still fundamentally influence our thinking about how we should live, would not now be judged good enough to meet the prevailing professional expectations. Painful satires could be written of the rejection notices that would be sent, say, to Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s Prince, Montaigne’s Essays, Hume’s Dialogues, Nietzsche’s Genealogy, or Wittgenstein’s Investigations. It is perhaps more reasonable to conclude that these works cast more doubt on the prevailing expectations than the unmet expectations do on the works. And third, I believe that the general approach I propose leads to a better understanding of philosophical problems and of why they are perennial than the specialist approach favored by prevailing expectations. The first two reasons seem to me very strong, whether the third is strong enough depends on the argument of this book.
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