Friday, 9 June 2017

Metaphilosophy: Examples and Problems (4)

What is Philosophy?

It's perhaps ironic that Ludwig Wittgenstein's rejection of metaphilosophy (or, at the least, his rejection of the analogy between a metalanguage/object-language and metaphilosophy/philosophy) can itself be seen as being metaphilosophical in nature. (This position can be found in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations; as well as elsewhere.) After all, one needs to take a position beyond (meta) or “about” the possible relation between philosophy and a metaphilosophy in order to see that relation as “nonsense”. Of course we can say that, in this case, all sorts of philosophers have therefore engaged in metaphilosophy.

However, when philosophers like Wittgenstein have told us what philosophy is, what they've really told us is what they think philosophy should be. In other words, their positions weren't descriptive: they were normative.

Take the proto-analytic philosophers of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries (e.g., Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein).

They believed that all philosophy is (or should be) the analysis of what they called “propositions”. Why did they believe this? Basically it was because they also believed that propositions captured the joints of reality or the world. (Or at least the analysis of such propositions did.) Now, from a metaphilosophical position (or intuitively - if one accepts intuitions), this seems like a remarkable claim. Why should propositions have any direct relation to the world - never mind be capable of uncovering its “deep structure”? This may of course be an intuitive response based on seeing propositions as simply linguistic items; which wasn't seen to be the case with these early analytic philosophers. Propositions were seen as being part of world – at least of the abstract world.

Not long after this, it can be seen that other philosophers and schools of philosophy also took what can be seen as a metaphilosophical - as well as normative - position on the question “What is philosophy?”.

For example, the logical positivists wanted to erase metaphysics from the philosophical world. The ordinary language philosophers went back to the position of seeing the fundamental importance of analysing propositions. Except that this time they were thinking in terms of natural-language statement rather than logical or abstract propositions. From this position arose the metaphysical stance that ordinary language itself is – or should be - paramount in philosophy. Ignoring the nature of everyday language - “ordinary language philosophers” argued - leads to “metaphysical nonsense”, illusions and “meaninglessness”.

There's also the explicit metaphilosophical question of whether philosophy should be descriptive or “revisionary” (i.e., normative). This was exemplified by, amongst others, Peter Strawson in his book Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959). One consequence of accepting a descriptive stance is to believe that philosophy is – or must be - continuous with science.

Here it's very clear that a decision as to whether one does descriptive or revisionary philosophy is a metaphilosophical in nature. After all, a philosopher could do both. Indeed another metaphilosopher may reject this descriptive/revisionary “opposition” entirely.

First Philosophy?

There are of course massive philosophical assumptions involved in a belief in a First Philosophy. Can there be such a thing as a First Philosophy? And, even if there is such a thing, why should it be ontology, logic, epistemology or even politics? Can such a First Philosophy truly come before all other kinds of philosophy or is it just a case that philosophers have assumed that without actually displaying it?

Perhaps more relevantly (that's if the questions just asked aren't in themselves metaphilosophical), is First Philosophy metaphilosophy? Is taking the position that ontology, logic, epistemology, ethics or politics is a First Philosophy a metaphilosophical position. Does it matter anyway?

It's also quite possible that there can be a conflation between those philosophers who believe that philosophy must have a First Philosophy and those very same philosophers being metaphilosophers. Unless, of course, the championship of a particular First Philosophy is an example of metaphilosophy!

Take the case of Descartes.

Descartes took epistemology to be First Philosophy - at least as seen from a 20th century perspective. Indeed one well-known book of his is called Meditations on First Philosophy. (Descartes didn't use the word “epistemology”.)

Descartes believed that the Cogito - and everything that followed from it - would be foundational; not only to philosophy itself but also science. This is almost the same position Husserl adopted some 200 years later.

Husserl himself developed the “phenomenological method” in order to enable philosophy to provide a “foundational science” of cognition whose results would then be used in science. Thus Husserl believed that philosophy had a very distinct role. He also believed that he knew exactly what that role is.

Further back (as well as in less detail), ontology was once deemed to be First Philosophy. (Ontology – or at least “metaontology” - is experiencing a modest comeback in recent years.) In the 19th century, it can be argued that Frege believed that logic is First Philosophy. In the 20th century, analytic philosophers have variously seen the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind to be First Philosophy. (Though, of course, they never used the words “first philosophy” - certainly not with platonic capitals!) Emmanuel Levinas and even Jacques Derrida can be seen as seeing ethics – or Ethics - to be First Philosophy. (Levinas, in his Totality and Infinity, actually said this.) However, in terms of Continental philosophy as a whole, one can easily argue that most post-World War Two philosophers saw politics (or, at the least, the philosophy of politics or even political philosophy) as being First Philosophy.

Politics as First Philosophy?

Perhaps the best and most interesting examples of seeing politics as First Philosophy can be seen by those who advanced “critical theory”. The work of Jürgen Habermas can also be put in this mold. Indeed, when such philosophers called their work “postmetaphysical thinking”, was that an acknowledgement that politics had become primary in their philosophies?

Going back in time, it can be argued that Martin Heidegger's believed politics to be First Philosophy. However, it's certainly true that he would haven't said that himself. Nonetheless, as an adherent of a postmetaphysical approach, Heidegger did see metaphysics as being strongly connected to the ills of modern society. Surely that's a political - or at least a moral - stance on metaphysics and philosophy as a whole.

Ironically, Heidegger's essentially conservative (or “reactionary”) position influenced Derrida's own stance on the deconstruction of Western metaphysics. Derrida too placed ethics or politics in the First Philosophy position. He too saw very strong connections between metaphysics and bad politics or bad morality. (Again, Derrida, like Heidegger before him, would never have put it this simply himself.) More precisely, Derrida wanted to question the many “assumptions” of previous Western philosophy. Why? Because he took a political and/or ethical stance against all of them them; as well as against their consequences. Thus politics was First Philosophy to Derrida.

Philosophy and Science

One of the most important metaphilosophical pursuits is seeing whether or not philosophy is or is not a science. In addition, this pursuit will also involve the adumbrating the similarities and dissimilarities between philosophy and science. (A strong distinction between science and philosophy was of course made by the early (as well as late) Wittgenstein and some of the logical positivists.)

Firstly, it can be argued that philosophical questions don't have empirical answers. They can't be answered with recourse to experiment or observation. (Timothy Williamson, Laurence BonJour and others think otherwise.) In parallel to this, some philosophers have argued that only science can answer questions which involve empirical elements. However, surely it can't be the case that a question which includes empirical elements has no philosophical elements. Indeed even a question or statement that's seemingly entirely empirical must include philosophical assumptions and may, as a consequence, need a philosophical analysis.

Other philosophers believe that philosophy is (or should be) continuous with science. However, seeing science and philosophy as being continuous is far from seeing them as being two aspects of the same discipline.

Take W. Quine after his logical positivist days.

Quine too saw science and philosophy as being continuous. He didn't see philosophy itself as being a science. Indeed he placed science in a higher rank than philosophy. In simple terms, science told us “what there is”, and only then did philosophy (or logic and ontology) get to work on what science has told us.

Three Specific Examples

Analytic Philosophy

Many analytic philosophers (at least until relatively recently) certainly wouldn't see the position – or positions! - of analytic philosophers to be metaphilosophical in nature. Yet in order to see philosophy as being (according to the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy) "the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake" (or even to see it as being a – purely? - theoretical and technical pursuit), one has to have taken various metaphilosophical positions on philosophy itself. The analytic approach and the analytic style, after all, didn't simply fall from the sky into the laps of philosophers. Thus I can only presume that at least some analytic philosophers studied a few philosophers who certainly couldn't have been classed as analytic philosophers. Not that every analytic philosopher - and certainly not every student of analytic philosophy - will have needed to engage in these navel-gazing reflections. It only needs to have been the original analytic philosophers - as well as a few later ones - who did so. The rest will have simply ridden on the backs of these prior metaphilosophical reflections on the proper (or true) nature of philosophy.

It's also very ironic and surprising (at least to me) that some analytic philosophers have been influenced by a strain of Richard Rorty's (or pragmatist) thought. They too see philosophy in broad terms. In terms of politics, some of them believe that analytic philosophers should be much more “politically committed”. And, in parallel, they believe that philosophers should stop obsessing about many (or all?) of those traditional and trite philosophical problems.

This itself begs philosophical questions. Why be politically committed at all? Moreover, why be committed to specific political goals? I mention specificity because you can bet that such (pragmatist) analytic philosophers will be committed to very specific political goals. This can be expressed in another way by asking a simple (though long) question:

If a philosopher became committed to the wrong political goals and actions, would such a proponent of “political commitment” be just as happy with that as he would be if the philosopher concerned were committed to his own political goals?

I doubt it.


It seems be clear the pragmatist position on philosophy (as with others) is normative in nature. Perhaps, in at least certain cases, it's also moral or political. By definition, most pragmatists believe that philosophy should be a applicative (indeed pragmatic) pursuit. Of course philosophical questions may need to be asked as to what philosophical pursuits are practical and why usefulness is so important.

Pragmatists may also say that philosophy should help us develop “fruitful lives” or “meaningful lives”. This begs even more philosophical questions. What kind of meaningful lives? What is it to have a meaningful life? Why should we care at all about having a meaningful life? And, more sceptically, one can't help but assume (as with analytic philosophers earlier) that when a pragmatist talks about developing a “meaningful life” he has something very specific in mind. (Such as, say, becoming “politically engaged” or even religiously engaged.)

Richard Rorty - who's sometimes called a neopragmatist - is even more explicit about the nature of his non-philosophical ends. He explicitly states that philosophy should be a tool of the philosopher's political, social and cultural goals, causes and dreams. This position clearly needs a non-pragmatic philosophical defence in order to stop it from being philosophically circular in nature. Yet Rorty - being Rorty - would probably have denied that and said something “ironic” or clever such as:

One's philosophical commitments to specific political, social and cultural goals is ultimately a mater of faith, not philosophy or reason.

So when pragmatists - and even a few analytic philosophers - say that philosophy should treat “real problems”, another philosopher can simply ask: Why? He can also ask: What, exactly, is a “real problem”? Even a commitment to “applied ethics” (which, presumably, tackles real problems) can motivate such questions.

For example, take the ultimate meta-ethical question: Why be moral at all? If a philosopher takes a position of amoralism or immoralism; then, presumably, he wouldn't have much work to do in applied ethics or ethics generally. Or perhaps he would. It's feasible that he could take an amoral or immoral position on all ethical positions. Though surely that would be hard work.

Philosophical Naturalism

Philosophical naturalism is certainly a metaphilosophical position in the simple sense that it takes a position on how philosophy should be done. Moreover, it says that there is indeed progress in philosophy if and only if (to use a cliché from analytic philosophy) philosophy takes strong account of science. Philosophical naturalists therefore believe that philosophical problems are “tractable through the methods of the empirical sciences”. Thus if science progresses or can solve problems, then so too can (naturalistic) philosophy.

Psychology is such a science; at least according to Quine. In his Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (1977), he wrote:

The stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody has had to go on, ultimately, in arriving at his picture of the world. Why not just see how this construction really proceeds? Why not settle for psychology?”

There are of course philosophical problems with philosophical naturalism and not all these problems will be relevant to all debates on metaphilosophy. The main problem is whether or not naturalistic philosophy can completely forgo the normative (at least in epistemology) and thus ever be entirely descriptive (if that ever was - or could be - the case).

Some naturalistic philosophers go one step further than Quine and other naturalists by actually doing science. One may therefore ask: If they actually do science, then aren't they scientists? How are these philosophers – called “experimentalists” by some - still actually philosophers? What does it mean to say that experimental philosophers do science?

Well, some philosophical experimentalists actually do empirical tests. Isn't this is simply one step on from Quine's subservience to psychology? And, of course, psychology and cognitive science can tell you, for example, how it is that people reason. Or, in Quine's case, how it is that they take in “sensory stimulation” and what it is they do with that information. Indeed one step further on from this would be for such psychologists to see how physicists take in sensory stimulation and then see what they do with that information.1

The obvious question now is:

Why should the collective way in which physicists take in information - and then make use of it - be of interest to a philosopher?

If physicists - according to Quine and other naturalists - tell us what there is, then finding out how such physicists take in sensory information - and then make use of that information - will be relevant to what philosophers also do. If philosophers ignore all this, then they'll be philosophising in the dark; and thus, perhaps, they'll be relying on their intuitions (on which much has been written).



1 A metaphilosopher - or simply a philosopher! - may comment on the relation between intuitions and a priori theorising and reject both. As a consequence of this, he may well make use of empirical research in his philosophical work. This may therefore be seen as a metaphilosophical position in that if one rejects a priori theorising and/or intuitions (or at least rejects one's reliance on them in philosophy), then one most also reject the large chunks of analytic philosophy which are said to use intuitions to get the philosophical ball rolling – or indeed to do more than that. (Ontic structural realists, for example, take a very strong stance against philosophical intuitions and see them as being basically irrelevant.) Again it can be asked if this is simply a philosophical dispute, not an example of a metaphilosophical stance. Would this rejection of intuitions be what's called “experimental philosophy”? Not necessarily, though it can be.

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