Friday, 21 October 2011

Friday Question

This week's Friday question engages with the issue of the role and value of philosophy.

We have just witnessed the elections to the Students' Union council. A lot of students canvassed on a number of issues. One particular issue was that of free education, and I believe that some philosophy students canvassed under this issue. This raises the interesting question of the relationship of philosophy to politics and practical matters more generally. In particular, the question often arises as to what contribution philosophers have to make to society.

Marx famously stated that philosophers merely interpret the world, whereas the point is to change it. Now it is arguable that Marx was reacting to a form of speculative Hegelianism that did not put Hegelian philosophy to any practical use, whereas Marx saw a need for a practical kind of Hegelianism. Be that as it may, his position raises a serious question for the role of philosophy (and other speculative disciplines) within society.

There is no doubt that there are branches of philosophy that are highly speculative and of very little practical advantage. Tell a single parent struggling to make ends meet that the world is made up of discrete substances as the basic constituents of reality or that mind and world exist in two heterogeneous spaces and you will, if fortunate, be asked to leave their presence. On the other hand, tell such a person that it is the duty of the state to tax the rich and help the poor, provide free education, school dinners etc, he or she will soon become interested. The distinction is palatable: in some areas philosophy has a very practical use whereas in others it is seen to be abstract, stuffy, mere speculative reasoning with no connection to the matters of living.

On the other hand, speculative philosophers will claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, that once the necessities of life are taken care of, human beings do not curl up and go to sleep; rather they start to think about the starry heavens above and the moral law within, and seek to understand the world around them. There seems to be a drive in human beings to gain some kind of understanding of the world in which they live, in which case even when all the practical questions of life have been answered, there remains a longing to find out more. Speculative philosophy, just like any other speculative subject, answers to an innate desire to know, and just like the fulfilment of the desires for warmth, shelter, food etc, the fulfilment of the desire to know is its own reward, and thus ought to be prized as a goal in itself and not evaluated on the basis of its instrumentality to the state.

So we are left with an intriguing question, should speculative philosophy be a subject that is preserved in our university curricula and wider social framework, or should it be relegated to the private sphere and taken up only by those who have the time, money, and inclination to pursue it?


  1. Here is a brief unsystematic, even gestural response composed, in the main, of excerpts from Professor Josef Pieper, a 20th century german Thomist:

    The question of whether speculative philosophy ought to be "preserved" cannot be asked. The question is rather, "should speculative philosophy be resurrected"?

    The term 'speculative philosophy' is one darkly known to the contemporary mind and its ideal, it seems only weakly approximated here@QUB: in its 'purest sense'- that of theoria. It is, I contend, only as theoria that philosophy can to be considered as an end-in-itself. It is only as theoria that philosophy may be non-instrumentally defended.

    Philosophy "is properly called theoretical whenever the aim is to discover truth..the self-revelation of reality..and nothing else"(a statement contrary to all idealogical thought). It is the most "useless" and "unnecessary" of subjects, "but none is more important...necessariores omnes, nulla dignior".

    "After we have accomplished, with an admirable amount of intelligence and hard work all that is necessary, after we have provided for the basic needs of life, produced the essential foodstuff, protected the realm of life itself- after all this, what is the meaning of the life itself that we have thus made possible? How do we define a truly human life?"

    "to keep this question alive through honest and precise reasoning: this is the fundamental task of philosophy"

    "Never and nowhere else, except in the living and actual theoria of philosophy, is there found such a radical independence with regard to every imaginable subordination under practical goals (e.g. to transform the world, to become masters of nature, to earn money or prestige in the journals etc) This is the fundamental 'freedom' which is spoken of by Boethius, Aristotle and Aquinas.

    This is why Heidegger tells us, "It is entirely proper and perfectly as it should be that philosophy serves no purpose".

    "The loss of theoria means eo ipso the loss of the freedom of philosophy: philosophy then becomes a function within society, solely practical, and it must of course justify its existence and role among the functions of society".

    But let us ever be mindful that it is the "truth that sets us free" John 8,32


  2. Dear Gaven, this is an excellent and provocative post--thank you. Before engaging it, I was left with a question of clarification, which is: what counts as speculative philosophy, as you are framing the question. When I think of 'speculative philosophy' the first thing that comes to mind are the sort of baroque, abstract metaphysical theories offered by (among others) some of the 17th century rationalists. On this conception of speculative, I would not take some of the core areas of contemporary philosophy (i.e. epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind) to be speculative. However, you seem to be suggesting a wider conception of speculative philosophy here, one that includes all philosophy that does not directly engage with humans' (somewhat immediate) practical ends. On such a conception, all areas of philosophy barring applied philosophy (i.e. applied ethics, medical ethics, bioethics, some applied political philosophy) qualify as speculative. This said, is your core question one concerning speculative philosophy narrowly or more broadly construed?

  3. Dear patrickmcglinchey,

    You describe theoretical philosophy (or quote someone else as describing theoretical philosophy) as inquiry with "the aim is to discover truth" or as involving "the self-revelation of reality." I guess I'm not sure how this characterization distinguishes theoretical philosophy (or, for that matter, philosophy more generally) from inquiry of any old sort. Perhaps, the difference is supposed to come in the "and nothing else" part of the quote, but often we are interested in inquiring into the truth for its own sake in ways that do not seem especially philosophical. Many people, for instance, take a keen interest in knowing (the truth) about the lives of celebrities when that knowledge appears to have no bearing on the practical matters of their lives. Presumably, they are not engaged in philosophy when they read celebrity magazines.

    In light of these considerations, can you say a bit more about how you are thinking of theoretical philosophy that would help me to understand your conclusions a bit better?

  4. Dear Gaven,

    I wonder whether the distinction that you attempt to draw between "speculative" and "non-speculative" philosophy is principled. By way of analogy, I suppose that one can draw a distinction between "speculative" or "theoretical" physics and "applied" physics, but I don't know that there is a principled distinction between the two. Any "theoretical" physical theory can turn out to be very relevant to "applied" physics if we find the right sort of application for the theory. (Quantum theory might seem pretty removed from ordinary life, but that can change; this past week, I discovered that there is a Quantum Institute for Computing in Waterloo, Ontario Canada.) Even if it is somewhat remote from applications, perhaps metaphysics and other "speculative" areas of philosophy can find ways to be relevant too, as, I think, the debates over how to make sense of mental causation might suggest.

  5. Dear Ben
    This in a way takes in something that Adam said.
    To answer Adam's point, I here take speculative in the genral sense, and practical in the applied sense.

    So to your point Ben, I would certainly think along the lines that the distinction between speculative and practical philosophy is not so much a matter of kind but of degree. So at one end of the spectrum we can have highly speculative metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, etc discussions pursued simply to get to the bottom of the issues involved. Then at the other end we can have the practical application of the conclusions reached in such speculative areas. The most apparent case of this is progress from moral theory to applied ethics, but as you note, purely speculative discussions in metaphysics, say over causality, can filter down into practical philosophy.

    The issue I want to raise here is whether or not the speculative end of the scale should be pursued irrespective of whether or not there is any knock on effect at the pratical end. In other words, is there any value to speculative philosophy simply in and of itself, as opposed to any practical application to which it may be put?

  6. Hi Gaven,

    I guess I wouldn't be surprised if the answer were "No" if we were excluding every kind of instrumental value that it has. Speculative philosophy might have instrumental value due to a particular kind of enjoyment that some of us experience when we engage in it (perhaps partly because of our curious natures). It might also have instrumental value due to the way that it trains people to think clearly and rigorously, which is useful in other domains. Finally, it might have instrumental value because of its applications. However, if we exclude all of this instrumental value, it's not clear to me that there is any further value. (That's, of course, not saying there isn't further value, it's just saying that I'm open to that possibility.)

    Of course, I'm not sure there's anything special about "philosophy" here. I think that the same sort of issues arise when thinking about the value of inquiry more generally...

  7. Hi Ben
    I am not sure that we have to exclude every kind of instrumental value that philosophy has in order to consider it merely as speculative. For instance, at the extreme speculative end of philosophy, it can satisfy a desire to know, in which case it has an instrumental value in satisfying such a desire, even though it, at that end of the scale, has no practical application (this ties in with my taking speculative in the wider sense indicated by Adam).

    What I want to know is whether or not the instrumentality signified by practical application, e.g. applied ethics, political philosophy, or more generally, ability to secure career prospects, is to be the yardstick by which we measure philosophy?