Where to put the question marks

Picking up on Toby Newson’s inaugural article for this section of The Bubble (Reactions to Philosophy, October 2010), I’d like to examine how one might respond to the question as to what it is that philosophers do. We will ignore some of the rigours of undergraduate philosophy, which at times, sifting through the influential but largely discredited theories of the Ancient Greeks or early Scholastics, seems more like an exercise in the history of philosophy. That’s not to say that the study of old philosophy is worthless, but this article will instead explore what it is to do philosophy as a contemporary activity. Philosophy, though it may not seem it when one is forced to examine scholarship on three thousand year old thoughts, has changed enormously, but the general attitude required for it has not.

Good philosophy makes as few assumptions as possible. Bad philosophy makes many. Assumptions are the enemy of good philosophy, much like any other discipline. But it is the nature of the sorts of assumptions with which we are dealing that makes philosophy somewhat unique. The discovery of an assumption in a theory of physics, economics, or history can first be used to dismantle the justification of an argument, and then investigated to draw up new results and an improved theory. When something presumed to be a constant turns out in fact to be a variable in physics or economics, this leads researchers to gather evidence, and then recalibrate their model or theory. In history, a fresh source or newly discovered factor may be taken into account in order to offer an improved evaluation of the causes of a particular event. Here, empirical data can be sourced, and the data itself, when drawn up into tables and charts, often leaves very little room for interpretation. The new conclusion is therefore made almost inevitable by the acquisition of fresh data.

Philosophy has no such luxury. For when we make assumptions, and are found out, the assumption is almost invariably one based purely in thought. If our argument has succumbed to an assumption we can seek very little empirical evidence. Tangible evidence that directly affects philosophical theory is rare and, when it exists, rarely conclusive. That is not to say that a posteriori knowledge, knowledge gained from experience, is never admissible. That is a quite different debate. I merely mean that data that can be gathered, tabulated, and processed into spreadsheets and graphs, forcing a particular conclusion almost on its own, is largely irrelevant to philosophy in comparison with other subjects.

The task of a good philosopher, then, is to make the logic of the argument irreproachable. So we must first select an assumption about the nature of the world to challenge. Then, in our response, we must take care not to make any further assumptions when presenting our critique of the initial one.

Two questions arise here. First, what kind assumptions do we challenge in philosophy? Second, what do we do when we discover one, if, as in most cases, empirical evidence is irrelevant? The answer to the first question is, theoretically, anything. Philosophers have doubted, and some continue to doubt, the very existence of the world around us. We need not concern ourselves with this here. For there are many everyday assumptions philosophers challenge that can have very real effects and benefits when considered and answered. Such everyday assumptions are often built around our preconceptions, informed by our sociological backgrounds. The influences to which we have been exposed throughout our lives tend to express themselves in the way in which we perceive and judge the world. Perhaps the best examples of this involve value perception, particularly ethics and aesthetics. I will present how this might work for ethics; the parallels for aesthetics will, by the end, hopefully be clear enough.

For example, when a politician proposes that some new piece of legislation will make people’s lives better, the economist might ask how it will affect our finances, the sociologist, perhaps, the family unit. The philosopher asks, what is our fundamental assumption about what constitutes a better life? A common preconception amongst non-philosophers would be that the sum total of increased happiness amongst the population resulting from this legislation must outweigh the increased unhappiness. This is a very basic form of utilitarianism; an ethical system stating that the moral value of an action depends on the outcome in these terms. So there we have an assumption: that this is our sole criterion for a good action or piece of legislation.

The philosopher ought to question this, and ask whether this is justified. Might we not have a different conception of moral value? There are plenty of other ethical theories. We could choose any of them. So, we put the question mark down deeper. What justifies any choice of a moral theory? To what do we point when explaining our selection of a moral theory, be it utilitarian or otherwise? This leads eventually to metaethics, questioning what is good and why it is so. To justify such answers rooted in metaethics we might turn to metaphysics, asking whether there are universals or abstract objects that render the propositions of metaethics true or false. From there, we can question the validity of metaphysics at all, whether there are any of these peculiar, intangible objects at all, or whether there is simply nothing there and we are being deceived by language.

So, to the second question, what do we do when we discover an assumption? We cannot point to conclusive empirical data of the sort available to other subjects. So, we tend to look at the level of reasoning below the assumption. Once a preconception is shown to be unfounded, new possibilities for what might take its place open up. To argue for a fresh conception, we need to supply a fresh justification. To do this, we must consider what might sustain such an argument. So our evidence is sourced from below the level of that which we are trying to ascertain. From smaller components, we attempt to craft a clearer and truer view of the larger whole.

Just like a building, an argument needs supporting from beneath. As we look deeper – at, say, the metaethics underlying our ethical theory, or the metaphysics underlying our metaethics – there are more assumptions to uncover and challenge. This process ought to go as far down as it possibly can. Of course, each philosopher takes on a small section. Rarely does a philosopher attempt a holistic theory of everything. But from an already immense range of everyday things to question on the surface of our lives – ethical and aesthetic values, existential questions of human interaction – the range expands further as we probe deeper. The trick is to put the question marks down deep enough.

Labelling anything in philosophy as fundamental is dangerous. That which we call fundamental might reveal itself only to be assumed to be fundamental; might there not be something beyond it? But if we are in need of some response to the question, “What is it that we do in philosophy?”, perhaps a reasonable answer would be: we take nothing for granted.

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