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What Philosophy is Not What Philosophy is Not
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-04-01 12:19:25
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When I teach an Introduction to Philosophy course, the first thing I do is disabuse students of certain common misconceptions about philosophy. First and foremost is the one that claims that philosophy is a discipline, or a science if you will, as any other science and discipline they discern on the school’s catalogue and for which they need to earn credits to be able to graduate. I tell them at the outset that philosophy is different from other subjects because it deals with questions whose answers may be controversial. By contrast, in an introductory course in physics, let’s say, the questions one starts with have answers all bona fide respectable physicists agree on. The student is expected to accept and master these answers and be able to give them when asked in a quiz or a major exam. Students assume philosophy works the same way.  

Usually the more perceptive students will retort that in physics too there are lots of controversial questions and answers in physics too where the experts in the field disagree on the answers; to which I usually answer that you don’t get those questions in physics until much later, perhaps in graduate school while studying for a master or a Ph.D. in the field. In philosophy however you begin with contested matters. Rather than presenting the student with a variety of basic truths that he/she is expected to accept, it provides him/her with contested matters right from the beginning. Each answer is accompanied by reasoning, the essence of philosophy, to try to make you accept it while rejecting the alternatives.

To illustrate this a bit I tell students that philosophy is not concerned so much with how things work and function but with meaning, with the why things exist and what is their purpose; it is moreover  a little bit like an ancient Greek drama: there are various characters which correspond to the position the character holds. Plato’s dialogues, while having a main interlocutor, usually Socrates, will have other characters such as sophists, or epicureans, or atomists, or pragmatists, or transcendentalists, or rationalists, or intuitionists, etc. Admittedly those dialogue do not resemble a play by Sophocles or Aristophanes, the characters are a bit one-dimensional and not so emotionally exciting; one discerns no plot and no dramatic tension; in short we ought not confuse philosophy for good theater which it does not claim to be.

So right at the outset the beginner philosophy student is confronted with a rich variety of contrary answers. This is intentional in the Socratic method of question and answer with which ancient Greek philosophy begins. There none of the conflicting views is presented as the only one the student is supposed to accept. There is no official orthodox doctrine imposed on anybody, albeit each position to be philosophically respectable has to be supported by reason and rationality. Each may be supported by very good philosophers and opposed by other philosophers just as good.

At this point the student may be a bit confused and troubled by the uncertainty of it all to which, as a veteran student of scientific subjects he is not accustomed to,  and may even ask “but which position are we supposed to believe”? This may be translatable into: “which position do you accept as correct so that I can put that on my exam and get a good grade”? Sometimes it is genuine perplexity. I answer it by reiterating that their first job as philosophy students is to obtain first a thorough understanding and appreciation for a number of different competing answers to the same question. That if they think that any of the various answers proposed are plain silly or stupid, then it is possible that they have not understood them fully. In any case, all the contrary positions are vying for the prize which is their acceptance, not that of the professor. One can achieve success and good grades in a philosophy course no matter what position one winds up believing. Which is to say, everything is up for grabs and reason is the only rigorous limiting boundary.

I also stress that everyone of the positions mentioned in their text is a live contemporary issue and has been accepted or rejected by some pretty smart philosopher in the 2000 plus year history of Western philosophy; that unless we wish to reinvent the wheel and waste our time and energies doing so, we need to know those positions. The thing to remember is that each position contradicts other attempts to answer a particular question, so they cannot all be right. Neither should the student maintain an attitude of indecision on who is right and who is wrong. What they should strive to do is to remain open-minded and then after careful consideration decide on the matter and express their decision in a lucid philosophical mode.

I then move on to the explanation of what is meant by an argument in philosophy. An argument or argumentation is not understood as a disagreement involving raising of one’s voice, insults, slamming of doors, food fights, what goes under the name of “argumentum ad hominem.” In philosophy an argument is a set of considerations that attempt to give convincing reasons for some specific conclusion. This is vital to the philosophical endeavor. It is insufficient and unacceptable in philosophy, merely to express and forcefully announce one’s opinions because after all “I strongly believe in them, and I am entitled to my opinion like everybody else, and one needs to be modern and not medieval in one’s thinking and I’ll defend with my life, or perhaps with a gun, my right to my own opinions….” What the student must do rather is to defend those opinions, whatever they may be, with rational arguments pro or con of a particular issue and say clearly and rationally what is right or what is wrong with them. That, and not agreeing or disagreeing with the professor’s views is what will net them an A in the course.

An argument has two parts: 1) the assumptions (or premises) and 2) the conclusion or what the person presenting the argument is trying to give you reasons to believe. Here is an example, although properly speaking this is not a philosophical argument. The cookie jar is open and all the cookies are gone. Sophie must have been here since she is the only one who likes cookies. The conclusion here is that Sophie was here; the premises are that the cookie jar is empty and that Sophie is the only one who could be responsible for that. If the assumptions are not true then the conclusion has no credence either. Hence an important way to criticize an argument is to challenge its assumptions. In our case, was the jar open? And is Sophie really the only one who likes and eats cookies? Often the assumptions are unstated, so the evaluation of an argument often rests on making the assumptions explicit and simply asking whether they are really true.

However, even when the premises are true, it still does not make the conclusion believable if the premises do not give much logical support to the conclusion. Here what is being criticized is the logic rather than its premises. One can agree that Sophie is the only one who eats cookies and that the jar is open but one can imagine other plausible reason why the jar is open.

A common way to criticize the logic of an argument in philosophy is the “that’s just-like-arguing” criticism. What is done is to produce a different argument with true premises and a clearly false conclusion, but in which the reasoning process is the same as in the one you’re criticizing. For example suppose you are interested in demonstrating the defective logic of this argument: “For many centuries, every culture has included a belief in God. Therefore God really does exist.” One can easily cast doubt on this argument by pointing out that this is just like arguing that for centuries every culture included the belief that the world is flat, therefore the world is really flat. The power of this criticism depends on whether the logic of the mistaken argument (the second one) is the same as the logic of the argument one wishes to criticize.

So, both of these types of criticism (of its logic and of its premises) are ways to try to show that an argument does not establish its conclusion. A conclusion may be unsupported by a particular argument. A more direct way to try to show the falsity of some views and that is to provide an argument against it. One may argue in this way: “If that position were true, then it would follow that X; but X is obviously false.” This works provided the X in question really does follow from the position, and that X is obviously false. The defenders on the other hand will try to show either that X doesn’t follow, or that X is not obviously false.

A great deal of the fascination of philosophy is derived from examining the ingenious arguments devised by the great philosophers in favor of positions one tends to think as implausible or even bizarre, or discovering unexpected criticisms of arguments one thought were good ones. But, as I tell students, the greatest excitement comes from the opportunity to create and criticize arguments oneself; in the attempt to formulate the right question and the right answer oneself; that is to say the attempt to create persuasive arguments in favor of one’s answer, for philosophy is not so much in the business of supplying the right answers as science is, but of supplying the right questions and reasoning to the right answers. The other side of the coin here is that in coming across someone else’s answer, one stops and evaluates it and the argument used to support it; that is to say, one identifies the conclusion or the argument and its assumed premises, making its unstated assumptions explicit in one’s mind. And if the argument fails for one reason or other, how can it be fixed? Are there other ways to argue for its conclusion?

After the above preamble, I will usually assign to the students some logic exercises from the text to be done at home and to then be worked out together in the next class. The Ovi readers may at this point feel the need for some more illustrative concrete existential examples of the above described rather theoretical philosophical principles of argumentation. Well, while I will stop for now, let me announce that there are some dialogues, a la Socrates or a la Plato, coming up in the near future on various crucial contemporary existential concerns and they may turn out to be fun as well as instructive. So, stay tuned!     

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Emanuel Paparella2013-04-01 13:47:51
Footnote: occasionally one gets a student in class who simply wants pat answers to be listed neatly in a notebook, memorized and regurgitated on an exam. He/she simply will not entertain the anxiety of keeping an open mind on any issue till all the arguments pro and con are in; they find it hard to entertain the uncertainty of temporary answers which may change in the future falsifying a whole elaborate rational scheme. They long and in fact expect the precision and abstraction of mathematics or chemistry. When those students engage in philosophical debate their usual attitude is this: everyone is entitled to their own opinion, every story has different perspective and interpretations for it is all in the eye of the beholder, therefore no argument is better or worse than any other. I tell them that in that case there are some 7 billion opinions on any issue including ethical issues and it would be either impossible or futile to come to school to learn them all; but in any case while they are entitled to their opinion, wise or foolish as it may prove to be under the light of reason, they are not entitled to invent their facts and then use them as premises for their philosophical arguments to reach conclusions that favor their particular pet biases; if they do that habitually they will not be very successful in passing a philosophy course.

I make sure though that I never give them these advises on April fool day or they may think that philosophy as a whole is a big joke. Some begin the course with that idea in their head. Since this piece has come out on April fool day, I trust the readers will kindly not think likewise and will give a chance to the announced future philosophical dialogues.

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