Thursday, December 13, 2012

Towards Orderly Discourse About What Philosophy Is

   A difficulty in discussing philosophy is that there are many conceptions of what it is.  These differences often lead to an inability to begin discussing, since the basic aims of the participants appear at odds with each other.  I am not interested here in arguing for any particular way to use the word 'philosophy', nor am I trying to promote anything other than orderly discourse.  I am interested in presenting general distinctions in the hope that they can be used to avoid conflicts that rest on misunderstandings.
   My approach will be to consider different ways of thinking about goals which I think are helpful for considering different uses of the term 'philosophy', and then illustrate them.  There are two distinctions that I will need to make in order to proceed.
   The first distinction concerns kinds of goals, which are either subjective and objective.  A subjective goal is concerned with a result in the subject (e.g., becoming warm when cold); an objective goal is concerned with some result in objects (e.g., a product as a final result of work).
   The second distinction concerns the kind of result expected by goals, which are either determined or undetermined.  A determined goal is one that has a specifiable state to bring about; an undetermined goal does not specify a particular result.
   I hope to clarify what these distinctions above by considering them in combination as providing different ways of philosophizing.

Determined Objective Goals
   If you philosophize in this way you are concerned with changing something about the world.  Perhaps you want to advance a discipline such as Physics, and so think through the consistency of different theories to advance the correct one; you may also have ideas for social or political changes that you would like bring about.  These would be determined objective goals.

Determined Subjective Goals
   If you philosophize in this way you are concerned with changing the subject (or other subjects).  Perhaps you want to instill a stoic outlook, or help others to take an interest in something, such as virtue.  These would be determined subjective goals.

Undetermined Goals
   Here there is difficulty addressing the objective and subjective, since it becomes clear that if the goal is undetermined we can not specify if it is one or the other.  However, I hope to say something about the objective and subjective after some exposition.  Also, this kind of goal for philosophy is the hardest to explain (at least for me), and the one I find least understood by those I speak with, and so I am giving myself more space for my exposition.
   With both objective and subjective determined goals for philosophy there is always some demand external to the activity which sets it to work.  If I am advancing a science, or the state, then there are goals to be accomplished that the philosophical activity seeks to satisfy.  An undetermined goal is an end in itself, that is, there is no external demand which the activity depends upon.  
   A peculiarity that we find now is that there is no reason to philosophize in an undetermined way, and so no justification for it; this has historically made this sort of philosophy look ridiculous.  However if we adjust our view, we can see that this kind of philosophizing occurs when we are unexpectedly brought into a kind of activity which may sustain itself in an open-ended way or opens up determined objective or subjective goals that we can pursue.
   We can make achieving an undetermined goal state into a goal, but when we ask if this goal is objective or subjective it seems difficult to answer.  Bringing about this state of activity with an undetermined goal is not clearly met by putting either the subject or objects into a certain specifiable state.  However, this weakness can become an advantage in characterizing this kind of philosophizing:  We can say tentatively that while seeking an undetermined goal state we must work to abstain from all externally determined goals.
   This sort of undetermined philosophical activity is captured in many thinkers in the history of philosophy, both in the process of the thinkers, as well as captured in themes.  Plato writes Socrates questioning the conceptions of his fellow citizens; Descartes tries to empty himself of pre-conceptions to find a necessary foundation; Aristotle discusses the highest virtue as contemplation - thought thinking itself; Kant discusses it in the judgment of taste as the foundation of logic; Heidegger tries continually to open himself, and those at his lectures, to the question posed by Being.

   By suggesting these distinctions I don't mean to decide what anyone should do.  Also, I do not want to suggest that anyone must pick one; we may constantly shift between them.  My goal is that after setting out these three types of philosophizing we can use the division to look at what people are doing at any point under the name of philosophy and consider the best approach to evaluate it and understand it better before disputing it simply because it does not sound like the sort of activity we may be interested in putting under the heading 'philosophy'.

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