How to Do Philosophy

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

In How to Do Philosophy, Paul Graham notes that “judging from their works, most philosophers up to the present have been wasting their time”:

Traditional philosophy occupies a kind of singularity in this respect. If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students. Till one knows better, it’s hard to distinguish something that’s hard to understand because the writer was unclear in his own mind from something like a mathematical proof that’s hard to understand because the ideas it represents are hard to understand. To someone who hasn’t learned the difference, traditional philosophy seems extremely attractive: as hard (and therefore impressive) as math, yet broader in scope. That was what lured me in as a high school student.

This singularity is even more singular in having its own defense built in. When things are hard to understand, people who suspect they’re nonsense generally keep quiet. There’s no way to prove a text is meaningless. The closest you can get is to show that the official judges of some class of texts can’t distinguish them from placebos.

And so instead of denouncing philosophy, most people who suspected it was a waste of time just studied other things. That alone is fairly damning evidence, considering philosophy’s claims. It’s supposed to be about the ultimate truths. Surely all smart people would be interested in it, if it delivered on that promise.

His proposal:

Perhaps we should do what Aristotle meant to do, instead of what he did. The goal he announces in the Metaphysics seems one worth pursuing: to discover the most general truths. That sounds good. But instead of trying to discover them because they’re useless, let’s try to discover them because they’re useful.
The test of utility I propose is whether we cause people who read what we’ve written to do anything differently afterward. Knowing we have to give definite (if implicit) advice will keep us from straying beyond the resolution of the words we’re using.

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