Monday, February 18, 2013

On Some Types of Philosophy

Sometimes, I really don't know what it is that I do. More often than not, I call myself a philosopher, but I am so confused as to what philosophy is (as everybody is in my discipline) that the best anyone can do is tell you they know what philosophy is when they see it. Sure, I have an approach, and while I can give that two cent story, let me first meditate on why we tell the stories of justification that we do.

Not only are philosophers confused about the methodological approaches and limitations to philosophy itself, we hold steadfast to a few beliefs in light of this confusion. We may hold these beliefs tentatively as teachers of philosophy. For the moment, we might think that philosophy is the attempt to arrive at clear and distinct ideas, to get clear on our sense impressions, to abandon foundations altogether and seek out the conditions that barely hold experience together. Let's call this philosophy-in-the-teaching-moment. This definition shifts as we teach survey courses or issues. This approach is the easiest, and we need not be beholden to our own thoughts insofar as we are charged with teaching the thought of others.  The philosopher gets lost in the teaching moment, and actively avoids defining what philosophy is.

Next, there is the privileging-of-epistemology approach. If there was one justification story about philosophy and its function, I would think this the most commonly repeated story of the 20th century analytic tradition. All philosophical problems are thought in reference to the imagined position of an epistemic subject. Indeed, this approach is the most useful contribution analytic philosophy makes, and when philosophy is written at its clearest, philosophers have this epistemic position in mind.

The problem with the epistemic viewpoint approach to philosophy is the oversimplifying nature such a position entails. Many philosophers reduce all other forms of inquiry to the epistemic subject such that pre-cognitive levels of experience become distorted and oversimplified to the point that this position vitiates lived-experience. If experience is no longer a guiding concept and philosophers idealize the epistemic position, then the transforming of philosophy into problems is itself an idealization that severs philosophy from attempting to link the concerns with lived-experience and those philosophizing. The problems construed by analytic philosophers often seem irrelevant to the common concerns of human beings. One finds it commonplace that elite philosophers often scoff at the criticism that they have made themselves irrelevant by abandoning experience.

Next, there is the experience-based approach to philosophy. I am very closely attuned to this approach, though admittedly there are fair criticisms one may bring to bear. Exemplified in phenomenological and pragmatist approaches, experience-based philosophers attempt to connect philosophical reflection to lived-expeirence. The phenomenologist attempts to describe how conscious acts correlate to their attendant objects, and pragmatists desire reflection to bear out in the consequences of action. While both differ in the methodological assumptions, the overlap consists in describing the stuff of immediate experience and keeping true to the immediacy as it becomes conceptualized. Thus, philosophy is a rendering of experience, and by connecting reflection to experience, a therapeutic element underlies both attempts. For instance, in phenomenology, by rendering experience, the phenomenologist promotes eidetic seeing to others. In pragmatism, one generates concepts ameliorative to illuminating truths for an entire culture.

The limitation of experience-based approaches lies in the plausibility stories of why such methods work. For the phenomenologist, one must accept wholeheartedly something like intentionality (as I do), and for the pragmatist, one must have a very thick conception of how experience works. In fact, Deweyans have a very developed epistemology and logic found in Dewey's thought called "the theory of inquiry." These very thick conceptions of experience may be as built up naively as the epistemic position is for analytic thinking.

Third, there is the philosophy-qua-science approach. In this approach, philosophers attempt to anticipate the now metaphysical problem of what x is such that when science takes over the domain of explaining x, philosophical framework may anticipate and lay a basis for scientific inquiry. Cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind often work with this approach. The philosophers seem to follow the empirical research, but empirical researchers could care little if anything for the philosophical speculation. Philosophers push the concepts farther than empirical interpretation can. In that way, the philosophers take on the duty of imagining frameworks that might be the rubric of theorizing later on for philosophers.

Many of the analytic approaches to philosophy take the scientific position naively.

Fourth, there exists a discourse-hermeneutic approach to philosophy. Slightly related to the experience-based approach, discourse-hermeneutic approach considers philosophical reflection a type of excavation of those historical continuities that constitute the possibility of our own reflection. Philosophy's task in this approach is to preserve modesty since reflection cannot transcend history, context and language. These three things circumscribe our attempts at thinking, and in some sense, this approach brings to light how the transgression of history, context and language leads to abuses. Under this umbrella, one might consider feminist/social epistemology's critique of mainstream views of the epistemic subject an example of this approach. Foucault's analysis of power in contextual circumstances

So here are several "stories" we tell ourselves about philosophy. There is nothing to prevent the synthesis of these boundaries from flowing into each other, and I do not discriminate about which is proper. For me, all of them have their upshots and shortcomings. What we can notice is that once we tell a particular story, we provide a justification for what the activity of philosophizing is. Each justification is an interpretive story of a set of assumptions, all of which cannot be brought out into relief at any one time. Yet, when these approaches are brought together, their frailties and strength can be seen in equal measure. Furthermore, I do not think my list or brief explanation sufficient for all varieties of philosophy.

In these stories, we read the history of thought and our place in it. To be a phenomenologist is to be committed to thinking philosophy should outline the contours of experience before imposing ontological assumptions about reality onto the experience. While that can illuminate some features, it can conceal others and philosophical reflection becomes - at least for me - a way of navigating larger issues in cultural experience, drudging up aspects of experience that constitute but remain hidden. For instance, the way we talk about unmanned drones conceals the assumptions behind the forceful rhetoric used in the media. We talk of "collateral damage" in war since those killed do not matter to us as much as the measure of the US military's success. The success of the mission matters more than the occasional blunder, yet when we think about it, "collateral damage" is a de-personalizing term. It de-personalizes the young Afghani mother or son killed with a precision guided missile. What gets concealed is the depth and mystery we find in experience, but often overlooked.

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