Ethical education and philosophy

A little while back, N.N. of Methods of Projection posted a link to some papers by P.M.S. Hacker. I tend not to find Hacker very illuminating, especially as a reader of Wittgenstein, since I think he tends to underestimate the radical shift in philosophical methodology that Wittgenstein tries to effect. Hacker’s own conception of the tasks and methods of philosophy are outlined in his paper, ‘Philosophy: A contribution, not to human knowledge, but to human understanding.’ As a slogan, this is quite attractive, although the way Hacker spells it out, assigning philosophy the job of untangling conceptual confusions, strikes me as too rigid a view of what philosophy can and should achieve, even if I agree with its opposition to a conception of philosophy as in the business of providing explanations with a scientific form. Here, I shall just point to one analogy in the paper that did strike me as very useful:

Precisely because philosophy is not a quest for knowledge but for understanding, what it achieves can no more be transmitted from generation to generation than virtue. Philosophical education can show the way to philosophical clarity, just as parents can endeavour to inculcate virtue in their children. But the temptations, both old and new, of illusion, mystification, arid scholasticism, scientism, and bogus precision fostered by logical technology may prove too great, and philosophical insight and overview may wane. Each generation has to achieve philosophical understanding for itself, and the insights and clarifications of previous generations have to be gained afresh.

The analogy with ethical education is very apt, and is especially helpful when we think about philosophy’s relation to its own history. It’s no accident that the best philosophy is always in dialogue with the wider tradition and that the insights of that tradition have to be reclaimed again and again, unlike, for example, those of mathematical knowledge, which can be transmitted from one generation to the next with relative ease. I think this observation sits well with my recent post on ‘Philosophy as Bildung.

3 thoughts on “Ethical education and philosophy

  1. Since reading this I’ve been thinking about what my view is on these questions (and what it should be). I think there are two things in the neighbourhood that are interesting.

    (i) I’ve always been disinclined to the view that philosophy is just a matter of clearing up confusions. Suppose someone really believes that, wouldn’t they just go and do something else? (ii) I like the idea that what philosophers do is to think hard about certain problems and then try and say true things about them. I take that to be what scientists do too.

    It might be very significant that philosophers go round in circles more, but it’s not clear to me what the significance actually is.

  2. With respect to (i), I don’t see why that follows. Clearing up confusions — specifically, conceptual ones — can be valuable in any number of ways. You need not suppose that philosophy is in the business of systematic theory building for it to do any good. Take Hacker’s own work with neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett, such as their book, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. They claim that neuroscience is hindered by a number of conceptual confusions, such as the predication of personal properties to sub-personal systems, which stand in the way of concrete progress in the activity of neuroscience. I don’t want to endorse any of the specific claims of Bennett and Hacker’s book, but the project seems like it could be a valuable one in principle.

    Or take Wittgenstein on this topic — a quote I’ve posted before — from PI 118-9:

    Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving only bits of stone and rubble.) What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.

    The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or other piece of plain nonsense and of other bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of inquiry.

    Perhaps the idea that philosophy is in the business of resolving confusions seems tedious only when philosophical activities, and the confusions they deal with, are conceived as distant from concrete practice. But, as I see it, the sorts of problems pregnant for philosophical treatment are to be found everywhere. People, myself included, are forever using concepts like value, responsibility, cause, reason, and so on, in befuddled ways — and philosophical inquiry can help straighten this out without needing to rely on a general philosophy of mind or systematic theory of meaning. Ordinary life, let alone more specialised activities within it, is filled with bad philosophy in this sense! As I say, I do not think that ‘clearing up conceptual confusions’ will do as a good gloss on what philosophy can legitimately do, but philosophy would still be valuable if it were.

    Turning to (ii), your characterisation of philosophy seems too wide to be of any use: it just seems to pick out the notion of inquiry in general. It does not seem to exclude the idea that philosophy is in the business of clearing up conceptual confusions, though I suppose it needn’t do that. But nor does it exclude what literary scholars, historians or theologians are up to. And it seems to me that it also includes the activity of engineers, town planners and even artists. This latter group are all engaged in tasks that aren’t just ‘thinking about problems and trying to say true things about them’ but result in some sort of technical practice or effect; but this is equally true of much scientific work. Thus, it seems to me that your description of philosophy is too thin to be of much help. Perhaps you assigned a more determinate sense to what a ‘problem’ consists in than is apparent here, though that would need to be spelled out.

    Furthermore, I think what you say risks distorting the activity of science. The idea that scientists ‘think about problems and try to say true things about them’ is, of course, true. But this can be misleading if it is taken as a general model for scientific activity. It may not lead you too far astray when thinking about mathematical physicists sitting in rooms with blackboards scrawled with string-theory equations. But it is less apt for geologists, materials scientists or agronomists, say. This is because it risks leaving out the sense in which science is entwined with a craft tradition of experimentation, instrument construction and field research that is more practical and technical than narrowly theoretic, even if you take a physical theory to be their end-point. Knowledge, we might say, is the goal of science — though devising a list of true propositions is rarely the best way of capturing the extent of this knowledge, nor what scientific institutions ought or actually do produce.

  3. I think I agree with most of what you’ve said. You’re right that it’s the clearing up of conceptual problems that are apart from other areas of life that I find particularly sterile. Doing what Hacker and Bennett do (although I’m not familiar with their work) seems like it wouldn’t face this problem. I certainly didn’t intend to suggest that it can never be useful to think about conceptual issues.

    I would say that my endorsement of (ii) helps with this. If there are no clear boundaries between science, philosophy, history, literary scholarship, theology etc. then there is room to work on problems of both knowledge and understanding in lots of ways. There would also be no principled distinction between systematic philosophy and systematic thought about anything else. (I take it that you think the former is bad and the latter is fine.) I like this result.

    I’m not sure I accept your point about the distortion of science, at least not all of it. That a materials scientist has to have a lot of practical skills doesn’t seem to me a problem. You need some practical skills for any field, and whether they are really part of it doesn’t strike me as particularly important. I take it that you could say either and as long as nobody is confused everything will be fine. The point of having the skills is to find things out. You might argue that some of what goes on in such fields is the creation of knowledge, but not the collecting of new propositions. That might well be bad for my view, but I’m not convinced that it’s true. As far as I can see it’s an open question.

    Does this make philosophy ‘too thin’? I agree that it suggests that there isn’t much that is distinctly philosophical. I’m not too unhappy to bite that bullet.

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