Monday, 28 June 2010

What is philosophy for?

Once upon a time, or so I've heard, three Greek philosophers sat in a taverna arguing about the number of teeth a horse had. Their arguments were rigorous and elegant. One applied principles of symmetry. The second considered the nature of grass whilst the third drew on Plato's doctrine of ideal forms. Finally, unable to agree and somewhat drunk, they approached an Arab merchant at the next table to judge between them.
The merchant listened carefully and then asked to be briefly excused. On his return he gave judgment. The losers were upset and demanded that he explain what was wrong with their arguments.
"Arguments be dammed" said the Arab "I went to the stables and counted them!"

I was reminded of this several times on Saturday at the BHA's conference on Humanism, Philosophy and the Arts. Interspersed with singing, poetry and two non-philosophical speeches three humanist philosophers offered persuasive arguments about the role of the Arts and their relevance to humanism. The philosophers made many claims about facts. For instance, Richard Norman and Nigel Warburton argued that humanists could appreciate religious art just as much as the religious could whilst Richard Norman claimed that WW1 war poetry had changed our attitudes to war. Now these are factual claims that should be settled by empirical investigation. The first needs the methods of psychology and the second of history. Neither can be resolved by the methods of philosophy.

I was still wrestling with this after lunch when Julian Baggini spoke on Hollywood vs. Philosophy. One of his points connected with mine for he said that philosophy is not usually an argument; it's more often an attempt to draw the reader's attention to a fact or connection that he may have overlooked. That, it seems to me, is a very useful approach when approaching an issue but it's not very useful for settling it. Philosophers may help us to understand what teeth are and what is to qualify as a horse - even perhaps what counting means - but if you really want an answer you can believe in you just have to go to the stables with the Arab and start counting.

I think Francis Crick got it right in conversation with Sue Blackmore: “philosophers often ask good questions but they have no techniques for getting the answers. … A lot of problems that were once regarded as philosophical are … now … part of physics” Or, I might add, history, sociology or psychology.

In the last 200 years scientists and other empirical scholars have got much better at finding data and at connecting those data with longstanding intellectual problems (as well as with major practical problems and, regrettably, trifling pseudo-intellectual ones). The process is incomplete but it expends inexorably to address issues of religion, aesthetics and morality.

And it is not just religious and political ideologues who will be upset by what the facts tell us.