Tag Archives: reason

Why Is Philosophy–and Reason As A Whole–So Often Ignored?

This is a reply to an article recently published on the Huffington Post Keith M. Parsons, called “What Is the Public Value of Philosophy?” Go read it.
I'll Wait
In this article, Dr. Parsons defends the public value–that is the value to the taxpayer–of teaching philosophy. He appears to believe that the primary reason people ignore or question the value of philosophy is its obscurity of chosen topics and methodology. I will attempt an alternative explanation of the criticisms and general disregard for philosophy as a field.

I don’t agree that it is obscurity that makes philosophy unpopular (have you ever played Pokemon? Learned the details of the DC Comics universe? Now THAT’S obscure). It’s not the jargon, either; every profession and subculture at this point uses some jargon and it has become normal to include little dictionaries in one’s FAQs. Hyperlinking and hypertext, in general, makes such terms of art more easily accessible than ever before, and such use of language does not create a similar barrier to similarly jargon-filled fields like computer science and law. No one questions/ignores the usefulness of combinatorics or contract law because it requires specialized language to engage in a specialized task, or regularly implies that stoned teenagers are the equivalent to people with multiple specialized degrees in the field…that is uniquely a charge leveled against philosophy.

Instead, I would argue that it is precisely what philosophy and reason qua reason wants to do, and always has, that makes it unpopular with everyone from the teen rationalizing why she “deserves” to borrow the car to those attempting to start religious wars: to understand the truth. It is the same reason science has been attacked since its inception. Philosophy is unpopular and anti-intellectualism to the point of misology is the norm throughout much of history for the simple reason that it serves the perceived interests of many, many people to believe–and persuade others to believe–untrue things.

I would further argue that this desire for limited applications of reason is present within most of us to some degree. Philosophy tends not to allow the many accommodations and compromises any given society must make with its collective conscience. Ethics, properly argued, tends to attempt to justify various obligations, and much of human behavior is attempting to rebuke and ignore such obligations…and their consequences for the moral status of the average participant. When someone, looking at my iPhone, informs me of the problematic ethics of the practices that led to its manufacture and low price, they are implicitly making a normative ethical claim along the lines of

“In order to be a good person, you are obligated not to participate in evil acts willingly and willfully. Since a purchase of an iPhone is a willful act, and I have made you aware of the evils committed in its manufacture and pricing, you are thus obligated to refuse to further participate in those evils.”

These sorts of claims make us uncomfortable for various reasons, and there are all sorts of ways to pick at them, but the argument is there and people make it. Similar arguments are made involving eating meat, ethical treatment of test animals and pets, etc. We don’t want to really give up our lives, but it’s also clear that a consistent ethical examination argues that much of our lives come about through blameworthy and unnecessary actions on the parts of various people very carefully not considering the moral salience of their actions. Since we neither wish to feel like we are bad people nor wish to give up our lives, we–often tacitly–reject the easily ignored and immaterial concept that forces us to do one or the other: reason.

Shall we ask ourselves the moral status of turning ones ethical agency over to the proxy agent of the “superior officer” or “chain of command” when one cannot ascertain the ethical status of that proxy or when the ethical status of that proxy is known to be untrustworthy (at best) or blameworthy (at worst)? It is very important to almost all current cultures that enlistment in military and civil service is considered morally praiseworthy…and that importance, both militarily and as an issue of morale and narrative consistency, eclipses many people’s general desire to think clearly or believe true things.

I’m not claiming we are willing to abandon reason and ethics entirely…the teen still argues in terms of “fair” and “desert”, for example. But we, like the toddler who cries “no fair” whenever he loses at a game, regardless of how he lost, want reason and ethics to serve us while being off-limits for others. The boss wants his employee to believe in loyalty when offered a better job, and will attempt to rebuke him for considering the position, while demanding the right for himself to fire and hire as the pragmatic needs of profit-seeking dictate. The government wants its populace to believe in the legitimacy of contracts and laws, while considering those same contracts and laws as mutable tools to accomplish whatever goals are necessary at the moment. All states want their subjects to believe in the legitimacy of political authority, while themselves being able to ignore the contractual nature of the theory behind that authority.

This suggests a sort of non-religious interpretation of Nietzsche’s argument from Genealogy of Ethics. As a tool of power, reason can be like Christianity/ressentiment: it convinces those that would fight the strong to weaken themselves through being tricked into agreeing to its asymmetric application.

The only solution, of course, is to commit ourselves even further to our enterprise. The worth of philosophy, reason, and the “life of the mind” are difficult to show in themselves…but their worth are shown in the manifest wonders that thought–guided by reason–have produced in the world. The device I am typing this upon came about as the result of engineers and physicists, surely…but the principles those physicists and engineers used came from logic and the philosophical foundations of mathematics just as surely.

So let us hear three cheers for the thinkers, the philosophers, and especially the “Centaurs”, those philosopher-mathematicians, who gave birth to our world. Hopefully the next “new world” will be as wonderfully informed.

Frege Calling Russell a Centaur from Logicomix

From Logicomix (a graphic novel about logic & logicians)