I’m perpetually haunted by the question of what philosophy is. What is it that distinguishes philosophy from all other forms of inquiry and thought? Have I ever managed to “do” philosophy (probably not)? What does it mean to do philosophy. Occasionally I manage to think something. When I reflect, I think to myself that philosophy is the critical investigation of what’s presupposed and assumed in our claims about the world and our actions. Someone says:
Lightning started the fire.
The philosopher does not begin by asking whether this question is true or false. She does not ask about lightning or fire (though maybe later). No, the philosopher asks, “what concept is presupposed in this judgment?” The concept, of course, is causality. The properly philosophical questions are then as follows:
1) What is causality or what defines causality as a distinct sort of relationship?
2) Are there one or many forms of causality?
3) Do all events have a cause?
4) How do we distinguish a causal relationship from a relationship in which one event merely follows another?
5) Is there a purpose or meaning to events?
Or take another example. Have a 7 year old daughter I had the pleasurable privilege of enduring the show “Yo Gabba Gabba”. In one episode they sing a song with the lyrics “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t Bite your Friends“. A powerful moral lesson. Suppose we encounter a person, Joe, who was raised by a family of morally deprived biters. All day long every member of this family bit each other. Joe grows up and gets in a relationship. Joe ends up biting his partner because he’s either angry or for no reason at all (he was raised by a tribe of biters, after all). Michael comes along and says “it was wrong for Joe to bite his friend”. What’s presupposed in this judgment? A number of things.
1) The existence of a rule stipulating that we don’t bite our friends.
But more importantly,
2) That Joe should have known you shouldn’t bite your friends.
After all, how could we state that Joe is guilty of violating a rule if he didn’t know this rule? A rule that one is measured by that one does not and cannot know is unjust. Philosophical thought brings this point to reflection. We’re then faced with a series of questions. Perhaps initially we wanted to say that our ethical knowledge was the result of learning. We were empiricists. We say that people know the prohibition against biting friends from Holy Books, having the right teachers, parents, etc. Yet Joe didn’t have the right teachers or parents. He’d only been exposed to biters. Yet we still say Joe’s action was a prohibition against the law of friend biting. A dilemma brought to light by philosophy, forcing us to make a decision:
a) Joe’s action was wrong and it is just to say so. Therefore, there must be some way Joe could have known this rule independent of culture and teachers. The empiricist theory of moral knowledge is therefore wrong. There must be an instinct or faculty of reason that allows us to know our moral duties independent of whatever we’ve experienced or our teachers. Joe should have used his instinct or faculty of reason and is culpable because he didn’t.
b) The empiricist theory of moral knowledge is right, therefore Joe is really innocent and our moral judgment is mistaken. We should be compassionate towards Joe because he didn’t have the right teachers and should try to teach him, not punish or condemn him.
There are plausible arguments on both sides. I’m not asking which is right. The point is that these questions don’t even emerge until we ask “what did Michael’s judgment presuppose when he made it” (alternatively “what was the ‘a priori’ in Michael’s judgment?”). And we notice that our attitudes towards either knowledge or judgment might very well change as a result of this reflection.
My Deleuzian friends will say “No, philosophy is a creation of concepts!” As a neo-Deleuzian I don’t disagree. I share that hypothesis. But I’m asking the question “what leads us to create a concept” and giving the very Deleuzian answer “a problem or question”. Had we not asked “what did this action or judgment presuppose?” we wouldn’t have generated the occasion to form a concept (in the first instance, the concept of “causality”, in the second instance, the concept of the conditions under which a moral judgment is just and a concept of the origins of moral/ethical knowledge). Perhaps I’m a Brandomian without realizing it.
Harman says science knows nothing of philosophy, because science knows nothing of objects. I think he might be right about the first part, but not the second. If science knows nothing of philosophy, then this is because philosophy is not an interrogation of claims like “lightning started the fire”, but is rather an interrogation of the lenses, the eyeglasses, that allow us to make this judgment in the first place: the concept of causality. Our political, ethical, and epistemic judgments and actions will only ever be as good as the eyeglasses we use. I take mine off and two people look alike. I put them on and they look quite different. If I conclude, or more disturbingly, assume, that there’s only one form of causality and they’re really three, I’ll ignore the other two. Rockets to space will explode because I had the wrong conceptual lenses. Science looks through eyeglasses, whereas philosophy asks how well formed those lenses are. Some will object to my visual metaphors here. I don’t know how else to express these points, however. If I don’t have the concept of the unconscious and my friend leaves his jacket at my place I’ll think he’s forgetful. If I do have the concept and he leaves it, I’ll be filled with joy.