A very personal account of my problems with philosophy

This piece is a personal account of various intellectual problems I have experienced over the years with academic philosophy. Note: this kind of philosophy can be referred to as the Western analytic tradition, which begun in Ancient Greece with Plato, Artisotle and co. and is still the main focus of philosophy curricula in Western universities. Other kinds of philosophy may have different problems (and different merits).

Early study

I chose to study philosophy at A-level on what was basically a whim – I knew little about the subject beyond vaguely remembered names like Plato and Kant and I had grown up in a cultural environment where philosophy was… well, not quite treated with disdain, but seen as a little bit pointless. My other three subjects, psychology, maths and English language, were in my mind way more useful and worthy of study. Philosophy was just a mildly intriguing subject that sounded more interesting than geography or chemistry, which I – after 5 years of study – was well and truly sick of. Little did I know that I’d still be studying it 9 years later.

Right from the start, philosophy had a completely unprecedented effect on my life that no other subject has come close to. I began asking myself questions I had never asked myself before… questions I never even realised had existed. I distinctly remember those initial moments of seriously considering the arguments for the existence of god for the first time, and how it seemed that my world had suddenly become brighter, fuller and full of purpose. There were these huge questions out there that I had never even thought about! Worst of all, there were billions of people who’d never thought about these questions either! My life’s purpose became quite clear: 1) find the answers to these amazing questions and 2) teach these questions to everyone who would listen.

Philosophy of religion made me question how I felt about religion for the first time in my life. I’d been brought up Christian. I had a bible, went to Sunday School (well… I went once), attended a CofE primary school, regularly prayed and sang hymns, went to a Christian youth group… but throughout all of this I’d never once seriously thought about any of it. It was just there, you know? I was more interested in playing my guitar and my N64. Philosophy made me look deep into myself and think about the reasons for all of this. I quickly realised that I was an atheist. The idea of god seemed totally nonsensical to me. All the arguments for god’s existence were weak, and the evidence against god’s existence was very strong. A militant Dawkins-esque atheism was born inside me. I just could not understand how anyone could possibly think these arguments were any good, or how anyone couldn’t see that the problem of evil was devastating to the Christian conception of god. I went on the rampage. I even made a Christian girl cry and run out of the classroom, an act I am pretty ashamed of these days.

As you can probably guess my early study of ethics lead to something similar. How can people not see that abortion is always acceptable? What is wrong with people who believe in the death penalty? How can you eat the meat of an innocent murdered creature? (Yes, I became a vegetarian after reading Singer’s “All Animals are Equal”). I was so certain that these were the right answers. I was also certain that a lifetime of philosophical study was important to justify them against their critics. Despite the fact I was very good at psychology and that my psychology teacher (and my parents) recommended I study it at university, I chose to study philosophy instead. Looking back on it now I can see that I might have made the wrong choice. Here’s why.

University

Initially, my fervent passion for the subject remained intact. First year philosophy is basically no different from A-level philosophy, so I was re-treading ground. I have fond memories of arguing passionately with friends in halls about vegetarianism and Marxism, arguments which usually consisted of me being a bit of a smart-arse and second guessing every criticism they would level at my stance. I think I annoyed quite a few people, but I didn’t particularly care. I was so convinced I was right.

Something changed in second year. The philosophy became more advanced. We started exploring the issues in greater detail and the arguments became more sophisticated. The more I studied the more I could see the obvious cracks in my previously solid arguments. Worst of all I began to be able to see why people might have argued for the opposing views in the first place. The arguments for the opposition had always seemed so obviously wrong. Now they were more complex and cleverly avoided any obvious criticisms levelled at them. This gradual realisation was devastating. I have a very distinct memory of reading an essay about value pluralism that had been slotted into the backend a course on normative ethics and having a horrible eureka moment that shattered the foundations of my philosophical drive: different ethical intuitions are based on different fundamental values that are in conflict with each other but yet – crucially – are equally correct. If they were all equally correct then it was impossible to choose between them, and so the surface moral intuitions were all equally correct and impossible to choose between. For a while I thought it might be possible to maintain a pluralism of ethical beliefs within myself, trying my best not to see this as a problem (I justified it with the knowledge that everyone displays a kind of moral pluralism; no one’s moral intuitions are streamlined and devoid of contradictions. Some circumstances feel like they call for a utilitarian response, some a Kantian. This is just life).

Unfortunately if one has a good reason to stop believing in there being one right way of doing things then it seems kind of pointless trying to argue for one right way of doing things. All my convictions – vegetarianism, straight edge, Marxism, etc. – came crashing down one by one. I became a moral relativist. Value pluralism seemed attractive but ultimately felt lacking. If different moral stances are dependent on different yet equally correct foundational values then the moral stances themselves are all equally correct – there is no single objective right way to act. So why believe in one moral stance? What’s the point? They’re all equally correct anyway.

My lack of belief in an objective moral truth started to generalise across philosophical subject boundaries. All political positions seemed equally correct. After all, what justifies democracy? As a system, it strikes a balance between equality and freedom. It is seen as being more just that the alternatives. But what’s so good about equality? What’s so good about freedom? They have intrinsic qualities that people feel are attractive, but they are both clearly fundamental values which are equally correct. There’s value pluralism here too, and hence – in my eyes – political relativism.

This (coupled with the sudden end of a 3 ½ year relationship) caused me to go off-the-rails somewhat. When both of the most important things in your life desert you, it takes quite a strong person to bounce back, and it turned out I wasn’t that strong. I totally stopped caring about morals, politics, religion and philosophy in general. I behaved in a pretty horrible way and did some things I now regret. After a year or so of this I calmed down slightly (thanks to finally settling down with a new girlfriend) but my faith in philosophy was shattered. I scraped through to the end of my degree and graduated with a 2:1. Not bad for someone who really didn’t care about the subject anymore.

Post-grad

I thought I was done with philosophy for good. I worked a few jobs, paid the bills, wrote some songs, and generally had an ok time, but philosophy never once entered my consciousness. I rekindled my interest in intellectual pursuits, however, and realised a few things. It had become apparent to me that philosophy wasn’t going to answer the big questions in life. Why was that? Well, philosophers will never stop arguing. There is always a counter-argument to any philosophical stance. The problem comes from the method philosophers use to arrive at the truth: armchair theorising. Armchair theorising definitely has its place (in the initial stages of scientific theorising, for example), but it cannot be the sole method via which people attempt to arrive at the truth. For what can possibly count as a proof in an armchair discussion? What can a philosopher say that will convince other philosophers they have the final, absolute answer?

Just look at the history of philosophy: thousands of years after the founders of modern philosophy wrote their first works we are still arguing about whether they were right. Plato is still a major focus of modern philosophy. We have spent thousands of years essentially going round in circles, retreading the same ground with no obvious markers of progress. The history of science, however, is markedly different: modern scientists aren’t still discussing Aristotle’s medical theories, for example. They are an interesting historical curiosity, yes, but they are clearly and demonstrably wrong. This sort of progress just hasn’t happened in philosophy, and it probably never will.

After the realisation that the problems of philosophy will never be answered (and probably cannot be answered) my intellectual focus began to shift slightly. I became intrigued as to why people were even asking these questions in the first place. My interest in morality shifted from asking what was morally right to asking how and why people think certain things are morally right or wrong. My interest in religion shifted from asking whether god exists to asking why people think god exists and what possible function this (seemingly strange) belief could have. My interest in aesthetics shifted from asking what art is beautiful to asking why people think art is beautiful. These questions can be answered. They are scientific questions that call for the acquisition of data, coupled with careful critical discussion. The best way to answer these questions is, of course, through the study of psychology, the love of which I rekindled during this time. I also began reading books on evolutionary theory, and realised that so much about humanity and the world we inhabit (and all the questions of morality, religion and art I had begun to find fascinating) could be understood through an evolutionarily informed study of psychology. The important thing for me was that I could see markers of progress in this domain. I could see what counted as adequate supporting data for a theory and I could see how it was possible to answer some of the questions in the field.

I took an Open University course in psychology with the intention of taking a post-graduate psychology conversion course with the aim of pursuing a career in academic evolutionary psychology. Unfortunately, however, I discovered that much of contemporary evolutionary psychology is problematic (in fact I have devoted a substantial part of my thesis to this problem). The research programme is not fundamentally flawed, however – it is only the way that many current researchers in the field carry out their studies that is problematic. In time this will improve.

During this time I discovered the existence of experimental philosophy and the critique of philosophical method (http://experimentalphilosophy.typepad.com/). This struck a massive chord with me – these were philosophers who obviously had the same problems I had with philosophy and who believed a much more meaningful direction for intellectual study lay with gathering data and conducting experiments. They also suggested a very plausible reason why armchair philosophical theorising was doomed to failure: the whole endeavour consists of manipulation of intuitions, and intuitions cannot be the basis for fact. Many experiments showed that intuitions to certain philosophical theories regarded as straightforwardly correct in the West (of which there are very few, e.g. the Gettier problem for justified true belief, which was widely regarded as a serious problem for the theory that knowledge = justified true belief: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettier_problem) actually varied substantially across the world. This furthered my belief that it is impossible to give anything resembling a proof in philosophy – if the Gettier problem is as close as we are going to get to something straightforwardly correct in philosophy but intuitions towards it vary wildly across the world, then we are pretty much doomed to failure.

I was all set to enrol on my psychology conversion course when by chance I happened to notice that The University of Sheffield (where I did my undergrad) was offering a brand new masters in a subject called Cognitive Studies; a subject based in the philosophy department but heavily inter-disciplinary in nature, exploring the nature of the mind from various different academic perspectives, including psychology, linguistics and archaeology. It sounded absolutely perfect, so I cancelled my application to the psychology conversion course and enrolled.

My masters year was great – I felt intellectually alive again. I was finally able to study the questions that had been going round my head for the past year or so with people from various backgrounds (some philosophy, some psychology and some from other disciplines) who were intellectually in a similar place to me. Half way through the year I was accepted by The University of Nottingham to study for a PhD as part of the AHRC Aesthetics and the sciences programme, which I am currently almost half way through.

Where I am now

Whilst I am very grateful to be where I am (actually being paid to study for the first time in my life) doing this PhD has proved very challenging, and not just for the obvious reasons (e.g. the prospect of having to write a 90,000 word document). I am regularly involved in aesthetics related events and the people I work with are aestheticians first and foremost. As you may have gathered, I am not an aesthetician. This doesn’t mean I am not interested in art. I am musician who performs in several bands and is actively involved in the underground music scene. I read plenty of books and regularly visit galleries. I find art fascinating. Unfortunately I have exactly the same problems with philosophy of art that I have with every other area of philosophy.  The questions I am interested in are questions about why people like art, why it has such a hold over so much of the human species. I am interested in the evolutionary, anthropological and psychological answers to these questions. There is very little philosophy has to offer here. In fact much of the evidence I have been discussing in my thesis can be used to mount a well-informed attack on the foundations of philosophy art, something I intend to do in the final chapter. I am particularly interested in the idea of fundamental aesthetic disagreement, i.e. aesthetic disagreement that persists even if both parties have access to exactly the same facts. This is a situation that is likely to exist and has implications for aesthetic realism, the idea that aesthetic value judgements are either correct or incorrect (a similar argument is underway in moral philosophy, as Stephen Stich discusses in this lecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EU5LiJAaCQ&feature=PlayList&p=E30B374F1F0C0460&index=0&playnext=1).

I actually still see myself as a philosopher (to a point). I feel like my job is to do several things; 1) draw together theories and data from across various disciplines which are potentially related to the same questions about human psychology, 2) criticise the methods of psychologists and their interpretations of certain results, and 3) criticise traditional analytical philosophical methods using relevant scientific data. I am not doing traditional philosophy, but neither am I doing actual science. I’m somewhere in-between. There are a burgeoning number of people in this “field” – cognitive scientists and anthropologists with an interest in philosophy, experimental philosophers, and traditional philosophers doing their best to defend their subject.

Funnily enough I have a difficult time explaining to people what I do… I normally just say philosophy if a short answer is needed, but I give the longer answer of “interdisciplinary work in the evolution of art and aesthetic psychology” if I can. I think we need a subject heading for this kind of work. I guess “cognitive studies” is as good as anything?

Why do philosophy at all?

I wish to finish this piece on a positive note. I have painted a very negative picture of philosophy throughout, but in truth it still has a large place in my heart. Without it I would never have begun seriously questioning the world around me and expanding my mind. This is the true benefit of philosophy: not arriving at ultimate truths, but providing people will the tools to adequately question the world around them. In the age of mass media and “reality” TV this is more needed than ever before. It is heartening, therefore, to see that philosophy is taught in a very basic form in some primary schools (http://philosophyforkids.com/) and that philosophy is now included as part of secondary school religious education. The general intellectual wealth of humanity would be increased if every schoolchild was taught a small amount of philosophy throughout their time in education and if every university student had to take a small module of philosophy every year of their degree. The kinds of reasoning skills developed by philosophical investigation are unmatched by any other subject. The truth-seekers out there, however, should avoid pinning their hopes on philosophy. You won’t get any closer to it. You will gain some very powerful critical skills in the process but you will be left no closer than you were before you started.

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2 thoughts on “A very personal account of my problems with philosophy

  1. Hello, I’m currently in my final year studying Philosophy as an undergrad at Leeds, and I have to say I found what you said here to be immensely applicable to my own experience. I’m in what seems to be exactly the same place you were at the end of your undergraduate studies, and the problems I am having with philosophy are the same as those you point out. The way modern philosophers (certainly those of the analytic tradition) are geared towards a method which seems to attempt to discover answers has destroyed my interest in the subject, as it seems impossible to do so.

    At this time I am writing an essay on Philosophy of Literature, and the way the subject is portrayed focuses around what I see to be the wrong questions (i.e. what is literature?) and I am also attempting to figure out a focus for my dissertation, which is drifting more and more towards the role of evolutionary theory and psychology, and the nature of established philosophical tradition as erroneous.

    It’s good to read that someone else has run across these same problems, and you’ve given me some idea as to how I can apply my seemingly anti-philosophical thoughts to philosophy, without simply removing its worth entirely.

    All the best,
    Ben

  2. Hey Ben,
    Excellent! It’s great to know this post has been useful to someone. I really hoped there’d be someone else out there who is in a similar position to the one I was in at that point.

    If you want to read up on the ways philosophy, cognitive science, anthropology and evolutionary theory can intersect, then I recommend starting here:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-psych-emp/

    It’s a good overview of the state of play in moral psychology, a heavily interdisciplinary area.

    The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton is a good introductory book about evolutionary aesthetic psychology and its relation to philosophy of art which I’ve found myself focussing on in my thesis.

    Hope you dissertation goes well!
    Andy

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