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Doing Philosophy

Updated: Jan 12

The phrase ‘doing philosophy’ has resonated with me since I was fifteen. I used to read a BBC

Bryan Magee

magazine’s weekly transcripts of radio interviews Bryan Magee was conducting with prominent philosophers of the time, including A.J. Ayer, Karl Popper, Gilbert Ryle, Peter Strawson, and Bernard Williams. I noticed that they described themselves as ‘doing philosophy’, not as ‘philosophizing’. I thought they were trying, perhaps too hard, to emphasize that their work was down to earth, not up in the clouds. Those interviews helped me realize that I was better suited to philosophy than to archaeology, my previous ambition. I loved the level of abstract clarity at which they thought, and the subtlety of the distinctions they drew. An archaeological dig is down to earth if anything is, while the philosophers were flying high—but above the clouds, not in them. Despite the altitude, common sense was still serving as some sort of compass. I had already encountered pretentious theoretical bullshit: this was not it. The air felt fresh, even though there was not much oxygen. The route from common curiosity to logical reasoning looked doable. In fact, I suspected that if only one could fly still higher, one would see even more clearly, and the picture would take a more elegant form. Of course, I wanted to be the one who would fly higher. Later, I came to realize how such methodological gains—and losses—tend to happen collectively more than individually.

One aim of my book Doing Philosophy is to explain, in non-technical terms, how philosophers can fly so high in thought, sometimes without crashing. How can they get anywhere, despite not using the experimental methods of modern science? Since the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, there has been a long tradition of dissolving the puzzle by saying that philosophers are not really flying after all: we are just doing something much less ambitious, such as cleaning the aircraft before someone else flies it. In less metaphorical terms, philosophers are not discovering anything about reality itself, we are only clarifying, improving, and organizing the ideas or concepts or words which natural scientists and other non-philosophers will then use to formulate their discoveries about reality. In another variation on that theme, philosophers only describe our experience of things, not the things themselves.

As far as I can see, that tradition of making philosophy a second-order discipline has gone bankrupt—although some people continue to invest in it. The tradition fails to work for philosophy as it has developed over the past sixty years. Contemporary metaphysicians (for example, David Lewis and Kit Fine) are interested in the nature of possibility and necessity themselves, not just in our experience of possibility and necessity, or the ideas or concepts or words we use to think or talk about possibility and necessity. Contemporary moral and political philosophers are interested in the nature of justice and injustice themselves, not just in our experience of justice and injustice, or the ideas or concepts or words used to think or talk about justice and injustice. Philosophers formulate substantive theories about possibility and necessity, and about justice and injustice. Whether those theories are true or false is no mere matter of definition. It depends on what possibility and necessity, or justice and injustice, really are.

Someone might agree that many contemporary philosophers are resuming the ancient ambitions of philosophy, but condemn them for doing so, and argue that they are falling into nonsense, or at least asking questions which they have no chance of answering properly. But the evidence does not support such condemnations. Contemporary super-ambitious philosophy is often intelligible by any reasonable standard, and explicitly guided by rational argument and evidence. It is constrained by modern physics and biology, where relevant, but natural science often provides only very limited help with the questions philosophers are asking. So how do we manage?

A clue is mathematics. It does not depend on the experimental method, yet it is even more rigorous and reliable than any natural science. Some philosophers have tried to interpret mathematics as not telling us anything about reality, but such attempts have failed to make good sense of the mathematical enterprise. Mathematicians themselves tend to regard mathematics as discovering truths about the abstract structure of reality; the central role of mathematics in physics and other experimental sciences is indirect evidence that they are right. Although mathematics proceeds mainly by deduction, its proofs rely on first principles which are not themselves justified by being proved. Rather, they are justified by their capacity to unify previous mathematics. The laws of mathematics are less different than you might think from the laws of physics, even though physics is an experimental subject while mathematics is not.

Mathematics is a science, but not a natural science. Similarly, I suggest, philosophy is a science, but not a natural science. Deductive logic plays a very significant role in philosophy too, though of course nothing like as dominant a role as it plays in mathematics. There is obviously far more disagreement and disputation in philosophy than there is in mathematics—though mathematics is not without its controversies and unorthodoxies. At any rate, we can use the case of mathematics to disrupt the tunnel vision which sees the experimental method as the only path to truth. Having done that, we can notice the deep similarities between the ways of comparing and testing theories in philosophy and those of comparing and testing theories elsewhere. In Doing Philosophy, I explain and illustrate what I take those similarities to be.

Four commentators—Nigel Collins, Hisham El Edrissi, Edward Gibney, and Amanda McBride—presented responses to Doing Philosophy at a one-day workshop of the Newcastle Philosophy Society. I am delighted that they responded in such creative, diverse, and interesting ways. Their responses appear below, with my replies. There are many areas of agreement, which for reasons of space I have not emphasized, preferring to concentrate on points where I had something different to say, sometimes in addition, sometimes in disagreement. The book is meant to be provocative (though sincere), and at least in that respect it seems to have succeeded.

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