In Defense of “I feel…”—Philosophy is Not Merely, “I believe…”

How do you feel? –What did I just ask you? “Feel” is like many/most words, i.e., we usually use it without thinking and its meanings are many and varied. I might ask you how you feel in regard to your physical health—the answer, “I feel good; the pain in my ankle has gone away.” I might ask how you feel in regard to life/mental health—the answer, “I feel kind of down these days; I can’t quite place it.” I might ask how you feel when facing a particular challenge—the answer, “I feel a little intimidated, but I believe I can do it.” Or I might ask how you feel about a particular idea—the answer, “I feel like that’s a good idea; I think we should do it.”

I want to focus on the last example of feeling. I remember being at the University of Georgia, working on my BA in philosophy, when I heard for the first time someone say something to the effect: “Don’t say ‘I feel…’ but rather ‘I think’ or ‘I believe.’” The context was a discussion of writing philosophy papers. So, instead of saying something like, “I feel Descartesdualism is problematic,” one should say, “I think/believe Descartes’ dualism is problematic.”

Continue reading

Walt Whitman and Crossing the Boundaries of Consciousness

My dear reader, forgive me for what is most likely a projection. I am loath to admit it but often when poetry begins some prose piece that I am to read, I do little more than skim it. I have never even read through all of the poems that begin Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Please do not gasp too loudly—I know I’m a terrible human being. So, please do not be like me. Please read these selections (and ideally the whole thing sometime) from Walt Whitman‘s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” carefully, tasting the words in your mouth, experiencing the poem in your heart. The effects of poetry are subtle—as Gary Snyder notes to Wendell Berry, “… The place we do our real work is in the unconscious, or myth-consciousness of the culture; a place where people decide (without knowing it) to change their values” (Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder)—and I fear that the philosophical points that I want to make are less likely to robustly come across if you do not linger a while with Whitman’s words.

Continue reading

Philosophy as Good for Nothing: A Manifesto

1. “What is philosophy?”— What kind of question is that? I’ve long found it fascinating and of huge importance that, “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question. This is not the same for other fields. That is, “What is science?” is not a scientific question. Perhaps if it is read as asking, “What do people called ‘scientists’ do?” it could be read as an empirical question, though that is not enough to make it scientific. I take the questions, “What is philosophy?” and “What is science?” to be asking about how we should think of them, which may or may not correspond to how anyone actually does think of them. This is not to say that there is a single correct answer to either question, though that in itself is controversial. However, if Wittgenstein’s denial of essences and his alternative picture of family resemblance has a place anywhere, I’d say it is here, with how we should conceive of philosophy (and most likely science).

As Wittgenstein realized, this could be seen as “taking the easy way out,” as it might seem to avoid the hard work of figuring out that one thing that philosophy is supposed to be. However, while I want to put forward a certain conception of philosophy—write its manifesto—without taking that to mean it is the only way philosophy should be conceived or pursued this does not mean that just anything goes. Much less that things will be easy. It is a potentially misleading analogy, but just as the possibility of a variety of legitimate interpretations of a poem does not mean that just any interpretation is of value, so with philosophy: not just anything will do.

2. There are many ways one can divide up the (meta-) philosophical terrain. A distinction that is vital for my purpose here is that between conceptions of philosophy that see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (at least in theory) and conceptions of philosophy that do not see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (theoretically or no). There are a variety of ways one might conceive of philosophy as “endable.” For example, in a well-known passage from 1931, Wittgenstein writes:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. (Culture and Value, Tran. Winch, 16)

Continue reading

Scientists Misunderstanding Badly

What do science folk like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Nye have in common other than being science folk? They are like the apparent majority of people online who talk dismissively about feminism while not knowing very much about it. While I’m guessing Tyson, Hawking, and Nye know little about feminism, as well, I’m concerned here with their ignorance and confusion regarding philosophy. In what follows, I will focus on Tyson. While the online community’s ignorance of feminism is deplorable and infuriating, not to mention dangerous, Tyson’s ignorance and disparaging of philosophy has an added element of the infuriating in that he should know better. Given what I take to be his interest in further popularizing science and scientific inquiry, he is well aware of the frustration of having masses of people misunderstand his discipline, and he should realize, too, that understanding the nature of a whole field of inquiry—such as science, such as philosophy—requires a good deal of time and effort.

Continue reading

The Limits of Science, Philosophy, and Poetry: Opening Moves

A view of knowledge that acknowledges that the sphere of knowledge is wider than the sphere of ‘science’ seems to me to be a cultural necessity if we are to arrive at a sane and human view of ourselves or of science. (Hilary Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences, 5)

There are, of course, a great many things that humans do quite naturally, e.g., acquire a mother tongue and fall in love. Just as naturally as those, there is the human need to understand the world, not just the Great Clod under our feet, but ourselves, where we are and who we are, each other and our relationships, and our relationship to the world as a whole. While we may make a distinction between understanding and knowing, the desire to understand the aforementioned things is reasonably seen as understanding through knowing. We seek to know that such and such is the case—specifically, what constitutes the world, how those “parts” relate to one another, and how we are related to those “parts.” We seek to understand via propositional knowledge.

This need to understand, to know, has been attempted through such “things” as religion, philosophy, and poetry. But perhaps the most “successful” means we have found is that of science and the scientific method. We have to be careful, however, for we need to be clear about the kind of success we are talking about. There are two main ways that science is successful, ones that are closely related, but which while still separate are easily confused or mixed together.  There is the success at discovering the truth about particular areas of inquiry, e.g., the structure of the animal cell and the atom, and there is the success of technological innovations used to solve practical problems, e.g., ways of communicating over long distance, and to provide various luxuries, e.g., air conditioning. Again, the two are obviously related, the former providing the partial means to the latter. This distinction is important to keep in mind, I believe, because its being ignored is partially responsible for the denigration of the success of philosophy and poetry as means of knowing certain truths of our world.

Continue reading

The Monkey Swinging in the Way of Greatness

After teaching about Buddhism this past week and Nietzsche’s ideas on creativity and greatness, and after watching Limitless last night, the following thoughts came to me.

In the Will to Power, Nietzsche writes:

How does one become stronger?— By coming to decisions slowly; and by clinging tenaciously to what one has decided. Everything else follows.
The sudden and the changeable: the two species of weakness. (Section 918)

In Limitless, a creatively blocked writer takes a drug that allows him to utilize his brain more completely and efficiently. Part of that involves an intense ability to focus and make connections.

In mindfulness meditation—for example, where your attention is on your breath—it becomes clear how true it is that we naturally have “monkey mind.” Monkey mind is when one thought or idea leads to another, often only tangentially connected, thought or idea. For example, you have a pain in your lower back that reminds you of how uncomfortable your chair is at work, which makes you think of the project that’s due next Wednesday, which makes you think of the doctor’s appointment Wednesday, which makes you think of your sick uncle, which makes you think of that time he took you to the amusement park, which makes you think….

Continue reading

From Faith to a Pernicious Idolatry

1. You shall have no other gods before me.

2. You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

It might seem easy to avoid idolatry, to avoid worshiping false gods. All you need to do is avoid worshiping either an image of your own god or some other religion’s god(s). However, a more pernicious idolatry is easy to fall into. It comes as a result of a certain kind of belief process, namely, faith.

“Faith” has a variety of meanings, but my understanding of the Christian perspective on it is that “faith in God” means not only trusting in God, but believing in God’s existence without evidence and come what may. As such, belief in God on the basis of faith does not provide any epistemic (truth preserving) reasons for belief; moreover, such faith is taken to require that one maintain belief in the face of controverting evidence.

So the person of faith holds certain beliefs without evidence and maintains those beliefs despite counter evidence, often rationalizing the counterevidence away. An extreme example of this would be to say that all of the fossils that suggest a very, very ancient earth are put there by God to test our faith. To question God is unthinkable. From a psychological perspective this is understandable given the weighty nature of the issues involved, e.g., the inevitable eternal stay in heaven or hell, and the existential fear they produce.

Continue reading

Religious Practice and the Limits of Philosophy

In reading Siderits’s excellent Buddhism as Philosophy I have come to realize the following problem. If a religion has its base in philosophy, if its central tenets are supposed to follow from the use of reason and argument, then none of its conclusions can ever be firm enough to ground religious practice. There will always be difficult objections and questions that cannot be answered in a way sufficient to allow one to say, “I know this is true and I will base my life on it.” On the other hand, if religious practice is grounded in faith or pragmatic results independent of argument, then one has no reason to believe in the metaphysical claims made by the religion.

Consider the arguments. I take it that the arguments for God’s existence and a soul are familiar enough in their inconclusiveness. So I won’t go over them. But Buddhism is a different story. Central to Buddhism is the idea that there is no substantial self who is the subject of experience. Whatever you take the parts of a human to be, they do not form a whole that could be such a self. The self that we refer to by names and pronouns is a necessary fiction. On Siderits’s reading of Buddhism, the Buddhist view regarding ontology is mereological reductionism. Reality contains no wholes; it only contains indivisible “parts.” Siderits covers the arguments very well. But if you are at all knowledgeable about the debates concerning part-whole relations, then you will see objections right and left to the arguments and their premises. Yet, these are the considerations that are supposed to ground the Buddhist worldview and practice. Given how contentious these very abstract arguments are, how can they form the foundation for the way in which one interacts with the world? I’m claiming they cannot. Why? Because if you are properly intellectually honest, you will not be convinced by the arguments on either side. If you are convinced by the arguments on either side, then that is likely because of a bias for or against the sides in question. That is a strong claim, and one that invites resistance! It’s important to note, I think, that this latter contention doesn’t requires that all philosophical debate lead to aporia in the way it often seems to with Socrates in some of Plato’s dialogues. That is, aporia would be sufficient but not necessary for not fully affirming a theory when doing philosophy.

Continue reading

What’s Wrong With Cartesian Reasoning? Part I

There are many reasons to read Nietzsche. Whether you agree with his substantive views, taking him seriously will help to keep you intellectually honest. An example comes from Beyond Good and Evil, Part One: On the Prejudices of Philosophers, §5:

What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are – how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness – but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish – and talk of “inspiration”); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of “inspiration” – most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract – that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize “truths” – and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself.


According to an interesting website authored by Hugo Mercier, “Current philosophy and psychology are dominated by what can be called a classical, or ‘Cartesian’ view of reasoning. Even though this view goes back at least to some classical Greek philosophers, its most famous exposition is probably in Descartes.” This essay is Part I in a critical assessment of Mercier’s claims as outlined on the above website. Mercier contrasts the Cartesian view discussed with a dialogical view of reasoning that is supposed to fit best with empirical evidence and our evolutionary heritage. I will address it in more detail in Part II. All quotes below are from Mercier’s website. I question some of the claims as I quote them. Those objections are in brackets. I then go into a more detailed and general critique of the claims.

Continue reading