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)

I don’t seek to pigeonhole Wittgenstein with this quotation, but it nicely allows us to pursue what is at issue for me. Does Wittgenstein here think that philosophy can be brought to an end? On the one hand he says in response to the claim that philosophy does not progress that it has to be that way. This might be taken to mean that we cannot help but be mired in philosophical problems. However, against this, Wittgenstein, at least in certain moments, writes as though we can bring philosophy to an end, we can make some form of “progress,” namely, by getting clear about the ways in which language seduces us. One can read much of his later writings as grappling with this very issue. Hence (perhaps?) §133 from the Philosophical Investigations:

We don’t want to refine or complete the system of rules for the use of our words in unheard-of ways.

For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.

The real discovery is the one enables me to break off philosophizing when I want to.—The one that gives philosophy peace…. (Trans., Anscombe, Hacker, and Schulte)

I do not want to take such passages as unproblematic or obvious in their import. However, they do suggest a conception of philosophy as something that can/should be brought to an end. A central step in that direction is to recognize that the nature of the philosophical problems is such that we don’t solve them but make them “completely disappear.”

Another conception of philosophy that would allow it to come to an end, at least in theory, is a conception of philosophy as something that attempts to give a partial or complete true picture of the world. An important assumption about such a partial or complete picture is that it ought to be convincing to anyone who was capable of comprehending it (if this weren’t the case, then it would not bring philosophy to an end since the picture in question could still be endlessly debated). Such a picture would be partial if philosophy were conceived of as sharing the task of coming up with the one true and complete description of the facts with other disciplines, notably, the sciences. It would be a complete picture if one held philosophy to give the picture to which all other pictures reduced. One comes across this latter idea more often in the sciences than in philosophy, but it is a conceivable position.

That many philosophers write and act as though philosophy is on par with the sciences in its attempt to give a final theory of how things are helps to explain some of the recent tension between science folks, for example, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye, and philosophy/philosophers. The science folk in question view philosophy as attempting to do what science does but doing it very poorly, in part, because it does not use the right methodology, i.e., that/those of the sciences. On these fellows, more here.

Science is understandably centered on the notion of progress. One way of looking at its history is that Newton progressed far past Aristotle, and Einstein far past Newton, and so on. Presently, physics is stuck with its seemingly irreconcilable theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. Real progress will be had when they are unified or transcended with a better theory, with the ultimate goal to have everything in science unified in a way that corresponds to the unified nature of reality. In this shadow, it is easy to see why Wittgenstein’s point about the seeming lack of philosophical progress is so important. For here the (seeming?) lack of progress is particularly troubling. Plenty of philosophy’s contemporary advocates defend philosophy by trying to argue that it really has made progress. While that may be true, Wittgenstein is interesting, in part, because he tries to challenge this whole picture of philosophy. Progress cannot occur as conceived given what he sees as the source of philosophical bewilderment: “A picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably” (PI §115). There are no philosophical facts to uncover, and, thus, philosophy is not on par with the sciences.

While I think there is something of value in Wittgenstein’s writings on the way that language can lead us astray, I do not think that he’s right that philosophy is something that we can or should try to bring to an end. And this is true whether the attempted end is to be effected by recognizing that what we took to be legitimate pieces of the puzzle are nothing but illusions or shadows cast by language or by pursuing the one, final true and complete description of the world. The latter conception, again, has philosophy on par with the sciences, even if the methods and questions/topics may differ. I take it that most philosophers are not going to think that philosophy can be brought to an end in Wittgenstein’s sense. However, it would seem that a majority of philosophers do aim to give the one true and complete description/explanation of some phenomenon, and if one were able to do so, then one would be done with philosophy, at least in regard to that issue. I take it that part of the motivation is the desire to avoid what seems like the only alternative, i.e., seeing philosophy as subjective, true for individuals or groups, not something that could be brought to an end once and for all, for everyone. Such a subjectivism is understandably anathema to many.

3. The overarching goal of Buddhism is to end suffering. The ending of suffering is possible if one awakens to the true nature of reality and thereby becomes enlightened. Enlightenment is, in part, a matter of seeing the world aright, achieving a kind of final wisdom that will allow one to let go of desire and attachments. So described we can see affinities with the earlier description of science/philosophy as pursuing a final theory that would allow us to stop the pursuit. Here “enlightenment” plays the part of the final description; instead of bringing an end to the pursuit of knowledge it brings an end to the pursuit of desire and thus our suffering. But in both cases an end is reached, the end that is the defining goal.

Due to my work on Zen, and in particular the writings of the 13th century Zen Master Dōgen, I don’t think this is the best way to think about Zen/Buddhism. However, let us continue with this conception for a bit. Along the above lines, we can view meditation, zazen, as a (necessary) means for achieving the goal of enlightenment. The idea is that if one meditates, practices zazen, the correctly and sincerely long enough, then one can have a breakthrough experience, apprehend reality as it really is, and this will effect the end of suffering. Meditation, then, is a tool to be used to achieve a particular end. Given such a description, and it is a tempting one, it is interesting to read the following from the 20th century Japanese Zen monk Kodo Sawaki, or “Homeless Kodo” (because of his non-affiliation with a temple and his wandering):

What is zazen good for? Nothing! We should be made to hear this good-for-nothingness so often that we get calluses on our ears and practice good-for-nothing zazen without any expectation. Otherwise, our practice really is good for nothing.
(The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo, 138)

What could it mean to say that zazen is good for nothing?! Why do it then? Part of the answer is to realize that there is a general tension at the heart of Buddhism, particularly when it is described as holding that the cause of suffering is desire. If desire is the cause of suffering, then desiring any end will produce some form of suffering. This would apply particularly to the ends of Buddhism itself. If enlightenment is the cessation of suffering, but suffering is caused by desire, then one better not desire enlightenment. While I think such a formulation is problematic and speaks in favor of conceiving of the problem of suffering in terms of attachment instead of desire simpliciter, it nevertheless speaks to a central idea, one that is developed in an interesting way by Dōgen.

For Dōgen, enlightenment is best not conceived of as some final state to be attained after long, strenuous effort on the cushion doing zazen. One should spend a great deal of time in seated meditation, but it is not to be conceived of as practice, as “polishing a tile to make a mirror,” in pursuit of some separate goal. Instead, for Dōgen, enlightenment is something that one enacts with one’s entire body-mind, not only on the cushion but in every activity. It is a way of being, of doing, marked centrally by presence, compassion, and the grasping of the transitory and interdependent nature of everything. But, to repeat, it is not some distant goal. As Dōgen says, Buddhas don’t wait for enlightenment. To view zazen, or anything else, as a means to the end of enlightenment (or anything else) is to defile it. As soon as one sincerely sits zazen, one actualizes enlightenment in the ten directions. This is why Kodo Sawaki insists upon saying that zazen is good for nothing. If it is viewed as a means to an end other than itself, then it is defiled, then it will amount to nothing, for, among other things, such defilement sets up a dualism in the heart of reality—namely, the dualism between enlightenment and non-enlightenment. But, in Dōgen’s tradition, everything is already enlightenment itself, Buddha-nature itself, it must “simply” be actualized.

It can be helpful to think of this conception of enlightenment along the lines of Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia, well-being/“happiness.” In The Quest for a Moral Compass, Kenan Malik says that for Aristotle virtue is not an end, but is a means to eudaimonia. This is problematic because virtue properly understood is not a means but rather both an end in itself, insofar as it is to kalon (“the beautiful”—that for the sake of which things are appropriately done), and partially constitutive of eudaimonia. That is, eudaimonia for Aristotle just is a life of virtuous activity (in combination with other goods such as pleasure, wealth, luck, a penis, good looks, etc.). Similarly, a life of enlightenment is a life of “enlightened” (compassionate) activity. Neither virtue nor zazen are properly conceived of as means to the ends in question.

4. An oft quoted passage from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is:

…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. (Tran. Norton, 27)

There is a lot that is powerful and powerfully suggestive about this passage. I love the idea that it is pointless to pursue certain answers since even if they were found one could not “live them.” This reminds me of the recent post I made about the nature of insight/realization. Many ideas/truths go beyond the immediate learning of facts/trivia; instead, the grasping of such insights or realizations is made possible by their place in the narrative of one’s lived life. Along these lines, I take it that Rilke is suggesting that if the questions themselves are lived, then eventually the narrative of one’s life may answer them in a way that allows one to live them. While this goes some way toward mitigating the idea that the answers are the most important thing, the importance of the answers is still central, one simply needs to be patient. Applied to philosophy, this is still not quite the view that philosophy is good for nothing.

To get closer to that idea, we can return to the primary text to which so much else is supposedly but a footnote, namely, Plato’s dialogues. In the Apology he has Socrates say:

Perhaps someone might say: But Socrates, if you leave us will you not be able to live quietly, without talking? Now this is the most difficult point on which to convince some of you. If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because…it is the greatest good for a [person] to discuss virtue every day and those other things bout which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for [people], you will believe me even less. (37e-38a, Tran. Grube)

The central line here is, “…it is the greatest good for a [person] to discuss virtue every day and those other things bout which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living….” Importantly, he does not say that the greatest good is to have solved philosophical problems, to have achieved some final theory of things, whether in regard to justice or the nature of mind. No. The greatest good is to converse about virtue and all the other things that Plato portrays Socrates as inquiring about. Insofar as such an examined life is a philosophical life, this squarely contains the idea that philosophical conversation is an end in itself. In this way, we might think of philosophy as good for nothing.

5. However, against such a conclusion we might note that there seems to be an important disanalogy between the way we might conceive of zazen as good for nothing and philosophy. That is, zazen is to be seen as good for nothing because otherwise is to defile it. Getting caught up in the idea that enlightenment is an end that follows upon the pursuit of zazen as a means, according to Dōgen at least, is to distort the nature of enlightenment as an activity to be enacted with one’s whole body-mind and to thereby impede one’s ability to so enact it. But there is not something similar to be said in regard to philosophy. We do not defile philosophical activity by seeing it as a means to finding out philosophical truths.

But what if we defile philosophy by viewing it as a means to the end of some final theory of the world, whether God, justice, mind, etc.? That is, analogous to Dōgen’s view of enlightenment, perhaps we do defile philosophical activity if we see it as a means to some final state, even if that final state is “merely” theoretical. Dōgen and Sawaki view zazen as good for nothing because of how they understand the end of Buddhism, i.e., enlightenment not as a final state of mind, but an activity to enact and re-enact moment to moment. Similarly, perhaps if we let go of the picture of the ends of philosophy as being some final state of knowledge, then we can see how engaging in philosophical activity as though it were a means to that final end would defile the activity itself.

So, what is wrong with conceiving of philosophy as an attempt to arrive at the partial or complete final truth about the world? Such a goal is an epistemic one and as such it could be problematic because of issues with the knower, the means of knowing, or what is to be known. Respectively, something could be “wrong” with our epistemic position in relation to the world such that we could never know something final about the world, something could be “wrong” with our means of knowing, i.e., either our methodologies or even the means we use to formulate knowledge (e.g., language), lastly, something could be “wrong” with the world such that it defies being known. Such a division is problematic, minimally since each of the three is part of the world, but we can ignore that for our purposes. On our earlier gloss of Wittgenstein’s views on language and philosophy, he might say that philosophy, as “traditionally” conceived, is good for nothing, since the problems it works on are pseudo-problems that are difficult to escape (prior to his philosophy) because of the nature of language. This would be an issue, perhaps, with both the knower and the means. Alternatively, for example, Putnam’s arguments concerning conceptual relativity have as one of their conclusions the claim that there are, in some substantive sense, multiple true (and complete) possible descriptions of the world; thus, in at least some areas of philosophy, any attempt to give the one true and complete description is going to be on the wrong track. Given the way Putnam seems to think language and reality cannot be cleanly divided, he might be seen as thinking there is an issue with the means and what is to be known. Importantly, Putnam does not thereby think that philosophy is good for nothing or, like Wittgenstein, that it is to be brought to an end.

We are in deep and turbid waters here (and have been, really, all along). So let me try to briefly give two reasons for thinking that the goal of achieving a partial/complete final theory of the world via philosophical activity is problematic and should be rejected. As that goal is epistemic, so are the problems with it. The main point is simply that given the contingent nature of humanity any philosophical claim that we make about the world is always going to be tentative. It is important that I say any “philosophical” because it is quite conceivable that one day we will be able to say with great confidence, and all together, what the ultimate constituents of the world are from the perspective of physics. It is conceivable that some final physical description of space-time and all the laws governing the behavior of whichever particles and fields (or what succeeds them) are ultimate could be given. In this respect, it is conceivable that at least some of what are now taken to be difficult philosophical problems will turn into resolved scientific ones. It is conceivable that consciousness, for example, might succumb to this.

Now, I could be mistaken about this concession to science. Perhaps its claims will also always remain tentative, at least many of them, due to the underdetermination of theory by the evidence. However, even if that is not the case for science, i.e., for law-governed, causal-empirical explanations of empirical phenomena, something akin to the underdetermination of theory by the evidence seems to be a (contingent) necessity for human beings in regard to philosophical questions about value, meaning, God, suffering, death, how to conceive our humanity, the self, the self in relation to others, the self in relation to the world, and on and on. In these areas, anything that we or others have said will always be tentative for at least two reasons. The first is our inescapable epistemic limitations, including our always being in a state of incomplete information, incomplete understanding, and unknown (unknowable?) levels/degrees of justification. The second is that not only are we on Neurath’s ship, never able to go into dry dock to “objectively” assess the foundations of things once and for all, but we are forever sailing into foreign waters, waters whose nature changes in relation to the machinations of the ships sailing upon them. Less poetically, as individuals and as a species, we are forever coming upon new difficulties, new interests, new concerns, new questions, and changes in the world we experience more generally. That which is important to a young adult is not the same for someone in middle age, nor is the way everything appears. This shift in appearance is due, in part, to shifts in belief and values, but also to experience more generally. Analogous to how Schopenhauer argues that happiness (conceived of as the final cessation of desire) is not possible because as soon as one desire is satisfied another arises, so, too, whenever we come to any tentative place to set anchor, after a while, we recognize the need to set off again. Not only does this occur over the course of a single person’s life, but, of course, it also occurs as a result of cultural and societal changes, many of which are tied to technologies. One of the problems with technology’s pace is that we never have enough time to discern the value and/or possible harm of a technology before it becomes ubiquitous and before it is taken up as a new foundation and built upon. But the point is that as individuals and as a species we confront ever new issues, questions, etc.

Does any of this mean that there is no “thing in itself” that we are after in our philosophical pursuits? After all, saying that whatever we say in philosophy is forever tentative seems to presuppose some truth/reality that our claims are tentative against. If there is no objective reality that we are trying to discover, then how are our claims tentative and not simply “true for us”? The answer I have to this is not going to satisfy most people, but I don’t have a better one and this essay needs to find its end sometime. The answer is, as I’ve said elsewhere, that the world is like a great poem, one that admits of many interpretations without that meaning just anything goes. Think of all the different considerations that one brings to bear when judging the adequacy or fit of an interpretation of a poem. “Objective truth” is a kind of ideal to aim for but it is, in the realm of philosophy, at least, never to be had, at least not in the sense of there being some claim or set of claims that are agreed upon by or verifiable by all, and non-tentative.

It is in this way, too, that philosophy approximates Dōgen’s conception of Zen and enlightenment. That is, while one should view zazen as good for nothing, not pursuing it as a means to the end of enlightenment, that does not mean that one does not realize that by regularly meditating, by practicing meditation, one practices it in two senses. Namely, one practices in the sense of repeatedly performing the “same” activities, day in and day out, but also in the sense of working to improve. That is, Dōgen well knows that the more one practices zazen and Buddhism more generally, the better one will become at being mindful, being compassionate, not suffering as much, etc. The Zen practitioner enacts the paradoxical practice of seeking enlightenment with all of her heart while simultaneously and radically letting go of it and just sitting when sitting, eating when eating, etc. Similarly, when I work on philosophy, when I work, for example, on trying to figure out how best to live, what has real value, etc., I intend to find the truth. But “truth” here means, in part, simply that which is not the mere product of desire, belief, fear, etc., i.e., simply that which is not the mere product of my physical-psychological organism’s needs/wants. Such truth is the presupposed goal, at least from one direction, but in reality, I know that I will never find a point that is not tentative. And, so, from another direction, I see that the point of philosophical activity is not such “truth” itself, but rather the philosophical activity itself. So, perhaps, in this way, philosophy is good for nothing.

6. What does this mean for the idea of philosophical progress? Like the concept of tentativeness, progress, too, seems to depend on some sort of objective end by which to measure it. Weren’t Gettier’s counterexamples to the standard analysis of knowledge as justified true belief, for example, a kind of progress? And haven’t my own views, for example, regarding the nature of philosophy, progressed? Yes, to both examples. However, we mustn’t forget that progress is being measured in relation to ends that go beyond the vague one of “the truth.” And those ends are themselves up for philosophical questioning, as is the ideal of truth itself, as many philosophers beside Nietzsche have made clear. And it is such “progress,” progress that is always tentative, that undercuts the idea of progress in the sense of progress toward a final goal.

But one might further object that we seek progress, for example, in social-political philosophy so that we can find the truth regarding what is just and how to implement it. Similarly, pursuing certain philosophical issues, and finding (tentative) answers to them has improved my own life. But even here any answers we come to will be tentative, regardless of how successful they are at, for example, alleviating oppression or improving our own lives. But, the objection might continue, even if they are tentative because of our forever limited epistemic positions and because conditions are forever changing and some new notion of justice may be needed, that does not change the fact that we can see that philosophy is good for something, namely, for example, removing injustice.

Perhaps we can find a response by noting, again, certain aspects of Zen practice. While warning us away from defiling practice by viewing it as a means to a separate end, Dōgen, again, is not denying that practicing zazen, for example, will have good consequences. Similarly, we must acknowledge that philosophical activity can have good consequences. However, Dōgen’s worry, again, in part, is that if we think of enlightenment as some finished state of mind achieved by some breakthrough in meditative experience, we will wrongly think that enlightenment just is that final state of “bliss.” But, in actuality, for Dōgen one must go beyond Buddha, one must continually enact enlightenment moment to moment in the face of ever changing conditions. Analogously, we might say that we defile philosophy if we think of doing philosophy as merely a means to some final, separate end, namely, the truth. We must forever go beyond the “truth”; we must continually enact philosophy moment to moment in the face of ever changing conditions.

7. Saying that philosophy is good for nothing thus means that philosophy is not good for achieving some final, finished description of how things stand in the world. Sure, as with zazen, philosophy can have quite practical consequences and those are worth achieving. But we never come to a final point that could be the end state of philosophy. But in saying this I seem to have lost some/all of the “umph” of my earlier claim when looking at Plato’s portrayal of Socrates about philosophy being a kind of end in itself. For what I have ended up arguing is that philosophy does not have a final end, not that it is its own end. Not having a final end is still consistent with saying that it has as its end tentative truths that are of intrinsic or practical value. Perhaps my attempts to draw analogies between philosophy and Zen have been misleading. When Dōgen says sit zazen just to sit, not for some other purpose, he is not claiming that zazen is an end in itself is he? Or is he? Insofar as to sit zazen is thereby to enact enlightenment, sitting zazen is an end in itself, if enlightenment is. Might we not make a similar move here in regard to philosophy? But in doing so, we’d have to align philosophical activity with an end in itself such that in pursuing philosophy that very end would be achieved.

We find such an idea in the context of the earlier passage from Plato in which Socrates says that talking about virtue every day is the greatest good. Think, too, of Aristotle’s vision of eudaimonia. Philosophical activity, better, a life of philosophical activity, could be viewed along similar lines. That is, what it is to live well, to be “happy,” to live a life worth living, is to engage in philosophical questioning, reasoning, living! In this vein I have written elsewhere, only briefly, that to live authentically is to life a life that embodies the pursuit, the figuring out, of that which has true value. Such a conception of an authentic life does not depend upon discovering the final answer, rather, it requires, “merely,” the sincere pursuit of the inquiry.

Thus, if we say that a life worth living, an authentic life, a “happy” life, is constituted by philosophical activity, then we can say that philosophy is good for nothing in the way that zazen is good for nothing. Both are ends in themselves, though they are ones that can have profound consequences, consequences that are implicit to the pursuit itself, consequences absent which zazen and philosophy would stall. But if those consequences become the main goal (as something that is completable, “endable,” and to be completed, to be ended), then both zazen and philosophy are defiled, and the consequences that might otherwise result are themselves threatened. For zazen this is because in thinking of zazen as a means to other ends, one undermines one’s ability to actually enact enlightenment. For philosophy this is because in thinking of philosophical activity as a means to the final end of discovering philosophical truths, one undermines the consequences of philosophy as well as the ability to enact an authentic life worth living. That is, one defiles philosophy if one pursues it as if it were something that should be, that could be, brought to an end, for it cannot be insofar as a) its very pursuit is how one lives an authentic life worth living and b) any conclusion one comes to is always tentative and thus one is never done with a conclusion, one is never done examining it in relation to the ever changing nature of lived life.

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