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 Descartes’ dualism is problematic,” one should say, “I think/believe Descartes’ dualism is problematic.”

Continue reading

The Philosophy Classroom: The Ultimate Safe Space

In the past weeks my newsfeed on Facebook has been filled with articles about safe spaces and trigger warnings. My impression from the headlines and comments alone is that most people are understanding these things differently than I and my colleagues do. Very briefly, I understand a trigger warning to be a kind of heads up that the topic to be discussed will go into graphic detail about a topic, e.g., rape, that may “trigger” past trauma. The point being to allow someone who is not yet ready to hear, much less discuss, their experience to bow out—for even if they are not explicitly the subject of the conversation, if the subject concerns their kind of traumatic experience, it is their experience under discussion. I have not had occasion to use trigger warnings in my philosophy classroom simply because I have not discussed topics that deal with trauma. There seems to be some confusion or worry that trigger warning are used to allow students to avoid hearing things that make them “uncomfortable.” However, if some use them that way, that is unfortunate, but I do not have reason to believe it is the norm. There is, of course, a huge chasm between the uncomfortable and the traumatic. I’m guessing that most teachers would catch on that something disingenuous is up if they gave a trigger warning and half the class walked out.

Similarly with safe spaces: there’s a ton of confusion. Unlike with trigger warnings, I have used the phrase, “I consider this classroom to be a safe space.” What I meant and what I said to my students was that that means people can speak up, share their thoughts and experiences—fully be themselves—without worrying about being ridiculed, made fun of, or otherwise made to feel bad for what they have said or who they are. It most definitely does not mean that we won’t be discussing difficult or controversial material or material that will make them uncomfortable. As a philosophy professor, I don’t believe I’m doing my job unless I’m leaving my students confused if not also uncomfortable. Confused because I believe that they cannot deepen their understanding of the world and themselves without first working through confusion. Uncomfortable because my philosophy classroom is not about telling them how things are, but rather challenging them with questions they wouldn’t otherwise be asked to consider. 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