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.”

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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)

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Realizing the Matrix—On the Possibility and Desirability of “Uploading” Insight

There is a special class of knowledge or wisdom that we might call insight or realization. This comes in a variety of forms and degrees. For example, someone tells you how scary it is to be in the water when someone spots a shark. You’ve been afraid before, you’ve been in the ocean before, so you think you have a pretty good idea of what that must be like. But you don’t really realize what it’s like until you’ve been swimming on the North Shore of Oahu and someone yells, “Shark!” At which point you panic like never before, swim like never before. Or you have a conversation with a friend and they tell you something that sounds plausible and halfway interesting, but it doesn’t really connect with anything else you’ve been thinking about or that is meaningful to you. But some years later, after reading different things, thinking things through, you suddenly have an insight, you suddenly have this realization. You then happen to excitedly tell your friend about it, and their reaction is, “That’s what I told you two years ago!”

What is importantly common to the shark and friend examples is that they both involve a kind of “seeing” for oneself. The shark example is different in the speed at which the realization happens. It is a purer form of realizing what it is like to experience or do something. The example with the friend is less of a realizing what it is like and more a realizing the significance of something. This realizing the significance often means seeing connections, how an idea, for example, connects up with other important ideas, one’s other beliefs and values, etc. Such realizations are markedly different from simple cases of knowing how to do something like ride a bike and knowing what we might call “trivia” or pieces of information. For example, one might readily learn and know that in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is an important philosopher, is convicted and sentenced to death, eventually dying by drinking hemlock. So much is relatively easy to understand/know. But it takes years of studying philosophy and reading Plato, etc., to realize the full significance of those bits of knowledge, their value/significance, how they connect up with other issues, both in philosophy and one’s life. Continue reading

You are Right and I have my Peace—On the Pursuit of Truth and a Meaningful Life

What am I after in pursuing philosophy? A ready answer is: the Truth. The truth about whatever philosophical topic I might be interested in. But this answer is problematic for a number of important reasons. One is that philosophy is extremely difficult and I’d have to be a fool or full of hubris to think that I will figure out any significant truths, truths that greater minds than my own failed to see. Another is revealed in the following passage from §5 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, “Part One: On the Prejudices of Philosophers”: Continue reading

Conversing with the Universe

In the classroom I’m explicit with the disclaimer that since we’re doing philosophy, nothing is off the table for questioning, including religious beliefs. It is this “nothing’s off the table for question” attitude that is so particular to philosophy, particularly as it is constantly calling itself into question. And it is this attitude that has implications for the roles we play, the masks we wear.

We all play various roles, whether student, professor, parent, brother, close friend, etc. The question is whether those roles are better seen as masks or actual identities. What I mean is: should we identify ourselves as our role or think that there is something more basic underlying the roles, something that we are, such that those roles are really “just” masks or personas that this more basic “thing” wears? I want to argue that there is a more basic aspect to ourselves that implies that these roles are more akin to personas. However, this aspect should not be thought of as some kind of thing or (simple) essence, e.g., pure consciousness or a soul. Rather, this more basic aspect is a particular way of comporting oneself to the world and one’s personas, such that a person is both her personas and not her personas.

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Why Not Suffering? Buddhism, Nietzsche, and the Value of Suffering

The cessation of suffering is Buddhism’s end goal. The Buddha has discovered how to do it, according to Buddhism and Buddhists who have achieved the goal. A supposedly central requirement for achieving the goal is to realize the truth of no-self: there is no substantial self that endures over time. Leaving aside what exactly this means, an important question regards why one should accept the doctrine of no-self. The Buddha gave arguments for the view and later Buddhists gave still more.

Here is the important point: these arguments are philosophical arguments just as susceptible to objections and problems as any philosophical argument. Faced with such a difficulty, faced with the wide morass that is the debate about no-self, a Buddhist practitioner may claim that the convoluted metaphysics of persons is not what matters. What matters is whether the Buddha’s method of ending suffering works. Belief in no-self can come through practicing selflessness over time—by seeing the results of selflessness, i.e., the lessoning/ending of suffering. It needn’t come as the result of an argument.

Here is the problem: belief in no-self may lead to less suffering, may even lead to its complete cessation, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a substantial self. It just means that belief in a substantial self likely leads to suffering. If giving up the belief in a substantial self did help to end suffering, then that would certainly give credence to the overall method of the Buddha. That is, it would mean that he was right that his eightfold path will bring an end to suffering. But, again, that doesn’t mean that he was right about there not being a self. Again, it only means that he was right that giving up the belief in such a self will help end suffering.

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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.

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Why are you a Christian (Muslim, Jew, etc.)?

Much of what I have to say is critical, but I do not mean any disrespect to my family and friends, or any one else of a particular faith. The purpose of this short essay is to further my project of trying to understand religious belief and to cultivate a certain kind of humility that I find lacking in many religious people. The latter may seem condescending, though I certainly do not intend it to be.

When asking for the reasons why a person believes something, e.g., that gay marriage is a good/bad idea, there are two importantly different kinds of reasons that we might appeal to (there are more than just these two, but these are the most salient). One kind is called epistemic reasons. Epistemic reasons are relevant to the truth of that for which they are reasons. That is, their truth is supposed to guarantee or make probable the truth of that which is believed. For example, Bob believes he will get over an infection because of the known efficacy of antibiotics. That known efficacy is a reason for believing, it makes it probably true, that Bob will get well; and thus it justifies his believing that he will get well.

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States of Belief

A song from Modest Mouse begins with these lyrics:  “I was in heaven – I was in hell – Believe in neither – But fear them as well.”  Subtract the claim of having been to both and just consider the claim, “I believe in neither heaven nor hell, but I fear them.”  Further, suppose someone asserts this with the utmost sincerity.  Is there anything strange about that assertion?  Is it at all like “Moore’s Paradox”:  “It’s raining but I don’t believe it.”  ?

A person sincerely making the claim about fearing heaven and hell seems to be saying that X doesn’t exist but I fear X.  Perhaps that is not strange after all, since we fear things that don’t exist yet, e.g., the last moments of life as we are dying, and things that may never exist, e.g., getting fired from our jobs, going bankrupt, etc.  But while those things are feared and do not exist, they are believed to exist in the future (or it is believed that they will exist) or believed to be possibilities.  But presumably anyone who doesn’t believe in heaven or hell doesn’t believe that they will come to exist or that they are possibilities in the same way that losing one’s job is a possibility.

Perhaps one could not believe in heaven or hell, but fear them because one fears that one is wrong about there not being either.  Insofar as one fears being wrong, one can fear that which one is wrong about.

But I wonder if we couldn’t approach it from another direction viz. looking at the ways in which one might believe in neither.  That is, we can distinguish between a mere lack of belief in X and a “positive” disbelief in X.  So a person who merely lacks belief in heaven and hell might sensibly fear them in a way that a person who holds a positive disbelief in them could not.  I may be building something out of nothing here (or perhaps nothing out of something).  But part of the joy of doing philosophy is to start wondering about something and see where it leads, even if it often leads nowhere.

Philosophy, Poetry, and Truth

My friend Jennie and I used to argue often about the different ways that poetry and philosophy go about examining the world and attempting to speak truly about it.  She always claimed that there were certain truths, usually of a spiritual nature, or if not spiritual, then about particular deep aspects of life and nature, that poetry was better at investigating and expressing than philosophy.  I’m not in a position to give her reasons for these claims.  And I don’t think she was right in the way that she thought she was.  However, I do think that there is perhaps an important difference between poetry and philosophy concerning access to truth (a general difference, and not one that is meant to admit of no exceptions); I will try to articulate it below.

First, I do not have much patience for the idea of ineffable truths, simply because I take it that truth is a property of sentences used in particular contexts, and therefore if something is ineffable, then it cannot be formulated into sentences, and it therefore cannot admit of truth or falsity.  So I don’t think that it is the business of philosophy or poetry to try to show or gesture at ineffable truths.

I do not think that philosophy and poetry are necessarily separated by reason or argument; that is, I do not think that reason and argument belong to philosophy but not to poetry.  That is not to say, of course, that every poem presents an argument.  And it seems likely to me that the argument of a poem does not consist of the same kind of moves found in a philosophical argument.  Some poetry (I certainly won’t speak for all poetry) seems to me to work because of the way it directs one’s thoughts, attitudes, and emotions, often directing them toward ordinary “objects” in subtly new ways and in such a way that one arrives at new thoughts, attitudes, and emotions.  Through a serious of such movements, each of which draws on the reader’s background of ideas, emotions, dispositions, desires, experiences, etc., in order to draw the reader forward and in, a poem might present a kind of argument for seeing something in a particular way; that new insight, or whatever it should be called, is a kind of conclusion.

Insofar as philosophy operates on a more singular plain of categorical, propositional, predicate logic, philosophical arguments can typically be reconstructed explicitly from their texts.  Importantly, this reconstruction can be done without injury to the argument.  I don’t mean to deny the power of persuasion that might come with a style of writing.  But I think that many philosophers would recognize a distinction between a well reasoned argument and a persuasive one.  I can imagine a philosopher saying, “I see that the argument is valid and the premises appear to all be true, but I’m still not inclined to accept the conclusion.”

An important result that comes out of the above differences between philosophy and poetry is that poetry might allow one to arrive at a certain conclusion that could not be arrived at in the same way through philosophical reasoning.  That is, while we might be able to explicitly restate the point of a poem in paraphrase, we will not—or perhaps the weaker “may not”—be moved to accept the point as true if all we have access to is the paraphrase.  The “logic” or “reasoning” of the poem itself is required if one is to have access to the truth in such a way that one is moved to accept it.  I’m not ruling out the possibility that some of the “conclusions” of poems could be argued for in an explicitly philosophical manner.  But even then, such reasoning may not provide the right kind of epistemic access to the truth.

All of that is in the abstract.  I will try to look for an example to illustrate my point.