Paul Graham Essay Philosophy

I think there is a difference between everyday philosophy and academic philosophy.

The former is a process which ANYBODY could benefit from. It comes from reading philosophy, thinking about philosophy, and listening to philosophy podcasts, etc. It involves paying close attention to the words people use and the assumptions they make. For this reason, it doesn’t really matter if you are reading Wittgenstein or Heidegger or Socrates or whoever. The process of carefully engaging with an argument is what’s important.

Everybody who has posted a comment here is engaging with this type of philosophy.

They are paying close attention to the words and assumptions which the other users are using.

They are also thinking about philosophy in the same way philosophers think about science or history or art. If philosophy is a form of meta-thinking, then whenever you are thinking about discipline X instead of practicing discipline X, you are engaging with a type of philosophical thinking.

The fact that you are engaging with a philosophical discussion about philosophy in the comment section of a philosophy blog is proof that philosophy has had an effect on your life. If philosophy is ineffectual and irrelevant, why are you here?

These types of arguments remind of something Stanley Kubrick said. He claimed that film has no effect on behaviour (this was in the press-controversy surrounding a violent film he had just released). I was stunned that a FILM director could make such a statement. Obviously film can have an effect on behaviour if film itself is what inspired him to become a film director.

As for academic philosophy: It’s hard for me to really comment on this field since I’ve never actually been a philosophy professor. With that said, I can see the appeal of teaching the “important” texts from history. In one sense, a philosophy professor who teaches Plato is kind of like an historian / curator. They are keeping an influential text alive for the next generation. This might not have any “practical worth,” but neither do the dinosaur bones at the museum.

The idea that everything needs to have some “Practical Worth” is boring to me.
I ask you, what would life look like if every single thing you engaged with had some practical end in mind? It’s probably hard to imagine, maybe even impossible.

Somebody might even argue that EVERYTHING has some practical advantage. To use the museum example again: A little kid goes to the museum and learns about dinosaurs. This inspires him to go to the library and check out dinosaur books. He takes these home and reads them all cover-to-cover. This makes him better at reading. He then goes to school, and with his good-reading skills, is able to study well, get good grades, and goes to college (where he doesn’t study philosophy, or even palaeontology, because they have no practical purpose and thus are for pussies).

If this is all true, then philosophy does have practical benefits. It’s just that they might be invisible over the short-term. Personally, I believe Wittgenstein’s ideas about language have helped me call bullshit on people (which can help prevent me from spending my money on useless garbage).

As for the type of writing philosophy professors engage with… I can’t comment on this because I never read academic philosophy journals.

So these are my opinions.

Now for the opinions of others:

Ian Lippert wrote:

” if the costs outweigh the gains for the casual reader it is unlikely that anyone other than the most dedicated readers will get through the material”

Then he wrote:

“This selection bias leads the real top rate thinkers to pursue other disciplines”

Whoa, whoa, so all of a sudden ‘the casual reader’ is a ‘top rate thinker?’

The first-rate thinkers can’t get through Berkeley, but the second-rate thinkers can?

Second-rate thinkers are more dedicated readers?

And how does one know the “gains” outweigh the “costs” of a text without reading the text?

Ian also wrote that philosophy:

” just serves the needs of those second rate thinker who like to convince themselves of the importance of their subjective opinions.”

So the second-rate thinker is somebody who was dedicated to reading through the difficult texts, went through four years of college, another three or four years for grad-school, only to gain a sense of “self- importance” by publishing their opinions in academic philosophy journals?

Somebody should have told these philosophy professors that therapy is cheaper and less time-consuming.

In all seriousness, the notion that “first-rate” thinkers are repelled by philosophy and “drawn” towards the sciences is bunk.

Firstly, I don’t really know what you mean by “first-rate” and “second-rate.” Different people have different aptitudes for different skills. Being good at math and science but mediocre at philosophy does not make you a better thinker than somebody who is good at philosophy but mediocre at math and science. It is not a matter of “who is a first-rate thinker and who is a second-rate thinker.” This is just a juvenile way of looking at the social world.

Secondly, let’s take one of these second-rate thinkers you speak of: Hubert Dreyfus.

In the interview he does with Martha Naussbaum on Youtube, Dreyfus talks about how he was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was young. He struggled with reading all through elementary and secondary school and did poorly in language based subjects like english and history, but thrived in math and physics. He went to university as a major in these subjects and did well in them.

He also took a philosophy class; i.e., the type of language based course he struggled with.

The thing is, the dyslexia actually HELPED him. The other students approached philosophy texts like they did novels: they read through them quickly to gain “the gist,” but didn’t dwell on the details. But because Dreyfus had to read much more slowly and carefully than the other students, his comprehension of the text was much greater. He did very well and developed a taste for philosophy. He switched majors and then went on to become a relatively famous figure in the field.

So, is this a case where second-rate thinker found himself “at home” in a second-rate discipline? Probably not. After all, he started out doing well in physics. His preference for philosophy had nothing to do with his mediocrity and everything to do with how philosophy fit his learning style.

Well, we seem to agree on some issues: Not all philosophy is bad or useless. Some might be. So, let's say "Some philosophy is useless." PG presents a few quotes and we may conclude, he proved his point.

But did he present any useless philosophy or just badly written philosophy? Or does it just appear to be useless because we don't immediately understand it?

The latter case basically boilds down to an argument from ignorance: "We don't understand some philosophers, therefore they must be useless (or bad or false)." Many people don't understand much of contemporary maths either, but that's hardly a good reason to call it useless (or bad or false). In contrast to maths, though, many people assume to be able to understand it.

The former case is also hardly a good reason to call something useless. Kant, for instance, is bloody complicated to read (at least, for me, and I'm German). However, his arguments still make sense -- one just needs to read the literature that explains Kant's ethics and meta-physics in a more accessible manner. They were also quite useful for other philosophers.

You say you can find bad philosophy more easily than I can find bad maths. Maybe, but since this is basically an empirical question, our small sample won't be sufficient to prove anything. On a side note: It's easy to find useless maths -- in the sense of published proofs that turned out to be wrong. Since they didn't prove anything, why have they been published, at all? For examples, look at the history to prove Fermat's Last Theorem. Quite a lot of them failed or were simply wrong. What a waste of time.

However, your test to find useless philosophy also suffers from the lack of a proper definition of "useless" and "useful". Just because you can't think of any use, doens't mean you're right -- this is just another argument from ignorance.

Let's consider ethics, for instance: It is basically useless concerning empiricial results. However, it's still useful in many contemporary discussions; for instance, animal's rights, abortion, women rights, death penalty, justice, atheism, and many other issues.

Concerning your question whether some other form of argument could possibly exist to support PG's claim? Sure, from an empirical point of view: A proper definition of "useless" and a proper random sample concerning philosophical works. This would at least support the conclusion that, say, 35% of philosophy turned out to be useless.

But PG made two additional arguments:

(1) Any resulting number of useless philosophy is due to the current philosophical method that is motivated by studying the most abstract problems.

(2) A different method that starts from studying practical problems and builds up to abstract problems will result in a smaller number of useless philosophy.

To support (2), an argument from analogy would help: Study a model of the proposed method (thankfully provided by science) and establish the empirical fact that is produced a smaller percentage of useless results.

Of course, this can easily be refuted by attacking the analogy. The methods of empricial science simply doesn't translate well to issues philosophers care about; such as ethics.

To support (1), one would need to start from the premise of the current method and deduce that it will lead to a certain number of useless philosophy and that there is no other possible explanantion. I doubt that it can be done, but I may be wrong.

Just to present a counter-example: to establish the habit of presenting arguments in a more formal way could help to distiguish good and bad philosophy much easier.

However, the point is that PG -- although his intention is apperently to "work through a subject to understand it" -- fails badly. He hardly worked though and he probably still doesn't understand it. Maybe, if he would have studied philosophy more carefully he could have made better arguments for his case.

Which shows how careful one should be about certain words: From a philosophical point of view, namely, PG's work was useless, indeed.

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