Thursday, August 25, 2011

Does Philosophy Matter?

Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida International University in Miami, challenges whether philosophy can actually change the way people act. Simply put, Fish says philosophy is fun but ineffectual.

“I’m not debunking philosophy or saying that people shouldn’t do it,” Fish writes in his New York Times blog. “Philosophy is fun; it can be a good mental workout; its formulations sometimes display an aesthetically pleasing elegance. I’m just denying to philosophy one of the claims made for it —that its conclusions dictate or generate non-philosophical behavior.”

Fish takes on his critics who argue philosophy can make us be morally better. He questions philosophy’s impact on society, while implying law, politics, religion and common sense are better resources for making better decisions. Interestingly, Fish references one of the most famous philosophers ever to make his point, which is that there’s not much point to philosophy.

“If you have a problem to solve or a decision to make reading me won’t help you any more than chanting ‘I believe in moral absolutes’ or ‘I don’t.’ What will help are the usual ingredients of what Aristotle calls “practical reasoning”— an understanding of your goal, a survey of alternative ways of reaching it, a calculation of likely consequences, an effort to identify the relevant considerations, a recollection of what happened last time, and so on…. In the course of our efforts many things (and not always the same things) will be of use, but moral philosophy won’t be one of them.”


  1. I can't help but think that Fish makes good points the way the new athiests make good points: by sticking to the points that can be made well. He speaks of philosophy, not really of philosophers. While I might not expect an "answer" from philosophy on a question regarding the moral dimensions of assisted suicide (an example he uses) I sure wouldn't want to exclude the input of philosophers were I tasked with considering the issue deeply, not because they have the answer but because they have the skill to expose all the facets of the problem.

    Maybe, after all, philosophy doesn't matter, but philosophers do.

  2. I wonder too if the tension between dismissing philosophy with the help of a philosopher isn't a deliberate move to stir up conversation: giving his would-be discussant an initial and I am sure merely apparent leg up? Isn't the real thrust of the snippet included here that argument alone is not enough? If philosophy is comprehended by its argumentation, philosophy will not be enough. Here are two bits of anecdotal evidence for such a thesis.
    1. I remember distinctly a conversation I once had with a former colleague Vaden House an enthusiastic and talented debator about arguing with philosopher Alvin Plantinga. He described how he tried getting at Plantinga's position from one angle after another. In every case, Plantinga was able to deflect or blunt his charge by a well placed syllogism here or a brilliant counterexample there. Vaden admitted that he lost every argument. And then he concluded with something like, "And he is still wrong; I know that deep in my bones."
    2. In his Antidosis, Isocrates judges the great strategos Timotheos of Athens who counselled ever in alignment with the truth of things but did so in such a cool and dispassionate way that the Athenian assembly was left cold and hence vulnerable to other voices who were in error but who spoke in a way that provoked desire. In Isocrates' view Timotheos must be criticised for taking no thought for and spending no effort on presenting the truth in such a way that his hearers would fall in love with it. His point seems to have been that people can know the truth and not love it. If so, they will not live in alignment with it if it demands sacrifice of them.

  3. Priscilla ReimerTuesday, August 30, 2011

    I just finished reading Doris Lessing's Massey Lectures, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, and one of her key points and observations is that we know so much that we do not act upon. She suggests that future generations will puzzle over that and criticize us for it. While Lessing focuses on the social and behavioural sciences, I think her observations are also true of philosophy. But that doesn't mean that philosophy doesn't matter, nor is it an argument for philosophy's lack of efficacy. It means that we are often ineffectual. It is people, after all, who either act on what they know or not. An interesting question, I think, especially in these times, is why we cannot or will not act on what we know.

  4. The answer to the question, if I can add my two bits to this space, would depend a lot on how you define what philosophy is or what you suppose you are doing when you philosophize. The long and the short of it, whether he intends such or not, seems to be that Fish neglects to query whether philosophy deals exclusively with 'theoretical' reason, leaving 'practical' reason to the plebs, or whether how the distinction between 'practical' and 'theoretical' reason is drawn is itself philosophical, which would draw thinking about the relation between the two sorts of reasoning under the label philosophizing. Something similar occurs with Dooyeweerd's distinction between pre-theoretical experience and the theoretical attitude of thought. Before he can deploy his transcendental critique, he has to describe what happens within the transcendental horizon of time, at base, what the undifferentiated pre-theoretical experience is and how it is broken up by reflecting on it critically.

    I concur with Bob, where he suggests, 'If philosophy is comprehended by its argumentation, philosophy will not be enough.' However, by the classical definition of philosophy, i.e. the love of wisdom, it may be that philosophy is enough. But this would leave us with a very different understnading of what philosophy is.

    Fish also seems to make some gross straw-man assumptions about the causal relation between human thinking and acting: 'I’m just denying to philosophy one of the claims made for it —that its conclusions dictate or generate non-philosophical behavior.' There is no absolute one-way causal street from theorhetical thought to practical what? It seems a little presumptuous on his part to assume that this means that philosophizing is utterly ineffectual. Fish seems to play a zero-sum game; it's either all or nothing with no half-way house to speak of.

    I note that Fish's comments are made in the context of a discussion about whether moral absolutes can ever be brought to bear on particular situations, or if there is something about the particularity of each situation that must necessarily compromise the integrity of the absoluteness of any moral claim. The same zero-sum game is being playing, I beleive, in this context of his larger discussion.

  5. Jonathan WeverinkTuesday, August 30, 2011

    Stanley Fish obviously doesn't watch enough basketball. Shaquille O'Neal was so impressed upon by studying Aristotle he gave himself the nickname 'The Big A'. How's that for cause and effect? And check out how I used a sports icon to endorse my argument. How's that for the modern rhetor?

  6. Priscilla's closing question points me back to Isocrates' condemnation of Timotheos. He seems to acknowledge the point of her question in his suggestion that the Athenians of his day did not act when they had not fallen in love with what they were given to know. Demons know the truth about Jesus of Nazareth in the N. T. but there is no metanoia. They are prepared to fear him but not to act out of love for him.
    Richard's piece seems to add this to the discussion--many philosophers recognize a substratum of experience reality that escapes theoretical analysis. For Aristotle it was material reality in its materiality and its particularity. For others it is the sphere of practical states of affairs. For others it is day-to-day experience of the world. If the distinction however identified and talked about has weight philosophy precludes what is inaccessible to theoretical analysis save the name given to mark it as inaccessible. It will never be enough to get it all and hence to be able to guide our living without mishap, to guide our love of wisdom if you will.
    As for Jonathan's comment: he'll have to help me there; I'm struggling to keep up.

  7. The position of Fish is in fact a philosophical one. So he uses one philosophical position to debunk another. One simply cannot get away from "doing philosophy" when one deals with the questions of life and the meaning thereof. Fish limits the scope of philosophy to moral argument. That too is a philosophical position.

    John Kamphof

  8. Not moral absolutes, but ethical philosophy has been used (I was involved in the program) to help orient young folks (12-17) in ehtical responses to everyday problems as well as to larger societal issues. A practical approach was taken based in underpinnings of some of the better-known moral philosophers. I cannot say that these people (now in their late teens and 20s) live by the principles they learned several years ago, but to argue that the experience had no effect seems too absolute and thus inaccurate.

  9. Hey Bob. When I was thinking of non-philosophers who benefit from philosophy, the example of Shaquille O'Neal, the famous basketball player, came to mind.

    O'Neal fulfilled a promise to his mother when he took a break mid-basketball career to complete his remaining year of college. Somewhere in that time, he studied Aristotle. When he emerged from this college experience, he spoke to the press about Aristotle, and took to calling himself 'the Big Aristotle' or 'the Big A'. Giving O'Neal the benefit of the doubt, I consider his love for Aristotle to be real. I do not believe that O'Neal fails to recognize the significance of his nickname. After all, O'Neal is a college graduate who has studied Aristotle. I therefore take him seriously. And so, Shaquille O'Neal is a public individual whose lived life runs counter to Fish's suggestion that philosophy does not change how people act.

    When I was thinking about Shaquille O'Neal, and how he is an example to philosophers, I thought it was funny how I myself was using a professional athlete as a basis for an argument. Almost like 'The Shaq' is endorsing my argument just by being in it. Well, using sports icons to peddle products is the order of the day. And it looks like I'm doing it too! That's what I meant about being a "modern rhetor".

  10. I know that philosophy massively changed me. I studied my MA at ICS and the personal effect it had on me was massive. It completely changed who I saw myself as, what I believed, and what I was capable of imagining. All for the better.

    And when I say it changed what I am capable of imagining, I mean it. My life opened up, and I was able to take advantage of possibilities I would not have known were there before. I gave me an understanding of creativity that allowed my own creativity to flourish.

    Indeed, philosophy is useful for looking down into issues, rooting around, and discovering motivations, truths and tendencies about ourselves and society. It's very good as a creative background, from which important life choices can be made. And I believe that without that creative background, a lot of "non-philosophical" choices people make in their lives would be a lot worse than they are with it. Philosophy may not help that much directly, but it does massively help as a backdrop for creativity and good choices to happen.



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