It strikes me that I’ve said very little about the nature of philosophical explanation, even as I write from a specifically philosophical perspective and intent. This might qualify as ironic, but I’m never confident that I’m using the word “irony” (or its variants) properly. Which, for a man with my education, might also be ironic …
I’ve written a number of posts variously exploring the nature, the expectations, and a few of the pitfalls surrounding scientific explanations. I’ve probed a few ethical/moral issues, and even discussed some fairly generic questions around the large scale issue of the “logic of inquiry” itself. But beyond a few scattered comments, I’ve not really posed the question (along with a tentative answer) about the nature and value of specifically philosophical inquiry itself. This post will be my first concerted stab in that direction.
To begin with, philosophy cannot be separated from pedagogy. It is not just that when you teach philosophy, your pedagogical methods are themselves illustrative OF your philosophy. The connection is much deeper than that. When you teach at all – anything at all – you are expressing and conveying profoundly philosophical commitments to your students. This is hardly a new insight. The Greeks – Plato and Aristotle prominent among these – constantly worried about what could be taught, how it might be taught, and to whom it should be presented and when, all as an intrinsic component of the larger philosophical schemas they were developing. John Dewey, toward the end of Democracy and Education, quips that, in essence, philosophy just IS the theory of education. Whitehead (I am, after all, a Whiteheadian) argues along lines very similar to Dewey that for education to be successful, it must be attuned not only to what there is, but to how the student responds to the world in a growthful and person-enhancing way.
But insofar as this is correct, it brings us back around to a position that might be described thus: teaching is a matter of teaching methods of inquiry; teaching philosophy, then, is a matter of teaching methods of philosophical inquiry. (Memorization can play a role, but it is neither the beginning nor the ending of learning – unless, of course, one only wishes to develop trained seals whose intellectual capacities are exhausted by the ability to balance balls on their noses. In this regard, the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has some detailed comments about the abuses of memorization.)
What this suggests is that learning philosophy – and not just learning about the history of philosophy – is in some essential sense connected with actually doing philosophy; which is to say, engaging in philosophical inquiry. But inquiry, if it genuinely is inquiry, does not exist in a vacuum, nor does it aimlessly wander about like a dust mote battered hither and yon by Brownian collisions with the environment. To be an inquiry, the activity must be directed at a real question, which means that something in the way of an actual answer is demanded as the ultimate, or at least ideal, result. This is as true of philosophy as it is of any other form of inquiry. To the extent that one has achieved that answer – however provisional, controversial, or hypothetical that answer might be – to that extent, one has what can be called a “philosophical explanation.”
Now, it ought to go without saying that a philosophical explanation is different from, say, a scientific one. It ought to go without saying …
Sadly, it does not, as is evidenced the the effort devoted to an unrestrained “physics envy” practiced by a large segment of Western philosophy in the last century, a segment that imagined it could make philosophy better by making it more “scientific.” Science itself emerged from philosophy by the narrowing of the field of questions and allowable answers, which led others to suggest that this was, in the end, the only real service that philosophy could provide. More recently, scientists such as Stephen Hawking have denounced philosophy because it isn’t sufficiently like “science.” Hawking evidently feels that philosophy fails, because it does not fulfill its “proper” role as bouncy cheerleader, and instead insists on making meaningful and logically pointed criticisms of certain aspects of what passes as contemporary scientific activity. This would be ironic, were it not so pathetic: Hawking’s denunciations do not come from doing science, but from doing philosophy, and doing it BADLY. Hawking’s scholarship, in this and other areas, is non-existent (the reason his Brief History of Time is so brief is because there is effectively no real history in it.) He petulantly complains about how roughly he’s been handled by some philosophers, without ever once considering the possibility that said handling was deserved. And Hawking is one of the worst offenders when it comes to the sin of model centrism, yet he denounces philosophy for not being scientific, even as he praises as “science” hopelessly unscientific mathematical models that are devoid of even the abstract possibility of empirical content.
Notice that the above criticisms are exclusively philosophical in nature. The kind of philosophical critique you find here is along the lines found in the declaration at the top of this blog: “Science, logic, and ethics, from a Whiteheadian Pragmatist perspective.” This is not the only kind, or even the “best” kind, of philosophy that one might engage in. But it is what I do. I will leave it to others to explain the purposes of their inquiries; I’ll finish here by discussing my own, in the hope that the analogies will be such as can be carried over.
For example, I have criticized various aspects of contemporary gravitational cosmology for falling short of the standards of an empirical science while still making grandiose and triumphalist declarations about the nature of the universe. No effort was made to advance an alternative theory, although it is possible to point to examples that might stand out as alternatives. Thus, there is a kind of “meta-level” analysis being performed; at no point am I trying to do science, rather I am pointing to the errors of others who claim to be doing science, but are not. Quoting John Dewey here, philosophy, then, “is a critique of prejudices.” Just a few lines earlier, Dewey points out that philosophy is not, “a study of philosophy but a study, by means of philosophy, of life-experience.” (Experience and Nature, end of chapter 1.) In line with this approach, philosophical critique might also challenge the dominant prejudices concerning the nature of Nature itself, as these are found in science and elsewhere. Along these lines, Whitehead proposed a much more experientially centered, “radical empiricist” concept of nature that, by taking experience seriously, in the fullness of its relational content, no longer opposes experience to nature, nor provides any basis to disdain experience in favor of theory, as the model centrists do. In my activities here, I will also turn to more basic issues and simply analyze claims and situations according to purely logical standards, without any specifically scientific or metaphysical ax to grind, sometimes even pressing these issues beyond the level of critical thinking into that of formal logic itself. (I would note that in the preceding case, the motivation was, once again, primarily pedagogical in character.)
These later, more logical types of critiques of prejudices, will be common to philosophers of every stripe. But beyond the comfort zone of my own areas of specialization, there are many other forms of philosophical inquiry. Thus, numerous forms of institutionalized prejudices and bigotries are teased apart by the analyses of the prejudices of “normativity” – that is, presuppositions of “what is normal”? – and shown to be not the analytical developments of “natural” processes, but social constructs fabricated from artificial privileges that have been externally imposed upon the world by the raw application of power.
Learning about these philosophical methodologies is a matter of learning how to methodologically engage the world along such lines; hence the connection between philosophy and pedagogy. But whatever philosophical approach one engages, the primary analytical step will always involve finding a perch, a perspective, a linchpin, a leverage point – a logical quantum – of explanation, from which the otherwise unexamined prejudices of society, experience, and practice, can be illuminated, described, and unraveled. This is the way of philosophical explanation.