In Defense of Philosophy


What reason on earth could anyone have for defending philosophy? Or any other perfectly sensible field of human inquiry? Only fools blame fields of study for the bad performances of scholars and students.

Unfortunately many people of good will pick up on themes propagated by quacks, and so the view that the legal profession itself produced Watergate, medicine itself leads to sickness, or philosophy as such leads to stupid philosophical systems persists in many circles.

On July 23, 1976, the Wall Street Journal published the following "Notable & Quotable" from remarks made by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on ABC-TV's "Issues and Answers":

I suspect that one of the great problems is that people see themselves as either technologists or, for the sake of argument, intellectuals. I think the danger is that one begins to suspect the other. I think the technologists tend to suspect the intellectuals, who are always playing with words and generally criticizing and rationalizing and arguing.

The intellectuals look at the technologists as merely spanner-wielding grease monkeys who haven't got a solid bone, who have no cultural aspirations, no social conscience at all. I think this is nonsense, this division—all people have got a social conscience or are capable of having it. All people have the capacity to be intelligent and to enjoy cultural activities. Until we recognize we are all on the same side and that we need the same qualities in people, whether they are technologists or intellectuals, it is only when they begin to work together, that we are going to get some kind of rational balance between development, conservation and preservation.

I share Prince Philip's concern, and the points I make below, part of the introductory chapter of my new textbook on philosophy, should clarify the issue on which he found it necessary to remark.

A persistent obstacle to taking an interest in philosophy arises from the widely held belief that the sciences are the only areas of inquiry in which reliable knowledge can be produced—the reliability being due to the methods of science. Many think that in the humanities—arts, philosophy, law—one cannot gain firm understanding of anything. Many freshmen come to colleges and universities with the belief that science is the only road to truth and in all other fields one opinion is as sound as any other. This impression may develop in high school years, when a somewhat naive view of the sciences prevails and many treat the humanities like a huge rap session, or may arise from a somewhat lopsided view of technology. Most people tend to give full credit for technological achievements to the hard, physical sciences, whereas in fact technological progress is due to a combination of many aspects of human life, including politics, law, education, art, commerce, and philosophy. Lack of appreciation for this has led many to assume that only science—and no other field—can yield knowledge and understanding.

In general it is a simplification, if not an outright mistake, to think that every science uses the same method of inquiry and that in other areas of life nothing like the scientific method can be employed and thus the results must be inadequate. This view is itself the result of a philosophical theory that has been prominent during the last hundred years. It emerged from the doctrine that all knowledge must be achieved by relying exclusively on sensory input. In the physical sciences such reliance is considerable. It is then often accepted that only in these sciences is knowledge obtainable. This view has led to much controversy in all other fields, and many of the social sciences have adjusted so as to accommodate this standard of being scientific by ignoring anything not strictly physical in human and social affairs.

Before a person commits himself to one view of the relationship between philosophy and other fields of inquiry, he should take a look at philosophy itself and examine what various philosophical theories have to say about that relationship. It is in philosophy that the relationship between fields of inquiry is examined. The various theories of knowledge aim, in part, at identifying the proper relationship between the sciences and other fields of scholarly activity.

It will help to understand this issue as controversial and subject to philosophical examination. On a commonsense level it is safe to suggest that fields with differing subject matter will employ somewhat different means and methods of inquiry. Philosophy studies basic issues, whereas the sciences study special areas of reality. It makes sense then to expect important differences between the ways these fields approach their tasks. The types of arguments used to support their claims may differ considerably. These differences notwithstanding, there is a major feature that unifies the various fields of inquiry—which ought to, be emphasized more often than it is. Rationality, objectivity, care, and attentiveness are of equal importance in all areas of research and inquiry. What exactly will be the most rational means of dealing with a specific topic should not be prejudged; logical consistency and clear awareness of pertinent facts and theories are crucial.

In everyday life we understand by objectivity a quality of judgment or of attitude. Those who are prejudiced are chided because they lack objectivity; they prejudge rather than rest their beliefs on facts. In the context of such concerns, objectivity means paying attention to the relevant evidence in forming judgments, opinions, and attitudes. For example, the racially prejudiced individual lacks objectivity because in judging someone he invokes considerations that have nothing to do with the person's character. To reject someone as a moral equal because of color is to blame that person for something no one can help, namely, one's color at birth. It is generally recognized as unjust, something that comes from not taking an objective view of human beings.

Objectivity also has importance in describing the world around us: are we exaggerating, are we being comprehensive enough, do we trivialize the issue? The idea of being objective in these respects stands in contrast to the idea that descriptions are a matter of personal, subjective judgment.

From these familiar ways of being objective, it emerges that objectivity amounts to a serious regard for truth, accuracy, and relevance. To examine something, we need to sort out the evidence carefully. We must make sure that our own concerns do not lead us to inject material that is unrelated to what we are dealing with. Generally, but with many exceptions, it is assumed that people can be objective. Therefore, in courts it is a requirement for juries to make objective assessments of the guilt or innocence of defendants, to ignore comments or testimony that has no bearing on the issue. None of this is to say that objectivity is always easy to achieve and maintain. Yet, this does not prove its impossibility.

Sometimes being objective is equated with being heartless, cool, or insensitive, and it is then thought of as a negative quality. Yet this is probably a mistake when generalized. Consider the economist who approaches his research in an emotionless, methodical fashion. Simply because he does not allow his emotions to interfere with his work and focuses on the facts and techniques of his field, he would not be open to criticism—there is nothing heartless about remaining objective about his work, including the poverty, scarcity, etc. which it is his task to analyze. During the performance of his task it would not be appropriate to indulge in the display of emotions, even though we can assume that any good economist appreciates the emotions and concerns related to eliminating poverty. That is one reason for the existence of economics, even though while at work it is crucial that the scholar's emotionalism not be allowed to interfere with the objectivity needed for doing a good job.

In philosophy, as in many other fields where we seek knowledge and reliable guidance for conduct, we need to be objective. We need to be able to assess our own arguments and those offered by others, to determine whether all that is relevant to an issue has been considered in reaching a conclusion. We need to know if criticism has been handled with justice and objectivity, rather than without due regard, that is, arbitrarily or with prejudice. Depending on what is being studied in the field, we must learn how objectivity should be achieved, what will make it possible and likely, and what will make it difficult. In this respect philosophy is like the sciences again, or like the law. But it does not follow that we must employ the specific standards of objectivity used in physics or some other particular field as we assess a philosophical point of view, a philosophical argument, or a philosophical conclusion.

Scientifically oriented people sometimes criticize philosophers for not being objective, for expressing only "their own point of view," or for claiming "what is true only for them." Such critics must be asked to explain what they believe philosophers should do. If they claim that philosophers are not upholding the same standards of objectivity demanded in some field of science, the criticism must be rejected; philosophy is not committed to such a task, any more than scientific creativity is committed to following the form of creativity found in literature or poetry. If philosophy were so committed, it would not be philosophy but science, which is absurd. It constitutes an obliteration of differences evident in human affairs.

Common sense is not a very precise term. Sometimes when we call some viewpoint "commonsensical" we mean that many people hold it. Other times we mean that simple people hold it. Or it can refer to what those not specialized in some field of study believe about the subject matter at hand. In figuring out what philosophy is, it is important to consider what sort of relationship might exist between our commonsense beliefs and philosophy. Many philosophers have had something to say about this relationship.

Generally speaking, philosophers consider "common sense" to indicate the views people have of uncontroversial issues in their unreflective moments. (Sometimes philosophers call these intuitions—when they say "intuitively I would hold" or "on first intuition.") It is a matter of common sense that when you call someone on the phone, the person who answers really exists and has not been created by your mind. Common sense would have it that when people leave your sight and go on about their own business they continue to exist even if they are unseen for some time after. Common sense would have it that when a person asks for something, he really wants it. These are all common-sense beliefs. But there are even more complicated ones. We believe that TV sets cannot work as washing machines and that puppies cannot give birth to kittens. It is also common sense that playing a piano must be learned and does not simply come to us out of the blue.

Many of these beliefs, even when some turn out to be mistaken or only partly true, are central to getting along in life. Common sense is, to most of us, a sort of layman's philosophical framework. Furthermore, the traces of any philosophical position can be detected within commonsense ideas.

Yet, however important common sense is for us, we can find some of it problematic. It embodies many confusions. For example, people tend to believe both that they have control over their lives and that their backgrounds cause them to be what they are. Both beliefs are incorporated in common sense. So, if we insist on common sense as our final court of appeal, it can lead us into much confusion and even prevent experimentation and development in human knowledge. Although our common sense tells us that horses cannot give birth to rabbits, it seems that some horses did manage to bear something like donkeys. Scientists at times demonstrate problems with common sense. Reliance on common sense is challenged by the possibility of ESP, plants that respond to human attention, reincarnation, and so forth.

Philosophy never sets out to deny or affirm common sense. It must, however, start by paying it some heed. It is from the common opinions we form (quite unaware that we even form them) that we begin to wonder, to question, to try to make better sense of existence and our relationship to it. However much we might later question our commonsense ideas, they are the first step on the road to philosophizing and all other intellectual and scientific activities. In addition to starting with common sense, some philosophers try to make sure that their views mesh with it. Others attempt to provide commonsense ideas with sound backing.

Yet, considering how many commonsense ideas have been overthrown by science (e.g., the belief that lightning is caused by gods), we can ask why philosophers would be concerned at all with these beliefs. This question assumes, however, that all those things we take for granted in our daily lives will be explained away by scientists of the future, and such an assumption is misleading. Consider that all of the sciences start with daily experiences and commonsense beliefs. Science works from the surface to detailed knowledge of events, things, relationships, and so forth—for instance, from the objects we all deal with and know of, scientists start their investigations into the composition of such objects. The beginning for science, however, is the same as ours in philosophy—common sense. To believe that every feature of this beginning could somehow be overthrown by subsequent inquiry is to believe something that is quite impossible. If we start with some samples of what are generally recognized to be facts, our conclusions must accord to at least some degree with a few of these facts. Otherwise we would lose the beginning point of our thinking; we would, so to speak, cut off the branch that gives our work needed support. For instance, if a scientist becomes interested in the composition of some substance believed to be a metal and this prompts him to examine it in detail, he could not end up denying that the substance exists. He might conclude that what he began examining is not a metal, but he could not conclude that what he started to examine really does not exist at all. This is because his proof started with the fact that this substance exists. (A proof that ends by denying the premises with which it starts can be used only for a very limited purpose, namely, to call into question the entire argument, not to demonstrate the existence or nonexistence of anything.)

Another important consideration is the context in which scientific and commonsense claims are made. For example, when it was common sense to say that the earth is flat, "the earth" very likely meant the ground in sight of a person. The statement was quite true—and in a sense still is. Only when we remove the context of the time and situation in which that statement would very likely have been seriously made, initially, do we find trouble with it. Therefore, science may be seen as expanding the context, and the problem is not so much with common sense as with generalizations from it. Common sense is quite appropriate so long as we realize that it is always to be used without dogmatism, that it must remain open to challenge, and that there must be no undue extension into areas not examined. If we heed these cautions, we can retain confidence in the commonsense approach to reality.

There is a good deal that is objectionable about dividing the world into various compartments and claiming that all of it fits into one or the other. It encourages elitism, bad blood among otherwise decent folks, and so forth. But most of all, it is unfounded. Reality is a rich mixture, and coping with it rationally cannot amount to reducing it to a simple formula. Incidentally, there is also much more fun in diversity, should anyone be concerned with that.

This article is adapted from chapter 1 of Dr. Machan's Introduction to Philosophical Inquiries (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1977).

Senior Editor Machan, who is one of REASON's Viewpoint columnists, has written books on Skinner and human rights and contributes to such publications as Barron's, The Alternative, The Humanist, National Review, Human Events, and scholarly publications. He is associate professor of philosophy at SUNY College, Fredonia, NY.