What is a Philosopher, Anyhow?

“Veritas et Falsitas”: Zeno shows his youthful students the doors to the true and to the false. Painting by Pelligrino Tibaldi, late 16th century.

“Aren’t philosophers just a bunch of old white men,” said my sister, picking up on a comment that I had once made. I had said there are not many women philosophers, nor black philosophers (Cornel West at Harvard an exception). I had suggested that philosophy seems an old and musty profession, and some people do ask, “what is there to its credit?” This is Not an uncommon criticism. Many scientifically inclined persons question the “cred” of philosophers; what is their basis for commenting on or questioning the beliefs of scientists? On another site, it was suggested that anyone majoring in Philosophy should be required to take a significant number of science courses as prerequisite, thus getting their head straight.

So, what have philosophers accomplished? What is the basis of this discipline in the past and today? WHAT DO philosopher’s KNOW, and HOW DO THEY THINK THEY KNOW IT, or ANYTHING?

Philosophy is an ancient tradition. Alfred North Whitehead, a noted mathematician and philosopher from the early 20th century, contended that “All philosophy is but a footnote to Plato” (and how can you doubt any Englishman with a name dripping with such sophistication?). Plato lived around 550 B.C.E., long before Experimental Science and Whitehead contends there were certain conundrums discovered of a logical or conceptual sort. Whatever that may mean?

Well, let us consider Zeno of Elea. He is reported by Plato to have visited Athens sometime around 450 B.C.E arguing for a series of paradoxes, “Zeno’s Paradoxes,” recounted by Aristotle. In one, Achilles races a tortoise and agrees to give it a head start, his problem is that whenever Achilles gets to where the tortoise once was, the tortoise has gone further. Therefore, Achilles never catches the tortoise.

“Achilles and the Tortoise” He gets close, but never quite catches him!
“The Arrow”: if in each instant an arrow is at rest and occupying a particular area of space –“it if there, now”– then it never moves. How can “being at rest” at every discreet instant accumulate to make movement? Rest is always rest, is it not?

Funny, how words and settings can play tricks on us. Zeno was a follower of Parmenides, each apparently were roughly contemporary to Plato but preceded him in that Greek Tradition. Parmenides argued that all movement was illusory –as suggested by “The Arrow”– but also that all Plurality is illusory. All things really had to be just parts of one bigger thing. “All is one,” we have learned to say. And “Let The Force be with you!”

There is an almost obvious intuitive attraction to some of these contentions, and this tradition of the presentation of Paradoxical Situations continues today. In fact it has ‘picked up steam’ in contemporary philosophy with the popularity of “thought experiments” or “intuition pumps,” stories or scenarios designed by philosophers to challenge our intellectual complacencies, our primary and unquestioned assumptions.

One of the most famous “pumps” was formulated by Australian philosopher Frank Johnson in the early 1980s. It is called “Mary’s Room” and the following is my version. An ingenious scientist –Mary– has become caught up in her own experiment. You see, she is a scientist studying color, but she has been kept in a room all her life, a room that lacks color. All her room has –all her life has ever had– is various shades of white, gray, black, with intensities and hues of these varying approximately in line with normal color distinctions. I am not sure how she eats, but somehow her vegetables , for example, come to her not in beautiful greens, yellows or reds. but simply various finely distinguished grey’s.

Is Philosophy just “a can of worms,” or is there a point to it, a solution to the tangle?

Well, while in this room, Mary learns all there is to know about Color. Its electromagnetic frequencies; its neural states; its formative blends –‘yellow’ and ‘red’ make ‘orange’– but she has not experienced any of these colors directly. She knows that fire trucks are red, though she has never seen a real one. The dilemma occurs when –one day– Mary is let out to see the light of day! Does she Learn anything new about color?

I will not go into my interpretation of the meaning of this “experiment.” Frankly. my interpretation tends to shift around, but basically it has to do with two Big Ideas that tend to organize a lot of our basic abstract thinking/interpretation. Those ideas are “to know” and “to experience.” Is to experience something, to know it? Perhaps counter-intuitively, I believe “No, the two are importantly different; it is possible (in kind of an awkward sense) for two people ‘to experience the same thing, but know very different things about it!’ So, I say, Mary learned nothing new about color though she did now have the experience of it.

But that statement just ‘opens up a can of worms,’ so to speak, and that seems to be the whole point of Zeno’s paradoxes or modern “intuition pumps’ –to get the argument going. Philosophy, in general, has been a more or less standard collection of puzzles revolving around some very common, but still puzzling, ideas like “life and death,” “matter and mind,” “true and false,” “god or no god or many gods,” “right and wrong,” “one big thing or many smaller ones,” and many, many more such variants. The point then seems, in my opinion, ‘to get all your ducks in a row;’ to have a consistent explanation of how there is no god, or how some things are “alive” and others “lifeless.”

Philosophy is…

Philosophy is a lot about having a big and consistent view of the many parts of our life and our world, and to be able to defend it with good reasons. One of the best definitions of it was by the recent but now deceased big thinker, Wilfred Sellars. He contended that philosophy is about “How things in the broadest sense hang together in the broadest sense.” Recently an admirer of Sellars, Dan Dennett, contend that the philosopher’s job is to explain how the many, many things we do –“in practice”–everyday, are theoretically –“in principle”– possible. How all that we accomplish or think we do, how much of that can be fit into a consistent picture. Now that sounds a little backwards to some (everything should be interpreted in light of our knowledge of God or of Physics, they believe) but much of our thinking these days about ourselves is a bit of a jumble, at least many philosophers do believe.

One last point should be added. A philosopher is also someone who has some knowledge of this tradition of puzzles, of the history of philosophy. And for the above definition of philosophy, as a big, broad vision of many things, a lot of philosophers have a wide range of knowledge or at least familiarity with many topics.

Some Examples of Philosophers and Accomplishments by them

In Buddhism, all the world is pain and illusion, and an enlightened mind is the solution to it. The Buddha is thought to have lived in India circa 400 BCE. I wonder what evidence there is for his actual existence?
With a Doctorate in Physics, Thomas Kuhn turned to philosophy to write his hugely influential book of the 1960s and 70s —The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He argued successfully that even Physics has a complex relationship to Truth.
The famous French philosopher and scientist, Rene Descartes. He invented/discovered Coordinate Geometry circa 1630. Many philosophers have made contributions to Mathematics. Painting by Dutch portrait artist Frans Hal, 1660.

(Coming soon, Philosophers in Mathematics and Politics. What are philosophers? Some additional ideas.)

naturereligionconnection.org. Drawings by The Marvelous Marty.
Walking on by, and trying to make sense of it all!

3 thoughts on “What is a Philosopher, Anyhow?

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