Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Critique of “The End of Philosophy”

Originally posted on April 13, 2009

A column titled “The End of Philosophy,” by David Brooks appeared originally in the New York Times, and was reprinted on April 11 on the editorial page (A-15) of the Austin American-Statesman Newspaper, in Texas. Here are my comments on that piece:

The title is valid only if we imagine that philosophy requires a discussion in which there is an attempt to come to conclusions based on reason. I agree with Brooks that emotions, preferences, group pressures, and other non-rational factors are important in the way people make moral decisions. He seems to say that evolutionary psychology helps offer answers, but does note that it doesn’t address a number of key elements. The recognition of this non-rationality should challenge both philosophers and the scientists who study morality. Though he doesn’t say it, Brooks introduces a postmodernist perspective—and I suspect he doesn’t even realize this: There can be no absolutely true statements about morality—or there can never be a full consensus on any statement—because there are so many viewpoints based on criteria that have themselves not been agreed upon—nor will they ever.

For example, one underlying problem with any statement about philosophy involves the ambiguity of the goal, task, purpose of this human activity. Again, while many have suggested definitions or aims, there is far from any consensus about this, and considering the issues and their many-faceted antecedents, I have no reason to think that such a consensus is remotely possible.

Another example is that the term morality may have multiple meanings. One is that it speaks not just to personal preferences such as peas versus beans for dinner—Brooks’ noting that valuing is inherent in all thought (and I agree)—, but (to me) morality suggests judgments of how others should also behave. Still, what’s proper may be based on what one imagine God desires or commands, or what seems most ethical or fair, and also there may be many other criteria. But it becomes unclear also whether a preference is personal and trivial or general—there are always boundary issues, examples of the in-between.

At any rate, morality is by far the whole of philosophy. There are many aspects, such as metaphysics, and even there some hints as to value or purpose may be discerned. Moreover, the fact that the endeavor to clarify or illuminate morality is problematical does not mean that philosophy ends. Rather, the complexity of the problem suggests to me that philosophical discussions have to rise to another level in which we become more explicit about our biases, our assumptions, our own value judgments, even as we think about them. It makes philosophy more complex, and it also shifts it away from the idea that a final end or truth is possible, and more towards an art of dialogue, of sharing and provoking deeper thought.

My own bias towards philosophy is that it can be valuable rather than trivial. I think a good formulation, theory, position, or model can attract enough interest that it stimulates new ideas, new creativity, and that some of this operates in the minds of a wider circle than academic philosophy or academia in general. Some philosophy influences general education, our ways of thinking about politics, economics, justice, religion, and so forth.

I view the situation Brooks is describing in what I take to be a clever but not really wise way not as the end of philosophy, but rather the way intellectual processes are undergoing a century-long (or longer) paradigm shift to incorporate in mainstream thought a number of features:
– a greater appreciation of depth psychology, self-deception, subtle taboo, neuropsychological tendencies that distort or limit accurate consciousness, and other biases
– a greater appreciation of the ways culture, language, tradition, status, and other factors tend to bias thinking. This bias is also fed by the desire to sustain certain cultural elements that serve one’s own position; the desire for “them” to change other cultural elements when that would be more to one’s own advantage
– the growing awareness that new major breakthroughs in worldview, paradigm shifts, and the like may continue to happen, rather than subtly assuming that they already have happened
– the dynamic interchange of ideas from communications, computer science, different wisdom traditions around the globe, and different goals—because the sense of priority among our varying political, religious, educational, and other sub-groups.
– a recognition that philosophy must be limited in its goals, because no consensus of reasoned conclusions is obtainable, no out-there, objective truth will be found that is so compelling it will overcome regional and ethnic beliefs.

While I’m not enamored of much if not most of postmodernist philosophy, I think that some of it is truly useful. (I also think that it’s quite possible to take some but not all of a given school of thought, so this pick-and-choose approach is consistent with wisdom.) A contemporary vital philosophy demands more agility of mind, more openness to dialogue and interest not in presenting a fixed paper that will be praised, but rather entering into encounters in which all parties learn from others.

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