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Misconceptions about Philosophy

Some philosophers hold that the function of philosophy is to analyze the foundations and presuppositions underlying other fields of study.  Others assert that it is to integrate scientific knowledge with that of other disciplines to achieve some kind of consistent and coherent world view.  Still others maintain that philosophy's function is to investigate the principles and rules of language, and to expose the problems and confusions that have resulted from the misuse of language.  However philosophers may define philosophy, the discipline begins not in certainty, but in doubt; not in judgments, but in questions.  Philosophy emphasizes intellectual autonomy, for it appeals to your own ability to find out what is true and what is right through your own thinking and experiences, without depending for you beliefs solely upon an outside authority.

Before examining any philosophical theory, a few comments should be made about some misconceptions you may have about philosophy, for, as with any discipline, misconceptions about the nature of what you are about to study can hinder your ability to make progress.

One widely held misconception about philosophy is that it has no practical value.  Students complain, "There is no reason to study philosophy!"  True, many philosophical questions are esoteric and have no practical value.  For example, some philosophers are concerned with whether abstract objects like numbers, concepts, and propositions have an existence independent of human thinking.  That is, they ask whether abstract objects would exist if there were no human beings to think about them.  Answering this question would not alter any significant human practice.  But the fact that many philosophical questions are unrelated to practical affairs does not imply that philosophy has no value.  There are indirect benefits in seeking answers to philosophical questions, even those such as the one just described.

An indirect benefit of studying philosophy is that it helps develop skills in problem-solving, in analyzing concepts, in formulating clear definitions, and in asking leading questions.  It contributes to your capacity to avoid making questionable assumptions, to trace the consequences of a claim, and to look at a problem from new and surprising perspectives.  It encourages you to place the search for truth above the satisfaction of apparently "winning" a debate or the frustration of "losing" it, and it helps you to construct cogent arguments and to evaluate the arguments of others.

Studying philosophy also helps you to improve your communication skills, for it teaches you to write and speak more carefully and cogently.  Philosophy teaches you how to present ideas through well-constructed, organized arguments.  It improves your ability to explain complex information, and helps you to express yourself without ambiguity or vagueness.

A second misconception about philosophy is that philosophers seldom, if ever, agree with each other, and cannot present irrefutable arguments in support of their positions.  In every period, philosophers have challenged their predecessor's arguments.  They have not only disagreed about many of the answers given to philosophical questions, but they have often been unable to agree among themselves about the nature of philosophy.

The fact that many philosophical questions are still under debate does not imply that philosophers continually disagree with one another.  Contemporary philosophers are in complete agreement concerning many methods and principles of logic; the study of how to distinguish between correct and incorrect reasoning.  For instance, philosophers agree that one should not commit the fallacy of begging the question, which occurs when one uses an argument's conclusion as part of the evidence to support that very same conclusion.  They also concur that one should not argue for a conclusion with contradictory premises.

The misconception that philosophers seldom, if ever, agree with one another results from the fact that philosophers tend to be interested in issues about which there is little consensus.  Instead of concerning themselves with areas of agreement, philosophers direct their attention to areas in which there is disagreement.  So perhaps it is partially due to philosophers themselves that people have this mistaken view.  This is unlikely to change, because the study of areas of disagreement is one of the challenges of philosophy.

Closely tied to the misconception that philosophers continually disagree with each other is the claim that there has been no progress in philosophy.  Philosophers today are arguing about some of the same questions that concerned the ancient Greeks.  "What is truth, and how does one distinguish it from falsehood?"  How can moral disagreements be rationally settled?"  If the answers to questions like these are still being debated, students think, then there has been no philosophical progress.

This misconception rests on two mistaken presuppositions: first, that disagreement among philosophers entails that the correct answer has not been discovered (i.e., disagreement is a sign of no progress), and second, that philosophical progress only occurs when a question is answered.  The first presupposition is mistaken.  For many people, the truth value of an answer is determined by the number of people who support it.  That is, popularity or widespread acceptance of an answer is taken as an index of its truth, while a lack of acceptance is construed as an index of its falsity.  If this type of argument appeals to you, you might recall the popular but false belief in the Middle Ages that the earth was the center of the universe.  Agreement does not entail that an answer is true.  Conversely, disagreement does not mean that no one has discovered any truths; residual disagreement does not mean that no new insights have been obtained.  To confirm an answer, one must evaluate the arguments offered in support of it.  Assuming that uncertainty can be eliminated from our thought is unrealistic.

The presupposition that progress occurs only when a question is answered is also mistaken.  One can make progress when discovering the inadequacy of certain answers.  The claim that progress occurs when one merely clears the ground of untenable views may seem trivial, but keep in mind that when one realizes that certain answers are mistaken, one is closer to the correct answer.  This belief was basic to the philosophical method of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.  He held that wisdom is learning to recognize ignorance, including one's own.  He believed that helping others discover the errors in their arguments was beneficial because it put them that much farther along on the path toward knowledge.  Helping one find out how much one does not know is an important aim of education.  When answers to a question are found to be inadequate, that discovery constitutes progress, even if the initial question has not been answered.

Another misconception about philosophy, and the final one to be evaluated, is that philosophical commitment is subjective--a matter of personal opinion.  Students may claim that for a person's commitment to a particular belief to be justified rationally, that belief must be indubitable; it must be supported by a conclusive argument.  It seems, however, that most of the solutions to philosophical problems can be both supported and criticized with good arguments.  Thus, selecting a particular theory, from the standpoint of rational justification, is subjective.  One person's beliefs are generally not superior or inferior to another person's beliefs; everyone just has his or her solutions to a particular problem.

This argument rests on a mistaken assumption.  Even if one cannot solve a philosophical problem with absolute certainty, it does not follow that the choice between rival theories is subjective.  All theories, whether religious, political, scientific, or philosophical, are essentially underdetermined by the evidence, so it is improbable that one theory will "win out" completely over all its competitors.  The rational acceptability of most if not all theories is a matter of degree, and the philosopher must try to decide which is the best theory among rivals.  For example, suppose that two competing theories are both supported by good but inconclusive evidence, but that the first theory is more adequate to the extent it fits the facts it is intended to unify or explain better than other theories.  Surely one would claim that the first theory is more reasonable and therefore preferable to the second.  Of course, it must be shown that the second theory is in fact less adequate, and one must also be prepared for a counterattack from the second upon the first, insofar as there appear new grounds for such an attack.  This is one of the challenges of philosophy, for philosophical problems defy scientific and algorithmic solutions, and do not often yield clear and indisputable solutions.

In short, philosophy challenges you to construct cogent arguments and to evaluate the arguments of others critically.  As different philosophical problems are dealt with, it may be discovered that there is no indubitable solution to some of them.  Sometimes absolute certainty may be achieved and a problem resolved, other times this may not occur.  So instead of asking whether a particular theory is true, perhaps we should ask about the rational quality of the arguments in favor of it.  "Solving" philosophical problems is not a question of discovering a unique answer to them, but of developing the best arguments for accepting or rejecting different ways of answering these problems.  This is a far cry from it being the case that solutions to philosophical problems are "subjective" or mere matters of opinion.

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