Philosophy and Practicality
July 29, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, G. E. Moore, Hume, John Rawls, John Stuart Mill, Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Moral Philosophy, Philosophy of Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky, T. M. Scanlon

Not being a member of the academic community of philosophers, and yet having an abiding interest in that community's subject matter (some elements of it, at any rate), I have often wondered about the meaningfulness of the field. This is partly a reflection of my own decision more than 40 years ago not to pursue a a graduate philosophy degree (I doubted my ability to make a mark in that particular arena and also the value of doing so). I was drawn to Wittgenstein back then, perhaps partly because he seemed to be the epitome of the anti-philosopher but, I think, even more because his strategy and approach to the business philosophers did seemed to clarify so many of my own concerns. I was caught in the web of idealism at the time, after a flirtation with logical positivism and, briefly, American pragmatism. But I was always and primarily drawn to the analytic approach of which Wittgenstein was a part even after leaving that reservation in his later years. The fact that there seemed to be no solutions to the pressing philosophical questions both kept my head spinning and suggested, to me at least, the virtual pointlessness of bothering with such questions. Yet I could not simply divest myself of them, not even after exposure to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.

I spent a number of years, after graduating, still troubling the same philosophical bones but finally gave it all up entirely and moved on. Yet, in my later years I've found myself drawn back to these kinds of concerns. Although I have improved my understanding of many of the issues and, I think, of Wittgenstein himself, it has seemed to me that there are still areas worth chewing over for those who are philosophically inclined. Of course, if Wittgenstein was right in his later years, we're all better off moving on to more practical endeavors but perhaps, when one has finished the practical part of one's life, a return to philosophy is just what's called for. And so I've engaged on and off over the years in philosophical discussions on Internet sites like this one. They have not always been satisfying but have often been edifying. On this site I've managed to make some progress, I think, in an area that seems to me inadequately explored by philosophers, despite centuries of historical concern, i.e., the realm of ethics. And what I mean by "ethics" is the study of what we mean by the terms we use to assert moral claims and what underpins such assertions. It's not to make moral claims per se (that belongs to all of us, philosophers or not) but to explore how making them can be meaningful and lead to an understanding of their role in our lives. I don't mean this in the merely psychological sense, of course, or in the sociological sense, though both may be fit for philosophical inquiry as well, or at least they may be relevant to such inquiry. I mean, rather, trying to understand the dynamics of moral valuation claims as part of our day-to-day decision making processes.

But this opens another question. Just how does this belong to the field of philosophy at all? Certainly, we can't deny that philosophers have often involved themselves with just such questions and have elaborated a broad array of answers. The ancient Greek virtue ethics of Aristotle (what's ethically good to do is a function of the right way for humans to be because what leads to the best life for mankind consists of certain superior character traits which a man can nurture in himself and which, once he has them, will just lead to acting rightly), to Hume's equating moral valuation with sensibilities we happen to possess as human beings, without any reasoned basis for having them, to Kant's assertion that to act morally is to act rationally, to Mill's account of moral goodness being equivalent with acting to produce the maximal amount of human happiness in the world, to the intuitionist critique of that equivalence provided by Moore and the later rejection of that critique by those who, in league with the logical positivists, simply denied the cognitive content of value assertions entirely. In light of the many answers philosophers have propounded (including contractualist accounts like those offered by Rawls and the contemporary Harvard philosopher T. M. Scanlon (, and the obvious fact that agreement on what it means to make a moral judgment and what backs up such judgments continues to elude us even while we never stop making and acting on such judgments, one may well ask what's the point of philosophical inquiry into this area at all?

Indeed, Wittgenstein himself seems to have eschewed moral inquiry throughout his career except for a brief (and soon recanted) lecture he delivered to the Heretics Society at Cambridge in late 1939 and some cryptic statements about the "ethical" nature of his first work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, despite its failure to say anything specific enough to be helpful about ethical questions in the text. If Wittgenstein shunned the inquiry, perhaps other philosophers (and those aspiring to deal with philosophical questions) ought to do so, as well. And yet philosophers have not jettisoned ethics as a fit subject for inquiry in general, even if it remains a relatively narrow field of endeavor for laborers in that particular academic field. And neither have I since it seems to me that understanding what we mean by terms like "good" in the ethical case continues to have a bearing on our lives. After all, we are constantly called on to make moral discriminations, for ourselves and others, and doing so means that we must either recognize the authority such judgments carry when we make them or act in ways that run contrary to what we believe about that authority (i.e., pretend to believe in judgments we do not believe we can justify to ourselves). This seems to me to run counter to actual human experience. And so it seems to me that the moral sphere of our lives is a legitimate, even a necessary, field of philosophical inquiry. For how can we do things which require deliberation if the justifications for doing them cannot inspire in us a belief in them.

This, it seems to me, brings up another point. Philosophy generally is seen to be an academic discipline, a field in which academically trained experts hold sway and, indeed, modern philosophy has become so technical that it seems divorced from our everyday concerns. What interest have we, the non-philosophers of the world, in abstruse questions of logic and ontology, of knowing what knowing itself is, and of the ultimate form which undergirds and explains all being, all existence? Surely we can get on with our everyday lives without asking, let alone trying to answer, those kinds of questions? If philosophy is a field for professionals then only professionals must matter.

Of course, the sciences are also largely professional endeavors today and surely they have an affect on the rest of us. Even non-scientists are affected by the discoveries of Einstein and physicists in general, although many of us may have little grasp of the fine points of theoretical physics or other scientific ideas. Still, automobiles and airplanes, rockets and cell phones and digital systems and modern medical technology and the infrastructures which assure public health are all possible only because of the growth of scientific knowledge in the modern world. But philosophy doesn't matter in that way because it doesn't deal with facts on the ground; it doesn't deal with discovering new information about the universe and finding ways to put it to work. Philosophy doesn't build things or make things or enable us to do things in the world. Even moral philosophy is not about enabling us to make better moral judgments. If we depend on philosophy for that, precious few of us could ever hope to aspire to moral decency.

What moral philosophy does seem to be about, though, is enabling us to get clearer about our judgments and so make better ones when we are confronted with conflicting justifications or uncertainty about whether we have any justifications at all. It's in this sense, I think, that philosophy, when it touches such practical realms, can make a difference. Philosophy affects us individually, on a personal level, because it guides us to a better general understanding of things -- and of how they fit. And this is particularly relevant in an area like moral valuing where what's fitting is what finally matters.

Update on July 29, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

Actually, what got me thinking along the lines that led to the above post was a reference I'd seen by Duncan Richter, on his blog, to a site with a thread (long since closed) in which Wittgensteinian philosophers (some perhaps, if not all) are referred to as Wittgenwonkers. That struck a chord with me re: many of the attacks on Wittgenstein I have seen on the Internet over the years. Reading further in the thread, I noticed that the discussants got round to talking about the status and nature of philosophy itself. Apparently the posters are mainly philosophy instructors or grad students aspiring to instruct in the academic community and some of them had great concern about the direction of philosophy. One wrote:

In answer to Matt’s 135, I think that this is quite different from how things were in the past – Karl Marx, for example, was a law student and Friedrich Engels a clerk and soldier, but both of them joined the Young Hegelians. Sidgwick corresponded with JS Mill (MP and clerk at the East India Company) and Leibniz with Newton and half the crowned heads of Europe. McTaggart and Bradley, you have more of a point, but who remembers them now? Whereas these days, basically the only time you see philosophers talking to the educated non-professional-philosopher public is when they pop up to have a go at Thought for the Day.


He was responding to the concern that philosophy was too technical to be relevant to the run of the mill person, i.e., those non-professionals who are really just lay people where the technical issues of philosophy are concerned. Being such a non-professional myself, I couldn't help wondering where that leaves me! And then, why do I even concern myself with philosophical matters given the apparent divergence between the subject matter and the possibility of doing anything practical (as in producing something which folks will have a need for) with it.

What struck me, especially, was the respondent's point that philosophy in earlier times was as much about people who weren't professional philosophers as about those who were. In fact, if the poster is right (and from what I know, he seems to be) the philosophers we tend to remember are the ones who made their living in other fields. Their contributions in philosophy, in large part, seem to have been more about their avocations than their vocations. And that's good news for some of us, I think. Conjoined with the practical aspects of philosophy which come to the fore in cases addressing matters of choice and behavior, it seems to me that there's still some room for the non-technical, non-professional philosopher who gets into the game out of a love for the practice itself rather than to earn a buck.

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