Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Misunderstanding Philosophy

A philosopher once had the following dream.

First Aristotle appeared, and the philosopher said to him, "Could you give me a fifteen-minute capsule sketch of your entire philosophy?" To the philosopher's surprise, Aristotle gave him an excellent exposition in which he compressed an enormous amount of material into a mere fifteen minutes. But then the philosopher raised a certain objection which Aristotle couldn't answer. Confounded, Aristotle disappeared.

Then Plato appeared. The same thing happened again, and the philosophers' objection to Plato was the same as his objection to Aristotle. Plato also couldn't answer it and disappeared.

Then all the famous philosophers of history appeared one-by-one and our philosopher refuted every one with the same objection.

After the last philosopher vanished, our philosopher said to himself, "I know I'm asleep and dreaming all this. Yet I've found a universal refutation for all philosophical systems! Tomorrow when I wake up, I will probably have forgotten it, and the world will really miss something!" With an iron effort, the philosopher forced himself to wake up, rush over to his desk, and write down his universal refutation. Then he jumped back into bed with a sigh of relief.

The next morning when he awoke, he went over to the desk to see what he had written. It was, "That's what you say."

An enjoyable joke, if I do say so myself. However, I do think it reflects a misunderstanding that many people have of philosophy that makes them dislike it.

In my experience, it seems that many people don't like philosophers because they think philosophers are very egotistical. Philosophers just spout out their own beliefs about everything and look down upon those who disagree.

But this is not the case, at least for good philosophers. Good philosophers won't usually just rant about their own beliefs, but will instead look at the beliefs of who they are talking to and try to make sure their beliefs are consistent and what other beliefs should perhaps follow from what they currently believe.

For example, a good philosopher won't generally argue something like..."I think that Socrates is a man and that he is mortal. You should to!" Instead, philosophers will instead argue like..."Oh, you think that Socrates is a man? Oh, you also think that all men are mortal? Well, given your own beliefs, you ought to think that Socrates is mortal, and why you ought to think this has nothing to do with what I, the philosopher, thinks about Socrates." So it's not like good philosophers will try to have others believe certain things just because they themselves believe it. That would be a mere appeal to authority, which philosophers themselves even recognize as being a fallacy.

Oh, and one other quick point that this jokes also brings up that other people seem to erroneously think: "That's what you say" is not a counter-argument.

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