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LostInParadise's avatar

Does contemporary philosophy have any relevance?

Asked by LostInParadise (18208 points ) January 29th, 2014

Let me preface my question by saying that I have the greatest respect for the contributions of jellies like SavoirFaire who have training in philosophy.

The problem I have is that when I read about philosophical ideas from people like Wittgenstein, Quine, Putnam, Rorty and the post-modernists, I have a lot of trouble making sense of what they are saying. I just came across this article arguing over whether we might be brains in vats and, beyond understanding the concept of brain in a vat, I have no idea what they are talking about.

As another example, I always thought that Kant made a useful distinction between synthetic statements like “Some bachelors are unhappy” and analytic statements like “All bachelors are unmarried.” Then I read Quine’s contention that there is no distinction between the two types of statement. The argument hinged on being able to know the definition of terms like bachelor. I did not find this very enlightening.

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7 Answers

josie's avatar

Nobody can present a shred of evidence that I am a brain in a vat. Therefore, if I seriously entertain the notion that I might be, I have no epistemological standards. And in that case, I might as well believe in anything. Why not invisible unicorns? Ghosts?

You are correct in sensing that those people you mentioned, including Emmanuel Kant, do not make sense. Often enough, they do not, and neither do their disciples.

If a philosophical system is not practical to the survival of a reasoning being, it is valueless.

ragingloli's avatar

Philosophy, for me, is nothing more than fancy word juggling with no tangible connection to reality.
It was a fortunate event that Science separated from Philosophy, though it is sad that it did so late.

bolwerk's avatar

I somewhat concur but don’t entirely agree with @ragingloli. Many scientific questions we need to investigate still come from the realm of philosophy. The most challenging right now might be what constitutes having a conscience, something that science alone probably can’t answer. Likewise, critical thinking tools are usually considered the realm of philosophy (both logic and epistemology). Another branch of philosophy with clear importance to everyone but nihilists is ethics.

That being said, there is a lot of cruft in the field and it’s not being dispensed with. Much medieval philosophy is more historical curiosity than seriously useful (like most medieval medical “knowledge”), and belongs more to theology.

Even worse, some people take philosophical and scientific generalizations and turn them into rigid ideology. Adam Smith’s insights into economics are interesting, but were never intended to be axioms.

LostInParadise's avatar

I agree with you that at its best philosophy has much to say. How can anyone read Descartes and not be affected by it? I also agree that there is no lack of new material for philosophers to deal with. The advent of computers raises questions not just about the nature of consciousness but also questions related to automation and privacy and the nature of information.

kess's avatar

It is dependant solely on the thinker.
My philosophy is relevant to me and I am sure yours is to you.

Even if yours is the position that contemporary philosophy is irrelevant.

Anyway knowledge itself is contemplative thus philosophical.

wildpotato's avatar

Sounds like the philosophers you are having trouble with are all analytical. I generally find these guys rather dense and more difficult to understand, and the issues they address are less interesting to me, personally. If you want to give analytical philo one more hurrah, I suggest Austin’s How to Do Things With Words. It’s short and fun and goes over a lot in a way that’s more accessible than most analytic philosophers’ writings.

If I remember correctly, with the bachelor thing Quine argued that analyticity does not follow from mere synonymy (“bachelor” and “unmarried”), and that therefore an analytic statement that rests on synonymy is circular. In my personal opinion: nifty, but not particularly interesting.

But if you want philosophy to be more relevant than the logical linguistic puzzles analytic philosophy presents, I suggest that you switch to reading more Continental philosophy (and Rorty’s later stuff. Try his essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids;” it’s beautiful). Have you ever read Heidegger, Arendt, Marx, Bergson, Foucault, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Adorno, or Derrida? If not, try them and other Continental philosophers before writing off all of philosophy because of analytic. Continental deals with the real meat of living – metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, social and political philosophy all fall under its purview. A nice place to start is with Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction.

LostInParadise's avatar

Thanks for the suggestions. I will have to get a copy of the Austin and Rorty books. I have read and appreciated the work of Sartre. I was hoping in particular to get some understanding of Wittgenstein,who is generally considered among other philosophers to be the most important philosopher of the 20th century.

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