Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why Does Philosophy Matter?

Why do we care about logic, reason, consistency, the law of non-contradiction or the law of the excluded middle? Why do we take time to distinguish between truth and knowledge and belief, between certainty and knowledge and fallible versus infallible knowledge claims? Why do we spend any time making these distinctions clear? I mean the whole thing can be rather boring can't it? So what is the point of all this?

A long time ago, a philosopher friend of mine exposed me to an interview with Michel Foucault that included what I thought was the best summation of the value of the philosophy. The subject of the conversation was the difference between philosophy and polemics, but contained within that was a pristine, perfect summation of why logic and related fields matter so much here is that segment:

I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them. It's true that I don't like to get involved in polemics. If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of "infantile leftism" I shut it again right away. That's not my way of doing things; I don't belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the one that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other.

In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of other. Questions and answers depend on a game — a game that is at once pleasant and difficult — in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

"The rights given by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue"...the abandonment of logic, the running away from philosophy altogether, is in the final analysis a retreat from the ability to truly talk to anyone else in any meaningful way. If words' meaning are in a constant state of flux, and if nothing anyone says is not bound by some logical rules, you are playing a game without any rules at all, which is in the final analysis no game at all. Logic is, for me, a moral endeavor, a way to take responsibility for what one says and believes. Without it, without the genuine search for truth, we are robbed even of the right to believe anything at all, for we cannot finally say that is TRUE that we believe what we say we believe, without having some ground for truth and knowledge and most important consistency

It has to be true that something either is or isn't true. It has to be true that I believe what I say I believe. Philosophy, and especially logic, gives us a field upon which minds can actually meet. Ideas can only be exchanged in that place, without it, we are bound forever to only reinforcing our own ideas, and are unable to ever really change or improve, either ourselves or others. 

Foucault goes on to sum up the problems with polemics, which in the end he says are just ways of insulating one's own idols of the mind: 

The polemicist , on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is armful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied....

Of course, the reactivation, in polemics, of these political, judiciary, or religious practices is nothing more than theater. One gesticulates: anathemas, excommunications, condemnations, battles, victories, and defeats are no more than ways of speaking, after all. And yet, in the order of discourse, they are also ways of acting which are not without consequence. There are the sterilizing effects. Has anyone ever seen a new idea come out of a polemic? And how could it be otherwise, given that here the interlocutors are incited not to advance, not to take more and more risks in what they say, but to fall back continually on the rights that they claim, on their legitimacy, which they must defend, and on the affirmation of their innocence? There is something even more serious here: in this comedy, one mimics war, battles, annihilations, or unconditional surrenders, putting forward as much of one's killer instinct as possible. But it is really dangerous to make anyone believe that he can gain access to the truth by such paths and thus to validate, even if in a merely symbolic form, the real political practices that could be warranted by it. Let us imagine, for a moment, that a magic wand is waved and one of the two adversaries in a polemic is given the ability to exercise all the power he likes over the other. One doesn't even have to imagine it: one has only to look at what happened during the debate in the USSR over linguistics or genetics not long ago. Were these merely aberrant deviations from what was supposed to be the correct discussion? Not at all — they were the real consequences of a polemic attitude whose effects ordinarily remain suspended.


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