What’s the use of philosophy?

Katrina asked:

Why do you think that philosophy today is no longer given serious attention?

Sally asked:

Of what use is Philosophy when we agree to disagree?

Answer by Peter Jones

It seems to me that these two questions belong together, or are essentially the same question, since it seems likely that the reason why philosophy is given too little serious attention these days is that philosophers spend most of their time agreeing to disagree rather than actually settling any arguments. As long as philosophers are content to go on doing this then the discipline can go nowhere. ‘Without contradiction there is no progress’, writes the Dalai Lama about philosophy, and clearly he is right. For as long as its practitioners go on agreeing to disagree philosophy will be of little use and will not receive the serious attention it deserves.

A good explanation for why the characteristically ‘Western’ tradition of philosophical thought is so remarkably tolerant of such a cornucopia of mutually inconsistent theories would have to be very long. I sketched out an answer in a recent article for the Philosophy Pathways Journal (Issue no. 171) but it is no more than sketch. Briefly, logical analysis fails to endorse any of the theories favoured or considered legitimate by philosophers in this tradition, or not if they want to stay in this tradition, and in fact refutes them all. This leaves us two options. One option would be to give up trying to decide between them and agree to disagree. Those who do this must enter Kant’s ‘arena for mock fights’. Lots of hand-waiving but nobody gets hurt. The other option would be to recognise the futility of arguing back and forth for theories that can all be refuted and give some credence to theories from outside the tradition that cannot be so easily defeated.

For the philosophy of the Upanishads, which is the only world-view that is not refutable in logic as far as I am aware, these same two critical questions could be fairly asked but for entirely different reasons, and they would have entirely different answers. If you examine this philosophy you will find that you are expected to agree or disagree with it, and that it bluntly disagrees with the countless other theories that philosophers so often agree to disagree about. This philosophy receives a great deal of serious attention outside of the tradition to which these two questions are directed, and an ever increasing amount of it as more and more people see that the traditional philosophy of Western academia is bankrupt.

If you wish to dig deeper into these issues and can face a long slog then you might like to read my dissertation at http://philpapers.org/rec/JONFMT. I would suggest you go to this address to read it rather than to our good host’s site since this version has been much improved from the original. On very few points does it agree to disagree with anyone. This was deliberate, since I fully endorse the criticism of philosophy that your two questions imply.


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