Please don’t disassemble my philosophy

I got curious about how many times on this site I’ve repeated my favorite Wittgenstein quote “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’” The answer is: a lot.

Too many times I’ve called this quote my favorite definition of philosophy, or my favorite articulation of philosophy’s purpose. But this is only true if we take philosophy to be the solving of philosophical problems. And while a lot of what we call philosophy is precisely this, I think it is not the best way to understand philosophy. The best philosophies are completely unproblematic and render our experiences of the world and our beliefs about the world unproblematic.

Wilfrid Sellars definition is much closer: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” When our philosophy fails to perform this function, we then have a philosophical problem, and no longer know our way about. Then we “do philosophy” in order to reestablish a persuasive understanding of how things hang together.

But it must be persuasive. For this, it is necessary that it be logically compelling, but this alone is not sufficient. It must somehow link up with out intuitions of the world, most of which are purely practical and tacit and derived from myriad interactions with the myriad beings of the world– people, things, environments, experiences, ideas — some successful, some unsuccessful. We know more than we know, and our persuasion is subject to these unknown knowns of that swarm of unknown knowers who are the citizens of our soul.

This background of practical activity, of response, of intuitive belief is what I call faith. Our faith is not static. It responds to the world and changes in response to what it undergoes and overcomes.

Each person’s faith responds to different things to different degrees. Some of us respond most to relationships. Some respond most to emotions. Some respond most to beauty. Some respond most to mystery. Some respond most to participation in rituals. Some respond most to practical problems. Some of us respond most to ideas.

Those of us who respond strongly to ideas find philosophy fascinating, inspiring and sometimes life-changing.

Many others want philosophy to work unobtrusively, like a household utility. If it is already working, they aren’t too happy to see someone try to fix what isn’t broken. I don’t know about you but if a neighbor comes over to my house and starts disassembling my old, rattly, but mostly-still-functioning air conditioner to see if he can get it to work better, I’m kicking him off my property.

It is more than reasonable to not want to examine our own beliefs. When time travel is invented, I’ll be heading back to 2003 to explain truth this to my self.

I’ll also tell myself to avoid the company of people who don’t know or don’t care about the verdicts of faith — only what can be argued or defended. Our faiths deserve respect, and we show respect by taking persuasion seriously, and not just hectoring faith with argument. Arguments should be offered, not imposed.

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