Sunday, May 6, 2012

Idee Fixe

Some time ago across the indifferent centuries someone became convinced that in order for us to rely on what knowledge we have, we must identify the foundation for that knowledge.  Whoever it was who did so also came to the conclusion (how, one wonders?) that in order for that foundation to be secure, to itself be reliable, that foundation had to be basic, simple, derived from nothing else.  If it was derivative in some sense this would have to be due to the fact that it resulted from some form of interpretation on our part, and how could we rely on that?  Our interpretation would necessarily be of something.  What reason do we have to believe that something is true or real or certain?

Because it was assumed that we can only rely on something singular, or stand-alone, and somewhat grudgingly believed that we can only know things through experience, effort was made to identify just what it is that we really and directly and essentially experience.  Some said sense-data, some said only an idea of sense data.  Some said other things.

That someone started something, obviously, and we have been in some senses paying for it ever since.  We have been busy manufacturing that essential thing that is the foundation for our knowledge.  The effort to determine that foundation is, one would think, impossible; once one begins to think in this fashion (if one has that misfortune), one is seemingly bound to maintain that our analysis of the issue is itself "tainted" at the outset.  That's because our thought is already based on what we think we know and can rely on, and we can't know or rely on anything without establishing that the foundation for what we know is secure.

Perhaps this is what brought Kant and others to conclude that there's something a priori in our minds or elsewhere, and resulted in the view that we can never really know the "external world" which I remarked on in the prior post or that we "shape" that annoying and persistent world we are fated to encounter in one way or another.

Regardless, if we are fated not to know what the "external world" really is, then we are so fated, whether we like it or not.  If we are not so fated, then we are not so fated, whether we like it or not.

I myself am reasonably convinced that the "external world" is pretty much as we think it is, i.e. as our minds, senses, experience and devices indicate.  That we have much more to learn about I take as a given, but that doesn't mean we can't rely on what we have learned.  When thinking of knowledge, I think of it not in abstract, not as in the nature of a thing, but a process employed by us in our daily lives.  I tend to think most of us think this way, in the rare instances when we think of knowledge instead of using our knowledge in some manner.

As is no doubt apparent to those who have taken the time to read this blog, I'm confounded by philosophy's concern with matters which seem to make no difference, and especially with matters that cannot make any difference, to how we live. It would seem to me to be a worthy subject for investigation, but I'm unaware of any. If any of those who do me the honor of reading these musings know of any, I'd appreciate a reference. I'm increasingly convinced this concern--fascination may be a more appropriate word--has a psychological basis.

It is unfortunate, but I think this concern has played its part in convincing many that philosophy is irrelevant, or an idle pastime, or dead.  That is tragic.  But philosophy doesn't have to be any of those things, and there are philosophers who have and are interested in making a difference in how we live.  Most of them lived in ancient times, when philosophy was considered vital even by the powerful.  Somewhere along the way, philosophy became distracted, to our detriment.


  1. As for religion, something along these lines can be said.

  2. Dear ciceronianus,

    I would say not all parts of Philosophy are like that. Ethics is still a field with important social consequences. And the Philosophy of the 20th Century made important contributions to Political Theory and Epistemology and we should be optimistic and think that its influence will continue this century.

    However, other branches seem not much more than a way to publish academic articles, like Metaphysics or Aesthetics (is Theology still a branch of Philosophy?). It's a bit sad but expected in our current society (Universities policies create publishing demands that must be supplied).

    This does not only happen in Philosophy. In Math and Science there are many areas of investigation that seem to produce more heat than work.


  3. You're right, not all of philosophy is of that nature. I don't mean to assert all of philosophy is a "frolic and a detour" as some old case law would say. I think things are getting better, even. I'm just bewildered by what certain philosophers do.