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Why Study Philosophy?
I can identify three reasons to study philosophy:
1. One reason is that philosophy can inspire us (It can help give life meaning) It can help us
make sense our of our world, help us see our lives in a larger context. It can guide us in
making decisions and helping us decide what action to take
In the preface of your text the inspirational role of philosophy is illustrated by a story
of Hegel and his students on the verge of being conquered by Napoleon’s forces.
Most revolutions, in fact, have been inspired by a philosophy that purports to show
people the way to a better life. Marxism, religions of all types, artist’s manifestos,
notions of utopia, have all been inspirational and have motivated people to change
the world in which they live.
Philosophy not only inspires emotionally, but can open pathways for action by giving
us clear distinctions necessary for action. For instance, have you got clear and well
defined values? All people who are successful do.
2. A second reason is technical. Each individual can benefit from an improvement in
clarifying, communicating, and discussing one’s beliefs.
The Introduction to your text discusses the importance of articulating and presenting
good arguments for your beliefs. No matter what your field of study you will find it
valuable to be able to clearly present and defend your ideas. Part of what we will be
doing in this course is developing critical skills by discussion, writing and learning
some formal and informal logic.
Can you recognize the bullshit from the reasonable? Can you recognize a good
argument from a bad argument?
3. A third reason is that philosophy can help us clarify and guide us in solving world problems.
Is philosophy relevant today? Or is it simply an abstract intellectual acrobatic activity?
As we shall see, philosophers today are not, for the most part, at the forefront of
social change (there are exceptions to this…Savator in Spain, the French
intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas). What can philosophers do for us today?
Philosophy, at its best, can help give us the skills necessary to tackle problems,
whether in business or in politics.
The value of being an educated person…
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The purpose of education is to help you move in, around and through various contexts.
To give you tools for entering new situations and new environments. To help you
develop critical thinking, to help you identify directions in which to move, to help you
clarify your goals and values.
This is important whether you are studying business or international relations. An
educated person has some sense of context. Being able to situate oneself in place
We begin by exploring what type of role we can give to philosophy. What kind of activity is it,
what meaning can it have for human life?
The Role of Philosophy
We tend to think of philosophy as being the domain of intellectuals. Sometimes we use the
term with respect (in France, philosophers are national heroes) and sometimes with
depreciation (in the U.S., intellectuals are not to be trusted).
Do you think philosophers are important or relevant today? Why or why not?
We certainly respect the great philosophers of the past, but how many of you can name an
important living philosopher?
We tend to conceive of philosophy as the search for ultimate or fundamental truths. In fact,
this has been the explicit office or goal of philosophy throughout the ages.
Philosophers have asked the questions: what is real? what is valuable? how shall we
live with each other? And nearly every philosopher has assumed there is a definite
and final answer to these questions.
Within this office “philosophy” the goals have been defined in various ways:
As a search for the wisdom of life
As an attempt to understand the universe as a whole
As an examination of man’s moral responsibilities and social obligations
As an effort to fathom the divine intentions and man’s place with reference to them.
As an effort to ground (provide a method for) the enterprise of natural science
As the rigorous examination of the origin, extent, and validity of men’s ideas
As the exploration of the place of will or consciousness in the universe
As the examination of the values of truth, goodness, and beauty
As an effort to codify the rules of human thought in order to promote rationality and the
extension of clear thinking.
The search for the immutable
Philosophers have seen themselves, and have represented themselves to the public,
as concerned with the discovery of ideas or knowledge that is fixed, immutable and
therefore out of time; that is, eternal. This knowledge is Universal, all inclusive, and
therefore above and beyond all variations in time and space (history). There are various
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ways to express what is fixed: Being, Nature or the Universe, God, the Cosmos at large,
Reality, the Truth, etc.
It is this search that has given philosophers their status throughout history. Seekers of
truth, and as having access, by the application of methods like logic or special insight
of some kind, to a knowledge that the rest of us “mere mortals” do not have.
Take morality for example. Throughout history philosophers have tried to discover
moral principles that are eternal and which apply to all people at all times.
Politically, maintenance of belief in the transcendence of space and time, of
something immutable, and the derogation of the "merely Human" is necessary for
the retention of their authority to regulate human affairs from top to bottom. Is
there a definition of universal justice? Of freedom? What is the ideal social
arrangement? What are the characteristics of the ideal society?
The Lessons of Science
Natural science has been forced by its own development to abandon the assumption of
fixity and to recognize that what for it is actually universal is process. The most
revolutionary discovery yet made.
There is such a thing as relative, or relational, universality. The universality of scientific
theories is one of a range of applicability. Scientific theories prove they are alive by the
kind of change called "growth."
Historically, the claim to truth has devitalized and impeded progress in the sciences.
"We need a Ministry of disturbance, a regulated source of annoyance; a destroyer
of routine; an underminer of complacency (p. xvii).
One characteristic difference between philosophical and scientific inquiry is that the
"speculations" or "hypotheses" of philosophers are wider in scope - a wider range of
reference and possible application. With science, propositions are meant to be limited
in application and narrow in scope, such that they translate much more easily into
specific inquiry (p. xviii).
The Renaissance witnessed the war between science and religion, which ended up in
a tenuous truce involving a division of domains; the human sphere of morality was
taken up by religion and science took the natural world. Today, however, the products
of science are reaching into every corner of our lives and causing major disruptions (p.
Hence we have the division between the "material" and the "spiritual", and science is
often blamed for attempting to usurp the "higher authority" by moving into the realm of
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human values. Is the solution to bring science under the control of a higher authority,
or effect a major reconstruction of the settled divisions?
The "scientific method" or "science" is not a self-enclosed, self-actuated independent
and isolated entity. It is a piece of theoretical animistic mythology to view it as an entity.
Scientific inquiry - a method of knowing that is self-corrective in operation; that learns
from failures as from successes. The heart of the method is the discovery of the identity
of inquiry with discovery.
The inadequacy of past and fixed moral systems is seen in part in the wide applicability
of their range - they do not easily translate down to, or pass over to specific situations
of moral choice.
There is absolutely no reason why morals should not be viewed in the same light.
Moral chaos will not befall us by recognizing that moral choice and rules are also
situated in space and time, involved in processes of change. Morals have always
been separated from the natural subject matter of science and considered to be
extra or supranatural.
Philosophy as a hypothesis proposing activity – as such it serves to sensitize us to
The present state of philosophy
During this century the first and second world wars were a shock - the prior optimism and
belief in continued progress toward peace and harmony between peoples and classes was
replaced by general uncertainty, anxiousness and pessimism.
Philosophy responded by withdrawing and occupies itself with 1) and emphasis on
formal methodology and 2) continual revisitation of past systems as a means of refuge
The characteristic of past philosophical systems that make them irrelevant to today's
situation is precisely their claim or desire "to find something so fixed and certain as to provide
a secure refuge." On the contrary, today's philosophy must deal with rapid change and an
ever-increasing human geographical range (Dewey, p. vii).
Philosophy is not the cause of the problems we face today, nor can it be expected, since it is
but one form of human inquiry, to solve them. However, it is a necessary component of larger
solutions. Philosophy’s role is to organize, to summarize, to provide the most adequate
possible maps of the terrain in which we are traveling. It has to work in conjunction with
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Philosophy as the Creation of Meaning
Order Producers and Sensitivities
(Article - Meaning: The First Step to Understanding Your Mind)
We start with a bit of psychology - the barriers between psychology and philosophy are false,
because both are concerned with what we are as human beings and our relation to our
contexts of living.
We are order-producing organisms. To understand philosophy as a human activity we must
understand how we as humans create meaning, what is the function or purpose in doing so,
and what happens when we are prevented from doing so.
We can't help but create meaning - inkblot.
The meaning we create is a projection of our development, our state. Art. "You don't
judge the painting, the painting judges you". Writing and the open, readerly text.
We are sensitive to order very early on in life.
Infants at 1 - 14 days prefer patterned cards to plain.
At 1 - 15 weeks prefer complex patterns to simple ones (stripes, bull's eyes)
At 4 mo.'s prefer to look at human faces.
Sensitive to the sounds and rythms of the human voice.
Sensitive to the manner they are held.
Some of these examples are somewhat unfortunate, because they are about the
eyes, and the eyes are the road to the mind. Babies are sensitive to order on a
number of levels. Biorhythms.
We memorize words faster than nonsense syllables. We can use mnemonic devices like
linking words with images.
We remember unsolved riddles, exam questions, problems, much longer.
Even more profoundly, we are sensitive to the rhythms of each other. I find this very
impressive. We do a dance when we interact, a dance that provides us multiple opportunities
for creating meaning - levels of analysis.
Tenseness Caused by Lack of Meaning
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The lack of meaning makes us tense. Laughter discharges tension. We enjoy frustration
followed by release. We are motivated to resolve problematic situations. Unexpected
If we can't resolve something, or make sense of it, what alternatives are open to us?
Tune out? We often do this with conversations that we're not interested in.
Cars, fishing, politics, economics, philosophy, feelings. Our daily lives are full
of tensions and unresolved situations. Some of these are resolved, some are
ignored only to be carried into our nightly dreams.
What if we can neither tune out nor find a solution?
We can go crazy.
Obsessive/compulsive behavior (repeating problem-solving behavior
over and over)
Schizophrenia - creating a self-contained world of controlled meaning.
Some of us can tolerate more lack of meaning than others. Some of us thrive on creating it.
Artists, scientists. Create their own meaning from raw materials.
We often reject new meanings because we don't understand, we can't couple with the
material. Art, new scientific theories.
Today's art takes work. Today's writing does too - Claude Simon, Robert Pinget,
Maurice Blanchot. When approaching this stuff we have to assume that there is some
sense there to be had.
A Bodily Activity
Creating meaning isn't a mental activity, but a bodily one. It requires activity.
First, our posture, a bodily attention to features that define figure and ground.
Ordering activities to achieve consequences.
Attention, the bodily work of reading.
Includes a reflective activity involving language.
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What is language?
I am quite impressed with what we do with language.
Philosophers have long tried to define this skill. Sometimes they treat it as a thing.
They make an ontological assumption. It is a behavior that we reify.
We'll simply consider it a skill here. It is our way of creating order par excellent.
Naming and partitioning. Creating avenues for action.
Some of the ways we use language close off avenues (e.g. "I'm not good at
We are always using language to create meaning. Talking to ourselves. It's an
activity that is difficult to stop. (Castenada - to "see" we have to stop the internal
When we use language to create meaning we can say we are constructing ACCOUNTS.
What does this term mean?
Spanish - dar cuenta de
We are constantly constructing personal accounts of what is going on here. It is not
an image of reality, it is a selection. The creation of meaning requires a selection, a
dividing up of a situation into feature and ground. We need to feel like we know what
Hypnotism and the finger in the nose.
Accounts help us make sense of our own behavior.
The seduction (interview the "weather")
Accounts serve to redirect our attention towards certain aspects of
interaction and away from others.
The scapegoating of the child.
Accounts can help us in completing hidden agendas.
Different accounts depending on the participants and the situation.
The account is produced out of the situation - it is part of our way of resolving
conflicting pushes and pulls. It in turn feeds back into the situation and changes it.
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Accounts are always tied to the situation - must be understood as the creation
of meaning to resolve problematic situations. Meaning is an interactive issue.
Therefore we have to understand the problematic situation in order to
understand the account - its content is one thing, its function in human
living is another.
Our families have stories about physical traits and origins. Our parents
tell stories about our childhood - things we may or may not remember.
How our parents or grandparents met.
"He's a Heglar" means something - that I have certain characteristics
which confirms and creates my identity as a member of a particular
family. These accounts are emotionally laden, they give us a sense of
specialness. They tell family members how we ought or ought not to
"When families put meaning into a mere physical trait, they are building
on a common belief about blood and relatedness. However, a family
achieves cohesiveness not from the biological fact of shared blood but
from shared social values; therefore, the meaning of being a family must
be rebuilt in each generation. Family stories do much to insure that
cohesiveness" (Kugelmass on "Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins")
This shows us an important function of accounts. Function to bind people
together. Collective accounts are very important. They provide continuity over
time for social groups. The social group must be reconstituted with every new
How about national or cultural accounts? What "does it mean" to be an American? an
Israeli? a Lebanese? a Spaniard? a German?
It is particularly in times of war that the society begins generating accounts of these
types. They function to bring a social group together.
I will use accounts to refer to several classes of things:
scientific accounts (theories)
philosophical accounts (philosophical systems)
The word accounts emphasizes their commonalities, makes them more concrete.
Suggests a relationship between our everyday talk and philosophy and scientific
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By using this term it is hoped that we can find commonalities among human activities
that are usually seen as separate.
People are usually concerned with demarcating these domains one from the other.
The primary domain, out of which all the others arise, is that of personal accounts -
those which arise in everyday interaction.
Philosophy is a topicalization for a particular set of activities, taking place under a
variety of constraints.
The community of philosophers is sustained by a network which involves as a
particularly important component the production of both oral and textual
accounts. A subcomponent of everyday interactions, with a relatively greater
emphasis on textual accounts. As a human activity it has family resemblances
to all other domains. Human ingredients in different proportions that give rise
to qualitatively different activities and accounts.
Now we can use what we know of everyday accounts to develop our view of philosophy for
The Conclusion to our discussion of today.
1. Philosophy, as a human activity, is situated. Philosophical systems arise out of
societal stresses and strains, and its problems change with changes in human
life, particularly in times of crisis. Systems often function to explain and justify
societies. (Plato and distinction between knowing and doing)
2. Philosophy therefore evolves. With new forms of community life we give rise to
new philosophy. There is no evidence that this will ever end. The stresses and
strains which characterize our society change character over time. Process or
change is basic.
3. Therefore philosophy is not dealing with ultimate truth. There is no final reality,
no final moral authority. It is preoccupied with meaning, and with aiding in the
solution of today's problems.
It can try to make sense out of where we are and what we're doing - it
can be used to help us see new pathways into the future.
So we always have to judge philosophies according to whether or not they
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make sense to us as this time. What implications do they have for how we act?
We will therefore consider – why study philosophy, the present state of philosophy, the
traditional goal of philosophy as trying to find that which is fixed and unchanging, the new role
of philosophy, how we can view philosophy as an extension of something we do constantly,
create meaning necessary for taking action.
The search for the immutable, for truth.
Alternative view – as the production of accounts for guiding action.
To understand the role of philosophy today.
It’s traditional office (goal)
It’s new office given today’s state of affairs
To understand how philosophy is an extension of our everyday activity of producing
meaning, and how the meaning we create is tied to our life situation, and so how
philosophical accounts are tied to their social situation.
Meaning: The First Step in Understanding Your Mind
Dewey: Introduction from Reconstruction in Philosophy
Solomon, Introduction: Doing Philosophy from The Big Questions