09 March 2011

Too Much Argument, Not Enough Insight

In his 1983 book The Philosophy of Schopenhauer Bryan Magee looks at the role of argument in philosophy. His main point is that because argument can never get you more philosophical content than you begin with in your premises, it should be subordinate to the insight, derived from experience and perception, which originally supplies that content. In other words, argument is, in fact, not essential to philosophy at all. Furthermore, the vital importance of insight gets forgotten in the cut and thrust of academic life. Professional philosophers tend to judge each other’s work on the quality of the arguments rather than on the depth of the insight: the assessment and criticism of arguments is the nuts and bolts of academic philosophy, and it has thus come to be thought of as its essential content.

Wittgenstein is famous for not bothering to spell out, with rigorous argument, all of the implications of his insights or the relations between them, and while this might make it difficult to understand his work, it does not detract from his status as one of the greatest philosophers: his insights remain extraordinary and influential. And it is no coincidence that his biggest philosophical influence, aside from Frege and Russell, was Schopenhauer, who said in The World as Will and Representation (vol I)...

Proofs are generally less for those who want to learn than for those who want to dispute.

(Although the big difference between Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer on this point is that Schopenhauer, while emphasizing that argument is inessential to philosophy, took the trouble to make his arguments explicit anyway.)

Following Schopenhauer’s man-of-the-world contempt for professors (which was not so due to his failed academic career and run-in with Hegel as is commonly supposed), Magee paints an unflattering picture of academic philosophy (particularly analytic philosophy, i.e., that which goes on in the English-speaking world). A crowd of carping professionals cynically awaits the offering up of insight, saying “come on then, let’s see what you can do! Prove it!”

As Magee says,

Although professional philosophers nowadays are often highly skilled in matters of argument, it is in the nature of things that not many of them can be expected to have original insights. The outcome is hundreds upon hundreds of books which are well argued but have little or nothing to say that has not been said before. And because the quality of the argumentation is the only distinguished thing about them, and also the thing their readers as well as their writers are best at, it becomes the object of interest, and hence the criterion by which they and their authors are judged. In consequence, many professional philosophers and their students slide unthinkingly into proceeding as if philosophy is about arguments, and they lose sight of the fact that it is really about insights.

Having read quite a few academic papers, and books such as the almost comically verbose and repetitive Significance of Philosophical Scepticism by Barry Stroud, it does look to me as if, in the words of Roger Scruton, “philosophers have become so nervous of their nit-picking colleagues, that they dot every i and cross every t, lest they should be accused of slap-dash thinking.” (Scruton, Modern Philosophy)

Schopenhauer believed that academic philosophy encourages its practitioners to think that philosophy is primarily about argument. This is because professionals do not often begin with a drive to understand. Rather, they begin in books, picking apart Descartes’s cogito ergo sum just like their lecturers tell them to, and then, having been marked well for their nitpicking, hit upon the idea that maybe they can make a living out of this!

The real philosopher, according to Schopenhauer (and he included himself in that category of course), begins not in books but with his worldly life, his perceptions and spontaneous insights, and with a hunger to understand the world.

Professional photographers sometimes lament that their creativity has been suffocated, their true love in photography neglected, because they have to do weddings all the time. Maybe professional philosophers are like wedding photographers, their creative insights stifled by the need for logic-chopping. (Having said that, I suppose we do need wedding photographers.)

Schopenhauer writes, in The World as Will and Representation vol II, that…

with most books…the author has thought, but not perceived; he has written from reflection, not from intuition. It is just this that makes them mediocre and wearisome. For what the author has thought, the reader also could have thought, at any rate with some effort; for it is just rational ideas, more detailed explanations of what is contained implicit in the theme.

... where a perception or intuition was the basis of the author’s thinking, it is as if he wrote from a land where his reader has never been, for everything is fresh and new, since it is drawn directly from the primary source of all knowledge.

Perception is not only the source of all knowledge, but is itself knowledge par excellence; it alone is the unconditionally true genuine knowledge, fully worthy of the name.

It is significant that the two most important philosophers of the twentieth century, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, emphasized the role of insight in philosophy, that one can only hope to understand a great thinker by sharing his insights, not by logically assessing his arguments. And, of course, this is how one should best try to understand the thought of these two thinkers themselves. That the analytical tradition, with notable exceptions, has either ignored or emasculated Wittgenstein, is a sign of how few of these academics have been able to do this.

From the very beginning, Wittgenstein understood how hard it could be to properly absorb the thought of another, and that attempting to convince others by argument was foolish and useless, especially at the point where understanding is most difficult and important.

In the preface to his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he writes:

Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it-or at least similar thoughts.

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