Monday, December 20, 2004

Philosophy - Who Needs It


I read the opening words of a speech by Ayn Rand recently, in which she claimed that subscribing to philosophy resulted from the existential questions of man, demanded of him by his nature. "Where am I? How do I know it? What should I do?"

I would like to attack this as the basis for philosophy. Firstly, too many philosophers in history have attempted to ground their theories in 'unassailable truths' - axioms, or things held to be self-obvious, or some kind of ontology that enables a consistent understanding of the universe. They have all fallen, so reliably that nobody has philosophies any more, they only study those of others. Ayn Rand, like so many before her, has here tried to sell her philosophy on the attractiveness of this grounding.

It has been proven (he says waving his hands vigorously) that human cognition starts neither at the most basic, nor the most complex levels. Ayn Rand actually accepts this if you read more widely, but still insists in this speech on starting not from the most relevant parts of her philosophy, but from its grounding.

Attacking any such arbitrary decision is almost painfully easy. Firstly, one can attack the sentence "What should I do" as already pre-supposing normativity - the idea that we "ought" to do anything. More simply one could say "What shall I do?" The other two sentences are just as laden with preconceptions. When I wake up in the morning, I don't think "where am I?". Usually, I think "oh damn, the alarm clock". Her lost astronaut is unlikely to think "where am I" with any particular cardinality - it will be just another thought in the mix.

Of course, all I am doing is attacking her choice as being too "high level" as being an arbitrary and poorly chosen entry point into accepting a philosophical system. But it is worth making that kind of attack, because it is precisely that kind of weakness of approach which leads to ordinary people feeling disconnected with philosophy.

Being a philosopher, I don't _need_ to present what I think the right approach is, but as an egoistical blogger, I suppose I ought to. If I were try to persuade someone of the value of philosophy, I would appeal to its interesting nature, its ability to help us structure and understand our thoughts so that we may better address every problem we face and to eternal struggle of humanity to deal with our dreams and our desires. Philosophy is to naive thought as investment is to a salary. Ayn Rand's philosophy is not a bad one - plenty of people find a lot of merit in it - but it is a mistake on her part to assert that it is the most "obvious" or even the most "rational", because all of those assertions pre-suppose her own ideals.


Blogger undergroundman said...

When you start asking existential question: where am I, what am I doing here, what do I really know -- then you start venturing into philosophy. That's why such questions are a grounding for philosophy.

1/10/2007 12:04:00 AM  

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