Why Do We Need Philosophy?
Abigail L. Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of The City University of New York. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now appearing in an expanded second edition and as audiobooks. Dr. Rosenthal writes a weekly column for “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column,” where she explores the situation of women. She thinks women’s lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. She’s written numerous articles that can be accessed at Academia.edu .
“The Big Picture”
Why do we need philosophy?
There are entire philosophic orientations, Wittgenstein’s is one, holding that philosophy as traditionally practiced is something to be cured of, and that the only thing philosophy can usefully do is to
cure itself of itself.
It’s something like having a religion whose creed is to get rid of religion.
Since some of my best friends are Wittgensteinians, I’ll try to show why they do what they do. Let’s take for example one traditional philosophic problem: the mind/body problem. The mind seems to be nonphysical. Yet I can tell my arm to go up and the arm is raised. How does the nonphysical produce physical effects? The physical body appears quite different from conscious awareness. Yet one drink too many relaxes the inhibitions in my mind. How does it do that?
Some philosophers overcome the mind/body problem by denying that the mind is a distinct entity different from the brain. If the mind IS the brain and the brain is of course a physical thing, we just have a case of one physical thing moving another, even if by extremely intricate ways. Philosophers who say this are the materialists or physicalists. Everything is physical and explained by physical laws. Physical laws are expressed in quantitative terms.
The physicalists have great trouble accounting for experiences like the color purple, or the summons of conscience, or what makes me and you uniquely me and you. None of that can be expressed quantitatively. Philosophers for whom this difference of the mental from the physical is ultimate are called dualists: there is mind and there is matter. Each is ultimate. Neither produces the other.
The materialists and the dualists have the same problem: material puzzle pieces don’t look like mental puzzle pieces. How can puzzle pieces that seem to belong to different puzzles be fitted together?
Here is where the Wittgensteinians come in to “cure” the philosophers who think they have the mind/body problem. Both the materialists and the dualists are trying to put all the pieces into one puzzle. They both want to see The Big Picture.
It’s a mistake, say the Wittgensteinians. That’s metaphysics. We don’t get to fly that high. For our purposes, there is no big picture. Well then, what is there? There is common experience, which we all share, and besides that the worlds of the specialists.
Common experience? It’s what we put in our text messages, emails and our letters (if we still write them). It’s what we read about in our novels, feel — and have to field — in our social, personal and bodily lives. It’s other animals, inanimate things, man-made things, what we call them and how we deal with them ordinarily.
The worlds of the specialists? In them we find the micro-particle physicists, the automobile manufacturers, the house painters, the photographers, the newscasters, the bankers, the grammarians, the poets, the priests, the chefs, the geologists, the botonists, the administrators of various institutions, the lawyers, and well … you get the idea. These people are experts and can tell you, with their expertise, what they do.
What does the whole puzzle picture look like? Nobody knows. Do we hunger for the big answers to the big questions? Yes, we do. Eat your heart out, girl. You can’t get ice cream from the hardware store.
* * *
I look down the serried ranks of Big Pictures that have visited western civilization since it first began to take shape. I see the painful clash between the Hebraic and the Greco-Roman worldviews. I see them painstakingly stitched together by Christian Church Fathers into an almost-seamless Big Picture (omitting the disvalued real-life Hebrews of course).
It lasted until Galileo looked through his telescope and saw …
it wasn’t there!
Not in the form it had taken till then.
I see “the moderns” reconfiguring the Big Picture to accommodate what Galileo saw. I see them covertly fighting off the authority of churches that – till then — had put their picture frame around the world. I see the moderns prizing the secular, the natural sciences, and the will of the disaffiliated man or woman.
I see new tyrannies – fascist, communist – rising to replace the old, proclaiming with self-deceived optimism that
“man will be a god to man.”
I see our newly globalized civilization, deeply ashamed of all the prideful excesses and cruelties committed in its name and prepared to apologize.
I see a new/old, expansionist tyranny — innocent of the sins of the west but guilty of its own sins — beaten back long ago at Tours, Lepanto and the Gates of Vienna, but seized now by the terrible intensity that moves some of its sons to storm the gates of the self-reproachful west. And I do not see in emancipated men and women an intelligent will to assert what is best in themselves. The best lack all conviction.
Is this philosophy’s business? I tend to think it is.