Response to PG's "How to Do Philosophy"

Back in late 2007, Paul Graham put up an essay titled “How to Do Philosophy”, in which Mr. Graham hoped to elucidate where Philosophy went wrong and why the field, as now practiced, must be renovated to remain useful. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that much of philosophy has no benefit whatsoever:

The proof of how useless some of their answers turned out to be is how little effect they have. No one after reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics does anything differently as a result.

If I may, as a student of philosophy, I would like to offer my response to this argument, whose tenets have been repeated many times throughout Philosophy’s history.

The spirit of philosophy

As far back as Plato’s Republic (and most likely long before then) there have been debates on the merit of philosophy. In Plato’s book it is between Socrates and Glaucon, who fears that men may waste their time in fruitless contemplation:

Socrates: I am amused, I said, at your [Glaucon’s] fear of the world, which makes you guard against the appearance of insisting upon useless studies; and I quite admit the difficulty of believing that in every man there is an eye of the soul which, when by other pursuits lost and dimmed, is by these purified and re-illumined; and is more precious far than ten thousand bodily eyes, for by it alone is truth seen….

Earlier Socrates had said something similar, and in briefer terms:

Socrates: Then must not a further admission be made?

Glaucon: What admission?

Socrates: That the knowledge at which geometry aims is knowledge of the eternal, and not of aught perishing and transient.

Glaucon: That, he replied, may be readily allowed, and is true.

Socrates: Then, my noble friend, geometry will draw the soul towards truth, and create the spirit of philosophy, and raise up that which is now unhappily allowed to fall down.

This “spirit of philosophy” is held by Socrates over and over again to be precious beyond compare: a light to illumine every aspect of life. If a lantern is something you can design, hold and weigh, yet this light is its intangible counterpart, granting the lamp its purpose. It is the “why” to the lantern’s “what” and “how”. It can neither be designed, nor held, nor weighed, but must be enkindled. And only then does the lamp come aglow…

The harp on practicality

I understand the need for practical results in a material world, but results are meaningless deprived of context. If we boil things down to their material essence, then what we do we do for survival: develop resources to protect and prolong life. But is surviving enough? Don’t people also seek meaning from what they do? Certainly I don’t enjoy programming merely to make a paycheck; I have to feel something more to keep me motivated year after year.

The harp on practicality levied against philosophy overstresses the “what” against the “why”. Mr. Graham debates how to make philosophy useful again, but I think he has lost the point of it: useful in terms of what? Does usefulness have a “why”? Who is to define the best “use” of anything, so that usefulness may be measured? Thus, there is a conundrum at this center of his argument: How can any man judge philosophy who has not discovered what it aims to impart?

Anyone can understand the concept of practicality. Even children connect the ideas of work and output. It’s why we hate cleaning our room, because it takes so much work yet we gain so little from it. But what is pratical is not the same as what is essential. Happiness, most of us know, is not found in more money, more power, or by more efficient processes. There is only one outcome in this life which is inevitable, and curiously neither industry nor indolence has any effect on its timing or nature. But whereas the practical man fears death as the end of opportunity, perhaps the philosopher sees it differently:

Socrates: The philosopher desires death – which the wicked world will insinuate that he also deserves: and perhaps he does, but not in any sense which they are capable of understanding. Enough of them: the real question is, What is the nature of that death which he desires? Death is the separation of soul and body – and the philosopher desires such a separation. He would like to be freed from the dominion of bodily pleasures and of the senses, which are always perturbing his mental vision. He wants to get rid of eyes and ears, and with the light of the mind only to behold the light of truth….

So the question is raised: Is there more than just this world? I don’t necessarily mean physical death, either. For there is a world of purely material pursuits and achievement – a world we share in common with animals – and there is a world of inspiration, abstraction, and fantasy, which only men participate in. The “practical man” knows well the value of practical things and he is an expert at perfecting the animal life; but it takes more than a well-fed stomach to bring true content. If not so, then cows should be our kings.

If a philosopher is anything, I say he is someone who forgoes all else to discover and adventure in that world, and to learn what effect immaterial consequences should have on our material life, if all is to be as it ought.

The bane of method

Not everyone who reads Plato, of course, comes away with mystical opinions. Just as there are those who eschew philosophy entirely and ignore its delights, so there are some who accept it but half-way. They see that philosophy prescribes a method and they fall in love with that method, dedicating the whole of their pursuit to refining it. Yes, Plato did stress the necessity of dialectic, but his stress had a purpose in mind. Not a material or pratical goal – hardly even a “useful” one in immediate terms – but a personal and soulful one.

Philosophy is ever so much more than method. In fact, the love of method has resulted in a few branches of philosophy which are hardly philosophy at all, but the art of analysis. What Plato used his method for was to approach noesis: to know the “real real”, to have a direct apprehension of reality freed from mortal conceptions; to “remember” the soul’s birth and origin; to return our perception of the world to an original, direct perception of Truth itself. Through this experience of true perception our breasts and minds would dilate, and every pursuit will become infused with the vibrating principle of Life.

Missing the point

This is why, when I read essays like Mr. Graham’s, I find myself thinking that his own success and momentum have caused him to miss the point. Philosophy is not meant to be practical. It is not meant to have a use. It does not exist to make us more productive girls and boys. It is a diet of words to feed our soul by way of stimulating our mind. It is not a roast-beef sandwich, but more the substance of an ethereal longing.

Some will ask, what is this thing that is words and nothing more? To them I reply: Then what is poetry? There are human endeavors which are little more than words or pigments on paper, that come to life only through the eye of an appreciate heart and mind. Does a man read Shakespeare and ask what profit he has gained? If he does then he cannot see the point. What he gains is immaterial – literally and figuratively – but may in the long run be immensely valuable. It depends on what he saw, how well he saw, and the breadth of his vision.

It is no different with Philosophy. Consider it an artform, or a method of tuning the soul through delicate adjustments of the mind. When one tunes a violin there is no melody played; that comes after. The fruit of philosphy is the philosopher’s life itself. It is how it changes the man that matters, not the changes he can prove to you from day to day.

So if you are accustomed to reading balance sheets and preparing quarterly projections, perhaps you are ill-equipped to judge philosophy. But if you measure the smile of a happy engineer against the despair of an endless, daily grind, maybe then you will have found the weight of philosophy’s fruit.