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[LINK] "The nirvana would be if the questions raised by Oprah Winfrey would be answered by the faculty at Harvard."

2 Post author: GabrielDuquette 31 January 2012 04:32PM

Alain de Botton:

I once very politely raised the thought that one reason philosophy departments have been cut is the fault of philosophers. The answer always comes back: 'The point of philosophy is to ask questions, not to give answers.' I can't help but think 'No. It can't be!' Imagine if you applied that question to other areas – is the purpose of rocket science to ask questions about rockets?

Sounds familiar.

Comments (11)

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 01 February 2012 06:38:52AM *  1 point [-]

If it is a good idea to hold off on proposing solutions, then why isn't it okay to have a division of labour between those that merely discuss a problem as thoroughly as possible (in this case, some philosophers) and those that settle on a final solution (in this case, some scientists and engineers)?

Note: I believe that philosophy has solved some problems and that these solutions are usually the fundamental principles of an immature science (at which point they stop considering such problems as being within the domain of philosophy).

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 01 February 2012 01:59:42PM 5 points [-]

When people ask me what philosophy is, I say philosophy is what you do when you don't know what the right questions are yet. Once you get the questions right, then you go answer them, and that's typically not philosophy, that's one science or another. Anywhere in life where you find that people aren't quite sure what the right questions to ask are, what they're doing, then, is philosophy.

Daniel Dennett

Comment author: sark 22 February 2012 09:35:13PM 0 points [-]

The question is not about philosophy but institutionalized philosophy.

a) Would those immature sciences not have been born if not for institutionalized philosophy? b) Do you expect new sciences to be born within the philosophy departments we have today?

Or do you expect rather that a new science is more likely to arise as a result of Big Questions being asked in the mundane disciplines of our empirical sciences?

Comment author: Jack 31 January 2012 11:44:27PM 3 points [-]

I would be very surprised if "the point of philosophy is to ask questions, not to give answers.' was part of the 'don't de-fund us' pitch from the philosophy departments at more than a handful of universities.

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 31 January 2012 06:59:57PM 6 points [-]

It's a nice quote, and correct as far as it goes. "We raise these questions not in order to provide definitive answers, but in order to stimulate questioning" is an annoying trope. However, a few thoughts:

  • There may be some value in finding definitive answers offputting. Namely, if one values definitive answers too highly, one may be excessively compelled to prematurely proclaim one's answers definitive! But this isn't to say that definitive answers would not be desirable when they can be achieved.
  • I doubt the attitude he describes is as prevalent in philosophy departments as he suggests. The vast majority of publications in current mainstream philosophy, whatever else you may say about them, do appear to me to be concerned with the enterprise of providing actual answers to questions. (Refining the precision of the questions themselves and knocking down failed answers to them both count as aspects of this enterprise.) If philosophy isn't coming up with actual, definitive, no-longer-questionable answers very often, it may be because the questions are actually very hard, or because philosophers are bad at answering them. But celebrating ignorance in favor of rhetorically pretty question-asking is not a frequent feature of any of the philosophy I read.
  • Also, Alain de Botton is an idiot who I've been wanting to gripe about for a while now. I listened to him on the Philosophy Bites podcast and he seriously seems to believe that if religious institutions are weakened any further, we won't have community or nice architecture any more. While acknowledging the factual correctness of atheism, he doesn't want people to respond to their newfound atheism by actually changing any of their behavior surrounding religious institutions and rituals.
  • The questions he claims Oprah Winfrey raises are, if you click through: "how do we live with other people, how do we cope with our ambitions, how do we survive as a society". These are all fine questions, although I don't know what they would reduce down to if formulated more precisely, but it seems just silly to think they're principally philosophy questions. Serious people are working on all three of them, just not mostly in philosophy departments. De Botton seems deeply bored by generality and abstraction -- but one thing philosophers do best is figure out how to see specific problems as special cases of more abstract ones. I think he just doesn't like philosophy very much, and (in keeping with his overriding concern with keeping religious institutions active in an atheistic society) he would prefer philosophers who remind him more of life coaches, religious sages, or the like. (When he says "how do we survive as a society", I don't think he's referring to existential risk!)
Comment author: bogus 01 February 2012 01:01:55PM *  2 points [-]

While acknowledging the factual correctness of atheism, he doesn't want people to respond to their newfound atheism by actually changing any of their behavior surrounding religious institutions and rituals.

Alain de Botton is quite possibly correct that "religious institutions and rituals" supporting an ethical system could exist without involving any theistic cosmology or similar doctrines. Confucian 'religion' is a case in point. Yes, Confucianism evolved from Chinese ancient religion, but it developed independently over many centuries as a non-theistic system. The same process could occur with modern Western morality, which historically evolved from Protestant millennialist Christianity.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 31 January 2012 07:41:10PM 8 points [-]

This is why our kind can't cooperate. You're denouncing as an "idiot" a man whom, if we were to somehow successfully elicit both of your value systems, you would probably agree with 98%.

When SIAI's rationality curriculum is finished and disseminated, it's possible Alain de Botton will get ahold of it. He will probably think, "Yeah, this is what I'm talking about. It's a bit jargon-y; they could take that down a few notches. But the message is there: directions for dealing with life that aren't equivalent to a rabbit's foot. Cool!"

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 31 January 2012 08:37:24PM 9 points [-]

Ok, it's undoubtedly true that de Botton and I share a good many values. But I do insist that his current project strikes me as incredibly misguided if not outright stupid. I would expect him to be quite resistant to an SIAI-like program of answers to the kinds of "philosophical" questions he's asking. He seems to believe that religious leaders, despite basing their teachings on their totally groundless factual claims about reality, are important moral teachers who must be taken with utmost seriousness. And he believes that (for example) Richard Dawkins, in advocating for factual positions that de Botton believes are correct, is being destructive. It's simply no better than a theory of non-overlapping magisteria.

Also, as I said before, I think he's wrong that research into the questions he's interested in is not being done. For a man who abandoned academia (he began a PhD in French philosophy, a field of interest which is very unlikely to be a good sign) in favor of being a popular writer, he doesn't seem very interested in seeking out that research and popularizing it. Instead he says things like (from the original link): "The arrogance that says analysing the relationship between reasons and causes is more important than writing a philosophy of shyness or sadness or friendship drives me nuts. I can't accept that." I'm not sure exactly what analysis of "the relationship between reasons and causes" he's referring to, but he clearly states that all research into metaphysics is pointless, while "philosophy of" various aspects of everyday life is of vital importance.

I see no sign that he'd find LW-style thinking congenial or constructive, or that he in fact values knowledge as such. I think he values lofty rhetoric and vague-but-profound-sounding statements about ordinary life. I deny that he plays for my team.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 31 January 2012 09:43:31PM *  2 points [-]

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower's interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

I don't think this sounds "incredibly misguided." It just sounds like a neat building where a woefully tiny minority of people with certain traits -- high intelligence, social conscientiousness, maybe a credulous streak or an awe addiction, probably religious parents and community -- might have a deconversion experience. If he thinks droves of people are going to spontaneously switch brand loyalties, then yes, he's misguided. But the building is still neat.

Also, I bet the woefully tiny minority mentioned above overlap quite a bit with doubt-fraught religious folks whose brand loyalty is bolstered by Dawkins' occasionally shitty attitude. Again, a niche market at best.

As for your second paragraph, yeah, you're probably right. My interest in de Botton derives from my stubborn belief that stuff like the Sequences can survive compression into one-sentence maxims. He occasionally nails this on his Twitter feed. He could be better at it, sure, but I think getting this type of compression algorithm right is what gets ideas into people's heads.

I deny that he plays for my team.

I don't know what it takes to get picked for your team, so I don't know if you have enough information to support that denial. But I do hope you're wrong.

Comment author: Manfred 31 January 2012 08:28:03PM 2 points [-]

The answer always comes back: 'The point of mathematics is to prove interesting things, not build things.' I can't help but think 'No. It can't be!' Imagine if you applied that question to other areas – is the purpose of civil engineering to prove interesting things about bridges?

So, sort of familiar, but not backed up by the same specifics, or even intent. Also, more passive aggressiveness.

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 31 January 2012 08:41:12PM 3 points [-]

That quote is kind of awesomely terrible. Sure, as everyone knows, all fields of human endeavor have exactly the same kind of purpose!