Sunday, October 26, 2008
Problems of Philosophy, Indeed
When I was a little kid growing up in Lynden, Washington, I used to listen to Seattle classic rock radio station KZOK (102.5 FM). What's funny is that if I turn the station on now, the playlist is exactly the same. It's all still "All Along the Watchtower", "Won't Get Fooled Again", "Barracuda", the whole deal. Nothing's changed since 1980.
Philosophy is like that. One day I'd like to write a follow-up to Bertrand Russell's classic "The Problems of Philosophy" called "The Problem with the Problems of Philosophy", and chronicle the inability or pathological unwillingness of modern philosophers to ever ultimately solve, or even want to solve, any of their philosophical "problems". (That reminds me - last year I chatted with a well-known philosopher at the London School of Economics. I asked him if he knew of any philosophical problems that had ever been solved. He acted as though he'd never considered this before, and after a few moments, admitted that he couldn't think of one). Point is, a list of current "problems of philosophy" in 2008 would be pretty much indistinguishable from a list made twenty, fifty, or even one hundred years ago.
So ingrained is the habit of yakking forever about problems is that even if some philosopher somewhere were to "solve" some "problem of philosophy" - like, say, the "problem of induction", the "problem of other minds", or the "problem" of how one thing can be two things and yet one thing at the same time (thanks, Heraclitus) - no other philosopher would acknowledge it.
Perhaps I am putting the matter a tad too harshly. You see, it is not quite that philosophy is characterized by total stasis. There is "progress" of a twisted sort: "progress", in the world of professional philosophy, is when someone, somewhere, thinks of a BRAND NEW unsolvable "problem" for philosophers to yak about. But such "progress" is fairly rare. After all, so many philosophers have been trying for so many centuries to come up with brand new "problems" to talk about, that the creative faculties of the human mind appear to have been fairly mined out. Besides, most folks just aren't that creative to begin with.
That's why most professional philosophers now spend their time yakking about the exact nature of the yakking of other philosophers before them - AND, yakking about the yakking about the yakking of other philosophers. As if the pointless ramblings of Hegel were not pointless enough already, philosophy journals now treat us to articles like "Husserl on Hegel's Teleological Animus Mundi in Light of Heidegger's Theory of Being". Such stuff at worst is one step away from an inmate-written insane asylum newsletter. But what it mostly is, is just pointless.
I'd like to think of some snappy ending to this post, but I can't. Besides, this post is probably pointless itself...