Friday, March 2, 2012

The Death of Philosophy

Although I enjoy learning about philosophers and their subject, something about philosophy always seemed empty to me, and I never considered it of much value despite my marvel at the genius of its authors.  I could never understand what it was about philosophy that made it seem irrelevant to me, other than the observation that scientists almost never need the assistance of philosophers to help discern how empirical observations should be interpreted or how theory should be applied.

Recently, though, my views have been greatly clarified from my learning of Ludwig Wittgenstein.  His assertion (in the latter part of his life) was that words only have meaning in the context they are used by society—that there is no private language.  If you we both look at the same object and I see green and call it green, but you see [what in my world is] blue but call it green, philosophers for thousands of years asked how we can know the "true" meaning of the words "green" and "blue".

However, Wittgenstein asserted that is a senseless question.  The "meaning" of the word green arises in the social setting in which they are used, and the "true" meaning of the word green is that color both you and I call green.  So long as we both agree on what is green, language has served its role and the word "green" has meaning.  That is all there is to the meaning of words.  That is all it can be.

Philosophers make the mistake of taking words out of their social context and then asking what it means, but this is a nonsensical and useless activity.  It is an activity that can come to no conclusion because it asks the wrong questions.

Consequently, philosophers have argued for over two thousands years, coming to no consensus, because they are arguing over questions that have no answer.  They are asking, "How deep is a bottomless pit?" without recognizing that society agrees a bottomless pit has no end.  Because philosophers use the word "bottomless" incorrectly they embark on a ridiculous journey. 

Philosophy, thus, is dead.  We can still marvel at the rhetoric of past and contemporary misguided philosophers though, and philosophers can help us understand what we are talking about, but that it all.

I can't say that this is why I have always felt philosophy is empty, but I can say that is why I now believe it to have little value.

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein

The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of the bumps that the understanding has got by running its head against the limits of language.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein

Lawrence Cahoone.  2010.  The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida.  "Wittgenstein's Turn to Ordinary Language."  Lecture 27.  The Teaching Company.

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