A Short: What is Philosophy?

In yesterday morning’s reads, I came across this piece by Charlie Huenemann, “Why philosophers should hang out at the humanists’ parties” at Aeon Magazine, but delayed it until today.  It is quite bad, altogether misconstrues the nature of philosophical reasoning, and demonstrates that having a PhD in philosophy does not mean you know what “philosophy” actually is.  See, Huenemann thinks that philosophy does not have that much to do with books, and has everything to do with solving problems through the rigorous application of logical formulae!


Teaching at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, I was given classes full of technically-minded people; most of them studying engineering, computer science, or some related field.  Theirs are minds given over wholly to the attitude of problem-solving.  Illustrating to them that not all things about which we can think are problems to be solved was the first, most constant, and most difficult task I faced in teaching my course.  After all, it was a course in ethics–which is not a matter of plugging in the right formula to attain the Morally Correct Solution, but of being prepared to do what is morally right regardless of what might happen: something impossible to predict, and therefore impossible to prepare for with a formulaic solution.  Rather, they had to see that we do not have moral problems, but rather moral difficulties: things with which we struggle, and in that struggle, succeed or fail; but never solve (a disposition common within both phenomenology and Thomism).

My reaction

Among the many errors of modern philosophy–of which Huenemann, as a contemporary analytic philosopher, is a descendant–was its attitude that context is merely an irrelevant veneer on the universal underlying truths discovered by the light of pure reason (this being one of Heidegger’s main critiques of the philosophical tradition in his own day).  As ideoscopic science (that is, “science” as it is commonly understood today) advanced in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, philosophers became envious of its successes and tried, in vain, to emulate its methods and models.  Contemporary analytic philosophy has inherited this mistake: that is, in believing the philosophical quest to understand “how things really are” as being more alike to physics than to poetry.  Physics, like all mathematically-structured ideoscopic sciences, quite obviously does not get at how things really are; it gets at models which give a stripped-down explanation of how things behave.

While Huenemann takes his opportunity to suggest philosophers should read books, and engage with the humanists who do, he does so as a kind of ecumenical exhortation: with an attitude of “what can we learn from each others’ disciplines?”  Allow me a metaphor: Huenemann, having locked himself in what he believes is a mansion, is making phone calls from one small room (that of formal logic) to others in the same house.


2 thoughts on “A Short: What is Philosophy?

  1. I can see how you may have gotten this interpretation (and am chagrined by it!). But the ending paragraphs, far from being merely ecumenical, really are meant to exhort philosophers to broaden their interests and reading habits, and get beyond the excessively narrow boundaries of analytic philosophy.


    1. Charlie,

      Thanks for your comment, and I applaud the exhortation. I think it’s good for analytic philosophy to expand those boundaries; though I myself (clearly) was chagrined by the depiction of philosophy as itself being constituted by, at least primarily, the analytic tradition—numerical predominance notwithstanding. I think the fundamental attitude of problem-solving misses the key quality of philosophical inquiry, and, as such, much of what claims the name “philosophy” doesn’t deserve it.

      …probably isn’t coincidental that I’m unemployed.



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