“The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I went to. – The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 133.
I began studying philosophy six years ago. Like many naïve young philosophers, I wanted to discover the meaning of life. Two years of college, a gap year in the real world, and three years of university later and I am finally done with philosophy.
Philosophy is a glorious discipline. It is the most intellectually satisfying study that a human being can do because in essence it is the study of everything. Over my time reading the subject I have become acquainted with complex mathematics, quantum theory, moral and ethical precepts, the nature of political systems, the complexities of musical composition, the foundations of modern psychology, the art of tragedy, and the nature of being. I have been introduced to ideas that most people could never even dream of.
On top of that, philosophy has given the human race so much in its three thousand years of practice. Philosophy has manufactured great and important ideas, many of which have gone on to change the world and make individuals into better people. The development of strict logical systems in the 20th Century is a beautiful accomplishment: there is something majestic and fascinating about the ability to construct a set of propositions which describe the constitution of the entire world from just three logical axioms using only two logical constants. Russell’s Principia Mathematica gave us the proof that 1+1=2: a proof that no-one asked for and that assumes mathematical realism with regard to sets but an elegant proof and a staggering logical accomplishment nonetheless.
However the past year has seen me grow more and more impatient with how the discipline is practiced. Academic philosophy is founded on a few flawed assumptions, ones which are rarely if ever questioned within the discipline. One flawed assumption is linguistic referentialism: the idea that every word in a language must refer to some object. This leads philosophers to ask ‘What is knowledge’ and ‘What is beauty’ as if these words could be treated as other proper nouns are. Although the idea has been present since the early days of philosophy in ancient Greece, the focus on language became more pronounced during the early half of the 20th Century. Philosophers like Moore, Russell, and Kripke led this “linguistic turn” by focusing on the examination of words and uses of language. Russell himself spent most of his philosophical career analysing the English word ‘the’. Now contemporary metaphysics is a linguistic rather than a conceptual pursuit: ontology and the nature of being are determined by what entities we refer to in our everyday language. Quine’s ontological criterion – “To be is to be the value of a variable.” – is an elucidation of this idea. Philosophers treat language as firm, fixed, and static rather than the arbitrary, culturally-influenced tool that anthropology tells us it really is.
“One can’t abuse ordinary language without paying for it.” – J. L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia.
A second flawed assumption is the epistemological priority given to intuitions. A scientist will be willing to change or revise any of her beliefs in the course of investigating reality. Philosophers will not: they are trapped by the bounds of common sense and what ‘seems right’. David Lewis established a special set of beliefs, “Moorean facts”, which a philosopher should never deny. This assumption especially drives contemporary metaphysics which still by and large clings the simplistic, pre-scientific arguments of Plato: D. M. Armstrong believes that the entity ‘redness’ exists objectively because it is the only way to explain things being the same colour. I, along with a select set of ‘explanationist sceptic’ philosophers, argue that intuitions are not special: the best explanation for the existence of intuitions is that they are contingent and accidental psychological entities born of environmental conditioning and epigenetic rules. They therefore have no special epistemic status. There is no good reason why we should construct our belief systems around them and so they should be given a minimal role in theorising if any. This would put an end to many intuitively-justified theories, the philosophical phenomenon of thought experiments, and perhaps even modality and modal logics.
“PHILOSOPHY is a disease, and not an ordinary one either. It’s not a common cold. It is cancer – Cancer of the soul. Once a person is lost in the jungle of philosophy he becomes more and more entangled in words, concepts, abstractions and there is no end to it. One can go on for lives and lives together.” – Osho Rajneesh.
These flaws do not show that philosophy is worthless, valueless, or plain wrong. What they do show is that philosophy only gets a person so far. Before the study of philosophy, the mind is unstructured. It is a mess of concepts, ideas, beliefs, and thoughts in no sort of order: some of which have been adopted developmentally and never really thought about, some of which are logically inconsistent. Philosophy clears up these mental tangles by imposing a structured grid on the landscape of the mind. This allows one to categorise ideas into different sections and put one’s thoughts in order. Once the mind is structured however, the flaws in the grid become apparent: one realises that it is arbitrary, that it is flawed, and that apart from cleaning things up it hasn’t made any difference to the underlying structure of the mind – philosophy finds no essences and makes no discoveries. Philosophy helps you reach a place where the world can be seen clearly and once that place is reached, the philosophy that got you there is not required any more.
“My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54.
So what of the question that started this Promethean quest for knowledge? What is the meaning of life? These six years have taught me that the question is ill-formed. It is founded on the flawed idea of linguistic referentialism and represents what Gilbert Ryle called a ‘category mistake’. ‘Life’ is not something that can rightly be attributed meaning: it is a natural process, one driven by certain biological causes. Asking about the meaning of life makes as much sense as asking about the meaning of trees or the meaning of oceans. The question of ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ is deceptively difficult to put into words with the correct application and of course a question that cannot be asked cannot be answered.
But this is semantics. And where linguistic analytic philosophy ends, continental philosophy begins. The world has no inherent meaning or purpose: in the words of Edward Tryon, the universe is simply one of those things which happens from time to time. ‘Meaning’ is a human conception and is therefore mandated by the human consciousness. Thus we can create our own meaning out of the valueless void that we happen to have evolved in. We alone have the capacity towards ‘meaning’, ‘purpose’, and ‘value’, and it is therefore incumbent on anyone who wants meaning to create their own. In the tradition of existentialist philosophy, our existence precedes our essence and we have to define that essence ourselves as we exist. We have to shift our perception towards the phenomenological Being-in-the-world and accept our Being-towards-death. We have to recognise that the theoretical attitude of science and philosophy is a human construction. When today’s undergraduates become real philosophers, the emerging trend will be towards Richard Rorty’s denial of the traditional objective (physical) and subjective (mental) distinction. Brouwer’s intuitionistic logic, Wittgenstein’s later work, Searle’s biological naturalism, the growing movement of experimental philosophy: these are steps on the move towards denying this pervasive and false dichotomy. The cognitive dissonance that accepting pure Being and synthesising the objective and the subjective seems to bring about is similar to what Camus referred to as ‘absurdity’. We just have to accept it.
The search for meaning is a futile endeavour based on an abuse of ordinary language. The philosopher searches for essences behind the world when all along reality is right in front of them. As Nietzsche and Wittgenstein thought, philosophy is the greatest therapeutic exercise there is. But once the mind is refined, rational, and logical, the discipline can be cast aside.
“Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.” – David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1.4.7.