Saturday, June 9, 2012

Harman to Holt to Russell: Philosophy, Knowlege, and the World

There's this notion that philosophy, in effect, is the scouting party of knowledge. Once the philosophers have explored a territory and put boundaries on it, they pass it off to specialists, who till the soil, erect homes, breweries, observatories, roads, garbage dumps, and so forth. I don't know when I first came across this notion, though not expressed in those terms, but I do think of it from time and time. And rather often in recent weeks and months as I think about the relationship between philosophy and more specialized disciplines.

What I mostly wonder is whether or not that story is true or whether its just a nice 'just-so' story.

So this morning I see a post by Graham Harman on complaints physicists have be lodging about philosophers. Harman is referring to a NYTimes op-ed by Justin Holt, Physicists, Stop the Churlishness. This is the paragraph in Harman's piece that caught my eye:
I also couldn’t disagree more with the Russell passage cited here, to the effect that philosophy aims at knowledge, and that once knowledge is achieved in an area it ceases to be philosophy. I’m with the Meno on this one. Philosophy does not aim at knowledge. That’s even the whole point.
See that first sentence? That's more or less the idea I've been wondering about, and Holt attributes it to Bertrand Russell. So I high-tail it over Holt's piece to see if he has more from Russell. Alas, he does not, but nonetheless the paragraph's worth quoting in full:
As Bertrand Russell (himself no slouch at physics and mathematics) observed, philosophy aims at knowledge, and as soon as it obtains definite knowledge in a specific area, that area ceases to be called “philosophy.” And scientific progress gives philosophers more and more to do. Allow me to quote Nietzsche (although I know that will be considered by some to be in bad taste): “As the circle of science grows larger, it touches paradox at more places.” Physicists expand the circle, and philosophers help clear up the paradoxes. May both camps flourish.
So, Holt takes Russell's statement at face value and augments it with an interesting bit of Nietzsche, the implication of which is: the more we know, the more we need to philosophize. Which seems at least plausible to me, and perhaps it is so, though I'd need to think about it.

But what did Harman mean, that philosophy does not aim at knowledge, and what does the Meno have to do with it?

So, I high-tail it–there's that metaphor again–over to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to the article, The Value of Knowledge, and find this:
The question why knowledge is distinctively valuable has an important historical precedent in Plato's Meno in which Socrates raises the question of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. Initially, we might appeal to the fact that knowledge appears to be of more practical use than true belief in order to mark this difference in value, but, as Socrates notes, this claim is far from obvious on closer inspection. After all, a true belief about the correct way to Larissa is surely of just as much practical use as knowledge of the way to Larissa—both will get us to our destination. Given that we clearly do value knowledge more than mere true belief, the fact that there is no obvious explanation of why this should be so creates a problem. We will call the issue of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief, the Meno problem.

Plato's own solution to this problem was to argue that the property distinctively possessed by knowledge is that of being ‘tied-down’ to the truth, like the mythical tethered statues of Daedalus which were so life-like that they were tied to the ground to ensure that they did not run away. In contrast, mere true belief, argues Plato, is apt to run away and be lost. Put more prosaically, the point being made here is that knowledge, unlike mere true belief, gives one a confidence that is not easily lost, and it is this property that accounts for the distinctive value of knowledge over mere true belief.

For example, if one knows the way to Larissa, rather than merely truly believes that such-and-such is the correct way to go, then one is less likely to be perturbed by the fact that the road, initially at least, seems to be going in the wrong direction. Mere true belief at this point may be lost, since one might lose all confidence that this is the right way to go. In contrast, if one knows that this is the right way to go, then one will be more sanguine in the light of this development, and thus will in all likelihood press on regardless (and thereby have one's confidence rewarded by getting where one needs to go).
Well, OK, I guess. But that doesn't tell me what Harman was thinking. Is he saying that philosophy aims at true belief rather than knowledge? And how does one know that belief is true?

At that point, however, I choose to remember that that's not where I was going in this post. This post was about a certain hypothesis about the historical relationship between philosophy and other disciplines. I've now got a clue as to where that came from, Bertrand Russell (where in Russell?), but what I'd really like to know is whether or not anyone has tested that hypothesis against a detailed examination of the historical record. I'm guessing that, if it's been done, the situation has turned out to be rather more complex than that.

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