8/15/2005

Daily Kos: The Philosophical Workbench

The Philosophical Workbench
by pyrrho [Subscribe]
Tue Apr 26th, 2005 at 21:50:01 CDT

The history of Western Civilization is a long history of warlike religious fervor punctuated with short centuries of philosophical perspective and relative freedom.

We're coming to the end of our few centuries of it. If we want to continue progress past the next few decades we need to know the philosophic drive and have its principles memorized. But many people think philosophy's the definition is "pointless inquiry"... it is ironic this is the popular label for those that invented logic. That logic is pointless has only certain advocates.

This is just the sign of past battles against enlightenment, combatants holding some ground, for some time. I'm going to go way out on a limb and say we need more logical people, not less, more people able to study opinions other than their own, not less.

So I present a metaphor, "The Shared Workbench", which I have borrowed from Daily Kos user Pericles who in turn borrowed it from Pope John Paul II. For them it is an economic metaphor, for me, a metaphor for what progressives need to know about the philosophical spirit.

* pyrrho's diary :: ::
*

I have claimed before that a philosophical spirit is what we need for progress and I intend to keep claiming that. Philosophy deserves recognition, and for what? For its workbench. Not for its own sake, the benefits of philosophy are all around us and justify themselves, but for our culture's sake. The current philosophical era is in jeopardy and outside of philosophical eras the word "progress" has no meaning at all because outside of philosophical eras "change is bad" and "progress is impossible".

Imagine a mighty "workbench of philosophy". This is a place one comes to build the artifacts of Western Philosophy, past, present and future, perhaps bringing knowledge from other places and cultures, or perhaps coming empty handed. Let's say a guy named Kevin (Bruce if he's Australian) shows up at the workbench for the first time, he has no tools, he has little knowledge, none of it's arranged according to principles of internal consistency. He's just seen the bench and thinks it might be worth checking out, "whatever" he thinks, "why not?". He sits at a stool before it, it's very long and goes off into the distance, benches and the occasional philosopher's can be seen sitting at it just as Kevin is, most of them far out of hearing range.

Like all the philosophers Kevin sits for a time at the workbench playing with the tools and materials. Since Kevin enjoys himself, he learns to make things which are finished enough, perfect in the sense of "perfecto"... done. Most people at the bench are like Kevin, they mostly do not have jobs as philosophy professors, though many impressive people do have jobs as philosophy professors. But many of the amazing creations from the workbench have not been made by professional philosophers at all. We are not surprised. Everyone has a philosophy they could state if they cared to, given the language of philosophy, given the tools scattered around the general workbench area.

The tools of philosophers are often left askew, there are random tools you find just if you happen on them. Kevin might sit down and look right at some great axiom within his first moments, but he might also sit down and look at some old canard that spoils his thinking for years. You do not have to be trained to use the workbench, and some say to be trained even hurts the result, and makes you part of a school before you even develop your own philosophy, though I think it doesn't hurt to be trained, if just a little. But the products of the workbench and it's artisans are not "philosophy" but mere parts of philosophy. The workbench itself represents the philosophical spirit, serving well as it does all philosophers of different ilks.

Philosophy did not generate itself, it's an expression of the human intention to be logical, reasonable, and harmonious as possible with nature. At least, that's what it is if you believe that these are the benefits of knowledge... so that the human can better understand reality and get along better with it.

It's the bench that embodies the harmony because any particular workman is just as likely to not be in a harmonious state of mind. He's more likely to be fervently creating the philosophy to end all philosophy... literally hoping to destroy those other works. The workbench itself works well with all the philosophies, the philosophers themselves on the other hand sometimes come to blows. Many that would use the workbench and its principles of shared tools to create a philosophy, would just as quickly turn around and destroy the workbench for future philosophers and insist their single creation actually IS all of philosophy itself. Plato falls in that camp, for example.

But the dedicated tool makers are different, they get along with everyone that doesn't try to shut down the workbench. Plato too created tools, for example he worked hard to identify what philosophers call the problem of universals and produced some good if false tools for thinking about the use of "universals", but it was the dedicated tool makers that cleaned that up so that it was more than just an artifice for Plato's own philosophy.

I myself had thought I had built my own workbench and a bunch of new tools, but it turned out I just picked them up around the place, and when I brought my tools to the workbench, I found versions of most my tools already there, and found some of the origins of what I thought were my own ideas. That's a real blow to an iconoclastic creative type conditioned to value originality above all else, which partially described me then....

The ideas of philosophy, especially the tool work, have affected the culture and are readily available, but they don't make a coherent image for most people. They do make a possible vision if you acquire the right eyesight for it, these ideals are real and tell a narrative thousands of years long intertwined with progress and Western history itself. And it is a progressive vision.

Philosophy is all about trying to advance knowledge. Any of its cycles and logical circles can be subtracted out and underneath that you will find progress. Gradual... but certain, progress. The real measure of the maturity of the philosophical spirit for a culture is the state of the common tools. What shape is the workbench in? Is it well stocked... is there organization for the most basic tools? Do children play there too? Is it indexed by the scholars, understood by the people using it? Is access to it unfettered (via education)? Is its use promoted?

When a philosopher sits at the bench she makes her machine, her model, her philosophical artifact. It's not Kevin, by the way, because he's a man. This is a female philosopher, indistinguishable from Kevin from a philosophical perspective, but luckily not from a biological perspective because Kevin is in love with her. Truth be told he followed her to the workbench.

She takes her artifact with her when she leaves, and this is what we often call "a philosophy". Platonism for example is the sum total of Plato's philosophical artifacts. These creations are themselves studied, mimicked, taken apart, put back together, upgraded, reconditioned, cloned, destroyed, manipulated in every possible way if they capture someone's interest. Utilitarianism is another such artifact. And for each major philosopher, yet another school of philosophy can be described. These philosophers are thought of as especially expert not because of their training, their knowledge, or EVEN their creation but because in addition to what they built, they also contributed tools back to the workbench itself. What they built proved something about the workbench! It informed those that do not agree with their creation but who could not but admire their techniques. I don't like Plato's philosophy, but his techniques? Dialog? That is one of the main tools, you'll find it wherever you happen to take a seat....

The best philosophers have built their own tools, and they become our tools. That's the real world meaning of this metaphor... the tools of knowledge are shared. In its economic form: the tools of production are shared... the produce is personal, the infrastructure is public. Counterintuitive to some, but it's proved that a group of allies all benefit this way.

At the workbench you create works of knowledge, but ironically knowledge itself is not certain. It turns out it can't be.

It's more like you create a statue of yourself or a statue representing little parts of yourself, or, more likely statues of your ideal hero or worst fear (if you are a pessimist or cynic). But if you try to do a good job of it, I will say you have built a model of how you see the world...

Daily Kos: The Philosophical Workbench

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