Why? I’m not asking why in some sort of abstract sense, like why is chocolate tasty? or why the electric slide was fun to do for about five minutes back in the early 90s? I’m asking why? Why? Maybe I’m getting William James (or God forbid Wittgenstein) all on everybody, but more and more lately I’ve been asking, why are philosophers so caught up in all those things that don’t matter?!? I know that I’ve stepped in a big one here. I used the word “matter”. Using “matter”, I’ve learned, unless you’re talking about form or substance, or all that Aristotle madness, as in ‘why does learning this matter?’ is forbidden. “Matter”, “useful”, or “this doesn’t mean anything to anyone outside of this classroom”, are not a part of the recognized philosophic nomenclature. They are words and phrases that should not emanate from the mouths of philosophy students. But they do, and there’s a reason for that. Unless there’s, when you get to the gates of heaven, a big test where you’re asked to explain Kant’s transendental idealism, sorry to say, a great deal of what is learned in a classroom is forgotten, let alone not used once a student leaves the classroom and hits the street. So much of what we learn, the complaint goes, is simply put: superfluous. There’s alot of stuff, but it’s just that — stuff. Philosophers spend too much time overcomplicating what is ordinarily easy stuff. Don’t believe me? Thought so. Let me give an example, the Thought Experiment. Here’s one we’re all familiar with: You find yourself on an alien world. On this alien world, you find a substance which shares, by all appearances, the same chemical composition as the substance that we call water. Now, on this planet, that water-like substance is called ‘xyz’. The point is that we are trying to figure out whether any two things are the same because they share the same name, or because they share the same properties. Somehow this distinction is supposed to matter to us when we think about reference of moral theories like intuitionism. I get it. But, I also get that you can just ask that question instead of weaving some takes fifteen minutes to explain the situation thought experiment that often confuses more than it explains. To be honest, I call that substance who the fuck cares. It’s water. It’s not molybdenum and it’s not bleach. You can drink it and you won’t die. Ok, now I’ve done it. I’ve not only dropped an “f”, but I’ve also made three serious epistemic claims:
1) I know there is no worth posing thought experiements (or the
thought experiment’s crappier cousin, the possible world scenerio.
2) After examination, I’ve concluded that I know that posing said
thought experiments is worthless.
and, 3) I know what does, in fact, matter.
To answer #1, I say that I do think that there are some questions that we can figure out by way of thought experiements (more on that later). As for #2, Sometimes, yes. And for #3, I am not so bold as to say that I know what’s all that matters. I can say, however, I know what matters for me, as well as I believe that this is how far anyone else can make this claim. Perhaps this suggests that determining what matters is more a matter of consensus.
Oh damn! I didn’t mean to say that. I sure as hell don’t want to pull in consensus. I’m just as uncomfortable as any professional philosopher is with placing important philosophical claims (and truths) up for public referendum. Man, where was I? Was I anywhere?
Oh yes, what matters. I know that students, as a rule, are nothing more than a pack of Eeyores -we bitch and moan because most of us don’t want to do the work. This may seem like a fair assessment of what I am writing her, but I assure you that this is not in fact what I am up to. I think that one of the biggest turn-offs to philosophy is the fact that so much of it is, well…pedantic. It’s so much about so much that sometimes we should ask whether the question at hand really needs to be asked. Thought experiments become philosophical Frankensteins — instead of constructing the monster, we should be asking whether we should be constructing him at all. I think what I really offer is a word of caution. And my caution is this: don’t get too bogged down in the argument or constructing the perfect scenerio by with to demonstrate the idea. Don’t lose the question in the argument. And, don’t forget asking why we’re asking is just as important as asking the question itself. Perhaps we can stray away from words like matter, and embrace words like relevance (but then that just opens up another can of worms, doesn’t it?).
Perhaps what I am really asking is what do I want philosophy to do? What am I looking for? My fear, I realize is that we end up stuck in a morass of arguments, ending up so deep that I’ve (we’ve) lost sight of what we’re here to do. I’m hearing the words forest for the trees, here. It’s like talking so much that you forget what you were talking about.