Monthly Archives: September 2004

Essay: Is Philosophy Useless?

Is Philosophy Useless?
By David V.
September 28, 2004

Refute the following criticisms:

  • Philosophy stifles individuality or the self.
  • Following a single philosophy means a life in conflict with the world.
  • The most credible argument given against philosophy is that it is useless as a practical guide to daily life. While it is rarely presented explicitly, it is at the root of the other two arguments (that philosophy stifles individuality or the self and that following a single philosophy means a life in conflict with the world) because it shares the basic notion that abstract philosophical principles are irrelevant to reality because mental processes cannot correspond to the “actual,” chaotic nature of the world. The claim that philosophy is useless rests on the premise that philosophical abstractions are somehow inapplicable or in conflict with reality. It argues that while philosophical ideas might point one in the right direction, they cannot provide guidance for the particular actions he should take in his daily life. When acting, man has to consider the particular facts of a given situation, as they apply to his life. According to this position, abstract philosophical ideas may contain some basic guidelines, but they cannot tell him what course of action is appropriate given the actual circumstances of his life.

    For example, the Objectivist philosophy holds that productivity is a virtue – but how should this principle be applied in practice? Does being productive mean that one should work until exhaustion every day? If not, how much time should be devoted to work, and how much to recreation and rest? What counts as “work” when evaluating productivity – physical labor, monetary reward, fatigue, emotional stimulation, or some other, objective standard? To decide this, the skeptic might argue, one has to consider many factors – such as the enjoyment and financial reward of work, versus the value of the alternative activities and how present choices affect future plans. Simply choosing to “be productive” will not tell a man how productive he should actually be or in what field – and incorrectly interpreted, it may lead him to work too hard, leading to a life of boredom and loneliness, possibly leading him to dismiss work as being virtuous at all.

    In his relations with others, the skeptic may aware that Objectivism holds justice and honesty as virtues. But this is an abstract ideal – no real-life relationship is perfectly equal or honest. If you disagree with a friend’s behavior, isn’t it sometimes preferable to be nice and polite rather that start a confrontation that could endanger your relationship? Why should you sacrifice your social position or employment prospects by being honest and straightforward while everyone else gets by with flattery and bluffing? Certainly, honesty is preferable to deceit, but total sincerity with others might cause one to come across as blunt and judgmental to others and overly self-critical and inadequate to oneself. Philosophical principles then, are at best only be general prescriptions for behavior, without any specific guidance for the particular situations or relationship of daily life.

    In aesthetics, Objectivism holds that art should inspire and present life as it can and should be. But, the skeptic might reply, he isn’t an expert in art, it’s not his job to form professional opinions, and relying on his “gut” reaction to a movie or a song is more practical that attempting some idealistic philosophical standard that the director or singer never heard of. After all, isn’t one’s the enjoyment of an aesthetic work the only standard that really matters?

    In these areas and others, the skeptic finds that philosophical abstractions are useless as a guide to life because the ideas he reads in books are too abstract to provide a guide to the routine activities and challenges of life. Philosophy may provide some basic guidelines for living, but they probably either obvious anyway, or too technical and abstract to be useful to the non-intellectual layman. At best, philosophical abstractions are confirmations of well-established truths, and at worst, they are rigid and idealistic commandments that are incompatible with the real, “grayish” nature of reality.

    The position outlined above contains two major errors: it does not recognize that some form of philosophy is an inescapable part of human life – since all human actions must be based on some sort of value system and conception of reality, even if it is one that rejects the need for values, or the existence of reality – and the absence of an epistemological process to connect philosophical abstractions to reality. While the adoption of a philosophy is an inescapable part of human life, a rational philosophy may only be formed when it is connected to reality by a valid epistemological process.

    The process of developing a rational philosophy to guide one’s life is an ongoing and challenging process. Because the skeptic has not learned to integrate abstract ideas to reality, his philosophical ideas remain floating abstractions, learned from other men, but not tied to his own experience of existence. Without a process to ground one’s philosophy in perceptual experience, it is impossible to apply one’s philosophy to one’s life. To close this gap, is it necessary to learn to derive philosophical abstractions from perceptual evidence– and how to prove abstract ideas by reducing them to the facts. Thus, the “problem” of making philosophy a practical guide to life is an ongoing process that requires the formation of a correct methodology for both validating abstract ideas and deriving them from reality.

    For example, to practice the virtue of productivity, it is necessary to know why one should be productive in the first place. This requires an understanding of the importance of productivity to one’s life. This in turn requires an understanding of man’s nature as a rational being, and the means by which man must pursue the values necessary for his life.

    An integrated understanding of philosophy will allow one to view both work and leisure as simply different aspects in the process of value-pursuit rather than unrelated commandments in perpetual conflict with each other.

    In regard to one’s relationships with others, a proper philosophical approach cannot take justice and honesty as ends in themselves without understanding their relation to man’s life. To apply these principles, it is necessary to understand how they relate to the virtue of rationality and why they in fact have selfish, personal justifications, rather than simply being conclusions reached by someone else. This requires both an understanding of the philosophical principles involved, and their validation through the application of those principle to one’s own experience in dealing with others.

    In art, a valid philosophical methodology must seek to reconcile the emotional responses one experiences from art with the values that gives rise to them. This requires an understanding of the role that art plays in one’s life – connecting the philosophical conclusions with the particular concretes one experiences. Thus, aesthetic evaluations can become not unknown and incomprehensible reactions to be determined by some unknown and idealistic standard, but demonstrations of one’s own value judgments in action.

    Once one grasps that philosophy is inescapable, the argument against philosophy becomes a question of whether it is possible and beneficial to live by an explicit, rationally chosen philosophy. To understand this, one has to grasp the proper role of philosophy in man’s life. The argument for the uselessness of philosophy pits abstract ideas against the perceptual experience of reality as an irresolvable mind-body dichotomy. To close this gulf, man must apply philosophy to his life – and to do that, he must apply his life to philosophy.

    Once the dichotomy between abstract concepts and percepts is resolved, philosophy becomes not a technical and impossibly abstract study, but a single, integrated, reality-based body of knowledge. Living by a philosophy does not consist of following context-less commandments that are incompatible with life on earth, but treating philosophy as a science of ideas – which requires an ongoing dedication to validating philosophical principles and their practical application. The primary goal and consequence of such an outlook is attaining an understanding of reality and human nature that makes possible consistent action towards the achievement of one’s selfish interests.

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    .Name

    I have a new email address: . Cool, huh?

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    MT/WP anti-spam tricks

    The following is a trick to prevent spamming by bots in Movable Type 2.x. While this blog doesn’t run MT, several other blogs I manage still do, and I have found this to be a surprisingly effective method to disable automated spam bots.
    Rename the post field in your MT templates from “post” to something else. You will have to do this in all of your templates that have a comment form. Then go to MTAppComments and on line 29 modify the “post” value to your new field name. Whatever you do, if you use MT, be sure to get the latest version of MT-Blacklist. (This tactic can be used with almost any scripted comment system, if you aren’t afraid to get into its guts and redo changes after updating.)

    Now a tip for WordPress users: unless you get frequent legitimate comments with many links, lower the default value of links allowed without moderation at Options ->Discussion->Comment Moderation. You can then use the “Mass Edit Mode” to delete spam posts. Also be sure to update your default spam word lists from the WP-Wiki.

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    China and global trade in the 21st Century

    In an overdue development, China and Russia are developing a “strategic partnership of cooperation, particularly in the economic and trade sector.” The “partnership” may be historically significant it leads to a lowering of trade barriers that encourages trade between China and Russia, which is currently around $20-$30 billion – the highest in history, but very low compared other nations, such as the U.S., with over $100 billion. (That is up from virtually $0 since Nixon opened up trade in 1972.) This may a strategic step in the creation of a worldwide market centered on the U.S. and China – our best bet for making the 21st century less bloody then the previous. The fact that John Kerry is more likely to push trade restrictions is one of the few reasons (few because both candidates are pathetic) that make him a worse candidate– and make his presidency is more likely to lead to war, despite all his talk of “alliances.”

    The question of China and Russia’s transition from a socialist dictatorship to a market economy recently prompted this forum post from me: Continue reading “China and global trade in the 21st Century” »

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    Gallery Update

    I have updated my gallery, and added an RSS feed so you can keep up with future updates automatically.

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    Note to self: sitting in front of the computer 18hrs a day may not be such a wise idea…

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    Random tunes…

    Do you remember the popular 1999 song “Blue” (“I’m blue da ba de..”) by the Europop band Eiffel 65? It’s the one with the video of the dancing blue guys. (Did you notice that that song is a rant against materialism?) Well, the first song on that CD is “Too Much Of Heaven,” a Marxist/environmentalist rant against materialism that’s unusually explicit about the problem:

    it’s called money dependence today,
    and people just keep on going on
    looking at the dollar bill,
    and nothing else around them.
    no love, no friendship, nothing else,
    just the dollar bill coming on into their pocket,
    into their bank account,
    and that’s too much of heaven
    bringing them underground.

    …and typically vague about the “solution:”

    the answer,
    is blowing in the wind.
    the answer is blowing.

    Continue reading “Random tunes…” »

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    $$$

    Forbes: The U.S. has more billionaires than ever. It’s interesting to note how much of the list consists of the newly minted fortunes of self-made men – especially in the fields of technology and retail. These men made their fortunes by making a vast array of goods and services previously available only to the wealthy (personal computers, a vast choice of consumer goods) affordable for the average consumer.

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    Public school no place for teacher's kids.

    More than 25 percent of public school teachers in Washington and Baltimore send their children to private schools, a new study reports.
    Nationwide, public school teachers are almost twice as likely as other parents to choose private schools for their own children, the study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found. More than 1 in 5 public school teachers said their children attend private schools.
    In Washington (28 percent), Baltimore (35 percent) and 16 other major cities, the figure is more than 1 in 4. In some cities, nearly half of the children of public school teachers have abandoned public schools.

    Btw, Washington DC spends over $12,000 per student each year – the highest cost in the nation. It also happens to have the lowest public school test scores of any state in the nation.
    A good private school will start at $8,000- $10,000 per year – so the median income DC resident would have to pay $22,000 to send one child to private school.

    And if you think America has gone to pot, UK Parliament member Dianne Abbot, the most prominent opponent of private schools (which are called “public” by the Brits) has chosen to send her own kid – to a fee-paying school.

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    Cool: Rocket launch video archive.

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