Monday, 28 January 2008

Philosophy and scepticism

As a postgrad philosophy student and active sceptic, it's perhaps unsurprising that I'm interested in the areas of confluence between the two. In fact, I'm thinking of writing my dissertation on a similar subject, so this post is really just getting some thoughts out on the matter.

Wittgenstein had some very interesting ideas in his Philosophical Investigations regarding the purpose and study of philosophy. He regarded most foregoing work in the field to be misguided, built on the false assumption that one could approach philosophical questions such as "what is time?" in the same way as one approached questions like "what is the atomic weight of gold?". Because they are grammatically similar, one is fooled into approaching the task of answering them in the same way - by use of the scientific method. If this method is followed, he argued, we inevitably end up with meaningless metaphysics rather than philosophical "theories" on a par with those of science.

What, then, is the purpose of philosophy in Wittgenstein's mind? Certainly it had a vastly diminished role - no "meaning of life" stuff any more. Rather, it was to take on a "therapeutic" role, helping to elucidate the causes of philosophical confusion that arise from "the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language", as he put it.

The great strength of this is that it puts philosophy firmly into the real world, where it can do useful things - rather than argue over which account for or against the existence of a god is more convincing or logically coherent. Indeed, it becomes a companion of scepticism itself - examining assumptions and underlying premises that may prove fallacious. It remains, as it always has, a questioning discipline - and in itself this has always been parallel to the sceptical cause - but the subject of that questioning has shifted from the metaphysical to the linguistic, from questions about the nature of things to questions about our methods in discovering them.

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