The Metaphilosophy of Analytic Pragmatism
Metaphilosophy is the philosophy of philosophy, which is to say the philosophical examination of philosophy itself. It is the study of questions about the definition of philosophy and its demarcation from other fields; whether and how progress is made in philosophy; how philosophy is to be done; what it takes to do philosophy; who is to do philosophy; and why it matters to do philosophy. In this essay I will lay out my views on those questions, all stemming from a general position of pragmatism, focusing on what the goal of philosophy is as an activity and on how best to achieve that goal.
Charles Sanders Peirce founded the philosophical school called Pragmatism with the Pragmatic Maxim:
Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. He also wrote of philosophy itself that
The study of philosophy consists, therefore, in reflexion, and pragmatism is that method of reflexion which is guided by constantly holding in view its purpose and the purpose of the ideas it analyzes, whether these ends be of the nature and uses of action or of thought.
I agree with such pragmatism as a general principle, which will guide the entirety of these essays, and in this essay I will be applying it to philosophy itself. That is, I will be taking philosophy as the object of my conception and considering what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, I conceive it to have.
The Definition of Philosophy
A quick and general characterization of philosophy would be that it is about the fundamental topics that lie at the core of all other fields of inquiry, broad topics like reality, morality, knowledge, justice, reason, beauty, the mind and the will, social institutions of education and governance, and perhaps above all meaning, both in the abstract linguistic sense, and in the practical sense of what is important in life and why.
But philosophy is far from the only field that inquires into any of those topics, and no definition of philosophy would be complete without demarcating it from those other fields, showing where the line lies between philosophy and something else.
Philosophy is not Religion
The first line of demarcation is between philosophy and religion, which also claims to hold answers to all of those big questions. I would draw the demarcation between them along the line dividing faith and reason, with religions appealing to faith for their answers to these questions, and philosophies attempting to argue for them with reasons.
While it is a contentious position within the field of philosophy to conclude that it is never warranted to appeal to faith, it is nevertheless generally accepted that philosophy as an activity characteristically differs from religion as an activity by not appealing to faith to support philosophical positions themselves, even if one of those positions should turn out to be that appeals to faith are sometimes acceptable. The very first philosopher recognized in western history, Thales, is noted for breaking from the use of mythology to explain the world, instead practicing a primitive precursor to what would eventually become science, appealing to observable phenomena as evidence for his attempted explanations.
Philosophy is not Sophistry
Despite turning to argumentation to establish its answers, philosophy is not some relativistic endeavor wherein there are held to be no actually correct answers, only winning and losing arguments. While there are those within philosophy who contentiously advocate for relativism about various topics, philosophy as an activity is characteristically conducted in a manner seeking out answers that are genuinely correct, not merely seeking to win an argument.
Though the historical accuracy is disputed, a founding story of the classical era of philosophy ushered in by Socrates, at least as recounted by his student Plato, is that philosophers like them were to be distinguished from the prevailing practitioners of reasoned argumentation of their time, the Sophists, who on Plato's account were precisely such relativists uninterested in genuine truth, only in winning. It is from that account that the contemporary use of the word "sophistry" derives, meaning wise-sounding but secretly manipulative or deceptive argumentation, aimed more at winning than at finding the truth. And whether or not the historical Sophists actually practiced such argumentation, philosophy since the time of Socrates has defined itself in opposition to that.
Philosophy is not Science
What we today call "science" was once considered a sub-field of philosophy, "natural philosophy". This had been the case for thousands of years since at least the time of Aristotle, such that even Issac Newton's seminal work on physics, often considered the capstone of the Scientific Revolution, was titled Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. But increasingly since then, what was once considered a sub-field of philosophy is now considered separate from it.
What remains still as philosophy is demarcated from science in that while philosophy relies only upon reason or evidence to reach its conclusions, rather than appeals to faith, as an activity it does not appeal to empirical observation either, even though within philosophy one may conclude that empirical observation is the correct way to reach conclusions about reality. It is precisely when one transitions from using empirical observation to support some conclusion, to reasoning about why or whether something like empirical observation (or faith, or so on) is the correct thing to appeal to at all, that one transitions from doing science to doing philosophy.
Philosophy is not Ethics
One may be tempted to conclude that this means philosophy is entirely about prescriptive matters, rather than descriptive ones; that philosophy is all about using reason alone, without appeals to faith, to reach conclusions not about what is or isn't real, but about what one ought or ought not do, or broadly speaking, about morality. In other words, that philosophy is equivalent to the field of ethics. But as described just previously, philosophy does treat other topics concerning not just morality but also reality, at least the topics concerning how to go about an investigation of what is real.
And while ethics is currently considered soundly within the field of philosophy, I contend that it properly should not be, for as I will elaborate across several later essays, I hold that there are analogues to the physical sciences, what we might call the ethical sciences, that I consider to be outside the domain of philosophy, in that they appeal to specific, contingent hedonic experiences in the same way the physical sciences appeal to specific, contingent empirical experiences. I hold that philosophy bears the same kind of relation to both the physical and the ethical sciences, providing the justification for each to appeal to their respective kinds of a posteriori experiences, while never itself appealing to either of them, instead dealing entirely with a priori reasoning.
Philosophy is not Math
That in turn may raise the question of how philosophy is to be demarcated from mathematics, which also deals entirely with a priori logical reasoning without any appeal to a posteriori experience. Indeed in some ancient philosophy, such as that of Pythagoras, mathematics and philosophy bleed together in much the same way that what we now consider the separate field of science once did with philosophy as well. But today there is a clear distinction between them, in that while philosophy and mathematics share much in common in their application of logic, they differ in that mathematical proofs merely show that if certain axioms or definitions are taken as true, then certain conclusions follow, while philosophy both does that and asserts the truth of some axioms or definitions. So while mathematics says things of the form "if [premise] then [conclusion]", philosophy says things of the form "[premise], therefore [conclusion]".
Mathematics explores the abstract relations of ideas to each other without concern for the applicability of any of those ideas to any more practical matters (although applications for them are nevertheless frequently found), but philosophy is directly concerned with the practical application of the abstractions it deals with. It is not enough to merely define axiomatically some concept of "existence", "knowledge", "mind", etc, and validly expound upon the implications of that concept; it also matters if that is the correct, practically applicable concept of "existence", "knowledge", "mind", etc, that is useful for the purposes to which we want to employ that concept. Mathematics tells us only "here is the way that these ideas relate to each other" and leaves it us to do with that as we please. Philosophy tells us "here is a useful relationship between these important ideas that we should attend to, because...”.
Philosophy is not Art
Similarly, philosophy has many similarities to the arts, broadly construed (as I will elaborate in a later essay) as communicative works presented so as to evoke some reaction in some audience. Philosophy is likewise an evocative, more specifically persuasive, discipline, employing not just logic, as with mathematics above, but also rhetoric, to convince its audience to accept some ideas.
But philosophy is not simply a genre of literature. Whereas works of literature, like all works of art, are not the kinds of things that are capable of being correct or incorrect, in the way that scientific theories are, but rather they are only effective or ineffective at evoking their intended reactions, with works of philosophy correctness matters. It is not enough that a philosophical theory be beautiful or intriguing or persuasive; a philosopher aims for their theories to be right.
Philosophy uses the tools of mathematics and the arts, logic and rhetoric, to do the job of creating the tools of the physical and ethical sciences. It is the bridge between the more abstract disciplines and the more practical ones: as described above, an inquiry stops being science and starts being philosophy when instead of using some methods that appeal to specific contingent experiences, it begins questioning and justifying the use of such methods in a more abstract way; and that activity in turn ceases to be philosophy and becomes art or math instead when that abstraction ceases to be concerned with figuring out how to practically answer questions about what is real or what is moral, but turns instead to the structure or presentation of the ideas themselves.
For this view of philosophy as bridging the abstract, concerning thought and language in themselves, with the more practical, concerning the direction of our actions, I name my metaphilosophy here "analytic pragmatism".
The word "philosophy" derives from Greek words meaning "love of wisdom", in a sense of "love" that in Greek meant attracted to or drawn toward it. The characteristic activity of philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, not the possession or exercise thereof. Wisdom, in turn, is not merely some set of correct opinions, but rather the ability to discern the true from the false, the good from the bad; or at least the more true from the less true, the better from the worse; the ability, in short, to discern superior answers from inferior answers to any given question.
To that end, philosophy must investigate questions about what our questions even mean, investigating questions about language; what criteria we use to judge the merits of a proposed answer, investigating questions about existence and value, the objects of reality and morality respectively; what methods we use to apply those criteria, investigating questions about knowledge and justice; what faculties we need to enact those methods, investigating questions about the mind and the will; who is to exercise those faculties, investigating questions about education and governance; and why any of it matters at all. Those are the philosophical questions to be answered in the rest of these essays.
The Progress of Philosophy
The preceding definition of philosophy gives us an immediate answer to the question of what progress in philosophy would look like, because this definition tells us what philosophy is trying to do, and progress is then just success at doing that. Because philosophy, thus construed, is not directly trying to answer questions about what is real or what is moral, philosophical progress is not made by correctly speculating on the nature of some specific thing's existence or value.
Rather, philosophical progress is made by devising useful methods of answering questions about those things, and consequently the related issues of the meaning of such questions, and the importance of those questions. The importance of the question, its pragmatic import, what you need to know the answer for, narrows in on which of the possible meanings of the question matters to you in that context, and with that understanding comes the start of the means of answering it.
In that respect, enormous philosophical progress has been made across history with respect to questions about reality, as the physical sciences have settled on a critical, empirical, and realist approach colloquially called "the scientific method", rejecting appeals to authority and the supernatural. Progress with respect to questions about morality has been slower, but still apparent, with concerns for liberty and hedonic flourishing becoming gradually more widespread, in contrast to obedience to authority and intangible moral purity; though there is still quite far to go in that respect.
The Methods of Philosophy
The methods by which philosophy pursues such progress often involve not solving but rather dissolving an apparently intractable problem. This can be by showing it to actually be a conflation of several different problems, each with its own solution, which are frequently closely related to the different contradictory answers to the conflated singular problem that has since been clarified into multiple problems. Other times, it can be by showing the question to be an entirely illusory one, prompted by unnecessary background assumptions, in the absence of which such a question is meaningless.
More generally, philosophy makes headway best when it analyzes concepts in light of the practical use we want to put them to, asking why we need to know the answer to some question, in order to get at what we really want from an answer to that question, and so what an answer to it should look like, and how to go about identifying one.
In analyzing concepts and teasing them apart from each other, philosophy makes extensive use of the tools of mathematical logic. But in exhorting its audience to care to use one of those teased-apart concepts for some practical purpose, instead of endlessly seeking answers to the uselessly confused and so perpetually unanswerable question that they may be irrationally attached to as some kind of important cosmic enigma, philosophy must instead use the tools of the rhetorical arts.
Thus, as described earlier, philosophy uses the tools of the abstract disciplines, mathematics and the arts, to make progress in its job of enabling the more practical sciences to in turn do their jobs of expounding on the details of what is real and moral.
The Faculties of Philosophy
The only faculties needed to enact such a philosophical method are precisely those that I hold to define personhood itself, which is to say, sapience.
"Sapience" literally means just "wisdom" in Latin, but I mean it in a more technical sense (that I will elaborate upon in later essays) as a reflexivity of the mind and will; as self-awareness and self-control, the ability to have opinions about your opinions, to be aware of what you are thinking, to assess whether you are thinking the correct things, and if you deem that you are not, to cause yourself to think differently.
This reflexivity allows you to look upon your thoughts in the third person as though they were someone else's thoughts that you were judging, allowing you to assess the validity of the inferences you make, and so to do logic, to tease apart the relations between your various ideas. That reflexivity also allows you to put yourself in the place of another person and imagine what influence it would have on them if you were to make an argument in one way or another, and so to do rhetoric, to package and deliver your ideas in a way to make them easy to accept.
For a person to actually use this faculty of sapience, to exercise their mind and will, to examine their thoughts and change them if needed, their mind must be sufficiently enlightened, and their will sufficiently empowered. Which is to say, they must have the curiosity to wonder whether their thoughts are the right ones, and the courage to admit when they are not, and so to change them.
But this is not a faculty separate from sapience, rather only the refinement of it: curiosity is just more mindfulness to that of which one is unsure, and courage is just more willfulness toward that of which one is afraid. And more mindfulness of oneself, more willfulness toward oneself, more self-awareness and self-control, together just are sapience itself.
And yes, this means that in order to effectively use one's sapience, one must already have sufficiently developed sapience, but there is no paradox there. It is simply just like one can more effectively use one's muscles when one already has well-developed muscles. Sapience is a faculty, like many, that is further developed by its use, and the development of which enables and encourages its further use.
The Practitioners of Philosophy
The question of who is it that is to do philosophy is largely a question of whether philosophy is a personal activity, or an institutional one. Given that I have just opined that the faculty needed to conduct philosophy is literally personhood itself, it should come as no surprise that I think that philosophy is for each and every person to do, to the best of their ability to do so.
Nevertheless, institutions are made of people, and I do value the cooperation and collaboration that has arisen within philosophy in the contemporary era, so I don't mean at all to besmirch professional philosophy and the specialization that has come with it. I merely don't think that the specialized, professional philosophers warrant a monopoly on the discipline.
It is good that there be people whose job it is to know philosophy better than laypeople, and that some of those people specialize even more deeply in particular subfields of philosophy. But it is important that laypeople continue to philosophize as well, and that the discourse of philosophy as a whole be continuous between those laypeople and the professionals, without a sharp divide into mutually exclusive castes of professional philosophers and non-philosophers. And it is also important that some philosophers keep abreast of the progress in all of those specialties and continue to integrate their findings together into more generalized philosophical systems.
The Usefulness of Philosophy
There are two important sub-questions about the usefulness of philosophy: one about the use of philosophy to any given individual, and another about the use of philosophy to society as a whole.
To the first sub-question, on the use of philosophy to any given individual, I answer that, given my characterization of the faculties needed to do philosophy, doing philosophy is literally practice at being a person, exercising the very faculty that differentiates persons from non-persons. Doing philosophy helps develop you into a better person, increasing your self-awareness and self-control, improving your mind and your will, and helping you to find meaning in the world.
It is much like martial arts for the mind. As the practice of martial arts both develops the body from the inside and prepares one to protect their body from attacks from the outside, both from crude brutes but also from more sophisticated attackers who would twist the methods of martial arts toward offense rather than defense, so too philosophy develops the mind and will from the inside, and also prepares one to protect their mind and will from attacks from the outside, both from crude ignorance and inconsideration but also from more sophisticated attackers who would twist the methods of philosophy against its purpose.
In a perfect world, the latter uses of either martial arts or philosophy would be unnecessary, as such attacks would not be made to begin with, but in the actual world it is unfortunately useful to be thus prepared; and even in a perfect world, with no external attackers, martial arts and philosophy are both still useful for their internal development and exercise of the body, mind, and will.
To the second sub-question, on the use of philosophy to society as a whole, I answer that philosophy is the lynchpin of the entire chain of activities conducted by society, and so is instrumentally useful, in some distant way at least, toward any practical end whatsoever.
Every practical activity involves using some tool to do some job. That is, if we're trying to do anything at all, it behooves us to care both how to do it (the tool), and why to do it (the job). The work we're doing may be the original job of keeping our bodies alive using the original tools of our bodies themselves, i.e. medicine and agriculture. It may be the job of making new tools to help with that, i.e. construction and manufacturing. Or of multiplying and distributing our power to do that, i.e. energy and transportation industries. Or of multiplying and distributing our control over that power, i.e. information and communication industries.
In any case, at the lowest level of abstraction away from the actual use of whatever tools to do whatever jobs, technological fields exist to maintain and administrate those tools, and business fields exist to maintain and administrate those jobs. A level of abstraction higher, engineers work to create the tools that those technologists administrate, while entrepreneurs work to create the jobs that those businesspeople administrate.
Those engineers in turn heavily employ the findings of the physical sciences, which could be said to be finding the "natural tools" available from which engineers can create new tools tailored to specific needs. And though this step in the chain seems overlooked in society today, the ethical sciences that I envision could be said to find the "natural jobs" that need doing, inasmuch as they identify needs that people have, which we might also frame as market demands, toward the fulfillment of which entrepreneurs can tailor the creation of new jobs.
Those physical and ethical sciences in turn each rely on philosophical underpinnings to function, thereby making philosophy, at least distantly, instrumental to any and all practical undertakings across society.
I hold that the relationship of philosophy to the sciences is the same as that between administrative fields (technology and business) and the workers whose tools and jobs they administrate. Done poorly, administrators constantly stick their nose into matters they don't understand, and tell the workers, who know what they are doing and are trying to get work done, that they're doing it wrong and should do it some other, actually inferior, way instead, because the administrators supposedly know better and had better be listened to.
But done well, they instead give those workers direction and help them organize the best way to tackle the problems at hand, then they get out of the way and let the workers get to doing work. Meanwhile, a well-conducted administration also shields the workers from those who would detract from or interfere with their work (including other, inferior administrators); and at the same time, they are still watchful and ready to be constructively critical if the workers start failing to use their tools or do their jobs well. In order for administration to be done well and not poorly, it needs to be sufficiently familiar with the work being done under its supervision, but at the same time humble enough to know its place and acknowledge that the specialists under it may, and properly should, know more than it within their areas of specialty.
I hold that this same relationship holds not only between administrators and workers, but between creators (engineers and entrepreneurs) and administrators, between scientists (physical or ethical) and creators, and most to the point here, between philosophers and scientists. Philosophy done well guides and facilitates sciences, protects them from the interference of philosophy done poorly, and then gets out of the way to let the sciences take over from there. The sciences are then to do the same for creators, they to do the same for administrators, they to do the same for all the workers of the world getting all the practical work done.
Continue to the next essay, The Philosophy of Commensurablism.