Sunday, November 29, 2009

The End of Philosophy

Recently I had an intriguing conversation with a friend of mine. He is currently studying to earn his master's degree in philosophy, which is a topic that he took an interest in when he was halfway done with his undergrad degree, which was going to be in art. I've had an interest in philosophy for several years now and have quite enjoyed studying and discussing philosophy, so I was quite happy to have someone else to have lots of philosophical discussions with. We've had numerous conversations about everything from the various modern strains of existentialism, to the major worldview changes that were brought about by post-cartesian philosophy, to the expansiveness of sin as a social concept, to any one of our other deep and complicated debates. But, our latest conversation really struck me with a profound insight.

We were discussing how Wittgenstein's philosophies changed dramatically over the course of his lifetime. His early philosophical works focused on semantics and the importance of defining concepts clearly. But, his later works headed in a very different direction as he began to consider the ultimate goal of philosophy. One of the major ideas he presented is the concept that the goal of philosophy is simply to live life. More expansively, philosophy is a tool to be used to resolve challenging mental and conceptual conflicts and to find a worldview with practical implications that puts the mind to rest. Philosophy is only needed to resolve philosophical problems. In that sense, philosophy is not a goal unto itself but instead is merely a means to an end.

Interestingly enough, that sort of a conclusion about philosophy finds itself nearly unified with my own thoughts and ideas concerning philosophy. My ultimate test of any philosophy or worldview includes only two criteria. First, a philosophy must be consistent with the evidence of reality. Second, a philosophy must be practically applicable. As you can see, half of my criteria centers on the concept of practical applicability. It is for that reason that I call myself a practical philosopher. I only use philosophy to solve apparent problems, so that I can live confidently and consistently, and so I can show others the philosophical answers I have found so that they can do the same. In that regard, my purpose in utilizing philosophy is nearly identical to what Wittgenstein eventually decided it was for: to live life.

To that end, the study of philosophy isn't what it seems to be. Knowing philosophy doesn't make you smarter; it just fills your mind with a few more facts. Knowing a lot of philosophy is of no use unless you live well. Knowing little philosophy is no hindrance if you live well. What this means is that philosophy doesn't matter in the end. The entire goal of studying philosophy is the cessation of studying philosophy. One only studies philosophy so that one won't have to study it anymore. If philosophy is used for anything beyond this, then it ceases to become useful and simply becomes tedious, tiresome head-wrangling.

For too many modern people, philosophy has exceeded its rightful bounds and become exactly the sort of tedious, twisted, convoluted mind-wrangling that it was never meant to be. Last year I had an ethics professor who had exactly this sort of approach to philosophy. He was one of the kind of philosophers who values the process of inquiry and the endless discussions, but has an unhealthy disdain for answers. Never wanting to commit to any final answers, he also led his students in the endless circular quest for more answers and more answers, with a precommitment to ultimately ignore all of them. The books we read and movie clips we watched weren't being used to teach us how to live. They were being used to teach us that there are numerous points of view, which are all valuable and useful in their own right. But, to say that everything is an answer is to say that there are no answers. If 2+2=4 is correct, and 2+2=5 is correct, and 2+2=8 is correct, then there is no right answer to the math problem 2+2. If everything is right then nothing is right. By transgressing the natural bounds of philosophy, his form of philosophy became mind-twisting exercises in futility rather than equipping students to better ponder life and live well. This is a perversion of philosophy. Needless to say, I promptly dropped the class.

If the goal of philosophy is to live well, then in the end we are looking for a series of answers to practical dilemmas. In that regard, a systematic theology is the best possible set of answers to life. While it is certainly possible to seek answers to life's plethora of dilemmas one by one, having an entire set of answers to all of life's metaphysical complexities, moral problems and epistemic challenges is, if not correct, at least expedient. In that regard, Confucius' teachings are more valuable that all that Kierkegaard ever wrote. The teachings of Jesus Christ are far superior to all of Plato. Ghandi's life is more useful for showing us how to live than the entire works of Karl Marx. Knowing if taxes ought to be paid is a far more practical consideration than deciding whether there exists the perfect idea of bed, which is imperfectly conceptualized by a bed-maker and then imperfectly created by him; for we care nothing for perfect beds, but simply for sleep, whereas the question of paying taxes is a vital and practical one. Similarly, seeing a life that demonstrates the power of non-violent resistence is much more practically potent than being told that all of modern life is fundamentally a class struggle, between the haves and the have-nots. Information, unless actionable, is merely useless trivia for cocktail party conversations and crossword puzzles. For that reason, all good philosophy transcends itself and properly points a person towards living rightly.

And if a systematic theology presents answers to all the practical issues a person faces, and gives answers that are consistent with reality, then adherents of such a theology have no need for philosophy. It may be a fun diversion or a useful exercise in logic and rationality, but it is thoroughly optional. The secular humanist may need to spend his whole life seeking more answers, since he must seek them one at time with each new dilemma that arises. For the Christian, all of the answers to life are contained in the pages of Scripture. "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so", is both the foundation and the final conclusion of philosophy for a Christian. Upon that foundation rests answers to all the other multi-faceted perplexities of philosophy.

Returning to the main point of this blog, philosophy, utilized correctly, is simply the means to an end. The goal of philosophy is right living. Any other goal of philosophy leads to needless exercises in mental frustration. One only does philosophy so that he doesn't have to do philosophy anymore. The only reason a person becomes a philosopher is so that eventually he won't need to be a philosopher anymore. The end of philosophy is its own obliteration, because philosophy kills philosophy. For those who lack the answers, this happens slowly, perhaps taking more than a lifetime. For those who have found the answers, the death of philosophy is swift and sure. As the blood of philosophy is spilled, real life is no longer hindered by needless ponderation.


  1. There are many wrong answers, but only one correct answer.

    It is a shame your philosophy class was solely an exercise in multicultural relativism. However, you could have gained profit from the class at the level of apologetics and polemics. Knowing how someone else thinks, and understanding its origins and limitations, is an important aspect of reaching out to them.

  2. @Justin: I certainly could have profitted from the class in some minor ways. However, as someone who loves efficiency, I would rather my learning to be mostly meaningful, rather than mostly wasteful. Taking that class would have primarily been a waste of my time and flexibility, both of which are invaluable to me.

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