May 2, 2016

Philosophy and 'Depth'

There is a kind of philosophy, or pseudo-philosophy, whose principal aim is to create a certain feeling of 'depth,' often without very much real content. Of course, this phenomenon is hardly restricted to philosophy, nor is it even, I think, a very widespread feature of the academic discipline of philosophy. Still, I call it a kind of philosophy or pseudo-philosophy because this feeling of 'depth' or profundity is very closely connected to how the words 'philosophy' and 'philosophical' are often used in common (i.e., non-academic) parlance.

But is this feeling of 'depth' always purely illusory? Can there be something genuinely behind it? If so, how does genuine depth or profundity relate to philosophy?

I want to suggest, first, that genuine depth or profundity occurs when an encounter with a text (construing both 'encounter' and 'text' broadly) prompts us to look at a problem, or the world in general, from a radically new perspective. It's in this sense that deep or profound thinkers and writers are described as 'visionary' - they see things in a way that others don't. This kind of profundity, however, occurs at least as often in art and literature as in philosophy, and it even occurs with some frequency in the natural and social sciences. One could say that, when this happens, the author, artist, or scientist is doing some philosophy. I have no objection to the suggestion that philosophy often happens in these kind of texts. On the other hand, though, it seems to me that this kind of profundity can occur without the author, artist, or scientist moving beyond the bounds of literature, art, or science. In other words, profundity, so understood doesn't require anything like a distinctive sort of philosophical expertise. I think it would be a mistake for philosophers to try to claim this for ourselves and treat whatever is profound (in this sense) as therefore philosophical.

Note two consequences of this account of depth. First, if depth or profundity consists in prompting us to look at things from a radically different perspective, then it is relative to our previous perspective. Thus a writer may be commonplace in one culture, since he or she simply expressing that culture's 'received wisdom,' but profound in another where the cross-cultural contact produces new perspectives. Second, this account, I think, helps to explain why profundity is so frequently and easily faked. A radical shift in perspective is very difficult to achieve, and when we manage to see things from a new perspective our initial view is usually extremely limited. It is a matter of time and struggle to think our way into the new perspective. As a result, it can often seem that a text is pointing us to a radically new way of looking at things when in fact more careful reflection reveals that there is nothing to the alleged new perspective.

Discovering a new way of looking at things is primarily an exercise of imagination or creativity. This, I suppose, is why this kind of depth or profundity is frequently found in art and literature. The challenge, though, is in actually being able to say how things look from the new perspective. Here a certain sort of expertise is required. For instance, one might think deep thoughts like everything is fire, or the universe is a grand machine, or everything is made of tiny vibrating strings. These might be genuinely deep, in that if we managed to take them seriously we really would see things from a new perspective. But taking them seriously at some level has to involve working out their consequences, and at this point (in these particular examples) that's going to require expertise in physics, which is going to enable someone to formulate these ideas more precisely and follow out their consequences.

Now, if philosophy has a distinctive expertise, it's expertise in logical and conceptual analysis - that is, precisely in spelling out, making explicit, positions and their consequences. Of course, in a particular instance, a more specialized expertise (like physics) may be more relevant, but in a general way I think that philosophy is uniquely well-positioned to help us follow through apparently deep thoughts to figure out whether that thought really does lead to an alternative perspective on the world and what might be the consequences of that perspective.

I would suggest that the most interesting philosophy takes deep thoughts as its input and is concerned with following them through in just this way: what would it mean if the world was a grand machine, if there is no other substance than God-or-Nature, if the being of sensible things consists in their being perceived? How would it be actually to look at the world from such a perspective? We also here provide an answer to the complaint that 'logic-chopping' removes the profundity from our philosophical contemplation. On the contrary, logic-chopping done right can be a way of distinguishing genuine from illusory profundity.

While the most interesting philosophy may be related to profundity in this way, I don't think it's much of a problem that most philosophy is not profound. There's a place for working out the details and consequences of our current way of looking at the world, or perspective that are pretty similar to our current one. This kind of philosophical work will be competent and worthwhile but not profound, and that's fine. Still, I think one can find profundity in recent analytic philosophy. For instance, a sizable bundle of deep thoughts can be found in Robert Adams' "Must God Create the Best?" (I'm a historian - I have a very broad definition of 'recent'!) What if my existence is incompatible with the best of all possible worlds? How many of the varieties of evils in the world actually turn out to be prerequisites for my existence? If we can only exist in a world containing many of these evils, might God in fact be being good to us by creating evil? The profundity of Adams' essay consists in its challenge to see these things from a new perspective; the philosophical work consists in spelling out what that new perspective entails. Another example (outside my specialization, and so less familiar to me) is the recent discussion around Laurie Paul's essay, "What You Can't Expect When You're Expecting", which contains the challenging idea that we sometimes decide whether to perform actions when we cannot even imagine what the consequences of those actions might be like for us and hence cannot judge how (egoistically) they ought to be valued. Again, the idea is profound, the philosophical work consists in articulating what it would be like to look at rational choice from this perspective.

Such, anyway, are my thoughts on the matter. Whether they are deep or commonplace depends (according to my account) on how you receive them. If I've merely achieved an articulation of a commonplace view, I'll be satisfied - even a philosopher needn't be deep all the time!

Posted by Kenny at May 2, 2016 2:53 PM
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