Monday, August 22, 2011

Philosophy: does it matter?

I miss many things about my colloquies with my late 'net friend Stephen Heersinck. His older views are still available at, but alas no dialogue is possible now.

Stephen had had extensive training in the field of analytic philosophy, and one of the matters we used to argue about was the value of that current of thought--and indeed any form of academic philosophy. I took the negative position, having been repeatedly disappointed over the years in my quest to find any enlightenment in what passes for contemporary philosophy. Obviously, such figures as Plato, Aristotle, and Kant are different, but their day is long past, alas.

Now this thread has been taken up by Stanley Fish, the maverick professor of English and Law, in a series in the Opiniator section of the NY Times online. Fish recognizes that philosophical reflection may keep the brain limber because it offers a mental workout. Yet he holds that it is inconsequential because it does not deliver answers to any of life's most important questions, In these matters philosophical arguments are generally marshaled only post quem, in an effort to justify conclusions previously attained by other means,

I will not try to summarize his arguments further, though perhaps this tidbit will help.

Stanley Fish:

"Philosophy is fun; it can be a good mental workout; its formulations sometimes display an aesthetically pleasing elegance. I’m just denying to philosophy one of the claims made for it - that its conclusions dictate or generate non-philosophical behavior ..." (

Some discussion has been elicited, in the comments sections after the pieces, and from Paul Boghossian who points (Scribd) to David Velleman's dissent.

I'm sorry that I can't supply a full set of URL pointers, but the pieces should be fairly easy to find.



Anonymous Thomas Kraemer said...

Yes, philosophy matters because philosophical principles are the theoretical foundation of all the computers and software programs we use today to make other new discoveries. The philosophical discoveries of mankind are continuing to be appropriated in newer and more advanced computers and software programs.

When modern computers were being developed in the 1950s and 1960s, many of the academic papers in computer science cited philosophers, such as Karl Popper, as being the theoretical foundation for what they were doing. As a graduate student, I was expected to take a graduate level course sequence in philosophy (I got a D -- back when they still gave out such grades!), but I passed the class only because the professor specialized in the philosophy of science and he had a mission of transferring the value of his knowledge to practical application in science. He was content that he had infected me with a desire to learn more, even though I couldn't write a philosophy paper worth anything.

It was not until years later that I understood the wisdom of philosophy and why it matter, other than the reason in the old joke about philosophers using it to contemplate their own navel. Philosophy matters as much as any other intellectual discipline of man.

The early and ultimate goal of artificial intelligence research was to demonstrate the existence of an artificially intelligent computer by building a machine that a person could interact with (even if it was only by typing text messages back and forth) that was so perfectly intelligent that a human could not be able to tell if it was man or machine on the other end. Clearly, this goal seems to be a long way off.

Perhaps, if we live long enough, Steve Jobs will be soon selling the Apple iPhilosopher device, which will keep you happy for 400 dollars!

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Thomas Kraemer said...

Shortly after posting the above comment, I ran into another interesting connection between philosophy, computer software science and the gay Republican generation X billionaire Peter Thiel, who launched Paypal, provided the seed money for Facebook, and who received college degrees are from Stanford University in Philosophy and law. He now wants to build an independent island state exempt from all laws and regulation to test out his utopian libertarian beliefs.

See the following links:

Jonathan Miles, "The Billionaire King of Techtopia, Peter Thiel rose to fame by launching PayPal and funding a little upstart called Facebook. You'll find his fingerprints on -- and his seed money in -- everything from DNA manipulation to Hollywood movies along with any Silicon Valley enterprise worth knowing about. Now the 43-year-old gay libertarian is embarking on his most ambitious venture: a start-up country on the open ocean that will be governed by his Ayn Rand -- inspired ideology. Will it be Thiel's crowing achievement or the biggest bust since Waterworld?" Details, Sept. 2011

Lucas Grindley, "Peter Thiel: A Gay Libertarian Billionaire on How to Fix the Country -- The cofounder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook says an overemphasis on higher education contributes to the country's slow progress in a number of areas, including research into a cure for HIV," accessed Aug. 24, 2011

11:28 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Far be it from me to attempt any definitive comment on the origins of computer science--I can scarcely master enough of the rudiments thereof to keep this blog going.

That said, it is my understanding that a key aspect of computer science is binarism, that is, the possibility of reducing any piece of information to a series of contrasts between pluses and minuses. This dimension seems to have been understood in the West for the first time by the philosopher Leibniz. However, Leibniz derived his insight from the Chinese I Ching, not a philosophical text as the term is usually understood.

In a more general sense, I believe that philosophy was a vital enterprise down to the time that Friedrich Nietzsche laid down his pen--in 1889 if memory serves. After that it is mostly sciolism. P

The art of poetry has undergone a similar fate.

As regards contemporary gay computer people, I believe that Steve Jobs' successor is also gay, though somewhat closeted. The father of the discipline, according to the accepted narrative, was the gay Alan Turing (1912-1954). However he was preceded by a 19th-century inventor named Thomas Babbidge (sexual orientation unknown).

2:04 PM  
Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your post, pretty useful information.

1:44 AM  

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