14 September 2005

A Distinctively Philosophical Way of Thinking

I had the following exchange with Hilary Putnam when I was a grad student.

I had just read one of Putnam's papers (I can't recall which), where he says something to the effect that no one should even attempt to do serious philosophy without first gaining a good background in advanced mathematics. I was a serious student, so I took this very seriously. I had an ordinary mathematics background, up to basic calculus, and then the usual courses in first-order and meta- logic. This was clearly not 'advanced mathematics'. I therefore combed carefully through the course catalogue and devised a four-year sequence of courses, which I could take in the remainder of my graduate education, and which would certainly count as training in 'advanced mathematics.'

I presented this plan to Putnam when I next saw him. But I was taken aback by his response. Far from being pleased and excited by it, as I expected, he was disturbed. "Oh no, Michael", he said, "this is not what you should be spending your time doing. You need to devote your years in graduate school to acquiring a distinctively philosophical way of thinking. A sequence in mathematics such as that would be a distraction."

I thought about that. How does one acquire a distinctively philosophical way of thinking? What did that mean? Would that mean, perhaps, reading Naming and Necessity over and over again? Or were Quine's paradoxes especially illuminating for philosophy--Quine who effectively denied that there was any distinct discipline of philosophy? Quine who denied that the phrase 'in that respect' made any sense? Dreben I knew had an answer: grapple with problems from Wittgenstein--or perhaps Frege. But Dreben notoriously denied that one should ever assert a doctrine. How could philosophy not arrive at resting points in thought? Most of the literature of recent philosophy I dismissed, and I was (I think) taught to dismiss--largely 'logic chopping', the prosecution of a clever point in isolation from its real philosophical or historical significance. (This is harsh and exaggerated, admittedly, but perhaps not very far from the truth.)

When I turned to the history of philosophy, I found largely figures who (as Gilson says) were amateurs--who worked piecemeal, and who had one or two clever ideas or admirable intellectual traits (such as Hume)--or thinkers who were comprehensive in a way, but who nonetheless aimed too much to warp all of reality so that it fit within the scope of a few attractive but limited ideas (such as Leibniz).

I don't think I found the answer to my question until I began the systematic study of Aristotle (and I would include now Plato). In Plato and Aristotle one finds the breadth, flexibility, variation in types of argument, and array of viewpoints, that can help one to acquire, easily and reliably, a genuinely philosophical habit of thought.

And this seems to me the most important reason for graduate students, or more advanced undergraduates, to study ancient philosophy--to learn how to think philosophically.


Wes DeMarco said...

Loved the Putnam story! I feel compelled to repeat a question I posted once before: what *is* this mode of thinking you praise? What has this mode of thinking to do with being?

Surely "breadth, flexibility, variation in types of argument, and array of viewpoints" are important considerations, and yes you're right to say that too much technical 'philosophy' lacks these.

I want to know more precisely what philosophical thinking is--what is distinctive about it and what it gets you.

Plato's answer to my question is: the definitive activity of philosophy is dialectic. That gets us to first principles because, I argue elsewhere, dialectic just is the human way of "participation." (And eros is what participation *feels* like.)

How about Aristotle? How about you?

Anonymous said...


Even though the phrase suggests it, I'd hesitate to say that 'a distinctively philosophical way of thinking' indicates a uniform kind. Nor did I wish to say that Plato and Aristotle alone showed this--but only that the study of their works would be the easiest way to acquire it for oneself, or at least to appreciate better what it might be.

I don't think in the end it helps much to try to describe it--what illuminating thing might one say about what makes the work of (say) Bach, Gounod, Prokofiev, and Sibelius musically interesting?

Yes, I know this sounds like a dodge. I'll give it more thought.


Posted by Michael Pakaluk