Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why Action Wisdom?

If you've read my previous similarly-titled posts, then you probably have a good idea where this is going - once again, the short answer to the question is, "Because the world needs it." But why, though? As with pop science, my meaning of action wisdom will take a little explaining.

I am officially a student of philosophy, and the question I most often hear when telling people about my major is, "What can you do with philosophy?" My immediate response has historically been to ask right back, "What can't you do with philosophy?" When I'm feeling particularly frisky, I sometimes say that I'm a student of applied philosophy, which reliably causes even more confusion. This is usually funny at the time, but it also points out the problem I have with the cultural position of philosophy as a field of study.

The fact of the matter is that philosophy can be applied to anything. Such applications can occasionally lead us down some rather silly rabbit holes of inquiry if we're not careful, and it is these rabbit holes which I suspect drive most people away from philosophy. A favorite joke of mine goes, "Philosophy is questions that may never be answered; religion is answers that may never be questioned." But so long as we remain aware of these rabbit holes and try not to fall into them during emergencies, philosophy can be usefully applied to just about anything. Like science, I want to see philosophy popularized - I want trolley problems and Russell's paradox to be discussed over a pint in a bar. And not just by my friends and me.

Philosophy certainly spends a lot of time in the ivory tower, especially in academic papers, but it must not spend all its time up there. After all, thought with no action is just as bad as action with no thought. Business ethics and bioethics are two excellent examples of applied philosophy (even if they aren't applied well in the real world, they're still clear opportunities to apply philosophy). Philosophy of science is another obvious one, and can be applied to help one pick up new material more easily by having a better idea of what will be the most useful questions to ask. A little bit of decision theory can help one in dealing with others, and even a semi-functional utility calculus can help one to organize busy days.

There's nothing particularly fancy about any of this, but that's kind of my point: philosophy is no fancier than any other field of study. All subjects have their esoterica, every field has specialists, and philosophy is no different. My guess is that most people who find philosophy to be more esoteric than other subjects are unable to recognize its mundane applications in everday life. This is the action wisdom I'm talking about: practical applications of philosophical principles, living out one's values, attempting to act wisely in day-to-day situations. As for those who think of it as a willy-nilly, anything-goes sort of enterprise (some nihilists, serious solipsists, and their silly ilk), this is no different in kind from the misunderstandings of legitimate science perpetrated by the purveyors of pseudoscience. A more obvious application of action wisdom is the legitimate sound-byte department. Tell me if you've heard any of these before: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," " 'Is' does not imply 'ought,' " "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." Each one of these phrases has practical application in modern life, and what's more, they're catchy! So why is philosophy not more popular than it is? Why is there no introduction to formal logic in high school? Why don't people seem to recognize just how often they do philosophy? Why should "action wisdom" appear to be paradoxical at all?

Every single person has a philosophy of some sort, some set of principles that plays a part in determining their thougths and behavior, whether these principles are well-organized or not (and whether the person is aware of them or not). The study of philosophy will help one determine those principles - both to discover and to decide. Just about everyone thinks of themselves as a rational agent who does the right thing most of the time, and philosophy can help make that a reality. In Crito, the titular character asks, “But do you see, Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, as is evident in your own case, because they can do the very greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion?” Socrates replies, "I only wish, Crito, that they could; for then they could also do the greatest good, and that would be well. But the truth is that they can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.” It was true in ancient Greece, it is true today, and it has been true at every point in between. If it's ever going to change, then the world will need a healthy dose of practical philosophy in order to do so.

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