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I'm an Engineer, and a Computer Programmer. But I repeat myself... For me, my life and breath is getting to the bottom of complex things and rendering an explanation or instantiation (for programs) that is, "As simple as possible, but not simpler", as the famous guy said.

Often you might have seen my comments urging a perspective that discards essentially the entire history on a question or idea in favor of something that seems, to my perhaps naive view, as solving the issue with less trouble and making eminently more sense. I wonder if this would be better in general?

When I see debates about Kant and Hume and phenomenalism and so on, I always fume, why can't we think for ourselves? (See how that rhymes?) Why must we go back to Aristotle every morning and retrace all our steps again by nightfall, only to unravel it and start again the next day? What suitor are we waiting for?

If we can come up with an answer to a question which solves it more simply, isn't that still Philosophy, or am I being some kind of fascist? I am sure I could be very wrong in my approach.

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11 Answers 11

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This has been tried before, by the analytics. Here are some quotes for those interested, although this is well-known to those in the academe.

Quine: "there are two types of people, interested in philosophy, those interested in philosophy, and those interested in history of philosophy" (MacIntry 1984, p39)

Witt: " As little philosophy as I have read, I have certaintly not read too little, rather too much. Whenever I read a philosophical book, it doesn't improve my thoughts at all, it makes them worse" (Wittgenstein: the duty of genius p 496)

This is just the tip of the iceberg: see other collected anecdotes in Glock 2008.

But are they right? What is the role of history in philosophy? Yes, we need to know of our direct forebearers, but certainly we know more than, say, Plato or Aristotle about many things, right? As with many things in philosophy this is itself contentious. I will sketch out 3 positions roughly according to Glock 2008, which explores your particular line of thought in detail.

a) strong historicism: philosophy is essentially historical- it is a study of ideas and the social conditions that gave rise to those ideas. Such a view is not new- here is Kant's prologomena: "There are scholarly men, to whom the history of philosophy (both ancient and modern) is philosophy itself; for these the present Prolegomena are not written." such conceptions often view philosophy as a hermenutical discipline (Gadamer 1960). Of course, it must explain why many of the great dead did not themselves hold this view.

b) moderate historicism: historical studies are useful or perhaps indispensible. This is a large umbrella of views, but here is one example in which philosophy is a discipline concerned with a priori knowledge. As such, "its problems, methods, and theories are not simply overtaken by empirical progress" and "the community of ideas relevant to our contemporary philosophical concerns are not exhausted by our contemporaries".

c) naturalism: philosophy is a continuouation of the natural sciences. Glock actually distinguishes a subset of this position as historophobia, which is mostly a prop, but perhaps felt from the above anecdotes. Thus, as with science, philosophers need not begin their training with history but with modern theories and problems. Nor should philosophers hesistate to be critical of older theories, or even start from scratch if the need is so felt.

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    Russell's history of philosophy is bad because Russell was a bad philosopher, not because he wasn't a 'historicist'. It pays attention often to unimportant details and explores (albeit superficially, for the above reason) connections between various thinkers (way too much, in my opinion).
    – user71009
    Feb 2 at 9:18
  • @abcga Russell, gosh. He took 400 pages just to prepare to explain how 2+2=4. If he didn't hate tea so much I'd have no use for him at all.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 2 at 11:35
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    Helpful answer. Yes, the past / the development of a field is what we have to work with, but in Philosophy it seems that we spend a bit too much time on raking up the coals and not enough on blacksmithing. Your Quine sentence reminds me of the quote, "All science is either Physics or stamp-collecting." (by a physicist I think)
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 2 at 11:38
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    @ScottRowe "All science is either Physics or stamp-collecting." My father knew a mechanical engineer who had a stamp collection and was sought out for his opinion on stamps by people all over the world. This fellow was an expert and inventor of machines to make textiles and printing technology. He had historical engineering knowledge of the materials and techniques for making stamps. So he understood both physics and stamp collecting! First, the field of awareness is empty. Next, psychogenesis (mysterious process) generates synthetic drama. Next, reductive-analysis occurs. That's all folks! Feb 2 at 16:53
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    Thank you for your abc options, it is helpful. As a programmer, I am somewhere between b and c I think.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 4 at 14:02
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Suppose you are confronted with an intricate knot, like the Gordian one say, hard to untangle, and out of which a thick tapestry has been woven, blocking access to some wondrous treasure chest, or the entrance to a cave of enlightenment, or whatever along such a line.

If you are the average (historical) philosopher, you won't be minded to just go and cut the knot. You'll take unraveling it on its own terms to be an "end in itself," or worth doing for its own sake, or whatever along such a line.

For the sake of action, or the hidden treasure or cave so to speak, you might be minded to just go ahead and cut the knot, though.

Or you might be half the average philosopher, and assume that you've untangled some knot easily, and now you say you have the stashed gold or the wisdom of the cavern, along with the prestige of "knowing how to untangle that knot," though you perchance have only half-untangled it instead (if at all) and maybe could fit only a few coins or pearls through the loosened stretch of thread. (Depending on your hatreds, you might take Descartes, or Ayn Rand, or whoever, to be an example of such a deluded or impertinent analyst of philosophy's coils.)

Or you might be envious/jealous of someone else who really did untangle some knot. You might deny that they've done so, that is. You might disparage the treasure they gained thereby, or think the cave they got to explore is smaller and less magisterial than it was supposed to be, for all that.

Or maybe few to no such knots have ever been fully unraveled. Perhaps the signature knot in philosophy is one that transforms into a new type every time you find a way to uncoil it "aright."

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    Thae Hydra Knot, ha ha! Fermat's Last Not.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 2 at 18:35
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The idea that history of philosophy is crucial for understanding philosophy comes from Hegel who was basically modern Aristotle: he knew about a lot of things. Art, mathematics, physics, botany, geology, philosophy, history, theology etc. - so he gave lengthy lectures on history of philosophy exploring connections between various thinkers in much detail (he also considered Newton or the gnostics to be philosophers). He also saw history as unfolding of a process which will ultimately lead to greater human freedom - and philosophy is conceptual expression of that freedom so its history was crucial for understanding world history (Weltgeschichte) as such.

I agree that it's an outdated notion, but the problem with is mostly that not all people are Hegel. Most "history of philosophy" courses are simply lame and don't show there's a necessity to development of these ideas, which is the core assumption (I think correct) on which the whole notion, as introduced by Hegel, was based. It's not impossible to productively explore old ideas. From what I've heard, numerous mathematicians in the nineteenth century read Euler's unpublished works, for example. It is equally true in reference to philosophy, but how, ex. Kant is presented in most courses is simply barbarous and a mere distraction. That's because academics who teach these courses work in a very narrow field and have to teach something very general which means their presentation is going to be uninspiring (at least) and (at most) simply wrong.

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    Often on the Computer Science Educators site I would argue for teaching "how computers actually work", which would take about an hour. Invariably people respond that: 1) we would have to go over 100 years of development in excruciating detail (we wouldn't) 2) computers don't work that way anymore (they do) 3) why should everyone lear Fortran (they needn't) and on and on. Just knowing that a CPU can only do 5 things, and understanding indirect reference, would be a revelation and prevent a lot of misconceptions at the start. But people can't conceive of an ahistorical approach to teaching.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 2 at 11:45
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    @ScottRowe History of computer programming is super-interesting. But of course inessential to the thing itself or even to how computers function (although x86 arch is riddled with some strange design choices motivated by backward-compatibility considerations). I knew of a computer science student who was taught that stuff and he was taught about how a pre-superscalar processor worked alongside with how instruction encoding on x86 works and how the instructions themselves work (some basic stuff). Simply pointless and confusing by muddling together important stuff with pointless historical deets
    – user71009
    Feb 2 at 12:33
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    @ScottRowe To teach bit-bang programming skills I would decompose the AVR Instruction Set ww1.microchip.com/downloads/en/devicedoc/… according to the address modes. Create cheat sheet that maps the instructions to each address mode. Show how to write C-code and use the disassembler to learn how programs map to the device memory, addressing modes, and instructions. The main idea is that bit-banging has only abstract meaning until the programmer encodes the bits such as ASCII, unsigned, signed, etc. I am not so good at CS abstraction layers. Feb 2 at 17:24
  • @SystemTheory I guess I had an advantage when I was a kid and the 6502 was new, ubiquitous, and simple enough that it could be understood thoroughly by a non-expert. I assume we can still teach the basic principles but maybe there are obstacles to that. I assume we can teach the "basic principles" of Philosophy without getting mired in controversy, but perhaps it is too late.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 9 at 12:23
  • @ScottRowe - I doubt philosophers would adopt my model of drama as the essence of shared human reality. My answer here maps basic concept: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/108394/…. Man is the domain wherein we experience self and others as moral agents interacting via modes that I call self-other communication. Anything that we do not attribute to self or others as moral agents maps to a supernatural cause or a natural cause. Words like God, Reality, Unconscious refer to unknown ultimate cause with moral or natural attributes. Feb 9 at 22:13
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I am very happy to live in an era where I have access to the useful insights of generations of prior deep thinkers. Wisdom is cumulative, and today just one educated adult knows more about their speciality than all of humanity knew 1000 years ago.

Philosophy is a bit of an exception. It is the remaining questions that have NOT been well understood enough to become their own discipline. It is the hardest remaining issues that even the greatest thinkers have mostly failed with.

In solving contemporary philosophical questions, the ancients are therefore not of all that much use. However, they DO provide a collection of effective criticism of other failed approaches. If you want to slam yourself against brick walls which have already been thoroughly mapped out previously, by all means ignore our heritage …

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  • Right, right, the "doomed to repeat" idea, it certainly applies to engineering too. I sometimes feel that I found a way around or over the brick walls, but I'm sure I could be deluding myself due to my lack of background. Mainly I feel that in many cases discursive thought is the actual cause of the problem, and it evaporates if we go a different route. Perhaps that's the idea I want to raise in most cases here. Kind of silly though.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 2 at 11:24
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If simplifying explanations should be a core aim of philosophy, then many philosophers are hopelessly off target. What annoys me most about philosophy are the acres of verbose and impenetrable text (philosophy is not alone in that regard). Second on my list of annoyances is the endless regurgitation of the opinions of earlier philosophers. However, for some people that is part of the enjoyment of philosophy, so each to his or her own.

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Should reducing and simplifying explanations be a core aspect of Philosophical practice?

Absolutely, or rather: it is a crucial motivating aspect of certain philosophical systems; and in particular to use philosophy to simplify and reduce the pragmatic application of formal sciences, such as the law and mathematics. Kant expressed a remarkable desire to unify and simplify the law. I will try to characterize this motivational scheme within philosophical practice a bit further. It is clear that there is an immediate dichotomy within the philosophical literature between "systematizers" and more "methodological" approaches.

But some of the most interesting trends in philosophy of all ages have curiously combined these two strategies to produce both -- tightly-developed and compact occasional analyses or aphorisms... but still connected to a vast speculative scheme, derived from deceptively simple methods of inquiry. These sorts of systems have proven their value time and again in formal science and logic. Perhaps the system re-emerges today in the guise of the mathematical theory of communication, which has received such staggering confirmation in the production of large language models. In any case, the nature of thought is at once connected to the way it is performed or approached and communicated -- as well as the expressive content, or the way it is systematized or 'socialized'. At the limit system and method cease to be opposed as rivals; and it has been said that in its essence, philosophy is something that occurs between friends. Plato emphasized the civilizing effect it can have, and the value it serves in fostering friendship within a city.

Perhaps philosophy as method resembles a kind of democracy in thought, with Socrates' detachment as the key pose; whereas philosophy as system is a benevolent guardian, and can become a kind of vicious authority so that every art and method must be deployed to resist it. At its core this is perhaps a natural or even spiritual difference as it were 'within' thinking -- what is it that resists defeat in the composition of our own ideas: is it an adaptive approach? Or is it a universal machine?

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  • I like the democracy in thought idea. But as an engineer, solutions must converge. You either choose the best way, or a good way that is achievable today knowing that soon it will be superceded by the new best. Refusing to choose a best or let go of options is choosing not to help people.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 4 at 13:59
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When coming back to using names like Kant etc., what we are doing (in IT terms) is basically a "function call" or "alias" operation. Mentioning the "Kantian Imperative" immediately brings along all the semantics that goes with that thing, in only two words. Saying that "like Hobbes, X leads to Y" immediately pulls in all the literature and arguments commonly associated with that person. Mentioning Aristotle automatically engages a mode of conversation where we know the context of some time and country thousands of year ago. Mentioning Plato immediately brings up the image of the cave. And so on and forth.

The older the philosopher, the simpler the ideas, usually. You surely can explain Plato's Cave to anyone from first principles, in a few sentences. This breaks down with modern philosophers. People like Kant, Kirkegaard, Nietzsche etc. have a lot of baggage associated with them. They have written thousands of pages filled with outright hieroglyphs, unless you have studied the topic in-depth. Simplifying them would just get rid of all the intricacies and make them useless except in a very general sense.

While you may be able to explain the Kantian Categorical Imperative as simply as Plato's Cave, those two are two very different beasts. Explaining the Imperative without immediately labeling as Kant's would force you to either write or speak pages and pages of information, or simplify it so it's basically meaningless (there is much much more to it than the one-liner "act in the way you want to be acted upon".) The "official" one-liner "Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature." is outright not understandable unless you know more about the topic (i.e. what is a maxim, what does it mean, exactly, to be an universal law of nature).

Finally, in many cases, when people mention the old names, they do not mean that in the sense that those are without fail; or that their concepts are gospel; or anything like that. Ask three philosophers, and you will get four opinions. It is not about who is necessarily "right", but which kind of philosophy is useful or convincing. And then, not having to repeat everything again, every single time, and making sure everybody understands everything perfectly, is a huge time-saving.

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As in many disciplines, there's a significant difference between solving the practical, day-to-day problems we encounter, and studying the theory of that discipline in critical detail.

For instance, the average computer programmer doesn't need to know much about information theory or Turing machines. I have been a professional programmer for over 4 decades, and I can't convert a regular expression into a finite state automaton. But if you go over to Theoretical Computer Science SE these are the kinds of things they talk about.

Or if you want to manage your finances, you should understand budgeting and how compound interest works, and you might want to work with a financial planner, but neither you nor the FP need to have much expertise in micro- or macro-economics.

The same thing applies to philosophy. For most practical purposes, intuition works fine for understanding what people are thinking and making ethical decisions -- our minds and societies have evolved to do this naturally. But academics aren't interested in just solving these mundane problems, they want to understand the underlying details, like a physicist who wants to know how the interplay between subatomic particles leads to the macroscopic properties that we see.

And as in all these other areas, that generally makes things more complicated. The Trolley Problem doesn't come up often in real life, but studying it can lead to insights that can be helpful in other situations.

If you want to discuss practical issues that are somewhat philosophical, you can find them in Interpersonal Skills SE. There you'll find simple answers like "Apply the Golden Rule: be nice to someone, and expect them to be nice in return." But don't expect such simplicity here, where philosophers can debate endlessly what "be nice" really means.

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Philosophy has a handicap: It could not start as a greenfield strategy.

Instead philosophy inherited its tasks from religious speculation. It took a while until philosophy had designed its tools ready for work, i.e. provided useful concepts and clear rules of logic. But there was never a time to test the tools by simple examples and to validate their success. Each task presented by the principal, the religion, had to be served in real time. The situation in medieval Europe was phrased “philosophia ancilla theologiae” (= philosophy is the handmaiden of theology)

On the other hand, science was free from any religious paternalism. Often it stepped forward even against the religious canon. Hence science could focus on problems with a view of success, and it could synchronously develop the method how to deciffer best the book of nature.

In addition there is a big difference between the strategy of both disciplines: Science focus on a problem which can be clearly stated. Science designs a solution and checks whether the solution solves the poblem. First the question, then the answer.

But in philosophy explicitely stated and contoured problems are rare. Sometimes it seems that philosophers first present their answer, and would only on request elaborate a question which could meet the answer. On this basis a sincere test is not possible.

Anyhow, like the prompt for simpleness due to “the famous guy” from science, also philosophy has its own call to avoid unnecessary complexity and additional involved terminology: It is named “Occam’s razor”.

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  • Very helpful points, thanks. The greenfield bit is amusing. Maybe I should stick to engineering, but the temptation to straighten out convoluted reasoning is very strong! Much misguided though it probably is... I'm probably striving for "too simple" in an area I don't know enough about.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 5 at 0:20
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I wonder if it is not actually the opposite.

Modern philosophy deals with concepts, their critique and production. By "concept" I mean abstract but well identified ideas used as fundamental building blocks for thoughts and principles. By "modern" I mean what is left of classic philosophy after it has been separated of everything that was taken away by other fields of study like physics, psychology, etc. For exemple "The world is made of atom" was a philosophic statement at the time of Democritus but is now a fact. What is left is the endeavour of making sure what people mean when they use a word.

It's a point made by Wittgenstein in his Tractatus that the task of studying reality has been taken over, much more efficiently, by natural sciences, but there remains one field of study that is not about reality itself but the language used to describe reality. As such it is transversal to all disciplines and parallel to none of them.

Simply put, it consists in taking every single word of a sentence like "this apple is red" and ask "what do you mean by 'apple', what do you mean by 'red'" and so on. This might sound like nitpicking but there is actually much more embedded in the word "red" than meet the eye. How do we learn what "red" means? How do we know what it means to other people? Could we explain it in a document so precisely that after our death when nobody can adress any question about this particular document people who will read it can say "this is red indeed", without misunderstanding?

With something so simple as "red" it can sound futile (although I really think it is not), but we can try it with words we use daily like "democracy", "electricity", "appliance", "performance" and see that there is actually a lot embedded in those words that is never maid clear. We just don't notice it as long as communication happens "good enough", just like we don't really care if its acceleration or velocity that is constant in gravity as long as our experience of it is limited to learning to walk. And the practical implications of being able to identify the complexity, the multitude of ideas and affects behind a word like "democracy" becomes obvious as soon as we take the time to listen to a political speech. Politicians and used car salespeople are adepts at the art of using vaguely defined yet usual words that each listener can identify in the way they want and be happy with it for reasons opposed to the person next to them.

This practice is by the way not limited to modern philosophy. For example Plato's Hippias Major features a lengthy discussion about the nature of Beauty. Hippias starts very confident that he knows what he means by the word "beautiful", but Socrates, by questioning him about the logical implications of his proposed definition, quickly shows him that he doesn't know what this word means, although he uses it everyday. Of course Plato being platonist (duh...) he thought there was One True Definition of Beauty, and many disagree with him about it, but the core idea of showing people they don't know the meaning of the words they use and therefore are prone to nonsense remains very relevant.

So, why is philosophy making things so complicated? Because this endeavour of analysing words we take for granted requires long definitions. Take a sentence like "people should try to maximize the utility of every action" and replace each word like "people", "should", "utility", "action" by a precise and well thought out definition, repeat the process a few times and you will end up with a complete, lengthy essay about morals riddled with jargon like philosophers are infamous for.

To continue your programming metaphor, philosophy would be the endeavour of taking a simple python program and ask for every keyword, every function "wait, what do you mean by 'with', 'for', 'enumerate', 'depth_first_traversal'... ?" replacing each of them with what it actually does. The reason we actually don't do this in computer science is because all of those routines are built bottom up, precisely defined, documented and never change. But those are ideal conditions we can't expect when using everyday language.

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  • Yes. Yes. Thank you, this is a very good point. We should carefully break down even words, like ass/u/me, right? :-) Perhaps this is part of my complaint, that the words we try to use are not well-defined enough, so we must use more of them, like using lots of putty to fix a leaky ship instead of just welding. (Analogies are fraught with peril, too.) I think that people should actually understand words like 'electricity' but I'll never win that one. We could just write on the mirror, "I don't actually know anything", read it every morning and then go out humbly each day. Not betting on it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 5 at 13:07
  • The exciting thing in programming is that you can actually get down to how the computer really works, what the "words mean" so to speak. But I think if someone managed to do that with our minds, then, "we could have told him he'd only be disappointed."
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 9 at 12:14
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It is not the duty of the philosopher to makes things as simple as possible. It is the job of the Doctor of Philosophy to make things as simple as possible.

In this way, philosophy converges, over time, to simpler, more elegant predicates.

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  • Ok. Is there a Doctor in the house? Philosophy seems to be rambling incoherently. :-) I always found it interesting that the highest academic degree in any field is "Doctor of Philosophy", I guess at a certain level it is all incoherent.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 9 at 11:52
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    It is not incoherent. The profession has gotten sloppy, which is to say the Doctors have gotten sloppy: they have let relativism and postmodernism dominate and now "all opinions are sacred" is the mess we have. It is very clear to those who have done the work.
    – Marxos
    Feb 12 at 4:14

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